My favorite place

Mbale is, if nothing else, a very interesting town. It has countless little shops in a very disorganized sort of order, from hardware stores to cosmetics to groceries. The owners of these shops always provide hilarious conversation whether it be related to your purchase or not.

Since I am a mzungu – white person – I am almost always overcharged. It’s just how things go – part of the bartering process. Yesterday, someone charged me four times the going rate for a pair of shoes. Their reason – “You are white. I know you have money.” I left immediately without the shoes.

This sometimes means that shopkeepers are more eager to do business with you. Your disinterest in their products may be taken for a sly pokerface in the game of bartering. Two weeks ago, I was shopping in the market, when spotted a bright yellow wrap and inquired the price. “Twenty-five.” I attempted to leave it, not in the mood for bargaining. “Twenty! Okay, fifteen!” I still declined. “Ten! Nine!” Finally, the desperate storeowner came down to a reasonable price, pressing the material into my arms. I bought the wrap.

I’ve been known to take pity on the pedicurists that roam the streets with their baskets of nail varnish and brushes, yelling, “Cutlet! Cutlet!” I’m not sure exactly what that is referring to, but they do excellent work. My toenails usually sport their expert handiwork.

The hairdressers are usually more than eager to try their hands at mzungu hair, so I am always welcome at the various salons around the town. The ladies always insist on plaiting my hair into the most ludicrous fashions possible, twisting my scalp till tears come to my eyes. Their various children find this most amusing, and sit and stare at me while I undergo horrible torture.

I have often wondered why the shoe market seems to be the place to get yelled at. So far, I have not compiled any viable theory, but the lure of hundreds of shoes and cheap trinkets is too strong for me to resist. On one particular corner, there is a very nice man who sells Obama flip-flops and is convinced that I am Chinese. I don’t really mind it so much, but he really wants me to introduce him to Jackie Chan. I’m afraid I’m going to have to let him down.

The piki drivers are everywhere, trying to pick up passengers for their motorcycle taxi services. Mzungus are prime targets, so I am constantly pursued by a stream of motorbikes, with drivers all trying to get my attention. “We go?” they holler, even after I shake my head and keep walking. Once you do need a ride, all you have to do is stand by the curb and say, “Piki?” and they will appear, all jostling and trying to run over your toes in the process.

There’s nothing like it anywhere else – walking down the crowded sidewalks at dusk, trying not to trip over the uneven concrete slabs with your arms full of groceries, the weariness of a good day setting in. I love it. I really do.

Mbale. Most likely my favorite place in Uganda. Possibly in the entire world.


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