One thousand hills on a bike

Mzungu among Rwandan kids

Tired of a long journey we are looking for a bottle of cold beer. Searching through the mysterious alleys of Kigali all we find is a warm and tart banana wine. We still have to take a five-hour bus ride to Gisenyi, a town on the western end of Rwanda. It gets dark. I feel the only constant descents and steep climbs the bus has to struggle with. Starting tomorrow bike will become our only means of transportation for the next few weeks. There is a gigantic, the size of a cell phone moth resting on a wall in our hotel room. Well, this is Africa. It is high time to go to sleep. It is raining all night long. Good to us as today we we do not have to sleep in a tent.

The rough side of Rwanda

Volcanic holes on the road, no lighting and an empty space filled with puddles, here referred to as the market, leads us to the center of Gisenyi. A mysterious percale veil covers the entrance to a local bar. We sit comfortably in plastic chairs and we order a cold Primus, a long awaited Rwandan beer .

Kids are everywhere

Our adventure begins at Lake Kivu, which strikes by its a characteristic pumice, volcanic landscape. We pass the mountainous terrain covered with intense green and clay huts subtly blended with the scenery.

A tough ascent begins. The road leads uphill all the time. The equatorial sun painfully burns my back. The slope steepness of 10% later increases to 12%. How much further the trudge can go on? This day I have learned that endless hills is a typical terrain in Rwanda.

We find accommodation at the Rwandan family in the village of Mahoko with a help of a young biker. Our translator notes that we still have to wait a bit for the husband because his wife wants him to formally welcome us. Ongoing moments of uncertainty disappear as soon as there comes a man with a friendly smile, speaking in Kinyarwanda "Make yourself at home in our house." Our hosts are a very hospitable young couple with three little girls.

Kids take care of their younger siblings

The housewife assigns us some space in the room and covers raw floor with a straw mat. Their kids join us and as soon as we manage to unpack our stuff, we are invited for diner. On the table there is boiled milk, rice and stew with beans, vegetables and spicy chicken skins. The host works as a bus driver and as for the Rwandan family they are doing pretty well. Rwanda is a country in which an average teacher earns $50 a month and sometimes he is the only one breadwinner to support his wife and ten kids.

In the morning the whole family and neighbors gather up to say good-bye. We pass another countless villages and with no exception, we always arise curiosity among residents. In particular, children do not stay idle, which often makes up a whole procession accompanying us from one village to another.

Once, having stopped at one of the random villages there comes to a fight between two drunken peasants. Fortunately, when the stones start to be thrown, someone finally comes to reason and the uproar comes to an end. We finish our dried fish, baked potatoes and we move on.

A short break during the rainy season

The darkness gets us in Mukamira village. As usual there is a welcoming committee with lots of children and several colorfully dressed women. We ask for an opportunity to spend the night here. There must be some misunderstanding. Locals assume that mzungu has to stay with another mzungu and apparently they do not take any other possibility into consideration. A group of forty or fifty kids lead us to a house deeply hidden in the village. As it turns out this is a place where lives a very friendly girl. Tressa comes from Texas and she has been in Rwanda for six months already teaching English in a local primary school.

At this time I do not know who is more surprised. Still, probably it is Tressa. We stay for the night. There is electricity and water. Even hot water for coffee. There’s nothing better than making casual friends in the middle of wild Africa.

We leave the village at dawn as not to raise unnecessary interest, because everyone at this time has his own things to do. Women work in the field, children go to school and men – sometimes it is a different story.

The one who asks never gets lost

Street lamb vendor

African resident deems unethical not to give an answer to a question. Gakenke is a city about one hour away by bus. It’s hard to determine the exact distance, however just within one kilometer road we hear bunch of evasive answers: "it’s three kilometers ", "just ride downhill and there you are"," twenty kilometers"," half an hour "and "it is close".

That is the theory. In fact we are still not there, in the darkness with strange noises of tropical insects coming from all around. We are surrounded by fog, visibility decreases and air is cool. The feeling of uncertainty arises. I see silhouettes emerging from mist on our side of the road. It is police and soldiers with rifles. Whew … they pass by without a word.

We reach the top with all that is left of our energy. We visit Kitty, a friend of Tressa, to find ourselves in front of a dish of lentils and hot tea. Out of being fatigued no one thinks about mosquito nets. Malarial mosquitoes supposedly bite only between 1 and 4 in the morning.

Take it easy

Africans have a lot of time and a full clearance of mind. We are often accompaned by other cyclists, who adjust their pace of travel to ours, including breaks for rest. Once someone joins our caravan, he stays with us for at least several hours and becomes a integral part of our team. What happens to a guy who reaches his destination a couple of hours too late? The answer is simple: nothing .

On the road there is the  roasted corn vendor. He is standing still, maybe thinking or not. Maybe I will sell something, maybe not… The only sign of him being alive is his hands lazily rotating cobs on charcoals every five or ten minutes. I suppose that daydreaming seller did not even notice that we have bought three cobs and he even gave us change back!

Tonight it is not raining, which signifies beginning of the dry season.

Accidental adventures

A little girl with avocado

In Gako Cell we come to a friendly family. Father and his son arrange their store in such a way that it is impossible for us to sleep. The whole neighborhood meets up. Girls gossip by the fireplace inside a room behind the curtains and we drink Primus on the porch with the host and his son.

This evening my notebook becomes filled with lots of useful phrases and expressions in Kinyarwanda. The hosts are impressed every time we manage to put together a correct sentence in the local language.

The road is hard again, so we stop at a random location at the Rwanda International Transit Parking before the dusk. A moment of negotiation and discussion with the head of parking makes a stubborn security officer ease off. He takes down his Kalashnikov and lets us into the parking lot. From now on he also becomes our armed bodyguard.

It turns out that in Rwanda there is not enough fuel tanks. For this reason, it often happens that drivers of large tank trucks have to wait here two weeks, until somewhere there is a place for unloading. fuel Tanzanian trucks are powerful. These traffic monsters sometimes weigh over 70 tons, have 22 tires and 5 axes.

The parking head likes us a lot and although he cannot say a word in English, he buys and his translator a round of beers! A policeman approaches the armed security guard and takes his rifle. This situation looks exactly like "let me borrow this rifle for a while, I need to shoot someone and then I will return it".

Pimp My Ride in Rwanda

The morning mist limits visibility, however we keep on riding our bikes. We pass banana plantations, eucalyptus trees and huge birds over our heads. Here and there the goats and sheep graze.

Straying away from main road and following a clay path we arrive at a random household. This is a friendly settlement Karenge. A well-maintained garden, a modest brick house and two clay huts look tempting to stay here for the night. Once again we face with an extraordinary warmth and hospitality of Rwandan families.

We arrange coal and clay hearth to prepare diner. Roasted potatoes in olive oil with onion have already became an integral part of our nutrition.

All residents listen to the radio retransmission of a football match. When the receiver goes silent, the thousands of stars appear on the sky and the moon at the zenith, like a lightbulb on a ceiling illuminates the nearby pond with frogs. Cicadas and countless insects form together the magical orchestra of an African night.

Village of Pygmies

Handmade clay pots in the Pygmies village

We reach town of Ruhango. We find a friendly missionary center. Once we arrive, a Rwandan coffee with aroma milk straight from the cow is served. We are invited for a hearty diner. We eat fufu, a cassava starch meal along with spinach and eggplant sauce, croquettes made of duro flour and baked beans.

After diner we visit the village of Pygmies, a tribe of people from Twa minority. We are looking at their everyday lives. The inhabitants show us how they earn living by hand making clay pots. The powerful combination of skilled hands with a sense of art makes the production of these products do not need the rotating wheel. Two hands and a piece of clay is enough. The price of a finished product is only 500-800 Rwandan francs, roughly a dollar.

While in Ruhango we also visit a health center, a room for patients, a malarial laboratory room, a childbirth room and a room with babies and their happy moms right after childbirth. Rwandan proverb says: "a black woman is expecting a white descendant". I confirm that is true, as all newborns are pale and only several days after their skin pigment becomes darker.

Heading south

Delivering bananas in Butare

A pink glow on the sky and the sun making its effort to pass through the clouds from below the horizon encourages me wake up before six in the morning. Birds singing and insects buzzing herald the awakening of a new day in Butare.

We stop at a first shop on the way around noon. Believe me it is a very intimate place with only twenty or thirty kids around. The shopkeeper tries to increase our already comfortable sitting by driving off crowd of kids with a wooden rod. I tell him it is not necessary because we are used to having a numerous company. A number of spectators doubles every ten minutes and now it is certainly more than a hundred of kids watching us having a break.

Our friendly shopkeeper agrees to place our commemorative plate over the entrance door of his shop. He makes some initial fitting, then he seizes a thick, rusty nail and with no hammer handy he takes an old Fanta bottle, turns it bottom in the front and drives the nail down the soft clay wall placing our plate in a premium position. Once again a thought comes to my mind. "This is Africa". I am not gone yet and I already want to come back.

May 2010

rwanda