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.
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.
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.
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.
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.