This past week marked my entrance into my third decade (or as writers in pre-industrial England might term it, the beginning of my descent into elderly spinsterhood), and I went to the capital city, Kigali, to celebrate (and do a lot of other more boring things like buying a can opener and a new modem, but let’s stick with hey, PARTY!). Kigali is a fascinating place: like the rest of Rwanda, it’s a place of hills, with long, winding roads that cannot be transversed by foot unless you’ve got hours to spare, comfortable shoes, and the calves of a parkour champion. I came into the city on Wednesday and stayed until Saturday morning, spending time wandering through air-conditioned supermarkets (was my last visit to Safeway, that mecca of all things wonderful, really only two weeks ago?), hiking up and down embassy row to visit my favorite American enclave with its foreboding fences and guard checkpoints, and eating food that 1) I did not cook and 2) had excessive amounts of “exotic” spices.
Kigali is about 2 hours from Musanze, and I decided to take the least sketchy of the buses, the Virunga Experess, which I took to Gisenyi last weekend. It’s a standard bus, not like the combi vans with twenty people smashed into ten seats and chickens strapped to the top. It was a step up from Namibia, where my travelmate and I took a combi van taxi for five painful hours, nearly sitting on the lap of a stranger and a young girl combing my hair.
Flashback to 2006 in Namibia: an empty combi van taxi: needs 20 more people to go…
As for my time in the city, I’m somewhat shamed to admit that in my glee over the supermarket and other modern amenities, I didn’t do much sightseeing, saving the somber genocide memorial and presidential palace for another day. I was joined by other State Department contractees- the most famous Fulbrighters- for drinks and food at Zen (an “oriental kitchen”) on the night of my birthday. There I dried Dawa, an African cocktail whose name translates to “medicine” or “magic potion” in Swahili. It’s just lemon juice, vodka, and honey (let’s see that in a cough drop!), but comes together to create a simultaneously bitter, sweet, and tangy drink.
Going out to eat- at an Asian restaurant, no less- tends to be an activity of ex-pats, especially in African cities. Often, the expense of eating out and the unfamiliarity of exotic cuisine keep the locals to more known places- Rwandans favor buffets with a flat price and plates that are piled high with pasta, rice, cooked chicken, tomato and onion sauce, and a variety of fruits. We noticed a shift at Zen, though. Many outlets are reporting the growth of a middle class in Rwanda, one that can afford the expense of a meal out. The World Economic Forum reported that 1 million, or 12% of the Rwandan population, now fall into this category: those “who have been lifted from base poverty in the past decade and a half through government-driven initiatives.” Throughout Kigali, this is obvious, and perhaps more obvious that in Musanze.
I stayed at Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel (as I cling to my own youth), an interesting place with filled with a variety of people, as hostels tend to be. The first night, I bunked in a dorm room with two UN Peacekeepers from Congo, headed to Uganda for vacation before going back to work at the end of October. I thought they were lovely until about three am, when they broke the cardinal rule of hostel etiquette and TURNED ON THE DORM ROOM LIGHT to pack and leave early for their bus. I was overcome by exhausted fury and too tired to complain as they zipped and unzipped their luggage, dumped everything on the floor and repacked (I assume), all while coughing very loudly. Thus, when my birthday morning with its bright 6am sunlight broke, I was a 30-year old zombie, sitting and waiting for the complimentary breakfast and life-giving coffee.
Mural map of Rwanda at the hostel
The hostel improved from there. I met a South Africa-English woman (dual passport holder) who was headed to Musanze to visit several craft areas for her business, an import shop in London that sold fair-trade arts and crafts. Coincidence would have that she was headed for Ubushobozi, a place I visited earlier in the week when I heard they offered yoga classes (starting next week!). We chatted for a while and braved the bus back together, our luggage causing a stir with the locals.
So I returned to Musanze, now 30: older, wiser, more likely to choose the single room option at a hostel, and more likely to pair tea ingredients (honey and lemon) with vodka. May the next year be even more of an adventure- but preferably with fewer Congolese Peacekeepers!