Thursday, May 18, 2006

Survivor: Uganda

A couple of friends in Kigali decided to travel to Kabale, Uganda, just over the northern border of Rwanda. They traveled north in a matatu, the always-overstuffed vans that serve as public transportation.

They asked me to come with them, but because of work, I couldn’t leave at the same time. They told me to meet them there, and advised that I take the same matatu.

I thought differently…I thought it was stupid to travel south for three hours to Kigali, just to turn around and go north again for two hours to Uganda. I decided that there must be a shortcut—that is, there must be an easier way to get to Kabale from Gisenyi.

I asked everyone I knew if they had gone to Uganda from here, and no one had…everyone advised that I just go from Kigali. I decided, stubbornly, to try my way anyway. The result? Getting to Uganda became half the adventure.

My knowledge of the route was limited; I had heard that the Rwandan town of Cyanika, which borders Uganda, was only 25 km away from Ruhengeri, and I knew that I would pay $30 for a single-entry visa. Beyond that, I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t even have a map, so I had no idea how far Cyanika was from Kabale, but I figured that it couldn’t be that bad.

With only a backpack for luggage, I began my trip, taking the noon regional matatu to Ruhengeri. Upon arrival in Ruhengeri an hour later, I asked locals how to get to Kabale.

One man led me to the Ruhengeri bus station, and pointed to the local matatus going to Cyanika. It’s lucky that I speak some Kinyarwanda, because the bus driver didn’t speak French or English! “Ngiye Kabale. Nangahe?” I asked. (This spelling is probably totally off, but I’m trying. It means: “I’m going to Kabale. How much does that cost?”) “Magana atanu,” he replied, which is 500 Francs. I hopped in and was on my way.

After an hour of conversations in broken Kinyarwanda on the local matatu (and having my space invaded by sacks of potatoes, gardening tools, and the like), the bus reached its final destination: the Rwandan-Ugandan border.

I went into the Immigration Office and signed out (the officer was a little annoying. He kept repeating, “How are you an American? You look like a Chinese!”) and crossed over to the Ugandan side. Usually, border towns are bustling with trade—here, there was nothing—just a couple of wooden kiosks and an immigration building. The Ugandan immigration officer game me a surprisingly hard time (“Why are you alone?” “Where is your luggage?” “Why do you want to go to Kabale and not Kampala?” and 17 more questions) but, in the end, was very helpful, because he gave me precious information about how to get to Kabale and the exchange rate! (Which, by the way, is 1,750 Ugandan shillings on the dollar.) I paid my visa and tried to find a matatu to Kisoro, the town from which I would find transport to Kabale.

No matatus were to be found—only a couple of taxis. “17,000 shillings, best price!” is what the drivers told me. (Almost everyone in Uganda speaks English.) But as the immigration officer told me not to spend a penny more than 2,000, I offered this price, and when the drivers refused, I began to walk away. (My two bargaining techniques are laughing and walking away.)

“Okay, okay, 2,000!” one said, and I hopped in the car. We left, whereupon I realized that I was lucky that the technique of walking away actually worked…there wasn’t a town for miles, so mine was an empty threat! (If these taxis figure this out, they will make a killing.)

We picked up 8 people on the way. That meant that there were 4 across the two front seats, and six in the back. One guy was straddling the stick shift.

Half an hour later, we arrived in Kisoro, a dusty (and, frankly, ugly) little town which looks similar to towns in Afghanistan. I didn’t know how far it was from Kabale, and, when I asked, received a litany of conflicting responses (60 km, 10 miles, 2 hours). Taxis were willing to drive me for a wallet-choking 70,000 USh. There was also a Greyhound-type bus which apparently only went to Kabale in the morning, en route to Kampala. The bus was only 7,000. I decided that I would just stay the night in Kisoro and take the bus the next morning.

The Ugandans I met were very helpful. One guy, who worked for the bus company, helped me to exchange money in the market and buy my ticket for the bus. When I bought it, imagine my surprise when the man behind the counter said, “Where will you need to be picked up?”

The bus goes around to people’s houses to pick them up. This can’t be very efficient, but it’s pretty cool.

I didn’t yet have a place to stay, so the same Ugandan guy who helped me with my money said that he would show me some hotels. (“Hotel” loosely defined.) He brought me to the “Graceland Motel,” which is where, he said, he had brought “other white people.” While a little bit chintzy, the place was cute, and, more importantly, had my two basic needs: a mosquito net and hot water. I took a room at $13 a night. The nice guy said that he would come back at 5 am to escort me to the bus.

Dinner (plus two beverages) rang in at a meager $4. I avoided the item on the menu that read: “Chicken Sweat and Sour.” That didn’t sound too appetizing. Being alone, I was also forced to watch the preferred TV channel: JCTV. That stands for Jesus Christ Television. All the programming is from the United States.

Note to anyone traveling from Rwanda to Uganda: Uganda is one hour ahead!!!! I was very fortunate to have noticed the clock in the restaurant—otherwise, I would have completely missed my bus.

I was up and ready by 5, and the guy appeared on time, as promised. I made myself comfortable on the bus and we left for Kabale at 6.

The bus ambled along for 2 hours, going down eroded roads and mud paths that mega-buses really shouldn’t be traveling on. When I arrived in Kabale, I felt like I was definitely in another country—there were signs in English….big, clean, gas stations…supermarkets with aisles (that is, not the general stores/bodegas we have in Rwanda)…and the architectural design was more advanced.

I hopped on a motorcycle, which took me all the way to my destination: Lake Bunyonyi, the second deepest lake in Africa. When I got there, I expected him to take me all the way to my hotel, the Bushara Island Camp. Instead, he dropped me off by a bunch of canoes and told me that I had to row a boat to get there.


It was thus that I found myself rowing a dugout canoe at 8:30 a.m. No one had told me about that part. I felt like I was on Survivor or something. By this point, I had taken nearly every kind of transport possible.

When I arrived at the island, I climbed the steep hill to the restaurant, where I found my friends eating breakfast. One of my friends looked at me, perplexed. They didn’t think I was going to make it. After all, I was two days late. 

The Bushara Island Lodge is simply amazing, and I highly recommend it. It takes up a whole island in the middle of the lake, and there are several lodging choices—you can rent a cottage, a treehouse, a furnished safari tent, or you can pitch your own tent. We had a treehouse, which felt a lot like summer camp! The bamboo shower was outside, and you can look over the lake through the slats of bamboo as you wash your hair. There is no piped water—the water that comes through the shower heads is attached to a long pipe that connects to a large metal bucket that someone fills up with hot water in the morning.

There are many activities…you can rent a sailboat, canoe around the lake, go birdwatching on a nearby island, look at the stars through their telescope, swim, sit around the bonfire at night, use the rope swing to dump yourself into the lake, read a book from their small library, and eat your heart out. There is so much good (and CHEAP!) food that you can’t help but gorge yourself.

My only critique of my time there was the lack of mosquito nets…we came back to the treehouse one night to find that there were no less than 50 large, evil looking spiders on the ceiling, many with egg sacs. It was disgusting. They got into our clothes, our bags, everything. I slept very poorly that night, because I kept feeling something crawling up my legs and feared that a spider would drop onto my face. Uggggh.

I did relax, though, during the day. And the landscape is amazing. There are many more islands in the lake: one is called “Punishment,” because unmarried pregnant girls used to be dropped off (by their brothers) on the island and left there for several days to a week. Often, poor village men would row their canoes out and choose one as a wife, which was very convenient for them because this meant that they did not have to pay a dowry.

There was another island that served as a tri-country leper colony. It was closed at the end of the last century.

All in all, my entire vacation, transport and all (visa excluded) cost me $26. That’s right. It was $10 for the lodging, and $16 for the food. Rwanda’s tourism industry could take a lesson from Uganda! And even though it was a hassle getting there, it was outweighed by the great experience I had once arrived! (And my advice is: Go to Kabale from Kigali!!)

p.s. I managed to hitch a ride to Kigali with a private car of expatriates that I met at the Bushara Island Camp, so getting home was much easier!

p.p.s. Pictures to come, when I have better internet!


Blogger satay said...

I am exhausted just reading about your trip! Did you feel safe the entire journey?

I thought it was hilarious the customs officer kept asking if you were Chinese. I know there are many there due to some major Chinese investment. Have you seen them around?

5/18/2006 10:47 AM  
Blogger Tamra said...

I loved reading about your trip! We are going to Rwanda in October to adopt and help in the orphanages. I love reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your adventures.

5/24/2006 10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, that was absolutely incredible. Hilarious you had to take a canoe over there too. I mean really! I thought our journey from a small town in Portugal by taxi, bus, train, ferry, bus was an ordeal - you WIN!!!!! I can't wait to see the photos!

5/24/2006 5:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you there? Are you okay? It doesn't seem like you to not post this long. Just making sure you're alright.

5/31/2006 6:45 PM  

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