The grass is always greener on the other side…unless you’re in Rwanda. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” the scenery is so constantly spectacular that the camera never quite makes it back in the bag. Whether it’s tea plantations, terraced hillsides, or rainforest, there’s something stunning—and green—around every corner. Even in busy downtown Kigali, people go about their daily grind with picturesque views of the surrounding countryside as the backdrop.
It’s hard to imagine the horror of the 1994 genocide, in which over one million people were killed, taking place among these streets and gardens. But take place it did—we spent one afternoon at the modern and haunting genocide museum just outside the capital, complete with video interviews and skulls of victims on display to prevent anyone from denying that it happened. It didn’t shy away from graphic images or descriptions, nor did it mince words about the international community’s lack of action. There was also a thorough display on genocides that have occurred around the world during the past 100 years, one of which is still not recognized by the United States (the 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey).
Kigali otherwise felt somewhat like a baby Kampala: bodas, blackouts, hills, and rain. Communication was trickier—fewer people speak English in Rwanda than in any other country we’ve visited. First we try French, then Swahili, then finally give up since our Kinyarwanda is limited to “how are you” and “fine.” But the country-wide self-service buffets more than make up for it: for $1 you can pile your plate as high as you want with beans, rice, French fries, salad, and pasta. We certainly never went hungry.
From Kigali we headed south to Butare then to Cyangugu on a road that took us through rainforest where we spotted monkeys from our bus window. Cyangugu is a quaint little town at the southern tip of the lake that separates Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We took a walk one morning on a dirt trail along the lake side, gathering an entourage of giggling kids as we passed women balancing bananas atop their heads on their way to the market. After a few miles we found ourselves unexpectedly at an official border crossing, where a smiley immigration officer offered to let us cross, even though we didn’t have our passports, after a small “talk.” Uninterested in dealing in bribes, we turned back, though we were curious to see the big Congolese city on the other side. It was the first time we’d encountered bribery, and we laugh about the fact that we actually budgeted for it when planning our trip.
While Randy was off looking for a bus back to town, a man took one look at Jenny’s toe ring and said, “Oh, you’re married.” Perhaps he came from a village where that is the custom. Later, on a bus, a Congolese man asked Jenny whether Randy had given her parents any cows as a marriage offering. Why have diamond rings and bridal showers when you can have toe rings and livestock?
We left Cyangugu on foot heading north, having missed the morning bus to our next destination further up the lake, Kibuye. After a few short rides with trucks and minibuses, we reached the turnoff point for Kibuye—and were promptly informed that there would be no more buses for the day. Unfazed, we started walking down the dirt road with two barefoot local women carrying their luggage on their heads. They didn’t speak a word of French or Swahili, but when we got stuck in the rain and huddled under trees to stay (somewhat) dry, they sang some beautiful Rwandese folk tunes which kept our spirits high. Eventually they turned off to their huts along the road, and we flagged down the first minibus we saw. The bus was reluctant to stop for us—with good reason, since it was already packed with about 10 more people than it could hold. But somehow we and our bags fit inside, a sort of human puzzle piece with elbows fitting nicely in behind knee caps and just enough room to breathe. The bus wasn’t going the full five hours to Kibuye, but the end of the line was quite far enough for us.
One of the great things about traveling is that when the day begins, you never know who you’ll end up having dinner with that night. On the minibus we met a Rwandan doctor who insisted that we visit his hospital and stay in an extra room at their living compound next door. The “extra room” turned out to be an entire guest house, including a kitchen, fireplace, master bedroom, hot water, and views of Lake Kivu. We had dinner at the home of the hospital director, a British woman who’s been there for 22 years. We were joined by a doctor from Minnesota and two medical students from San Francisco. They gave us insight into the differences between Rwandan and Western hospitals. In Rwanda, and most parts of developing Africa, hospitals are more crowded with fewer resources, and the patients have a higher tolerance for pain (they don’t have much in the way of anesthetics anyway). They also echoed what we heard before, that the government’s official HIV numbers are a great deal lower than what they see in practice. With CNN on in the background and San Franciscans at our table, for a moment we felt like we weren’t so far from home.
In the morning we were treated to a French toast and fruit salad breakfast before we caught the bus north to Kibuye. The four-hour ride was on a bumpy dirt road that zig-zagged along the steep hills overlooking Lake Kivu. The bus was so crowded that there were more people standing than sitting—we were some of the lucky few with seats and a view. The men jammed in with the baggage in the back spontaneously broke into song, singing traditional Rwandan tunes loud and proud. Every so often the bus would stop in a tiny village to pick up more people, and kids would gather outside our window to gawk at the “mzungus” (us) with an astonishment we haven’t seen since Ethiopia.
Like Cyangugu, Kibuye is a scenic town on the shores of the lake, with a lively market selling Guess pants and Dockers among plantains and fresh fish. The hillsides, like everywhere in Rwanda, are cultivated to every last inch, creating a quilted landscape of different shades of green.
But it was the lake, with its glassy waters and countless islands, that was begging to be explored. We drew up a plan to spend a few days canoeing around the lake and camping on different islands. So we stocked up on water, filled our bags with veggies, and bought a boat from a local fisherman using our limited Swahili. The following morning, we set off alone in our 20-foot wooden rowboat with no experience, no maps, no communication, and rain coming our way.
But despite a rough beginning (it started raining within 15 minutes and we were paddling against the current), our three days on the lake were some of the most pleasant we’ve spent in Africa. We camped, cooked, swam, and drifted in near solitude. At times it felt like a tropical paradise, with pristine turquoise waters and uninhabited islands where we could eat fresh guavas off the trees. At other times it felt as if we’d stepped back 200 years when fishermen sang out chants from their dugout canoes as they paddled by.
We weren’t so eager to return to civilization when the time came, but a brief trip to the Congo awaited us. Ahead was Goma, a Congolese town partially destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 2002. A local hotel owner gave us the thumb’s up on the security situation, so Congo, here we come.