How NOT to visit Rwanda

Gorgeous Rwanda landscape
Gorgeous Rwanda landscape

May 24, 2010- I make it across the border into Rwanda in one piece, which is no small miracle considering the state of the mountain roads between Bwindi and Cyanika. I doubt they’re much to write home about ordinarily and last night’s torrential rain really did a number on them. There were landslides all over, plus huge mud craters and fallen trees. The view of the rice terraces, however, is absolutely breathtaking.

Rice terraces and giant road craters
Rice terraces and giant road craters

Immigration is relatively painless and I’m handed off to my driver on the other side of the Rwandan border. He keeps asking me if I know I have to “pay some money” to go track gorillas tomorrow. I can’t seem to get him to understand that I won’t be doing that- I’ve already gone gorilla tracking in Uganda, after all, and I’m sure nothing is going to top that experience.

The first thing that strikes me as we set out to Kinigi: the roads here are phenomenal. They’re PAVED and everything. I feel like I’ve just rediscovered civilization.

Rwanda

My plan for my only full day in Kinigi is to hike to Dian Fossey’s grave at the Gorilla Cemetery in the Karisoke Research Center. When I wake up before dawn, the temperature has plummeted overnight and it’s pouring rain. Not normal pouring rain, either- Africa rain, which is different enough that 80s bands wrote songs about it. It really is a spectacle when the jungle skies open up. I’m running a fever, and my aching joints let me know there is going to be no soaking wet 12 mile hike happening today. Here’s a sad fact about trying to be Indiana Jones when you have an autoimmune disease: sometimes your body just says no, and there is no appeals process. I’ve exhausted myself into a flare up, and I’m not going to be able to do the cool thing that brought me to Rwanda in the first place. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.

Although I can never quite shake the guilty feeling from “wasting” a day of travel, I have to admit- I end up spending most of the day under the covers, letting the torrential downpour on the metal roof of my little jungle cabin lull me into the best sleep of the entire trip, and that helps immensely.

Rwanda
Note: this is not my little cabin, but isn’t the landscape incredible?

The rain lets up before dinner and I decide to take a walk around what passes for downtown. This idea is short lived, as I am immediately set upon by a group of schoolchildren asking for money, trying to touch my hair, and asking if they can have my camera. Normally in a situation like this you would just ignore the kids, keep walking, and they would move on. Not these kids. I’m too sick to put up a fight, so I just turn around and go back to the resort for another nap.

Rwanda

Rwanda

Dinnertime- not everything on the awkwardly translated menu makes sense, but I think I’ll try the “baked chicken with cheese”. The kitchen lady shakes her head “no,” so apparently I can’t have that. Instead I order the “spaghetti maman mia,” whatever that is. (Turns out that it’s awful. That’s all you need to know.)

It gets colder. I convince myself I have pneumonia. I’m so cold I talk myself out of showering just so I don’t have to get undressed. The pile of dead bugs in the shower helps me convince myself.

I can’t stop daydreaming about waffles.

The power doesn’t stay on for more than 45 minutes at a time. This is bad news for anyone who wants to watch television, but as the resort only gets one channel that plays the same four music videos on repeat, I’m not upset.

I do eventually discard the pile of dead bugs and take a shower to warm up. (I know this was bothering you.)

The rain is back in an astounding downpour. It beats so hard on the metal roof that it drowns out all four African music videos. (Don’t judge me, I’m going a little stir crazy in this tiny hut.)

Rwanda
The hotel grounds during a rare non-rainy moment.

The power goes out again, so there’s (obviously) nothing to do but sit on the restaurant’s covered patio with a lukewarm Primus beer and watch the rain. An American couple comes running in out of the rain, saunters up to the bar, and starts speaking loudly and slowly in Spanish to the English-speaking African waitress. She looks at them exactly the way you would look at anyone who did this. I guess Spanish and Swahili are interchangeable if you’re an idiot. On behalf of Americans everywhere- I’m so sorry.

Also, the chicken curry? Definitely NOT chicken.

Hey, did you know there is an hour time difference between Uganda and Rwanda? Somehow I miss or forget this until about an hour into my frantic meltdown the following morning when (I think) my driver is an hour late picking me up for the airport. I am convinced I will miss my flight and be stranded in Rwanda until I die. *cough* Sorry about that.

45 minutes until boarding and there is a commotion at the security checkpoint. A rather large African lady is having her bag searched and is, from the sound of things, fairly unhappy about it. The officer running the X-ray machine took a big can of olive oil hair spray out of her bag and is questioning her about it. Three more officers arrive to consult. The lady has crossed her arms and is tapping one foot rapidly. Someone produces a notebook and asks her to fill something out. Ah, the ubiquitous African notebook.

Olive Oil Hairspray Lady is not giving up without a fight. She texts someone and goes back to the officers to ask if she can have it back and take it somewhere. They give it to her and she leaves, abandoning her luggage next to the security checkpoint. No one seems to care. She comes back because she forgets her passport and boarding pass.

Ten minutes later she returns without the hairspray. Now they have to bring the notebook back and scribble out whatever she’d written. The next three passengers through the screening checkpoint are allowed to keep their water bottles. Water must not be as dangerous as olive oil hairspray.

Twenty minutes after my scheduled departure time there is still no airplane outside. There are no signs or screens or anything to advise about delays, so I ask one of the security officers for an update. “Just wait,” he says. The African passengers occasionally glance at their watches and sigh.

Thirty minutes later, our plane, a DHC-8 that doesn’t look much bigger than the model airplanes I used to build as a child, has arrived and we board. My seat, 10A, doesn’t exist. There are only 9 rows of seats on the plane. Someone else has seat 12D, but there is no row 12 and no seat D. Apparently Rwandair seat assignments just come out of a bingo draw-tank. The flight attendants seem incredulous that we’re asking where to sit. There’s a lot of hand waving. “Just sit anywhere.”  This feels like an accurate representation of my short time in Rwanda.

I had to choose between a 40 minute layover or a 6 hour layover in Entebbe. This is Africa and nothing is on time, so I choose the 6 hour. The earlier flight is gone by the time my model airplane lands, so I congratulate myself on my excellent choice. And promptly throw up. It wasn’t the smoothest flight, sorry.

I order a Coke and a burger at the only restaurant open in the airport. Don’t do this. It’s the worst burger of my life. I think there are rocks in it.

So there you have it. In summary, I did pretty much every single thing wrong when visiting Rwanda, and I don’t feel I did the country justice at all. I barely left my hotel, I disliked the food, I was mistrustful of the people, and illness prevented me from taking part in any of the adventures I had planned.  I look forward to returning to Rwanda one day and having a much better trip, now that I’ve already done all the things you shouldn’t do.

Rwanda