Exhilaration isn’t fear, but they’re closely related. I’ve been a passenger on a few motorcycles, but it isn’t something I seek. In Kampala, Uganda your choice may be the frustration of standstill traffic barely crawling over hills that bend and wind versus hopping a boda boda, the name for the little motorbikes that far outnumber four-wheeled vehicles. Boda bodas line Kampala’s streets. The raise of a finger, an eyebrow, approaching a curb, standing still, or carrying a package will draw a driver. All the drivers I’ve seen are men, though many riders are female- sometimes sitting side-saddle because of a restricing skirt. A few drivers are helmeted – fewer – goggled. My driver wears sunglasses. I don’t notice any passengers wearing helmets.
Its a roller-coaster ride. I lean with his body and the bike, holding on to the metal bnar on the back of the seat. Jams are no match for us – we jump a small curb onto a sidewalk with few walkers, then reenter the jam squeezing between merging vehicles and a giant Petrol truck marked DANGER. We ease around drainage holes large enough to sink a tire as we flirt with doorhandles and side-view mirrors.
The air is comfortable, coolish. The ride is fast until it isn’t. Forced to sit at an impossibly large five-way intersection while two lone cops masterfully direct traffic. Diagonally we face three lanes where 50 or more boda bodas mass likr one large machine crowding the cars and trucks. Across the street, a collarless yellow dog on his regular beat crosses alone at the crosswalk.
In transit, a young woman passenger on a passing boda cautioned, “My dear, put your bag in front of you – they’ll steal it.” I’m not cautious enough as a general rule. As I slide the bag between me and my driver, I realize I love the wind in my hair – though the hairdo suffers.
We stop for fuel. Two young women lean against the pumps. One is pregnant. My driver flirts with them both and offers a small tip when his tank is full.They smile slightly. The pregnant girl cautions him to wear his helmet, and he puts it on. She smiles more broadly, and we drive off. My head is bare.
Our guest house had called the drivers for us, though Ajah and I thought we would pick up drivers on the street. “It’s better to call someone you know.” The two drivers brought us far out of the quiet neighborhood of the Apricot Guest House to the Georgian House where the Ugandan Republic conducts registration of businesses. Our goal for this day is to register ASAH in Uganda. When we arrive, our drivers say they will wait, which means we will pay more. I have sympathy for the fact that they are far off their regular beat. I suppose it is hard to know where you will go next. Plus – we already know them. They’re calculated risk takers. I would lose sight of Ajah now and then – either in front or behind us, but within a couple minutes she would appear again. Ajah is a more forceful negotiator than I am, and she would have told them no.
Riding home at peak rush hour we weave through five rows of traffic spanning only three lanes. The bodas slip through every loophole, navigating the bumpers and side rails of the vehicles they pass, skirting the deep and unprotected drainage ditches. Thrills, no spills.