It was a sunny morning when I reached the Nyabugogo terminal to take a bus to the border of The Democratic Republic of Congo. The plan was to spend a week in Congo before returning to Rwanda and continuing on to Uganda and Kenya.
It was an enjoyable three-and-a-half-hour ride through the hilly roads, overlooking beautiful green hills and villages. The person sitting next to me, Oliver, a property dealer, was nice enough to offer me his window seat and over the course of the journey we got to know each other a little bit.
“Only rich people can afford property in Kigali.” He told me, as we discussed about property prices in Rwanda.
“That’s true for Mumbai as well.”
“Mumbai is the capital, yes?”
Our conversation about real estate suddenly took a left turn.
“Aaah.. no, its New Delhi.”
“It used to be the capital when British ruled India.” I was impressed that he knew names of Indian cities. “Have you been to India?”
“No. But I want to. Can you get me a job in India?”
“Ummm… I.. don’t.. have jobs to give away.” I said, a little confused.
In Swahili, there is a word called Mzungu, which means “white person”. However, it is mostly used as a slang to describe a foreigner who is perceived to have money and various opportunities that come with it.
Though this had happened a few times before and would happen a few more times during my stay in Africa, I still hadn’t gotten used to being treated like a Mzungu.
And as much as I would like to have money and the ability to give away jobs to random strangers on a bus, it didn’t feel good to be treated that way because I would think I was having a nice conversation with someone and then realise that all that was just a ploy to get some money.
Oliver was a little more reserved for the rest of the journey and I felt a little guilty mooching off his window seat which he had probably given away in the hope of getting a job in India.
I must have been cursed by the property dealer because when I reached the Gisenyi border I got to know that I cannot enter Congo without a prior visa. I was sure that I read on a trusted travel website that a visa could be bought at the border. I believed it and didn’t even bother to double check that information.
(Side note: I was watching Parts Unknown the other day on CNN and found out that the eternally cool Anthony Bourdain and his crew had cross into Congo from that very border crossing.)
Rejected and dejected, I decided to walk to Gisenyi town, eat something and figure out what to do next. Gisenyi, though a border town, is actually a popular weekend gateway for people from the capital. I walked along the shores of Lake Kivu, with the mystical hills of DR Congo on the other side mocking me. It would have been a beautiful picture had I not been yelled at by the border staff a few minutes prior.
I figured I should stay in Gisenyi for a night before heading back to Kigali. I checked in at the beautiful Discover Rwanda Gisenyi Beach hostel, which was located right across the road from the public beach, overlooking Lake Kivu. It was a huge colonial style building with sprawling lawns and the friendliest staff. There weren’t many guests as it was off season and it felt like I had the place all to myself. For 600 bucks! (INR, ofcourse)
After a delicious lunch of chicken with mushroom sauce with a cold bottle of Virunga and a long talk with the receptionist about the visa debacle at the border, I set out for a walk around town with a promise for a crash course in Kinyaruanda later that evening.
“Knowing a little of the local language here will help you here.” The lovely receptionist suggested.
And it was this walk that made me come to the reception afterwards and extend my stay in Gisenyi. The market right at the heart of the town was one of my favourites. Lines of shops on both sides of the main road selling everything from t-shirts to medicines. The mid-afternoon rush, the sounds and the colours (not to forget all the friendly shopkeepers and curious kids) made for a fun walk. On my way back, getting to see the buzzing playground of the local school was an added bonus.
The beach was clean and well maintained. Municipal workers worked tirelessly to give the beach a touch of greenery all around the light brown sand. With not much to do in Gisenyi, you can easily spend a day just sitting on the beach with a book and some music while occasionally taking dips in the calm waters of the lake.
And that’s precisely what I did most of the next day.
Ofcourse, Rwandans are friendly and some of them came and talked to me. While most of them were genuinely nice, there were a few exceptions. I remember this one guy named Felix, who was a 21 year old college student. During the course of our conversation, he showed me his pass with which he could enter and exit Congo whenever he wanted.
“So, you can just walk into Congo right now if you wanted to?”
“Yes.” He said smiling.
“Wish I had a pass like that. The lady at the border control shouted at me and told me to go back to Kigali and get a Congo visa.”
“Why did you want to go to Congo? Rwanda is much better.”
“I thought it will be fun.”
He smiled and after a couple of minutes of silence said, “Congo is not fun.”
Turns out he had gone there during his holidays to work and earn some money. His job was to unload goods from a truck and while doing that, he hurt his back really badly. He did not even get paid by his Congolese employer and had to spend a lot of money on medical expenses when he somehow managed to return to Gisenyi.
“My parents are dead and I live with my grandmother. She is old and sick. So, I have to study and work.” He continued.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time in Africa till then, but I had spent enough to know where this story was going. I decided to pack up and go back to the hostel bar before he got to the business end of this story. As I walked away, I heard him say “Can you help me out with some money?”
(As fake as it sounded, sometimes I ask myself, what if the story was true? I was such a jerk to not help out that poor guy.)
Another place that I really loved was the Tam Tam bar. Having delicious brochettes and cold beer while sitting on the banks of the lake, enjoying the cool breezes was the perfect way to spend an evening in Gisenyi. Or an afternoon.
On my second evening, I met this moto driver named Christian there, who insisted that I travelled with him back to my hostel even though it was a ten-minute walk from the bar. To get him to stop, I had to promise that I’ll hire him to drop me off at the bus stop when I decide to leave Gisenyi.
“I’ll be waiting for you here.” He said as I walked away from the bar.
That evening, as I was debating with myself whether to extend my stay in Gisenyi for a few more nights, I received an e-mail from Red Chillies Getaway Kampala that a spot in their 3-day safari had opened up and they could now accommodate me in their group. The safari started 3 days later and I needed to cross into Uganda soon if I wanted to make it.
Since I wanted to spend a few days in Kampala and see the city a bit before heading off into the jungle, I realised that my time in Gisenyi was at an end. I decided to take the three-and-a-half-hour long bus ride back to Kigali the next afternoon and catch a night bus to Kampala from there, which is a 12 to 14-hour long journey.
As much as I loved Gisenyi and was going to miss the calm and quiet and ofcourse, the free language lessons from the receptionist, I was excited about crossing into Uganda and going on an African safari.
So the next day, after a nice big breakfast, a few hours of lazing around at the beach, a quick trip to the pharmacy to buy some precautionary malaria medicine and a few last brochettes at Tam Tam, I said my goodbyes to the wonderful staff and the birds of my pretty hostel and got on Christian’s moto.
Even though, my stay was short and I hadn’t even originally planned on spending time in Gisenyi, these two and a half days were memorable.
And I hope to return someday with a little more time in my hands and learn a few more phrases other than just “Nitwa Arpan”, which I am told roughly translates to, my name is Arpan.
And next time, this Mzungu is crossing that freaking border!