Thursday, 10 July 2008

Escape to Gisenyi

July 5th

Off to Kigali on an early bus, determined to make the best of this weekend and make it a little holiday. I don’t know why, but I feel I need a break from Gitarama. The trouble is, at the moment everything seems stacked against Épi and I. Our pay cheques haven’t gone through yet so we’ve got little money; because of the uncertainties as to whether we could go or not, we haven’t booked into any accommodation and we now discover that this is the Rwandan equivalent of a British Bank Holiday weekend, when all hotels are likely to be full.

So I travel hopefully rather than with any certainty!

The bus drops me at Nyabogogo rather than the town centre, so I transfer straight up to the VSO office. None of the VSO staff are in the office, and Marisa’s on the computer, so straight away I can’t do any of the admin things I need – all I can do is return a couple of library books and free up some room in my backpack. I’ll have to do the admin on Monday when I know that there will be office staff around.

Then Épi arrives and we have a council of war. She’s tried to go to the bank this morning, but on top of everything else this week – two public holidays, Presidential visit, endless umuganda closures – apparently today is voting day for local elections and therefore most non-food business are closed – especially the banks.

We try ringing the various budget accommodation in Gisenyi – I will change some Euros and provided we’re not extravagant we’ll manage on my money until our pay finally goes through. Some places are listed in the guide book in glowing terms, but without phone numbers (what’s the use of listing a place if you can’t contact it?). The best choice, the Presbyterian Guest House, is fully booked till July 12th except for the dormitories. Épi and I both pull a face at the thought of Youth Hostel type beds! We try and try to find phone numbers for the other cheaper places – using the internet, texting colleagues like Cathie who know the area well). Nothing works. We discuss “plan B” – abandoning Gisenyi this weekend and going to visit one of the other volunteers such as Hester in Rusumo or George in Nyagatare. But we both really want to go to the lakeside, not the dry East.

Finally we have to swallow our pride and book ourselves into the dormitories. We daren’t travel all the way (3 hours) to Gisenyi and risk not having anywhere to sleep but the beach! I’m too old and Épi’s not that sort of girl…..

By now it’s late morning but our luck changes for the better. Back in the town centre I go to my usual forex place in the base of Kigali’s main mosque, but we find everything’s still shut because of the elections. There are hundreds of men and a few women hanging around everywhere waiting for things to re-open, but nobody dare lift the shutters on their shops until the police have given them the O K. However, the forex office I use is on the quiet side of the mosque, next to Mr Ali’s computer repair shop, and away from the direct gaze of police on the main street. And the lure of getting cash from a muzungu is simply irresistible. So the man immediately opens up for us; we’re ushered inside and the door closed behind us. Within 20 seconds I’ve changed my 50 Euros and we’re solvent for the weekend! Yay; that’s money and accommodation done; now to fix transport!

Transport turns out to be the easiest thing of all to fix. We get straight onto a big new bus which is leaving for Gisenyi, and though we’re very squashed in the back seats it’s heaps better than going in one of the small matatas. (Moral – when travelling on the bigger buses it pays to get there and claim your seat half an hour in advance and find a seat with legroom. Everywhere else is 4 to a row except the back seat which is 5 to a row – and on this occasion that includes 2 very beamy men)!

I’ve described the journey to Ruhengeri in my April 6th blog entry. For Épi it’s her first time north of Kigali, though, and she’s glued to the window. I discover that on one high stretch soon after Kigali I can see the Nyaborongo river down below us, and realise that those hills on the far left hand side must be the same hills that I crossed with Els last week to go to Nyabinoni. For me the road to Ruhengeri is just as beautiful second time round. I discover two nice waterfalls that for some reason I missed last time.

At a spot called Base we pull into a roadside café and everyone piles out. Now this also happened when I went to the volcanoes with Geert, and like fools we stayed in the bus, thinking that everyone else was alighting at this village. But now I’m wiser and I jump out with the rest, leaving Épi to guard our bags. With everyone else I pile into the shops, and get hot sambozas and cold mandazis for lunch. Other people have managed to buy brochettes and ibirayi which is quite impressive – I’ll have to try that when I come up with Teresa & co! So from Base to Ruhengeri, over the mountain pass and alongside the foaming rivers, we’re chomping our way through dinner with everyone else and scattering a layer of fatty crumbs on the floor of the bus.

I’ve been telling Épi that when we reach the summit of the pass we’ll have all the volcanoes lined up in front of us and that it’ll make a must-take photo. Oh dear, it turns out to be a mis-take photo. The air is so thick with dust and haze that you can’t see a single volcano. And it gets worse – even as we’re driving through Ruhengeri town and the volcanoes should be almost close enough to touch, they’re still lost in the haze. There’s just the faintest partial outline of lower slopes here and there. Épi’s so underwhelmed that she goes to sleep!

After Ruhengeri we’re both on new territory. The road is being rebuilt, and so varies from perfect new tarmac, as good as anything in England, to appallingly potholed old road which bangs and shakes the bus to pieces, and here and there the tarmac has been removed completely and we’re on earth. All along the side of the road there are hundreds of buildings daubed with big red crosses. There are buildings judged too close to the new road, or sub standard, and due for demolition. I have no idea whether their owners will be paid compensation; I suspect that many of these places were just thrown up illegally over the past years. Some look in quite good condition and are simply too close to the rebuilt road (twice as wide as its predecessor); others are awful dens and would probably fall down of their own accord in a year or two. Huge graders and rollers and tip up truck rattle past in clouds of choking dust. To keep the dust out everyone closes every single window in the bus. Then within a few minutes we’re all sweating in the heat and our legs are sticking to the plastic seat covers. Niiiiiice, I don’t think! Oh the joys of public transport in Africa!

The road crosses a massive lava field, with millions of lumps of clinkery lava dotted with potato patches. Every mile or so we climb up a little escarpment and then cross a basin. Each basin has its own settlement, getting poorer and less tropical looking as we climb. One basin is completely filled by a tea plantation which is really unexpected – the two main tea areas in Rwanda are in the south (Gasarenda) and the north (Byumba). This one in the north west is something I had no idea existed. And tea plantations are easy to spot – the leaves are such a vivid green: the kind of bright green you’d find in a child’s paint box. Here and there we pass huge, conical mountains with smooth, bare, very steep rock sides to them – I’m sure they’re old volcanic plugs where the ash and lava has been worn away. One in particular is bare for a couple of hundred feet and would make a really severe rock climbing challenge for a professional climber!

According to my guide book we pass a big remnant of virgin forest at Gishwati, but I looked for it and couldn’t identify it anywhere. Also, there’s the northern end of the “road to the end of the earth” from Gitarama which is supposed to join our main road midway between Ruhengeri and Gisenyi. If we passed it, then it most certainly wasn’t signposted! By this time we’re all travel weary and just want to arrive somewhere.

Eventually our road starts to drop down, and we realise that we’ve come over the edge of the western fault line and we’re descending into the rift valley. The road twists and turns and descends for mile after mile. At no point can you see Lake Kivu, or Nyiragongo volcano – visibility is limited by the haze to a couple of miles only.

At one place we pass a massive transit camp for returning refugees. It’s not on a hilltop like Gihembe and Kigeme, but it still manages to look squalid and unwelcoming. By contrast, there are also several orphanages dotted along the road. These are invariably run by religious groups with funding from overseas, and they always look tidy and efficient.

Eventually we roll into the town centre of Gisenyi. Now Gisenyi is the 5th largest town in Rwanda, but the middle of it is the dreariest, most soul-less place I’ve ever seen. I look at Épi and wonder what on earth I’ve brought her to. We’re barely off the bus before we’re accosted by beggars and moto drivers, hucksters and taxi-men.
It takes us quite a while to get our bearings from the map and find the Presbyterian Guest House, and by that time we’ve done virtually a circuit of the town centre, via the prison and hospital, and we’re hot and sticky. And it’s also not helped by the map in our guide book having transposed the Presbyterian Church with its guest house.

As we pass through the town we see the Gisenyi branch of BCR (Épi’s bank). The front is all screened off behind corrugated iron where it’s being rebuilt and it lookes completely shut. Our hearts sink to our boots. But no, there’s the obligatory guard with pump action shotgun who shows us down a side alley to where the bank is open for business in temporary rooms. And – joy of joys – during the day our pay checks have been processed. Épi’s solvent at last! You could power the town on her smile for the rest of the day! (She’s been so broke for the past week that she and Ghuidi have had to cut down on their food, and that’s not good for anyone).

When we do eventually find the Guest House and trudge through the gates we find it’s a cool, clean, leafy, shady, tidy place with a welcoming concierge who is fascinated with Épi. When Épi explains to her that she is half Rwandan and that the reason she has come is because she has family connections with this corner of the country, the concierge is chatting away nineteen to the dozen. As usual, she asks Épi if I’m her husband….. I suppose we do look an odd couple to everyone else, but we get along fine together and it makes travel more pleasant for both of us.

Our dorms are basic but clean – mine has around twelve bunk beds just like the old 1960s Youth Hostels, all squeaky springs and ex-army blankets. The African touch is provided by enormous mosquito nets, by a toilet which is working but missing its seat, and by a shower which runs cold water only and where both towel rail and clothes holder are perilously close to parting company with the walls! But they’ll do. We’ve both experienced far worse in our time, and it’s only for a couple of nights.

We mooch down to the lakeside. Kivu is calm as a millpond – there are no waves to speak of. Cormorants are drying their wings on rocks offshore. It’s far too hazy to see the far (Congolese) shore). Out in the middle of the bay is a structure which looks like a lighthouse. Épi reminds me that it’s the drilling rig where they are extracting methane gas from the lower parts of the lake.

Kivu is one of the highly dangerous African lakes which are vulnerable to limnic eruptions. Methane and carbon dioxide gas are seeping from volcanic rocks into the dense lower layers of its water. Because there are few currents in this lake, the water isn’t churned up very much. So the lowest layers of water are supercharged with millions of tons of these poisonous gases, prevented from rising to the surface and dispersing harmlessly by the weight of layers of water above them. If, however, something really disturbs and mixes the water layers – like a big volcanic eruption or a major earthquake – then there is a serious risk that all these billions of tons of gas will be released into the atmosphere. If that happens, the CO2 will float on the surface of the water and smother all life in all the towns around its shores. Unless we can pump out and use commercially a hell of a lot of methane! At present the methane being extracted is all being used by the Bralirwa brewery. So by drinking lots of beer we are making Rwanda a safer place to live………. Yeah, right!

Over to the left we can see the Gisenyi swimming beach, so we go to investigate. There is no promenade as such, but a shady road lined with hundreds of palm trees. It’s very relaxed and we immediately like the feel of this part of Gisenyi. Up in the tops of the palm trees we hear thousands of birds chirping. When we look up to try to identify the birds, however, we discover that they are bats not birds. Loads and loads of roosting bats. I suppose they’re not vampire bats….

The bathing beach is quite small and is divided into two sections. One is the public beach complete with smelly toilets, and foul looking swimming pool and a small jetty. Then there is a fence and hedge, patrolled by security guards. We are the only white people on this side. On the other side is the private beach with its sun loungers, showers, and the exclusive Kivu Sun hotel – probably the best hotel in Rwanda outside Kigali. On the private beach there is barely a black face except for the guards and waiters. Both Épi and I make the same comment – it’s just like pictures we’ve seen of 1960s Apartheid South Africa. And here it is in an independent African country….

We walk back the way we’ve come. In the distance we can see the outskirts of Goma, which means we’re within a mile of the border with Congo. We walk all the way to the border gate. Nobody challenges us; it’s, like, laid back to the nth degree. There’s a steady flow of cars and lorries across the border. Planes take off regularly from Goma airport; their flight path takes them right down the middle of the lake. Some of these Congolese jets are so badly maintained that they’re banned from Western airports, and only last month one crashed on the runway at Goma. I don’t think we’ll take a fun flight this afternoon!

This part of Goma is all new buildings; it looks far more up-market than Rwanda. This seems odd to me considering the degree of violence and unrest in Congo, but I suppose these opulent houses with their terraces and pools must be owned by the tiny number of super rich Congolese, and that being on the border is part of their security plans: if things get rough in the Congo they can be safely inside Rwanda in about 10 minutes!

On our stroll we’ve identified the “La Bella Motel”; it’s got a very good review in the Bradt guide and one of my motives for this weekend trip has been to reconnoitre a hotel for Teresa when she comes at the end of the month. We walk up and ask to see the rooms, and they look beautiful – huge rooms with lake view. And the restaurant comes highly recommended, too. So I make a provisional booking on the spot for August and we both know that if we have guests to take to Gisenyi, this is where we’ll take them. We decide to try the restaurant that evening (well, why not?), and dine on fresh tilapia from the lake.

There’s a gentle breeze from the lake but it’s neither too cold nor too windy to spoil a really lovely tropical evening. It feels a bit odd walking home from the posh hotel to spend the night in our cheap dormitories, but then we’re only paying just over £1 a night for our accommodation so we shouldn’t grumble, should we?

And so to bed, swapping my beautiful travel partner for a roomful of sweaty, snoring Africans………..

Best thing about today – well, more or less everything after we got lucky with booking the room. The day just got better and better. When we first arrived at Gisenyi I thought it was an awful dump and felt embarrassed for Épi. But the bit down by Lake Kivu is super.

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