Thursday, 10 July 2008

Relaxing by Lake Kivu

July 6th

OK, so it was an interesting night. Farting, snoring virtually continuously (the other people in my dorm, but not me, you understand). People were getting up from about five o’clock onwards. Some were in pairs or threes; they woke each other up and then had conversations in normal speaking voices as if the rest of us, pretending to still be asleep under our blankets, didn’t exist. Then somebody turned the light on, and from then onwards it was a procession of doors banging or squeaking on their hinges as they swung open, and the loo being flushed all the time. Of course, the cistern had to whistle as it refilled…..

So you can understand why I finally gave in and got up myself at six o’clock – and on a Sunday – and I’m supposed to be on holiday. A nice cold shower to wake up, and then out in the early morning cool to go for a walk down to the beach. I’d arranged with Épi to give her a beep if I got up early, but Épi’s not a “mornings” girl and wisely stays in bed as late as possible. They’re obviously a far more refined and considerate bunch in the women’s room! And, of course, Épi gets woken every school day at 5.30 by the school bell, so when she’s got a chance to have a lie in undisturbed she really goes for it!

Even at just after seven o’clock the street outside our Guest House is jammed full of people making their way down to the Catholic Church for seven o’clock mass. Hundreds and hundreds of people. Also, by this time, the bands and choirs are starting to warm up in the Presbyterian Church next to our Guest House, ready for the nine o’clock service there. Central Gisenyi is not a place if you want a quiet Sunday morning!

I walk down to Lake Kivu because I’m hoping the air might be clearer this morning. When I get there, however, it’s just as thick and hazy as yesterday. There’s no chance of seeing the volcano, or the far shore of the lake, or almost anything further than a couple of miles away. The bats have come home to roost as it got light and are sleeping quietly. On the jetty a sports team is doing exercises and warm ups, and dozens of people are running or jogging under the palm trees along the prom. I just go for a fast walk and explored a few more streets – Gisenyi is divided into an upper (“native”) town and a lower (“European”) town like many places in Africa, and the lower part is really very pleasant. All the properties are well set back from the road and stand in mature gardens. There are flowers all over the place – more flowers in Gisenyi than anywhere else in the country, and well cared for. By contrast the “native” part is just like everywhere else in Rwanda – crowded, dirty, noisy, busy and smelly. But that’s the real Africa and it feels like home to me now!

By half past seven we’re just about the last people to get breakfasted and off, but we had planned for a nice lazy day today and we have all the time in the world to enjoy ourselves. We catch a matata to Rubona, which is the harbour for Gisenyi and lies about six kilometres away behind a headland. When Marisa and Stéphane came here in May they hired bikes and cycled to Rubona – not knowing there is a tremendous hill to negotiate. We are wiser and lazier and take the bus!

Like a fool I hadn’t thought to bring spare batteries for my camera, and to mark the event the batteries inside the thing are just about spent. However, it really is so murkey that anything except close-up shots are going to be a waste of time. Fortunately I have dozens of lovely pictures from Marisa’s visit, taken on a fresh, clear day, so I’m really lucky. I’ll make a selection to pass on to Épi, too. What tends to happen is that I spend the day wandering around and looking for the locations where Marisa and Stéphane have taken their pictures – it feels like déja vue and Épi keeps wondering why I get excited about this particular little kiosk or the view from this particular corner. Just wait till she sees the pictures!

Rubona is a little cove with a slipway; on some days there is a market by the waterside with small boats and canoes bringing people and produce from all around the lake side. But Sunday is church day rather than market day, and the only activity is a group of women loading what looks like charcoal onto a boat.

The harbour is dominated by the enormous brewery, the home of both Mutzig and Primus beer and surely one of the most profitable little corners in this entire country. Slotted in amongst the huts and banana groves, it looks really incongruous; a slice of Western capitalism in the middle of an agrarian landscape. The air smells of malt. Some of the effluent is pumped into the lake; the local fish are either the best fed in Rwanda or the tiddliest, depending on at what stage of the brewing process they’re fed! Everywhere there are wheelbarrows full of spent barley malt; some might even be used as the binder for making adobe semi-dur bricks for people’s houses. Just fancy that – your lounge built with the waste from the local brewery!

We walk along the waterside away from the shops and factory, and discover a truly delightful little corner. Most people are still in church; a sermon is getting fiercer and fiercer as we pass the building. Some boys have made kites out of old plastic bags and twine and they are flying well in the breeze from the lake. Two little girls have decorated their heads with garlands of flowers; they look absolutely angelic. An older girl is leading them in what looks like a wedding dance and they disappear into a patch of cow grass.

We pass some “European” buildings just left to decay – perhaps their owners did not survive 1994, or fled the country and have not decided whether it is safe enough to return. Dotted here and there is the new tourist face of Rubona with some beautiful hotels and restaurants just beginning to open up. Come now before it all gets spoilt!

So far the weather has held off, but there’s definitely rain in the air and we decide not to walk too much further in case we get caught in a storm. We stroll back to the centre of Rubona, then off in the opposite direction, through the brewery entrance, and up the opposite hill. More churches just turning out, and lots of pretty views back towards the harbour. Some children refer to us as “igiceri” – “rice grain”. Well, it makes a welcome change from the everlasting “muzungu”!

Back at the harbour we pile into a waiting matata – it had occurred to us that we might walk back to Gisenyi, but the hill’s too steep and we’re too hot and we’re getting pretty peckish, too. The road is very steep indeed, and the tarmac has been almost completely scuffed away by enormous brewery lorries as they scrabble for purchase on the slope.

As we enter Gisenyi we pass a small hydro station, generating flat out and throwing a plume of brown river water into the lake. The fish market and fish drying frames are empty, so there is also no odour of wilting fish! (I think this is the place from which most of the dried fish in our local markets originates).

While we’re eating lunch, in beautiful gardens in a very European style hotel and with ice cold beer (despite our vows of temperance after the Queen’s Birthday bash), it comes on to rain and we’re marooned in our little thatched hut until it finishes. Even this downpour fails to clear the air, though.

After lunch we are just mooching up a piece of road we haven’t yet explored, when Épi suddenly recognises an old, derelict hotel from a picture she has at home. She lived in Gisenyi until she was about six, and has vivid memories of some corners of the town. It’s quite eerie – she’ll suddenly say that she can remember a particular corner or that she knows she has been to this or that location before. We spend some time quartering the area around the old hotel to see if we can pinpoint where her house used to be. Most of the houses from that time are still standing. The problem, of course, is that she’s remembering with the eyes of a six year old, and a “big pile of rocks” in the garden – lumps of lava – is what would be a big pile to a six year old.
Try as we might, we can’t identify the exact house, but we must have walked past it because we’ve systematically explored every road and pathway within a couple of hundred yards of the hotel. Épi’s going to look at what few pictures she has left when she returns to Gishanda. It’s a very odd feeling for her – like exploring a past life – and for me it’s like a piece of detective work.

After all this excitement we work our way back to the beach. The “African” beach is busy, but we know that if we make any move to go into the water we’ll become the centre of attention. So we swallow our principles and head to the “European” beach at the Kivu Sun Hotel. At the hotel they’re nice as pie; there’s absolutely no problem in letting us in as non-residents. We prop up the bar, drinking iced latté and watching the men’s final live from Wimbledon. Eventually we tear ourselves away from the bar and plant ourselves on a couple of loungers right next to the lake.

Here we have a problem. Me being a total pillock with a head like a sieve, I’ve come all the way to Lake Kivu and left my bathers behind in Gitarama. I could swim, but it’d have to be in my underpants. Épi is wearing her costume, but has forgotten to bring any knickers to change into when she comes out of the water. And she’s still wearing her braids, which would take hours and hours to dry if they got wet. So we’re stuck by the edge of a lake full of warm water, in perfect weather, and wondering if Africa is ready for my pants yet. On balance, we decide it isn’t. And a wedding party has just arrived in all their finery to take loads of photos with the lake as a backdrop. So if I flaunt my Calvin Cleins too prominently it definitely won’t be appreciated! So we have a very British paddle and hope the water and sharp, gritty sand will at least exfoliate our feet for us.

We’ve spent so long lounging and debating whether to swim or not that by now the sun is setting fast. We leave the hotel and stroll along past the fish market for a mile or so (we’re both happy to do a lot of walking today because we both need the exercise). On the way back we stop at the “Bikini Tam Tam” bar (where do they get these names from?) and order drinks and food, sitting at our own little table right at the water’s edge, with waves practically lapping at our feet and a DJ playing good music in the background. I go to order food, and cause no end of confusion by mixing up “sambozas” with “sambasas”. Sambasasa are the little lake fish. The manager comes to check if we really did intend to eat four whole plates of fish…. The sambasas are just like whitebait – cooked in batter and with the heads removed. With chips they’re really excellent, and fresh from the lake, too. Out across the lake there’s a thunderstorm brewing up; we get a free lightshow from the lightning and also the odd shooting star thrown in as a bonus. Honestly, Rwanda doesn’t come much better than this – good food in an absolutely perfect setting.

We just make it back home before the storm arrives and all conversation is ruled out by the noise of rain on tin roofs.

The Bradt guide refers to Gisenyi in terms of “faded colonial languor” and we know exactly what that means. It’s a place where you can’t hurry. It’s just the right place to spend a lazy day, and you really do need to spend an entire day here without the pressure of having to arrive or depart. Gisenyi is where Cathie got married, and on both evenings we’ve passed other wedding groups. I find it difficult to think of anywhere in Rwanda which would be a better place for your wedding reception!

It’s been a great day; we’re both relaxed and at ease with Rwanda.

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