The journey to Bagamoyo started with missing my flight. So I walk to the departures entrance and the clerk asks for my flight name. I give him my ticket. He takes one look at it and says, “checking in for Precision Air is closed.” I don’t believe him. For a few seconds I think he’s joking. But you know how airports operate. You miss your target and everyone moves on. Like it doesn’t matter that you’re trapped in one ‘time zone’ and they are rolling on with the globe. It’s like death. Just because one person somewhere has stopped breathing doesn’t mean the world will stop and mourn them.
After a while, partly because the clerk has moved on to other people without hesitation or a care in the world about what I’m supposed to do, but also because enough time has passed for it to sink in, I move away. Through the glass, I can see the people I’m supposed to travel with still sorting their baggage but I’m unable to join them. I keep thinking, the only difference between us is they’re checked in and I’m not. And it would take just one minute to check me in. I don’t have much with me, just my hand luggage. But no. Rules are rules. You stand there on the outside, looking in, like you don’t even exist. This must be what purgatory feels like. To look down on walking bodies, unable to touch them, to talk to them.
Luckily for me, there’s another passenger who has missed the same flight and we walk together to the airline offices to get sorted out. It’s Friday and the airline’s next flight is on Tuesday following next week. We’re both travelling to attend the same workshop at Bagamoyo College of Arts, which begins the next day. We have two options. Either, to buy other tickets from a different airline, and travel that day or the day after, or, to take our airline’s deal and wait for four days to travel. We take the Precision Air deal.
Four days later, we arrive at Dar-el-salaam airport and the heat wave takes me by surprise. Our ride is on time and our chauffeur promises it will take about an hour from Dar to Bagamoyo. We settle down. We have already missed the beginning sessions of the workshop and there’s nothing worrying can do to change that. So I lower my window and look out. Such sandy, white soil! When you’re used to Kampala’s red soil, Dar feels like Australia. In short, very far away. Hawkers selling cashew nuts. Narrow roads in between great architectural beauties. The roads almost feel like walking streets, vehicles imposing themselves on the magnificence. That’s almost all I remember about Dar. Because when I arrive in Bagamoyo, its lush vegetation enchanting, its sandy soils beckoning; its blossoming flowers a piece of heaven, my heart is stolen.
There are many times I want to get out of the air conditioned conference rooms and dining halls to go out there and lie with the flowers, and dip my fingers in the sand. But every time I do, there’s that heat wave that people call humidity that welcomes me at the door. And I always go back and sit down inside.
However, sometimes, the beauty of Bagamoyo is so strong that it takes you out, and though its air is extremely sticky and hot, you go out anyway, and just stand there and look, and wonder how possible a place can be as beautiful. One of my professors is so obsessed with the plants that he keeps taking pictures of petals and leaves and more petals… and we all agree we can understand.
Bagamoyo college of Arts is located at the very edge of the ocean and the beach is less than a stone-throw away. Because I’m trying to catch up for the first few days, I don’t manage to walk up to the water. But I keep telling my colleagues that perhaps all students at the college walk around the campus with their swim suits underneath, because when the heat gets to them, they probably just go and swim, and come back to class. Clearly, I have not been to an ocean before.
Luckily, a few days later, we stroll to the beach with some colleagues during a session break and I rush to touch the water. To my surprise, it too is hot. This humidity thing is now getting to me. Especially because I have to sleep with air conditioning on or else I’ll wake up in a sea of sweat. And now I’ve just learnt that the ocean is not any cooler. And for a moment I wonder, if it is better to be without beauty and safe (meaning cool, probably), or to be humid and beautiful. I don’t have to choose because, with all its stickiness, Bagamoyo is still one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever been to. Nobody forgets it. It’s like a ghost. A very lovely ghost that haunts you even when the lights are on.
When the workshop ends, we go on a tour around the coastal town and for the first time, I see traces of the history I used to read in class when I was younger. We visit former slave trade centres that were later turned into German prisons and then into museums. I see huge trees that are as big as a thousand little mes. I see old houses used by Arab slave traders, the Portuguese and later the British. I see places that remind me of histories I’d rather forget. I see many ghosts in Bagamoyo. Very strange ghosts that stare at you in the middle of the day, unashamed, not daring to blink. But I also see beauties I’ve never seen elsewhere in the world. Plants that outshine humanity, water bodies that are a fountain of relief and people that challenge the famed Ugandan hospitality.
On our way back, as we glance down upon the mighty, magical sights of peninsulas, the majestic Mt Kilimanjaro, and I’m re-awakened in awe, my head is still overwhelmed by the stunning, the humid, and the lovely ghosts of Bagamoyo.