60+ Inch Screen on Journey between Kigali and Bujumbura
I started the day early on March 15, 2011 at 6am on the day after spending time on Volcanoes Nation Park trekking and spending a some time with the Rare North African Gorillas along with a quick stop in two countries with connecting cities – Gisenyi, Rwanda for lunch and Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo for some time amongst the throngs of people in these border cities along Lake Kivu. The journey back to Kigali took about two and a half hours. It was an early morning drive with a magnificent view worthy of the splendid sunrise I was blessed with as we wound our way from west to east along the rolling hills found in Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills. I am keenly aware that often when the sunrises or when the sun is out we put on sunglasses, however on this day I made a conscious effort to remove my sunglasses and enjoy the splendor of the beautiful array of colors before my eyes…
Upon arrival in the capital city, I frantically carried my bags over to the nearest internet café while procuring some African Tea, a light meal and some snacks for what will be a six-hour ride on the ten o’clock Belvedere bus from the capital city of Rwanda to the capital city of Burundi. I had no idea what to expect as this was my first bus ride in East Africa. Having traveled by way of the famous Matatu throughout Africa I knew how creative Africans can be with loading 20 people in a bus made for 16, plus an always interesting assortment of goods, foods, and small animals. Would I be seated in a seat along today’s produce or have I bought a ticket on the ‘chicken bus’ as many buses in the developing world are known or was I in store for a simple Greyhound-type bus experience?
I scurried over about 9:30 am to the bus station which consisted of an old warehouse where two buses were beginning to fill up and where there was quite a bit of commotion and people. Some of the people sat patiently as the bus was filling up while the rest of the people consisted of vendors selling everything from newspapers, fresh produce, today’s live chickens which undoubtedly would be meals for people tonight and knick-knacks ranging from wooden carved African masks to life-size maps of the world. As a light-skinned traveler immediately I attracted the mob of vendors and people trying to grab my bags and offering me help on the correct bus, plus sell me so many things I didn’t need like a world map the size of a hanging photo. Somehow, one of the taller gentlemen said in a deep voice, “Bujumbura?” and I smiled and handed him my backpack as if I just instinctively knew he had to be associated with the bus company and my ten o’clock bus. It was actually a leap of faith since he wore no bus company uniform. He then spoke in Kinyarwanda and yelled at people to make room, I was coming on board. He rushed me onto the bus as I stood among a packed bus and luckily found a seat in the center row behind the bus driver in a seat made for a child, but large enough for a man. It was a tight fit as I sat down quickly while squeezing in between a gentlemen on my left along the window, who coincidentally was seated in my seat which my handwritten ticket had on it, however I learned several years ago sometimes the seat one purchase doesn’t always correspond to the seat one acquires on public transportation like this or even at bullfights. The understanding is that if you have your ticket and can be seated in the general vicinity or even if you have a seat, you should just be happy and today I am happy that I am soon adding a new country to my list, Burundi.
As the bus continued to fill up, probably beyond capacity, more and more people loaded up boxes into space that I didn’t think existed. I give the developing world credit, no space goes unused. As we got closer to departure the tall gentlemen continued to yell, point, and navigate the masses like a conductor of an orchestra at a symphony. Vendors continually will scream, shout, and display their wares along with the bus and in some instances, they reach into the bus with the trinkets all while bargaining with passersby and passengers. I once witnessed a transaction in which sunglasses were purchased at one stoplight, then the light turned green as the driver fumbled for the correct change while driving off and the payment was made at the next stoplight – approximately three blocks (and about a kilometer) later as the vendor caught up to our vehicle huffing and puffing. In the States we would have witnessed a crime; however, in Africa it is commonplace for honesty once a negotiated price has been agreed upon. Then the driver simply started the bus as the universal signal that we will depart soon, however, I find that this is the signal to finish up any transactions as well. Note to oneself, if you are interested in purchasing anything, hold out until the bus starts – prices miraculously drop.
The ten o’clock bus to Bujumbura departs with much fanfare the sea of people gathered around the bus scurry to safety. This bus has a path and through the use of the horn it slowly jumps to curb and we depart with what will be two major themes of this trip – honking the horn and nearly running over people. The external mirrors could easily decapitate people at every juncture of the trip and I sit almost in anticipation that someone will not be lucky on this day; however, at the last possible moment, people get out of the way of this thousand-pound machine. As we make our way out of the capital city I get the pleasure of sitting front and center. My view is splendid since I don’t have much in front of me except a clear view out the front window. Granted my knees are wedged into my neck and I have two women wedged into seats on my right, well one seat and one box. However once I resign myself to getting comfortable for the six-hour ride, I easily settle in for the journey. The bus engine howls, the breaks screech, and our bus follows the winding roads on its way up and down the famed rolling hills of Rwanda. As we head south I marvel at the views of lush green gardens, vendors along the highway and I am intrigued at the variety of vehicles on the road. You can always tell the international relief organizations as they have the new vehicles, however, for the most part, old cars, trucks and even older Matatus fill the majority of the streets as do boda-boda bikes or motorcycle taxis. It is amazing to see the creative transportation options for the developing world. In many instances, the bicycle is the only option so it is quite common to see a bicycle packed down with bananas, coal, or anything else and the rider walking alongside the bike. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the fact that by far the most common mode of transporting goods whether large quantities of bananas, heavy sacks of coal or large containers of water is on the heads of African women and to some degree African men. I would say the women performing this option far outnumber the men, so I am sure that many of us can conjure up the image of the women walking perfectly upright with huge items on their heads. I have seen it firsthand and I can attest to the perfect posture and sheer strength of African women.
About two hours into the journey we come upon the border with Burundi as we approach a simple building in the middle of nowhere with the normal throngs of street vendors who jump up and begin swarming the bus. The border is interesting with a simple rope that is up across the street and held by well-armed guards with old and outdated machine guns. That is it, the border between Burundi and Rwanda, a simple rope. Not an electric fence, a ten-foot wall, nor anything else. I have always been intrigued by border crossings because one never knows what to expect. In this case, the bus stops and everyone exits the bus and many people make a mad dash to the two windows open along with this huge building with a long covered patio. I just typically play follow the leader in these instances since I assume this is the customs or immigration office. Slowly one by one people make their way to the front of the line and present their documents and I do the same. The immigration officer looks at my passport and without hesitation, he stamps it and I proceed to the next window down this long building. It’s interesting to understand the formalities however I quickly learn that this was only the location of the exit stamp from Rwanda and the next window is the entry window to Burundi. A variety of questions, a stamp, and twenty US dollars later I am admitted into Burundi. I quickly went to the public restroom and boarded the bus. It’s interesting that throughout this bus journey although there are some limited conversations among the passengers, people bond in an interesting way without talking. It is like the passengers become one and look out for each other. I kept wondering how the driver knows when everyone has cleared customs and how not to leave anyone behind? He just does…
The bus cranked up again and we set off down the highway in Burundi. It was a striking difference between Rwanda and Burundi although the only thing separating the two countries is a worn-out rope. Each country has its unique histories often based on tragic events. The soil there was magnified in deep red soil similar to other African countries, however, one of the primary differences is that in addition to the rolling hills there are now mountains. The people walk more here and along the road, there are people who are farming along the rich hills and the roads just seem more busy and packed. Children stop, yell and wave as our bus careens down the highway. At hour three, I am getting restless so I decide to pull out my iPod and put some Esperanza Spaulding on and it is so appropriate as we continually twist and turn through the steep winding roads, although I suspect that Esperanza’s sounds could sooth just about any situation. Since the roads here have more foot traffic, the bus continually honks and barely misses a lot of people as they get out of the way often just in the nick of time. This makes me uneasy given that I am cringing as we just miss cutting off people’s heads, yet the driver is constantly speeding up, slowing down, changing gears, honking the horn, passing old and slow vehicle often while looking in the mirrors and from time to time eating with one hand, steering with the other. I noticed that the driver was gulping down Red Bull as if they are water which is a bit disconcerting, however, what was I to do except listen to melodies of Esperanza. It was an unnerving feeling particularly since I was front and center looking out the buses clear front window. Inevitably a variety of thoughts ran through my mind, was the driver alert and awake, did the driver get a full night’s sleep, was he out at the clubs of Kigali, has he rested, was this the first time he is making the drive, does he know what he is doing, will he run someone over, will he stop if he does run someone over or will we just honk and keep going…? In the end, I resigned myself to not having any control and I focused on writing and listening to Esperanza, two very calming things. At about the four hours we make a sudden stop in a small town full of primitive shops and throngs of people. Quickly as if on cue, the town center springs into action as the bus stops. Vendors immediately rush over and hands are reaching into the bus with fresh fruits, roasted corn, bottled water, and just about anything imaginable. The driver jumps off and disappears into the crowd and several passengers pry open the door and people file off the bus to the shops. I have no idea what is going on so I just sit there with my iPod and observing the chaos around me. The driver returns with some produce which he tosses on the dashboard and some more Red Bull. He cranks up the engine on the bus and he guns the engine. Which I surmise is the second universal African bus symbol, get on the bus, we leave soon. A honk later and we are once again on the road. All of this unfolds before my very eyes and as my ears listen to the soft sounds of some relaxing music.
As we pull into Bujumbura six hours after we started this journey we get our first glimpse of the capital of Burundi and Lake Tanganyika as we wind down from a large mountain in such a way that we get intermittent views of the city at the bottom of this mountain, in between hills and next to a massive lake I come to learn separates the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. We see the common lush green terraced gardens, and a small and winding road full of people with bundles and sacks of onions and stacks of the most orange carrots I have ever seen. We roll into a primitive bus station full of people, boda-boda bikes, Mutates, and run-down taxis. As I continue to glare out the huge front 60+ inch window of the Belvedere bus I think about how many people will spends huge sums of money for the biggest and newest plasma screen television sets, how many people have cable TV with hundreds of channels only to sit in front of a TV set to watch reality TV shows. I realized that for me my TV screen is not to be found in my condo at home, but rather my screen is the glass on the front of this bus from Kigali to Bujumbura and instead of living life through the TV set I am living my life by keeping my eyes open, my ears tuned to some good music, and living my life. People can enjoy their TV sets and I will keep trying to find a decent seat on the bus of life…