Don't hit the chimps
22.07.2012 - 22.07.2012
Rwanda’s poetical name, “The Land of a Thousand Hills”, is deserved and understated. The country consists of hills and nothing but hills. This is a very fertile region of Africa, and each hill displays its own evocative medley of the local vegetation. Human cultivation mixes with an overgrowth of natural greenery. Add to that rustic houses and people who express their love of color, literal and figurative, through their clothing and their ever-present smiles, and a drive through Rwanda is a road trip to remember.
What does not mix well with an experience of Rwandan bucolic appreciation is Emmanuel’s driving. In his defense, Emmanuel needed to drive quickly due to our late departure from Kigali and the timing of the Rusizi border post closure between Cyangugu and Bukavu. I forget Emmanuel’s last name, but it is not Ecclestone. However, in true Formula One form, he threw caution and physics to the wind and tore through the half of the country that is downhill, roadside orphans and goats be damned. The uphill half gave all of us time to reassure ourselves that we were still on the preferred side of life’s veil and to enjoy the individual colors of the countryside without the melted crayon effect caused by traveling at shuttle speed.
A few hours into the ride, the road began to undulate more and the blue-green leaves of eucalyptus began dotting the hills. In isolation, eucalyptus is pleasant enough, but mixed with the fortunate mélange of colors that there had been until that time, the hills went from Monet dreamscape to Moesha’s elementary school Mother’s Day art project. Then, literally around a single corner, the hills in the near distance were covered with rainforest canopy. It was here that we entered Nyungwe National Park and where I experienced the worst intentionally executed torture of my life. Nyungwe National Park is nothing but curves in the road. Upon entering the park, I was told to look out for baboons and chimpanzees, as the park is famous for them. We saw baboons but no chimps, which is quite fortunate as Emmanuel likely would have cheerily bitch-slapped them with his fender had they been in the road. We were going between 60-100 kilometers per hour the whole time, around constant curves! Of course I was getting sick, but my stomach was also “acting up”, which for me means irritating my vagus nerve and giving me arrhythmias and sensations of panic. I was groaning in the back seat and I was literally dizzy when I opened my eyes, something that I had previously only experienced on roller coasters. After I had had too much, I asked my guide, Jacques, how much longer we had in these condition. He replied, “About one and a half hours.” Disappointment Despair set in.
I made it through without chewing cud and we reached the Rusizi border after nightfall. This is where I got an introduction to the unwarranted deference that must be given to the unpaid and unhappy Congolese troops. After stamping out of Rwanda, we had to walk to the Congolese side over an unlit wooden bridge with a track in the middle for cars and tracks on either side for pedestrians. Mind you, this is the Congolese border after dark. Zero car traffic and not exactly pedestrian-packed. We were alone except for two Congolese soldiers seated in white plastic chairs on either side of the bridge, flashlights in hand ... turned off. As we approached and headed towards the middle of the bridge, the first officer flicks on his flashlight and strongly suggests that we walk on the sides. My guide and new driver nodded their heads obsequiously and in fact thanked him for informing us! The same occurred at the other side, although we were not even trying to cross in the middle. I have no idea why we were warned at all because this was a prime bribe opportunity. In DRC, a white person walking alone will surely be asked for money or food by the locals, but not forcefully. However, everyone in DRC must fear the police and the military. In Bukavu on my first day, when I was given advice for where I should and should not go, the places to avoid were all locations of police departments and troop hangouts.
I was tired and my stomach literally hurt so much that it was hard, so I did not even blink after glancing at my DRC passport stamp and seeing that they had given me an exit stamp instead of an entry stamp. We changed it the next day, but I still expect troubles leaving Kinshasa.