I am a millionaire (in Uganda shillings)

January 17, 2014
7:40 p.m.
Red Chilli Rest Camp
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

As the clock struck midnight and Wednesday, January 15, became Thursday, January 16, Kitty and I were on an Ethiopian Airlines flight between Addis Ababa and Entebbe, the only international airport in Uganda. I really hadn’t felt good all the previous day. I don’t know if it was the sunstroke, the antimalaria medication, or a virus, but I was not at my best. And en route, I had a little bout of stomach sickness that sent me scurrying for the airplane toilet. Once we landed in Entebbe at 1:30 a.m. and I passed through immigration, I had to rush to the airport men’s room again. I remembered the words of my travel nurse: “I you get traveler’s diarrhea, take your Lomotil. Don’t wonder if you should take it. Don’t think about taking it. Just take it.” So I took the pill.

Kitty and I gathered our suitcases and stopped at the ATM. Now, Uganda’s currency is more confusing even than Ethiopia’s. In Ethiopia, the exchange rate is about 20 birr to the dollar, which means that a single birr is worth about five cents. The banknote seen all over the place is the 100-birr note, which is worth about five dollars. Pretty simple, really.

In Uganda, the exchange rate is about 2,500 shillings to the dollar. If you think very hard, you realize that the numbers become astronomical at rapid rates. For example, I just paid more than 20,000 shillings for my dinner. A bottle of water costs 3,000 shillings. It’s very hard to wrap your head around these kinds of numbers.

At the airport ATM, I withdrew 400,000 Uganda shillings, and we headed for the exit.

There was a friendly young man named Moses waiting for us at the door, holding a sign that said “Katherine and Jay.” What a welcome sight. He ushered us out to his modern Toyota Corona — also a welcome sight. No Soviet Lada, no shared van — just a simple newish Toyota. We got in, and Moses took off. I seriously wanted to ask him if he was taking us to the Promised Land, but I thought better of it — he’s probably heard that all his life.

Back in Ethiopia, billboards, advertisements, storefronts, and any other writing you could see from a car window — all was in the distinct Amharic alphabet, which has many dozens of characters that represent syllables, not individual letter sounds. In Uganda, all the billboards, advertisements, storefronts, and writing that we saw speeding by at 2 a.m. — all were in English. That makes a huge difference, I must confess. We actually knew what we were looking at.

The trip from Entebbe to our guest house took an hour, and although it was late, it was actually a relief to make the trip in the midnight darkness. There was no traffic to speak of. However, dozens of bars were still open along the Entebbe-Kampala road, and some intoxicated customers stumbled around outside. Employees of the highway department were literally sweeping the streets with brooms at that hour as well.

Moses took us straight to the Red Chilli guest houses, where we arrived just before 3 a.m. And we were told to be up at 6 a.m. and ready to depart at 6:45 — our safari was about to begin. I ran to the bathroom one more time.


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