Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In which we spend our second day on a bus

November 12th

So now we’re sitting in the coach through our second dawn. The road seems endless. Outside the scenery is getting greener and hillier as we approach the Rwandan frontier. Armed soldiers stop us and hitch a ride to their duty post somewhere close to the border. Crops are being planted and in some places early planting are already sprouting in flushes of green. Life continues; there will be a good harvest in a few months. It’s a marked contrast to the landscape deep within Tanzania where, despite all the rain and standing water, the land still looks parched and unproductive. I’m so fortunate to have spent my two years in a place as green and fertile as Rwanda. We’re finished with baobabs now, we’re beyond the donkey carts.

In the bus they crank up the music to a ridiculously loud level. After a while the driver puts on a compilation of Congolese stuff and lets it cycle through about three times; at least I like the music even if the volume is almost painful. We ask them to turn it down, but after a few seconds somebody else decides to turn it up. We don’t want to get into a game where they can feel they’re baiting us or controlling us, so we endure it for a while and then look for clothes to stuff in front of the loudspeakers in the rear of the bus. At that point they turn the volume down a fraction and keep it down.

The floor of the bus is rolling in litter; there are no bins so everybody either throws their rubbish out of the window or onto the floor. At the last stop before the border a lad comes onto the bus selling peanuts; they’re just off the oven and almost too hot to hold. We stuff ourselves silly with them for about 50p a time!

As we get within a few miles of the border the land becomes seriously hilly. Our bus labours up the hills in low gear, then charges down the other side. It’s all a marked contrast to the flat, hell-for-leather progress of yesterday evening. The downhill sections right on the border are notoriously dangerous and many, many lorries have come to grief here. Drivers overtired and waiting to rest at the border have frequently misjudged these hills, and simply run off the road wherever there are bends. There are rumble strips everywhere and graphic signs warning everyone to slow down.

At Rusomo our personal formalities are done very quickly (after all, the bus is only half full), but we have to wait more than two hours for the coach to come through. I know the luggage compartments are probably stuffed with sacks of rice etc, but it still seems an inordinately long time. If people want to increase trade and promote free movement of people and goods within the East African community they’re going to have to speed up the bureaucracy at these frontiers. I think of the borders within Benelux countries which are usually unmanned; you just drive through without stopping…

We drink tea, fill our stomachs with heavy pancakes and wait, and wait. The waterfall is even better than on the outbound trip; Rwanda has had a lot of rain while we’ve been away. But nothing can hide the feeling of depression as we leave the relaxed atmosphere of Tanzania and enter the more opaque ambiance of Rwanda. Within seconds of crossing the bridge we’ve had “muzungu” yelled at us and been asked for money.

Eventually we embark and move on. The speed limits in Rwanda are enforced rigorously and the driver is taking no chances, so our progress back towards Kigali is sedate, to put it mildly. We pass Épi’s house at Kibungo; the easiest thing would be for her to get out here but we tried to contact Jeannot in Kigali and we don’t know if he’ll be waiting for her there, so we decide to carry on in the bus.

By the time we reach Nyabugogo we’ve been on the road for 35 hours – easily the longest bus journey I’ve ever made. It’s not been physically difficult – even in the ordinary seats there’s plenty of legroom. The stops every four hours or so mean you never get seriously uncomfortable. The secret with eating and drinking is to have plenty of water and sip frequently rather than swig masses at any one time. Eating also is better if done little and often, but in truth if you’re not exercising and in tropical; heat you don’t need to eat lots. The worst problem is toileting, especially during long segments between stops or where the toilets are so disgusting as to be unusable. People simply disappear into the nearest bush, and if there’s an emergency the bus will usually stop for you; it’s just a case of having to have the nerve to go and tell the driver you need to stop NOW!

I get the first bus back to Gitarama. Tom’s already at the flat and very surprised to see me; my phone battery has gone flat and I’m also out of credit so I haven’t been able to warn him I’m coming home. The evening I spend unpacking my festering kit and generally getting sorted out. I download my photos and find I have some really nice ones; tomorrow I’ll get Soraya’s and exchange with mine and between us we’ll have around 400 pictures of this adventure.

Despite all the dozing on the bus I find I’m tired and I sleep well, but my stomach is very unsettled and I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to do tomorrow. Irregular meal times seem to wreak havoc with my system!

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