The transition is instant. As the door opens, I step out of the pleasant air conditioning and I’m instantly hit with the thick, full heat of a Ugandan morning. This morning, like all mornings here on the equator, is just picking up steam as the sun heads toward the highest spot in the sky.
Stepping off of British Airways Flight 37 is the most immediate transformation one can have from first to third world. For eight hours I traveled in luxury: TV screens in my seat back; cold beer available to order; airplane food served hot. As I descend out of the fuselage, down the stairs and onto the tarmac, I know I’m in a strange place: grass huts dot the green rolling hills on the horizon; fishermen in their rickety wooden boats dot the vast Lake Victoria just south of the runway fence.
Soon, I’ll be at my final destination, but first I must survive the night in the capital at a hostel teeming with overzealous young backpackers looking for their next adventure. If I must be honest, I too seek some adventure, but really, I’m here to do a job. Most of all, though, I convince myself I’m here to learn.
As I check into the hostel, I think about how it’s been only one year since I first stepped foot on this sprawling compound. This time, however, I’m no longer a traveling student. And this time I have no traveling companions. I’m all alone. Reflecting on my isolation as the sun sets, I think there is no place more desolate to a lone traveler than Uganda at night. My thoughts are interrupted by a grumbling stomach; I have to find food, alone.
I return to my hostel from dinner on the boda-boda taxi (a motorcycle taxi). My driver and I buzz by the street vendors selling roasted goat on a stick on the side of dusty and crowded roads. The smells are as numerous as the traffic on foot, boda-boda, truck, car, bicycle and every other form of transportation that we swerve around. But most noticeable, it is dark. Tonight the power is out; as it is many nights here. The streets are lit only by the headlights of cars, taxis, and by the kerosene candle light of vendors on the side of the road.
I arrive at the hostel and fumble for my door keys. My thoughts are my only companion as I step into my room with my pocket flashlight as my guide. I prepare for a humid and hot sleep by changing my already sweaty T-shirt and by brushing my teeth using bottled water as a rinse — I can’t risk drinking the city water on my first night. I take a tiny pill that will become part of my nightly routine. I take it in good faith that it will prevent the mosquitoes from passing malaria into my bloodstream when I’m bitten.
This isn’t home. The sheets are rough as I climb into bed, my college roommates are not a shout away, and I have no one whom I could reach via cell phone at a moment’s notice. It’s just me and my thoughts. They are racing now. What if I get sick? What if I get hurt here? What if I fall off of a motorcycle and die on the dangerous roads? What if war breaks out? What if I’m lonely every day? This last thought sticks with me more than the others. Once this thought presents itself, like a childhood fear, it makes a home inside my head, refusing to pick up and leave the walls of my brain.
I’m nearly panicking. I definitely cannot sleep now. I wonder how long I’ll lie awake tonight. How will I function tomorrow? I know I will not sleep. Sleep had been so easy just last night. Now it escapes me and replaces itself with anxiousness. This has happened before. I know it will subside, but I am unconvinced. I tell myself that in just 48 hours I’ll be in my permanent stop, around new colleagues and in a new home for the next year. I know that I’ll feel at peace then. But right now, the power is off, the panic is on, and this surely is a lonely continent. I want to embrace the uncertainty of the moment now but I can’t; I’m gripped by my racing mind on this dark, African night.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.