Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Peace Island and a good party

August 16th

It’s one of these days where nothing is planned but everything evolves. But slowly – just you try to co-ordinate anything involving about twenty people!

The morning routine consists of a lot of eating, a lot of talking, and a swim. It’s a very windy day, and the lake has waves which make swimming challenging – it’s just like the sea off Dorset. But unlike Dorset, while you are swimming you still hear the singing of the canoeists as they paddle passengers to and from Kibuye market.

We end up as a group of around two dozen people, with pretty well half the entire VSO contingent in Rwanda. Hester and Joe have to leave at lunchtime; they have a friend’s wedding to go to on Sunday and theirs is the longest journey of all from Kibuye to Rusumo. Joe tells us about his school visit to Kigali on Thursday. After the VSO office, the party went on to Kanombe airport including a chance to see the runway and planes being serviced, and then to the Amahoro stadium where pupils did a “lap of honour” all round the track.

Paula sets up shop on the terrace; she has local crafts from Gahini to sell and support some of the disabled and disadvantaged workers in her area. There are lots of necklaces and wristbands made of folded paper (Kenyan style) but beautifully done, and some even more lovely bags in batik. These are what I wanted to get from her on our overnight at Gahini ready for Teresa’s birthday, but she forgot to collect them in time. So along with everyone else I buy some things. I’ll send them to Teresa by post. They won’t arrive in time, but at least the thought’s there.

The food at Home St Jean is relatively expensive (as opposed to the accommodation which is cheap), so we decide to cater for ourselves at lunchtime and wander into town in groups to buy food. It turns into a blistering hot day. I’ve managed to leave my sun hat at home, so fashion a kepi from a shirt which gives me a racy “beau geste” appearance, especially since I’ve decided to wear shorts. (It just means that I get even more dehydrated than usual, and my legs and feet get very burnt). We bring the Saturday market to a virtual standstill as everyone stops to gawp at two different parties of muzungu trying to negotiate for fruit, water and bread.

In the afternoon I’m feeling more than a little wobbly from the sun, so I go for a siesta. Mid afternoon the rest of the gang ring me; they’re hiring a boat to go out into the lake to “Peace Island” and want more people to make up numbers and make things cheaper for everyone. It still seems to take ages for five more people to get themselves ready and down to the lake side, but we eventually get going in a big blue boat, protected from the sun by an awning. I think the original idea was to go kayaking, but the strop on the water would make paddling any canoe very hard work. It’s just not going to be a hard-working weekend! So we go for the easier option. The boat picks us up from the same little place where Rachel and Andy started their kayaking a fortnight ago, but there’s no sign of either the Australian or his canoes this afternoon. The only activity at the harbour apart from us is the big beer boat from Gisenyi which is unloading crate after crate of Primus onto the commercial quay. It’s very Rwandan that the main traffic on this inland sea seems to be beer!

The lake is still choppy, and the boat rocks noticeably as we chug from one little landing stage to another hoping top pick up more passengers en route. This is where we discover who has sea legs and who doesn’t (Samira wins the prize for the worst sea legs in the party). Chris seems to be one of the few to have brought his camera, and is taking loads of pictures as we cross the lake. It’s funny how every familiar landmark – the Hotel Bethany, our little corner of the lake – looks totally different from water level and even stranger when you’re a few hundred yards “out to sea”. I have my bag with towel and book, but fortunately not my camera. This is because the bottom of the boat takes on lots of water during our crossing, and by the time we reach the island my towel is wet through and my book is a soggy mass of wet paper. Too bad! But it would have absolutely finished off my camera if I had left it in the bag…..

Peace Island is two tiny little shards of rock joined together by a man made harbour. The whole thing is barely a quarter of a mile long and half that across, but a lot of time and care has been spent in making it hospitable. It’s a genuine little tourist trap in the lake. The bigger islet has a conical hill; the summit has been artificially flattened to make a site for camp fires. A level path runs round the island just about lake level, and flat camping spots have been carved out of the rocky slopes. Just creating the path must have taken hundreds of hours of work. The rock is very hard quartzite and every inch must have needed pick and shovel work to clear it. At the furthest point out into the lake there’s a little terraced patch with log seats, from which you can look across towards the Congo and out into the vastnesses of Kivu. It’s a lovely spot; if I came back here I’d like to camp out overnight. I wonder if there is any camping equipment in the VSO programme office in Kigali!

The other end of the island has a circular bar and a hut for the owner. A mangy monkey is tied captive to a tree and for a fee you are allowed to feed it with nuts and fruit. Chickens peck in the grit and dust; I can’t imagine what they can find to eat here. On an island this small and this far out into the lake there can’t be much in the way of small insects to feed them. More interestingly, a semi-tame hawk swoops and glides above the bar; people throw sambasa fish high into the air and the bird catches the fish in mid flight. Ugandan disco music plays loudly from the bar. There is a volleyball court taking pride of place in the centre of the island. There are already two boatloads of Rwandans here, but within five minutes we have an international game in play with VSO taking on the Rwandans. Needless to say, we lose!

By now our boat has marooned us on the island because it has been chartered for a wedding party. (It’s taken us so long to get all our group of people together that our original plan – to go out in the boat, round the island, and straight back to shore – has had to be abandoned). One of the boat crew agrees to stay with us on the island. We’re a bit suspicious that we’re going to be abandoned on the island and then charged a ransom to get us back to the mainland, so we almost take this sailor hostage as insurance for our safe return. We have to pay a landing fee of RwF500 to land on Peace Island, but while we grumble at first, by the time we leave we all agree it was worth every penny.

Around the bar there are lots of slices of tree trunk made into seats. When the music strikes up something we all like, every log is occupied by people all dancing in unison. That’s we VSOs and local Rwandans as well, by the way! It looks totally crazy and as if we’re all drunk at four in the afternoon. The next little boat to arrive is full of Chinese road builders; they take loads of pictures in amazement. I think they imagine this is some Rwandan welcome ceremony laid on for their benefit!

A few of us have come with swimsuits under our ordinary clothes, so we go into the lake for a dip. On the “seaward” side the waves are really strong, with a definite swell. Getting into the water is the usual undignified slide and splash over slimy, slippery, weedy rocks, but once in we find a spot further round the shore where a big tree overhangs the lake. Someone has tied ropes down from the tree so that they dangle in the water, and we try (unsuccessfully) to haul ourselves out of the water. Cue Jane’s Rwandan boyfriend Jean-Pierre, who not only climbs clean out of the water with ridiculous ease, but then climbs right up the rope and into the tree.

Back out of the water we just have time for a quick beer before out boat reappears. By now the evening is falling fast, and even the fifteen minute crossing back to the mainland means it is dark when we jump ashore.

Our evening meal is quite an affair. We’ve completely taken over the hotel, and the dining room is arranged as one huge circular table. The foot takes ages to be cooked, but once its ready we are served efficiently. There’s a prodigious amount of booze being drunk. Mel, whose last day will be Tuesday, is a very popular volunteer. Her Dutch boyfriend Dirk is master of ceremonies, but Paula and Els unveil an umufuca with a special song for Mel written on it, and we all sing farewell to her. Poor Mel’s in tears by the time we’ve finished. The umufuca is decorated with beer bottle labels from our family visit to Gahini, so even Teresa and Rachel and Andy have had a hand in the farewells!

By the time we’ve all said all that’s to be said it is eleven o’clock. One group of girls want to go down to the lake with a bottle of Waragi and lots of fanta; most of the rest of us decide it’s time for bed.

Best thing about today – everything. A really lovely bit of group therapy, and nothing at all to spoil it. High point of the day is to discover that Eric has a Rwandan partner, a beautiful girl galled Juliette who teaches in Kabarondo secondary school. She is very brave to come and face all our gang!

Marisa and I talk about her last few days in Rwanda – she flies out on 28th – and we agree that the best finale will be a lunchtime buffet at Sole Luna. I can almost smell the fresh pasta in my sleep…

Worst things about today – almost nothing. My feet have caught the sun badly, and my neck aches so much I can’t sleep. But not even these things can detract from a really perfect day.

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