Most of us know what it's like to learn to ride a bike. When we were kids, somehow we learned to balance and then ride off on our own. We may have even become so confident, that we rode hands off the handlebars or had someone ride on the handlebars with us.
Well, that was when we were kids. The day they told us about the boda boda in Uganda, I was both curious and anxious.
The boda boda is a bicycle taxi fitted with a cushion over the rear fender. A person is meant to, straddle the cushion if he is male, or sit "side-saddle" if she is a female. (Sometimes we disregarded these cultural rules for the sake of comfort and safety). Then you have to trust the guy riding the bike that he will get you where you need to go safely, without throwing you off. With his thin street bike tires, he must negotiate through dusty, dirt roads, other boda boda, traffic, including large transport trucks, matatu taxis, pedestrians and we must not forget to mention the random goat/pig/chicken/cow making its way into our path!
The first day we decided to take boda to the market, we stood outside the gate to our compound and waited on the road, having been instructed to call out 'boda' when we saw one approaching. In no time we had rounded up a couple of amused boda-taxis as we nervously explained our boda-taxi virgin status.
They were patient as we maneuvered ourselves to sit on the cushion and rearranged our skirts so they wouldn't get caught in the spokes. I greedily grabbed the sides of the cushion, white-knuckled as we took off. "You sit properly for me." he instructed. What? I thought to myself. But this would become a common command on the boda which I never quite knew how to obey. How many ways can you sit on a cushion on the back of a bike??
My boda just kept going, effortlessly riding through town amidst people and vehicles who only slightly obey rules of the road.
The breeze cooled my hot, sweaty skin and I started to relax, trusting my boda driver, no longer too afraid. The exhilaration of this new adventure was intoxicating! The sights, sounds and smells of Uganda all around me filled me with that out-of-body feeling, you know, when you feel like you are looking at yourself from above or when you are both dreaming and sort of conscious at the same time. I smiled stupidly as we sped along the road, past shops, tailors sewing clothes, music blaring in kiosks, the green and white mosque, surrounded by palm trees, the line-up at Stanbic bank, samosas and mandazis frying in the cafes, wafting out to the street, mixing with the sweet sweat smell of my boda driver..."I am in Africa!" I thought to myself, a thought that came pretty frequently the first few months, and even a few more times after that.
I realized pretty quickly that the boda was not only useful for getting me places, but gave me a few uninterrupted moments to "spy" on my new African world without being bombarded by curious passerby and blazing heat. I loved it!
We arrived at our destination too soon. We dismounted and paid our drivers the required 300 Ugandan shillings, about 20 cents. One of them tried to get more out of us, a muzungu tax, we began affectionately calling it. Muzungu=foreigner or white folk. Of course, the good people we stayed with had warned us about this so we shook our head no but offered them thanx and a smile. They reluctantly went on their way and us on ours, having proudly survived our first boda boda ride!