Tag Archives: “lake kivu”

Hell in paradise; or, paradise in hell.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 18 – April 7

Today I am up early, full of purpose. By the afternoon I hope to be on a canôt rapide to Bukavu, so the morning has been set aside for practicalities: buying my ticket, emailing long-neglected editors, paying bills – all the workaday drudgery of life on the road. I catch a moto outside the hotel to take me to the port. We turn down a few rough dirt roads, crest a hill, and then – voilà – there is the lake, blue in the early morning light. The weather is bracing, the air is crisp: I forget too often, I think, how spoiled my life is.

Stupid, too. I’ve approached this day with exaggerated ease, relying on just a solitary immigration official’s assurances that the daily speedboat to Bukavu leaves at 2pm. The Marinette Express, it turns out, is an early boat – 7:30am. And as I motor along the port, skirting the muddy puddles, 7:30 seems to be the departure time of every last boat to Bukavu. It is already half-past eight: I’ve missed my ride. This strikes me as a consequence of almost cosmic stupidity on my part. Suddenly, there it is: another day in Goma lies before me. I buy a ticket for tomorrow’s passage aboard the venerable Miss Rafiki – first class, $25: half the price and twice the journey of the canôts rapides – grumbling and wondering all the while why I didn’t think to sort this out yesterday.

My self-reproach, though, is of a gentle species – it’s hard to stay mad at yourself on such a bright, crisp, sun-scrubbed morning. The port is alive with color and commotion: motos scooting through the mud, officials hurrying about, porters hauling 25kg. bags of cement and flour. Women in bright tropical dresses sit under umbrellas, chattering, selling bananas, bread. An old World War I-era gunboat sits aloft on metal drums – testament, perhaps, to colonial foolishness. Beside it fishermen crouch, talking, laughing, pulling apart their nets.

With a long, pointless day before me, I’ve decided to encamp at the nearest Internet café and try to drum up some work. It’s been nearly three weeks since I left Kigali, and the accounting of the trip so far – almost $1,000 going out of my bank account, exactly nothing going into it – is a particularly dark cloud looming over the horizon. Goma has been extravagantly, catastrophically expensive, and the $150 visa for Bukavu was more than I should’ve reasonably spent. I’ll be lucky to stretch out my money for another week, and beyond that, there’s no sign of how I’ll survive the last couple of weeks in Kigali before boarding my flight to Johannesburg.

It is on these days of grave financial reckoning that I’m at my worst – a bitter, frustrated, self-doubting miser for whom every small expense feels like Shylock’s pound of flesh. I re-budget my budget, fret over how to cut costs (is “lunch” really necessary?), give disparaging looks to the club-footed men asking me for change on the street. As if I had the money to spare! Moi! At times I consider it a small miracle that I’ve made it this far – that for most of the past five years, from my giddy days writing for the start-up, TravelGator.com, to the gaudy cash cow of Forbes Traveler.com, to my newfound role as “Africa correspondent” for Variety, I’ve been living out of backpacks and duffel bags, scuttling around the world, somehow making it work. I’ve suffered from panic attacks, and woken up in suffocating sweats, feeling the heavy weight of anxiety on my chest. Four days now into my 33rd year, and I feel less stable than I did a decade ago. Often I think of my happiness in the Platonic sense: as an unsatisfied longing, always awaiting fulfillment.

The Internet is down for most of the afternoon: it is a wasted day. At dusk, I find myself again at the first roundabout in town. The place lifts my spirits. The swallows circling, the Congolese with their slow homeward strolls. Boys in a mango tree, hanging upside-down; girls tumbling in the grass. The joy these things bring me is almost inexplicable. I feel deeply attached to this region: the long safaris into northern Kenya, the cries of the fish market in Zanzibar, the rainy-season clouds blowing across the hills of Kigali. And now, too, a part of me is being left behind in Congo. Often I try to convince myself that southern Africa will be a different sort of sameness, another chapter in the same book. I don’t know what to expect. At times I’m gripped by an undoubtedly overblown fear of Johannesburg, where my plane will touch down in less than three weeks. I’ve read of criminal syndicates who orchestrate carjackings of taxis leaving OR Tambo International Airport. I’ve read grisly stories of armed break-ins, violent assaults of an almost ingeniously sadistic character. I stand here in the Congo and think about the dangers of everywhere else.

A girl sits beside me; she is 13, her name is Alice. I’ve seen her around Kivu Market, pretty, big-eyed, smiling, calling out, “Bananes! Bananes!” in a nasally sing-song. All week I’ve teased her – “Hakuna ndizi”: “No bananas” – and now she has found me, she is pushing her bananas and peanuts on me, asking if I have a wife. A saucy little thing, this Alice. I ask if she has a family. “No mother, no father,” she says, drawing a finger across her throat. She lives with an uncle, she works, she has no money for school. She asks me for ten dollars; I buy some peanuts instead. She says she sells 10,000 francs’ worth of bananas and 4,000 francs’ worth of peanuts every day. I think I’m misunderstanding her – it’s almost $17, an astonishing amount – but there you have it, there’s Alice. She follows me for a minute, twirling, laughing, a terrible little flirt, and then she sings out, “Bye-bye,” and skips back to her friends.

At sunset I’m at the Ihusi. Joseph is sitting by the lake, looking ruminative. “You’re looking ruminative,” I say. He has been sitting with a Mützig, scribbling in a pocket-sized Moleskine. “I’m figuring out how to fix the aid industry,” he says, ironically, but with earnestness, too. It has preoccupied him much in Goma: so much of what’s wrong with the industry, he says – the wastefulness, the bureaucracy – is going wrong here. I give him an appraising look. The thin scrawl of mustache, the clever eyes, the blond mussed hair, the casually aristocratic bearing: once he might have jauntily led a horse brigade in the Crimean War, or debarked in Bulawayo with dozens and porters of native guides for a pith-helmeted expedition into the African interior. (In a modern-day sense, I’m not entirely off the mark: later I’ll learn that his father was once an ambassador to the Congo.) He wants to fix the aid industry, he says, but also he wants to fix Congo, and his life in Kinshasa, and the great tangled mess of life in general. He has a young, restless spirit; I can see in him – as in myself, as in most of the expats I’ve met in Goma – a discomfort at the ease of life here. Kinshasa is messy, it is a challenge – his life there is messy, a challenge. There is pride in how he tells stories of the sporadic electricity, the apartment flooding, the crowded minibuses, the no-good police. He has chosen a more difficult life – a more African life – as I have, too, in my own way. This is a life that has its own rewards. But how easy, how tempting to have a villa by the lake, a coterie of servants, a car and driver, a salary – long nights at Coco’s, Le Chalet, Petit Bruxelles.

We’re meeting a group for dinner at Doga. Joseph, from CRS – not American, after all; he is from Hong Kong, or Canada, or both – and others: Oxfam, Save the Children, it is easier to remember organizations than names. There’s an American from Dakar, a former journalist – Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor – who traded his freelance life for a salaried job with CRS. He is a communications manager, he visits CRS sites across the continent and writes articles about the life, the progress, the challenges. It sounds like a plum job, a writer’s kind of work. Plus, the salary. “Some day you’ll cross over to the dark side,” he says, laughing. For years he has traveled across the continent, across Asia – he covered war in Afghanistan, all the African hotspots. A Swiss-German at the table says he looks familiar. Sierra Leone in 2002? Angola in 2006? It is a game you hear often played in Goma.

The table is crowded with pizzas and beers; two guys, former Peace Corps, are comparing the eating in Goma to Chad, Cameroon. Everyone agrees there’s no place like Goma. You can get imported olive oil, top-shelf liquor, goat cheese. (In Walikale, says someone, he tested out goat cheese on the locals – they were repulsed.) And of course, too, there is the lake, the climate. Someone says Goma was described as “Hell in Paradise.” Or was it “Paradise in Hell”? It was impossible to imagine the wars of the interior on a mild, sunlit day in Goma – the clouds gently brushing against endless green hills.

The party breaks up. It is me and Joseph now, watching Man. United and Bayern Munich on the big screen. It is impossible to remember what it’s like to walk into a bar, pick up a normal girl. The prostitutes in Doga have elaborate hair, complicated outfits involving lycra and netting. The older men, flush with NGO salaries, get most of their attentions. The game is a thriller. Bayern scores late, goes through on away goals. A pretty girl, tall, slender, totters by on stilettos and wraps her arms around a burly white guy. Outside, motos are waiting. Joseph is off to Kinshasa in the morning, me to Bukavu. We promise to stay in touch. On the way home my moto runs out of gas; the driver stops, gets off, tilts his bike 45 degrees until we hear the gasoline sloshing around in the tank. We stop to top off on the Sake road – a boy in a Man. United wool cap and soiled overalls jogs over, selling petrol from jerry cans. Soldiers pass in pickup trucks, huddled against the cold. Youths, well-dressed, chatting into their cell phones, walking in the dark.

At Cirezi the music from Sun City is again rattling the walls. I have slept here for six nights, and there has been a party for six nights. I sleep poorly – both because of the music, and because of the pre-trip jitters: I know I have to be up early in the morning. I wake up at 2, at 2:15, at 2:45; again at 5; and finally, pulling myself out of bed, at a few minutes to six. Outside, music, drunken voices, laughter. The day’s first light starts to fill the room.

The jewel of the Black Continent.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 10 – March 30

It is a slow morning. I don’t know what restless spirit got into me during the night, but there I was – at midnight, at 2:30, at half-past five – snapping my head from the pillow, reaching for my phone to check the time. Maybe it’s the Congo, already, gnawing at my nerves. When I pull myself from bed just after seven, I don’t feel rested. Rising this morning is like a duty. One must get up and start the day.

Other problems, too: I am down to my last few Rwandan francs, reluctant to make another bank run, planning for a thrifty day. Worse still is the irritation, the dull stinging in my left eye. I have suffered from conjunctivitis before – in Zanzibar, in Lebanon; my suffering is always picturesque. Both cases were remedied easily enough; in the developing world, where eye infections are like the common cold, any pharmacy will carry the necessary drops. But that would entail another trip up the hill to Kamembe, and more money spent – more headaches to preoccupy me as I plan for the Congo.

Not surprisingly, my mood is gloomy. I decide to let the day take its course, giving myself over to my downcast spirit. It’s been a long ten days since leaving Kigali, and even at my most optimistic, I have to expect a difficult day at the border tomorrow. I can have a day to myself, I suspect, without admitting defeat.

And so I spend the morning at the Internet café, hopelessly contemporary, catching up on the news, reviving my online flirtations with girls I’ve met on my travels. There’s a certain sort of pathos in this, I think, and I have to ask myself if I’m lonelier than I’d like to admit. Drifting along, generally occupied and pleased with my work, with my traveling, I enjoy my solitude. More often than not I crave it, and respond to threats to it the way a mother bear treats threats to her cubs. But I wonder, too, if this is self-defense – if solitude, as comfy as a well-worn pair of jeans, is just easier for me than the alternatives. Can backpacking across Africa by myself be the safest route ? Is Congo – the horror! – the easy way out?

More emails. How’s the weather in Amsterdam? In Riga? In Rome? In the afternoon I have a quiet lunch at the Home St. François, another parade of dishes I can barely put a dent in. A pastor named Abraham approaches me, introduces himself, stands beside the table, neatly dressed, laptop case slung over his shoulder as he prepares for the long trip to Kigali. We’ve hardly spent three minutes in conversation when he asks for my email address and phone number. How quickly in Rwanda, in Africa, a perfect stranger will latch onto these brief encounters, hoping a friendship will grow from it. Yesterday, too, in the restaurant with Faustin and Lazare, a man who sat at our table as we prepared to leave asked for my email address. I was too polite to say no – but what could we possibly have to say? In the time it took to push back my chair and get up from the table, he had already opened to a fresh page in his day planner, uncapped his pen. I imagine, in a few weeks, I’ll be reading another email from a stranger, asking for my help in some small enterprise, or inquiring about the health of my parents in New York.

In the afternoon, overcome with fatigue, beat up physically, beat up spiritually, a financial basketcase, I return to my favorite table at the Hotel du Lac. In the time it takes me to order my coffee a fantastic storm has blown across the lake. Flashes of lightning, loud cracks of thunder. The rain blows across the hills in sheets and pounds on the tin awning. For thirty minutes, the rain is catastrophic. And then, again, the river is calm, the birds are singing. Somewhere on the hill across from us, I can hear the beating of drums.

For ten days I’ve skirted the shores of Lake Kivu here in Rwanda, but tomorrow, crossing into Congo, it will be a different chapter – maybe a different book. These Great Lakes states, steeped in blood, sharing so much of their troubled pasts. But here, in Cyangugu, just a few steps from another imaginary border drawn up in Brussels, or Paris, or Berlin, you appreciate how greatly, too, their histories have diverged. In how many places in the world, along how many seemingly arbitrary borders, are chaos and order so neatly divided? In Rwanda, they take such pride in the fight against corruption; at border crossings from Burundi and Uganda, a billboard greets you with the slogan, “Corruption: NO! Investment: YES!” In Congo? Already I’ve begun to stash small denominations on different parts of my body, unsure how many payoffs will be necessary to get me safely into Bukavu.

For 16 years, Rwanda has rewritten its history – a willful effort by a nation to decide for itself how the rest of the world will see it. I think of the story of President Kagame, after a speech to a crowded auditorium in Boston, snapping at the young man who had praised him for the safety and cleanliness of Kigali. “What did you expect?” said Kagame. “That we are dirty and live like savages?” The West – the whites – have been writing the history (literally and figuratively) of the developing world, the Third World, the non-white world, for decades. What chance does Rwanda – does any country – have of picking up the pen and starting on a fresh page?

Retire with dignity: does happy old age await Rwandans today?

This week I’ve exchanged some emails with my friend, the journalist Jina Moore, about the legacy of the genocide. Jina, like so many foreign journalists, had arrived in time for the genocide commemoration week in April; unlike the others, though, she would be spending the next ten months in the country, reporting – as she so often does – with deep thoughtfulness and insight on the challenges Rwanda faces. What we both wondered was whether there were still fresh ways to explore the genocide, whether there was anything new to be learned from the formulaic stories that would soon be filed by dozens of foreign correspondents in Kigali. Was there anything to be gained from more survivors’ stories, from the reopening of old wounds? [As a brief editorial aside, I have to note that, six months later, there’s been quite a lot to add, indeed.]

The most interesting stories – at least, to the extent that they’re so rarely told – would be, I think, the Hutu stories. It was Gerard Prunier, in Africa’s World War, who compared the genocide to Damocles’ sword, forever hanging over the heads of the Hutu population, reminding them of their guilt, ready to strike if they – the overwhelming majority – were perceived as a threat. What does it mean to be a Hutu, still vilified in your own country, still regarded with suspicion, sixteen years after the genocide? What does one do with the resentment, the anger, the fear? Does a Hutu man feel he has a common stake in Rwanda with his Tutsi neighbor? Can Rwanda ever find a way across its deepest, widest divide?

I wonder, too, what the legacy of the genocide is within the different Tutsi communities. It is reductive, after all, to treat Rwanda’s Tutsis as a single, unified ethnic group. What’s the relationship between the genocide survivors and the “Ugandan” Tutsis who dominate the government? Do the survivors feel exploited by their leaders? And how many of Rwanda’s Tutsis are survivors, how many returnees? Are these commemorations equally in everybody’s interests?

A tangent to all these thoughts: how is the genocide being taught today – both officially, in classrooms and commemorations, and unofficially, in Hutu and Tutsi homes? Thinking, too, of the demographic explosion in Rwanda. Take the number of children of both ethnic groups who were born after 1994, add the large numbers of returnees, and you have a significant portion of the population – half? more? – whose knowledge of the genocide comes secondhand. What is the story, I wonder, being handed down to them? And for those hundreds of thousands, those millions, what does it mean?

At night, lying in bed, I flip through an old Traveler’s Guide to the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, dated 1951. Take away what 50 years of independence have taught us about the colonial era and you see such hopefulness, such innocence – if such a word can be used to describe the colonizers – in the descriptions of this ample tome. “The region bordering Lake Kivu and its outlet, the wild and torrential Ruzizi, is one of the most unforgettable beauty spots of central Africa,” we are told. “To all those who have visited it, it remains the jewel of the Black Continent.” Here, in painstaking detail, are described suggested tourist itineraries for visitors to these Belgian colonies – across which, we are told, run “72,266 miles of highways, of which 11,130 miles are main highways, 54,150 miles local roads, and 7,350 miles private roads.” The meticulousness is a wonder to behold; so, too, is the lost world described. Here is a railway schedule for the twice-weekly trip from Elisabethville to Port Francqui; there the fares for the regular Sabena flights from Albertville to Kigali, from Leopoldville to Brussels. Should you want to cruise the Congo River aboard the Lake Leopold II Line from Leopoldville to Kiri, you would do well to note that service is every 21 days. Should you have nine days to kill around Lake Kivu, a day-by-day itinerary – including hotel recommendations – will guide you along the way.

Thinking of this snapshot of a dimly remembered past. Thinking of Bukavu, a favorite playground of the Belgian colonists, once described, with its fertile, scenic surroundings, as the “Switzerland of Africa.” You’d be hard-pressed in 2010 to describe anything in the Congo as remotely Swiss. Instead, you’re likely to find a place that is – for better and for worse – richly, unmistakably Congolese.

Political unrest and what have you.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 8 – March 28

With Aimable having bailed on me last night and no certain prospects ahead for the trip to Cyangugu, I’m up and anxious early. The morning plan – a quick coffee, a long walk into town, an endless round of negotiations with moto drives – is a far cry from the leisurely mornings I’ve enjoyed since arriving in Kibuye. I am dreading the day.

But suddenly, a surprise: Andrea calls just a few minutes shy of eight; she’s in the parking lot with Emmanuel – her ride to Gisenyi. They’ve found another moto driver who’s offered to take me to Cyangugu. Rare are the transportation surprises in Africa that are of the welcome variety. We meet and negotiate briefly; the agreed-upon price – 20,000 francs, close to forty U.S. bucks – is what I’d offered to pay Aimable. That Andrea is paying the same amount for a quicker and more comfortable, tarmac-ed ride to Gisenyi is unremarked upon. I fork over ten grand in gas money, give Andrea a quick hug and a “Safari njema,” and retreat to my room to pack my things.

It’s an inauspicious morning – gray, cool, with a light drizzle left over from last night’s storms. I’m hoping the day will clear by mid-morning, but for now my spirits are low, they continue to sink as I wait for my driver to return from his petrol run. Fifteen minutes become twenty, twenty become forty – still no sign of him. Soon my doubts grow. Who was this friend of Emmanuel’s, anyway? And why did he need ten thousand in gas money? I begin to imagine they’ve struck some prior arrangement – that this friend will disappear, 10,000 francs the richer, while Emmanuel denies they’d ever met and I get stranded in the parking lot of the Béthanie. A feeling of helplessness sinks in. How often have I felt this way in Africa – left to the mercies of strangers, never sure if I’ve invested my trust in the wrong guy? Now I’m blaming myself instead. Why did I tell him to come back in 15 minutes? Why couldn’t I just grab my bags while he was right in front of me? How could I fork over 10,000 francs, no questions asked?

It’s just as my pulse begins to throb in my neck and my fleecing seems assured that the guard trots up the stairs to the reception desk and returns with a number scribbled on his hand. Relief! Suddenly, my doubts vanish. A number! To go with it, I’m sure, a face and a name. The guard calls, and with an emphatic “Umva!” lets it be known that the white man is waiting. “He comes,” says the guard, shaking his head with sympathy. Now my sympathies, too, are engaged. Maybe I was being too harsh. Probably this driver needed the money – for what? To pay some debt? To help his mother, his girlfriend, his brother? Who knows what desperate errand he had to run this morning, 10,000 francs in hand? I’m feeling more charitable by the time I hear his engine sputtering down the path. It is 9am on the dot, and my ride is here. We grapple briefly with my duffel bag, settling on a dubious side-saddle arrangement that promises a long and interesting day ahead. Then, with a brief wag of the hand to the guard, we’re off, hoping to make Cyangugu by early afternoon.

The air is brisk, the sky gunmetal gray. I eye the clouds with ambivalence. An overcast day is probably preferable to long hours in the sun; but a single downpour – especially in the early going – would make this journey unpleasant at best, treacherous at worst.

The road is already in rough shape. In rural Africa, the going is only as good as yesterday’s rains allow, and just a few kilometers from Kibuye we’re sputtering through the mud and skidding across rivulets streaming down from the hilltops. Already I’m discouraged. I’m trying out different arrangements to keep my duffel bag balanced on my thigh, but my arm muscles are straining, and the prospect of shifting grips every few minutes for the next five hours seems like a kind of madness. The driver, Aloys, appears to have a particularly sadistic streak to him. Often I’ve ridden motos with my duffel bag balanced on the gas tank, between the driver’s legs; while it’s hardly the safest arrangement, this is Africa, and it can be done. Aloys pooh-poohed the suggestion from the start, without explanation. With each bump in the road, though, with each rock that jolts our tires – and my sore backside – I wonder just how long I’m going to last.

Voila! Ready for the road to Cyangugu.

Not long, as it turns out. Forty minutes from Kibuye, Aloys pulls over. He begins fussing with plastic bags and ropes and straps on the back of the bike. Suddenly – voilá! – a rubber hose is produced. He lashes it violently across my bag, once, twice, and gives it a few mighty tugs. The bag, for now at least, is secure. Cautiously we rearrange ourselves on the bike and speed off, my spirits lifted. Cyangugu suddenly seems like it’s just around the bend.

For now, the going is easy. If there was a reason behind this mad project – a motorbike trip to Cyangugu that would take a greater toll on my body and wallet than the Otracom bus – it was a desire to feel some sort of closeness to the country passing by. So much is lost on those crowded buses – the windows sealed against the fresh mountain air, the bodies pressed on top of each other in sweaty congress. I wanted to feel the joy and openness of the road; and I wanted, too, to see the delight and awe and confusion on all those Rwandan faces as a white man came barreling around the bend, waving his hands in greeting. And along the way, I’m treated to such marvelous, welcoming gestures. An old gent doffs his cap and sweeps it grandly through the air; an old woman throws her arms up and calls out “Muraho!” grinning like a schoolgirl who’s stolen her first kiss.

I take great pleasure in these country greetings, and in all the rural sights of the hills. Though we pass few cars, the road is always crowded: villagers hauling banana leaves and charcoal and firewood in massive bundles, or jerry cans full of water, or baskets and plastic containers full of fruits and bread. Twice we’ll pass youths carrying car batteries on their heads. How I would love to know the stories of those car batteries! And always the same smile and cheerful greeting. “Muraho,” I’ll call out. “Yego,” they’ll say, grinning, emptying their bellies with laughter. “Amakuru,” I say. “Yimeza,” they say. This goes on and on all day. Women swinging their hoes in the fields will pause to wave their hands. In sprawling rice paddies, where dozens of men and women labor, doubled over at the waist, they pop up one by one at the sound of our engine, like a game of Whack-a-Mole. Cheerily they watch and wave as we vanish around a hill.

In a small village – a collection of huts and mud-and-wattle homes, arranged around a single general store – we stop at a bridge that is being repaired. It is wooden, rickety, unsure of itself. A group of children surrounds our bike. “Good morning, teacher,” they say. “How are you?” I say. “I am thank you,” they say. They crowd close to the bike, all toothy grins. Aloys shoos them away and pushes ahead, the bridge creaking beneath us. Then we are back on solid ground, the wheels spinning with confidence as we climb another hill.

These small, shapeless villages. No signs to greet you, to fix these places on a map. The larger ones might have a row of poured-concrete shops – a restaurant, a mechanic, a general store – and these are weather-stained and faded many shades drabber than when they were built. Sometimes you will see a store with a fresh coat of paint, and almost always these will be yellow or blue: yellow for MTN, the cell phone company; blue for Primus, the beer. A shopkeeper will be paid to turn his store into a giant advertisement; I imagine this is a mark of great prestige. The smaller, poorer villages – and there are many – will often have just a few wooden stalls lining the main road. Always, in these commercial centers, you will see youths, the unemployed, sitting outside a shop, or under a tree – on this rainy day, wherever they can stay dry. The towns, paradoxically, seem drained of life. They don’t have the vitality and industry of the hills, where everywhere you see farmers planting, tilling. I suspect few people live in these small settlements; they’re simply trading centers for the surrounding area. Here the people live on every hill and in every valley. Often you will enter a village and leave it just as quickly, as if the whole vision – the slouching mud huts, the weather-beaten storefront, the riot of vegetation – were just some trick of the light.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Rwanda. The combination of cold and rain was too much for my camera; this was the last picture I took till Cyangugu.

We are more than three hours out of Kibuye now, and the rain is falling steadily. The road has grown more treacherous; skidding down the hill Aloys will suddenly lose control, wrench the handlebar to the side, right the moto. I am having unpleasant visions of plunging off these scenic cliffs, meeting some picturesque demise in a grove of banana plants. The rural charms of this country road, by now, are forgotten. I am cold, and wet, and mud-spattered, and grumpy. Aloys, for his part, is picking up the pace. Never mind that these high cliffside roads have grown more dangerous. For him, there is still a long return journey ahead. Better to get this over with – one way or another.

Suddenly we come to a stop. Around us a forest of blue gums – tall, silver-barked, shivering in the wind. Aloys says something in Kinyarwanda. He points to a tree. Scuttling up the trunk are two vervet monkeys, quick, playful, their black pinched faces taking us in with a whimsical sort of curiosity. I cluck my tongue; they pause, then panic. Off they go, leaping and tumbling between the highest branches, until they disappear into the treetops.

It is almost four hours now since we left Kibuye. Every rock, every rut sends a jolt through my whole body. My ass is numb beyond words. At each turn, at every hilltop summit, I expect to see the lake spreading beneath us. Aloys, too, has a sense of expectation about him. He makes a call and hands me the phone. A voice is beaming to me – from Cyangugu? Kigali? – speaking English and French. He wants to know where I’m going – a point, I would’ve hoped, that was by now apparent. I say Cyangugu. Yes, but which hotel? My knees tremble – I can almost feel the hot shower on my back. I hand the phone back to Aloys, who concludes a quick dialogue in Kinyarwanda. Then we are off again, the quaint coastal charms of Cyangugu, I’m sure, just minutes away.

It is the worst sort of torture. Still we wind along these bumpy rural roads. Still the villagers grin and wave and show more good nature, I’m afraid, than I can bear. The road is endless. We come to Nyagasheke, a large town with rows of shops and a smart new health clinic – no doubt a lifeline for miles around. In the center of town we stop beside a shrine to the Virgin Mary, draped with blue and white pennants. It is Palm Sunday, and dozens of people pour from a nearby church, clutching palm fronds to their chests. It seems fitting, what with my Biblical passage through the Rwandan hinterlands, to be greeted thusly. But we have no time for Nyagasheke; we are off again, the rain batting coldly against my face.

It is another 20 minutes before we come to a miraculous sight: tarmac, as the rough lake road finally meets the paved road joining Cyangugu to Butare. For the first time all morning, we’re both relieved. This is marvelous country, with its hills and valleys covered with emerald-green tea plantations as far as I can see. But a cold wind is blowing, and the rain has gathered force. It is another wretched hour to Kamembe, the busy modern town overlooking rundown Cyangugu. By the time we arrive my legs are caked in mud, my muscles aching in places I didn’t know they existed. Down the hill we go, past an old villa decaying in the forest, like a Roman ruin. The lake is a flat silver plate in the distance. Suddenly, the border. With a little carelessness, I think, we might’ve driven straight through it and up the hill to Bukavu. Instead we are at the hotel, I am paying Aloys and pumping his hand with gratitude, and he is already getting back onto his motorbike for the long journey home. It has taken almost five hours for us to reach Cyangugu, and if it weren’t for my sore-assed protestations, I doubt Aloys would have stopped at all. Before going he puts his number – “Aloys Motar” – into my phone. In spite of it all, he is eager to make this trip again, for the 22,000 francs I’ve just paid him.

My cold, mud-spattered leg.

To one side of the road is the aging Hotel du Lac; to the other, the church-run Home St. François. The nuns are busy about the place, their crisp white habits bustling through the garden, and I’m greeted instead by a cheerful young man named Bernard. He is eager to practice his flawed English on me. “I am happy very to see you,” he says, beaming, as if he’d just invented the words himself. I am, after this long day, happy to see him, too. I entrust myself to him, and he is soon sitting me in the dining room – thrifty, spartan, a few crucifixes and church calendars on the wall – bringing out plate after plate: potage and rice and beans and frites and viande. I eat like a refugee. Even in my famished state I can only get half-way through the meal, but I’m afraid to let good-hearted Bernard down. So I will myself to get through the rice and beans and salad, and when dessert comes – two passion fruits and an orange – I force it down, too. It is the first and last thing I’ll eat today. Then a short, brisk nun – Sister Miriam – enters, bustles me toward reception, expresses dismay at my long journey, smiles at my French, asks me to sign here and here, takes my money, and shows me to my room.

Travel writer, or UNICEF poster child?

A light lunch to get me through the day.

It is all a tired traveler can ask for: a hot shower, a large bed, and the desk on which I write these words. There are two Bibles in four languages – Kinyarwanda, French, English and German – and a crucifix hanging on the wall above my pillow (which, I’ll later learn, glows in the dark). By the time I’ve washed and shaved and massaged the kinks out of my legs and lower back, I feel slightly revived. Across the street is an Internet café – my first since Gisenyi – and a lakeside restaurant at the Hotel du Lac which promises some much-needed caffeine.

The phone rings before I make it out the door. “Home,” says the caller ID. What a quaint concept here, just 100 meters from the Congo! On the other end of the line, tidings from a normal, New York life. Mom on her way to Florida for a week; dad worried if I’ve filed my taxes; my oldest brother, Nick, with his two-year-old son gurgling in the background. Strange how easily I’ve put thousands of miles between us. My mother is anxious about my trip to the DRC. “Why are you going there again?” I’m not sure if there’s a short answer. She wants me to be careful. “I see the Congo is in the news again – political unrest and what have you,” she says. (This, I’ll later learn, has to do with a Human Rights Watch report about a large-scale attack by the Lord’s Resistance Army in the volatile northeast last December. It’s like me warning my mother to bring an umbrella to work because it’s raining in Boston.) She is full of love and worries, my poor heartsore mom! I tell her to be careful, too: it wasn’t long ago that political unrest was gripping Florida.

The hotel has come alive now with guitars and tambourines and festively done up families. Minibuses fill the parking lot – there is a church on the third floor of the guest house, and the Palm Sunday mass has attracted worshipers from miles around. It’s a bit too much for me. Instead I cross the road, order a coffee on the patio of the Hotel du Lac, stare blankly at the hills of Bukavu, just across the Rusizi River. Houses are perched on the edge of the hill; smoke pirouettes into the air from cooking fires; there are the cries of roosters, birds, children. It could be a scene from anywhere in Africa. And yet the knowledge of what lies beyond it, in the dark, forbidden places of the interior – it fills me with a cold, clammy dread. I drink my coffee and try to gather my strength. It will be an interesting week ahead.

Beside the hotel, the Rusizi – gray, green, depths unknown – moves briskly. There is a small island in the river, and a man in a thin red windbreaker sits in a pirogue by its banks, casting his line into the water. He is huddled against the cold – it is no day to be out on the water – but he sits there, patient, casting his line again and again. His boat is the weathered husk of some ancient tree – it looks like it was carved from a single majestic trunk. Something about that noble battered pirogue, about the fisherman’s stiff resilience, seems to augur what awaits me in the Congo. When he finally casts off from the shore, he waves in reply to my greeting, then tips his head back with a gesture to show his thirst. I am just finishing my coffee – I have nothing to give him – and I offer an apologetic shrug. He smiles, nods, turns back to the water, and continues to row his lonely boat home.

The mystery of the swimming cows.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 7 – March 27

In the morning, no signs of insect carnage in the restaurant. Walls that were covered with little black bugs and predatory lizards look as if they’d been scrubbed clean. The lake is calm, the sky is pale and cloud-covered. So begins the end of my first week on Lake Kivu.

At nine the restaurant is already full: a German couple, a French woman, two British women, an American. Then the Rwandans arrive: a church group, most likely, here for a conference or a weekend retreat. They’re a handsome crowd – close to a dozen men, a few women, all immaculately dressed, freshly laundered, ironed. Bless these Rwandans, who bring their formalities even to a lake retreat. They negotiate with a boat captain who’s offering trips across the lake. Probably the first price, the second price gets rejected. Negotiations are long, complex, informal. There is lots of laughter. A couple strolls off and whispers intimately under a tree. Some of the hotel workers have come over now, to join the negotiations. Everything is good-humored. A price is finally agreed upon. More laughter. Still, no sense of urgency. The men slowly, unsure of their land legs, board one by one. The women with their shoes in their hands. Life vests secured over their neat collared shirts and blouses, they motor across the lake. You can hear their laughter long after they’ve left the shore.

At the Presbyterian-run Béthanie, these weekend church functions seem to make up the bulk of the business. (Foreign aid workers, too, pale, petite American girls on weekend liaisons with their Rwandan boyfriends.) It is the closest they ever come, I suspect, to filling all these empty rooms. It is a beautiful compound, dozens of small villas swallowed by the vegetation. Outside my room is a papaya tree and poinsettias and a pine tree and a baobab. There are palms shaking their shaggy heads over the water, and birds everywhere. It’s as perfect as any place I’ve known in Rwanda.

In the afternoon, Andrea looking well-rested and stress-free, we have lunch in town: again rice and cabbage and a bowlful of sambaza. The girl who dishes our food cooks, cleans, serves, clears the tables. I wonder if Rwanda would grind to a halt without these sturdy, hard-working women. On the way into town we passed two women, young girls, hardly out of adolescence. They were carrying bundles of wood on their heads and babies on their backs and jerry cans in their hands. And still they greeted us joyfully. “Mirwe,” they said, their voices high and musical, as we wagged our hands in greeting.

Sambaza

Self-portrait, with bicycle taxi

Back at the lake now, looking for a way to spend a warm and sunny afternoon. Down the road from the Béthanie is a new hotel, the Moriah Hill Resort; Andrea had seen them advertising a pair of well-maintained kayaks in the local press in Kigali. A little physical exertion, we decide, would be a welcome break from beers on the terrace at Béthanie. The walk to Moriah Hill is pleasant, too, down a scenic road framed by pines and palms – those incongruous pairings of Kibuye! – with water birds grazing their breasts against the lake’s surface.

Despite the changes in town, the health centers and shopping complexes, Moriah Hill is the only new tourist development I’ve found, nearly two years after my last visit to Kibuye. It is an arresting sight: a block of gray concrete, a strange, modernist (cubist?) box, so out of place amid the graceful contours of these Rwandan hills. No doubt this architectural atrocity, with its spa treatments and motorboat tours of the lake, charges executive prices to the Kigali elite who escape here for the weekend. Andrea and I – no executives, to be sure – frugally order a couple of beers from the restaurant. Then we rent a two-person kayak and put our muscles to work, paddling our hearts out until the Moriah eyesore is out of view.

It’s tempting to get carried away in a kayak: the sun-crested water, the islands strung across the horizon, etc. But our progress is slow – the islands in the distance refuse to budge, despite our paddling – and we decide to hug the shore, rather than setting some perilous course for open water. It is a beautiful afternoon. The hills are full of birdsong, and the shore is overhung with palm trees and tropical flowers. Even if the churches and the houses and the massive power stanchions of Kibuye never leave our sight, the calm and solitude of the lake makes it feel like seeing them through a thick pane of glass.

In a shallow cove we find the skeleton of a boat – an abandoned project by some local shipbuilder, perhaps, whose money had run out. To see it half-submerged in the water is like discovering some sunken Spanish galleon washed up onshore. It fills us with joy and wonder, and we lift our paddles from the water, as if to give it its due reverence as we drift silently by.

I’m using muscles I haven’t used in months, and there is a good, vigorous burn in my arms and chest. Andrea – an expert paddler in her day, full of stories of northern Ontario’s lake country – has excellent form. We paddle across a channel – storm clouds threatening over the hills – and draw a wide, lazy arc around a small island. Suddenly, a surprising sight: first one cow, then two, lowing and swishing their tails. It is like some small bit of magic – we’re hundreds of feet from the shore. Did some intrepid herder, desperate for land in the crowded hills around Kibuye, row them out to this deserted island to graze? Did they swim here themselves? Can a cow even swim? (It turns out they can – really well, according to Francine, the receptionist at Moriah Hill.) Mystery pervades their presence here. While the cows, unfazed by said mystery, unmoved by our curiosity, chew placidly at the hillside.

We round the island and steer back toward Moriah Hill. Now thunder is rumbling. Far out to the west, over the Congo, we can see a curtain of rainfall. Our muscles are sore, but we strain our oars. Sun spangles dance over the water. Somewhere far away, voices cry out from the hills. It is a beautiful feeling to exert ourselves like this, with the sun warm on our arms and faces. We put all our weight into rowing back to shore, knowing the storm clouds and the growing thunder are chasing us to the hotel.

After last night’s apocalypse, though, tonight’s rainfall is meek as a lamb. Back at the Béthanie the lake is beating against the shore, but the threatening, grumbling clouds surprise us with just a mild shower. It is a disappointment for Andrea, who had canceled her plans to leave for Gisenyi this evening. Instead she arranges a 6am wake-up call for tomorrow morning; if all goes well, she’ll be on the back of a moto and in Gisenyi by 9 o’clock.

I, meanwhile, have my own problems to worry about. During dinner I get a text from Aimable, whose moto “vient d’être prise” by the traffic police because of “retard des tax.” I’m not entirely sure what to make of this – retard tax? – but the point is clear: I’m on my own for the trip to Cyangugu. It’s a headache I was hoping to avoid; tomorrow is a Sunday, after all, hardly the time to be making convoluted travel plans in pious, Church-going Rwanda. Andrea, though, is sanguine: she’s sure something will come together in the morning. I decide to show some faith, too: if nothing else, three years of traveling in Africa have taught me that things always work out in the end.

But never the way I’d planned.

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.

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.