Tag Archives: “hotel du lac”

The weather is not good for them.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 12 – April 1

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

In the deep end, in Cyangugu.

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

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

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

With Justin, at the Hotel du Lac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little by little. It is very nice.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 9 – March 29

Glow-in-the-dark Jesus notwithstanding, I sleep soundly. This is, of course, a talent of mine. Years ago, in New York, I was a restless sleeper, an insomniac. Most nights I would be up until three or four, sleeping until mid-day. But then, that was a different life. For nearly four years I was un- or marginally employed. I slept under my parents’ roof, in the same bed I wet as a child. I kept odd hours: working at a restaurant in downtown Brooklyn; canvassing one ill-fated month for a grassroots political party. It was a restless life, it lacked equilibrium. There were all the distractions of home, too: high-speed Internet, hundreds of TV channels, my brother’s wall of DVDs in the basement. It was easy, in all that modern tumult, the confused chatter of endless entertainment, to be a nocturnal beast.

Now I sleep like a stone. Earlier this year, in Burundi, traveling in volatile rural areas, I twice woke in the morning to excited chatter from the other guests. Did I hear the gunshots in the night? No, in fact, I didn’t. A part of me – the ambulance-chasing journalist – felt like I’d missed out. But it is a gift, I guess, to sleep so well. In the morning, it feels like I’m being roused from some ancient depths. Coffee is a solemn, life-giving rite. I wonder if yesterday’s moto ride would have been less grim with a full tank of coffee to get me started in the morning.

Today I’m less sore than I’d feared, but still lethargic. It seems less a physical than a spiritual thing: it’s been a long week. At home in Kigali, in this sort of mood, I would spend the day catching up on the news, emailing friends across the time zones. I don’t know if I’ll allow myself that luxury here. My time is short in Cyangugu – a day, maybe two – and I feel compelled, if I’m going to continue filling these pages, to find some odd character or story that will bring this ramshackle town to life.

And so, again, the Hotel du Lac. It’s easy to see how this place, in its colonial-era heyday, made a smart getaway for a few days. The balconies with their views of the hills, the restaurant with its pleasant riverside terrace, the swimming pool – empty for years, I’m sure – with its optimistic tariffs for month-long memberships. How many families – the Belgians, the French – would come to escape Kigali, the tiresome halls of officialdom, for a few days’ rest? And how often have I seen this same hotel – the dusty rooms, the peeling paint, the empty swimming pool – in Kenya and Uganda, in Malawi and Mozambique? In Bukavu, long past its colonial prime, I expect to see a whole city swallowed by tropical decay, languor. And still, a different, modern, African vitality persists. The family that came to take Fantas on the Hotel du Lac terrace on Sunday afternoon, the mother in her church dress, the little boy in his smartly buckled vest, the daughter in her pretty white shoes: they had probably never known the Hotel du Lac as anything but what it is today. You won’t find them pining for the glory days of the Belgians! And still it is a place to admire the birds in the trees, to watch the pirogues gliding gracefully with the current, to come with your family on a Sunday afternoon, to spend the week’s thrifty savings and enjoy a few Fantas by the river.

Hotel du Lac, Cyangugu

It is an overcast day, cool, though I’m sure not for long. I leave my dirty clothes from yesterday’s trip to soak in a bucket of warm water and Nomi detergent, and then I’m off, past the bustling border post, up the green hills toward the sprawling modern town of Kamembe.

It is not long – I didn’t expect it to be – before two men begin matching my strides. They are on their way to Kamembe – too poor for transport, they explain, the 200 or 300 francs (50 cents) it no doubt costs to ride in a minibus. They ask if they can join me, and I say I would be glad for the company. The older of the two is named Faustin; the other, Lazare. Neither speaks very good English, and I take it as a challenge to see how far my French will get me. We walk on the road’s shoulder, stopping now and then to admire Bukavu spreading up and down the hills across the lake. I ask Faustin if he knows the population, and he laughs. Who could know such a thing? He lived in the city for ten years and knows it well. From the roadside he points to different quartiers along the lake, famous houses – here where a rich Congolese lives, there a Belgian, here some other whites, there the endless sprawl of the poor. It is obvious, even from across the lake, how much wealth is in Bukavu. Everywhere you see massive villas and modern hotels, and still more developments in the city’s choicer areas. But the living is difficult there, says Faustin. Many of the women we see on the road, carrying baskets of vegetables and fish, are Congolese, doing their shopping in Kamembe. They buy food for their families, and goods to sell in the markets of Bukavu at a profit. “Here there is many things to eat,” says Lazare. “There is house, house, house. They only build.”

All this movement between the two cities seems natural – what is a border, really, but something the whites put here? The people here share a language – Kiswahili is most commonly heard around the border – and the constant movement of goods gives this place the feel of one great marketplace. Congolese francs change hands as readily in Cyangugu as Rwandan ones. And livelihoods, too, are built on the belief that nothing so trivial as a border post will get in the way of business.

It has taken me some time, because of the language barrier, to fully understand the story of the two men I’m walking with. But when Faustin unfolds his identity papers – two pages of heavy cardstock, covered in stamps – I suddenly see: the two men are studying in Bukavu, and each day they leave Rwanda, spend a few hours at their university in Congo, and return to their Rwandan homes. The daily crossing is free, says Faustin; a year-long visa would cost a steep 5,000 francs – about nine bucks – which Faustin pronounces with a heavy sigh. So every day they leave their homes at 5am, and because there is no money, they must walk all the way to their university on the other side of the border. “Only on foot,” says Faustin. “No lifty, no car.” He laughs and shakes his head with good humor. It is the laugh of a poor man without a choice.

Lazare and Faustin, with his travel documents.

Faustin's much-stamped travel papers.

We stop to admire the remains of a villa swallowed by vegetation. It is the same house I marveled at from the back of my moto yesterday – the walls covered in creepers, the roof long gone, the bedrooms and salons now thick with plant life. It was once the house of the king, says Faustin. “Mille neuf sant cinquante sept” – 1957 – he says, with great significance. I do not know if this is the year the king died, or was deposed; my knowledge of Rwandan history begins with the 1959 revolution. Now tidy little bean plots have been planted along the outside walls. I begin taking pictures, and a woman offers a stern, if ambiguous, warning. Perhaps she’s afraid the king’s spirit still inhabits his home.

The king's house.

We turn from the main road and begin to climb a steep hill. “Shorty cut,” says Faustin. The path is still slick from yesterday’s rains, and I try to picture Lazare and Faustin – both wearing their smart, impractical shoes – negotiating the muddy embankment and exposed roots each day. It is a long way to the top (only later, when I take the tarmac road back from town, will I appreciate how much time we’ve saved). As we huff our way uphill, Faustin – still neatly buttoned at the cuffs and collar – explains that when he is not studying at the university, he is a pastor. He preaches at a Pentecostal church in Kamembe; he is trying to find a foreign sponsor who can help expand his church. “Je suis visionaire,” he says emphatically. I find it hard to debate him on that point. Imagining this same weary slog day after day – empty pockets and the sun on his back and the slender, worn briefcase filled with the day’s assignments – I think of what devotion and vision it takes to carry him up that hill.

Near the top we pause to catch our breaths. We’ve climbed through a cool, breezy forest of pines, and now we’re on a dirt road flanked by tin-roofed houses – tidy, well-kept homes, flowers in the yard, sun on the windows. Children come racing from their yards to greet us. Lazare, as delighted by their attentions as I am, greets them with proud, halting English. “How are you?” he asks. “What is your name?” Below us I can see mothers hanging laundry in their yards, or standing in their doorways, hands on cocked hips, watching in mock despair as their children bolt from the house to see the white man passing by.

Looking toward Bukavu.

Faustin is telling me again about his life. For ten years – from 1990 to 2000 – he lived in Bukavu, having fled at the start of the Rwandan civil war. Here, he explains, you always had people fleeing. They began leaving Rwanda during the ethnic pogroms of 1959 and ’62; they left during the civil war and the genocide. And now, too, you had the Congolese fleeing their own bloodshed, taking refuge in Rwanda. There was the camp I saw last week, near Kibuye. And here, too, close to Cyangugu, there is another camp: not Congolese, he explains, but Rwandan returnees from South Kivu. He shakes his head and laughs softly. It is too much even for him to make sense of.

At the top of the hill we come to a poor, crowded quarter, the houses slouching under rusted tin roofs held in place by large stones. The way is muddy; there is a smell of cooking fires, the sounds of women’s voices. “Il y a mauvaise vie ici,” says Faustin softly. And then, in English, “Here it is a bad life.” It is something he says with great feeling – a man well-versed in hardship.

Suddenly we are on the streets of Kamembe, beside the market. Color, noise, chaos. Faustin picks through the crowd, exchanging greetings. I’ve offered to take the two men to lunch, and they lead the way through streets congested with motorbikes and market women, school kids and street kids, the energetic din of a money-making border town. Lazare stops: he wants to introduce me to his father. He takes me to a large covered market where, just inside the entrance, sits a short, pleasant man on a wooden bench. Beside him is a shop neatly arranged with pens and pencils and notebooks – a tower of stationery rising toward the roofs. He greets me warmly. I tell him he has a good son – “Vous-avez un bon fils.” He accepts this with a laugh. Next to him another man sizes me up and asks for money. It is a serious plea, but everyone laughs – I wonder if soliciting white guys is his schtick. I shake Lazare’s father’s hand again and off we go, dodging bicycles and motorbikes and wheelbarrows as we cross the street.

The restaurant is down an alley, and there are beggars outside: a boy and a young man in wheelchairs, an old woman with crutches, another with a deformity of the back. Faustin greets them with jokes, laughter. They grin, tease him, call out with mirth. We pass through a beaded curtain and into two small, crowded rooms. Sunlight pours through a window running the length of the back wall. A small TV set plays music videos in the corner. My presence is noted by curious faces. We join a man sitting by himself at a table – no preamble needed, we just sit. His shoulders are hunched and his head is down and he is making his way gravely through a plate crowded with rice and beans and frites and spaghetti. We order three of the same. It is a lively place, the voices are loud and boisterous, there are shouts, threats, oaths, laughter. The waiters are tall, good-looking young men – they are possessed of a certain ease and self-confidence I’m not used to in Rwandan waiters. Back and forth they go, carrying heaping plates, or small tin bowls full of a watery tomato broth. An older man, cautious, well-dressed, circles the room like a foreman. He has a small parcel bag slung over his shoulder – he handles the money. When a customer pays, he carefully counts out the change.

The food arrives with three lukewarm Fantas, and we give the plates our undivided attention. Even in this cheerful restaurant, the food requires a certain care and solemnity. There’s no telling for Faustin and Lazare, I’m sure, when such a meal will come again. Around the room there are many men like them: lean, fastidiously dressed, heads lowered to their plates, attending to each bite with religious devotion. There are women, too, as bright as tropical birds – more than I’m used to seeing in such a restaurant. And other men, vigorous and well-fed, for whom such a meal is no great occasion.

As the food diminishes on our plates, the conversation strikes up again. Faustin, smiling marvelously with contentment, pats his stomach in a grand, gratuitous gesture with both hands. Lazare opens his briefcase and removes a stack of photocopies: the study guide for his biology class, he says. There are skulls, and muscles, and reproductive organs, each meticulously labeled in Latin and French. It is probably the closest his school comes to a textbook. He takes out a sheet of blank paper and begins to write: his name, his father’s name, his contact details. “Lives in Kamembe,” he says, and writes: Lives in Kamembe. He apologizes that he doesn’t have a phone, but I say it’s okay: my number changes with each country I visit. It is better that we stay in touch through email, I assure him. At this, he seems greatly pleased.

Outside we walk through the streets, the sun is out for the first time today. It is a cheerful, bustling town. There are dozens of forex bureaus, and the ubiquitous hair salons – “saloons” – with names like New Texas, and American Boys, and Number One, and Dream. This is the saloon preferred by Lazare; Faustin, almost apologetically, says he doesn’t have the money to cut his hair often. I explain that I cut my hair myself: “Je coupe les cheveux moi-même.” This amuses them greatly. Africans, I say, don’t know how to cut mzungu hair. I make a buzzing noise as I run an imaginary trimmer across Lazare’s head. They laugh, nod sagely: the white man has a point. Now we’ve stopped outside the Dream Saloon, and Lazare says he will continue up the hill toward home. I’m ready to return to the terrace of the Hotel du Lac – my French, I explain, has abandoned me. Faustin reassures me. “Little by little,” he says. “It is very nice.”

We part with Lazare and turn back down the hill. Briefly we pass through the market; I’d explained that I was going to walk home – “Je vais marcher” – but Faustin thought I wanted to see the “marché.” Piles of children’s clothes on the ground, rows of shoes and sandals. “My friend,” says a man, gesturing to his stock of Chinese-made running shoes, “you are welcome.” Further down the hill, buses in a dirt lot. I suspect Faustin has done enough walking today, so I offer to give him money for the bus. He is smiling, grateful. I plunk two coins in his hand, and he hesitates. The full journey home will cost 700 francs, he says – there is the bus, and then a boat. I realize how much I’ve probably missed in our conversation – boat? – but I am glad for the company he gave me, and I give him the money with gratitude. We part warmly. “À la prochaine,” I call out. Until next time. Faustin waves, crosses the road, and then disappears into the station’s throngs.

A bridge across the Rusizi, separating Rwanda from the Congo.

Walking down the hill, relieved to be free of my French, pleased at my encounter with Faustin and Lazare, the sun warm on my face, my spirits high. It is a long walk back to Cyangugu – some 30 minutes pass before I reach the place where we turned off for our shortcut. At the border, bedlam. Buses, motorbikes, porters with rickety wooden handtrucks, hoping to help some weary traveler with his cargo. Bicycles pedal toward the border post, laden with charcoal, jerry cans (these I saw pedaling down the hill from Kamembe – full of petrol, I suspect, to be resold in Bukavu at a profit). And women – so many women, with their baskets and bags and bundles, with great sacks of potatoes strapped to their backs. Brave, tireless, tough as a bag of screws: these women keep the economic engine thrumming. And then all the household duties: feeding the husband, dressing the children for school, keeping the home tidy. The day starts early and ends late. And yet to see them in groups – loud, laughing, chatting happily – is to appreciate what joy there is in such overworked spirits. In a small shop near the hotel, where I’ve stopped to buy water, a gaggle of women sits, bags straining and strewn around them, drinking milk, eating sweet loaves of ndazi bread, wiping the children’s noses, arguing with good humor. Always there is money changing hands between these tough, shrewd women. (Bundles of wrinkled, soiled bills wedged between their breasts.) Through some mystic calculus they keep the house running on the day’s small earnings. And always some wry comment, a frank stare, a bit of sexual humor, for the white guy, the mzungu.

Outside, along the waterfront, there is constant clamor. The Otracom bus stops, deposits and picks up passengers. Everyone carrying things, nylon sacks, boxes, households balanced on their heads. Further down the road is a warehouse, men bagging flour, their arms and faces covered in chalky dust, pale as the moon, as if the spirits have come back to stalk Cyangugu. Women everywhere – with their children at the health center, at a small busy marketplace, coming and going, coming and going. Further up the road, a shiny new duplex is being built, facing the Congo. I ask an old man in a baseball cap if it will be a hotel. No, he says, a house for a Rwandan man. Government? Phones, says the man. I appraise the house with its reflective windows and sparkling, white-washed walls. “C’est bonne travaille,” I say. It is good work. “Oui,” says the man. Before I go he asks for a sip of my bottled water.

On the way back to the hotel I meet one of the nuns, Sister Regina. She is making the rounds – the Home St. François runs a guest house, a health clinic, a center for the handicapped – and she asks if I’d like to join her. We enter a small gated compound, four buildings arranged around a tidy green courtyard. Women sit on the benches, talking softly, watching the children. There are three, four children with different handicaps – an autistic boy, a 15-year-old who shouts and claps when I walk in; a small girl, five years old, who hardly looks 18 months – and they are sitting on the floor, laughing, shouting, hobbling awkwardly on their crippled legs. The mothers greet me solemnly. Handicaps are not viewed with great charity in most of Africa. Grateful for the work the sisters are doing here, I wonder if they look at their strangely afflicted children with sorrow, fear, anger, regret – wondering if the devil’s work is in those twisted limbs.

Sister Regina shows me to another room, where three teenage girls are sewing and folding clothes. With a word from the sister they rise and politely greet me. The sisters are teaching these girls to be seamstresses, says Sister Regina. A useful trade. The girls are modest and avert their eyes. I can’t tell if they’re handicapped, too, or perhaps orphans, or girls abandoned by their families because of some unknown shame. We leave them to the hum of their sewing machines, the soft chatter of their voices. Next door is a dormitory, with six beds crowded into a small room. An autistic girl sits on one bed, squealing with joy as we enter. Near her an infant – hardly more than a year old, I’m sure – lies on a blanket, looking up at the ceiling.

The sisters have few resources here. The very fact of this home’s existence is a small miracle. Outside, near the entrance, a nurse is helping a young man with lame legs – a polio case, perhaps – as he takes his first brave steps with a walker. The women laugh, encourage him. Nearby a small child crawls across the floor. Sister Regina lifts her and hands her to me. I cradle her against my chest; instinctively she rests her head against me, sensing affection. Her tiny fingers clutch at my shirt. Our earliest instincts to be cared for, loved. I wonder if she can hear the beating of my heart. There are more shouts, a frantic waving of the arms, by the autistic boy. He hobbles to his feet and staggers after us as we go, his eyes bright and joyful, everyone laughing and cheering.

Outside Sister Regina tells me that there are a dozen of these homes around Rwanda – in Kigali, in Butare, in Gikongoro. The sisters are strong, industrious, their long days filled with cares over the physical and spiritual well-being of their charges. Sister Regina herself is kind, even-tempered; she struggles to speak English, laughs self-deprecatingly, returns to French. At the gate of the hotel she thanks me and excuses herself. She has more work to do – she gestures ambiguously up the road – and with that, she bustles off on her short, quick legs.

The day has worn me out. I take a Nescafe at the Hotel du Lac, then spend a few hours browsing online – the hotel’s Internet café, just across the road from the Home St. François, is a reprieve from the disconnectedness of Kibuye. At the hotel, I’m wary of another multi-course feast – bed, I suspect, is just an hour away. I have a bowl of soup, and then another. I’m in my room by half-past nine and in my bed by ten. Mosquitoes buzzing in my ear, Jesus on the wall, I sleep fitfully, waking every few hours with a start, until the day’s first sunlight comes into the room.

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.