A Gentleman’s Game

This blog entry about the events of Monday, January 02, 2012 was originally posted on January 08, 2012.

DAY 5: “Do you want to play golf?” Alex asked me in his northern Italian accent, looking a little bit like actor Bradley Cooper from certain angles. After rafting the previous night, we had asked the guides where best place to see the lake is — Lake Victoria that is, the source of the Nile River — back near the town center of Jinja (rhymes with “ninja”). One suggested either the bar at the fancy hotel, the official Source Of The Nile site where explorer John Hanning Speke “discovered” it in 1862, or — because those choices might be boring with not much to do there — at the Jinja Club, the local golf course right on the lake shore.

“Yeah, let’s play golf,” I answered him as we had coffee overlooking the Nile and three vervet monkeys. I had been to Lake Victoria before from the Tanzanian side, so golf would be a way to see it in a different way. I changed into a short-sleeve collared shirt in case they had a dress code.

Alex was a bit excited; he’d never played before in his life and always had a fantasy of doing so. Back on his home turf of Verona (Italy) golf was always an exclusive sport reserved for the über rich. Here, it would be about fifteen bucks. That may be a bit über by Uganda standards to spend on such a “White man” frivolity, but it’s not like Ugandans are excluded from the sport; some of them do play golf, enough that there is the Uganda Open, one of a few golf invitationals around the continent, open to golfers from all around Africa.

Alex and I straddled on the back of a motorcycle taxi — a boda boda as they say in Uganda, or just boda for short — and rode off to the Jinja Club.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH GOLF — beyond miniature golf — is not that extensive, i.e. I suck. I’ve only played with my brother in an annual — and very casual—- round against our friends, the Gonzales brothers (together forming “Gonzalidad”) in what we call “Ghetto Golf.” We play on a public course run by the City Parks Department in New York, mostly having fun hitting balls, drinking beers, and cruising in the golf cart listening to obscure songs for “inspiration” like the theme to Perfect Strangers. (“Nothing’s gonna stop me now…”) Each time we golf, I’m the one who inevitably and repeatedly hits balls into the brush, to be lost and never found again. Playing golf in Uganda I would find out, would not be much different.

“Do we have time for eighteen [holes]?” I asked at reception; we only had 2 1/2 hours to play before having to get back to our transport to Kampala later that afternoon.

“Yes,” the man said. “If you’re fast.”

“Uh, we’re not fast,” I admitted. “Just nine then.”

“Do you know how to play?” asked Abi, from Jinja, one of our caddies (not a ninja). A regular golfer at 2-3 times a week, he would be more than a caddie but a coach. The same went for Charles, originally from Sudan, who had pretty good form himself (picture above).

“We aren’t very good,” I told them.

“No, he is not so good,” Alex butted in. “Me, this is my first time.”

I was paired off with Abi after my first drive of Hole 1 (a par 4), which went better than expected — but that isn’t saying much because my ball still veered too far to the right and onto the fairway of Hole 6. At least it went far and I didn’t lose it. However, my next stroke landed my ball in long grass, not to be found.

Still, Abi was encouraging. “You’re good. I can see it.” (Perhaps his kind words were to butter me up for his offer later on that afternoon, for a Ugandan wife “for the day.”) But I proved him wrong as the day progressed, losing a ball here, hitting a tree there, losing another ball, etc. Plus the strokes of my long game were too numerous with the ball not going very far after each swing. Thankfully we didn’t keep score, plus we had the whole course to ourselves since most golfers in Jinja don’t foolishly play in the heat of midday like us. I did get one good drive, purely by luck, inches away from the green in the first stroke — it even warranted a small golf clap. But then I went back to sucking again on the 7th when my ball directly hit a tree.

Alex was having a good first time, learning about one of his new favorite sports — in fact, he was already planning to come back later in the year with his girlfriend. “It’s a lot harder than I thought,” he told me. “But I can feel it. I get the confidence.”

“I’ve actually played better here than back home,” I told him.

“It must be the lake,” he said.

It was a good nine holes, even if cows got in the way. “This is a good choice,” Alex said to me, happy about the decision to golf.

“Your first time too,” I said.

“Yeah. Wow.”

We tipped Abi and Charles for their services and coaching. “I’ll see you next time,” Alex told Charles. We walked into town from there to discuss golf, life, African politics, and life over beers and Lake Victoria tilapia sandwiches. Afterwards, we confirmed that Jinja’s downtown is a small, dusty but peaceful area with one main street holding a few shops and cafés, but not much else.

IT WAS A LONG WAY BACK TO KAMPALA afterwards, stopping briefly in a small village on the way to pick up some rafting daytrippers. While waiting for them, Alex and I went wandering, encountering some kids and some guys playing pool.

We arrived back in the capital around six, and settled back into bustling city hostel life. Alex asked me if I’d like to join him and his Italian friend Luca for dinner and drinks, and naturally I said okay. Joining us was Duko, a young Dutchman in Kampala for business, who looked out of place wearing business casual; however he opted to stay at the Backpackers Hostel for its friendly attitude and social factor.

“Should we take a boda boda?” Alex asked Duko.

“No, I have a car,” he answered; he had borrowed it from an ex-pat friend of his. I had no qualms about jumping into a car with a stranger I’d just met (just like that time on Easter Island), and hopped in. Riding shotgun was Freddie, a Ugandan (one quarter Rwandan actually, so he claimed) that helped out at the hostel, who was a bit of a young Ugandan renaissance man, with a friendly international charm spawning from a peculiar accent that sometimes sounded British and sometimes American. He had been invited to dinner by a group of about a dozen 1991er Aussie girls, and we were to meet up with them at a restaurant on the other side of town in Old Kampala. However, when we got there — after braving Kampala’s legendary free-for-all of traffic — we found out that the group had no more space at their table and were having a sort of girl’s night out (GNO).

“It’ll just be a guy’s night out then,” Freddie said, although some of the 1991er girls, including one named Hannah, came over to say hello.

Five gentlemen were seated at the Garden Restaurant at Open House, a rather fancy open air eatery in the posh side of town, serving mostly Indian food, but similar African stews as well. The five of us sat around over beers and talked about our lives and philosophies.

“You know what I call a wife?” Freddie explained. “A red ant. [There’s this red ant that chickens eat and they get stuck in their throat and bother them, makes them all red. Man is a chicken and wives are like red ants.]”

Freddie had his stories about life in Uganda — where he was so unlike most Ugandans that he just started telling people he was Jamaican. Duko spoke of his job in international microfinance; Luca and Alex talked about life in Juba, and I told tales about my travels. I realized that independent travel, at least for me, is like taking NZT-48 — that magical intelligence-inducing drug in the movie Limitless — and I hadn’t just thought of it since Alex looked like Limitless actor Bradley Cooper from certain angles. Suddenly everything I’ve learned about world politics and foreign language comes back to me and it’s accessible. I’m more focused; I know where I want to be and how to acquire it.

“You can take a glass and put inside big rocks,” Alex said with his Italian accent, using simple words in English — a language he only decided to learn six months prior. “The big rocks represent the big problems. And you fill it witha sand, and it goes inside and the meaning is the small problems. And you can put beer inside and it will go into the space. And the meaning is, if you have big problems and small problems, there is always room for beer.”

Gentlemanly conversation was shifted upon the arrival of Lisa, a young Ugandan woman that Luca had met earlier in the day and invited. “She’s free [to join us],” Luca said, having tried to coordinate her rendezvous with us over the phone during most of the car ride over.

“If she’s from here, she’s not free,” Freddie warned him.

It was pretty obvious for some of us that our sixth table guest was most likely a prostitute, the clues coming from her attitude, constant texting and phone calls, and certain phrases she said like, “I can have five guys at once” and “I can do all kinds, big ones, little ones…” and “I hate Americans, except this one that gave me cocaine.” Still, the Italians found her very attractive and entertained her possible entertainment. And after dinner, we dropped Lisa and Luca at some club in the nightlife district — one that Freddie hated — for them to continue their weird flirtations (and possible more?).

“SHE WAS A BITCH,” Freddie said back at the hostel bar when retelling the tale of our evening to this other Ugandan (or possibly Burundian) guy. I chimed in with the key phrases that concluded she was a working girl. “And she was ugly too,” Freddie said. “She looked like a chimpanzee.”

“Don’t say that!” said Hannah, one of the 1991er Aussie girls.

Freddie and the other guy chat back and forth about some African women, and the other guy said the wife of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was also “so ugly. She looks like a chimpanzee!”

“Stop saying that!” Hannah said. I too was a little disturbed at the statement, coming from the P.C. Western world, but perhaps it’s not racist if you’re already African.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING I bid farewell to Freddie and the short-lived league of gentlemen. “Have a good trip,” Alex wished me. I told him to look me up if he was ever in New York. “Not this year but the next. I am still in Juba.”

“We’ll see you in Rwanda,” JD (from rafting) said to me; he and fellow Minnesotan Paul were eventually going to be in the neighboring country when I would be, but we had no specific plans.

I was not off to Rwanda just yet, for I had booked a three-day safari to one of the must-do’s of Uganda: Murchinson Falls National Park. I figured that after a day of golf and fancy restaurants — although pleasant — it was time to go back to doing things that you can only do in Africa (even if they don’t rhyme with “ninja”)...


Alex told me he had basically lived in a small Italian village outside Verona for all his life. After working a job he grew tired of, he decided for a change and volunteered for an Italian NGO, that sent him to developing new nation South Sudan of all places — the first time he’s used his passport or learn English.

Next entry: Rhinobama

Previous entry: Wild On The Nile

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Comments for “A Gentleman's Game”

  • nice one… you play better with beer and shots of vodka…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/08  at  03:12 PM

  • get your tiger woods on

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/08  at  04:01 PM

  • what are the rules about hitting the cows?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/08  at  04:15 PM

  • Don’t hit them.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/08  at  05:52 PM

  • at ERIKTGT - That’s no fun…wah wah. I’m gonna water your plants in about 2 hours.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/08  at  06:46 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Monkeying Around," which chronicled an eighteen-day journey through Uganda and Rwanda in eastern central Africa.

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