Friday, 12 June 2009

The ride back from Gisenyi

June 7th

In the cosseted comfort of the Gorillas hotel we sleep in a bit. Our room is comfortable and quiet; it comes as something of a surprise that the room doesn’t have mosquito nets, but there only seemed to be the odd one or two little bests in the room last night.

It is another beautiful morning in paradise; below our window a woman is raking up any leave which have dared to fall onto the lawn during the night. Right outside our window is a swimming pool, but it looks shallow and definitely tame compared to the lake. In between the palm trees we can see out across the lake to the hills of distant Congo. The sun is sparking off the waves, and from our balcony we can hear the slap of water against the rocks on the nearby beach. Things don’t come much better than this!

Breakfast is ample and cooked, western style, to perfection. Fresh fruit salad, puffy and juicy cheese omelettes, hot bread rolls with guava jam and real butter (instead of the ubiquitous Blue Band margarine). Man, this is living!

Eventually we drag ourselves away from this utopia and out onto the streets. There are few guests in the hotel, and although we are very obviously budget back packers looking rather out of place, the hotel staff are welcoming. Another blisteringly hot day is beginning, but right now we just want to get home. Cat’s ankle is behaving itself so long as she moves very carefully on it, and this time we’re loaded up with our full rucksacks. We just strike it lucky at the bus park with a big coaster bus leaving in ten minutes and even some normal seats left on it. Catherine manages to bag a seat on the L H side which is the best side for seeing the volcanoes and waving to any gorillas who might be looking out for her from the undergrowth around Ruhengeri.

Two Muslim women get on the bus; one is wearing an absolutely gorgeous outfit, orange and brown, with coloured beads sewn onto the fabric. She looks like a princess compared with the rather drab and ordinary outfits the other passengers are wearing, not to mention two decidedly scruffy muzungus. (Christi later tells me that there’s a Rwandan expression “habillĂ© comme un musulman” – dressed like a Muslim – because they have a reputation for being sharp dressers, especially the women).

The climb up the rift valley out of Gisenyi on a morning such as this is like something from a promotional tourist video. You gradually see more and more of the lake until it fills the horizon to your right. On your left, just over your shoulder, looms the volcano, now belching steam from its crater and trailing clouds from its top which look as if they’ve snagged themselves on its heights.

The sides of the rift here are extremely steep and green. Everything here is volcanic; wherever there’s a cutting at the roadside you see either grey lava flows, often with gas vesicles peppering them; otherwise you see enormous banks of ash – black, grey, orange and yellow. Everything is in primary colours – the plants, the rocks, the houses. Here and there a brown, muddy river snakes through a valley or plunges over a lava flow. Banana trees and sugar cane fill every available field until you get right to the top of the rift valley, where suddenly it all changes. Here there are more trees, and the bananas are replaced by potatoes and tea plantations.

We see the road from Gisenyi direct to Gitarama; they have put up the signpost (at last), but the Chinese engineers haven’t yet reached the junction on their way up from Ngororero. I wonder if this route will be finished before I leave Rwanda; I wonder if in December it might be possible to get a bus directly from Gitarama to Gisenyi. Now that really would be progress!

We pass the exciting lava domes around Bigogwe, and then we’re edging our way past the huge Karisimbi volcano, the highest mountain in Rwanda. In front of us are lava fields; potato patches with dull grey lumps of lava protruding from every few metres of land. When we went round Butare museum the other day we saw how the hoes they use in these fields have to be extremely narrow to be any use – the hoes have to slot in between these sharp-edged lumps of rock.

In front of us are the remainder of the Rwandan volcanoes. Bishoke, Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura all have their heads in the clouds, but the bulk is unmistakable. Once again, we are faced with a landscape which at one and the same time is intensely photogenic, but also far too big to fit into a photograph. Over to the right the land drops towards the mere hills of northern Rwanda, and line upon line of hills recede endlessly into a blue haze of distance. I think Catherine’s beginning to understand how easy it is to fall in love with this extraordinary landscape.

The final descent from the mountain top road into Kigali feels like coming in to land on a plane. The stench of burning brake pads fills the air, and as usual we hope the bus has been maintained properly since it does this run a couple of times a day every day of the week. Kigali centre is as sweaty as ever, so we hop on the first available bus and get out of town to the cool heights of Gitarama.

Back at the flat Catherine crashes out on the bed for a couple of hours. I faff about, unable to concentrate on anything very much, until it’s time for the muzungu meal. Nobody is quite sure where we’re going tonight, so Tom and I make a decision that it will be “Nectar” and as people ring us we direct them. We end up with twelve people representing eight nationalities, and Cat does a good “sell” of Gisenyi to them. Teresa rings just as we’re getting ready to leave.

By the time we reach home everyone seems shattered. We’re all leading really busy lives at the moment. All the volunteers, including Becky, have been here long enough to be firmly installed in their jobs, and this is one of the busiest times of the year just before schools stop for the summer. It’s very different from early January when things seem to take forever to get going.

Best thing about today – everything. The views on the way home; Gisenyi and its lake; meeting up with all our gang for a meal.

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