Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rwanda Part II: Wonderful Lake Kivu and the journey to Uganda

Like Burundi, my time in Rwanda was very enjoyable but far too short.  Due to the fact I am returning to America in about 90 days now I need to pick up the pace and cover some ground, so I simply don’t have months at a time to spend in each country.  That said, three weeks in the country was enough to enjoy myself and get an impression of the country.  In short that impression is of a country that is crowded but beautiful, modernizing rapidly but shockingly dependent on foreign aid (40% of the economy…), and where the people are proud and optimistic but lack basic social and political freedoms.  It is a country that has a great deal to offer the traveler (and the development worker apparently!), a place that is so much more than its troubled history and without a doubt a place I will not only be rooting for be keeping an eye on in the coming years to see how the experiment turns out.


In my last post I mentioned I missed the boat, literally.  I was told the boat from Rusizi to Kibuye was on Tuesday, but it left on Monday so my only option for getting to Kibuye was to go by bus.  I wasn’t pleased about this at all, because I rather enjoy boat travel, and plus I was told to be at the bus station at the ungodly hour of 5:45am.  When it didn’t arrive at 6am as it was supposed to I wasn’t surprised, when 6:30 rolled around and it was still nowhere in sight I still wasn’t surprised and when it finally did show up at 6:50am it was right on time, Africa Time that is.

It was a surprisingly old and worn-out bus for such a ‘modern’ country as Rwanda, basically a school bus type thing with hard bench seats and a metal cage in the back for bags.  There happened to be a German couple traveling on the same bus so we chatted a bit and around 7:15 or something the bus set off north up the lake shore to Kibyue.


I have been told that that this stretch of road along Lake Kivu is the last stretch of major road in Rwanda that is still unpaved (I don’t know for sure if this is true or not, I simply don’t have the information one way or the other) but they were certainly working on it.  There were hillside stabilization projects, in-progress bridges and heavy trucks, workers and piles of stones all over the place.  When the road is completed it will probably cut transport time in half or more, but for the moment it is a long, slow and bumpy ride.


Despite the somewhat unpleasant condition of the road and the vehicle (but really not any worse than any other bus or road I’ve been on) I quickly found myself happy I’d ended up on the bus rather than on the boat because the scenery was fantastic.  By winding along this road, you really do see rural Rwanda and all the beauty that encompasses, from the terraced hillsides to the tea and banana plantations, the streams and valleys and the towns along the way.


Not only does the bus give the rider a far better view of the land than one would get from the boat, it also offers a better view of the water itself as well.  Getting up on the tops of Rwanda’s thousands of hills gives you an amazing view of the countless small islands that dot the shores of Lake Kivu, the long fingers of water that reach inland and complex and unique tapestry that results.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it and in this case I was quite glad I’d ended up missing the boat.


Like most buses out here, stops were frequent and slowed progress considerably.  Not to worry, there are always food venders happy to sell you snacks and drinks along the way and every town (and many of the middle-of-no-where stops as well) had people rushing up to the bus holding out their goods up to the windows in hopes of enticing a passenger.  I wasn’t too hungry, but for about 15 cents, couldn’t pass up a nice mandazi (fried bread).  The young man behind me bought some bananas and for some reason (we hadn’t even talked up to this point) offered the whole bunch to me.  I didn’t really need 6 or 8 bananas, so I took one and told him to share the rest with the other passengers sitting around us.

The bus weaved in and out of valleys, over streams, through rice paddies and past coffee plantations and the hours were adding up.

Around 1pm the bus stopped and I was told by my new banana-sharing friend that it was a police checkpoint and everyone needed to get off the bus.  I have no idea what the point of this was, the police didn’t check anything as far as I could tell other than maybe the insurance papers (which doesn’t require everyone getting off the bus…) but it gave a nice little break to stretch my legs and pee in the bushes so I had no complaints about the stop.


Seven and a half hours after leaving Rusizi, I’d arrived in the town of Rubenghera (spelling?), exited the bus and my mission still wasn’t complete.  I was meeting Matt, a Peace Corps volunteer from Michigan, in his village of Congo Nil (why there is a town with this name in Rwanda I don’t know) and had to make it up into the hills first.  I hoped to get a shared taxi to save a few bucks, but it didn’t work out so I hired a moto to take me for a few dollars.

The ride was all uphill, on a somewhat washed out dirt road filled with loose stones, and took nearly an hour.  As we climbed, the view got better and better of the landscape around me, and I couldn’t help but think about the wear and tear such a ride with two people and bags puts on the scrawny little 125cc moto.

It was almost 4pm when actually reached Congo Nil, 9 hours after I’d set off that morning, so I sat down at Panorama Bar (which doesn’t really have any view, much less a panoramic one) I ordered myself a big, cold (which you have to specify, Rwandans tend to like room temperature beer) and much deserved Primus beer and sat down to wait for Matt (center) to arrive.  He arrived shortly afterward, along with another Peace Corps volunteer in the area, Casey (right), we moved to a different bar that actually had a view, and a bit later Matt’s housemate Arafat (left) joined us.  We had a beer or two, I ate some brochettes and chips (goat on a stick and fries, typical meal out here) and as it was getting dark, headed back to Matt and Arafat’s house.


Staying with Matt marked staying with a Peace Corps volunteer in three different countries now and it is always fun to compare the differences.  I can’t say much about Peace Corps Rwanda as a whole as Matt’s was the only site I stayed at, but he had decent multi room brick house with electricity and a tap outside that worked most of the time, but still cooked with charcoal and used a pit toilet.  Although staying at Ilyanas nice house in Kigali was good and all, I have to admit I enjoy going back to long drops and charcoal cooking.

Matt teaches English at the Catholic school up the hill (Catholicism is the predominant religion in Rwanda and the majority of schools are religiously affiliated I am told).  After a few months onsite, he was told his house was no longer affordable and would have to move if he wanted to live alone.  Rather than move, he decided to take on a housemate, Arafat, to defray the cost of the house, something I wasn’t aware was possible in Peace Corps, but I thinks will certainly make for a unique and rewarding experience.  Arafat showed how to cook some traditional Rwandan food, which we gladly ate.


I awoke from my smelly sleeping bag and mattress lying in the corner of the living room and looked out onto what was a cloud and fog filled morning.  So much for the incredible views this place usually offers but oh well, the sun can’t shine every day.  We had a lazy morning doing who knows what, and around noon stepped out of the house for the five minute walk into the center of town.


The town lies on the path of the ‘Congo Nile Trail’, which I put in quotes because really there is no such thing as far as I can tell or as far as anyone else can point to.  It is a cool idea, and something I actually would have done given more time, but as it stands today the ‘Congo Nile Trail’ is mostly an idea, and consists of nothing more than a few ambiguous green signs with white text that lead one through the existing dirt roads.  That said, a few people are doing it, and Matt had a little story on the subject: He was coming into town, when one of the locals came up to him and said “Matt, your friends are here, I lead them to hour house!”  “You mean Casey?” (the other PCV in the area)  “No, your other friends.”  “Uh, OK, I didn’t know anyone was coming…”  Eventually Matt walked to his house, and there were two random Swedish guys who were hiking this ‘trail’ hanging out on his porch.  I presume they were just as confused as Matt when some local lead them to a random house saying it was their friends place, but needless to say he took them in and they stayed with Matt for a few days!  I talked about this belief that to the locals, all white people are friends, in my last post, but once again I guess this story proves that it is sort of true, or at least shows why they would think that, haha.

After a few greetings with people in town, Matt and I meandered through a few buildings, down an ankle-breaking path and into a restaurant, the kind of unmarked bland village building you would never find without a guide.  This was one of the only restaurants in town.  Matt greeted the owner, we sat down on the wood benches and for a little over a dollar received a large plate overflowing with rice, fries, and a bean/veggie mix.

It’s funny; in America there is this whole movement towards organic, local food, which is a good thing of course, but Africa doesn’t have this issue.  In much of Africa, you can literally see where your meal is grown as you walk from your front door to the restaurant (assuming you are one of the people with enough money to ‘eat out’).  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sitting and eating some goat meat while I see the next goat being dragged back towards the kitchen, or the times I’ve seen people walk to the back with an armload of live chickens.  It doesn’t get any more fresh or local than that.  Money is actually the problem when it comes to local and nutritious food in Africa, as those with money are more likely to spend it on processed and packaged food rather than the natural and local food all around them!


Matt tells me he makes a fool of himself a few times a week minimum playing with the local kids in town.  Today’s example was chasing them with a little wind up helicopter they were playing with and they screamed and laughed in delight as he ran towards them with the cheap plastic toy in his hands.


The Safety & Security Officer was in town to do a little site visit for Peace Corps volunteers in the area, so after having tea with her and chatting to the local police chief, all of us headed up to Matt’s house by car and this is where it gets funny.  In the 15 months I’ve been in Africa, I’ve used every form of dangerous transportation possible.  Three on a motorcycle?  Of course.  Alone on a leaky wooden boat?  No problem.  Hitch hiking with strange truck drivers?  All the time.  But woah woah woah, now that it’s a Peace Corps vehicle, not only do I have to be filmed putting on my seat belt by the camera, (I fully support seat belts by the way) in the truck that records everything inside and automatically downloads the footage when the truck comes back to base, but I have to sign a liability waiver to ride for three minutes on an empty road!  Sometimes I wonder how much African’s are really going to enjoy the ‘modern’ western way of doing things…


Back at the house.


The next day after another lazy morning and Arafat cooking a typical Rwandan meal (potatoes, beans, tomato paste and one or two other things) he and I set off on a walk.  We began by going uphill from the house, past the church, the school and the market, and onto a trail to the very top of the hill built by the church and marked by the Stations of the Cross.


While the west side of the hill had the towns and lead towards the lake, from the top of the hill and eastward is much more rural and filled primarily with beautiful green tea fields.


As we walked through the tea fields and eucalyptus plantation under threat of imminent and heavy rain we came across this group of boys who were carrying bread from the town to their villages to sell.  They seemed to enjoy walking near a white person (skin color is a weird thing out here…) and made a point of walking at the same pace as Arafat and I when we’d caught up to them, which is actually a bit annoying…


Our goal, which Arafat and I reached after about an hour and a half, was the new tea factory being built in the area.  The same as Burundi (where I visited an operating tea factory here), tea is a big export crop in Rwanda.  In order to better serve the needs of the growers, a new processing factory is being built in the area and we walked right into the construction area and met the foreman who was happy to talk about the project (try doing that in America!).  He was a Kenyan man, the project had begun only about three months before and was nearly complete, about all that was left to do was to install the sheet metal roof and walls and to bring in the actual processing machines.

20 minutes after Arafat and I returned home the rains came and as usual it was a short and powerful burst.  I was glad to be inside.  There had been problems with Peace Corps paying Matt on time (a problem I’ve heard from numerous volunteers across Africa…) and he hadn’t had money to buy the nice food he wanted to cook me, but today his living expense payment (it isn’t a lot of money, but it’s enough) came through and he cooked up a mean stir fry for dinner.


The next morning the weather was finally cooperating and I could finally see the amazing view from where Matt is lucky enough to live.  A truly spectacular place eh?


Matt and the neighbor kids.


Mondays (and Fridays) are market days, so Matt and I set off to take a look and buy a few things.  Arafat usually does the market shopping for the house because even after 4 months in the town Matt still gets charged more, presumably for being white, but I wanted to check it out and Matt needed a few basics right away so off we went.  The classic wood and tin shacks that make up the bulk of markets in Africa I have been to are on the way out in Rwanda.  In line with the ‘modernization’ plans for the country, new markets like this, made of brick and with tables containing lockable spaces for venders to store their buckets, scales and so on are appearing across the country.  It lacks the charm of the old markets, but it’s hard to argue it isn’t a drastic improvement, other than the rather important fact many of the sellers are now unable to afford the rents table space and must sell on the roads leading to the markets.


On the way back from the market we walked into the main church in town and had a look around.  It really is just one big room, but it is a very unique and surprisingly artistic building compared to the typical bland and utilitarian structures that make up most buildings out here, even the churches.


It was time for me to move on and Matt was ready to have a little break weekend and spent the night in Kibuye rather than his village.  We each hopped on motos and after the 45 minute ride downhill and back into Rubenghera (sp?) we met with Saara , another Peace Corps volunteer and actually someone from the Seattle area.  After spending some time talking and checking out her place, the three of us set off to a local restaurant for lunch.


After lunch and saying goodbye to Saara  Matt and I hopped a bus to Kibuye.  When we arrived, Matt paid for a bed in the dorm at Home St Jean, a church on a peninsula that operates a hotel/restaurant/bar where we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the view over the inlets of Lake Kivu before parting ways.  Matt was a great host, his site has the best view I’ve encountered with any PCV and I’m sure he will have an amazing time with his Peace Corps experience.  Thanks Matt!


After trying to wait out a rainstorm in the bell tower of the church, then giving up and just getting wet, I met my next CouchSurf host, Katarina, (right) from Slovakia.  Katarina and her housemates Jirka and Anni are here working at a rural health clinic about an hour’s drive into the hills east of Kibuye and they live at the clinic during the week and at the ‘lake house’ during the weekend.  We met at the Kigali Health Institute’s restaurant for dinner and beers while we got to know each other.


The next morning was overcast and cloudy so we weren’t able to really take advantage of the houses excellent location on the lake.  Instead we hung out in the house, leaky roof and all, until lunch time when we piled into the truck and drove into town where we visited a restaurant in town where you can fill a plate with fries, noodles, rice, beans, fried bananas and so on for 800 francs, about $1.25.  I don’t know why, but buffets are a way of life in Burundi and Rwanda… From the third floor where the restaurant was located you can see main street Kibuye, and you can probably see it isn’t all that impressive.

I mentioned I was hoping to take the boat to the north end of the lake, so we went on a mission together to figure out how to do this.  Naturally this involved asking plenty of different people and getting plenty of different answers, but eventually we got what we were looking for.


That afternoon I joined Jirka and Anni for a swim across the water to the other side where this was this weird playground area with a rusty and rotten platform to jump off into the water, we went back to the bar for dinner and watched Django Unchained (which I quite enjoyed) on the projector that evening.  A good afternoon/evening for sure.


Nothing interesting happened the next day.  I ate porridge, I finished my book, it rained and the roof leaked a lot, and we went to the buffet for dinner again.  Not every day out here is a wild adventure, but a day of downtime can also be a good thing so no complaints.

Monday came around and it was time for my hosts to go to work.  Shortly after 6:30am all of us loaded up in the 4-door Isuzu truck and set off.

I’ve mentioned plenty of misunderstandings by the locals (and don’t get me wrong, cultural/economic/etc misunderstandings absolutely go both ways) but this was a pretty funny one.  Jirka told me that all the locals were so surprised he would drive such a cheap and simple truck.  They are so used to seeing white people driving around in the $50,000 Toyota Land Cruiser that is pretty much the standard of government or NGO vehicles (even if they don’t need such a robust vehicle; it has become the status symbol everyone just has to have and to me is one of the primary symbols of waste, corruption and inefficiency here in Africa among government/development/aid organizations ), not to mention how warped their understanding of wealth among white people from TV/movies, that they thought the only reason he doesn’t have one of these $50,000 4x4s himself was simply that he was too lazy to go into Kigali to buy himself one!


As we climbed up the steep and winding dirt road out of Kibyue the view got better and better. It was even clear enough out that we had an unobstructed view of Mount Nyiragongo, the very active volcano at the north end of the lake on the Congo side.


After an hour of these roads and of passing through rural Rwanda, we reached the Bigugu Health Post where Katarina and Jirka work.  You can see it on the far left of the photo, through the tea fields.  Pretty scenic location, huh?


Although we arrived well before 8am, there was already a line of people waiting for services at the clinic, including one or two who were too weak to walk themselves.  As a result, they are transported in what is referred to as a ‘local ambulance.’  And really, there aren’t many roads out here, so considering where most of the people around these parts live this is the only solution to moving someone, no matter what kind of technology or money you have with the exception of a helicopter…


After getting a quick look at the clinic, which was built and funded by the Slovakian government (how Slovakia ends up in rural Rwanda I have no idea!), we cooked up a quick breakfast of porridge and mango, donned white coats and got to work.


“I’m not a doctor, but I play one in Africa!”

That’s how I felt wearing the white coat and going into the room with people with actual medical training and skills.  The clinic itself is fairly limited in its abilities (it only recently got electricity for example) so it deals in small wounds, dispensing meds, doing some basic testing and so on.  The most serious surgery done at this clinic for example is male circumcision, something that the World Health Organisation has been heavily pushing to reduce STI rates in Africa and something I’ve seen prominently featured in both Botswana and Zambia.  As a result of this, the majority of patients visiting the section of the clinic we were working in were there to have the dressings on their recent circumcisions changed.

One of the big reasons to travel is to have new experiences, especially unexpected ones, and I have to say cleaning and replacing the dressing on a recently done male circumcision in a rural health post in Rwanda certainly qualifies as a new and unexpected experience for me!  I removed the old bandages, cleaned and put on new dressings on a few other patients as well and it was cool to be a part of.  I’ve met countless health workers out here in Africa, kind of makes me want to get some medical training and volunteer and travel with it…


Once all the patients who needed wounds cleaned and dressed were finished, we cooked up some pasta for lunch, Jirka showed me some of his awesome climbing p photos and we set off through the hills and crops and houses on a little hike to a nearby waterfall.


In America this would be a million-dollar piece of property, out here it’s just another house on a hill.


After scrambling down a few steep and slippery hills, we reached the base of the beautiful falls.  I asked Jirka what the name of the falls was and after something like a year and a half out here he said he’d never heard any name for it.  I don’t think the people out here understand our love of waterfalls and other ‘things of beauty’, I mean, you can’t eat it, you can’t build something with it, you can’t make money off it, so what use is it?


I had to return to Kibuye in order to catch the boat the next morning and because the others spend all week staying at the clinic, I said goodbye to another great set of hosts and set off alone and planning on hitchhiking back into town.  This proved more difficult than I expected.

I began walking I passed the military barracks (where Jirka says they have to give out a lot of meds for STIs), the new power station and a few random shops.  The sun was shining, the views were great, there was interesting little bits of wonderful rural Rwanda every direction I looked, and after about half an hour I came upon the local primary school.  A white person walking around here draws a lot of attention (it doesn’t happen often out here) and before I knew it I had 30 or 40 children following me!  One of them spoke decent English and we walked and talked for nearly half an hour.  Naturally he began asking me for a job, for money and all that, which annoyed me a great deal after I told him ‘no’ the first 10 times, and eventually he gave up and I was finally alone to enjoy my walk again.  In just a few minutes the clouds poured in and the rain began, something I was not really prepared for but I didn’t have a choice.  More than an hour after I’d first set off, I saw my first car and tried to hitch a ride.  Unfortunately, they were turning down a different direction and that hitch lasted all of 100 meters, haha.


The fog became so thick that I had maybe 15 meters of visibility, which didn’t make for a very scenic walk, and I was constantly worried about the maniac truck drivers out here hitting me and flying off the hillside, but in this case the lack of traffic was a good thing.  Eventually it began to clear up and I met Eric, a refugee from Congo.  I told him I was walking down towards Kibuye and he told me he knew a shortcut, so I followed him down a narrow dirt path.  From the path, we could see the hill top community of white tents where thousands of Congolese have been living for the last 18 years as a way to escape the violence of their home country.  He told me (in perfect English by the way) that he is here in Rwanda to go to school, but that when he finishes he wants to return to Congo and be with his family again.  Our conversation bounced around a bit and he was fun to talk to, but when I tried to ask about Congo, asking the difference between the other side of the border and the Rwandan side, he only told me about how the women from Congo were much more beautiful!  As we walked on this shortcut off the road, I saw the second car in nearly two hours pass by, argh, another missed opportunity!


It had now been two hours since I’d started walking, I’d only seen two vehicles heading down the hill and it was getting dark.  Oh well, I was still having a great time, so I really didn’t mind.  As I turned a corner the views of the lake and the volcanos in the distance got better and better.  I stopped for a closer look and noticed in the distance that I could actually see the red glow from Mount Nyiragongo volcano! (although it doesn’t show up in this picture…).  Below me was the lights of Kibuye, in the hills to the right was what I presume was Congo Nil where I’d stayed with Matt and in the distance below the volcano was the lights of Gisenyi, where I was headed next.  With amazing views like this, especially the glow of the volcano, I was extremely glad I hadn’t found a ride yet.

It was completely dark by this point and finally a third vehicle heading down hill passed me.  It was an expensive Land Cruiser and it didn’t even slow down as it blew by me.  Three hours after I started walking, a few local guys stopped me to talk.  They insisted I take a moto and waved one down.  The moto wanted too much money, and as I was talking with him another truck came by with three guys in the back.  I waved it down and they actually stopped, so I hopped in the back and got a ride the rest of the way into town.  In town I grabbed dinner at the buffet, and as I was walking out a woman approached me and asked me if I needed a ride.  Her name was Irina, she worked with at the refugee camp I’d just seen earlier that day and was having a party on Friday night.  I did in fact want a ride, so I hopped in and we talked a bit on the way.  Unfortunatly I was leaving on the boat the next morning so I was unable to attend her party, but I thanked her for the ride and passed her number on to Katarina and Jirka.


I wanted to ensure I didn’t miss the boat again so I awoke early, showered once last time with hot water (take advantage while you have it!) and set off with my bags to the area the boat pulled into.  As I wanted it began to rain so I ducked into a bar that was under construction.  There were already a group of maybe five African women in the place to get out of the rain, but when I entered, the man working there was quick to go and find a chair for me to sit on.  I’ve talked about this before, the fact white people are often treated better than the locals by the locals themselves, and I can’t say for sure if this case was about skin color or gender, or both, but these kinds of things happen all the time and it is a bit strange to me still.

Anyways, because I was so early I wanted nearly four hours until the boat came.  There is no dock, so the boat just noses into shore, someone holds a rope and they throw down a board to walk across to get onto the boat.  Pretty low tech stuff but gets the job done.


The boat itself was pretty uninspiring.  It was little more than a floating bus, but it got the job done and only cost 2500 francs for the ticket.  There was a small deck at the bow, rows of seats in the middle and a squat toilet at the back, not much else to say about it.


The journey through the islands on Lake Kivu was nice enough, but due to the cloudy weather visibility wasn’t great.  The boat ride from Kibuye to Gisenyi (well, it actually stops a few km outside of Gisenyi, a 500 franc moto ride) took about three and a half hours, and by 5:30 had reached the far north end of the lake.


After battling with the moto drivers on the price into town I hopped on and we took off.  It turned out he had no idea where he was going.  We drove around for an hour and a half in the rain and into the dark to find Bethany Investments, a conference center/hotel that had a dorm room with beds for 2000 francs.  I was slightly annoyed and quite wet.  When I got to the dorm things got worse.  It turned out there was a conference of some sort going on and the room was filled with noisy local guys.  Right away people started asking for money, and out of frustration I basically told them if I had money, I certainly wouldn’t be sharing a room with them and that they needed to stop asking me.


It turned out there were three other travelers staying at the place and that evening we went out on a walk together to get a nice view of Mount Nyiragongo.  We walked for a while trying to find a good spot and decided the only good way to get a view and a good photo would be to get on the roof of a building.  I stopped to ask a few people who were sitting outside some of the multi-story buildings in the area but they were not helpful.  Eventually I saw an under-construction building and headed up the stairs to have a look.  From the unfinished rooftop, we had a lovely, unobstructed view of the volcano looming over the town and stopped to take some photos.  A few minutes later, two solders with AK47s showed up on the roof (In Rwanda there are constantly soldiers patrolling the streets) asking what we were doing.  I had no idea how they were going to react, but one of the other guys talked to them and they said it was OK for us to be up there for a few minutes.  For some reason our boldness seemed to encourage other locals, and suddenly three other local guys were hanging out on the roof as well.  That was a little weird, so we made sure we got some good photos and headed back to the room for the night.

Backpackers often say drunken Australians are the worst people to share a dorm room with because they are always coming in late and making noise.  Well let me tell you, they have nothing on a room full of African men.  They weren’t too bad at night, but by 5am they were all out of bed, talking loudly, blasting static filled and distorted music from three different cell phones at once and having no regard whatsoever for the other people in the dorm room (me and a few other guys) who were not part of their conference and were hoping to sleep past 5am.  Oh well…


I walked out of the dorm, leaving my bag behind the reception desk because I didn’t really trust the other guys in the dorm (although so far all they had taken was the pillows off the other guys beds for themselves…) and headed into town where the volcano is always smoking and reminding you it is sitting, waiting and likely to erupt again.  I found a little local place to get breakfast, had some chapatti and warm milk and wandered around town.


As I was going to the internet café (about 70 cents an hour, decent speeds) I saw these strange three wheel things.  There were a number of them, usually with one person steering, while one or two pushed.  It appeared a few of the people steering were disabled (you can see the green one to the left is powered by hand pedals, for those without use of legs), and one even seemed to be blind, with the pushers telling him where to turn so maybe it was some kind of jobs program, but I didn’t ask.


I decided I wanted to sit by the lake instead of in town, so I walked to a waterfront bar, ordered a beer and pulled out my computer to do some writing.  When I saw these funny duck paddle boats I thought maybe I should have done my Lake Tanganyika trip in one of them, now that would have been a trip!


Not wanting to return to the dorm, I killed some more time heading to another bar to continue writing, sitting on the back deck with a view of the glowing volcano again.  Eventually I met Bara, a wild local woman in a zebra print dress who kept shouting about how she didn’t need men to take care of her and how she was going to buy me “another fucking beer!”  She was actually a pretty cool person, very un-Rwandan, and after buying me “one more fucking beer!” and finally leaving at about 1:30am, she said she would call me in the morning and cook me lunch, an offer I accepted.  (When she failed to call me that morning, she later told me “I was sleeping too much!”, haha)


I returned to the internet café the next day to take care of some business I wanted to finish and the lightning and rain began.  It happens all the time, it’s the rainy season, and I thought nothing of it.  But I was listening to music on my headphones and a few minutes later felt a sudden bust of electricity shoot into my ear!  Shit!  I ripped my earbuds out, and thought to myself “I hope my computer is OK!,  Oh, and my brain, I hope my brain is OK too!”  I quickly unplugged my laptop so I would no longer be connected to their shoddy wiring in the middle of a lightning storm, and waited while the power cut out.

As the rain picked up, it began coming into the room in ever increasing volumes.  You would think that in an up-and-coming country with a predictable rainy season and daily heavy rains that they could create a building that would actually stay dry, and this was also a new building, but they still haven’t figured that one out yet.  If you recall from my last post, a new high end restaurant I visited in Kigali had the same problem, a roof that couldn’t actually keep the rain out…  Anyways, the rain was creating huge puddles on the balcony outside because the roof had zero overhang, and due to a slope in the floor and no drains in the area, it went straight into the internet café.  In order to deal with it, the workers of the internet café had to lift up all the power cables that were snaking across the floor and squeegee the water all the way across the room to the doors in the back.  There was also no drain here, so the solution was just to create a big puddle in the back of the room and then sort of splash it over the door threshold on to the back balcony, where I presume it simply became someone else’s problem… African engineering…


Living in Seattle I absolutely love our view of Mt Rainier, our own 14,411 foot tall, glacier covered active volcano, and every day I see it I become mesmerized.  But as much as I love it, it has nothing on the sight of Mount Nyiragongo, one of the most active volcanoes in the world with 60mph lava flows that destroyed much of Goma (the town on the Congo side) in just 2002 is a totally different thing, not to mention the red glow it puts off at night… just wow, I couldn’t get tired of staring at this thing if I tried.


I went to the market to buy some avocados, and as I was there noticed three other 20-something foreigners.  I could tell just by their body language that they either worked or volunteered out here as opposed to being travelers like myself, so I walked up and asked what the fair price for an avocado was as I figured they would be ‘in the know.’  This is how I met Allie (northern Cali), Chris (Detroit) and Megan (Kentucky? Sorry, I forget...) who are living out here and working for a company that is selling improved cook stoves and pellets made of biomass as a cleaner and more environmentally friendly alternative to charcoal cooking.  They told me an avocado should cost about 100 francs, and about two minutes later I was invited to dinner at their place.  We grabbed some other groceries, hopped on motos and went off to their huge lakeside house.  I didn’t have my bag with me and knew this would probably end up in my staying for a night or two, but whatever, I knew it would be fun and I’d survive just fine with the cloths I was wearing.


Chris with the cats as we sat on the rock wall and looked over the lake.


Their neighbors to the south are a few young Germans who play the guitar and the violin, and Allie (right) brought her ukulele over for a little jam session.  They shared their delicious chocolate pudding with us, something I haven’t had in ages.


After a long night talking about art and politics and Rwanda and travel and music and life, I walked with Megan into town to buy some eggs and bananas in the morning.  On my way I got my first good look at the most common fishing boat of Lake Kivu, these tri-hull creations.  Using long poles, they lash together three boats, then using another series of poles attach the nets that hang in the water and are used during night fishing.  It’s amazing how every lake has such different methods of fishing; and something I truly enjoy seeing.


Breakfast that morning was delicious, a veggie filled omelette, thick pancakes and mate tea.


Today was a Friday, and a national holiday so for Allie, Chris and Megan it was a three day weekend, a time to really just relax and do nothing.  I went for a swim in the lake and climbed a tree.


In the evening, after a nice day just lounging about on the shore, we began to hear the loud chanting of the fisherman as they paddled out into the middle of the lake.  With the way the light hit the boats and the setting sun, it looked like golden brown spiders crawling across a blue and pink and yellow mirror and was truly a sight to behold.


Lake Kivu.

As we watched the sun go down and the colors of the sky change and reflect off the water, Allie pulled out her ukulele again and we sang a few songs together; Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Lennon, Amy Winehouse, and a few others.


That night we took motos back into Gisenyi to meet others for dinner and had big plans to have a big party night, being a three day weekend and all.  We met some other friends, health workers who had been in Congo, gossiped about a few celebrities that had passed through their organizations and their ignorant attempts to be charitable (note: walking up to a villager in remote Congo and telling them “I’m from Hollywood” doesn’t mean anything to them) and had a good time.  The night turned into a bit of a bust, and it was funny when one club tried to charge us 2000 francs to enter when it was totally empty, but it was OK, I didn’t really feel like going out dancing anyways.


That morning Allie whipped up an awesome strawberry banana mango cobbler, and I played with the cats, who later killed themselves a blue throated lizard, ate it and threw it back up.  Charming!


A friend of Megan’s arrived that morning and we made tortillas, salsa and guacamole, which we gorged ourselves on sitting in the sun.  Yah, having a house and friends on Lake Kivu is pretty nice.


The neighbors had a boat, and five of us piled in to go for a paddle around the lake.  We almost tipped a number of times, but made it around the nearby island and back to shore without incident.


I was having a great time with my new friends at their lake house, but I was also itching to get into Uganda.  I said goodbye, thanked them for their awesome hospitality and headed back to Gisenyi.  I was relieved when I returned to find the conference was over and the dorm room was no longer filled with loud men.

In search of a cheap dinner, I headed out to a local bar for a brochette and chips.  I sat down at one place and when I was told they were finished for the night a man at a nearby table overheard and said he would show me another place to go.  Emmy (left) and I headed out and ended up at the same place where I’d met Bara the other night.  As we talked, he told me how he loves Americans and when I asked him why he said because he is a headmaster at a school and that he works with Peace Corps volunteers.  I mentioned I stayed with one a week or so back named Matt, and he excitedly said “Ah, Matt!  We are friends, I have worked with Matt!”  We called Matt to tell him about it.  Not only that, but it turned out we had seen each other in Congo Nil when I first arrived in the town; he had been sitting at a table when I met Matt at Panorama Bar!  Small world, or, small country at least.


The next day I was off to Uganda, but first I had to find a bus.  There were a number of companies going, but naturally I wanted to find the cheapest.  I met a guy on a moto who told me he was the booking agent for Horizon bus and it cost 5,000, but I wanted to shop around first rather than buy the first offer that came.  Kampala Coach wanted 10,000 so that was an obvious no, then I headed off to the bus station by the ‘small border’ with Congo to try my luck there.  After a long discussion over prices, KCB said they could sell me a ticket for 6,000, but I was still holding out for the Horizon bus and the cheaper ticket.  I wantered around trying to get an answer to my question and to find the Horizon bus office, only to be told it was across the border in Congo…

As I walked back to find a place to sit and wait, a rather annoying woman came up to me and asked what I was doing.  I told her I was looking for the bus and she grabbed my hand and said she would help me.  I didn’t really want to be around her but she was very insistent, and I figured what the hell.  The bus was supposed to pass in about half an hour, then I could get the cheaper ticket, so she proposed we sit down for a coffee.  It was obvious she was just trying to get something from me but I figured I could pay for a 100 franc coffee (15 cents) and maybe she would prove useful.  She then began ordering food which I told her I wouldn’t pay for, and kept trying to feed me out of her hand, which honestly was gross.  We talked for a few minutes, and eventually I asked her what she did.  She mumbled a bit, but said “I’m a prostitute”, which I didn’t catch the first time so she said it two more times, haha.  I’m used to African women coming onto me just because I’m a white man, with dollars in their eyes, and I guess on that level it isn’t so different, but this one was just a straight up prostitute.  Eventually a man from Jaguar, a different bus company, showed up and even though he was offering a ticket for 6,000 rather than the 5,000 I was hoping for, I took it just to get away from this woman.  I paid for the two coffees but refused to pay for the food she had ordered (she walked away from the table without paying for the food she had ordered and eaten part of), then she kept asking me where I was staying.  I refused to tell her.  I hopped a moto hoping she didn’t have money to get one herself and I could get away, but she hopped on one as well and seemed to be trying to follow me.  After a few blocks, her driver was just ahead of mine, so I quickly tapped mine on the shoulder and had him suddenly turn off onto a dirt road before she could see where I’d gone.  I paid the driver and made my get away, glad to have escaped from this woman.


The bus was supposed to arrive at 3pm, so when it arrived at 3:45 it was close enough.  While waiting I met a Ugandan man who had worked in Vancouver, Canada as a traditional healer and he told me how he was hoping to get back to the USA, but I told him I wasn’t able to help with that.  For being such a large bus, my seat was incredibly small and uncomfortable, but oh well, nothing I can do about it.


By 5:30pm we had reached the border crossing into Uganda, I paid my $50 and received my tourist visa without any hassle.  It was dark by now and the road up to Kabale was steep, slow and full of turns.  It was a recent road, but as usual it had numerous problems, most notably that they had cut the hill too steeply without any retention system, so numerous times the bus had to swerve around rock slides and boulders in the road that had fallen from the recently cut slopes above.  Not only that, but every hundred meters there was a slide that seemed to be blocking the runoff channel on the side of the road, which will inevitably lead to erosion and premature damage of the new road….

By 9:30 I arrived in the town of Kabale, and a moto driver pointed me to a hotel where I could find a room for 10,000 Ugandan shillings, about $3.80.  I was grateful for his help, because it is usually a hassle finding a cheap but decent place when you arrive in a new town late at night, but I thanked the moto and told him I’d call him if I needed a ride somewhere the next day.  In the hotel I met Nickson, the owner and we had a friendly conversation for a few minutes and I genuinely liked the guy.  I returned to my room, exchanged the Rwandan SIM in my phone for a Ugandan one I was given by another traveler and went to bed in a new country, my 9th in Africa.


My plans on Uganda are even more unsure than my plans usually are.  I have just under 3 months now until I return home to Seattle and the last two weeks of that will actually be spent in Germany with Stephan.  So, 2.5 months left, crunch time.  Until yesterday I was hopeful that I might be able to cross into Ethiopia by land but after visiting the embassy those hopes have been dashed.  As a result, I will either have to fly to Ethiopia out of Kampala for $280, or cross into Kenya and fly out of Nairobi for $150.  Crossing into Kenya should be easy enough, and even after paying for the bus and the transit visa ($20) and a place to stay for a few nights, I may still be able to save a few bucks while being able to see at least one or two things in Kenya.  From here, my priority is Ethiopia and Sudan, so I think despite my initial great impression of Uganda and my desire to spend a good amount of time here, I just don’t think it is possible, especially if I have to spend a few days getting to Nairobi for a flight.  Sigh, do goes travel sometimes.

All that said, my next post will probably be of all my time in Uganda, the journey into Kenya and the flight to Ethiopia, I hope it all works out smoothly…

1 comment: