Nearly two weeks ago, on one of those bright, auspicious Kigali mornings that makes this country feel like the Garden of Eden, I packed a few changes of clothes into a duffel bag, entrusted my laptop into the hands of a friend, and set off with the wind in my sails in search of adventure.
It is worth noting that when a white guy talks about “adventure” in Africa, 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. I, friends, am no exception to this rule. Find me a chance to squeeze into the back of a minibus, limbs folded like a praying mantis, and I’m all in. If there is livestock present, so much the better – editors love that sort of thing. Throw in a few references to chuckling African mamas, wax poetic about the big African skies, and you’re about 75 words closer to celebrating another deadline met.
I write these words under a big African sky (yes!) that has, for the past six hours or so, unleashed a very Biblical sort of rain on the little border town of Cyangugu. For adventurers and masochists, Cyangugu has much to offer: at the southern tip of Lake Kivu, it is about as far as you can get from the comforts of Kigali without clearing customs. Most Rwandans, if they are traveling from the capital, will do a very reasonable and Rwandan sort of thing: they will go to the nearest bus station, patiently queue, buy a ticket for the, say, 7am Onatracom bus to Cyangugu, and – voilà! – six or seven hours later, find themselves debarking on a little potholed road in a little ramshackle town, their legs a bit sore, perhaps, but otherwise no worse for wear.
This, friends, does not sell newspapers. There are few travel editors who will read 1,500 words on patiently queuing Rwandans and think, “What a scoop!” Thus you find a corollary to the white-guys-in-search-of-adventure thesis, which states that if an African doesn’t have the good sense and decency to greatly inconvenience him- or herself while traveling, the white guy will (yes!!) out-African that African, seeking a route that guarantees the maximum amount of discomfort – often at a prohibitive cost – for reasons he can’t readily explain.
One week ago, in a Rwandan town connected to its neighbors by well-paved roads and dozens of buses, I did the very sensible white-guy thing of eschewing those buses and roads, molesting a handful of fishermen, and finally haggling my way onto an overnight cargo boat that would not only multiply my travel time by a factor of four, but do it at a higher cost AND with a greater degree of discomfort. If you have never slept on the deck of a rusty cargo boat under rainy African skies, friend, then you have never been a white guy in Africa.
Days later, proving my credentials as an homme blanc par excellence, I spent five hours on the back of a motorbike, wheels spinning up mud, negotiating the slick perilous roads of rural Rwanda that could have sensibly been traversed by bus. I had had – like many white guys before me – certain Romantic Notions. What better way to get closer to these good country folk, I thought, than on two wheels – my feet practically scraping the gravel, that brisk mountain air stinging my sunburnt nose.
When I arrived all those hours later, cold and wet, muscles aching, it only became part of The Story. It would be my Motorcycle Diary (“Day 1: This sucks.”), and if The New York Times or National Geographic Traveler decided not to pay me for my hardship, then I would at least have that most cherished of white guy fallbacks, The Story to Tell, which typically involves a dramatic rendering of a very undramatic event in a bar full of girls you’d like to screw.
Friends, I am a white guy like any other. I have Stories to Tell. I would love to buy you a drink, dear lady reader, to share the very African story of my perilous motorbike adventure.
I have spent three days now in Cyangugu, the clouds low, the food rough, the sky cracking with thunder. This morning I tried crossing the border into Congo. No dice. The Congolese treat bureaucracy with the same gravity and respect that the rest of us show colon cancer. Two officials sitting at their desks, hunched over their ledgers like Talmudic scholars. Piles of documents, forms in du- and triplicate. I had not thought to buy a Congolese visa before leaving New York ten months ago – my first mistake. Then I should have written to the appropriate authorities in Kinshasa, I am told. This line is delivered with a straight face. So, too, the insistence that I can only pass by paying a $300 processing fee. You can pay every bureaucrat in every Congolese province to process every form on his desk, and you should still get change for your $100 note, I believe. We have reached a stalemate. My eyes narrow. Their faces are humorless. Soon I will begin calling in favors. This battle is bound to go many rounds.
I take my bags, move outside, find a spot in the shade. Someone should have warned these clowns that I can wait with the best African. See me sitting under a mango tree, staring at the road, and you’ll think, “Christ, that guy can wait!” I am patient. The officials shoo me down the road. Later I get escorted to the border.
Friends in Kigali are working the phones like a telethon. In Cyangugu, everyone is indignant. I have justice on my side. At my church-run guesthouse, I have the nuns on my side, too. Mention the perfidies of Congolese border officials and you will see Rwandans circling the wagons. “This would never happen in Rwanda,” they say.
Night. You can hear drums beating on the hills of Bukavu. In the morning I’ll try again. I tell myself, It’s an adventure.