Site Visit: Transportation

14 Jun

It seems like there’s so much to write about my site visit so I’m going to break it up into chronological categories. The first would be getting there right? Sounds good to me. Well actually, I should probably talk about the two nights in Kigali and all the gloriousness that was had. However, that’s technically leading up to site visit, so I’ll talk about what it’s like to come back from a month in the ‘bush’ in another post.

So after a morning of preparation for the visit, Peace Corps drivers brought us to the main transportation hub in Kigali. My supervisor was pretty adamant about us leaving Fort Peace Corps by 11 for our 12:30 bus. Getting there early totally paid off because we were able get desirable seats. The express busses (called taxis) have two seats on one side and a single seat on the other. The fourth seat folds down from the single seat making it so there’s no aisle. Needless to say it’s the least desirable seat to have. The other volunteer I traveled with and I were lucky enough to get window seats and sat next to our supervisors. A couple other volunteers arrived at noon and unfortunately had to take the middle two seats in the very back. From Kigali we traveled South to Butare made a quick stop for lunch and continued Westward toward Kamembe, the taxi’s final destination. Shortly before the Nyungwe forest, ’round about hour three we said goodbye to the two volunteers wedged in the back of the taxi.

Other trainees had expressed concern about the awkwardness of a long trip with our future supervisors and limited Kinyarwanda skills. I tried not to worry about it too much and it ended up going just fine. I had borrowed a Janet Evonicich novel from Fort Peace Corps and read that for most of the trip. It was crazy to pause from reading and look up at hills then pages later look down on terraces, fields of crops and valleys we had passed through. Every once in a while my supervisor would nudge my arm and ask a question or offer some tidbit of information. All in all it wasn’t a bad trip, albeit my supervisor speaks really good English. So as long as I avoid motor mouth mode we communicate rather well.

The Nyungwe was a welcome change. The trees were of considerable height but pretty spindly and primarily deciduous with not very many lower branches. Actually, they reminded me of towering, skinny broccoli florets.  The forest is home to 13 species of monkeys and according to my supervisor when you travel through in the morning chances of seeing monkeys out and about are high. Not so much in the afternoon, though we did spot one on the side of the road. We also spotted what looked like a fox, at least in coloring complete with a white tip on the tail. My supervisor put it in the dog category, he told me the words for a domesticated dog and a wild dog in Kinya but of course I forgot them since I didn’t write them down.

A little over half way through the forest I felt a change in the air. It felt and smelled the way it feels to be within proximity of a large body of water. It was hard to tell if it was nostalgia, the time of day, or our proximity to Lake Kivu that gave me the feeling.

After the forest we descended from the ‘mountains’ into the tea plantations. The sun was low in the sky and the green tea plants stretched on for miles. Once again spoiling me with an absolutely breathtaking, yet altogether different view of Rwanda.

We went on for a while longer and six hours after the bus departed Kigali we got off in a town I can’t remember the name of. However the journey didn’t end there. There was about 30 minutes of light left and we had a 20 minute moto ride ahead of us. I’ve never been on the back of a motorcycle before so doesn’t it make sense that my first time would be in Africa up a twisting, dusty, rocky road at dusk with a 15 pound bag strapped to my back and sleeping bag tied onto that? I mean that’s what I thought. Did I mention I was wearing a skirt and chacos? At first I thought I’d be like the Rwandan ladies and ride side saddle that is until my supervisor informed me that the road was not good and I should sit normally. Comforting right?

So up we went on a road carved out of the hillside at some points. Now the road is plenty wide enough however, with the rocks, pot holes, and channels carved by rain run off the road that is desirable to drive on is pretty scarce. I developed this game of trying to guess where the moto driver would pick to go based on what the road looked like. Sometimes I picked the same route, sometimes I questioned his choice, and when things got too hairy I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

Round about the time I was starting to feel quite stressed about the whole situation, with dark quickly approaching I got my first sight of Lake Kivu and felt an instant calmness. For the better part of seven years I lived on Puget Sound and it was a rare day I didn’t catch a glimpse of the water. This time in Rwanda is pretty much the longest I’ve gone without seeing salt water. It wasn’t something that I was conscious of, but when they announced my site would be on Lake Kivu, and then with that first glimpse, it was like being reunited with a part of me that had been missing. We arrived at the hotel we’d be staying just as the last light of day disappeared. Which is fortunate since I’m supposed to do everything in my power to not be out after dark for the next 26 months. Peace Corps policy.

The next morning after a tasty breakfast I said goodbye to my fellow trainee and hopped on a moto for a 90 minute ride of my life. My supervisor told me about an hour before we left Fort Peace Corps that it would be a two hour moto ride to my site. I looked at him incredulously and he clarified that normally it takes an hour but since I’m a umuzungu (my word not his) it would take twice as long. I had packed the smaller of my two packs with what I would need and then brought my backpack with my laptop and language materials, figuring if I didn’t feel it was safe to leave my laptop locked in my room I could carry it around in my backpack during my site visit. When I found out about the moto ride I figured there was no way I was getting both of those bags and my reusable grocery bag with my potable water and just in case food on a moto so I consolidated into my pack and the grocery bag.

The whole experience was rather surreal. I kept wondering if it was some kind of initiation, like at the end if I did well enough my supervisor would congratulate me on being such a trooper and I’d prove that I was fit to live there. Not the case, in order to get my site in a timely manner in the daylight, motos are an integral, albeit expensive necessity. It’s too bad I didn’t get a picture of the ridiculous set up I was rocking. Because of the dust I decided to tie the hot pink handkerchief I had over my nose and mouth. I was also rocking my supercross style Peace Corps issue moto helmet along with my stunner-esque sunglasses. I can’t decide if my supervisor thought the getup was ridiculous or was impressed with my preparedness. Because there’s no way to guarantee the integrity of the second moto helmet drivers carry volunteers are only allowed to wear PC issued helmets.

Throughout the ride various parts of my body expressed displeasure with the ride, my lower back, hip flexors, neck, shoulders, wrists, and arms. Thirty minutes in I started to wonder if I would make it or have to tap the moto driver on the shoulder and beg for a break. About 2/3 of the way, the road got steeper and much rockier so I decided heck with Rwandan conventions, I was going to put my arms firmly around the driver and hold on for dear life. We dodged errant cattle and goats, and played a sort of chicken with giant Mercedes trucks. Who gets to drive on the ‘desirable’ road between a moto and giant truck? I wish I could tell you, but that’s one of those situations that was too stressful to keep my eyes open. By the time I got around to opening them again there was only a cloud of dust and diesel fumes left. Amazingly enough, aside from feeling a little wobbly after I first got off, there was no residual pain or soreness from that great adventure. Though I think a masseuse and chiropractor would make a fortune off all the expats in Rwanda. Although, volunteers are probably the only ones to travel in the traditional Rwandan manner, everyone else probably hires cars.

Thankfully I did all my traveling by foot at site. When it came time to leave Sunday morning I took an Ontracom bus. Which is huge, think charter bus, only it’s got poorly cushioned seats and a bar bolted to the ceiling down the middle where people stand to maximize capacity. There was a slight misunderstanding about what time I was supposed to leave. The bus left from my town center at six am, I thought my supervisor said to be ready to go at 4:45 am, which is early, but we were so early for the other taxi that I didn’t think it out of the ordinary. Then as we’re walking to the bus he’s like, “I said 5:45, I sent the houseboy to grab a seat for you.” Hello, I am an idiot. So I got to hang out on the bus for an extra hour and choice of pretty much any seat I wanted. My supervisor put me up front which I thought was not the best choice considering if anything happened I’d be going right through the giant windshield. Then again, any seat on that bus is bad news bears in an accident.

This time we headed North toward Kibuye and I’m pretty sure the road that way is even worse. The hills are definitely bigger, and in my opinion a bus that big has no business being on a road that twisting or narrow. There was a lot of rain the night before and I was a little anxious about the condition of the road and said a small prayer any time we encountered a muddy, rutted patch. I realized that I had forgotten to do as a current volunteer advised and check the driver’s breathe to see if he was drunk. Then again I didn’t even know who the driver was until he got into the driver’s seat. There were people hanging out on the bus when I first got on who didn’t even leave with us. Did I mention the driver’s door was tied closed with a t-shirt?

For some reason I thought the trip to Kibuye would only take 2 hours, I think because my supervisor had told me that. Well it took four and a half. I really can’t complain too much though because I didn’t get puked on and the people I sat by weren’t bad at all. For the first half of the ride I sat by an adolescent girl. Then this guy decided he was tired of standing and made her squeeze so he could sit on the seat, but that was only for 20 or 30 minutes. They got off around the halfway point and then a guy my age sat next to me. He asked me what I was doing in the area and I showed him the Kinya phrases I had about Peace Corps. He asked why I was learning Kinya because it was a dead language of the poor. I told him the first of probably many taxi lies. To avoid questions about my romantic life I told him I was only 20 years old since it’s illegal to get married before the age of 21. The second lie I told was that I didn’t have facebook and that I had an American email address but wouldn’t be able to check it for the two years I was in Rwanda. That’s what you get for dogging on poor people.

We made it to Kibuye without incident. At this point it’s going on 11 am and I’ve yet to have anything to eat, mostly by my own choice because I had some ‘just in case’ food left and could’ve bought something through the window but didn’t.

Making the transfer in Kibuye was one of the craziest things I’ve seen so far. As people unloaded off the gigantic bus, the drivers and people affiliated with a couple different taxis started trying to herd people into the different taxis. I quickly jumped into one after confirming it was going to Kigali. Then this other taxi shows up on the scene and there’s yelling, waving and pulling people from one taxi to another. The driver of mine started driving forward even though there was a mob of people in front of him. A guy from a rival taxi company was actually trying push back on the taxi so it wouldn’t go forward. I guess the goal was to block the entrance to the other taxi. The taxi filled and we headed to Kigali with a few stops on the way. I was lucky to get a window seat and managed to fit my bag on my lap so I didn’t have to pay for an extra seat. It was a pretty uneventful couple of hours on paved road to Kigali. I slept for part of it and bought some snacks during one of the stops and had two seats to myself after Gitarama.

There was a back up just outside of Kigali and I couldn’t figure out what the hold up was until I saw some cyclists go by. Fun fact: Rwanda is big into cycling, like Tour de France quality.

In Kigali I met up with some other volunteers at a swanky restaurant for beers and a delicious meal. Then we embarked on the last, and probably most tedious leg of our journey, procuring a mutatu to Kamonyi. First we had to catch one from city center out to the mutatu hub which actually has a name I forget. We kind of got jerked around because everyone wanted our business. On the advice of one of the volunteers with us, we got our money out to pay for both mutatus because the hub we were headed to is the place where you’re mostly likely to get pick pocketed. It’s always a little chaotic trying to get a mutatu because there are people pushing and pulling at you and you have to keep an eye on all your stuff and out for pick pockets and cram all your stuff around and over people. We ended up taking six seats between the four of us and all our stuff and just decided we’d eat the extra two thousand francs.

The Kinya word for these taxis actually translates to ‘squeeze bus’ and now I know why. We were pretty much at capacity but at a stop about halfway to Kamonyi we picked up some extra people who sat on laps, crouched, and I’m not really sure what else. The bonus of being in the back of the mutatu was that it wasn’t convenient to invade our personal space since the aisle was blocked by a person in a fold down seat. Now this driver was running a risk because the police are stationed at check points along major routes and stop mutatus to count passengers. If the drivers are over capacity they are fined. However, we were about to leave the main road and it was highly unlikely that there would be a checkpoint along the rest of the route.

And there you have it. My experience with Rwandan public transportation during my site visit which could actually be called Tour de ½ of Rwanda.

Stay tuned for details of the rest of my trip.


3 Responses to “Site Visit: Transportation”

  1. KC June 14, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    How exciting!! I’m glad you got to feel whole again with a glimpse of water. I laughed a little when I read the trip would take longer cause you’re white. hahaha

  2. Kelly June 14, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    WOW! You are quite the traveler! I am so glad you have been able to blog lately and update us on all the great and crazy adventures!

  3. Jill teVelde June 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Heidi you are such a great writer! Funny, sarcastic and full of detail. I love reading about your journey. I mailed packages today but I forgot the coffee!!!! I’m so sorry! I told the post office guy he’d be seeing lots of me.

    Love you lots. Stay safe!


    PS>> love listening to your music on i-tunes makes me feel closer to you!

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