Hello from a few minutes south of the Equator.
Most readers probably best know Rwanda from the news stories about the horrific massacres that occurred there in 1994. Those terrors still haunt me as I enter this tiny nation adjacent to Uganda and Tanzania.
Since my last postcard sent from Nairobi I have been on the move: Kampala Uganda with a brief stop in Nakuru Kenya and forays into Entebbe, Jinja (the source of the White Nile out of Lake Victoria) and Ggaba Beach on the shores of Lake Victoria; next to Fort Portal for an adventurous couple days; then down to Mbarara for a surprising stay in an affordable luxury motel smack dab in the middle of the real Africa; and finally to Kigali Rwanda where I discovered another calm pool of civilization surrounded by raging wild Africa.
As I walk 3-6 hours everyday, I go a lot of places ordinary tourists ignore and walk in neighborhoods where the residents rarely see a mzungu (white person). People, especially children are constantly yelling "mzungu! Hi!" or the French equivalent here in Rwanda. I imagine I am often the day's main entertainment for some of the startled folks I encounter. I know my failure to consult guidebooks more consistently means I miss many of the attractions, which bring most tourists to Africa. But, in my case the serendipity more than makes up for whatever I don't see. Walking so much means I have had to deal with blisters... sometimes blisters on blisters! Eventually I remembered the trick of wearing two pair of socks and that has eliminated the painful blisters, though I now have calluses one might expect to find on kids running barefoot all the time.
On the crowded streets in the cities I constantly hear people muttering "mzungu" as I pass by and staring. When I stare back I see startled expressions until I break a smile or say "good morning" myself.
Away from major cities people are friendly, curious and generally polite. Immersed as I am in this dark sea of humanity, I sometimes feel a bit black myself. On one occasion I looked at my white hands surprised that they were not just like everybody else's. At night I lose much of my whiteness and am able to assume a greater degree of anonymity as the crowded streets are rarely well lighted. The few resentful or fearful faces I see, quickly melt into wide smiles in response to my even feeble friendly overtures. The helpfulness of some people is overwhelming, many going far out of their way to assist me in finding the way to some obscure destination. On more than one occasion good people have scolded hustlers or beggars who had been harassing me.
On the bus from Mbarara I meet Richard who turns out to be a marvelous source of information about the area and people. On arrival in Kigali (pronounced Chi-golly) he arranges for a cab to take the both of us into town and drops me at the best (most expensive) hotel in town. On the way he points out the fact that our driver is a Tutsi and then he and the driver explain the ethnic differences between Tutsis and Hutus. "Tutsis have long noses, more delicate bodies, and are invariably well educated. Hutus have short noses with big nostrils, often are short and stocky... some are still savages." They seem to find this humorous.
Speaking to the Sales manager of the Milecolline Hotel I am unable to finesse a rate reduction from the rack rate of $145 and ask for other hotel recommendations. She directs me to the Hotel Okopi, which turns out to be a "rent by the hour" establishment. I take it anyway thinking I can handle anything for just one night and head out to investigate other hotel possibilities.
The Umubano is part of the Novotel French chain and the Manager offers me an Embassy rate of $93, so I take it and we agree I will come the next day. He even arranges to get me a courtesy $50 cash advance on my credit card through the hotel! What a guy. As I have not eaten anything all day since breakfast except two chocolate bars and a bottle of water, I am delighted to take dinner in the hotel's fine French restaurant.
The next day I can't wait to get out of the rattrap hotel I'd gotten myself stuck in. The only light in the room flickered all evening until it finally went out all together. While the room had no chair or any place to put bags or hang clothes, most of the guests no doubt appreciated the complimentary package of four condoms conspicuously available on the tiny nightstand.
Checking into the Umubano is heaven for someone leaving hell! After a welcome shower and a banquet breakfast I went off to explore the town and find an Internet cafe. This one is among the newest and fastest I've used on my entire trip: good connectivity and 20 inch screens! However, the LAN seems to be truncating messages and I have not been able to confirm my postcards are being delivered to anyone. So, I'll check again next time I find another Internet access point.
Transportation to the south seems to be a problem, as everyone has stories about vehicles being hijacked by bandits after crossing the border into Burundi and multiple murders of foreign visitors. But I now know how to get to the Tanzania border and that's a start. Finding the Nyabugogo mini-bus park where long distance vans start their trips challenged my endurance as I walked for three hours before finally finding it.
The park itself is confusion personified. Every driver and his "conductor" wants you to think he goes wherever you want to go. While French is the official language, a majority of the people speak what they think is English, though I rarely understand what they are trying to tell me on the first attempt. Eventually, enough people point to the same one area in the square block size lot and I am able to find several vans waiting to fill for the trip to Rusumo at the Tanzania border. So, this is where I must come to tomorrow when I will leave for Tanzania.
Now almost out of dollars and cash of any kind I set out to find some way of getting money out of my credit card. Only one bank has the capability and the process is convoluted as they process international funds transfers through a Belgium Francs account. The Rwanda Francs I get will need to be converted into U.S. dollars on the street and at the border into Tanzanian Shillings, but at least I am no longer a pauper.
Ensconced in my luxury hotel room here in Kigali Rwanda, wild Africa seems eons and dimensions away from my immediate reality. But, not more than ten minutes from here people scrape a living out of mud brick houses and piles of bananas. Hutus and Tutsis now live harmoniously side-by-side for the most part, but ancient hostilities and suspicions always bubble near the surface. This fact I soon had confirmed, as I made ready to cross into Tanzania where refugee camps still hold hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Rwanda and Burundi.
When the time came to leave my comfortable womb and head out into the helter-skelter world, my first challenge took me back to the Nyabugogo matatu park. As I had checked out the scene yesterday I knew the drill and quickly found the cluster of mini-vans cued up to cram passenger into their bowels for the trip to Rusumo at the Tanzanian border. Wanting the two front seats I knew I needed to find the first van back in the line, which had not yet started to board passengers. This I did without too much trouble, as the conductors are delighted to find someone (usually a mzungu) willing to pay double for the privilege of giving the driver plenty of elbowroom for shifting gears.
Eventually, the two vans ahead of us filled to over-flowing and left. Our driver started his engine to move to the head of the cue and I prepared to buckle my seat belt only to find the anchor end had been cut! Showing the driver the problem, I got out to board the next vehicle back in line.
Suddenly, all hell broke loose as my new vehicle moved into the next-up position. As the crowd of shouting drivers, conductors, touts and lot managers grew and the heat of the arguments boiled into bedlam I could hear every outburst emphasizing one word: "mzungu." Because I had changed vans someone had decided the one I selected should be next to fill up and leave. At one point, guys connected with a rival van occupied most of the seats in our van so actual passengers could not take seats. No one ever actually threatened me directly, but there could be little doubt that my provocative actions had precipitated the fracas.
Eventually, one of the lot managers made an executive decision that we would go next and convinced the other van drivers, conductors and touts to back off. As this farce had taken nearly a quarter hour to play itself out, our van immediately filled and we were off.
With my uncrowded two front seats and unimpeded views of the passing landscape, I had a totally enjoyable tour of eastern Rwanda. Police stopped the driver twice to politely check his papers and near the border all traffic stopped in some sort of major roadblock closure. Our driver had a couple passengers get out of the van and talked our way through to a detour. We made it to the border in about three and a half hours.
The second I stepped out of the van a half dozen moneychangers clustered around me offering their services. After asking several for their best exchange rates, I traded a little less than a hundred dollars worth of Rwandan Francs for 70,000 Tanzanian Shillings and proceeded on to the exit formalities. Rwanda passport control took minutes, but the guard decided he must inspect every layer in my tightly packed bag... and with no place clean to spread out the array. Eventually satisfied with my juggled exhibits, he let me pass through and I walked out on the 50 meter long bridge across the Kagera river stopping to admire the Rusumo Falls not a hundred meters from the bridge which marks the border.
I don't know when I'll next be near any technology, so my postcards might stop again for a while as there seems to be nothing that looks like civilization for quite some distance beyond Kigali toward Tanzania, other than the various UN related relief agencies dealing with the hoards of refugees around the border. I'll write when I can, if I don't run into some human meat eaters in one of the refugee camps or a rebel group looking for a white haired hostage. (cont.)