Traveling here does not bring out the best in me. Or really, any other volunteers that I know here. If I have several consecutive trips in public transport to anticipate, my thoughts turn dark. Strange things can happen on Ugandan roads; besides the obvious dangers of third-world transport which I mostly try to divert my focus from, there is a whole range and gamut of experiences that one can have while on the road. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, although we do have a different standard of living than our villager neighbors, we do share the same modes of transport. It's humbling. I'd donate my kidney to take Greyhound buses. And, I can't really remember exactly, but that seems like a strange thing to admit in America.
Let me give you a taste, so that the next time you find yourself in a traffic jam (which I DON'T miss) or sitting next to a rather seedy or overly talkative neighbor on a public bus, you can think about me and laugh. At the beginning of most Ugandan bus journeys, the conductor, rather disconcertingly, calls upon someone to make a public prayer. They are open-minded enough to allow any language or religion, but usually some adorable traveling nun stands up to bear the burden. I have been lucky enough to experience when a fellow PCV takes it upon himself to fulfill this duty. My favorite instance is when a friend stood up and said, "Oh Lord, let not this bus crash." In my case, after this prayer, I have an 8 hour + journey to look forward to, with 1 stop where you can scramble off to pee in a public trough on the side of the road. So, the day before, usually, we start dehydrating ourselves for the journey, and only begin to think of consuming liquids when about an hour from Kampala. Oftentimes, there are live chickens or goats accompanying you for the journey, and pecking at your feet. All in all, I have fairly good bus service to my site from Kampala, although it is sometimes a bit heartstopping at times, and always interesting.
This is all lead up into our experience getting to Rwanda, and our travel within Rwanda. As you may have heard me write before, to us PCVs in Uganda, Rwanda is the land of milk and honey. You know- good roads, not so much "MZUNGU! MZUNGU!"ing, no trash, etc. It's always good to debunk myths, right? So anyway, the travel. It was a full day journey to Kigali from Arua. After the usual bus ride to Kampala, we went straight to Jaguar Executive Coach (sounds legit, right??), to book our seats for the next leg of the journey. We decided to take an over night bus to Kigali because we had heard that Jaguar was legit and comfortable and safe, otherwise I would never think about traveling at night. All of the seats to the VIP bus were booked, so we took the normal one. We booked the last available tickets. Do you know what that means? That means that us 4 mzungus were in the exact back row of this monster bus. Like, as in packed as tight as sardines, on this jet-sized bus full of 100 people. The aisles of the bus were not even wide enough to walk down without turning your body. We felt like were riding in a coffin. All of the people around us immediately closed their windows, because fresh air gives you malaria, and there we sat. No escape. For 10 hours, my friends and I sat through what is no less than the worst travel experience of my life. No fresh air, absolutely no communication from the drivers/conductors, and on one of the worst roads in Uganda. No, we didn't sit for 10 hours. We were airborne for 10 hours. When you sit in the back of a bus in Uganda, you have to expect that you will no longer possess a tailbone at the end of your journey (which I guess we don't technically need anyway...right?). To make this worse, our driver did not share our western concept of slowing down for speedbumps, so the bus ride was really more like getting your ass kicked for 10 hours. When we finally crossed the border into Rwanda, where the roads suddenly becomes as smooth as butter, rather than the expected feeling of relief, we all became even more terrified because on these nice roads the driver decided to see how close he could get to tipping the bus over without actually doing it. Great trick. They call Rwanda the land of 10,000 hills. So it is. On that hour ride to Kigali from the border, we flew down 9,999 hills at warp speed. My friend Sara and I clung to the seats in front of us, yelling up tentative complaints like, "Shouldn't he be slowing down?" and "I'd really like to make it to Kigali!" I guess the shock value experienced when we actually reached Kigali made it all worth it.
Rwanda itself was lovely. It looks like Switzerland. There is no trash. At the border, the police literally look through your luggage to remove any caveras (plastic bags) or trash so that you can't bring it into the country. That's pretty hysterical to me, because in my village, I'm pretty sure that caveras have become part of the soil composition. Dig in your garden, and you'll pass through topsoil, clay, and then decade-old plastic bags. Anyway, the capital city is beautiful, overlooking hills, terraces, and lights. There is good food, lovely boulevards to stroll on, and nice people. We didn't get MZUNGU!-ed very much. We stayed at the PC Rwanda dorms- because the PCVs in Rwanda have these awesome dorms with hot showers and refrigerators to stay at whenever they come into the capital! During the first few days, we walked around, ate real Roman style pizza, drank lattes, and saw the genocide memorial museum. It was interesting to hear the full story behind what happened in 1994. We met some really friendly volunteers who invited us to go with them to Kibuye- a lakeside town on Lake Kivu. Kibuye is some 3 hours from Kigali on a minibus and we were thankful to travel with Rwandan volunteers, because it was somehow chaotic. We had to fight and elbow people to get good seats on the minibus right behind the driver, because anywhere else on the bus, you are more likely to get nauseous. You drive through the mountains all the way to Kibuye, so it's kind of like Space Mountain but on real mountains in Rwanda, with people vomiting all over the place, because of all the sharp turns and general windy nature of the ride. There's not really a vomit-out-the-window culture, or a vomit-into-a-bag culture, but more of a vomit-into-your-lap-or-immediately-in-front-of-you culture, so there is really just vomit flying everywhere, and once the first little boy vomits, it sets off a grisly chain reaction that only stops when the annoyed bus driver finally pulls over so that everyone can run off the bus to puke in the bushes. Luckily, I didn't get too much in the cross-fire, but my friend Sara was a victim of a puke-and-ride episode.
Rwanda is beautiful. You can't imagine the scenery that I witnessed outside of my window and beyond the arcs of vomit during the bus ride. Kibuye, or probably any part of Western Rwanda around Lake Kivu, really looks like how you would expect Switzerland to. We spent two nights in Kibuye, relaxing at the hotel with the view of the lake and mountains, and boating around to different islands where we could see bats and monkeys! Kibuye is also the site of the greatest massacre from the genocide, at the church right by the hotel where we stayed. It was also a good time to sit down and talk with the Rwandan PCVs and get a good idea of their experience in Rwanda. Turns out I'm pretty happy that I'm in Uganda after all. At least people smile at us in our villages and want us there. The volunteers we traveled with were really nice, and welcoming. We also picked up some good phrases from them during our time together that somehow exemplify Peace Corps existence, "It is what it is," "living the dream," and "feel the drugs!" I don't know how drugs really have to do with my service outside of my crazy malaria pill dreams, but it still seems to fit. The only thing that I know is that it IS what it is. Whatever that means. You really can't take things seriously if you want to come home intact.
We headed back to Kigali for one more night, had the best Indian food of my life, and then grit our teeth for our journey the next day back to Uganda. You know what works? Having really low expectations. So, that day I woke up, and thought to myself, "You know, I don't really expect anything to go remotely well today." And, because of that mindset, we seemed to reach Uganda with incredible ease. It's all very relative. We were excited to get back in Uganda after only 5 days away, and the immediate change we experienced when crossing the border was nothing short of epic. Rwanda was....you know, kind of withdrawn, a little sad, and definitely reserved (although clean and beautiful!), and the moment we left it behind, we were greeted by a multitude of odors, noises, sensations, and emotions that could only belong in Uganda! Trash, everywhere! Music blaring! People yelling! We were instantly surrounded by a gaggle of 6 taxi drivers, who all uniquely harassed us to pay them an appallingly deceitful amount for a 10 km ride into Kabale town. We were finally home. I think it was in this exact moment, when laughing hysterically and trying to get back our luggage out of the trunk of a driver's car because he was overcharging us and stuffing 6 people into 4 seats, and a drunk police officer came over and slur-threatened our driver with his authority, when I knew that this is exactly where I belonged.
Then, we spent two days at a private island on Lake Bunyoni, owned by a jolly Ugandan man that some of our friends knew of. We read, talked, drank wine, and explored the island. It was really relaxing. It was also really great to finally see the southwest of Uganda, the most beautiful, mountainous, and cold part of Uganda. It's a far cry from my dusty little corner in Arua.
Finally, I'm here at the All volunteer conference in Masaka, surrounded by hundreds of volunteers, who are often drunk. It's good to see people but I'm really just excited to get home and stay there for a few months until our next trip to Zanzibar! It's time for some solid time at site, working with kids, living simply, and trying to get some projects rolling.
Love and Linens,