The main Kigali bus stop, Nyabugogo, is a maze of buses, shops and travel offices, in which the passengers, hundreds of them, just shout, argue, bargain and hustle their way to their destinations across Rwanda and neighbouring countries. To make sense of it all, you will need to take a quick walk around the station, which is easier said than done thanks to all the touts who will say anything to get you on their buses.
Across the road from the station are shops selling everything a traveller might need, from toiletries to leather jackets. Restaurants and bars are always buzzing with people looking to have a bite or a sip before starting or continuing their journey. In the evening, under the bright orange lights with pockets of shady darkness, the station and its surrounding can seem a little iffy.
But getting dropped off at the station at around 8 PM, after a somewhat comfortable 3-hour ride from Gisenyi, did not really leave me with too many options. I had to book a ticket to Kampala and then find dinner. My first choice of operators, Modern Coast, was sold out, so I went with the little less comfortable and slightly cheaper option, Mash, which painted its buses in the most outrageously colourful manner.
Having a couple of hours to spare, I decided to go to one of the local restaurants for some dinner but quickly found out that the place I had chosen, in a dingy building near the petrol station, did not really attract the best of crowds. Clouds of cigarette smoke, slurry drunken rambles and weird smells aside, the dirty walls and the curious/scary looks people gave me did not really make me feel very welcome. As I stared down the corridor leading up to the first-floor establishment, with activity all around me, the stupid traveller in me would not just let me turn around and leave.
I sat on a plastic chair near the stairs, just in case I needed to make a quick escape, and ordered a Primus. The waiters working at the place seemed to be drunk themselves, except for a teenage boy who came and sat with me and introduced himself as the Manager of the bar. And soon, the beer, as it usually does, took the edge out and suddenly, I was being offered cigarettes and fist bumps by the regulars of the bar. Even the sister of the Manager came by to Hi.
Careful not to overstay my welcome, I continued on my journey to find some food after I finished my beer. And I found some at a restaurant which also tripled up as a bar and a funky nightclub. But the brochettes were good enough to last me through the night. Also, they had a TV!
Surprisingly, the Mash bus left on time and though the seats were not very comfortable, I almost instantly fell asleep. I was woken up by the conductor, who was checking everyone’s passport and tickets.
“First time?” He asked as he flipped through the pages of my passport.
“Yes.” I said, still half asleep.
“When we reach the border, you go through immigration. You exit Rwanda and then enter Uganda. Bus will be there.”
That seems helpful, but what he failed to mention was that after I go through immigration and exit Rwanda, I will need to walk 500 metres or so in the dead of the night, through this pot hole and illegal money exchanger filled ill lit road to the immigration office of Uganda. Ofcourse, there are no signs so all the while I was just following the crowd, hoping they were entering Uganda as well. It was getting colder by the minute and all I had packed in the name of warm clothes was my brother’s thin old sweater. I am sure the border is much easier to figure out during the day.
(Just a word of advice, it is a good idea to buy a little bit of Ugandan Shillings before reaching Kampala, especially if you are travelling with Mash, because the place where they drop you off has very few ATMs or Money Changers.)
I stood shivering in queue at the Ugandan immigration office, with fifty odd people and was glad to see a few familiar faces from my bus. A 17-inch wall mounted TV showed a debate about the latest scandalous comments of Donald Trump. The voice of the CNN anchor was punctuated by the thumps of passports getting stamped.
I had a fantastic time in Rwanda and Uganda had huge shoes to fill.. and it did not start off well. When my turn came, I asked the lady at the counter..
“Can you please stamp this page?” as I presented my passport with the half empty (or half full) page open. Renewing an Indian passport is a pain and I had been trying to make maximum use of each page.
She looked at me. Flipped through the passport and stopped at the Identification Page. A few moments’ pause and then flipped through again and stopped on the page where my East African Visa was pasted.
“First time in Uganda?”
She let out a loud sigh. Then started typing something in her computer.
“How long in Uganda?”
“15 days” I said confidently, though I was not sure when I will be moving on to Kenya.
As she picked up the stamp, I repeated my request of stamping the half used page.
And I still remember what happened next…
She looked me dead in the eye and stamped an empty page.. right in the middle and slid it across to me. A look of utter indifference is so much worse than anger. Welcome to the land of Idi Amin.
And as we got on the bus again, I felt like things had suddenly gotten a lot rougher. The roads were not as smooth. The conductor who was friendly till Rwanda, was suddenly yelling at people. The driver was driving a lot faster. The other passengers in the back, who were quiet till now, were shouting at each other. Maybe it was my state of mind after leaving Rwanda, but the surroundings outside also seemed a lot darker.
Being on a seat close to the driver, with the road ahead visible through the windscreen, was quite an experience in itself. The tires screeched, the windows rattled, the obnoxious horns punctuated the eerie stillness outside as we sped through the uneven roads at breakneck speed, taking reckless turns, racing, and sometimes almost pushing off the road, any vehicle that we passed by. Sitting there in the middle of all this action and activity, with my head spinning like a top and all the strength in my body engaged in the effort of not letting the brochettes trek back up my throat, the chances of getting any sleep seemed bleak.
The good thing however, was that the driver seemed to know what he was doing. He was a middle aged, mountain sized man with an expressionless face. His eyes never left the road and his hands never let go of the wheel. He did not need breaks and he did not let anyone else take breaks either.
A few hours after the crossing, as I drifted in and out of sleep, I was woken up by some loud voices. I opened my eyes to see a lady with a young kid, maybe 2 or 3 years old, standing near my seat and shouting at the driver while the conductor was trying to pacify her and take her back to her seat. This went on for a while before I figured out that she wanted the driver to stop the bus because either she or the kid had to “go to the bathroom”. Sadly, the driver was out of fucks to give and would not stop. (I’m sure he had a good reason.)
It came to a point where, the lady was arguing with the conductor, her baby was crying his eyes out and wailing like a siren. Everyone was up and though no one said anything, you could feel that people were getting a little frustrated with all the noise. A few long minutes into the argument, some of the people from the back joined in and started shouting from their seats. It was at this point, the driver, for the first time took his gaze away from the road, looked back, his eyes red, sweat trickling down from his shiny bald head, and gave an earful to the lady in his thunderous deep voice. No one spoke for the next few minutes. If I remember correctly, even the baby stopped crying.
As the lady went back to her seat, shaking her head and mumbling something, the driver turned his gaze back on the road and picked up more speed. From that point on, the turns were a lot sharper, the speed a little more reckless and windows rattled to a point that I thought they were going to break.
By dawn, we were on the outskirts of Kampala, there was a lot more traffic, markets were busy with people buying fruits and vegetables. The red soil matched the orange hue of the early morning sun. Kampala, at first glance, looked a lot crazier than Kigali. (Which it was.)
As our Mash bus reached the parking space of their Kampala office and everyone hurriedly got off the bus and let out a collective sigh of relief and exhaustion, I realised I didn’t have any Ugandan Shillings to pay for the moto cab ride to my hostel, not even for a cup of coffee.
It was 6.30 am, there were no ATMs or Money Exchange counters in the vicinity and the banks opened at 9 am. And as I walked along the sidewalk carrying my heavy backpack, every part of my body aching and demanding some rest and food, I had to mentally prepare myself to deal with this group of boda boda drivers who were circling around me like sharks.
Let me tell you, the thought of an uncomfortable bed in a smelly hostel dorm was never as enticing.