Travelling to the DRC

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Nyirogongo from Rubavu.

Reading this week:

  • Endymion by Dan Simmons

After my jaunt to Zimbabwe, my next destination was Virunga National Park in the DRC. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Kigali, Rwanda, and then head to the border from there. Getting to the airport in Harare and flying to Kigali all went very smoothly, and I arrived in Kigali a little after the sun had set. I had arranged to stay at the Teahouse B&B in Kigali, and they sent a taxi to pick me up. First impression of Kigali was that it is beautiful. It was just warm enough to be very pleasant and seeing all the lights on the hills during the taxi drive was amazing. It reminded me of landing in Guam for the first time and driving down the beach with the weather and the lights reflecting on the water.

The next day confirmed my first impression over and over. After a fantastic breakfast at the hotel they called me a taxi and took me to the bus station. Rwanda took some getting used to though after two years in Zambia. In Rwanda they drive on the right side of the road, as opposed to the left in Zambia, so for a while I kept thinking we were driving on the wrong side of the road. I also had to get used to the currency. It’s 900 francs to the dollar, but I would just think of the 5000 franc note as five bucks. Then, when something was five bucks, in my head I’m like “five bucks?! It’s practically free!” But in Zambia in Kwatcha I would hesitate before spending 50 Kwatcha (aka $5) on something. The taxi ride to the bus station was 8000 francs which I felt was pretty cheap, but that’s a 80 kwatcha taxi ride.

The bus station went smoothly with the taxi driver finding me a bus. I got on the bus and we actually left pretty quick. It didn’t really matter though; I thought this trip was supposed to take no more than three hours but it took five. I think this is because we were more or less following the president of Rwanda and there were roadblocks that slowed us down. Some thoughts I wrote down on the ride: First off Kigali is like, so so nice. It’s nicer than American cities. I wonder what the hell Peace Corps volunteers do in Rwanda. If things were this nice in Zambia I’d be thinking to myself “development complete.” At the bus station a guy was walking around selling magazines, and offered me the English-language version of The Economist to give you a sense I guess of what people are reading around here. I was excited to see people growing cocoyam in the gardens I could see by the road. I was also very impressed by the cushions on the bike racks. In Zambia and here people ride around on people’s bike racks. But no one in Zambia has ever apparently thought of putting a cushion on the bike rack, and when I saw that here I was like “oh man that’s genius.” A lot of the buildings also have these super sweet tile roofs, like the Italian (I guess) tile that’s semi-circular. It looks super nice and cool. I also saw sheep along the way which I thought was unusual (also goats and cows). The whole country is comprised of gorgeous valleys, some terraced and others covered in banana groves. I spent the whole bus ride staring out the window mesmerized by how gorgeous it was.

After arriving in Rubavu I checked into a hotel and then set off to check out the town. I went by this crafts co-op where I spotted a knife that looked like a shona knife in Zimbabwe I had wanted to get for my brother. It’s wrapped in what I think is goat hide and is perfect because it is super dull. I bought it, fearful I would never see another like it (this fear was misplaced). When I went into the crafts shop next door they had more of the same. Walking up that street was cool because the street frames Mt. Nyirogongo and man it is imposing. It’s like, 2000 meters above Rubavu and has smoke coming from the top. I can’t wait to climb it. I wandered around Rubavu and eventually bought a black market sim card. Sort of. I stopped by a sim card stand and asked how much. There was a language barrier. He eventually said 3000 which I think it actually about 10 times too much. He asked if I had a passport and I said no. I handed him 5000 and he thought for a bit and gave me the sim card. I asked for change; he said we were “finished.” So I think I bribed my way into a sim card and I think I paid 100x too much considering they are 5 kwatcha in Zambia but oh well.

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Lake Kivu from the bar.

I kept walking and got to the lakeshore, eventually stopping by a gorgeous bar where I had two beers (Turbo King, which I initially figured was motor oil or something) and dinner and another beer. It was lovely and had great views of the lake. The bar also played country music (and “Hotel California”) which, I can never decide how jarring it is to be so far from America, really in the deepest part of Africa (I mean Wakanda is supposed to be nearby) and hear American pop culture. After that I walked back to the hotel. I passed a number of guys working out and a pretty enthusiastic basketball game, both of which impressed me a lot because I never saw that sort of thing in Zambia.

After I got back to the hotel it was slightly jarring to read a news article in Al Jazeera saying a town in North Kivu (Virunga National Park is in North Kivu) was attacked and captured by guerrillas, severely hampering efforts at fighting ebola. I checked and the epicenter of the outbreak was only about 200km to the north of me. Disease and fighting was raging 200km to the north of me but everything where I was felt and looked amazing. I wondered how close it had to get before they close the park?

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