Five days before I was set to arrive for a field research project in Uganda, my housing arrangements fell through. Jinja, a small town on the shores of Lake Victoria, boasted approximately four Airbnb options that fit my budget; hastily, I picked the only one with reviews. Nevertheless, I was confident that the rest of my trip would go as planned. With a fair bit of independent travel experience, I thought that I would fit into Jinja smoothly, melt into its crowds, learn to navigate its ways.
I didn’t. The first time I rode a boda — the motorcycles whose drivers offer rides to anyone, anything, anywhere — I carefully buckled my helmet and gripped the seat so hard my fingers tingled. Only after dismounting and exhaling did I realize I’d been holding my breath as he zipped through chaotic traffic. At home, there was no hot water, and I didn’t know where to buy vegetables without being systematically overcharged. Walking into town, my clearly Asian features garnered constant attention and nonstop shouts of “mchina,” occasionally “Korea,” and sometimes “yellow!” Men came up to me, sent unsolicited WhatsApp messages and touched my arm or hair in crowded places. After my first week on the project, I spent a restless weekend in my room rather than dealing with the hassle of venturing outside.
Of course, there were things I loved within the first few days too: the purpose of the research itself, the dry season’s temperate breezes and the way people greeted each other warmly and welcomed each other into their homes. I realized that most foreign to me was the sense that each day felt risky and insecure. My mind tried to guesstimate all the possibilities and prepared studiously for adverse circumstances. I never knew and could rarely control what was going to happen — and instead of feeling a sense of adventure, I was frustrated.
After all, at Yale, I make most of my plans with near-complete information. Few of my decisions wander into risk territory. Everything here happens largely on time, as envisioned: A syllabus outlines the topics for my seminars, Yale Dining lets me know whether I feel like trekking to Franklin for the ramen bar on any given day, I can watch the Blue shuttle trundle down York Street on an app and run out my door just before it arrives. Moreover, we also attach a certain degree of causality to the things we do here; we are often thinking ahead. If we get into a class, nab an internship spot — then we might be more likely to enter some program, fulfill our five-year plan, live a good life. If not, we’re quick to feel overcome by downward spirals.
In Uganda, I had to throw all that out the window. Even in the relatively structured layout of our research, the daily different experiences at work meant we might arrive home at alternately 3 or 11 p.m. Over time, I learned to stomach unpredictability, and then grew to embrace it. As the rainy season came, blackouts would drape over us for several hours, so we found and lit candles to see by. Sometimes boda drivers would simply speed off without knowing my destination, so I’d gesture frantically to turn in the right directions and learned to laugh at myself later. In the middle of rural northern Uganda, our van began smoking and broke down, so we spent our remaining cash on the first matatu — a privately owned share taxi system of retrofitted minibuses that crisscrosses Uganda — hoping we’d reach the capital city after speeding bumpily along for four hours.
And we did. The many little derailments eventually showed me that ultimately, we can always get somewhere, somehow. In fact, the boda rides bumping through sugarcane fields were some of the most exhilarating, free moments I’ve felt. I couldn’t have anticipated that the last-minute Airbnb I chose led me to a cheery guesthouse, with two smart and funny kids I love and miss, and a kind host who made me hot, delicious chapati for breakfast. It led me to friends who taught me to walk confidently through Jinja’s streets to market and ultimately made this one town half a world away feel like home.
Of course, it’s difficult to find the right level of risk-taking that is not reckless. But as we ease into the constant rhythm of another semester at Yale, I hope we can all feel more comfortable relaxing into the unpredictable. Above all, I personally want to remember that the constellation of events in our packed days are not a string of dominoes: No hiccup guarantees failure, and plans do not always lead to the best outcomes. So when things go awry, take a breath. It’ll be okay — or better, in ways we can’t predict.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .