After a week of first-class grass-watching in rural Burundi, I’ve returned to what passes for civilization in these parts, courtesy of the country’s second – ahem – “city,” Gitega. I am finding the place exceedingly pleasant. Yesterday I planted my butt under a tree and closed my eyes, I felt the sun on my face, I listened to the ringing of bicycle bells and the steady hum of sewing machines being pedaled in the shade. It was a perfect bit of happiness, if only for the 20 minutes or so before the ants got to me.
In the afternoon I had lunch at a bright little restaurant with a cheerful staff in blue-and-white striped shirts, like sailors on the Good Ship Gitega. The very pregnant matron, Consolé, hummed happy tunes as she busied herself about the place. Richard and Penier, the waiters, talked to me in a Swahili I could barely understand. There was joy in all of this. Consolé’s were the tastiest stewed bananas I’ve had in Burundi, and if the only thing I remember about Gitega is her banane spéciale, I wouldn’t complain about those memories in the least.
There are places I’ll never get to know for more than just a couple of days, but sometimes it’s towns like Gitega, or Nanyuki, Kenya, or Cuamba, Mozambique, that stay with me, if only for the memory of how absolutely content I felt when I was there. As a writer, I always feel the pressure to be on the look-out for the next story; it’s nice to sit around sometimes, to listen to the wind in the trees and simply be.
While it lasts. Sad, after all these weeks, to realize it’s almost time to leave Burundi behind. I feel like I’ve only accomplished about 16% of what I’d hoped to before coming here, but it’s been a perfect three months, in its own way. Next week, when I get back to Bujumbura, I’ll be putting in some round-the-clock blog sessions, I suspect, to catch up on all the things I haven’t said. I’ll be writing up the next round of proposals, researching the latest news out of eastern Congo, emailing ahead to plan for my return to Kigali. I’ll be saying my goodbyes, too, or avoiding the scenes altogether. Sometimes it’s easier to just disappear, to send a few heartfelt texts as your bus barrels away over dusty mountain roads.
At some point, too, it’ll be nice to catch my breath. The great joy/exhaustion of traveling in rural Africa is the steady stream of greeters and well-wishers, the endless meetings on the road, the invitations to meet one’s wife and children and share lukewarm Fantas in the shade. As a life-long codger and born-and-bred New Yorker, I treat my solitude like a religious relic; in some ways, it makes me a very peculiar and reluctant sort of traveler. After a week of rural immersion, I have an urgent need to retreat and decompress; the world outside – the whirl and tumble of African life – almost becomes too much for me to bear.
And so on Tuesday afternoon, as torrential rains flooded the roads and sent everyone ducking under the nearest rusty awning for cover, I curled up in my queen-sized, $5/night bed, popped Lost: Season 3 into my laptop, and spent a narcotic eight hours or so staring at Evangeline Lilly’s ass. On the nightstand was a jar of Nutella and a bag of plump, greasy loaves of ndazi. For the rest of the afternoon, I retreated into a cozy little shell. Jack and Locke were at each other’s throats. Hapless Charlie bit the bullet. It was a bit of familiar furniture in an unfamiliar home. Outside the rain pelted the tin roof, the domestics sloshed about in the yard. I dozed off dreaming of new adventures.