I’ve been thinking about, and starting to work on, the second “installment” of my little “Changing Perspectives” series, which started with my previous post. But, seeing as those posts are going to be fairly serious (and because they take a lot of thought and a little bit of research), I decided that it might be nice to alternate those more intense posts with some lighter stuff. So, this not-so-intense post is simply about something that happened yesterday…
Yesterday morning, Max (my counterpart) and I were walking to a really nice hotel, where Marc, the director of our organization, was staying. He had flown in the night before, and will be in Uganda for this week, before heading to Rwanda on Saturday. Anyway, we were walking from the hotel where we had stayed the night before, towards the (much nicer) hotel where we would meet Marc. My water bottle had run dry earlier that morning before leaving, so I was keeping a sharp eye out for a nice-looking gas station. You can usually trust that the nice-looking gas stations will have a shop that sells some decent varieties of bottled water. I found one without too much trouble, and I went in and bought two big bottles of water (1.5 liters each, or about 6 cups, for those who don’t like the metric system), one for me and one for Max. We continued our walk.
It was a warm morning, and, by the time we reached our target hotel, I had already sucked about a cup of water out of my bottle. Max’s remained sealed, sitting in one of the side pockets on his backpack. This is nothing new. When we’re sitting in our office in Kalisizo, I usually go through almost an entire water bottle during the day, while Max usually doesn’t have anything to drink, except maybe a small cup after lunch. Getting back on track, it was a long walk, and we finally made it to the hotel about five minutes before Marc expected us. Security at these nice hotels is pretty intense, unexpectedly so if you’re used to simply walking into a hotel without stopping in the USA. At the front gate, we take off our backpacks and empty our pockets, and we pass through a metal detector (which may or may not work…it’s a toss-up). Security guards go through the pockets in our bags, and then, if the metal detector squeaks out a sound as we pass through, one of the guards uses one of those metal-detecting wand things to recheck us. If I have already put stuff, like my big set of metal keys, back in my pockets, the wand might beep when it passes over those pockets (emphasis on "might"). Sometimes, the guards have me re-empty that pocket, but, other times, it’s just assumed that, well, there’s probably not anything harmful in there… At this first security checkpoint, no one says anything about our water bottles, and we move on without incident.
We cross the small parking lot, and almost make it into the lobby. But, wait, there’s another security checkpoint that looks exactly the same as the first one. We go through the same procedure. The backpacks come off, the pockets are emptied, the potentially faulty metal detector is passed through, the pockets are filled, the second guard at the end decides that I need to be wanded and goes through that process, the backpack returns to its place on my back, and I pick up my water bottle. But then, the second guard asks me, “Are you staying at this hotel?”
“No, we are just here to meet someone,” I reply foolishly.
“Oh, then we do not allow you to bring in outside water bottles,” the guard states.
Somewhat agitated by this unfortunate turn of events, I attempt to win over the guard with some impressive logic.
“My friend,” I begin, “it is very hot out today, and I am very thirsty. I need this water.”
But he parries this statement with the following: “It’s okay. We have water here that you can buy.”
Ah, but I know how much this water is going to cost. “But the water here is very expensive.” Indeed, the water at this hotel is likely to cost at least twice as much as the water I bought from the shop at the gas station. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a gargantuan sum of money, but it’s the principle of the thing…
Meanwhile, behind me, Max is having a similar conversation with the first guard.
“You cannot bring in this water bottle. It is not allowed,” says this first guard.
“Oh, but it is still sealed,” retorts Max, “So it is okay.” Hmm, an interesting maneuver…one that I did not have the luxury of making. Let’s see if it works.
“No,” the first guard maintains, “Maybe you can put it in your car and then come back.”
Now, I jump in to this conversation. “We do not have a car. We walked here.” There is quite a bit of additional, implied meaning behind this simple-seeming statement. As I say it, in my head, I am thinking, “Yes, we walked for over a half an hour in the hot sun to get here. We did not want to spend money on a taxi. Last night, we stayed at a hotel where the toilets do not have seats, where the hot water does not work, where the light in the bathroom does not work, where the steps are so uneven that I trip every time I climb them to get to my room, where the only thing available for dinner is goat meat with rice and matooke. In a nutshell, we do not have as much money as the people who normally walk into your hotel, with your gardens, and your swimming pool, and your conference rooms, and your full breakfast spread, and your automatic shoe shine machines (I was marveling at these after we eventually made it inside). So, I’m not going to pay an outrageous price for a bottle of water if I already have some water.”
“Well,” the first guard replies as these thoughts rumble through my head, “you will have to dump the water out.”
Oh, that did it. That was a mistake. She shouldn’t have said that. She doesn’t know what I do; she doesn’t know the reason I’m here. “No,” I say with significantly more force, “We are NOT dumping out our bottles. We are NOT wasting all of this water.”
I am about to continue my sermon on the importance of not wasting water, when the second guard says, “Ah, but it is not allowed.” And then he concedes, “Okay, don’t drink from it when you’re inside.” I walk forward at almost a run, adrenaline surging, triumphant. My message of water conservation and frugality has won the day. We plop ourselves down on a comfy sofa, I notice the automatic shoe-shining machine, which someone is actually using, and we wait for Marc.
Later that afternoon, we travel to Masaka and stay at a pretty nice hotel. Not nearly as nice as the one from that morning, but certainly a few cuts above the places where Max and I normally stay. That night after dinner, I proceed to waste several liters of water taking a long, hot shower…
Endnote: In retrospect, I have to say that I do feel pretty bad about steamrolling over the security guards like that. They were just trying to do their jobs and follow the rules set down by the hotel. It’s not their fault that I don’t agree with the hotel’s policy. In fact, they probably do understand the importance of each drop of water. Security guards in Uganda are, in general, not paid well at all (I think the average salary across the country is something like $40 per month, although at a nice place like this one, it’s probably significantly higher than that), so maybe they can’t afford to waste anything at their homes. Indeed, as I was taking that nice shower later, I felt the sting of hypocrisy and realized that sometimes I am part of the problem as well. If I ever see those guards again, I should probably apologize to them…