Travel Tips for Backpacking in Uganda and East Africa
The locals and travel magazines alike often refer to Uganda as the Jewel of Africa and it sure does live up to its title. The weather is temperate and it is border to border rainforest. The people are as welcoming and friendly as any I’ve ever met. There are areas to take caution but that is true in any country. If you are thinking about seeing Africa make sure to put Uganda on your list.
Entebbe airport is the regional airport for entry into Uganda. From there it is a short taxi ride into the capital of Uganda, the city of Kampala. Kampala will be the central hub for all your activities in Uganda. Kampala has all the amenities that any traveler could ever want. There is a mall and movie theaters, restaurants and cushy hotels like the Hilton. However these are not the destinations one goes to see when traveling in central Africa. For the backpacker one cannot beat The Red Chili hotel. The cab ride from the airport to the hotel is about thirty minutes and should cost less than $10 US. Don’t let the cab drivr fool you into thinking he doesn’t understand you. Uganda is an ex-British colony and the national language is English, which makes traveling around this extraordinary county quite easy.
The Red Chili has everything the astute Backpacker could ever want. It is a walled and gated travel spot with your choice of accommodation. Individual rooms priced at a very reasonable rate, hostel style rooms for even less and a large open courtyard if you just want to throw up your tent. The best part of the Red Chili though is the dining and bar area. It has a nonstop resort feel that makes it very easy to meet people that can give you the dos and don’ts of traveling in the area.
Tip #1 – Go to Backpacker hotels and meet people that have been in country for awhile.
This is a solid first step for any backpacker destination. The people you meet will be able to tell you from experience what is worth seeing and if you are getting a good value for your money or not. You can even hook up with other individuals or groups to help differ travel expenses and enrich your travel experience with likeminded companions. Don not be shy about approaching people and striking up a conversation as everyone is there for the same reason. You will inevitably run into a group that is traveling in an organized fashion on large multi passenger trucks. These people have paid thousands of dollars for short periods of time and these trucks are drama wagons. The money that these people have spent for a few weeks of travel would sustain you for a year or more doing your own thing. Avoid these types of excursions like the plague. The kids on these trucks are nice but the cost is prohibitive to say the least. They will invariably at some point get off these trucks as the drama becomes unbearable and they find places that they want to stay longer than the truck will.
One should enjoy their stay at the Red Chili and get that hot shower before traveling out into the country side because those kinds of western culture shower experiences get few and far between outside the city limits. Here are a few must know places in Kampala for the backpack traveler to aquaint themselves with.
The Bus stations. The bus station located near the Hilton and Casinos are the busses that will take you to all points of interest outside of Kampala. These are large modern buses that show movies and are air-conditioned for those long trips to Nairobi and points beyond. There are also the best internet cafes located right around the corner and across the street from the large casino.
The other bus station is near the downtown area and the market place. These are the buses one takes for travel within the borders of Uganda. These are older buses that the drivers seem to think are crash proof. The evidence to the contrary can often be seen along the highways in the form of wrecked and rolled buses in the ditch. They drive crazy fast and it can be a harrowing experience but it is ultimately the best way to get from place to place. These buses will slow down at stops to pick up and drop off along the way and your window will get rushed by people selling chicken on a stick and cold sodas. You may at first shy away from eating these chickens on a stick but you will be missing out. I ate these for a year and never had any ill effects. You will be glad to get off these buses but you will eventually have to get back on them at some point so just suck it up and remember it’s just how it’s done. Wich brings me to a travel tip.
Tip #2 – Don’t be afraid to eat whatever gets put in front of you. The food everywhere is great, I never once experienced any kind of intestinal trouble and I ate with the locals all the time. Afraid to eat goat meat? Don’t be; the Ugandans have a blood taboo and cook everything to dry and blackened. All the meat is tough and hard to chew. Just put on a happy face and dig in, who knows, you might even enjoy it.
When trying to get around in town taxis are a good option but do not miss the Boda Bodas. Boda bodas are locals with a moped and a seat for two. It is by far the cheapest way to get around town and also probably the most dangerous. I rode Boda Bodas all the time and never had an incident but there were a few close calls and some horror stories from people who had been in country longer than I.
Al’s Bar – Al’s Bar is a fantastic little club and hot spot for locals and travelers alike. Good music and club like atmosphere for the young and young at heart alike. It’s open until dawn and can get a little rowdy but it is a ton of fun.
The markets and fabrication districts. A person can get just about anything in the local markets and textile districts of Kampala for very little cost. They are large portions of the downtown area and cannot be missed. Take a day to explore these very cool areas so as not to miss out on what they have to offer. Also take a taxi to the Tourist market for all of your African handmade souvenirs.
Tip #3 – Haggle the price of everything. As a muzungo (slang for American, like gringo south of the border here in the states) you will be charged outrageous prices for everything. All prices start very high as they expect you to be able to haggle. In fact most will be insulted if you don’t haggle. The perception being that you are just too rich to bother to have a good business transaction with them. They will take your money but you will quickly develop a reputation for thinking you are better than them. Come in way lower than their asking price and try to settle for less than half what they originally quoted you. Believe me you will still be overpaying.
Tip #4 – Forget your preconceptions of personal space. It does not exist in East Africa. When doing business or even just meeting someone for the first or tenth time they will extend a hand to shake in friendship. That is where the similarity to our customs ends. They will stand inches from your face and not release your hand until they are done talking to you as they pat your shoulder or back with their free hand. This is another one of those things that you must understand in order to have a rich experience. It was difficult at first but you get used to it pretty quick. If you step away or release their hand you have just insulted them. It is like extending your hand for a shake here and being left hanging. Just accept the proffered hand and don’t let go until they do. Do not back away as they step close as you will create a comical scene and even fall down as they walk with you trying to get close. Once you get over it you will find it as warm a greeting and way of conversing with people as you will find anywhere in the world.
Tip #5 – Anti-malaria pills can ruin your trip. I spent three months taking anti-malaria medicine and it was much worse than actually having malaria. Not all people are adversely affected by anti-malaria medicine but many are. You can experience sleeplessness, mood swings (bad ones), edginess, paranoia and nausea. These things will affect the way you carry yourself and the impressions you make on people. I finally quit taking that crap and got over those symptoms. I did get malaria almost right away; it’s very recognizable onset was fever and achy joints. I simply went to a pharmacy and requested the pills it takes to get over it and it was gone in a matter of a day. After taking the antibiotic you are good to go as it makes you resistant to malaria for up to six months. I suggest getting the anti-biotics locally and ingesting them as soon as you think you’ve got malaria. I realize no doctor in the world would agree with this tip, and it’s just a tip after all, but it is what worked best for me. I contracted malaria again just before I came home and it took weeks and hundreds of dollars to treat. In Uganda I treated it with a visit to the pharmacy and about $6 US. No problem.
When in Uganda, do as the Ugandans do and you can’t go wrong. It was one of the richest experiences of my life and I can’t sing the praises of the place loud enough. Please see my article “Backpackin tips for Uganda, must see places knoji.com/backpacking-in-uganda-must-see-places/” and I will discuss the areas and attractions that you just have to see in Uganda, The jewel of Africa.
Also see my article about relating to other cultures.knoji.com/ethnocentrism-cultural-differences-while-traveling/
For more about my travels see my blog:onthemove819.blogspot.com/