Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Red glow in the sky at Gisenyi

June 5th

Into the office early and get another good hour’s work done. Collect the post, then back to the flat to pick up Catherine. We get a fast bus to Kigali and straight onto the express Gisenyi bus. As we go up through Ruhengeri we can see that the visibility isn’t bad, and Catherine gets a view of all the Rwandan volcanoes, albeit with their heads in the clouds! (When I came here last July with Teresa the dust haze was so thick you couldn’t even see the nearest volcanoes, even though they were up to 14000 feet high and only a few miles away).

The road from Ruhengeri to Gisenyi is still under construction; despite the builders using water trucks there are clouds of dust so thick that it’s a wonder big vehicles manage to stay on the road. All the bus windows have to be shut; we can either boil in the bus but be dust free, or choke on gritty volcanic dust between our teeth and have a breeze. The passengers all opt for the former!

Catherine gets her first glimpse of tea bushes growing, and a lovely blue vista of Kivu as we eventually sail over the lip of the Rift valley and descend helter-skelter down to Gisenyi.

I remember reading in the paper that they are planning to remake the roads in Gisenyi. Lord knows it needs it; all the roads in the town are in a terrible state. All traffic has to go at walking pace. Everything in Gisenyi is made of blocks of lava from previous eruptions of Nyiragongo; the lava breaks down into choking dust and fine, gritty ash that wears through your socks in a matter of minutes. The bus lurches from pothole to pothole, giving us a “Kigali massage” en route.

I always think Gisenyi town centre looks so seedy, and nothing has changed since my last visit in July. As soon as the bus stops a flock of motos jam up so close to the doors, all fighting for customers, that it’s virtually impossible to get out without swiping a driver with your baggage. I nearly send a moto driver flying; he swears at me, but it’s his own fault for trying to get too close.

At least the Presbyterian guest house is only fifty yards or so from the bus terminal. It’s hot; we’re jaded from four hours of travel and just want to get our bags somewhere safe and have a rest. Unfortunately the receptionist at the Presbyterian looks askance at us and says they’re full. I’m sure they’re not; so say they’re full is the standard answer when people either don’t want to be bothered or are not sure what the relationship between a male and female visitor really is. I know for a fact that at four in the afternoon the dormitory rooms are never full, so I ask for a dorm space for both of us, and we get it. It’s like a run-down, old fashioned, 1960s Youth Hostel, but it’s a clean bed and conveniently close to everything in Gisenyi. The dorms also work out at RwF1500 a night, and where else even in Africa can you get a clean bed for about £1.70?

My dorm is right next to the entrance; the women’s dorm is at the far end. While the receptionist is taking Catherine to her dorm she quizzes her as to what the relationship is between us. She seems amazed that we are father and daughter; I’m not sure whether she thinks I’m too young to be Cat’s dad or whether Cat is too young to be my daughter. She is markedly less frosty when we next see her, and actually apologises that there isn’t a twin room for us to share – apparently someone has booked the room she had in mind but hasn’t confirmed the place and we don’t know whether these people are coming or not. I say not to worry; we’re both hardy travellers and perfectly happy with dorm beds. As I expect, not a single bed in the dorm is taken yet, so I pick one away from the door and away from the showers, and which seems to have a mosquito net without too many holes in it.

Unfortunately the receptionist says the place is definitely fully booked for Saturday night, and we will have to find somewhere else (i.e. somewhere considerably more pricey) tomorrow.

But just for now we’re sorted. We’re also hungry. Usually the bus to Gisenyi stops at Base so people can buy food on the journey (Base is the village with the famous “singing toilets” from previous escapades north). Today, of course, just because I gave Catherine the big build up and told her she could be sung to while using the loo, and that we could buy brochettes and stuff to eat on the bus, we sail straight past.

We mooch into the town centre looking for somewhere to eat. Of course, when you’re looking for a restaurant they’re all either closed, or so empty that it’s suspicious. Eventually we find one, a “bar resto”. Can they do us food, we ask? No, says the man in charge. It’s a funny time – too late for lunchtime but too early for the evening session. Then he yells something to one of the two waitresses; women in their late 20s dolled up as if for a night on the town. I wonder if this is something more than just a bar-resto….. One of the girls gets sent into town to buy some goat meat. By the time we’ve had a couple of drinks we have ibirayi and brochettes cooked to order for us. The ibirayi are OK; not the best by a long chalk but piping hot and very welcome. The brochettes have been cooked in a hurry and they’re very chewy goat meat, but they’re edible. This is Catherine’s first attempt at brochettes. So now she’s had mélange, brochettes, and omelette special – the three props of Rwandan culinary excellence….

We decide to go for a walk to while away the time and let our brochettes go down before its time to eat again during the evening. I take Catherine down to the lakeside; fortunately even here the visibility is still good. Goma looks close enough to touch, and the far side of the lake – the Congolese shore – is so clear that we can see that there are at least three ranks of mountains, each rising higher than the one in front of it. This is the far side of the Rift Valley, and from the Rwandan side of Lake Kivu it looks as if someone has stretched a ruler down the earth and cut it out with a knife. It’s a remarkably straight looking line. People are swimming in the lake; the water is a Mediterranean blue, and Gisenyi is absolutely at its best for us.

We walk along the promenade; I’m able to show Catherine the bats in the palm trees; as usual they’re squeaking and chirruping but not flying about much. In one tree there’s an enormous bird of prey the size of an eagle. I can’t work out exactly what kind of bird it is, but if I were one of the bats only yards away from it I think I’d be worried…

We carry on walking till we come to the far end of the prom road, past the racks for drying sambasa fish from the lake; past the hydro station which is quiet at the moment; past various bars and drinking places; past the playing field. At one point a car with Congolese registration plates stops besides us and the woman inside it asks if we are looking for someone to stay. Believe it or not, this woman turns out to be the owner of the “La Bella Motel” where I stayed with Teresa and co last August, and she has recognised me. I find that amazing. Hmm; on the other hand it shows how few ordinary muzungus other than NGO parties or church groups come here. We explain that we’re sorted for tonight but that we might be interested for tomorrow, and she goes on her way.

We get to a point in the road where there seems to be an army checkpoint. I know that the Rwandan navy (!) has a base somewhere just round the headland, and I also know that there’s still a big military presence in this area and everyone is still jumpy about the Congo situation, so we decide not to push our luck and try to pass the checkpoint. (Tomorrow turns out to show us that there would have been absolutely no problem if we’d wanted to go on, but then you don’t know everything at the right time). It’s getting dark quickly, and all the lights are coming on in Gisenyi and Goma. What are conspicuous by their absence are any lights outside Goma on the Congolese shore. The far side of the lake recedes into darkness and oblivion without a single light to show that it exists.

We slowly retrace our steps back to my favourite waterside eating place, which rejoices in the name of the “Bikini Tam Tam Bar”. It’s where I ate with Épi last July, and you don’t easily forget a name like that. The Bikini has a loud sound system in full swing. Young people – probably students because there are outposts of two Kigali Universities in the town – are dancing on the beach, and have built a bonfire from driftwood. We sit at a table so close to the lakeside that we could virtually paddle while eating, and order sambasa and chips. By the time our food arrives it is completely dark, but a full moon has risen over the lake, and stars – hundreds and hundreds of them – are coming out in the sky. There’s very little wind; just enough to keep down the number of mozzies and other flying insects. There is bunting and flags on sticks around where we’re sitting; they flap gently. Then the bar switches on its fairy lights and we’re transformed from an idyllic tropical lakeside paradise into undoubtedly THE hottest place to be for Gisenyi nightlife. More and more young people crowd into the place; I’m glad it’s too dark for people to see just how old I am.

Our food is good; by the time we finish it we’re absolutely stuffed. Bikini T-T is absolutely the best place to spend an evening in Gisenyi, whether you’re in the mood for dancing or just people watching. We’re the only muzungus around, and everyone is nice and welcoming to us.

Then, as we go out of the gate onto the road, we look up into the sky. And there, fiery red, is the glow on the clouds of the lava lake from Nyiragongo volcano. We’re not talking about some distant glow, or a faint pinkish tinge – it is uncomfortably close, very high in the sky and very, very red. The incandescent lava is reflecting off the clouds of steam and smoke which rise perpetually from the crater. From time to time the glow dims, but never disappears, as steam and smoke are blown in our direction and partially mask the glow. Then there’s a change in the wind direction and the glow become red and bright again. It really is awe inspiring; there’s no other way to describe it. Even against the light from a full moon; even against the light from street lamps in Gisenyi (and yes, there are some street lamps here which work), the volcano is clearly visible. The sheer height of the mountain is what makes it impressive. It is just like the kind of volcano you draw on a small blackboard in school, one which exaggerates the height and minimises the width of the mountain. Except that Nyiragongo really is very high and quite narrow. If there were to be an eruption I can quite see how the lava would cascade down the very steep slopes, gathering speed on the way, and I can quite understand how this mountain kills so many people because they simply don’t have time to get out of the way of lava moving at 20mph or more. Nyiragongo is the most dangerous volcano in Africa and one of the worst in the world, and it has a grisly record of destruction and loss of life in Goma. Not in Gisenyi because there’s a big spur of another hill which would deflect the lava away from Gisenyi’s built up area. (It would send the lava straight back into Goma on the Congolese side).

We stand and stare at the volcano for several minutes; moto drivers think we’re waiting for a lift and pull up beside us but we wave them away impatiently because their headlights are ruining our night vision.

Back at the hostel there’s nowhere to sit and read or watch TV, so we go straight to bed. The heat and general excitement have worn us out. It’s been quite a day. My dorm has filled up so that there’s only one spare bed – the one above mine. Every window has been shut; even just after nine o’clock its already stuffy and sweaty in the room. It’s going to be a long night….

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