Tag Archives: “rusizi river”

Me no money, me no go.

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

To start at the beginning, click here.

Day 11 – March 31

Another restless night. Not surprising. When I wake, heart racing, just after six this morning, I’m already juggling through unpleasant scenarios at the border. Bribes, detentions, angry interrogations. Demands for imaginary fees: a camera fee, a tourist fee, a fee for carrying an extra pair of sneakers. Dear Lord, don’t let the word “journalist” come up!

I’ve made my preparations, most of which involve stashing bundles of various currencies on different parts of my body, not sure how many bribes – and in which currencies and denominations – might be necessary to get me across the border. I’ve punched some phone numbers into my phone, too – friends who will, I hope, be able to get me out of a tight spot, should things not go according to my admittedly half-assed plan.

Wishful thinking: saying goodbye - sort of - to Rwanda

With a few cheery waves and brisk goodbyes, I leave Cyangugu just after nine. The Rwandan official – a tribute to her countrymen – stamps and scribbles me through, and then I’m crossing a rusted bridge over the Rusizi and trudging uphill. There is commotion on all sides: porters pushing loaded wheelbarrows up the hill, women carrying boxes and tough nylon sacks on their heads and backs. A police box – an empty shipping container – sits halfway up the hill, and a small health clinic further still. I reach the border post and stroll merrily toward the nearest window. No dice. Foreigners, of course, get the special treatment – far from prying eyes – and so I’m ushered through first one, then another doorway, into a small, congested room whose stifled air suggests the long, unpleasant hours ahead.

Two men, broad, bespectacled, cheerless, sit behind two cluttered desks, hunched like Talmudic scholars over their ledgers. The man in the far corner looks up, gives me a discouraging once-over, and says, simply, “Oui?” I have been preparing for this moment. I hand him my passport and $35 in crisp American bills, smiling nonchalantly, as if I do this sort of thing all the time. He gives my money a dirty look and asks, “Que’st-ce que c’est?” I suspect a long, delicate dance has just begun.

I explain that I’d like to buy an entry visa, and both men sit upright, push themselves back from their desks, as if to get a vantage point from which to better appraise me, and exchange a significant look. A long, heated, mostly one-sided debate ensues, in which my well-rehearsed pleas are brushed aside with an admittedly masterful display of bureaucratic stubbornness. Americans, they explain, must receive their visas from the Congolese Embassy in Washington, D.C. I protest that I’ve been out of the country for close to a year; then, they explain, with perfect reasonableness, I should have written to Kinshasa. I can only imagine what the creaking machinery of Congolese bureaucracy would do to such a letter. I say that I’ve twice visited Goma and bought my visa on arrival, but I can quickly tell this is a foolish gambit: I might as well explain how things work in China. They make disparaging remarks about their North Kivu counterparts, suggesting a less than brotherly bond between the Kivus; and besides, they say, a new law has come into effect – of course! – as of the first of this year. It is impossible for them to issue me a transit visa at the border – simply impossible! That would be against the law. Fortunately, finally, getting to the crux of the matter, there is a convenient loophole in this law, through which I can jump for just three hundred American bucks.

The finer points of this argument are, unfortunately, lost in a barrage of indignant French. Still, it is a brilliant performance. I can tell I am up against higher powers here: the complex mechanisms of the State, the mythical rule of law, the bureaucracy which the Congolese treat with the same gravity and respect the rest of us show colon cancer. I realize now that my hopes for a quick, painless border crossing were foolish ones; and I realize, too, that I’ll need whatever help I can get to make it into Congo.

I dial Etienne, a Rwandan tour operator I’d met in Kigali earlier this month. At the time he’d assured me that the Congolese visa was a breeze: $35 in American bills at the border, just as I’d done it in Goma. How simple everything seemed in Kigali! Etienne claimed to be well-connected with immigration officials on both sides of the border; he knew the rules, he said, as if these things in the Congo weren’t entirely negotiable. Over the phone I explain my case to him. He is attentive, sympathetic. His friend in Bukavu, he says, is unfortunately traveling to Kinshasa at the moment. I ask if he can try to talk some reason into these recalcitrant officials, and he offers to give it a shot. The man nearest me has returned to his paperwork, and when I call to him – once, twice, “Pardon? Pardon?” – his brilliance becomes evident. I wait for one, two, three beats as he dutifully records the latest entry in his ledger. Trappist monks could not go about their work with such religious devotion. Finally he raises his eyes, a master of his craft, almost feigning surprise that I’m still here. He takes the phone and, at great volume, explains the situation to Etienne. The situation, to borrow from the French, seems to be merde. Etienne, in my ear again, is unconvinced. He promises to make some calls to friends in Goma and urges me to sit tight. In the mean time, he says, I should leave these men to their devices. They won’t want a mzungu around, he says, during whatever complex negotiations might ensue.

Outside, sunlight, brilliance. I am put off, but not wholly discouraged, by the morning’s proceedings: really, I should’ve expected as much. I find a spot in the shade, sit on my duffel bag, watch the bustle of this busy crossing. Women are packing bags, stuffing sandals and clothes and cheap Chinese electronics into them, heaving them onto their backs. When they walk they’re almost doubled over, the muscles in their necks straining, their upper bodies parallel to the ground. I imagine they’ll make this same trip back and forth each day to sell their goods in the market. The day’s profits, a bundle of soiled, rumpled bills, will be buried somewhere in their bosoms. At home, there is a secret place they have for safekeeping.

There are the handicapped, too, weathered, shrewd, battered, defiant, straining their way uphill in rusted hand-pedaled tricycles. Because of some quirk in the customs law – a rare piece of beneficence, perhaps, in the cutthroat Congolese world – the handicapped are exempt from paying duties at the border. And so these crafty cripples, spurned by the world, often shunned by their own families, make a dozen trips a day, transporting jerry cans full of gasoline bought cheaply in Kamembe. For the tough uphill climb there is a young boy, barefoot, dressed in soiled rags, pushing from behind. Probably he will get 500 Congolese francs – about 60 cents – for the effort.

These young boys are everywhere, their feet cracked and blistered, in filthy shorts and oversized t-shirts, keeping the border economy going. They are porters carrying sacks of flour up the hill, or vendors selling whatever cheap nutritionless fare – plain white rolls, glucose biscuits, chewing gum, waffles – count as sustenance here. Most, I suspect, have never set foot in school – from an early age, they had to contribute to the family. And yet I suspect these young swift hustlers are learning more valuable lessons here than in some understaffed, underfunded Congolese school. (These Western pieties!) Near the border post a handsome adolescent – he is 15, or 16 – washes the Land Cruisers and 4Runners of Bukavu’s nouveau riche. He is fast, diligent; he charges 1,500 francs – almost $2 – per car. In his employ are two younger boys who carry jerry cans down the hill, filling them with lake water. On a slow day, this young entrepreneur probably takes home ten, fifteen bucks. This is an impressive amount even for a man his father’s age. He wears a smart, buttoned shirt and a pair of crisp denim shorts. He looks wise beyond his years.

A boy approaches me, smiling, his pants torn at the knees, a jerry can tied with a dirty rag over his shoulder. “Mzungu, how are you?” he says. His name is Abdullah. He orbits my small encampment, grinning, grateful for my proximate whiteness. “Me no money, me no go,” he says. I’ve been sitting outside for close to an hour. Join the club, I think.

Now my friend Justin arrives, looking sharp in a blue collared shirt and blue jeans and a bright white pair of New Balance sneakers. We greet each other joyfully – it’s been more than two months since we met in Bujumbura – and exchange the news. We’re interrupted by a call: Etienne has reached his friend, the chef of immigration in Goma, and wants me to send him my passport details. Suddenly the day has brightened. Things are moving forward, it seems, and it’s only 10am.

We stand and talk in the shade, the border circus whirling around us, Bukavu just fifty feet away. When I’d met Justin – briefly, at our hotel in Bujumbura – he had been visiting Burundi to apply for a passport at the Congolese Embassy. This had seemed illogical at the time. But then, I didn’t really know Congo.

“Everything is too much money here,” he explains, gesturing with his chin to the country on the other side of the border control. The cost of applying for a passport in Bukavu was too high – there were too many officials asking for too many bribes. It was easier and cheaper to travel to Bujumbura, where he had studied and lived for five years, than to deal with the bureaucratic hassles in Congo. He laughs, recognizing my similar plight. “Once you get in, it is no problem,” he says. “There is no control.”

Such is the situation for young Congolese in Bukavu, who find a better, easier life waiting as soon as they cross the border. Justin does his shopping in Kamembe; it was corruption at the university in Bukavu that drove him to Buja. “The teacher will call you and say, ‘I am marking your exam. What do you have to give me?’” he says. In Congo, he had no way of knowing what his talents were as a student. As with so much in Congo, it was just a question of how much he could pay.

Now he’s waiting for his passport in Bujumbura, so that he could begin the lengthy process of applying for an American visa. He is already 28 – old for a Congolese bachelor – and he knows how hard it will be to travel once he starts a family. The application process is difficult, though; it all depends on how much money he can show for himself. Already he has thought his expenses through: one hundred dollars a day for a hotel, fifty dollars a day for restaurants, money for transportation. Clearly, Justin is not a typical young Congolese of limited means. But not even these preparations will help his cause. “If I go to show them these calculations at the Embassy, it is not enough!” he says. “If I show them I have five thousand dollars, it is not enough!” And yet how easily he passed between these African borders.

Etienne, now, is on the phone again. No news from Goma. Patience, he counsels. I have nothing else to rely on. We stand and watch the border traffic pass us by. More women, husky, laboring – all day they flow back and forth between the two countries. Some wazungu, too. The UN and NGO staffers pass quickly – probably they are negotiating this border each day. An SUV idles outside the office, a white woman sitting in the back, suitcases piled behind her. Tourist? She doesn’t leave the car. Her driver, a tall, well-dressed man of solid build, carries her papers inside. Even this smooth customer, it seems, is rebuffed. Now he is on the phone. Now another man gets out of the car, confers. Soon they, too, are allowed to pass. Not even a look of pity as they go.

The officials, it seems, have come outside to stretch their legs, and they’re not too pleased to see us here. They have harsh words for Justin and shoo us further down the road. We find a bench, a thin plank of wood, in the shade of a pine tree. Our friend the carwasher is working diligently on an SUV. The owner, handsome, immaculately dressed, watches with intense curiosity. His shoes are spotless – he must have floated over all that mud. Justin greets a friend, a cousin. A student from the university approaches, smiling. Apparently I’d met him a few days before, in Kamembe. He gives me his email address, waves, trots off to catch up with his friends. I have no idea who he is.

We are talking about the Congo, me and Justin, and it is funny to hear him talk about Kinshasa, that far-away place. It is like hearing news from a foreign land. Justin has only heard stories from two brothers who had studied in the capital. It costs nearly $700 to fly to Kinshasa one-way from Bukavu – more than half the cost of a round-trip ticket to New York. To travel overland, of course, is impossible – it would take weeks, even if he could do it safely. But Justin follows the news. He is a keen critic of the president, Kabila the Younger. He says there is a saying in Kiswahili, “Sehemo yangu?” – “Where is my part?” – that explains the Kabila style of governance. Following in the footsteps of his father, and of Mobutu before him. “When I compare here to Bujumbura,” says Justin, “I regret too much.” He gestures to the tarmac road, which, he says, tapers off on the other side of town. The Chinese have been contracted to rebuild the roads in Bukavu – they’ve signed massive infrastructure deals in exchange for minerals all across Congo – but Justin says the quality of their work is poor. The government has no interest in developing the country. “We have money, but no conscience,” he says.

In Congo, it is like the age of the American robber barons. Worse – at least they gave us functioning railroads. The plunder of the Congo has been going on for so long, it has built so many lavish fortunes – in Congo, in Belgium, in France; no doubt in South Africa, America, China, too – that it’s impossible to see a way out. Justin sighs at his country’s wasted riches. “In our soil we have gold, we have diamonds, we have minerals,” he says. “But it is for nothing.” He says he has dreams of becoming president some day. He would like to turn the Congo into a functioning country, one that would work for its people – not against them.

Across the road, up a narrow dirt path, is a grand two-storey house. It belongs to Justin’s uncle, a local politico; on the ground floor he’s built a small restaurant, umbrellas and plastic tables facing Lake Kivu. Now, with storm clouds gathering over the Rwandan hills, Justin suggests we sit on the terrace: the umbrellas, at least, will keep us dry. We climb the muddy hill. At the top a busy youth, the houseboy, is washing laundry in a plastic basin. Justin goes to greet him, to search for his aunt. From the terrace I can see a long line of traffic, bodies and bodies, trudging across the border.

Moments before being forced back to Rwanda.

We sit under the candy-striped beach umbrellas and wait. My spirits are deflating. It’s been three hours now, and still no encouraging news from Etienne. He calls again. The Bukavu immigration chef, it seems, has switched off his phone. Etienne is sorry, sympathetic. “I know how it must be for you,” he says. I thank him with great feeling: already he’s done more than I could have expected. He promises to keep trying throughout the day. I assure him dinner’s on me when I make it back to Kigali.

Justin is standing beside me and we are watching the road. The early-morning traffic of market women and traders is being replaced by students – dozens of Rwandan youths who, like Faustin and Lazare, the two men I met in Cyangugu, cross the border each day to study in Bukavu. Now a man passes, legless, a muscular torso, with sandals tied to the stumps below his knees. He has a walking stick in one hand and a jerry can propped on his shoulder. Justin says he lost his legs to a bomb during the war – the big war, Mobutu’s war, when Rwandan troops stormed across the country to topple the old dinosaur. The fighting in Bukavu was bad. Each day gunfire, bombs, grenades. “That one,” says Justin, pointing to the legless man, “he decided he could not live asking, ‘Do you have money? Do you have money?’ He said, ‘I can still walk, so I can do something.’” The man carried a jerry can full of gasoline up the hill, hobbled back down, carried another. Day after day, this was his life. He might make a $5 profit on each one, says Justin. And there would be other deals, arrangements with people trying to get their goods through customs without paying a tax. “You see that one?” says Justin, pointing to a fretful woman standing in the road with a jerry can beside her. “She is trying to see how she can pass that border without paying a tax. Now she will ask that man to help her.” Sure enough, just seconds later, the woman is negotiating with the legless man. The conversation is brief – probably his asking price is too high. The man stumps off down the hill, taking brisk powerful strides, and the woman, trying her luck, picks up the jerry can and walks slowly toward the border.

The clouds blow in. They part. The road is drenched in sunlight. I’m starting to get hungry – I haven’t eaten all morning – and I know this won’t help my mood. I’m weighing our options when the choice is made for me: blustering down the road, gesticulating wildly, is one of the gruff immigration officials. I’m not sure how he spotted us – we must be 200 feet from the border control – but he is in no diplomatic mood. He wants us clear of the border, back in Rwanda – his whole manner is full of belligerence, threats. I take up my bags and we trundle off; things here can only end badly. Soon we are back at the Rwandan border, sitting on a bench, waiting. I am tired, my mood is sour. And then the rain starts to fall.

This is the low point of the day. If the war is far from over, this battle has been decisively won by the Congolese bureaucrats: I’m back where I started five hours ago. Outside the Rwandan border post, full of pathos and desperate entreaty, I ask a pretty Spanish girl – her manner confident, vigorous – how she plans on crossing the border. But she already got her visa in Spain – no hope that her handlers might be able to spirit me through. Finally, standing in the rain, I admit defeat. I ask the Rwandan official to cancel my exit visa – she is sympathetic, full of harsh words for her Congolese counterparts – and then me and Justin slouch our way to the Home St. François, where at least a hot meal is waiting.

Over potage and piles of rice and beans, I weigh my options. Etienne remains my best bet; Justin’s uncle – some ruling party functionary, no doubt – might prove to be a worthy plan B. There is apparently another border post – Rusizi deux – some 10 kilometers down the road, but I have my doubts. Justin assures me I’ll be able to pass without a hassle, but Justin has never been a white guy in the Congo. There’s a chance, too, that these stubborn bureaucrats will let me bribe my way through – Justin suggests approaching them as my intermediary with a hundred bucks – but this move seems full of potential peril. I might be angrily rebuffed. I might be shaken down for more money. I might spend the night in a Congolese prison, wrapped in the arms of a 300-pound convict whispering hoarsely into my ear, “C’etait bonne, non? C’etait très, très douce.”

The last, least desirable option – the one that even I, with my particular taste for black humor, find hard to swallow – would be to board a bus in the morning, backtrack hundreds of miles via Kigali to Gisenyi, and cross the border into Goma. This tragicomic journey would involve more strength than my tired bones could probably muster; and yet how different I’ll probably feel, come morning, if all the other doors have been slammed shut on me.

All these things circle in my head, synapses firing, as we finish our lunch. It is after two, and I can see that the window of opportunity for this day is closing. It seems pointless to keep Justin here – bless his heart, he’s already spent a full day fretting along beside me. We part with great laughter and warmth and gratitude – it’s been a memorable day – and then I’m again checking into room No. 6 at the Home St. François, exchanging dollars (another headache! most seem to be counterfeits I picked up in Gisenyi), and heading back to the Internet café across the road. There’s a sort of luxury in this: I am relieved, after this long day, to be back in familiar surroundings. Etienne calls again, promising to pursue things on his end throughout the evening. Justin says he will take things up with his uncle. Tomorrow is another day, full, I’m sure, of its own promises and failures.

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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.