We’ve been doing this sort of thing for decades, Jen and I. We’ve negotiated transport and driver countless times. You think by now we would have learned to ask if the road is paved the entire way. I guess we’re slow learners.
This weekend’s excursion was to Rwanda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unlike the flat savannahs of the east, western Rwanda is mountainous. So our five hour, partially-paved trip was overflowing with twists, switchbacks, and hairpin turns. Stella beat her Bhutan record and threw up four times during the ride. What a trooper, she collects airsickness bags from all our flights, knowing that we’re likely going to force some nausea inducing adventure on her.
Not helping matters was our driver’s aggressive acceleration-braking, characteristic of those who drive with two feet. Perhaps a technique for our zealous driver to more effectively overtake and pass every bicycle, car, minibus, and lorry that had the affrontery to occupy the road ahead of us. Through a complex semaphore of horn-honking and turn-signal flashing, he would communicate to the other motorists his desire to pass at the next convenient blind curve. Fatalistic drivers like this one always earn me a seat as shotgun. Jen knows that my life insurance has the higher payout. So instead of watching our driver attempt to squeeze three abreast, between an endless succession of buses and oncoming dump trucks, I focused out the side window, at the passing mountains of western Rwanda.
Around 5000 feet, the topography of western Rwanda reminds me a lot of Appalachia. However, being situated on the equator the curvature of these hills are clothed in a very different flora. In place of the mixed temperate forests of NC or VA, these mountains play host to a more tropical variety. Immediately outside of the capital, the land is parceled in an endless quiltwork of gardens, and small subsistence farms. Broad leaved-banana trees surround homes and run up to plots of corn, peas, sweet potato, melons, cassava. There are stands of bamboo, avocado trees, passion fruit vines. The valley floors are all sectioned into rectangled rice paddies. If any naked earth shows it is the red dirt of my childhood in GA. Shades of green and red are the dominant palate of these hills.
After a while I notice something missing. I’ve not seen any draft animals in Rwanda. There are no oxen tilling those paddies, no donkeys pulling carts of produce. I guess it makes sense. Rwanda is Africa’s most densely populated country. Labor here is cheap. We’re constantly passing bicycles laden down with small mountains of plantains, sweating men and boys pushing them to market.
As we get closer to our destination, the patchwork of gardens gives way to industrial-scale tea plantations. The waist high shrubs are so tightly packed, they make entire hillsides into bright green topiary. The only break, the occasional blue-grey stand of eucalyptus, identifiable by its scent as much as its silvery leaves. The plantations are community co-ops. In addition to a source of local income, these fields form natural barriers around Nyungwe Forest National Park.
Nyungwe is Rwanda’s most important area of biodiversity. 1000 plant species, 13 species of primates including chimpanzee and colobus monkeys, 275 species of birds, 120 different types of butterfly. When we cross into the park we enter a world of nature left to its own business. Now the hills are obscured by curtains of green wild rainforest jungle. Blue monkeys eye us from the roadside and hornbills glide along the valleys. There is so much green it makes a racket for the eyes.
Rwandan soldiers also watch us from the roadside. In body armor, with an impressive array of machine guns, they are a reminder that we are on the border of the DRC. From our hotel room, we can look across Lake Kivu and into that no man’s land of civil war and Ebola. It’s like looking into North Korea, Syria, South Sudan, Yemen. Like standing at the edge of the grand canyon or the top of the Sears tower. It gives you the willies. Some travelers (with a poor sense of self-preservation) actually cross that border tracking gorilla, looking for adventure, hits of adrenalin.
For Byers Without Borders, the hotel buffet was adventure enough. Lily and I spent the majority of Monday prostrate on the cool tile floor of our bathroom in Kigali.