Monthly Archives: September 2017

Rwanda Trip Part II – Kigali and Kayonza

We awoke the next morning and managed to figure out the shower. They did not have a shower curtain so the whole floor was wet afterwards. Reduce, reuse and recycle the water I guess. The temperature controls seemed to be just for show. Danny had arranged for breakfast to be served late so we could sleep in a little longer. However sleeping in wasn’t the easiest. Right outside of our first floor window were 3 huge (10,000 L maybe?) water storage tanks. We could here the pump kicking in when someone used the water which was frequently. I saw quite a few of these tanks throughout the country and I imagine they are very useful if the water stops working. After showering I was ready for my first full day in Rwanda.

My breakfast consisted of fried potatoes, a meat sauce, hot African tea (I think it had a milk base) and small, sweet, delicious bananas. After finishing we set off to find a forex bureau. We went on foot as it would be easier then taking two cabs. What struck me as we set off was the amount of people out and about. It was a Wednesday morning about 10 or so and there were people everywhere. In my town at 10 on a Wednesday morning there would not be 10% of these people out. People were on the sidewalks, streets, buses, moto taxis, bicycles and porches.

After some wrong directions (including some from a police officer) we found a place to exchange our currency. I switched $300 USD at 770 Rwandan Francs (RWF) to $1. The largest bill is 5,000 RWF but they were out so I got 231,000 RWF in mostly 2,000 RWF bills. Other paper denominations are 1,000 and 500. There are 100 RWF coins and some smaller coins that were hardly ever used. I left with a large wad of bills in my pocket.

Flush with cash we followed Danny to a mini bus stop. For 230 RWF ($0.30) each we took a van to the commercial district. The van was a larger Toyota. There was a driver and a guy who took the money and handed out tickets. There were 4 rows of 3 person bench seats. At the end of each bench there was a flip down seat once the row behind you was full. They certainly packed people in.

The commercial district was very crowded with some new and some used goods for sale. A lot of it spilled out onto the sidewalk. It was a very cool place and had a buzz to it. Our goal was to find some cloth for custom made shirts. We went to a building with several different areas of cloth. There was so much variety! All kinds of patterns and colors could be found. I found a blue based fabric with some elephants for 4,000 RWF ($5.19).

We made our way to a bus station and took a larger bus back across town to Kimironko market. Danny had a lead on a seamstress that another Peace Corp volunteer recommended. Her name was Josephine. We found the seamstress section. They were all on the edge of the large, unelectrified building. They had natural light and whatever breeze happened by. Their sewing machines were powered by a foot pedal. Josephine measured us up and Danny made plans to have us pick them up on the way back through Kigali sometime during the next week.

With our mission complete we decided to get a snack. We headed to a bar across from the market. They had several types of beer I had never heard of. I settled for a Skol beer. One thing that they do in Rwanda is open and pour the beer in front of you. I think there is a superstition about poisoning. If you are in the bathroom when your drink comes they will wait to open it until you are back. All of the beer and soda bottles are glass and reusable/returnable. I was able to save some bottle caps along the way.

A cool, refreshing Skol beer from Rwanda.

Danny ordered brochettes and potatoes for us. A brochette, French for skewer, is grilled meat on a stick like a kebab. Sometimes it has onion as well. Mostly we saw goat brochettes but I think there was fish and chicken available at certain places. There are two main kinds of goat brochette – muscle and intestine (zingalo). Danny, when ordering, was sure to stress we wanted the muscle and not the intestine. He pointed to his arm muscle to emphasize his point and wagged his finger while pointing to his stomach. He also asked how long it would be. As we would come to find out waiting for food in Rwanda could take a while. Often it was over an hour for simple food.

While at the bar many of the locals were watching Rwanda play in the Championship of African Nations soccer (or football if you prefer) tournament that was hosted by Rwanda. We could tell when Rwanda scored because the crowd went wild.

After eating our rented car and driver picked us up and took us back to our hotel. The original plan had us renting a car and driving ourselves around the country. However something changed with the law, or so we were told, so we had to have a driver as well. In the end this was a blessing in disguise. Driving looked to be interesting at best.

In any case the price couldn’t be beat. A driver and car was about $60 USD a day. The only thing we had to pay on top of that was fuel. Our Toyota Land Cruiser Prado was diesel and we figured we got about 22 miles to the gallon. Diesel (or gas-oil as it was called) came to about $4.40 a gallon. The fuel price was remarkably consistent throughout the country. I think the prices might have been regulated by the government.

Our Toyota Land Cruiser Prado on Safari at Akagera National Park

Our Toyota Land Cruiser Prado on Safari at Akagera National Park

Our car was an 8 seater in name only. There were two seats in front, a bench seat for three in the middle and two flip down jumper seats in the rear. But when you flipped down the rear seats you lost most of your cargo space. This was a problem early on. We had 5 people plus a driver and many, many bags – half of which we could jettison once we reached Danny’s house since they were full of gifts for him. Our next stop was an Eco Lodge outside of Kayonza so Danny made some calls and pulled a plan together. (He did a stellar job at doing this all trip long and we all really appreciated him being our patient travel agent on the fly).

Danny and I would take an intercity bus to Rwamagana and the driver, Dad, Mark and Bambi would take the bags to meet a Peace Corp volunteer at her house to store the bags for a few days. We would meet at the car rental office in Rwamagana where we had to sign the paperwork and pay for the rental.

On the bus I was flabbergasted by the amount of people walking on the roads at night. I think saying we passed 1000 people an hour would be a low estimate. We passed young people, old people, men, women, children, and all of the above on bikes as well. I also got to see my first taste of the hand signals used by drivers to warn of speed traps. Drivers would flash their brights and use their hands to indicate how far away police were. Usually it was two officers standing on the side of the road. One usually had an assault rifle slung across him. If they wanted you to pull over they would point and whistle. I didn’t usually see police cars. They did have radar guns (or “special cameras” as our driver called them).

In Rwamagana we met Peter who owned the car rental service. Then we piled into the car and headed for the Women’s Opportunity Center Eco Lodge which was our stop for the night. Dad had his own tent and Mark and Bambi did as well. Danny and I shared a room with two beds. We ate delicious pizza at the lodge. It was a beautiful night and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. The original plan was to wake up early and head to Akagera National Park for a safari but Danny sensed we were all tired and called ahead to change our reservation at the next hotel. (He had already made several changes and it was always the same worker who answered – Julius. When we eventually checked in Julius was working so Danny got to meet the man he spent so much time talking too.)

Lodging at Women for Women Eco Lodge – Tent on the right and indoor sleeping on the left

It was another good day on the road.

Rwanda Trip Part I – The Journey

The lists were checked and the bags were packed, repacked, and weighed after consulting airline policy. The countdown on my work computers Excel spreadsheet read 0 working days. It was go time. Rwanda was calling.

Our traveling partners for this trip, Mark and Bambi, pulled up in their SUV on a very cold Monday afternoon. Dad and I loaded up our bags and the bags of gifts and requested items for Danny, my brother volunteering in the Peace Corps. Along with our clothing we had a combined 4 extra bags for him totaling almost 200 lbs. We stopped at the bank thermometer to take a picture and say goodbye to the bitter cold (-1F/-18C)

The temperature on our departure day of 18 Jan 2016.

The temperature on our departure day of 18 Jan 2016.

We were flying out of Chicago O’Hare and we pointed the car south. Our first stop and last supper stateside was at the Brat Stop. I have been there a few times before but not in a long time. The building looked cobbled together and seemed to be expanded without a cohesive plan. I had a Polish sausage and one last Spotted Cow (“Only in Wisconsin”). The we navigated the cold road to the park and ride shuttle near the airport. As we got closer I could see in the night sky the wing lights of all of the air traffic waiting for the okay to land. At the park and ride I cast off my jacket, hat, gloves, and scarf – I wouldn’t be needing those where I was headed.

It was a long journey to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Luckily Dad and I had the middle 3 person row to ourselves and I didn’t have anybody sitting in front of me to recline into my knees. I also didn’t have anybody sitting behind me so I could recline guilt free. Still, I didn’t manage to get much sleep on the about 9.5 hour flight. I did enjoy the Turkish Delight served after takeoff. I watched a few movies on the in flight entertainment system.

We had a short layover in Istanbul. We managed to find the gate for the flight to Kigali despite it being on the other side of the airport and in the basement, far away from the duty free shops and food court. I read somewhere that Istanbul is building a new airport which they could use because this one seemed really full. One thing that stands out was the way they moved people in wheelchairs around the airport. In Chicago people manually pushed them. In Istanbul the helpers stood on the back of a powered cart and zoomed around. I saw a few texting while navigating crowded hallways. It was surprising I did not see any collisions.

The flight from Istanbul to Kigali was long and warm. I was in the middle of a row. I ceded both armrests to the others and just concentrated on the destination. I did sneak in a small nap on my tray table and watched a few more movies.  As we descended to Kigali I could feel it getting warmer and warmer. I was watching the live elevation tracker on my in flight screen. In my sleep deprived state I thought it was elevation above ground level instead of sea level so I was extremely surprised when we touched down at some 4,800 feet instead of zero. I blame the sleep deprivation. The flight continued on after Rwanda to Entebbe, Uganda so most of the people still had another hour after I disembarked.

Stepping off the plane marked the end of the flights and the beginning of exploring Rwanda. It was warm and muggy especially compared to what I came from back home. We only had one more obstacle to get overcome before we were free to roam – visas. We were the last ones through the visa line and we had some trouble getting in as we didn’t know the hotel we were staying at offhand. Using my phones internet I was able to get the information from my brother waiting for us outside. After paying our $30 USD we picked up our bags and found Danny outside with a “Karibu Team Horicon” sign. Karibu is Swahili for welcome. Danny impressed us with his Kinyarwandan (the language of Rwanda) skills in haggling for cabs to take us down the road to the Hilltop Hotel. It was about two in the morning when we checked in. Despite the excitement of seeing my brother for the first time in over a year and being in a new place I fell asleep fairly quickly (after securing my mosquito net).

The land of 1000 hills was waiting.