Making friends in Gisenyi

Trip Start Feb 20, 2007
Trip End Jun 2007

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Where I stayed
Hotel Belvedere

Flag of Rwanda  ,
Thursday, April 5, 2007

The two hour drive from Ruhengeri to Gisenyi was through picturesque farmland, always again over hills and into valleys, covered in fields of maize, cabbage, Irish potatoes, bananas and tea. My habit of falling asleep in matatus was taken care of by a suicidal driver, who drove crazily fast, obsessively overtaking anything in sight, and cornering so hard that everyone had to hold onto the seat in front of them so as not to be thrown aside. I have often thought that the most dangerous parts of my trip in Africa are the bus and matatu rides, and this was the most dangerous of all the ones I have taken. Just before arriving into Gisenyi we passed through an incredibly beautiful valley that was literally covered in banana plantations. When we left this valley below us stretched Lake Kivu, glittering grey-blue, with the hazy blue outlines of the mountains on the other side of it, lying in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I had arranged to visit Yves, the artist that I met in Kigali, at the hotel where he was working. When I got out of the matatu I first breathed a sigh of relief to be still alive after that trip, and then asked a lady standing nearby if she knew where Hotel Belvedere was. She said that she did, and what's more she could offer me a lift up there when her lift arrived. So, because of this kindness, instead of arriving at the hotel sweaty, smelly and filthy, I just arrived a little smelly and filthy, and in a comfortable 4x4. I thanked the lady for the lift and went into the hotel, a brand new, shiny, five star hotel, feeling quite self conscious of my orange fisherman pants and general scruffy appearance.

I was warmly welcomed in, however, but unfortunately learned that Yves was still in Kigali, and that it wasn't sure whether he would return today or tomorrow. I left my bags at the reception in the hope that he might return later, and set off downtown to occupy myself for the afternoon. Gisenyi is a pleasant little town, especially considering the ugly nature of most border towns I have visited. The roads are mostly unpaved and dusty, with the usual run-down looking buildings along their side. I saw hundreds of prisoners wearing bright pink uniforms being marched around town to do public works, always only guarded by one armed man. It was a little surreal to think that most of these men were probably in pink because of being genocidaires. Along the side of the lake there were big, expensive looking hotels, and beautiful sandy boulevards by the beaches that lined the lake. I found a lovely little restaurant on one beach by the end of town, where I relaxed, enjoying the scenery, eating barbequed goat and chips. I have become quite fond of goat meat, the only problem is that the past week has been genocide memorial week here, so it's often been hard to find anything else to eat, and as a result it has been my staple diet for a few days too many at this stage. I also went for a swim in the lake, which was a lovely temperature, warm enough to make getting in easy, and cool enough to be extremely refreshing. Volcanic gases bubble up from the bottom in some area, which can make swimming lethal, but I chose a spot where locals were swimming, and I'm still here to tell the tale.

I returned to the hotel and was told that Yves should be coming later, so I said that I'd head out again for a while and wait for his arrival. Primus, the national Rwandan beer, (which is delicious) has a brewery about seven kilometers outside of Gisenyi. My guide book said that it was possible to show up and ask for a free guided tour, which usually comes with a free beer after. As there wasn't much else to "do" in Gisenyi, I hopped on the back of a motorbike taxi and drove out to the brewery. On arrival there, however, I was told by a grumpy security man that there was no way I could have a guided tour without submitting a written request before, and implied that I had some cheek showing up "aussi brusquement". So I reluctantly left, smelling that familiar brewery smell that I know so well from growing up in Cork. I had the slight problem of having bid my motorbike taxi driver farewell and there were no others around to ferry me back to Gisenyi. I managed to wrangle my way onto a bus for Primus employees, which dropped me back to town for free. My arrival at the back of the bus caused quite a few funny looks and nudges; it took a few minutes before someone managed to pluck up the courage to ask me if I was new at the factory. I resisted the temptation to pretend I was, and explained to about twenty interested workers why I was there.

When I got back to the hotel later I learned that Yves had missed his bus and that he wouldn't be arriving until the morning. I got my bags and was walking down to town to find a local fleapit in which I could rest my bones when one of the hotel staff called after me, telling me to wait. It turns out that Yves had called, and had arranged for me to stay at the hotel that night, free of charge. I protested, saying I didn't want to be a hassle, and that it wasn't necessary to do that for me, but he was insistent that I should stay. So I was led up to a big room, with a marble floor, huge double bed, satellite TV, complete with en suite toilet and a BATH, and a large balcony overlooking Lake Kivu. I couldn't believe my luck, and actually danced with joy when the door was closed after me. I spent the evening enjoying the luxuries and getting cleaner than I have felt since leaving Ireland, before having a steak at the hotel restaurant (I had to contribute something to them, at least!), and retiring to my room to watch the Champions League games.

The next day Yves arrived in the afternoon and we moved my stuff down to another hotel, as I couldn't keep living in five star luxury for more than a night, unfortunately. He introduced me to a friend of his, Simba, a skinny, energetic, talkative, charming fellow, who works as a DJ in the local nightclub, and also runs a bus company owned by the same man who owns the Hotel Belvedere. The three of us spent the night drinking away, having great conversations about anything and everything. It was lovely to be in the company of Africans, who I could call friends, and not that of white backpackers. As much as I love Western company when I'm away, as it does provide an escape, it is nice to drink with Africans, as I am in Africa, after all. We made plans to go to Goma, in the Congo, the next day; Simba knows the town very well and he would be able to show me around. See the next entry for details of my trip to there.

The next night we were to go to the nightclub where Simba works, which is the only one in town, located in one of the big hotels. When he heard that I sometimes DJ at home in Ireland he insisted that I would work with him that night, so at about 10pm we set off for the nightclub. It was a fairly standard hotel nightclub, with a raised DJ booth, large dancefloor, lots of lights and strobes (and even a rotating glitterball), a bar, and a few seats and tables around the edges. He showed me the controls, which were a computer, CDJs, and a basic mixer, and started to play at about eleven. After about an hour he put on a CD that he had already mixed so that I could listen to CDs and plan a set, which I did, for about twenty minutes. I then took the stage, and played (because of my audience!) a mix of RnB, Hip Hop and Congolese music. I wasn't used to playing with CDJs, so the mixing wasn't that great, but I pulled it off. By the end of my set there were a fair few people dancing, which is always a good sign! I couldn't believe how surreal the whole thing was, whatever chain of events had led to me playing in a Rwandan nightclub on the Congolese border.

So I spent a few days with Yves and Simba, and got to know a few more of their friends in town. It was lovely to partake in normal activities like sitting around drinking, driving around in cars going nowhere in particular, chatting, joking and laughing. Being with them often reminded me of weekends during my transition year spent in France, perhaps because of the feelings of being part of a group that I didn't know, with everyone being interested in me because of my being from somewhere else, but eventually including me in the group banter. We didn't really do anything worth recording apart from the night clubbing and the trip to Goma, but the days spent there with them were some of the most enjoyable of my whole trip so far.
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