We are back in our Kigali-home after a busy weekend away exploring the country.
We left early Saturday and drove north, through Ruhengeri to Gisenyi, 20 students and two instructors packed cozily into a big white bus. It was an absolutely stunning drive through the countryside, full of terraced hills, houses made of brick and cement, laundry drying on the grass, and children running to the roadside to wave at our passing van. At one point, Paul Mbaraga, who accompanied us as a guide, gestured out the window and said, “Now if you look to your left, you will see why we are called the land of a thousand hills!”
We arrived in Gisenyi in the early afternoon. It’s a coastal town, overshadowed by a gigantic volcano and bordering Lake Kivu and the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Allan spent time in the area in 1996, when a massive migration of refugees, who had left Rwanda after the civil war and genocide, were moving back to the country.
Gisenyi is split into an upper and lower part. During colonialism, the Rwandese workers would live in upper town, said Mbaraga. That’s where he lived. The Belgian colonialists lived in more comfortable houses in the lower part of the city, closer to the lake.
We had lunch at a hotel so close to the Democratic Republic of Congo border that my cell phone picked up Congolese service and I received a text message welcoming me to the country. We ate chicken and brochette and observed the contrast between the two sides of the border. Just past the divide, the DRC was teeming with people, crowded with buildings.
In the past few years, The Congolese government has struggled against rebels trying to control Goma. My travel insurance provider specifically instructed me that I wouldn’t be insured in border areas. But from our lunch-time vantage point, everything seemed bustling and normal.
We visited the beach after lunch, a small but very pretty stretch along the lakeside. Lake Kivu is one of those bodies of water that’s so big you can’t see the other shoreline, just some hazy mountains in the distance and a piece of the Congo jutting out into the water. The beach we visited is the only sand beach in the country. During colonialism, Mbaraga told us, native Rwandans were forbidden from swimming there.
Simon, a Canadian student, N., and I took a walk down the pier and I snapped some photos in the dying sunlight. Even though N. was born and raised in Rwanda, he’s never had the chance to see much of the country (or to leave the country, for that matter), and his reaction to the scenery might have been the best part of the whole experience.
“I didn’t know that places like this exist here,” he said.
After the beach we returned to our hotel to lounge around a little on the front porch. The hotel was a funny little budget place with an amazing view. From what we could understand, the owner also owns another hotel closer to the city centre, and that’s where she mainly brings guests. This meant that the place where we stayed was eerily deserted.
There was a counter, but no concierge, an unlocked glass case of liquor, but no bartender. Bare, incandescent bulbs and dated Jacobean wallpaper gave the whole place a very twilight-zone feel.
Outside, though, the view of the city and lake was hard to beat. In the evening we watched two separate storms, one to the left and one to the right, take turns illuminating the sky with lightening.
We figured we had an hour to kill before dinner, so we went to the neighbouring hotel, a ritzy place called the Belvedere, and had a couple drinks at their bar. We went back after two hours…and dinner was still being cooked. We’re learning that food takes a long time to arrive in Rwanda. You can expect to wait at least an hour after ordering at a restaurant. The upside to this, however, is that there is nothing pre-made or preserved.
We finally had dinner after 10 p.m., an array of blackened chicken and tilapia with veggies, plantains, and potato.
I retreated to our dingy room at about 11:30 to get changed and get ready for bed. I grabbed my toothbrush and headed to the bathroom, opened the door, then gasped and stepped back, shutting the door again.
D., who was already lying in her bed, asked, “What is it?”
“Snake,” I replied.
She hopped up and peeked in. It was just a little thing, slim and black and probably only a foot in length, slithering along. I immediately began to feel silly for being such a fussy Canadian. D. used to live in the area and probably dealt with little snakes all the time. I apologized, “I’m sure it’s fine. It’s small. It’s probably harmless,” I backtracked, putting on a brave face.
She put on her shoes, “I’m going to get somebody to help get rid of it,” she said. She left and returned with some staff members. They opened the door but couldn’t find it. I felt even stupider.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I said.
The staff started to leave but then the snake emerged again from its hiding spot along the wall. D. jumped, grabbed her shoe, and hit it. The snake coiled and the staff came running back in to finish it off with a broom and sweep the limp body outside.
When the commotion was all over, I said to D., “But it was harmless, right?”
“No,” she said. “It’s the small ones that are poison. If it turns around and stings you it’s dangerous. There are many here, because of the rocks. Even the children have to learn how to kill snakes, in case they’re home alone.”
I laughed. There was nothing else to do by that point, and it all made a very good story to tell at the breakfast table the next day.
I woke up at 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning to the distant sound of church-goers’ voices, singing their gospel. It was too cloudy and rainy for a return trip to the beach, so instead, after breakfast, we went for a drive around town. We stopped at the border and got out to take photos (after asking permission from some AK-47-weilding guards, of course). We had coffee and tea at the beautiful Serena hotel, then drove along the coast.
The sun came out and we were treated to some amazing views of blue water and green hillsides. We drove past small homes and countless goats, families on bikes with babies slung in scarves behind the women’s backs, and the beer brewery where Rwandan Primus and Mutzig are concocted.
From the coastal road, we turned towards the volcanoes. We had lunch—goat brochette and fries—in Ruhengeri at the hotel where Dian Fossey used to stay. Then we drove up into the hills to see “The place where you can see two lakes.”
We turned off the main road and onto a bumpy, single-lane dirt and gravel path. Our bus grumbled along, lopsided and bouncing. This was fine while the road was flat, but soon we began to climb. Beyond the edge of the path was a steep drop. If any of that gravel gave way, we were going to become a CBC headline, “Canadian students tumble to death in Rwandan bus accident.”
On the other hand, the treacherous road made for amazing views. We crept through minuscule villages and children ran along beside the vehicle, calling and waving or dancing and clapping. On either side there were views of deep valleys, volcanoes and lakes, and land carved into fields of tea.
We hit the top of the hill and went for a walk, admiring the most amazing view of lakes and hills and a chorus of moaning cows. Every few feet we were arranged into three rows for yet another group photo, so that we’d have proof we visited this amazing place.
I expected the ride back down to be even more terrifying than the way there, so I took the precautionary measure of texting my parents to let them know I love them. Contrary to my fears, however, the way back passed quickly and we were soon pulling onto ground-level, paved road. We all clapped for our skilled driver.
It was beginning to get dark as we continued down and out towards a “cultural village.” It was almost fully night by the time a man on a moto led us to a parking lot and we disembarked the bus to walk down a long dirt path.
In the village we were greeted by men in traditional dress, jumping and dancing and posing for photos. We watched a dance performance, saw a presentation from a medicine man who mixed up a vomit-inducing solution that would help rid your body of its contents if you’d been poisoned, and then went on a small tour to the blacksmith’s corner and king’s house. A guide told us that we were learning about traditional Pygmy (or Twa) culture, but that in today’s Rwanda, where ethnic titles and divisions no longer officially exist, “we are all Rwandans.”
At the king’s house, the guide asked for two volunteers to play king and queen. A., one of the Rwandan students, immediately hopped up to play the role of king. He seemed quite satisfied with the role, nodding his head in agreement as the guide described the duties and powers that the king would have had.
A.’s pretend home was round and made of walls of bamboo strung together. It was divided into four rooms: one for receiving the public and listening to their problems, one for conferences with other leaders, a bedroom for sleep and procreation, and a ladies’ waiting room for the king’s mistresses. The queen would have lived in a separate home, we were told.
From the village it was a long drive home, serenaded by the driver’s chosen soundtrack of 90’s and early 2000’s R&B and ballads. We made a pit stop for dinner at a dimly lit buffet next to a gas station, and then drove on into the night.
In the rural areas, the blackness was amazing. Only our headlights and the stars penetrated the darkness. I dozed a little and sat quietly, listening to music or having scattered, couple-sentence-long, conversations with N. Eventually, Kigali appeared, a milky-way of city lights rising and falling along hillsides. We pulled up to the house and filed out, tired, but happy.
It kind of felt like coming home.