Lions on the roadEver been in trouble traveling in a foreign country? Easy to do if you forget to use your common sense. Here we are, dumb expats on a bush road in Uganda, stopped by a drunk policeman. This is Part Two of the story. Last week’s post was Part One.

The Expats Get Arrested

The furious police officer, gun in hand, attacks us with a barrage of words. We are trespassing! Breaking the law! Committing a crime by being in the reserve! His hostile attitude is not comforting.

We politely point out that only the back wheels of our car are in the reserve, that our window is broken and that we, being responsible people, wish to keep the road glass-free for other vehicles in this remote area. Such as the convoy of trucks from the Congo now stopped behind us.

In the meantime, the Congolese truck drivers have decided a little entertainment is welcome after spending hours on the road. They’ve leaped from their trucks and have formed a circle around us to watch the spectacle. All this even more interesting to them because it’s now clear that the cop is so drunk, he’s practically reeling. What a show!

Our officer of the law is not interested in our story. He is interested in having an audience and showing off his superiority and power, he with the gun in his hand threatening us white foreigners. With his mean little eyes, he has all the charm of a wart hog.

Wart hog

He demands to see our passports and makes a great pretense of inspecting them, then starts in again and gives us hell for breaking the law while the Congolese truck drivers stand by and watch, mesmerized.

Then we notice something else. Another African, a young, handsome man in civilian clothes, has emerged from the police car and is now standing unobtrusively near us. “Don’t say anything,” he says quietly. “Stay calm.”

The policeman looks at me, stops his tirade for a moment, his beady eyes focused on the bread knife in my hand. If we thought the man was angry before, he is now livid. He demands to know what I think I am doing with that weapon in my hand. Am I going to kill the president?

“This is a bread knife,” I point out in a tone not likely to be appreciated by the officer. “I was going to cut bread.”

“Shut up,” my mate hisses in my ear. It’s not something he tells me on a regular basis, so I freeze. Of course I should have known better than to answer the cop the way I did. The cop, sweating and swaying, is now beside himself, captured by the idea that we are out to kill the president and that it is his duty to save Uganda from the likes of us. He shouts that we’re all going to jail and waves our passports in the air with one hand and his gun with the other. The truck drivers are having a good time.

“Get in your car! Follow me!” the madman shouts at us. “I’m taking you to prison!” Our passports in hand, he staggers off to his own car, followed by the handsome young man who has said nothing at all to him. Wimp, I think. We do as we are told, kept hostage by the man’s gun and inebriated mind. The road through the reserve seems endless and empty, leading us deeper into danger and despair. No villages, no people, no other cars. I think terrifying thoughts. About perishing in an African bush jail. About never seeing my family again. About being separated from my husband.

We drive and drive and if there are wild animals by the side of the road, like these zebras, I don’t see them. All I see are visions of what lies ahead, none of them happy.

ZebrasIf they are there, I don’t see them.

Then we reach a junction, the first one we’ve come across, and the police car stops. We stop. The convoy of trucks behind us stops. Out comes the handsome man in civilian clothes, striding toward us, passports in hand.

“Please,” he says as he hands them back through the open window, “please, accept my sincere apologies for this incident. You are guests in my country and this was an appalling incident and . . . ” He goes on to apologize effusively, in perfect British English, his embarrassment acute. He tells us he has spent time in England and was treated with friendliness and respect and wishes we could have been granted the same treatment in his country, but alas.

Through all this, the plastered officer of the law does not make an appearance. It occurs to me in a flash of brilliant insight, that our hero was unable to do anything earlier because making the drunk lose face in front of his audience would have been counterproductive. Alone in the car with him, he’d obviously used his diplomatic skills successfully. Not a wimp after all. I am ashamed of myself, of my ignorance. However, I am smart enough not to hug the man in full view of a bunch of Congolese drivers, and possibly that of one drunk cop who is now prevented from saving his country from evil foreigners.

Our hero goes on to suggest we get rid of the knife. These are bad times, he says, and people are nervous about the attempted assassination of President Obote and why take risks? He then points to the left. “This road will take you to Queen Elizabeth Park,” he tells us. “Please have a wonderful time and don’t let this incident ruin your opinion of our country.”

Road in Uganda

We thank him from the bottom of our relieved little hearts and watch him climb back into the police car, which continues on the road across the intersection. We turn left, driving as fast as the car and road will allow.

I’d like to end this story by offering my thanks to all of you English people who treated our nice Ugandan with friendliness and respect while he sojourned in your country. You may well be the reason that two Americans, one Norwegian and one Dutch person did not perish in a Ugandan jail.

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So, dear reader, tell me a harrowing tale from your travels. From what dangers have you escaped? What scary confrontations with foreign officials did you survive? Go ahead, give me the shivers.

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Do you think traveling in foreign countries is exciting? Well, it certainly can be, but sometimes as an expat or a globetrotter you get more excitement than you bargained for. Here’s the story of what happened to me and my man and two of our friends when we went on a camping trip in Uganda, East Africa.

(I was prompted to post this tale by Sine whose post Have You Been to Prison? made me think of my adventure in Uganda.)

Sometimes Stupid Happens

We’re off to jail, a bush prison somewhere in Uganda, not our intended vacation destination. Our passports – two American, one Norwegian and one Dutch (mine) – have been confiscated. Back in Kenya, where we live, no one will miss us for weeks. Cell phones have not yet been invented.

We are young, idealistic and innocent, and we were on our way to go camping and look for big game in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Only we were arrested before we got there.

We’ve been ordered to follow the police car in front of us. We are in our rented Peugeot, the rear window shattered. With a convoy of fifteen big trucks behind us on the narrow road running through the protected game reserve there is no escape possible. Besides, the policeman in charge is armed and dangerous, not to mention drunk out of his skull.

We are silent, the four of us, too stunned to think of what to do.

How did I find myself in this bizarre situation? I could have been in Holland in my mother’s house drinking tea and eating windmill cookies. But no, I had to follow my heart and come out to Africa to be with my beloved American, who is a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya.

And then I married him, which led me to accompany him and a couple of friends on a camping trip to the game parks in Uganda to admire the elephants, the rhinos, the hippos and crocs in the Nile River.

Hippos in Uganda. Photo by Chrissy Olson

You can be a nice Dutch person, eating cheese and leading a responsible life, and one innocent step at a time you arrive at this moment and before you know it, you’re perishing in an African jail cell.

What kind of place will this jail be, out there in a bush village in deepest western Uganda? I think of this as we follow the police car in front, like lambs to the slaughter. I think of being separated from the others in a cell by myself, of rats and repulsive food and malaria and dysentery and every horror I’ve ever heard of in my life.

“It will be an international incident,” says Norwegian Lillian hopefully. “Three western nations involved.”

If they ever find us, I answer in silence, the words too terrifying to speak out loud. We may be dead and buried before our friends in Kenya will even miss us.

I squeeze my husband’s hand. We’ve been married six months and maybe we will never sleep in each other’s arms again. You think of these things, you know.

We should not have come here, knowing what we know, but we are young and, okay, stupid. We started our trip a couple of days ago in Nairobi, Kenya. The news on the radio that morning was not good. In Uganda someone had tried to shoot President Obote and the country was in a state of emergency with roadblocks everywhere and heavy security at the borders.

Nothing to do with Americans and Europeans, we all agree that morning. Purely an internal thing. Why call off our trip? Nobody’s going to be interested in the four of us.

Ah, the naïveté of youth. Have we never heard of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

We ride the train to Kisumu and cross Lake Victoria by boat. On the other side we rent a car, load it with our camping gear and some food and off we go, direction Kampala, the capital.

Slowly.

Roadblocks everywhere. Long lines, lots of waiting. The police and soldiers are not interested in us, as expected. None of them search our car for weapons or suspicious persons.

In Kampala the roads are clogged, but once we are out of the city things ease up a bit. The scenery is spectacular, lush green hills, terraced and cultivated with a variety of crops. How beautiful this place is! How happy we are we didn’t change our plans!
Uganda terraces
We stop for food in a rustic eatery in a small village and order the local grub: matoke, a starchy dish made from boiled plantain. People are friendly, interested. We laugh, we chat. We are far from the capital and everything here is fine.

We roll on, through small towns and villages, past shops and markets, enjoying the drive, until after several hours the countryside becomes less populated. We’re driving down a narrow road through a wooded area when out of nowhere appears a cute little boy. We’ve not seen a sign of life for miles, no villages, no people, no roadblocks. Where did he so suddenly come from?

An explosion of sound breaks the peace as a rock hits the back window and shatters the glass into a thousand pieces that go flying everywhere in the car. The cute little boy, running, disappears in the trees.

We are not hurt, but our hearts pound with shock. Not knowing what else is lurking in the trees, we drive on without stopping. Of all the dangerous wildlife we might have come across, a little boy was not what we had expected.

Finally, we reach more open country, a game reserve. A sign warns us we are in a protected area and it is prohibited to leave the road and cruise across the reserve in search of game.

Uganda Road. Photo by Alexandra Mitchell

We have to do something about the broken window, about our possessions covered in shards of glass.

We find a place to stop and turn the back of the car off the road into the field to sweep the glass out of the car and keep it off the surface of the road. Other people must be using it, although we’ve hardly seen any traffic. Neither do we see any big game wandering around, but perhaps that is just as well at the moment.

It takes a while to clean up the mess. Our food boxes are closed and fortunately we find no glass amid our consumables. We decide to have a little something to eat before driving on, and I take out a knife to cut up some bread. I look up to find the road no longer empty.

A long line of trucks is winding its way towards us, a police car in front escorting the convoy.

The police car stops. All the trucks stop. They hail from the Congo, we can tell, hence the Ugandan escort. A huge, fat policeman rolls out of the car and comes barreling toward us. It is clear from his ferocious expression that he is not a happy man. He is also armed with a gun and these two facts do not a good combination make.

Trouble is upon us.

To Be Continued Next Week. (I know you don’t have all day.) Okay, never mind, here it is.

* * *
Have you ever been in a dangerous situation abroad? Have you ever done something not too smart?

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