Of tour guides and car park attendants

19 06 2009

 

It was recently widely reported that a car park attendant at Bristol Zoo in the west of England never missed a day’s work. He was there from morning ‘til night, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. He was one of those unsung local heroes who, come rain or shine, cheerily welcomed visitors as he collected £1 for cars and £5 for motor coaches. Several weeks ago the gentleman failed to arrive at work. It was the first day he’d missed in 25 years. The zoo were concerned and called the city council to see if he was okay and to ask that a replacement be sent. The council replied that they had no idea what the zoo was talking about as the car park wasn’t their responsibility. It quickly became apparent that he was neither working for the zoo or for the council but had been diligently collecting at least £300 every day for a quarter of a century…and was likely now retired to a palatial seafront villa in southern Spain surrounded by a coterie of grape-peeling senoritas.Botanical Garden mw

 

The story reminded me of a visit to Uganda. Entebbe sits on the shores of Lake Victoria thirty miles from the capital Kampala. There’s not much there except for the airport, the lake and the Botanical Gardens. Early one morning with little else to do, I set off to visit the gardens. After entering with a friend, a small boy on a bicycle came alongside. He asked where we were from and slowly pushed his bike as he walked with us. He told us his name and asked about life in our countries. We followed the winding paths through thickets of bamboo, forests, flowering bushes and the reed-filled lakeshore. A beautiful bird flew past and we asked him what it was, he said it was a crowned crane. We nodded and thanked him even though it clearly wasn’t the national bird of Uganda. We pointed to some monkeys in the treetops and asked what type they were. He replied “Monkeys”. Similarly, a nearby blossoming bush with a beautiful scent was “flowers” and a tree with bright yellow bark was…”a tree”. We stopped asking questions. After accompanying us for our grand tour, we arrived back at the entrance and readied to say good-bye. He extended his hand…palm up.

 

“For the tour.” he explained with a straight face. “I was your official tour guide. I have to pay a fee to the park.”

 

“But we didn’t ask for a tour guide.” we explained. “We thought you were just walking with us.”

 

“I was working.” he added, seriously.

 

My friend and I gave him a few Ugandan shillings each. The young entrepreneur inspected our payment, nodded, jumped on his bike and pedalled away, and is likely now in Spain with the car park attendant. Except…

 

In the course of researching this blog, I discovered a very sad footnote to the Bristol Zoo story. A few days after the report was first published more information came to light about the fate of the hardworking car park attendant. After the story generated interest all over the world, an intrepid local journalist attempted to track down the subject and ended up with a story of almost unimaginable tragedy. After following the most vague of leads and using his finest investigative skills, he was devastated to learn that the story wasn’t true. It is simply an urban myth…but as of tomorrow I am ‘working’ in the car park down the street!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





The Last King of Scotland

14 04 2009

 uganda-10-mw

        “Och, I’m looking for the Idi Amin tartan, please.”  (Market day, western Uganda)

 

 

It is said that lazy foreign correspondents gauge a country’s mood by chatting with taxi drivers. Given that taxi drivers spend almost as much time chatting with locals as bartenders and barbers, their feelings probably are somewhat of a barometer of a nation’s opinions and it’s an easy trap in which to fall.

 

I must confess that I’ve probably learned more about world affairs from taxi drivers than from CNN Bureau Chiefs. An Eritrean driver in Toronto taught me all about that country’s brutal independence struggle against Ethiopia, while an Iranian in Melbourne related what it was like to be a westernised bank manager in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. But as fascinating as those conversations were, probably the single most memorable of all came in Uganda.

 

Kampala’s international airport is located on the shores of Lake Victoria in nearby Entebbe. To any student of history, Entebbe is synonymous with a 1976 act of terrorism when a hijacked Air France Airbus was directed there after sympathetic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada promised safety to its Palestinian and German hijackers. After several days during which all non-Jewish hostages were released, Israel launched a daring commando raid and safely rescued almost all the hostages.

 

It was early morning when my aircraft swept in over the impossibly blue lake. I strolled into a new terminal building but as my taxi drove away, we passed the old building now overgrown, falling apart and still pockmarked by the raid’s bullets. When my head swivelled to get a better look, the cabbie noticed my interest.

 

“Over there is the plane,” he said, his eyes making contact with mine in the rear-view mirror. The Air France livery was sun-bleached to nothing, and the aircraft had been picked-apart to remove anything of use or value. The area around it was overgrown with weeds and grass but it seemingly sat as an unintended monument to one of the world’s most famous acts of terrorism…and to an infamous Ugandan dictator.

 

Even before Giles Foden’s novel and Oscar-winning movie “The Last King of Scotland”, Idi Amin’s name was synonymous with a blood-thirsty – if slightly buffoonish – dictator. Amin rose to power in a coup in 1971 and soon reaped a reign of terror that included human rights abuses, political repression, murder and war. Amnesty International estimated he was responsible for as many as 500,000 Ugandan deaths while former colleagues claimed he indulged in cannibalism. By the time of his death in exile in Saudi Arabia in 2003, Amin’s place in history as one of the world’s most feared tyrants was complete.

 

My driver tutted as we drove past.

 

“I wish we had him now,” he muttered quietly.

 

“Amin?” I asked, trying not to let my incredulity show at his confessed support for a man that most of the world still considers a monster.

 

“Yes, Amin” he said. “We wouldn’t have the problems that we’ve got now. There was law and order here. People had jobs. We were powerful. Now we have terrorists in the north and AIDS everywhere. It wouldn’t have happened under Amin.”

 

For once I was at a loss for words and quietly stared at the passing scenery. Perhaps a tabloid journalist would have reported that Uganda “longs for return of strong man”, but during the following weeks I spent in the East African country, his was the lone voice of support I heard.

 

Most likely, he was not alone but just like the London taxi driver who believed that Milli Vanilli were musical geniuses who were framed, he was certainly in the minority.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009