Monday, 18 May 2009

What it's like to travel in the rainys eason....

May 14th

Today I’m taking Becky with me on her first visit to a school. We’re off into the mountains, to Kirwa Adventist school. Or, at least, that’s the plan.

Just as we’re about to leave the flat it comes on to rain. We’re literally ready to go out of the door when it pours. So we wait in the flat for half an hour. At that point the rain starts to ease up, and the sky lightens. Tom sets off for work, via the bank, so we take off too, and end up in the town centre.

I haggle for a moto – the driver wants 12000 to go to Kirwa, I won’t budge from 6000 (each) so it takes a few minutes and then we’re off. By this time it has stopped raining altogether in Gitarama and I’m feeling hopeful. But by the time we’ve stopped for fuel at a garage, it’s raining again. By the time we reach Mushubati its coming down so hard we have to stop to shelter for another half hour. We’re jammed up under an awning with a bunch of cyclo-vélo drivers and passersby, all discussing us and trying to rack their brains to think of ways to shake more amafaranga out of these two muzungus. Can they charge us from taking shelter? They certainly would if they thought they could get away with it!

At this point I should have called the day off, but I don’t want to disappoint Becky and we decide to carry on. The rain has eased off, but certainly not stopped, and the mountains in front of us are still invisible in a wall of greyish-white cloud. As we climb up and through the mountains the rain gets harder and harder; we are well into the clouds, visibility is down to a few yards and we’re freezing cold and getting wet through. There’s no view and its turning into a most unpleasant journey – a complete contrast to last Friday’s run.

We pass Mushishiro and descend down towards the Nyaborongo valley, coming out of the cloud but not out of the rain. The bikes are having to drive slowly on the bends because the road is awash with water; mud is hosing down the cuttings into the gulleys and sometimes out onto the tarmac. The slightest patch of unswept gravel would send us skidding into injury. Eventually we reach the junction with the “road to the end of the earth”. This is the infamous earth road which eventually leads up to Nyabinoni; it’s the road where Soraya and I struggled for seven hours to reach Nyabinoni itself. Now, with all the rain this morning, the road is in far worse condition than when we were trying to get to Nyabinoni. The first couple of hundred yards is uphill from the junction, and our bikes are sliding all over the place within a few feet of quitting the tarmac. It’s obvious they can’t cope with the muddy road, and the drivers refuse to go on. (Even if they had wanted to try, it is so obvious that we’re going to be thrown off the bikes that neither of us would want to continue on the pillion). So we pay our drivers and tell them to stay at the junction. We’ll try to go ahead on foot, and we tell them we’ll be back at half past twelve. I’m still hopeful the weather is going to lift. We are determined that having come this far, we aren’t going to be put off.

What I haven’t taken into account is the condition of this earth road. This section of the road has been graded and smoothed to improve it within the last few weeks. What this “improvement” means is that all the ruts have been filled in, and earth laid over the top of the entire carriageway to give a smooth surface. This makes a seriously good run, almost conformable, in dry weather, but after all the rain the top surface of the road is coated in a thick layer of sticky mud. Within three or four paces our shoes are caked. We are both sliding about in the mud, and have to place our feet very carefully to stay upright. The road is carved into a ledge into the hillside; on one side there’s a wall of earth some ten feet high; on the other side there’s a steep drop down to the river. Neither side of the road is an attractive prospect for walking.

We slip and slide, determined to show that muzungus aren’t put off by impossible roads. A few women are also out, almost invariably barefoot, and sinking up to their ankle bones with every step. Only mad dogs, desperate women and Englishmen (and Canadian girls) are even thinking of travelling at the moment. Also, as we plod round the first couple of bends, the rain starts to come on heavier. We have at least three or four kilometres to go like this before we reach Kirwa, and at Kirwa we have to take another earth road which winds uphill, back into the clouds, to get to the school. This is the point at which I admit defeat. Becky doesn’t know what conditions are like further along, but I know they certainly won’t improve. It is clear that the weather isn’t going to dry up any time soon. The roads will stay impassable for the rest of the day. If we walk all the way in to the school, we’ll have to walk all the way back. Worst of all, it is already half past nine; by the time we reach the school it will be at least half past ten, and we won’t have enough time to do a sensible visit. Whatever happens the school will stop at quarter past twelve for lunchtime, and we’ll barely have enough time to do one lesson plus the admin inspection.

No, we have to conclude that today has been a disastrous mistake, and a very expensive one, too. (RwF12000 in all for the two bikes for return journeys). And what really hurts is that if we had decided to come out in a taxi bus and walk from the corner where the tarmac road meets the earth road, we’d only have paid RwF800 each way.

So we squelch through the mud back to the main road, round up our bikes, and get a lot of “told you so” looks from bystanders. Whatever the weather, there are always so many people just hanging around with nothing to do, bored to tears, and spending their day watching other people. It’s the national occupation in Rwanda.

Back up through the mountains and down the other side to home; at least I make the bikers drop us off at the flat. I go in to get changed. I’m shaking with cold (on the Equator); my cagoule drips puddles over the floor behind the kitchen door; my trousers make another puddle from Tom’s door; my shirt and undies make a third puddle under my bedroom door.

To add insult to injury the power has gone off, and I have to boil water in a saucepan to make tea to try to get warm again. Becky is also wet to the skin, but there are two houses she wants to have a look at in Gitarama with a view to letting. (She still has no accommodation in Kamonyi and it is becoming clear that the only way she’ll get sorted is if she finds a place by herself).

She comes back in an hour or so very pleased because either of the two houses is better than anything she’s been offered in Kamonyi. If she lives in Gitarama she can commute to work easily; for that matter she can car share with another of the District Office staff. She can stay part of the Gitarama gang which will give her a better social life. VSO will frown at the very least, because we’re supposed to live within the communities in which we work, but neither VSO nor the District seem to be able to find acceptable accommodation. (Ironically, the option which Becky would have preferred – staying in the convent with the nuns – VSO won’t accept because there are too many restrictions. But that’s daft – have you ever found a convent where there aren’t lashings of hot water, good food, electricity and even television?)

So we agree that Becky will return to Kigali this afternoon and propose renting the bigger house. She can share it with Nathan (Tom’s FHI intern), who will pay half the rent. Even better, Tom has another FHI volunteer coming out to spend a few months, a girl, and if we can put her in the house with Nathan and Becky we have the ideal solution. What could possibly go wrong?.....

I warm up soup from the freezer and at least we have a hot meal and get thoroughly warm again. While she’s been out looking at houses I’ve put the immersion on so she can have a hot shower. But because the electricity is off nothing has happened (and I only discover later in the evening that I forgot to unplug the immersion).

I can’t do anything in the afternoon except lie in bed and read a book – I’m mugging up on Zanzibar; the more I read about the place the more attractive it seems. I can’t wait to go there!

I rush to the market in between showers, but even so I get caught in a shower and have to shelter in the marketplace. Once again all the locals crowd in on me; some are brazen enough to just stand there and demand money, others are making jokes at my expense. I know enough Kinyarwanda to know that they’re talking about me and that it isn’t polite, but not enough to understand exactly what they’re saying or make any reply.

Tom comes home early, and about that time our joy is complete – the water goes off. It always seems to go off after heavy rain. I really don’t know what’s happening with the weather at the moment - last year in the rainy season things were quite predictable, with heavy thunderstorms in the afternoons but the mornings bright, hot, and ideal for getting out and about. This year we have had two washout days this week alone, when it hasn’t really stopped raining all day. I hope to goodness things are brighter when Catherine comes at the end of the month!

We rush to get supper prepared before we have to resort to torches and candles. And just when we’ve got all our candles in place the electricity comes back on. It’s turning into one of those days when everything is perverse and you just want to write the whole day off.

We make a giant curry which turns out to be extremely tasty, and find that my fresh pineapple from yesterday not only lifts the curry but that there’s plenty for pud, too.

Despite having a wasted day I’m tired, so the evening consists of flopping out in front of a DVD and then bed. I’m watching “The Last King of Scotland”, about life in Idi Amin’s Uganda, and I’m so glad I’ve waited until I’ve been to Kampala before seeing it. I can recognise some of the backgrounds shot in Kampala itself.

Lesson learnt from today – if it rains for more than thirty minutes in the morning, or if the cloud is down on the mountains, there’s no point in trying to get up the dirt roads. Cancel your visits and resign yourself to a down day….. (But then I probably knew all this anyway – I’m just stubborn and a slow learner…).

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