Sunday, 27 July 2008

Escape to the far south-west!

July 22nd

Today’s the day I’m making my escape to Cyangugu with Tu Chi. We don’t leave until the 2 o’clock bus, and I can’t go and buy the bus tickets till 1 o’clock, so I have a leisurely morning getting packed and doing housework. I even manage to get some more internetting done.

By a quarter to one I’m at the Onatracom office to get our bus tickets. But, of course, the woman says the bus is fully booked. Panic stations. Tu Chi will be here in a few minutes; how the hell am I going to tell her that we can’t go because this silly woman is so inefficient that she couldn’t reserve me two tickets yesterday? (I’m sure she could have reserved them; she’s just too lazy to get off her backside and make the necessary phone calls). I throw a wobbly and tell her it’s less than 24 hours since she assured me there would be tickets, and that she refused to sell me any yesterday when I came in good time etc etc. By now there’s two or three bystanders watching. Everybody in Rwanda loves to stand around and watch an argument or a fight. It’s some of the best entertainment they get.

The woman decides to phone the depot in Kigali to check whether anybody’s getting off the bus in Gitarama. Half way through her phone call she runs out of credit (one of the side effects of poverty here – people go around with barely five minutes’ talk time on their phones and barely five miles of fuel in their vehicles). Everything comes to a halt while she calls one of the street children hanging around the bus park and sends him off to get her another 5 minutes’ credit. Eventually she finds out that there are two people on the bus booked to Gitarama, and so she can sell me our two tickets. Phew! We’ve got the bus – but by the skin of our teeth! If I’d arrived at 1 o’clock as she said, instead of twenty to one, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Onatracom is a government subsidised bus service which specialises in doing the very long distance routes Gitarama to Cyangugu is 220 kilometres – 140 miles, and just about the longest main road run you can do here without having to go through Kigali. Onatracom also does the marginal routes on very poor roads. The buses are huge green Japanese things with coachwork made in Kenya. They ride very high off the ground, travel like greased lightning and give way to nobody and nothing. They’re also accident prone. Promptly at 2 o’clock the bus arrives, and our seats are immediately claimed by two hopefuls with their technique of getting on first and arguing until they’re allowed to stay. Unfortunately for them, there are two angry muzungus with tickets already bought, and the ticket woman and convoyeur summarily eject these two so that we can take our places.

In an hour and a quarter we’re already in Butare (the stopping bus takes two hours, and that includes some high speed dashes between stops). We drop off some people in the bus park, then grind along a dirt road to the prison. Tu Chi gives me one of those “hey, where are you taking me?” looks. We swing past the prison; next to it is the Onatracon depot. While we were stopped at Butare several hawkers of bread, mandazis, peanuts and water climbed on board; they’ve been trying to balance themselves up and down the aisle and sell their stuff while we lurch from side to side down the rutted road. They all leave at the depot. Now there’s something wrong with one of our front wheels, and for a good ten minutes the driver’s hitting it with a hammer. (Banging something with a hammer seems to be the standard repair technique here). I suspect the brake blocks are sticking. Not a good prospect, because we’ve got all the mountain section ahead of us with some steep descents and no garages for fifty-odd miles through Nyungwe Forest.

We leave the depot and go down the hill to the main Butare – Cyangugu road, but then head back towards Butare and stop in the garage at the road junction. Here the driver decides he needs to change one of the rear wheels. We spend the best part of an hour stopped, in the full sun, while he strains with a ten foot long lever to undo the wheel nuts. Cue even more vendors coming on board to try to sell us stuff. I’ve brought some bananas from home that need finishing up; the vendors look venomously at me because I don’t need to buy from them…

Most of the passengers get off either to stretch their legs (the women) or to gawp at the wheel change (the men). The men in particular are very adept at just standing around, watching. Not helping at all, and getting in the way at times.

So we are now a good hour behind schedule. We grind up the mountains through Gikongoro, Kigeme and Gasarenda. Now I’ve chosen these particular days to go to Cyangugu because nothing seems to be happening back at work in Gitarama. Guess what! Half way to Gikongoro I get a text from Stéphanie at Shyogwe. The Pasteur wants a meeting tomorrow morning to talk about the building project. I have to text back and say sorry, but I’m away till late Thursday. Then ten minutes after we’ve driven past her house, Anne Miek texts from Kigeme to say someone’s driving through Gitarama tomorrow and will drop off the rice sacks I need provided I’m there to receive them. More frantic texting, this time punctuated by long periods of lost contact. We’re now in Nyungwe Forest National Park, and not surprisingly the phone coverage is intermittent. By the time I’ve got back to her to say I won’t be there, but that they can just drop the sacks at the office, and texted Claude to let him know, and handled a call from him to say why am I on my way to Cyangugu and what’s all this about rice sacks, its’ too late for Anne Miek to make the arrangements with her driver. So after all that effort, my rice sacks will have to wait.

Nyungwe is just as green and lovely as the first time I saw it. Unfortunately Tu Chi, who’s never seen it before, is sitting on the wrong side of the bus to get the best views. Before long she’s dozing. Evidently, so are the forest monkeys; I only see one all the time we’re in the trees, and by the time I’ve realised it’s a monkey we’ve passed it. The road surface gets worse as you go westwards through the forest. At times the bus is down to walking pace, and despite all its springing we’re thrown around inside it. This isn’t a journey for anyone who gets travel sickness.

By now it’s getting dark rapidly, and long before we’re through the forest we’re in pitch darkness. Real African darkness – not a single light to be seen anywhere. Everyone on the bus is tired and jaded. As we leave the forest and descend through the little settlements strung out along the Cyangugu road, we stop and stop to let people off. Godforsaken looking straggles of huts, mostly made of timber planks, and with a desperately temporary air to them.

At one place we have another ten minute stop while the driver has a further set to with a hammer against the front wheel. I remember Marisa and Stéphane telling me they saw an Onatracom bus during their journey on this road – the bus had lost its brakes and come to grief against trees at the side of the road. By now I’ve lost any idea of how far we still have to go. Every time we pause I wonder if we’re there yet. All the previous chatter on the bus has subsided into a tired and sullen silence; the entire complement of passengers just wants to get wherever they’re going.

Eventually we crawl into the bus depot at Kanembe, the “native town” or upper town of Cyangugu. It’s well after half past eight, and I’ve told the Guest House to expect us sometime after seven. We’re both worried we might have lost our beds by now, and we’re also worried we won’t be able to find anywhere to eat.

The Peace Guest house is a mile down the road towards Cyangugu proper. It’s very dark, neither of us knows where we’re going, and it’s too far to walk at this time of night, so we’ve no alternative but to get a moto. The moto drivers know this as well, and rook us for a ridiculous price. We reach the Guest House, bang on the closed gate (not a welcoming prospect when we’re both tired and anxious), and eventually are admitted. Now the next farce begins. The Guest House doesn’t have any record of our booking. This is just surreal. I had a five minute conversation with someone at the Guest House yesterday, in English, and definitely booked two single rooms. The receptionist just shrugs and says “well, it wasn’t me”.

I daren’t look at Tu Chi. I know she’ll be imagining I’ve done this deliberately and will suddenly try to force a double room on her because there’s no alternative….

But once again we’re in luck. There are some rooms left, but without a lake view, and they’re double the price in the guide book. Never mind, they’re twin rooms, and we take a room each. The rooms are clean and perfectly adequate. There are no en suite facilities, but next door to our rooms is a block of washrooms so we’re as good as en-suite. It’s far better accommodation than Épi and I put up with at Gisenyi, albeit at three times the price.

Despite the bookings fiasco, I have to say that the Peace Guest House turns out to be an extremely welcoming place; very accommodating, and I would recommend it to anyone going there. But I suggest anyone reading this and heading to Cyangugu gets the early morning bus so that you arrive in daylight. That way, if the guest house really is full, you have some time to try to find alternatives. We were both very lucky on this occasion!

Even better, the restaurant is still open and willing to cook for us, and we heave a huge sigh of relief and order our suppers. By the time we’ve finished eating it’s about ten o’clock and we’re both tired. The bus journey lasted about six and a half hours, and we’re so, so jaded.

Fortunately, the lake, even at nighttime, is superb. The hotel is on the lakeside, but quite high above it. There is a beautiful garden, walled in, and you can’t get down to the water’s edge. (In fact there’s a twenty foot high cliff down to the water). But we can smell the lake air in all its freshness. What really makes this place special is the view. We can see right across the lake, and also see end southern end of the lake. In the distance we can see bright lights of towns along its shore; we assume (wrongly, as it turns out tomorrow), that they are the lights of Cyangugu and Bukavu. Beyond any doubt we are looking into the Congo and it looks quite attractive. Dark mountains rise from the far shore of the lake, which is calm. The lake is dotted with the lights of fishing boats; we can’t see the boats clearly or hear the fishermen, but it really is an attractive sight. There are far more boats than I saw either at Kibuye or Gisenyi, and spread over a far greater area.

So despite being messed about with bus bookings, hotel bookings; despite breakdowns en route and arriving very late, someone up there has been looking after us and all’s well with the world. We each tuck our mozzie nets round the beds and it doesn’t take long before we’re both dead to the world!

Best thing about today – Nyungwe again; I’d forgotten just how beautiful the trees are, and how huge it is. On the bus it seems to go on for ever. Travelling with a companion really is special; I’m so grateful to Tu Chi for agreeing to accompany this old man on what must feel to her like a sort of extended blind date! The night view of the lake – Kivu is very special wherever you happen to chance on it.

Worst thing about today – beyond any doubt the sheer inefficiency of customer service here. Cyangugu is well off the beaten track for most tourists, but it does get its share. You’d have thought that bus companies and hotels would have got their act together by now!

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