One year on and I have to confess to a new addiction I have picked up – toilet paper. It isn’t that I have a great affection for the production or even a favorite kind, but long bus rides and Indian trains have got me hankering to have some on me at all times. There is a roll in my backpack and at least one folded wad of squares in each of my pant pockets. Every time I do a laundry a foaming mass of white paper comes to the top as a long hidden stockpile is suddenly rediscovered.
Amazingly, even as the crisp white paper was permeating its way deeper into my pockets and bags, I didn’t realize I had a problem until this morning. As I packed up to leave I looked fondly at the mostly used roll in my hostel bathroom. I reached out to grab it and thought, “wait a second, I am heading home to a land of prolific toilet paper use. I don’t need you any more.” And then I walked over to my bag and took stock of what I had acquired. The plentiful rolls in my backpack were removed and set aside for the next traveler to come through my room (another closet toilet paper hoarder, no doubt!). My pockets were emptied and the folded mass left on the cabinet.
I turned to leave, and as if a greater power had control over my arm, I quickly snatched up one wad of several squares and hid it in my back pocket. “Just in case,” I thought. “I’m not home yet.”
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Rwanda has a prolific supply of religious lodging options for tourists and pilgrims alike. They have pretty consistently been our place of choice considering they tend to be clean, well run, and inexpensive. In Kibuye, we lucked out when we found Home Saint Jean tucked away at the end of a peninsula behind the Genocide Memorial Church (many churches in Rwanda became massacre sights as people flocked there for security and instead became sitting ducks for the genocidaires – in the region around Kibuye this was definitely the case).
The hotel offers 270 degrees of views over the lake, a restaurant and huge balcony for sitting under the stars and debating the meaning of life. Ask for room 14 and you get a corner room surrounded by water. In the evening the moon rises right over the balcony. And from the doorway you can watch the storms roll over the hills and down into the lake.
Working, walking, wading, wandering - these are the shoes you need if you want to fit in.
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It is approximately 7km from downtown Gisenyi to the Hotel Malahide Paradis, but it feels like a world away. The walk takes you along the Congo Nile Trail, down the coast, over a large hill, and back down to the brewery and a small inlet.
The road out of town is relatively free of 4 wheeled traffic, but full of moto taxis and so much life. As you start up the hill, the trees along the coast are coated white as flocks of sea birds take over their trunks. The birds give way to houses and shops. Kids in flip flops and hanging laundry line the street. If you’re lucky enough to time it right, you’ll meet the whole town on the top of the hill as church gets out.
Head down the hill and keep your eyes open for just finished tie dye hanging out to dry. Towards the bottom breathtaking views of the lake will greet you, and as you veer right along the peninsula you’ll have your pick of small barber shops – just in case you need a pre-lunch shave.
1km further and you’re there. Find your way through the bougainvillaeas to a cozy table by the beach. Order a Primus beer. Let the adventures from your walk soak in and take your time as you look out over the border with the DRC.
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To suggest that I have a problem hiding amongst the crowd in Africa would be an understatement.
In India, with a little dirt under my nails and hand washed, sun dried clothes, I can at least pass as a hippie tourist. People assume I have been there a while and that in place of a bulging money belt I probably only have a crumpled 500 rupees in my pocket.
Rwanda and Tanzania have provided me no such luxury. The extended conversations that eventually turned into a selling opportunity in Senegal have given way to a more blunt, “Hello. Faranga!” (or “Hello. Money!”); of which I was never sure if the structure was one sentence or two.
As I left for this trip I made myself a promise to remain open and never cynical. Trying to balance being both a curiosity and a commodity has made this promise ever more important.
I have lost count of the number of children to come running after me, yelling “mzungu!” (‘foreigner!”) as I walk by their home. Some just want to wave from afar. Some shake your hand and ask for money. Some have held me in an embrace so tight I didn’t think I would be able to peel them off. And some have simply walked up, grabbed my hand, and proceeded to walk blocks with me, even though we only shared a half dozen words in common.
These interactions seem to happen daily and are completely unavoidable as long as my skin remains the color it is. So long as “western” equals money it also equals opportunity. Every time a person walks up to me and asks flat out for money, I remember each person that has sat and talked with me, and then walked away, having wanted nothing but a little of my time.