Monday, October 29, 2012

-- All roads lead to Zanzibar --

My Kenya Airways flight finally arrives from Bujumbura. I try to fall asleep on the extremely uncomfortable airport seats with no success but we are quickly called to board.
The mild late night breeze blows as we walk through the airport tarmac in between Rwandair planes and a noisy Ethiopian Airlines turboprop leaving for Addis Abeba almost at the same time.

It is time for me to fly an Embraer again. I must admit I love these planes. They are all brand new and spacious with big windows and comfortable interiors. We even get to have PTV's for this one-hour trip. Inside it's empty and only a few passengers board along with me, probably not the most popular time to fly to Nairobi but it is the cheapest.
We depart earlier than expected and the lights of Kigali are left behind. All I can see through my window is darkness (probably flying over Lake Victoria). I am also served a light but delicious breakfast with a nice smile from a cabin crew shining in a red uniform. Descent is announced a few minutes later.
The morning winds of the African savannah rattle our little plane and once we go through the clouds, the sight of Nairobi National Park is unveiled under a weak twilight , landing slightly ahead of schedule.

Nairobi International Airport is not the most inspiring place in the world and an assortment of feelings go through my head as I walk around the outdated terminal. I see the rush of the early morning arrivals with Asians arriving from Seoul, Americans and Europeans arriving from the London flight and Africans running through the hallways to catch their last call flights to Nigeria and Angola.
I sit for a bit, numb by the tiredness of a long night and the hectic environment around me as I spot a Colombian soap opera being played on the TV and dubbed into Swahili.

I re-check myself for the Dar Es Salaam flight and I discover we will have a stop in Zanzibar! But I am told the airline will not allow me to "jump ship" in the island and instead I will have to remain on board all the way through. I am gutted and my mind tries to think of ways of dodging this situation.
It is bright again in Nairobi and my flight is finally called. My fellow passengers are mostly families and honeymooners heading to the island. An newly wed Indian couple on honeymoon start chatting with me as they see me glancing my guidebook and ask me if they can borrow it off me to have a reference, it's a backpacker/honeymoon.

We board our cramped ATR-42 turboprop operated by Precision Air, a Tanzanian airline. And the busy morning aircraft movements become obvious when we intend to depart. In the end, the classic noise of turboprops being accelerated brings a strong deja-vu and soon after departure we sharply turn right and head in direction to Tanzania.
I am served another light breakfast as the captain announce the sight of Mount Kilimanjaro and Uhuru Peak on our right hand side. I am lucky enough to spot it as it is normally covered in clouds. Rush with the camera to take dozens of pictures while staring in awe and enjoying a cup of tea.
Underneath us, the plain lands around Arusha draw colourful and deep valleys heading into the Indian Ocean which I can spot only a few minutes later just when we start our descent.

The waves break into the Tanzanian coast and soon the mirage of Spice Island hypnotizes all the passengers while we dodge some coastal winds. Light blue reefs scattered around the navy blue ocean are the main feature on our approach. The cabin crew take their seats and our plane nose dive into the island like a rocket. 
We fly over Old Town and its narrow streets, neighbourhoods covered in palm trees and the International Airport is next. Everyone on the flight deplanes except me and two other passengers and I try to work my charm out with the cabin crew to see if I can just finish my trip here. I am unsuccessful again and take my seat with a light grin.

Tanned honeymooners crowd the plane shortly after and the doors are closed. We depart in no time for our short 20-minute flight to Dar Es Salaam in which we fly over the Zanzibar Strait spotting ferries and cargo ships working their way through it and then the dry and rough Tanzanian plain lands around the airport's main runway.

I am officially welcomed to Tanzania as we land on Julius Nyerere International Airport in the largest city in the country, Dar. It is warm and dry on the tarmac as we have to walk into the main terminal. I have to fill out a long form for a visa on arrival, forced to pay 50 US Dollars and wait some 20 minutes to get it cleared. Once done , I go to to the public area in order to find my way to Zanzibar.

Flying is my best bet as I get very seasick on ferries. I am offered a few options by some "fly-catchers" (term used to describe people hassling tourists in order to offer whatever they are selling) and as tired as I feel , I accept it.
They grab me by the arms and take me into a small office where I am issued a plane ticket and then rushed into the Domestic Terminal in an old Grand Vitara.

I am now told to wait for new instructions in the outdated and dark lounge, my plane should be leaving soon. I take the opportunity to charge my mobile and wear comfortable flip-flops, I am heading to paradise in the end.
We are walked through the tarmac into a small Cessna Grand Caravan and my body starts pumping adrenaline. This because the last time I flew a small aircraft, I was some 10 years old and pretty much threw up all over. I smile to the crew and take the front seat just behind the pilots and board the aircraft along with other four passengers. Our flying time: 15 minutes.

Our little aircraft taxies along the quiet airport like a mosquito on a big dinner table. The runway looks massive and then our engine accelerates with the same power of a car in the motorway. We gain speed and then we seem to float, it's a new take off sensation. I feel like we are just being lifted by the wind and look forward. Nothing but sky.
My hands are sweaty and I am swallowing hard but the view of a messy Dar Es Salaam and a round bay underneath makes up for it.

I get distracted by flying protocols and the experience feels even more real, just like that time in 2007 when I flew on the cabin of a Boeing 737 and still remember as it was yesterday. I take pictures of the beautiful sapphire coloured reefs as we start losing altitude.
We hit heavy winds when on approach and some kind of a bumpy roller coaster feeling takes place. I am loving it nervously.

Finally on ground, we pick up our luggage from the undercarriage and walk into the main terminal and proceed to take a "dalla-dalla"(the Tanzanian version of a matatu) into town.

Suddenly, the name "Spice Island" becomes obvious to my mind. The smell of clove and saffron incense wore by the local women taking the same minibus hits me strongly and I am transported into my times living in the Arabian Peninsula. Zanzibar is a Muslim place and the culture is strongly present in every part of it. It is cramped inside and the sense of comfort in these minibuses is almost null as we drive through a straight-lined avenue into Stone Town.

Stone Town is a place that strikes me at the beginning. It is messy, hot and dirty. Pickpocketing is a big thing here so minding my belongings become priority.
My first stop is a restaurant with free wi-fi where I enjoy a succulent feta cheese sandwich while browsing the net. A local offering his tour guiding services helps me find a mobile store so I can buy a SIM card (tipping is a must) and then I am directed to the main "bus terminal" just besides the busy market to take my "dalla" to my final destination: Jambiani Beach in the Eastern side of the island.

I see the real deal here. Locals try to charge me triple the local price to go on it. I decline and smartly agree on a real price for the service. It is even more cramped and uncomfortable. There are no seats but two long wooden benches where people claim a space in order to be able to sit. Some people seat on the ground too and we depart as soon as it is full.
I am tired and fall asleep on my backpack. The locals stare at me while I do so and while we stop at every single place possible to load the truck with cement bags and goods.
When we finally leave Stone Town , I can't help but feeling relief. The fresh air of the midlands works as a charm to wake me up and have a look around and some hour and a half later my "dalla" makes its way into the quiet village of Jambiani.

I get off it fighting with a numb right leg and walk around. The sand is white and the small houses  are made out of a combination of wood and white clay/mud. Kids wearing colourful abayahs are playing around their houses as I make my way into the beach.

The mirage for the day is complete. The light blue ocean waves break into spotless and soft white sand sheltered by tall coconut palm trees. Locals are seeing sailing towards the sea for night fishing and the best part: no tourists on sight and the whole place just for myself.
A small tear of joy slides through my cheek. I look around in awe and the heavy backpack or long journey taken to get here look irrelevant. My bare feet play with the warm water as I walk along the beach looking for a good and cheap lodge.

I find it just minutes before the sun finally sets behind me giving way to a clear and fresh night. I enjoy some fresh fish "sambusas" ( typical Zanzibarian dish) while the waves roar some meters away and underneath a magnificently starry night featuring a clear sight of the Milky Way.
Time to sleep on my massive wooden Zanzibarian bed anxiously waiting for the morning and the chance of bathing in the Indian Ocean for the third time in my life.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

-- The Land of Thousands Hills: Rwandan "Mzungu" --

The hills of Kigali are covered in a light mist when I'm woken up by the nearby church bells. I have a rather weak hot shower and go into town to get some proper breakfast and an internet cafe in order to purchase and print my air ticket to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

Kids are going the opposite way, heading down the red hills towards the main school wearing blue uniforms. They smile and giggle when I walk by them. Some staff from a local car wash just under the main roundabout see me walking and almost in a chorus shout "Good Morning" to me.

As soon as my travel formalities are done, which takes about an hour and after having my first pot of Rwandan coffee of the day, I am ready to go back to "Church Camp", pick up my backpack and head down the main hill towards Nyabugogo bus station. On the way down I can spot a dynamic city with people heading everywhere. It gets particularly busy near the bus station where a rather organized yet massive market is set around the main avenue bringing back memories of Kampala.

The bus station looks clean and organized. Well-maintained buses announce their destinations all over Rwanda and Burundi and for the first time, I see buses departing on a schedule, rather than doing so when they are full. I choose Belvedere Coaches as I had been recommended this company , taking the front seat of the bus for better views (and chances of pictures) and we leave at 10:00am sharp.

Soon after leaving the bus station premises, we face a very deep and steep valley as we take the detour for my destination for the day: Musanze in the Northern Province.
The winding road starts going uphill in a very aggressive way pushing the bus' little engine at its maximum for moments. We are tossed around sideways for minutes but nobody in the bus seem to even notice, most of the passengers fall asleep almost immediately.
The level of comfort here is absolutely different than everywhere else I had been in Africa so far and a rather pleasant journey is complemented with stunning views of the Rwandan landscape with deep valleys extending all the way to the horizon and going as deep as 900 meters at points. Terraced crops are everywhere and the combination of colours and shapes perfectly crafted in red sand hills create an impressive tri-dimensional illusion. My eyes can't get enough of it while I take pictures of my surroundings from my window.

An hour and half later, we enter a highland and the sight of the Virungas Range guarding the valley tell me we are finally reaching Musanze, starting point for most of those pricey, yet stunning "Gorilla Trekking" adventures and inspiration for many stories and movies about this particular place.
The bus station in Musanze looks like a big open space that just went through heavy bombings. People are everywhere offering seats in the many buses linking this village with Kigali and Gisenyi and some other ones selling all sorts of goods and food.

I rush out of it and meet the main road. As I walk around, I see a rather peaceful town surrounded by green hills and blessed by a tropical and wet weather. A local sees me strolling around with my heavy backpack and asks me where I am heading to. I tell him Lake Ruhondo is my destination for the day and he agrees in being the right choice for a walk around warning about the distance between both points and a rather dodgy slum just on my left hand side.
As I keep walking down the road in order to meet the detour for Lake Ruhondo just four kilometers away, one of the highlights of my trip happens:

A boda-boda follows me offering its services. I decline confirming my intention of walking. Suddenly, a kid follows me. He does not speak English as most people in this part of the country. He soon shouts something in French and three kids tag along. They are laughing and giggling while we all walk together through old houses where old women greet me with hand waves and smiles.
When I notice, around 16 kids are following me and giggling , we do not speak the same language but for some reason , they are happy to tag along. They touch my arms and skin in awe and keep on walking, the older ones, just out of school, pull out their notebooks so I can write something on them. They are pleasant and all they want is to hang around. Nobody asks me for money but as soon as I offer them a pack of crackers concealed in my backpack, they attack the little pack as piranas would do in the Amazon. What it was supposed to be a boring five kilometers walk becomes an interesting scope of the life in the Rwandan countryside.

When I finally reach the bifurcation for Lake Ruhondo , I face a rather disappointing sign stating the lake is some 10 kilometers further down the road and I surrender my physique and tired legs to a boda-boda lift.
The driver shows no mercy for all the potholes in the dirt road but the landscape extending around me makes me forget about it, while the warm air hits my face and my sunburnt skin.

We stop whenever I tell him so I can take some pictures. Green hills completely covered in all sorts of crops raise up the valley as far as the naked eye can reach. A powerful river feeds this fertile valley while providing electricity for the region in a hydroelectric plant just a few kilometers away. The place is surreal and the best part of it,  not a single tourist can be spotted around.
The old motorcycle starts going uphill and dozens of kids heading back to their village from school follow us running. They all shout "Mzungu, mzungu" while we go past them. Their smiles are broad and white as pearl, they look happy and rather excited of seeing us passing by. A few of their faces stick on my mind for some reason. It is not the fact of feeling rather famous (or like a failed pop-star) but to see the happiness and simpleness of a country that has been through a lot.
I can see education has become an important part of their life and kids walk for miles to get to school, looking spotless.

The sight of Lake Ruhondo shocks me when we reach the top of the valley. An impressive water body surrounded by cropped hills from top to bottom and with the backdrop of a sleepy Virunga Volcano in the background.  Women are seen all around working on their crops and terraces while some men are trying their luck in the lake catching tilapias.For a moment, I feel like I am in an extremely remote area of the globe, away from everything we are familiar with in the Western world and I am loving it. A "Mzungu" lost in a land where simple things mean a lot and trivial First World matters are put to question.

I think of the opportunity I have been given to see this place and I take a few seconds to place myself in this land, while placing my tired feet in the shores of the Lake. Time to ride the boda-boda again and head back to Musanze. The noise of a distant thunderstorm completes what it only looks like a scene from a movie. I am still in awe because of the dramatic landscape and the people. Those kids' faces are still lingering in my mind and I feel confident enough to say they will forever.
On our way into town, I stop to take a few pictures and ask the driver to take mine. It is the first time he ever uses a digital camera and the first time he ever sees himself on a screen.

As soon as I get to Musanze, I take the bus back to Kigali while the Equatorial clouds unleash their fury   at a point where it becomes impossible to spot anything outside our windows. It refreshes the air while we go up and down the deep valleys and into the hectic capital.

My flight is scheduled to leave at 4:00am from the International Airport. The cheapest fare available (on Kenya Airways) is due to take me to Nairobi where I will be connecting to Dar Es Salaam and then onwards to Zanzibar, which gives me enough time to relax and hit what it has become my favourite place in Kigali: Cafe Bourbon, while I enjoy another pot of fresh Rwandan coffee, banana cake and a sandwich. Must say the people serving here deserve a star too. They are pleasant and I am even offered to reheat my coffee when the pot gets cold.
Around me , expats are hanging about, having business meetings or working on their laptops. Locals are wearing suits and meeting with family after another busy day in the capital.

A few Skype sessions later, I am ready to try another new experience in Africa: Public transport at night time. The idea is to reach the International Airport by bus. The guidebook stated to basically go around the corner and take the bus marked as "Airport", piece of cake I think.
When I get to the bus stop, a few locals look at me while crowding the buses on their way home. Two of them finally approach me and ask me whether I am going to the airport or not (backpack selling me big time).

I reluctantly confirm this and soon I am told that buses to the airport no longer run after certain time. My best option would be to take a taxi or a bus to Gare de Remera and from there another one to the airport terminal. I feel a cold in my stomach as I am left with no choice but to take the risk and adventure myself into it. I have already spent most of my Rwandan francs so don't have enough resources for a "fancy voiture".
As soon as I board the bus, a woman asks me the same question. It is pretty obvious where I am heading to and some other four passengers decide to help me with directions.

In a minute, my fears are gone and a fellow passenger offers his help in guiding me through Remera bus station. The 20-minute ride shows me the dynamic of the capital in the end of the rush hour. The last commuters are heading home and a constant seat shuffling takes place. They all seem obsessed with their mobiles, however nobody speaks out loud. Texting and listening to some Swahili music becomes their option.

We reach the neighbourhood of Remera and we quickly transfer to another bus (which even has a little TV playing cheesy 50 Cent videos) and, on this fifteen-minutes journey, my new friend for the hour pulls out his fancy phone and proudly shows me pictures of his wife, his daughters, his home and his car. He explains what was shown to me in a pretty obvious way during the past days. He is proud of living in Kigali and proud of his people. They look back at their past only as an important lesson and as a start point to jump to their future. Working together, as Rwandans.

The International Airport is in sight and my stop for the day. He continues to his home and a warm night overflows the air of a quiet semi-opened terminal waiting for passengers to check-in for some scattered flights overnight. Check-in area is closed and only accessible when flights are called, so I lay on the floor while waiting for my flight to be called and enjoy the free wi-fi.

In the early morning (or around midnight), my flight is called. I quickly check in with Kenya Airways, clear immigration and customs and wait for my flight in the departures lounge. A long odyssey awaits for me in order to make it to Zanzibar. Until then , the Rwandan capital extends around the hills surrounding the small airport, quiet and cold, working for investment and a better future.


Finding information about Rwanda can be quite difficult, specially due to the fact that not many travelers have come here. It is a beautiful country with amazing people.
Investment is booming in the country and the capital has everything you could possibly need, except hostels. Here are a few useful basics from this trip:

- Rwanda ask most citizens for a pre-approved visa (except Germans, South Africans, Americans and British citizens). Applying for this visa is hassle-free on the Minister of Foreign Affairs website. Takes three days to be approved. 30 USD and print out of it are necessary to cross the border.

-The country is easily accessible from Kampala (13 hours). Avoid Kampala Coach and Onatrocom Coaches. Been told Jaguar Express is better.

- There are also a border crossing from Rwanda into Tanzania at Rusumo where you can connect to Mwanza or Kahama in order to make it to Arusha, Dar Es Salaam and Dodoma.

- Unless you are dying to see the Congo , the border at Goma remains unstable.

- Gorilla Trekking permits are in high demand now, so book them in advance.

- For traveling within the country , choose Belvedere Coaches or Virunga Punctuel. They are reliable, cheap and comfortable.

- As Kigali has no hostels, look for the churches accommodation (known as Acquels). They are basic yet clean, cheap and reliable.

- Enjoy some good Rwandan coffee!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

-- The Land of Thousands Hills: Kigali --

The bendy road defies the hills or just simply blends with them at times. It is easy to see why this little landlocked country is called "The land of Thousands Hills" and this is basically because of the particular landscape around me. Forget every cliche landscape you could think about East Africa. In Rwanda no sight of flat land is spotted and instead, a hilly high-altitude terrain dominates the view. Pine and tall eucalyptus trees are shuffled around with the early morning breeze as the sun finally comes out of its foggy overnight bed and the hills, completely covered in crafted terraced crops create an interesting combination of all shades of green and shapes.

The difference in roads is impressive and extremely dramatic. Rwanda has received massive investment from European and American countries as well as international Aid. A local sitting close to me on tbe bus spots me taking pictures through my window. He is Rwandan and just coming back from a business trip in Nairobi. As only two and a half hours separate us from the capital Kigali, we get to chat and a few things about the country are explained to me.

Rwanda has an interesting and some sort of terrible past. Some 18 years ago, this land saw one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen. Over three million people were killed in dramatic and horrible ways while other millions fled the country and became refugees. When this event was finally over, the country was in ruins so social aid (probably out of guilt) was impressive and Rwandans decided to become very efficient in their ways of dealing business. I am told that opening a business takes no more than 15 minutes and the country is booming with investment.

Indeed, as we approach the hilly capital, I spot a few tall buildings while we reach the bottom of a deep valley and rice crops reflect the sunshine as a massive silver mirror.
For the first time in this trip, we reach a proper bus terminal. Buses are all lined up and I get my first impression of Kigali: It is absolutely spotless.
Rubbish on the streets is inexistent, cars seem to be in good conditions and rules of the road seem to be respected. Boda-bodas are wearing helmets and are forced to give you one if you are a passenger. They also have license plates clearly marked everywhere. It feels refreshing and I am told it is one of the safest cities in Africa.

I am offered a lift up the hill into the city centre by my new friend. We rush up the hill and since it is early in the morning, commuters are everywhere. Once we are in the city centre I am dropped at what I call "Church Camp" just by the main Post Office and the United Nations Square. It was recommended by Lonely Planet as a cheap and clean accommodations (hostels are inexistent in Rwanda too) and I quickly check into my own room with a basic sink and crucifixes everywhere.

Once set, it is time to head up the hilly city centre to Place de la Constitution in order to get to the ATM, buy a sim card and get to an internet cafe. The weather is mild and I find a new spot for a nice cup of Rwandan coffee in the well-known Bourbon Cafe inside the Union Trade Centre.
A few hours later and a bit more relaxed, I take a boda-boda (helmet included) down the valley to the Kigali Memorial Centre.

This new and modern building just across a narrow and deep valley North of Kigali boasts an amazing view of the hill containing the City Centre and the Eastern neighbourhoods. It is also a memorial created with the intention to show and create a general awareness of the 1994 events.

The Rwandan Genocide is explained in chronological order and for the first time, from the Rwandan side of it. It starts with explaining how Rwandans lived before being colonized by the Germans.
Basically, in this small country three main ethnic groups co-existed together for years. The Hutus , Tutsis and Twas, the last one with just a few families living near the Ugandan border.
Being classified as a Hutu or Tutsi was based on merit, an individual could have grown up on a Hutu environment and become a Tutsi after gaining some properties , wealth or cattle, reality that changed when the Belgians took power over the Germans and became the second community in colonizing Rwanda.
IDs were introduced for the first time and classification was made not by merit but by physical features and skin colour (being Tutsis lighter in skin colour). Massive power and important government positions were given to Tutsis which were minority in the country creating a feeling of hatred within its boundaries. 
As the years went by and the Belgians left the country, this situation triggered less-known genocides in the 1970's and 1980's until it became unbearable and an attack to Camp Rwanda, killing eleven Belgian UN Peacekeepers started the 1994 pandemonium.

In a matter of around 90 to 100 days, over three million Tutsis and their families were killed violently. The country, poor by international standards imported machetes for this task. People were massacred , children were forced to kill their neighbours and families. Entire families were humiliated before being killed. 
The international community and Belgium managed to rescue their citizens and the country was left alone. A few stories of courage and mercy have been told during the years, the most famous one being "Hotel Rwanda" (Hotel des Milles Collines) where thousands of Tutsis lived in the most depressing conditions refuged by its manager, left alone by the Belgian Sabena which owned the hotel and while bribing Hutu soldiers with alcohol and money in exchange of food or water.

The place explains all of this in a very simple yet dramatic way. Videos are shown with people that survived the genocide or saw their beloved ones being killed in front of them. I don't feel at ease but I can't stop reading every piece of writing placed here. The stories are disturbing, things experienced here  fueled by a state of general madness, some of them are just unbelievable. Makes me wander about the capacity of the humans in doing such things just to defend an ideology.

There is a point in the exhibition where most people lose it (including myself) and this is when I reach the room full of real-size picture of the children killed in the massacre. Their innocent faces and deep round eyes stare at me from their pictures while a plate underneath each of them explains about how they died, their last words and favorite hobbies and food. It is overwhelming and I feel constant shockwaves of cold shivers in my spine.

As I leave the building , I see two big common graves. Hundreds of people were buried here and their names are engraved in black marble stone. A few roses and flowers with sayings like "Never again" are scattered around the tombs. It is a place for reflexion. Rwandans are not proud of this but they certainly use it as a reminder of their past and as a starting point to look forward into the future.

I leave the place and decide to walk back to the City Centre to clear my mind. A sight of a spotless Kigali where people are kind and smily is presented to me, under a light tropical rain lasting only a few minutes and while kids are leaving school and rushing home wearing colourful uniforms.
I am stared at on the street, but for the first time , I feel at complete ease by this. "Good Morning" and "Bonjour" greetings are everywhere accompanied by warm smiles. I am pretty sure they are used to see white people yet not many tourists adventure themselves to this beautiful country.

The steep roads of Kigali take their toll on my weak knees as I head towards my next stop: Hotel des Mille Collines, place which became famous after the release of the award-winning movie "Hotel Rwanda". The place has an interesting story and I feel lucky of being able to see it, in the end, this was the movie and place that inspired my visit to Rwanda.

I am greeted by a very unfriendly security guard and I am not allowed to get in. I am tired and hungry by now, so decide to go back to the Union Trade Centre to have some African-style lunch featuring meat stew, vegetables and an old time favourite, cassava. Some more excellent-quality Rwandan coffee with the best banana cake I've had in my life to close the afternoon while sorting out internet credit, Skype and planning my way out of Rwanda by air.

By the time I go back to "Church Camp", it's already dark. The lights of Kigali soar up and down the dark hills like a three dimensional puzzle. The city centre is extremely surveilled and some little kids are asking for some change in a very particular way: They come to me and ask for change. I don't have any at the moment and as soon as I explain this, a shy and polite " Ok, for later then" follows. They walk away with a smile and look around. It is always a sad sight to see kids in this situation but at the same time I am surprised on how polite and educated they are.

I go to sleep with the windows wide-opened in the fresh night with a feeling of having landed in a country that resembles everything about African spirit, yet in a very efficient way and almost German way of being.

Monday, October 15, 2012

-- The Pearl of Africa: The Equator & Idi Amin --

The sound of a heavy thunderstorm outside my window wakes me up in the morning as early risers set  their backpacks to head to Entebbe Airport.

I have been going north and south the Equator line for a few days now without noticing, the hectic nature of my trip has got me pretty busy. The plan for today is to reach the landmark which indicates this important feature of this part of the world.
I have seen pictures of the place which is pretty basic and I have a vague idea of how to get there. Before doing so, I need to sort out my bus ticket into Rwanda. My visa starts running from tomorrow onwards and apparently they are very picky about it.

The first thrill of the day, a short boda-boda lift from the hilly neighbourhood surrounding the hostel and into town early morning. I notice how in Central Kampala there isn't such thing as "rush hour". It is always a mess here, 24 hours a day. Dodging potholes and going through muddy streets I get into the main market and look for Kampala Coach. I get re-directed to an old compound through narrow streets  crowded with people just to be told the office selling tickets to Kigali is on the opposite side of the market. An employee from the company offers his help and orders me to follow him, task that proves to be quite the challenge when walking through the market dodging people, goods and cars. He does not look bothered and walks fast. I look like the typical lost backpacker.
We get to the office and I buy the ticket, bus will leave late at night which allows me to explore this country for the last day.

I rush into the Old Taxi Park, another massive parking lot with all sorts of minibuses lined up in a strange, confusing but apparently organized way (at least for the drivers).
While waiting for the minibus to fill up and leave, hundreds of people try to sell all sorts of goods through my window, from flashlights and disposable radios to cakes and loafs of bread. It's a country that still surprises me with its variety and extremes. The minibus leaves a few minutes later dodging other cars with a milimetric precision and we head up the streets of a muddy post-rain Kampala, sometimes struggling on some steep uphills and turning off the engine on downhills (to economize petrol?).
Soon we are on the Masaka Road and massive anthill-like markets make their appearance. The smell of burned food and meat mixes up with the smell of fresh fish and sweet fresh fruit. We stop for seconds and dozens of saleswomen invade our windows while hungry fellow travelers buy the goods offered. I am even offered to try some and I reluctantly accept.
The soft round hills covered in tea crops dominate the landscape again. It is a non-eventful quick ride and an hour later I can spot the place where I am supposed to get off.

The Equator Line in Uganda is a basic and simple landmark laying on both sides of the road. A concrete circle represents the world while the writings UGANDA EQUATOR are clearly visible. A yellow line divides it with the N (North) on one side and the S (South) on the other.
There is also two well-served coffee shops and a few souvenirs stands. Tourists are all around and an annoying group of Danish people make taking a single picture quite the task. There is also a group of locals enjoying their time in this peculiar landmark. Some girls ask to take a their picture with the "mzungu" (me) and pull out their fancy mobiles eagerly in order to take the best snaps.
Once the landmark is empty, it's my time to feel like a kid again and play around the yellow line, taking pictures with one foot on each side of the world and with the signs.
A local explains in three worn out big yellow funnels how the rotation of flowing waters change in each side of the planet and I can't help by remembering about that classic "The Simpsons" episode when they get to to go Australia. They actually charge to see it and take pictures but I take the chance of spying on it while it's been explained to a group of Indian tourists.

I am hungry and decide to try one of the coffee shops. The staff, all women, work together and most profits go to a local charity. The coffee is delicious, accompanied with a lovely omelette. A playful cat hangs around for my amusement. Basic souvenir shopping and I am ready to go back to Kampala.

Getting a minibus back to the capital's madness proves to be a very easy task and I wait no more than two minutes along the road until one of them stops and offers me yet another VIP "Mzungu" seat. The trip is uneventful and I even fall asleep for a bit. The midday heat is strong and wears off every energy you could have very quickly.
An hour later, the rush of Kampala is on sight but I decide get off at Buganda just before hitting the busy city centre which gives me enough time for some last-minute sightseeing to the Mengo Palace.

Kampala is full of history and Mengo palace is not the exception. Important dictators have ruled from within its walls being the most notable Obote and Idi Amin, which became famous after the movie "The Last King of Scotland". The place is sitting on an impressive green hill with stunning views of the  capital guarded by tall walls and gates with golden details.
It is a guided tour. My guide, proudly Ugandan, tells me he has just been featured in a BBC documentary as he shows me the building from the outside and tells me a bit about the rich history of this place.
Obote and Idi Amin are both remembered in Uganda for many things, being the first one responsible for the killing of thousands of people in organized massacres and genocides while the last one combined violence with impulsive decisions such as deporting all foreigners, creating an stagnation in Ugandan economy and was mostly considered a comical character by the international community.

I also spot an old Rolls-Royce which was bombed by Idi Amin in his successful attempt of taking the palace from Obote which was later forced to live and die in exile in England. A few houses around the place are meant to show the local life. The walls are made of red mud but look solid enough. A local family greets me and want me to take their picture. It is one of the few times when they have seen their image on a screen.

The torture chambers are just down the hill, surrounded by banana and pineapple plantations. The place is as dark as its history. Prisoners, normally opposing to the dictators (Ugandans refer to them as smart people being silenced for good), were taken here blindfolded and straight into four damp cells carved on the ground like a tunnel. Each cell which has roughly the size of half a tennis field could take up to 300 prisoners in complete darkness and no ventilation whatsoever. An electrified pool around the cells would frustrate any attempt of making it out of this place alive.
People would die within a few days of starvation and suffocation, the strongest ones would last longer or just commit suicide by throwing themselves at the electrified water.
Once in a while, the power would be switched off and bodies would be recovered in order to be thrown to a muddy lake down the road, infested with crocodiles.
On the walls, writings from prisoners can be seen on both English and Swahili languages, being the most famous a big one that states: "Obote killed me but what about my family".A cell also features handprints made out of mud and excrement. The place is damp and infested with roaches.

After being safe in natural light again , my guide explains that Ugandans feel ashamed of this part of their past and they don't even know who to hate the most: Obote or Amin. They are learning from their past and trying to hang on tight in order to have better living conditions.

I feel tired and a bit overwhelmed about the experience. I leave the place while an afternoon shower refreshes the heavy polluted air with the sight of Mengo Palace behind me and Buganda in front of me. I am close to the hostel and as I cross the market, locals greet me again with a classic and friendly "How are you?". The sun sets over the hills again and a symphony of mosquitos hit my skin. I am forced to make a last trip to the local shop and buy some bug spray.
The evening goes on with an enjoyable chat with my Norwegian friends , who happened to go to the Equator Line but on a different time. I meet with this British girl who had been volunteering for six weeks in Northern Uganda. Her stories are amazing and make me notice on how the people here have so many needs yet they are so friendly and full of life.

Time to leave, my day could only be finished by a night boda-boda lift. No sights of potholes on the poorly illuminated streets, we just hit everything until we get to the market and are forced to use the footpaths to make it through. I just look around, hold on tight and try to protect my bones and muscles from the rough lift.

The bus, coming from Nairobi is waiting and soon we board it. It is old and dusty. My only option for this leg of the road. We leave earlier than expected and the lights of Kampala are left behind while we follow dark motorways surrounded by slums and motels. I fall asleep only to be woken up by the bumpy road some hours later. The asphalt has seen better days (if there was any). The window above me does not close and the highlands night proves to be very cold. Sleeping becomes impossible.

Muscles feel crushed after hours of being rattled about the bus. I spot signs for Gatuna. We are finally in the border just while the sun is timidly making its appearance in the horizon.
It is sunrise by the time we get to the border but we are the top of a hilly region so fog is predominantly dominating the landscape. I quickly get my passport stamped in Uganda and we are instructed to walk some 500 meters to Katuna in the Rwandan side. A line up of white UN cars and tanks are parked along the way. Big outdoors of a local beer brand welcome me to Rwanda. I queue to get my passport stamped along with my online visa print off. The immigration officer stares at me, at my documents, shouts in Swahili and about five minutes later asks me for the money. He does not accept my Rwandan francs and I am forced to exchange them into US Dollars. Another wait name is called, my passport stamped and I proceed down the road where all of our luggage is lined up for "luggage check" in order to see if we are smuggling any plastic bags which are forbidden in Rwanda.

The bus leaves shortly after and I am in Rwanda, the "Land of Thousand Hills" waking up for another day.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

-- The Pearl of Africa: Kampala, the madness --

A fourteen-hour sleep was necessary for recharging batteries. I take a lift into Jinja Town with a van heading there for some shopping and soon I see myself walking around a busy village in the early morning. I am a bit lost and forced to take a short boda-boda lift to the main "taxi park".

A taxi in Uganda is basically a branded mini-van which departs as soon as it fills up with 14 passengers. It looks a bit more ordered than Nairobi and we depart with no hassle. The Nile dam is left behind and shortly after departure we get a punctured tyre.
It is morning time and already steamy hot. Our driver has a spare wheel but the jack on our mini-van does not seem to work. I get to experience an example of Ugandan solidarity in first row:  a few of the passengers are on a rush and hail for other cars or minivans to take them to Kampala. I stay, along with other fellow passengers claiming they'd stay and help the driver mainly because he was doing his best to get us out of this trouble. All I see is smiles of solidarity and willingness to help working as a team. We push the van and fit it into the broken jack. Another mini-van stops and lend us a new one. Few minutes later we are back on the road sharing food and laughs.

I see colourful villages scattered around green round hills covered in tea plantations. The landscape is unique and calm until we approach the madness. Kampala, the capital of Uganda, boasting a population of over one million people is famous for one thing: traffic jams. They are everywhere!, mainly due to the fact that its city centre features two massive taxi parks, a bus park and two big markets, all attached to each other within a mile, creating kilometric lines of pure traffic chaos.
For some reason, on our arrival time we don't experience it intensely and we get to the main taxi park rather quickly (for Ugandan standards).

The main taxi park is basically a big parking lot with hundreds of mini-vans crammed into each other in something that does not make sense to the naked eye. Here is when I discover that Kampala is not a city apt for agoraphobics. There are people absolutely everywhere and nothing in the streets seem to make sense. Forget about traffic laws, flows or signals. Here every single car, boda-boda, minivan and person is fighting its way around the hilly and muddy roads.

I feel a bit intimidated by the crowd and my luggage, also a bit tired from the trip and even though I had spotted my hostel on the guidebook, I decided to take a boda-boda to clear the mess.
No need of roller coasters here. Take a "boda" in rush hour in Kampala and you'll have enough thrills for a year (and I thought I was quite the daredevil taking one in quiet Jinja).

We go up and down streets with no traffic signs whatsoever, we dodge minivans and buses while fitting our legs and bike in every single fend and gap traffic could open, we hit deep potholes and we threat to run a few pedestrians over. All I can do is silently watch, hold on tight and pray for the best. The warm wind beats my face and helps refreshing the mood. I also get to see something interesting: whenever we stop or wait for the traffic to move, people acknowledge me with shy " How are you?", "How is your day going?".  A few minutes later, I finally arrive into the hostel just up the west end hills and set in a beautiful colonial house under thick tropical trees. My muscles are tense from the thrilling lift.

After quickly checking in, I meet these two friendly Norwegian girls which happened to be sisters. One of them is here to do some volunteering in Northern Uganda and the other is just visiting. We share a few stories about our trip and I decide to explore this exciting city.
I am told Kampala, albeit being a complete mess, is a very a safe city. This because if somebody is caught stealing by the crowd, he gets beaten out naked and if the police doesn't arrive at the right time, he can even be beaten to death. Talk about hard times requiring hard actions.

I walk up and down the hills in order to make it into the city centre. I see messy markets, crowded streets and people rushing to their work places. Bright smiles are accompanied by short but friendly "Good morning" and "How are you" greetings.
I can't help but smile back and do the same. Ugandans are well-known for being friendly and I finally get to notice it.
As I head to the National Mosque, I get to chat to two locals girls, I offer them cookies and they kindly accept them. "For later" they say, a woman eating in public is frowned upon, so they will enjoy them once they get home. I am guided to the mosque by them.
The building , a massive brand-new mosque has a particular name: Col. Muahmar Gadaffi mosque. His petro-dollars financed the finishing of the construction, started in the 1970's by Idi Amin and it's the second largest mosque in Africa after the one in Casablanca.

A tour is necessary to get in so I am quickly guided through it and get to see an amazing porch dominated by a pink arch and minarets. The main entrance has golden details and well-crafted lamps. A big gilded plate reminds you of the mosque's particular name in Swahili, English and Arabic. When inside, a massive carpeted open space is unveiled. The designs on the carpet, brought from Saudi Arabia are impressive, combined against beautiful vitrals brought from Sudan and lamps crafted in Morocco. Pieces of the Q'oran are written on the walls and the smell of clove and saffron hits again.
I am asked if I want to get up the minaret and I excitedly say yes. The spiral staircase seems endless but I reach the top in a few minutes.

The view from it is superb. a 360 glimpse of Kampala, the madness. The soft green hills of the west end, watched by the tall Presbyterian church and the hospital. The rushed city centre with its two taxi parks and markets looks like a massive anthill swarming with people while the Financial Centre dominates the hill with its tall buildings and well groomed avenues. Slums are fitted in every possible gap available and I am explained Sudanese and Somali refugees live there. Even Lake Victoria and Entebbe can be spotted right in the horizon timidly appearing through the hills.

The next stop is the city centre itself. Going through the market proves to be quite the thrill. I get almost run over by about 10 "bodas" and two minivans, the streets don't seem to make sense and the white-spotless dressed policemen seems to have given up long time ago. They just silently stare at the surroundings and people crossing the streets like they had no appreciation for their own life. At some point I am forced to do the same and understand the logic within the streets of Kampala: there is no logic really. African time means no rush hence you can do whatever you want.
I suddenly find myself in the fancy part of the city. Streets are empty, gardens are spotless and the posh Kampala Serena Hotel overlook streets scattered with modern big houses and well-guarded embassies. The rush experienced minutes earlier seem to have gone, giving me time to relax and enjoy it.
Stanbic Bank's "transformer-style" building frames the view just besides a luxury shopping centre and the post-modernist Parliament building. People around me are wearing suits and rushing around black SUV's and Mercedes luxury cars.

My legs are tired. I try to grasp something to eat just to find out I forgot my wallet in the safe at the hostel. Time for another trilling boda-boda lift around markets, badly-mantained roads and hills until I get to my hostel. Sun is setting and I see the dynamics of the city in rush hour, basically called a "stand still". Cars don't move but nobody seems to care. "Bodas" take over the footpaths to clear the mess and markets selling all sorts of foods are set to cater for another day of hard work in the capital.

I buy a few basic groceries and head back to relax, have a chat with fellow travelers, Skype a bit and finally get to bed. By the way, no hot showers around here, it is a luxury not many can afford.