Tag Archives: gisenyi

The weather is not good for them.

Editor’s note: This is the twelfth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 12 – April 1

Coffee, again, at the Hotel du Lac. After yesterday’s catastrophic failures at the border, I’m oddly at peace with myself this morning. I’ve faced, I think, the worst of my demons. Today, my fate is in the hands of Etienne and Justin – both of whom had promised to lobby on my behalf throughout the night. For this first hour of what will turn out to be a grand April Fool’s joke on this particular April Fool, I can tell myself I’ve done about as much, so far, as I can possibly do.

In the deep end, in Cyangugu.

Justin calls just a few minutes after ten – he is on his way to Cyangugu. Soon we’re sitting together on the terrace of the Hotel du Lac, and he’s sharing the bad news. “I do not know what the problem is in Bukavu,” he says, shaking his head. South Kivu’s internal politics have been simmering; the province is a mess. The governor has been summoned to Kinshasa to explain himself. In Bukavu, the opposition is agitating for power. “They are trying to get the commandment of Bukavu,” says Justin. His uncle – some low-level cog, I suspect, in the ruling party machine – is afraid to cause trouble at such a critical moment for the party. Justin sighs. “The weather is not good for them,” he says. His uncle can’t step in on my behalf. Justin has done all he could.

When bad news comes, I prefer to take it all in one dose. By half-past ten, with still no word from Etienne, I decide to play what I suspect is my final card. Etienne’s voice is strained when he picks up the phone – I know the news is not good. The director in Goma has been trying his colleague in Bukavu throughout the night – still no answer. The message, for Etienne, is clear. “I think he is working with those men,” he says. His voice is deflated; my spirits sink. With the failure of this powerful maneuver, I know I’m out of options. Etienne wishes me luck with whatever I decide. “I’m sorry I have failed on my side,” he says.

Justin can see my mood has soured. He, too, is out of advice for me. With the door in Bukavu having slammed in my face, though, I’ve shifted from despair to resolve. It is hardly eleven; I can still make Gisenyi by nightfall. The day would be wasted – a grim daisy-chain of bumpy bus rides through the Rwandan hinterlands – but there’s nothing stopping me from strolling into Congo tomorrow morning. I share my plan with Justin. It’s clear this is the only way. Now I find myself trying to console him. He’s taken these past few days awfully hard. Though he knows better than I do the headaches and hurdles of life in the Congo, his pride in his country has been wounded. “It is a problem with Kabila,” he says. “A guest comes to knock on your door, you have to open first. This is not good politics.” He is not surprised, but still: the Congo has let him down.

With Justin, at the Hotel du Lac.

We embrace with great warmth – it is humbling how hard he and Etienne have lobbied for me – and say goodbye to the Hotel du Lac, to Cyangugu. I promise to keep him posted on my progress – despite the change in plans, I should still be in Bukavu some time next week – and off he goes, his bright white sneakers beating a path up the hill.

Now I’ve shifted into travel mode. It’s close to eleven: if I want to reach Gisenyi by nightfall, I probably should have left two hours ago. My mood is brisk. Money is exchanged – my stack of U.S. dollars has been dwindling all week – sweet loaves of ndazi bread are bought for the long journey, and soon I’m on the Horizon Bus to Kampala, by way of Kigali, the seats all but empty as we chug up the hill toward Kamembe.

Leaving Cyangugu, the bay glittering, sunlight glinting off the roofs in the slums of Bukavu, a powerful feeling catches in my throat. This has been a memorable week, and I’m oddly at peace as Bukavu disappears behind a bend in the road. For all the moronic waste of today’s journey, I don’t regret having come all this way only to be turned away at the border. Yesterday was educational; these, the border official might have said to me, are the facts of life. (Thinking of that legless man, the force of his shoulders, the short brisk strides and the powerful thrust of his walking stick. Thinking of the shrewd old woman wheeling her way uphill, the effrontery of that much put-upon face, the indignities of age, of her handicap, of the flesh.) A week from now I’ll be looking across the same bay, from the other side. A certain sense of dark comedy is, I suspect, a necessary survival skill in the Congo.

The bus is barreling now from Kamembe. Adieu, Faustin, Lazare! There are only five, six of us onboard, and I suspect this is an unscheduled journey – that the driver of the Kampala-Kigali line, in cahoots with some associates, has tacked on a side route for his own benefit. Why else would Horizon – a shuttle service between the major East African urban centers – Kigali, Kampala, Juba, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam – why would Horizon extend its route to Cyangugu, of all places? We stop along the way – sacks of charcoal, of potatoes, are tossed under the bus. Small money changes hands. Yes, this is probably a profitable racket. We stop in small towns – a solitary passenger, an old man with a battered suitcase, boards, smiles, looks around, settles fussily into a seat. In Ntidenzi, schoolgirls are skipping rope outside a primary school. They stop, smile, stare. Some classmates join them, everyone laughing and waving vigorously as we leave little Ntidenzi behind.

We pass for miles with nothing but tea plantations on either side of the road. Then a forest of blue gum trees – tall, slender, silver-barked, rocking in the wind. These you’ll find now all across Africa – non-indigenous, as native as yours truly. The blue gums grow quickly – it takes just five years, a man once told me, for a tree to reach maturity. In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, with its forests taxed by a rapidly growing population, these blue gums are planted to counter the effects of deforestation. In just a few years, a barren hill will be covered with trees – these become charcoal, firewood. But the effects, I’m told, will be disastrous. A South African farmer once described how quickly these selfish trees drink the water from the soil. The earth here is being depleted. But what else do you tell the villagers, who only know that they need these trees for survival?

Now we are entering Nyungwe Forest, the national park – the road cuts through one of Rwanda’s last pristine places. The mountains are covered in dense forest, lit by patches of sunlight. The climate changes. The clouds are low, rain begins to fall. Through the thick jungle cover we go, the trees draped with liana and creepers, vines hanging from the branches. It is a picture-book jungle, Curious George – the kind you see in cartoons with swinging monkeys and apes. It’s rare to see such wild places in Rwanda, with its carefully cultivated landscapes, its terraced hills. Thousands of years ago, the whole country must have looked like this. Our ancestors beating their chests and howling violently in the treetops. We stop. Villagers gather on the roadside, waiting for a lift. Somewhere in all that forest, still you find some settlements. They board, small bills clutched in their hands. Some wait – for a free ride, maybe, a passing friend. Others sell oranges, rough-husked fruits. In places we slow: a landslide has blocked part of the road. Piles of rock, mud, branches, sediment. A lorry passes, huffing slowly uphill and dragging a second trailer behind it. Across the windshield are the words, “Jesus is Life.”

Now the trees begin to thin, here and there you see hilltops denuded and trees stripped bare. Suddenly, more of those alien blue gums, and you know you are close to human populations again. The forest vanishes. Villages, small vegetable plots, farmers in their fields. The sunlight is bright – the clouds seem to hang over Nyungwe. Then more towns, bigger, rows of shops, banks. We are approaching Butare, and now we pass tourist hotels, cars, new constructions on the side of the road. You are impressed, coming out of the forest, to see the freshness and vitality of these towns. So much development along the road from Butare to Kigali. A difference from the neglected backwaters on the rough lake roads.

The day is growing long, too long. We are four, five hours out of Cyangugu – the landscape is monotonous. I read, doze off. We stop – dozens of secondary school students board. Suddenly the bus is full. Laughter, flirtations, the smell of body odor. The girl beside me reads from a book of hymnals. I close my eyes, open them, begin to count the mile markers. We pass rice paddies – scores of gacaca convicts, in their pink shirts and shorts, bending, working. More rainfall. The scene of an accident. A bicyclist, a prone body, on the side of the road; a bunch of bananas. My seat is hard, and I can’t find a way to arrange myself comfortably. Someone in front of me leans her head out the window and vomits. I close my eyes. When I open them, we’re in Kigali.

The city continues to grow on me – a place so sleepy and scrubbed that a friend once dubbed it “the Morgantown, West Virginia, of Africa.” But after two weeks upcountry it seems livelier, fresh, more boisterous than I remember. The streets are crowded, buses and motos, bodies dodging traffic, the rush-hour swarm. We reach Nyabugogo – craters, puddles like vast inland seas. It seems remarkable that a government which can lay hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable across the country can’t build a decent fucking bus station. Women clutch at the hems of their dresses, step daintily. People waving, calling, an ecstasy of partings and reunions. The bus has finally stopped; outside, an angry crowd. They are going to Kampala – the bus, I suspect, is way behind schedule. We made terrible progress through the rain. Now they are thirsty for blood; we have to push our way through the crowds. I flag down a moto. On the back of the bike, weaving perilously through the traffic on my way to the Virunga Punctuel offices. The duffel bag is perched on my knee, my arm strains to keep it from pulling me off the bike.

The first bus is at half-past six; I have half an hour to kill. I am, in fairness, glad for the extra time. I stock up on samosas and congealed pizzas for the ride, make a bathroom run at the UTC. The place is packed – the crowds look so prosperous here. Cufflinks, sunglasses, high heels, earrings. Men who, if asked, would describe themselves simply as “businessmen.” So much noise and commotion, after the silence of the lake. As charmless as this place is, I realize how much I’m going to miss it: my thrice-weekly visits to Bourbon Coffee, my late-night runs to the 24-hour Nakumatt, the tall, slender university girls and preppily dressed boys strutting on their Friday-night promenades.

The feeling swells as our bus leaves Kigali, the lively streets, the constellations of lights strung across the hills. All day, since leaving Nyungwe, with the sun pouring its blessing on the hills and town after energetic town scrolling by, I’ve had an odd sense of faith in this country. In Kigali, too, with all the optimistic bustle, it struck me that maybe, for all my skepticism about reconciliation in Rwanda, this country really can pull through – that with enough jobs and development, enough growth trickling down to the collines, this country might actually get past the politics of genocide, divisionism, hate.

The optimism, this high feeling, catches in my throat. Along the road to Gisenyi, thinking about these past two weeks, I realize that I’ve never felt as strongly about Rwanda as I do right now. After all these months – stretching back to my first visit two years ago – Rwanda has finally grown on me.

Silently, I pour out my heart. The honeymoon is brief. An hour from the city, on a high backcountry road, the bus begins to rattle, a flat. This day – fittingly, April Fool’s – will never end. A lesser or more superstitious man might have gotten the cosmic hint and headed back to Kigali. We stand on the side of the road; the lights of the city cast a luminous dome over the hills. Together eight, ten of us stand in the mud, pushing against the side of the bus so the driver can remove the flat. The night is brisk. Men and women, villagers, appear, briefly passing through the headlights. An old man, short, friendly, greets me, shaking my hand. “Me hungery, me hungery,” he says, still smiling. I tell him I’m sorry, I have nothing; he laughs, shakes his head, wanders off. The road is pitched in darkness. I stand 20 feet behind the bus, staring at the stars, imagining myself all alone here, lost in the world. What a strange thing, this 21st-century soul. Bound to the earth. Wheeling around on our curious revolutions. Lassoed to an indifferent galaxy. Confronted on all sides by cosmic laughter. And believing ourselves somehow noble and brave and good.

Soon two bright headlights – an empty bus, sent to retrieve us and take us the rest of the way. We transfer our bags, settle into our seats. Everyone has arranged themselves in the same order from the first bus, and for some reason, this surprises and impresses me greatly. My window seat is vacant, waiting for my tired behind. I sit, bury my head in my hands, try to will the day to completion. There are too many twists in the road to nod off. Dark, silent towns pass in the night. We reach Ruhengeri – hotels, cheerful and welcoming; bars strung with Christmas lights. The moon comes out from behind the clouds. Mist fills the valleys. Mountains silhouetted against the light of the sky. This day has had some magic, too. The bus stops in villages left off the maps. People depart, walk stoically into the darkness. Men tug at their collars. Women kick off their heels, hoping to catch some sleep. Finally, Gisenyi.

It has taken close to twelve hours to get here from Cyangugu. Looked at differently: after nearly two weeks, I’m right back where I started. I slog down the road, surrounded by street kids – they are more aggressive, more demanding after dark. At my cheery little auberge, a group of young ex-pats, aid workers, most likely, looking blonde and convivial by the bar. A beer and a good lay – did Stanley have such simple hopes on his great African expeditions? But then the day’s final indignity: the rooms are all booked. As if Rwanda has prepared one last kick in the ass to send me into the Congo. I haul my bags back down the road, ignoring the catcalls of the street kids, thinking uncharitable thoughts about these goddamn orphans. A shifty youth greets me at the door of the grim Gisenyi City View Hotel, as disreputable a place as you’ll find in this lakeside resort town. We have to wake the manager, asleep in what will soon be my bed. He emerges from the room, sleepy, shirtless, smelling of booze. I am prepared to sleep in the garden if I have to. Then the lights go out.

I take out my flashlight, muttering, bickering, insulted that I’m paying close to fifteen U.S. bucks for this stuffy, wretched room. Briskly the sheets are changed, tidings for the night – good or otherwise – are exchanged. This long day is finally over. It’s approaching midnight as my head hits the pillow. It’s practically tomorrow already.

It is like paradise. Almost.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 4 – March 24

Two years ago, in Tanzania, I was marooned for three days in the little fishing village of Lagosa, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I was waiting for the MV Liemba – a venerable old World War I-era ferry – which, on its return passage from Zambia, would scoop me up and carry me back to the scruffy port town of Kigoma. The Liemba had already given me fits: a week before, its departure from Kigoma had been delayed – first a few days, then a full week – when it had been commandeered by the UN to return refugees from Tanzanian camps to their homes in Congo. I caught it the following week for its southbound passage; when it deposited me in Lagosa, there was a parks department speedboat waiting to take me to nearby Mahale Mountains National Park. I had timed my visit to the park, with its large population of chimpanzees, to coincide with the Liemba’s weekly voyage. If all went well, I would be able to catch the ferry as it made its return trip up the lake.

Of course, all did not go well. There were delays in Zambia – no one could say why. Each morning I would stand on the beach, squinting toward the horizon on which, I was sure, the figure of the MV Liemba would slowly come into view. I was great sport for the locals of Lagosa. Here was a village with no electricity, no phone towers – a place that, even by rural Tanzanian standards, was almost entirely off the map. And yet somehow, each day, word had already reached Lagosa through some mysterious bush telephone about the delay of the Liemba. “It will not arrive today,” a fisherman would say with assurance early in the morning. And sure enough, despite my frantic efforts to conjure the boat from the little wisps of cloud on the horizon, the Liemba would not come chugging down the lake until it was damn well ready.

The good ship Liemba, on Lake Tanganyika

Passing the time at a, um, bar in Lagosa.

In the past two years, I have drawn many morals from the story of my stay in Lagosa. The most relevant today, though, is the utter unreliability of lake transport in central Africa. Though steamships and pirogues and great cargo barges are the lifeline of the countless little villages along the shores of Kivu and Tanganyika and Malawi and Victoria, it takes endless stores of patience to negotiate their prehistoric passage. Thus another morning spent in an anxious purgatory of packed bags, waiting for word from John on the fate of my Bralirwa boat.

Luckily, Gisenyi is no Lagosa, and I can soothe my spirits over a cappuccino at the lakeside Serena Hotel. Where would Africa’s whites – the journalists, the diplomats, the aid workers – be without the comforts of our luxury sanctuaries? The tables at the Serena are populated thusly: an Indian expat (soon to be replaced by an American executive), your intrepid reporter, two American aid workers (with matching Macs), and a pair of white tourists – one American, one ambiguously European – along with their Rwandan guide. The hotel is charmless, possessed of the upmarket corporate blandness of international chain hotels the world over, but the coffee – at just Rwf 1,200 a pot – is superb. It is also, after a few busy days in Gisenyi, a concession to my need for personal space. In the market, or the crowded garden restaurant at the auberge – its Rwf 1,500 lunch-time buffet the only bargain in the joint – I feel the constant weight of bodies, the stares of curious, solicitous eyes. Coffee at the Serena is about both caffeine and equilibrium. It is for this reason I understand the distant, abstract reverie of other Northerners lost in their laptops and iPods and Therouxs at hotels across equatorial Africa. It is the familiar look of a tribe not at home in the tropics.

Two tables away the American and the German, or Swede, are having a very low-level discussion of Great Lakes politics. Minerals, Nkunda, MONUC. It is as unsatisfactory as picking up last week’s newspaper. Then the conversation turns to tourism. Always the same line: how these Africans should do more to develop the tourism sector, how with a little vision, etc. It is a very First World way to look at things. Show me a beach in Africa and I’ll show you a line of white men waiting to put hotels on it. “It is like paradise, almost,” says the Swede, or German, taking in the coastline with the expansive view of a man who sees great profits on the horizon. Already he is planning to sell Gisenyi’s charms on the Rwandan tourism portal he is developing online. “No one knows about this place,” he says, by which he doesn’t mean the Rwandans who have been coming to this resort town for decades.

And what about his vision? In the three days I have spent in Gisenyi, I would estimate the hotel occupancy rate at somewhere under 10 percent. This, of course, takes into account the fact that I arrived on Sunday, when most weekenders will be packing up and heading back to their homes in (most likely) Kigali or Goma. Still, I have seen few foreign tourists – the holy grail of the travel industry – and the largest crowds – the wedding parties who flocked to the beach on Sunday – had most likely driven to Gisenyi for the day of the celebration. The problem for Gisenyi, and any plans to develop it even further, is the fact that it already seems to have reached its tourist potential. There are far more beds than there are bodies with the available resources to fill them. And this isn’t likely to change dramatically, unless: a) Rwanda becomes substantially more popular among foreign tourists as a stand-alone destination, instead of just a gorilla-oriented add-on for a larger East African package; or b) the country continues to develop its growing middle class, so that there are greater numbers of Rwandans with disposable income, leisure time, and all the things we take for granted in the West. This is something you’ll find in Kenya, where hotels and safari camps will aggressively pursue Kenyan clients for their holiday packages. But Kenya is still light years ahead of Rwanda in terms of economic development. Despite great gains in recent years, Rwanda remains a minnow in the East African sea.

At the Serena, the Dutchman or Dane looks admiringly toward the border, where the Congolese frontier offers another enticing opportunity for local businessmen. “To me, Goma is the closest you can get to the disaster and the chaos without pushing yourself,” he says. “You can cross the border, and if it is too dangerous, you can come running back.”

He pauses and turns to the waiter. “I am trying to decide between the chicken curry and the tilapia with chips,” he says. And then, turning back to his companions, approvingly, “It’s almost like a little visit to hell.”

The horror! A little visit to hell, in Goma.

If Goma is hell, Gisenyi has been my own private purgatory. By mid-day John is again full of assurances, but this time, I decide to take the fateful step of bringing my things to Rubona. Better to wait at the ready in that little port town – the Bralirwa brewery and its tall chimney columns in clear view – than to sit on-call in Gisenyi, hoping for word from John. If nothing else, I’d like to feel like I’m a step closer to Kibuye.

In Rubona the arrival of a white man with an oversized duffel bag stirs the town’s listless hang-abouts to life. Whatever my story, it’s sure to add an interesting wrinkle to an otherwise uneventful day. Soon I’ve drawn the attention of a young man named Abdul, who, having heard my plan, has decided to become the custodian of my star-crossed fate. Unprovoked, he begins demanding details of the Bralirwa boat’s passage from passersby, and offering to conduct a thorough investigation at the brewery. I explain that my friend John is already on the case, and Abdul seems wounded. “I want to save you,” he says. I didn’t know I needed to be saved.

The town skeptics and philosophers are out in force. Abdul engages a young friend in soiled overalls who launches into a long monologue, like the ancient mariner. The only two words I recognize – “mzungu” and “polici” – do not bode well. Abdul sits thoughtfully beside me, weighing our options. “Why don’t you take the bus?” he says finally. It is not an easy question to answer. Mostly it’s an ill-defined spirit of adventure that’s made this Bralirwa boat so appealing. But I can’t, of course, ignore the irony that when a white man in Africa talks about “adventure,” he usually means forsaking his iPod, wearing ugly convertible pants, and generally living under the sort of conditions that 700 million or so Africans – whether out of necessity, custom, or both – live under every day. Why go through all this trouble, Abdul implies, when a perfectly good bus can get me there in a fraction of the time, for just a few more francs?

When John arrives he wears a look of affliction. Why did I come to Rubona without telling him first? Lord, spare me these sensitive African souls! After some nervous minutes of hand-holding and reassurances, our friendship is back on solid ground. We take my things to the Bralirwa brewery, which, despite John’s fears over “prohibitions,” seems to be as secure as a public park. There are women walking their children, and others carrying bundles of sugarcane on their heads, and still others selling pineapples out of a basket. Goats are everywhere. Somehow, though, we manage to find the only secure gate in the joint, on the other side of which idles my ride to Kibuye. John sidles up to the fence, greets the guard on duty, and begins talking in clandestine tones from the corner of his mouth. It is a Hollywood performance. This goes on for some time, before we’re shuffled off to wait, stage right. Minutes later the guard returns with a man in slacks and a neat polo shirt – the captain of the S.S. Bralirwa. Again, after greetings and small talk – you’d think they’d known each other for years – John lowers his voice and pleads my case. The need for secrecy, I suspect, is just a token measure of propriety (or else John has a theatrical spirit): by this point, there aren’t many people in Rubona who haven’t seen the white guy with the duffel bag on his way to the Bralirwa brewery. If subterfuge is necessary to get me on this boat, then the boat will be leaving without me.

Finally John and the captain agree on terms, shake; we take my things back to the beach, where we’ll await the captain’s signal. (Another ambiguous, theatrical touch: can’t he just call me on his phone?) We sit for an hour as the daylight dwindles, John struggling to tune into the BBC on his cellphone. A kingfisher dive-bombs into the water, and a magnificent fish eagle swoops from the top of a tree. Fishermen – donning bright orange life jackets, as required by law – begin pushing off from the beach in their rowboats, lashed three together with long, bending poles. Across the bay we watch crates of bottles getting loaded onto the boat, stacked a dozen high. The wait is endless.

The Bralirwa boat prepares for the journey.

The rusted husk of a boat in Rubona.

Fishermen set off for a night on the lake.

Suddenly the boat sputters to life, turns, sweeps across the bay. This, it seems, is the captain’s signal. We take my bags and jog along the beach, where a few other passengers are crossing a wobbly gangplank. Across the bridge, onto a rusted old barge bobbing beside the Bralirwa boat, where we say quick, heartfelt goodbyes. Then I climb over the railing, hop onto the deck of the cargo boat, and wave to Rubona, where fishermen and laborers are gathered on the beach, laughing good-heartedly at the white man’s flight. An old man thrusts a long mangrove pole into the lake, steering us through the shallows. Then the boat’s engine throttles to full-speed ahead, and Rubona vanishes into the dusk.

John and others waving at our departure.

Next stop, Kibuye.

It is a relief, finally, to be on my way to Kibuye. I had been told earlier in the day that the trip would take six hours, but John insisted we wouldn’t arrive till early morning. This was, I thought, preferable to pulling in at midnight without a place to stay. And a small part of me felt, ever mindful of my budget, that I might as well get my money’s worth from a night on the lake. We leave Rubona in high spirits, with the last embers of daylight dying in the sky over Congo, and the other passengers – a gregarious bunch, two men and four women, with two children in tow – already chattering away, as if they’d been childhood friends. Roasted maize is passed around. Children are gurgled and cooed at. The captain tunes his radio to a local station, fiddling with the antenna. “En-guh-lish,” says a man in a fleece pullover, to everyone’s delight. It is the only word of English I’ll hear for the rest of the journey.

We’re arranged in a half-moon at the front of the ship, sitting on crates and sacks and staring stiffly into the wind. The further we get from Gisenyi, its lights twinkling across the lake, the more of a metropolis it seems. Nyiragongo glows over the city. Night falls, plunging the hills of the Congo into a prehistoric darkness. Fishing boats paddle slowly across the water, lamps lit to attract the fish swimming beneath the surface. There are dozens of lamps glowing, like a floating city. The water slaps against the side of our boat, the moon is out, and I’m brought back to so many other journeys by lake and by sea: in Kenya, in Malawi, in Mozambique. For the first few hours, lost in this pleasant reverie, I convince myself that there’s no better way to travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.

The cold comes gradually, at first. I pull my fleece and my jeans from my duffel bag, expecting to get some use out of them before the night is through. The women, swaddled in innumerable layers, seem to have more and more lengths of cloth to wrap themselves in as the night goes on. They seem like flimsy protection, though, as the cold begins to bite. The men, meanwhile, are doing the chivalrous thing and abandoning the women to the elements. The first mate opens a rusty trap door, revealing a musty bed in what appear to be the captain’s quarters. The captain shines his flashlight down the hatch and, it seems, offers me his bed. Everyone finds this hysterical. I decline with an emphatic no – “Hapana!” – which more or less brings the house down. (I’ll repeat this gag – “Hapana!” – for the next few minutes, each time achieving the desired effect.) Then the laughter dies and the first mate, stretching and yawning, descends the ladder. The captain lays a few pieces of cardboard over some crates and then follows to the cozy bed below.

The women laugh, hoot, chatter, and curl up on the cardboard. It has probably never dawned on them to expect any better from their men.

The women were assured these were the coziest bottles around.

The joy of this lake cruise is coming to a close. The cold is suddenly bitter, and the women – rising, as if through some unspoken agreement – retreat with their children to their cardboard mattress. They wrap themselves tight in their kangas and huddle together for warmth. The children are remarkably well-behaved. Cries are quickly silenced with clucking and shushing. Alone at the front of the boat, I curl up in my fleece and wrap my thin jacket around my head, to protect against the wind. Every few minutes I shift my position – to find some extra degrees of warmth, to relieve an aching muscle. Now and then I look up to see the driver staggering through the pale moonlight over a mountain of crates. Somehow I snatch a few hours of sleep: 20 minutes here, 10 there. It is a very long night.

Arriving in Kibuye.

Some time around 4am we arrive at the brewery in Kibuye. A guard patrols its floodlit grounds, stopping to chat with the women or offer us a trip to the toilet. It is against Bralirwa policy, I suspect, to let us into the compound, though by this point, the prospect of a warm brewery floor to rest my head on brings a tear to my eye. Again I drift off. A light rain begins to fall. Finally, just a few minutes before six, as pale light colors the horizon, the women rise, as if on cue, and gather their things. Babies are bundled to backs; bags are passed in a daisy-chain onto the dock. I offer to help the oldest woman onboard – a shrill, middle-aged bird – with the bag of potatoes she has brought from Gisenyi. Only when I begin to strain with the effort do I realize she’ll be strapping nearly 50 pounds of potatoes to her back with a frayed length of rope, then trudging off into the hills of Kibuye.

Outside the brewery there are no formalities, no warm partings. One by one we scatter, picking our solitary paths through the crisp morning.

It is a long walk to the Béthanie – the church-run guesthouse where I’d stayed once before –and it takes me a few minutes to find my legs. The pain in my back and neck, too, is tremendous. But having this early-morning hour to myself, with the birdsong filling the trees, is almost entirely worth the effort getting here. And the pay-off, too, comes when I finally collapse into my bed, set my alarm clock, think better of it, and spend my first morning in Kibuye huddled under the covers.

Everyone’s a businessman here.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 3 – March 23

The bags are packed in the morning, the musty shirts and socks of the past few days balled up into a separate compartment, awaiting a good rinse in Kibuye. Toiletries are carefully stowed, according to the likelihood of an explosion in transit. Books are packed away in reverse order of preference for the journey ahead. After breakfast I take care of outstanding orders of business: a quick visit to the Internet café; a less than quick visit to the bank, where, just two days after leaving Kigali, I’ve reassessed my budgetary demands and realized that, at this rate, I’ll never make it to Goma two weeks hence. The preparations move forward. I raid the forex bureaus around the market, unloading my $20 bills for small denominations – a must for Congolese officials on the take. I stock up on samosas and queen cakes in anticipation of the day’s long journey. By noon, I am utterly in the thrall of the mood of heightened preparedness that grips me on any travel day. I am ready, as my mother would say, to get this show on the road.

A busy street scene in Gisenyi.

Only there’s no word from John on the departure time of the Bralirwa boat, and when I call him, he can offer only a Zen-like injunction to sit tight and let the African transport gods sort things out at their leisure. He invites me to visit his home in Gitsimbi instead – untroubled, it seems, by the prospect of me missing my ride. The boat will leave when it leaves, he insists, and I’m sure to be on it. I take him at his word. Outside the auberge I flag down a moto, haul my backpack onto my shoulders, and scoot over the green hills toward Gitsimbi.

John is waiting for me in Gitsimbi, grinning, pleased at my arrival, at our budding friendship, earphones dangling around his neck. Nearby a sullen, barefoot old man watches me with bloodshot eyes, and the children are chirping, “Mzungu, how are you?” as their faces poke from houses and kiosks and treetops and the bosoms of husky mothers. Again I think of John’s words: “Everyone’s a businessman here.” And I record the inventory, the small piles of charcoal, the bunches of green bananas, the oversized heads of cabbage, the soiled third- and fourth-generation shoes, the brightly colored children’s clothes – everything laid out on blankets, or on rickety wooden tables; or else spread out on the earth still damp from the morning’s rains.

The clouds are still heavy and they begin to break as we approach John’s home. His is among a small group of houses clustered on the side of a hill, overlooking a long, narrow valley studded with the starburst shapes of banana plants. We negotiate a steep, rocky path, surprising the mothers who sit pounding grain in the doorways, and the children playing in muddy yards. A train of barefoot women, carrying bundles of wood up the treacherous walkway, erupts with joy and laughter as I greet them in Kinyarwanda. The oldest – a mirthful old bird with a face like a walnut – extols my praises in a high, hoarse voice as we skid and slide the rest of the way to John’s home.

Outside John's home in Gitsimbi

It is a large, multi-roomed compound with rough concrete walls and tin roofs that rattle as the rain picks up. The living room is small and dark, with five stiff-cushioned chairs arranged around a coffee table, and a dim shaft of light falling from a narrow window. A red, tasseled curtain separates the room from the rest of the house; on the other side I can hear John’s sisters – two shy, polite girls who shake my hand with downturned eyes – chattering away as they carry out their domestic duties. John sits slouched in his chair, smiling, pleased to offer his hospitality on a rainy afternoon. He is the last of seven children, he tells me; years ago his father took to calling him “Sept” – the French word for seven – a nickname, I’ll later learn, that has followed him to this day. I ask after his parents and he disappears behind the curtain. Soon a woman presents herself – tall, handsome, vigorous in spite of her seventy-odd years – and greets me in the Rwandan manner: a clasping of shoulders at a polite but friendly distance, almost like a sumo hold. She vanishes; a man replaces her – tall and lean as a mangrove pole, wearing a vest and ill-fitting slacks and a smile of great warmth and generosity. We stand there, stiffly shaking hands and thanking each other repeatedly. “He is suffering very much,” John says, when his father leaves the room. I ask what ails him, and John gestures to his arms, his legs, his head – as if life, and all its symptoms, were the ailment.

It is only later that I’ll realize the oddity of that scene: an intact family unit, in a country where the normal chain of African greetings – the inquiries into the health of siblings and parents – is always fraught with peril. How often have I answered the question, “Do you have parents?” before pausing with dread, bracing myself to ask the same in return. But here was John, the youngest of seven (the first-born, he said, approaching 50), and here were his parents, in their 70s and 80s. Suddenly I am playing en ethnic game. Are John and his family Hutus? But then, his parents are so tall. Perhaps they are Tutsis who fled across the border, into what was then Zaire, to escape the genocide? There is no delicate way to ask these questions. Instead I wait, hoping the story of his family’s survival might somehow tell itself.

John’s three-year-old niece – small, frail, shy – comes into the room and sits beside me, her bare feet dangling above the floor. I take out a bag of samosas, which I’d brought for the trip to Kibuye; John hands them out to his niece and his sisters and his parents, coughing in another room. I wish I’d brought more. We sit in amicable silence while little Alina makes a mess of her samosa and the rain pelts the roof. It is an African scene: sitting together, passing the time, which is always in abundance. John has spent many days like this. He left secondary school before senior six – his final year – because the family had no money for him to complete his studies. He wants to go back to get his certificate, maybe to continue on to university. He shows me a bundle of technical drawings sitting in a pile in the corner – houses he had designed “from imagination” in school. They are beautiful drawings, with soaring A-frames and massive bay windows and balconies overlooking, I’m sure, tidy little imaginary gardens. The interior plan is drawn with careful attention to detail and proportion. Here is a master bedroom, here is a kitchen, here is a stairway. It is a beautiful home. “They have built that house,” says John, somewhere in Musanze district. “But they pay me nothing, because I am a student.” He laughs bitterly – at 24, already he knows to expect no better from the world. Every day he goes into Gisenyi, looking for work. There are many others like him. He passes the time in Gisenyi; or at a barber shop in Gitsimbi; or with his family, here, on their perch above the valley. When he can find some money, he visits his girlfriend in Musanze. “For me to get five hundred” – about a dollar – “I say thanks God,” he says.

It is a long walk back to Gisenyi, but the rain has stopped – thanks God. John’s uncle tells him the boat will be leaving in the morning; I can do nothing but sit and wait and hope he’s right. At the auberge we share a Fanta before he returns home, promising to see me in the morning. I’m beginning to grow restless, knowing both my time and money on this trip are limited. If there are more delays with the boat, I’ll have to abandon my half-baked plan to reach Kibuye by lake and find another option – moto, perhaps, which was the original plan; or, failing that, by bus.

At night, outside the auberge, there are dozens of motorbikes gathered at the gas station, where assorted night critters circle toward the fluorescent lights. I doubt there will be more than a handful of customers to go around on this soggy Tuesday night, and I suspect these guys are here as much for the camaraderie as for the prospect of finding work. I think of Jean Marie and Lucio, my Congolese friends in Bujumbura, who would go one or two days without eating, but found their hunger easier to bear because they were bearing it together. It can be hard for us to grasp in the West, locked away with our solitary comforts. I am glad I left my laptop in Kigali, with all its diversions. I am happy to sit on a bench outside the barber shop, listening to the laughter, the arguments over football and girls, waiting for the clouds to clear to get a look at the glowing tip of Nyiragongo.

It’s something I think or dream.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts chronicling my travels in Rwanda and eastern Congo earlier this year.

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 2 – March 22

Before leaving Kigali, I made the decision to leave my laptop behind. For this three- or four-week trip, I wanted to be as unencumbered as possible – to not have to hesitate at the prospect of a boat ride into the unknown, or a stranger’s invitation into his home, because of fears over the safety of my pricey electronic wares. Implicit was a desire, too, to leave behind my emotional crutches. I knew how easy it was, from past travels, to sink into a DVD or retreat into my iPod at the end of a long day. I wanted no such comforts now. Life in rural Africa, after all, means contemplating boredom: acquainting yourself with the long hours after nightfall, when solitary diversions are few and the sound of silence is absolute. (No such luck in the Auberge de Gisenyi, where the chatter of Spanish league football goes on till after midnight.) I felt it was important, for these few weeks, to stay engaged to the world around me – not to escape into a Coen brothers flick or an old school playlist that might, however subtly, draw me back to my American life.

Tuneless, flickless, my first night is a blessing: I sleep like a stone. At half-past eight the birds are chattering, the kitchen is dishing out omelettes, my first morning post-Kigali is bright and auspicious. How liberating, too, to know there are no deadlines on the horizon, no pressing emails to get to: nothing preventing me from just disappearing for a few weeks. It is like a spiritual lightness, as if I’ve been set free from the weight of my daily routine. I feel more curious, more engaged. For a travel writer, I have the peculiar sense that I need to travel more often.

Roughing it in the garden of the auberge.

By late-morning I am back on the beach, which today, a Monday, is almost empty. In the distance I see eight sets of pale limbs, eight swaths of khaki, eight back- and fanny-packs milling around the jetty – Belgian tourists, perhaps, getting reacquainted with their former fiefdom. Closer to me a group of Rwandans – overdressed for the beach, as ever – is watching a motorboat tugging a waterskier in wide circles. He is a Rwandan, and he can only go through one or two passes before losing his balance, flailing his arms, and crashing into the water. The lake is flat and inviting. Every few minutes a small transport plane buzzes overhead – the latest batch of Congolese minerals, no doubt, being whisked off the tarmac in Goma en route to foreign lands.

On the beach I meet one of the young captains of the boat sputtering past us in broad arcs. On the weekend, he says, there is plenty of business from tourists: the wazungu weekending from Kigali, the Congolese escaping the clutter of Goma, the Rwandans holding their wedding celebrations on the lake shore. They pay a few thousands francs to get taxied along the coast, or rent the boat for the day to head further south. (A group of tourists, he says, have paid $600 to take the boss’ other boat to Cyangugu.) On a Monday morning, though, business is slow. The boys waterskiing and flopping around in the water are all employees of the Serena Hotel next door. I suspect the boss – an anonymous businessman in far-away Kigali – wouldn’t be too pleased to see his gas dollars going to waste. Fidele laughs and shrugs away the boss’ concerns. It is a modest job, even by Gisenyi’s standards. “It is something so I can eat,” he says. More often he will take his small savings and cross the border into Goma, where he can buy cheap goods and resell them in Gisenyi for a profit. He hopes he can make it to America someday. “It’s something I think or dream, but I don’t know to do it,” he says. He would like to go and make money and then return to Rwanda. “You know, Africans, we love that country,” he says. But it’s not the same as having a home.

There is a great sense of movement in this border town. Fidele’s retail racket is a common one; others, handicapped men and women, cross the border with their wheelchairs stocked with petrol and cigarettes. The handicapped, through some loophole in Congolese law, are exempt from paying customs duties at the border. And so their hand-pedaled tricycles are loaded down with cigarettes and dry goods and wheeled duty-free across the border. Other, obscure goods are no doubt being shuttled across in some of the many SUVs with Congolese plates barreling around Gisenyi. And then there are the casual pedestrians: most of the youths I meet along the beach seem to be Congolese, playing hooky for the sake of a casual stroll in their peaceful neighbor.

A woman on the road to Rubona.

Despite the lazy pleasure of the waterfront and the languid decay of some of the old colonial homes, there is great energy around Gisenyi. After leaving the beach I walk the six kilometers to Rubona, the bustling little town that serves as Gisenyi’s principal port. Along the way I pass a fish market full of the riotous cries of market women; on the beach outside, thousands of slender silvery fish lay on wooden racks, drying in the sun. There are women selling vegetables on the road, and women carrying great bundles and baskets on their heads, trundling many miles to sell their pineapples and cassava and tomatoes and maize, their voices singing shrilly as they chatter along the way.

On the road a man stops me and gestures to a small satchel slung across his shoulder. It is too small to hold the statuettes and Congolese masks being sold by other hawkers in Gisenyi. I wonder if he is offering postcards; his accent is inscrutable. Only when he opens the zipper to reveal a few hunks of rust-colored rock does the word “Coltan! Coltan!” come into focus. I gently decline – conflict minerals are not my idea of a souvenir. Thus do I, in my own small way, give a tiny cry of protest at the atrocities in the Congo.

Half-way to Rubona, in a small crowded town clinging to the side of a hill, I’m stopped by a group of youths listening to R&B ballads on a cell phone. They are polite, friendly, smiling easily; soon one – introducing himself as John – asks if he can accompany me the rest of the way. As in most of rural Africa, there clearly isn’t much to occupy John on a Monday afternoon. He says he’s just finished secondary school – last month? last year? – and I delicately side-step the conclusion of that thought, as it is probably the familiar refrain: no money to pay for university, no job prospects on the horizon. The rare chance to walk with a stranger through these familiar streets, the opportunity to both form a new friendship and boost his own cachet in little Kiroji, is not something to pass up.

Looking toward Lake Kivu from Kiroji.

So off we go, followed by dozens of curious, eager eyes. The town is built along the road and there is a constant commotion of bodies: women selling pots and pans on tattered blankets, or crouching behind bunches of green bananas. Barbers are buzzing shiny domes in their tiny hair salons and carpenters are sawing at furniture on the roadside. “Everyone’s a businessman here,” says John. And it is hard not to admire the entrepreneurial spirit as peanuts and boiled eggs and bottled beer and avocados and charcoal and hair extensions are being sold.

By the time we reach Rubona my face and neck are sunburned and painful to the touch. We stop for Fantas in a small shop almost entirely devoted to hair care products. DARLING NEW LOOK – HIGHEST QUALITY HAIR ADDITIONS, says a typical package. LIKE HUMAN HAIR! HAIR THAT LASTS LONGER! Outside, with the sun high overhead, we can see the fishing boats clustered around the beach far below. The road has been steadily climbing since Gisenyi, and so John – as familiar with the town as if we were picking through his own backyard – gestures to a narrow path vanishing through the banana plants and begins bounding down the hill.

Always Coca-Cola

Rubona: hair-care capital of northwestern Rwanda

Little Rubona is booming. The hillside is crowded with new housing developments – sprawling brick villas that, I suspect, will soon be touting the requisite Grecian columns and reflective windows that are the truest indication of ill-gotten wealth in the Great Lakes region. John gestures to one half-built compound and says, “That is for a Nigerian,” as if no more needs to be said. We pick through small gardens and brush aside great banana leaves. Many of the houses are already occupied. An old woman hangs the laundry from a line. An ancient fisherman sits in the shade, mending his net. No one seems particularly surprised to have a white man tramping through the yard. The lake is blue, still, dotted with green islands. John skips ahead on fast, sure, nimble feet, now and then pausing to push an earphone back into his ear.

Man with Phone: the perfect rural African tableau

Looking over Rubona

On the beach the women are selling vegetables and breast-feeding and spreading their freshly laundered clothes over the sand to dry. The way they look at you is frank and explicit. John exchanges some words with them and is soon scrambling down a sandy slope, to where a long, slender, motor-powered boat is being loaded for the lake journey. There are negotiations, but they end in disappointment: the boat will be leaving this evening, a day or two before I’ll be ready to say goodbye to Gisenyi. Nearby we find two more boats, these shaded by canopies made from heavy tarps bearing the WFP logo. Again, no luck: Monday, it seems, is the only day that passenger boats travel from Gisenyi to Kibuye.

As we trudge off through the sand, bitter and defeated, John continues to ask hopefully for any mid-week departures. It is hard to describe what a strange and touching thing it is to see such fierce loyalty, such determination, in someone I’ve only just met. If John himself were desperate to board the next boat to Kibuye, I couldn’t imagine him putting any more effort into our search.

Brochettes by the lake

At a local restaurant on the lakeshore, as we’re waiting for our brochettes, John disappears in search of fresh intelligence. Minutes later he returns, looking conspiratorial and optimistic. There is a rumor that a cargo ship will be leaving the Bralirwa brewery on Tuesday on a southbound journey. John can’t investigate the rumor any further. “At this time, it is a prohibition to go there,” he says, gesturing to the brewery with its great billowing chimneys nearby. “This night I will search the information.” He promises to contact an uncle who works for Bralirwa to see if there might be a way to smuggle me onto the ship. Suddenly, things have gotten very interesting in Rubona. Soon storm clouds begin to churn over the hilltops, and we scramble for the nearest motorbikes, hoping to beat the rain back to Gisenyi.

Carnivore

I lose John along the way. The rain begins to fall in fat, cold drops; as we speed over the hills, they strike my arms and face like pebbles. Halfway to Gisenyi we stop and take cover under a shop awning. There is a crowd of young boys there; as the rain intensifies, others come to join us. A leathery old woman, carrying a massive bundle of firewood, muscles her way into our sanctuary. We stand there, talking softly, as the rain pelts the tin roof. Smoke rises from the blacktop. Villagers trudge by, hanging their heads. It is a great comfort, in its own way, to be stranded here, at the mercy of the elements. When the rain stops we get back onto our moto, scooting and skidding our way back to Gisenyi.

Waiting out the rain

In the evening, John calls: the Bralirwa boat, he reports, will be leaving at 8am. A few hours later, he calls with an update: the boat won’t be leaving till the afternoon. Strange that I suddenly feel so compelled to leave a town I was just getting used to. But I don’t want to miss the boat; I decide to pack my things tonight and be on-call throughout the day tomorrow. One way or another, I hope to be in Kibuye by nightfall.

You have your problems. We have ours.

A note to the reader: In March of this year, just weeks before packing up my life in Kigali, I decided to throw some ratty old shirts in a duffel bag, buy a few pens and notebooks, point myself in the direction of Congo, and hit the road. It was to be my last great east African trip before the move to South Africa, and I wanted to do a sort of valedictory tour – to put my final sentimental stamp on a region that had occupied most of the past three years of my life.

The plan was to do a rough circuit of Lake Kivu, from the Rwandan resort town of Gisenyi; down to Cyangugu, in the country’s remote southwest corner; over the Congolese border to Bukavu; and across Lake Kivu to Goma, a one-time playground of white colonials in the Belgian Congo, now the humanitarian hub of eastern Congo’s restive North Kivu province. I’d decided, in a fit of romantic pique, to leave my laptop behind in Kigali; and so, pen and pad in hand, I set off like a pith-helmeted Victorian in search of a jolly good adventure.

Wonderful Products for Wonderful People: One of the six Kartasi Brand notebooks I filled on my trip.

What follows is the journal I kept during the nearly four weeks I spent on the road. Looking back at words I wrote just six months ago, it’s amazing to think how much has changed in how we look at Rwanda: first, because of the turbulent election season, which cast such an unflattering light on President Kagame and his handling of internal dissent; and more recently, because of the leaked UN report detailing some of the widespread and systematic atrocities linked to the RPA during its post-genocide Zaire campaign. These things were, of course, hardly news to anyone who has been watching the region for more than the past 20 minutes; still, in terms of the battering Rwanda’s public image has taken, it’s hard to imagine things in our favorite east African autocracy ever being quite the same.

What you’ll find below is not a hard-hitting inquiry into RPA war crimes, or a catalogue of the terrible atrocities being committed in the eastern Congo, but a simple account of what it was like to be in a particular place at a particular time. I tried, throughout those weeks of traveling, to look and listen with an open mind and heart, and I hope that I managed, in some small way, to bring the life of that region – with all its joy, frustration, laughter, disappointment, uncertainty, fear, hope, sorrow, and above all else, dignity – to the page. It is an imperfect account: for much of my trip I was writing between 2,000 and 3,000 words a day, much of it unfiltered, most of it, I hope, factually accurate, some of it deeply flawed. I’ve largely left these pages unedited, for the simple fact that the prospect of fine-tuning some 70,000 words of travelogue right now sort of makes my stomach turn. I hope you’ll forgive my flaws and trespasses and feel, ultimately, that it was worth the trip.

Day 1 – March 21

The guy in the corduroy jacket gets off the bus and tells me he saved me a seat. It’s the 13:30 Virunga Punctuel to Gisenyi, humid, packed. My ticket says 14h, but the guy in the corduroy jacket says it won’t be a problem.

Umva! Umva!” he says to the conductor, who is young and can’t be bothered. He waves me onto the bus. I wrangle my duffel bag down the aisle, maneuvering past the fat thighs that are spilling out from seats crammed with girthful men and women from the Congo.

The guy in the corduroy jacket gestures from a seat near the back. He has beer on his breath and his name is Patrick.

Kigali. This city – green, mild, easy, pleasant – which I’ve called home for most of the past year. I’ve spent more time in Kigali than any city south of the 42nd parallel, and yet it feels like I hardly know the place. Always a sense of returning or departing – Kenya, Burundi, Congo. It’s a place where I switch off, stare blankly at the hills, move gently between different states of catatonia. For three weeks, sick and medicated and cursing my bad karma, I’ve sleepwalked through coffees at Bourbon and karaoke at Cadillac and quiz night at Sol e Luna. We had some good parties here – I’m going to miss this city. A place to which I’ve grown accustomed to saying goodbye.

Patrick lives in Goma and works for a security company, about which he is grateful and pleased. Jobs are hard to come by in eastern Congo, and for Patrick – an office-bound accountant, not one of the narcoleptic askaris dozing off with a billy club cradled in his arm – this good fortune just a year out of college suggests some very powerful juju. Or family ties. He is wearing a button-down shirt and designer jeans that hang loosely from his slender hips. His English is excellent, which is good, because my French is not. He is the fifth of seven children, born in Bukavu, and the brief glimpses of the life there he offers suggest a privileged life indeed. His father teaches statistics at the university. He remembers watching the September 11 attacks on satellite TV. He has lived through some bloody times in Bukavu. “You have your problems,” he says, “we have ours.”

The Congolese men on the bus are loud and broad-chested and built like Easter Island totems. One wears an abacost – the Mobutu-era fashion still proudly worn by many Congolese – and another wears a flamboyant, sateen shirt in a bright floral pattern that suggests the very complicated relationship between the Congolese male and his masculinity. All wear sunglasses, the frames of which seem greatly distressed by the demands made by these oversized Congolese heads. Neck fat folds like an accordion. A woman fans herself, wearing more face paint than a geisha.

These Congolese have apparently made the trip to Kigali for the weekend’s tie between TP Mazembe, the Congolese powerhouse, and Kigali’s APR – the Rwandan minnows – in the African Champion’s League. APR scored a shocking 1-0 upset, about which one of the passengers has been loudly complaining into his phone for nearly 20 minutes. Patrick, having also traveled to Kigali for the match, glumly narrates the man’s call. “The dog barks at home,” the man says sagely – the implication being that Mazembe just didn’t look themselves on the road.

We stop and a man bounds off the bus with the particular nimbleness and grace I associate with fat Congolese men – the quick birdlike movements of feet that can dance a mean rumba. It’s a sort of spite to the ample waistlines and melon-sized heads. The man boards the bus with two bundles of eggs carefully wrapped in banana leaves, and a chicken wedged beneath his arm. The banana-leaf contraptions are ingenious: they look like sturdy little baskets. And the chicken proves to be surprisingly even-tempered, hardly squawking beneath the heavy forearms of his new owner.

Rwanda speeds by. Little towns whose names I’ll never know. Terraced hills, like temples to pagan sun gods. The roads are busy on a Sunday afternoon: families in church clothes, women tottering on uncomfortable heels, carrying colorful umbrellas. In Mukamira the whole town is gathered around a scruffy soccer pitch. We watch two teams of young boys chasing a ball across a bumpy field, and then Mukamira disappears from the rear window and is gone, gone forever.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Rwanda.

I’ve described to Patrick my plans to travel around the lake, and then I ask about traveling in Congo. Has he ever been to Kisangani, I ask, or Lubumbashi? No, he says, but it is easy enough. From Goma you take a boat to Bukavu. Then a bus to Uvira. In Uvira you can take a boat down Lake Tanganyika to Kalemie. And in Kalemie – voila! – there is a train that will take you the rest of the way to Lumbumbashi.

I am amazed at this intelligence. Is it possible that a train – some colonial relic – still carves a brave path through the jungles of Katanga? It does, says Patrick, though the security situation is never good. He laughs. “The reality of Congo, the security – you live with it,” he says. “For example, in Ruhengeri, if there is the army there, the bus must continue the journey. If you have the chance, you pass. If you do not have the chance – you have a rocket in the bus.”

There are no rockets in Ruhengeri. No police checkpoints, no anything. Spend enough time in Rwanda and you can take for granted how easy it is to travel here. I worry if I’m being lulled into a false sense of security. I am already on my guard for Bukavu, which has a reputation for hassles that borders on notorious. White travelers are few and far between in South Kivu – not like Goma, with its massive presence of international aid workers and UN peacekeepers. Bukavu’s immigration officials and policemen and assorted dregs of Congolese bureaucracy all seem doubly inclined to milk the unfortunate few passing through. I express my fears to Patrick that the days will be a monotonous shuffle through the crumbling halls of officialdom in search of the necessary permits to travel in Bukavu. He says I’m overreacting. “It is okay, as long as your paperwork is in order,” he says. This is hardly reassuring.

On the outskirts of town a billboard welcomes us to Gisenyi – a cheerful white family playing volleyball on the beach. I am too tired and cynical to comment. In town the tarmac tapers off just where I remember: veer left, toward the upmarket hotels along the lake, and the going is smooth as a baby’s bottom; veer right, Armageddon. By the market, where the bus deposits us, I exchange numbers and part ways with Patrick. He slings his corduroy jacket over his shoulder, hops onto a motorbike, and heads for the border. Picking my way through the street kids looking to carry my bags for small change, I head for the Auberge de Gisenyi, a budget stalwart, where the beds are hard, the showers are cold, but you’ll at least get some change for your Rwf 10,000.

A dilapidated old home in Gisenyi.

My few visits to Gisenyi have been as either a point of departure to or arrival from Goma, and so my experience of the city has been purely utilitarian. My memories are of the auberge’s spartan rooms, and of the misty silhouette of Nyiragongo looming over the marketplace. That this is actually Rwanda’s best-known resort town only becomes apparent when I get down to the beach, where a long colonnade of towering palm trees shades an avenue of beautiful old colonial homes – some enjoying a second life as hotels or municipal buildings, others perhaps inhabited by latter-day elites, still others falling into colorful states of disrepair. There is a wedding on the waterfront – a swish affair with dozens of tables arranged under a great white tent. The men are wearing smartly tailored suits and the women have traditional dresses draped across their shoulders. Two stern men with walkie-talkies bar the entrance. A long line of SUVs stretches down the avenue. One can only imagine what RPF stalwarts are tying the knot this afternoon in Gisenyi.

Further down, the beach is crowded with the young: adolescent boys with bare butts splashing around in the shallows, or young lovers sitting close together in the sand. Dusk is approaching. Hundreds of fruit bats are screeching and circling in the air. A gang of boys has gathered to throw rocks at their papery wings. The hills are green and tumbling down toward the water. The Congo is close enough to touch. On the way back into town, I meet a group of young Congolese boys on their way back to Goma. They want to know where I live, then ask if they can come home with me, back to America.

Dusk in Gisenyi

The sky is purple and there is chaos around the marketplace – hawkers carrying their unsold bundles, taxi-motos circling in search of a fare. The city is built at the foot of a very steep hill, and the houses of the poor crowd the slopes. You can see solitary figures slowly trudging up the footpaths. There is a single avenue running through the city, and it is crowded with people coming and going: old men on their way to the mosque, packs of children kicking at stones. Music pours from CD shops and brightly lit hair salons. Teenage boys hang about, gathered on street corners or outside barber shops, passing the time with the defiant purposelessness of youths the world over. Children are running through the gathering darkness, their little legs pumping them closer to home.

On a dirt side-street there’s a commotion like a carnival. A small tent has been built with plastic tarps and wooden poles. Inside dozens of women – husky, sweating, swaddled in colorful and elaborate dresses – are rhythmically thrusting their heavy haunches from side to side. They whoop and hoot wildly. It is a long way from the stiff formality of the wedding party I saw on the beach. A boy tells me it is a Muslim ceremony to prepare a woman for marriage. There are no men inside the tent. Just a few cluster outside, along with curious children and passersby.

I’d forgotten, after all these weeks in Kigali, how it feels to be a white man in small-town Africa. Everywhere I’m met with hysterical greetings and cries. It is an effort just to make it down the street. One boy, a high school student, perhaps, pumps my hand frantically, his face breaking into a wide, nervous smile. “Welcome to Rwanda,” he says, his voice cracking. Walking back to my hotel, past the women who sit hunched over piles of onions and maize in the darkness, I can still hear cries of “mzungu” and “How are you?” shouted from the shadows.

At the auberge they’re showing English football on the TV in the back yard. This TV – along with the posh new umbrellas shading the yard – seem to be the sole improvements at a hotel that has jacked up its rates by 50 percent in the past few months. This trend – to dramatically raise one’s prices, without any appreciable change in the quality of one’s service – I’d like to call, “to pull a Rwanda.” It is as if, by sheer force of effort and the careful manipulation of market prices, this country can just will itself into the developed world. I’m reminded of the drive to Gisenyi today, where we passed hundreds of houses branded with a scarlet letter X on the front door or wall. The houses – admittedly in sorry shape – have been marked for demolition, as part of another ambitious government initiative to Make the Country Safe. Down go the crumbling old mud-and-wattle eyesores; up go handsome new brick or poured concrete homes – dozens of which were being built, on rickety bamboo scaffolding, in every town we passed. The effect has certainly been dramatic: the constant buzz of new construction gives a sense of industry and purposefulness to even the smallest Rwandan towns. But I wonder what provisions have been made for the owners of these crumbling homes. In Kigali, when hundreds of families were evicted from a crowded slum on the slopes of Kiyovu hill to make way for new high-rent developments, there was a full-on Greek chorus of complaints over the hastiness of evictions, and the unfair prices given to those who were forced to “resettle.” Who foots the bill for these rural poor being moved into new homes? Ending poverty and banning the signs of poverty are two very different things. I think of the foreign journalist who glowed with praise for the fact that she didn’t see any Rwandans walking down the street with bare feet. She praised the government largesse that made this so – only a friend in Kigali, a long-time resident, told me the exact opposite was the case. The government, she said, had passed a law that made it punishable by fine not to put shoes on even the littlest pair of feet in your family. Suddenly, it became imperative to scratch together enough money for those extra pairs of plastic Bata sandals. (I never investigated the truth of this claim.) I suppose you can’t fault the end result so much as the over-determination of the government to get there.

Back at the auberge I’ve fallen into conversation with Robert Mugabe. Mugabe, a journalist for The New Times, had come to watch the tail-end of Chelsea-Blackburn on the big screen, and recognized me sitting with my Fanta. We’d met, briefly, at a Kigali sauna nearly a year ago. (A separate chapter, some day, to be written about Kigali’s sauna culture.) He never forgot the faces, it seems, of his journalistic brethren. Since we met he’d been promoted to bureau chief of Western Province. From his office in Gisenyi, he covered the whole of Lake Kivu – with a colleague in Kibuye, and another in Cyangugu – as well as the latest developments in eastern Congo. Not long ago, he had been on patrol with MONUC forces in North Kivu. It was unsatisfying, from a journalist’s perspective. MONUC tightly controls its image (or, at least, tries to); often, said Robert, security sweeps would be staged for the benefit of foreign journalists. Yet he knew MONUC had no business being in Congo, and that they only made things worse. He said he had proof that UN soldiers were directly complicit in the trade of illicit minerals, swapping guns for gold with local militias. He wanted to do more strenuous reporting in Congo, if he only had the resources. “I can go to an FDLR base and do my story from there, no problem,” he says. “You just have to have some money to pay them.”

And what about Gisenyi? I ask. What was the latest gossip? Any interesting stories I can be on the lookout for? Robert pauses to consider this. “Another man drowned in the lake,” he says. “He did not know how to swim.”

Such are the perils in Gisenyi today.