Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Upcountry Adventures

Friday evening I went to the Hippo Hole for sundown drinks with some friends. One of my friends brought along two German girls who had hitchhiked down to Bujumbura from Kigali that morning for a quick visit to Burundi. 

Opinions aside as to whether it was wise for them to hitchhike into a country that risks falling into civil war, I immediately saw these girls as an opportunity to salvage at least a part of my trip to Kigali. I was all packed and mentally prepared for the road trip, and even though Star Wars wasn't playing in Kigali, I could at least drive up, deliver some household effects to one of my evacuated colleagues, and have a nice meal or two. In short, I was itching for an adventure.

The girls wanted to see a bit of Burundi, so we settled on a noon departure time on Saturday to get us into Kigali before dark. I did some last minute preparation and researched alternate routes on Saturday morning while the girls checked out the Rusizi river and the Stanley-Livingstone monument. It had rained all night and the main road to Kigali was closed due to landslides. I chatted with some knowledgeable friends as well as Google maps to chart a course that avoided closed roads as well as avoided being too close to the border with the Congo - not a great area given rumors of rebel groups training in Kivu.

The girls were very excited to be in Africa and wanted to stop every 30 minutes or so to take photos of nature, children and men carrying weird items on the backs of their bicycles. We turned off onto Route Nationale 10, which would take us up out of the Rusizi plain. It was a good road but certainly not paved.

About 500 meters after passing a small village that doesn't show up on any maps, the road inclined sharply and my car started to struggle. Let's make a quick comment about my car. It's a Toyota Highlander, which looks like an SUV, but it's two-wheel drive and built on a mini van chassis. It had been great for taking my surfboard to the beach in San Diego but was not designed to drive up into the Burundian interior on a muddy road during rainy season. 

So we got stuck in the mud.

People from the village started to gather round and in the crowd I found a man (seemingly the only one) who could speak french. I asked if he and some of his friends could help me get the car past the mud slick. It was easy to go back down the hill, but we wanted to go up. The man said he was happy to help if I could maybe help him out with "quelque chose." He grinned while rubbing his fingers together in the international signal for cash-money. I assured him that we could arrange something. 

I quickly found myself back at the wheel of the Highlander, wrangling it as it slid around and up the road, a squad of muscled Burundian men pushing behind, chanting a Kirundi work song as thirty kids yelled and danced alongside. It was all I could do to keep the car from sliding off the road or into the crowd of children. After getting through and a chorus of cheers from our youthful peanut gallery, the French speaking man told me there were a few more mud slicks up the road. We gave each other a knowing look and he ordered his compatriots to trot up the road to the next slick. We went a mile and a half up the hill this way, strong men shoving us through the mud and muck, children yelling and laughing.

At the top of the hill, I shook hands with the man (his name was Donatien) and gave him some cash to share between the pushers. I pulled out a case of coca cola for the kids, who swarmed it like piranhas. With that we were on our way, although not exactly on schedule. 

We reached the Burundi-Rwanda border at 6:20 as the sun was setting. There is a particular problem with the Burundi-Rwanda border after 6:00 pm. It's closed. We had just missed it. I asked the border guard if there was any thing we could do, and his chief came down to chat. He told me that we might be able to get through on this side, but the Rwandans, notorious for their rule-following, probably would not let us pass on the other side. I turned us around and we stayed in the border town of Kayanza for the night. 

If you're ever in northern Burundi, I must highly recommend Kayanza. You can stay in the nicest hotel in town, in a three-room presidential suite, for almost nothing at all! We chatted about German politics over dinner, I was able to Skype with Hannah and then went to bed. 

Sunday was less eventful. We crossed the border quickly, although there was about a twenty minute selfie session at the Welcome to Rwanda sign. I arrived in Kigali around noon, with just enough time to drop off my cargo, eat a burrito at Mezze Fresh, and turn around to get back to Bujumbura before dark.

Still no Star Wars, but a trip well worth it for the adventure!