A Hotel in Rwanda

Day 601 – 22 October, 2016

I didn’t even know it would be a possibility to go to Rwanda, but it was one of those rare opportunities that was hard to pass up. At Lake Bunyoni, we were staying very close to the border and for $50USD each, a driver would take us to the capital, Kigali, to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and Hotel des Mille Collines, which was formerly Hotel Rwanda made famous in the movie by the same name. The hotel name had been changed in an attempt to wash away the violent past and perhaps to attract a new crop of tourists.

Nine of us set out on the Rwanda adventure – me, Larissa, Julie, James, Joel, Ashley, Peita, Sarah, and Jess – plus one American girl, Marley, who was hitching a one-way ride. Marley had been working in the Peace Corps in Malawi and was now traveling solo through Africa before she has to go back home and start school. The border crossing was not unlike Thailand/Cambodia, Cambodia/Vietnam or Vietnam/Laos – dusty, dirty, disorganized, money changers and lots of vagrants standing around. Most of us already had an East African Visa, allowing travel within Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda all under the same umbrella visa. For those that needed to obtain a visa, the border stop was a little more time-consuming and bureaucratic. While waiting in the queue on the Rwanda side for an entry stamp, almost everyone was pushing their way in front of us in line. James, tutting his proper London queueing rules, said perhaps a little too loudly, “Oh, just jumping in front of the white people….”. This provoked his other eight companions to simultaneously poke him in the ribs with an emphatic hush while we all tutted in silence at the aggressive queue-jumpers.

Not more than a few kilometers over the border, our driver was stopped at a somewhat routine police barricade. I had noticed that these are all too common in East Africa. Our overland truck hadn’t been stopped more than once, but the smaller private vehicles (especially those carrying tourists) are frequently stopped as I had also experienced in Tanzania on a previous visit to the continent. The stops give the illusion of routine where the officer will run down a list of possible violations, hoping to catch the driver on a technicality, and would likely end in a bribe to have it all go away. In the case in Rwanda, the policewoman asked to see the required fire extinguisher. The expiration date was printed as day/month/year as it is pretty much everywhere outside of the United States, but she interpreted it as month/day/year in order to say that it was expired. Additionally, she issued a fine for a burnt out lightbulb over the license plate in the rear. Unbeknownst to us at the time, she had retained our driver’s ID and he would be required to replace the bulb and the fire extinguisher before he could get it back.

The genocide museum was free to visitors and was heavily visited by locals and school children. Utter silence hung over the entire crowded room as we moved panel to panel reading every gruesome fact about the history between the Tutsis and Hutus and why there is so much conflict between these groups. Over 100 days in 1994, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million Tutsis were slaughtered in horrific ways by Hutu clan members. The aftermath was that close to 2 million people were displaced from their homes and became refugees. Historically, this was not a racial distinction, but a class distinction. The word Tutsi was used to refer to a person rich in cattle and therefore considered an elite standing. Through the years, power shifted back and forth from Hutu to Tutsi leaders through the interference of Belgian colonialism and the Catholic church sympathizers and the divide grew deeper until it finally culminated in one of the worst mass killings of modern times. The museum, with a mass grave in the outdoor garden, is considered a sacred place by the surviving Rwandans and serves as a reminder how they are all citizens of the same republic, no longer divided by clan.

Our tour of Kigali concluded with lunch at the famous Hotel Rwanda that was depicted in the feature film by the same name as the place where 1,268 people took refuge during the vicious racist attacks. Much fancier than I imagined, scantily clad Europeans decorated the bar and the pool deck while drinking tropical cocktails and baking in the sun. It was in stark contrast to the history of the establishment and the poverty in the surrounding neighborhood and really no different than any other ordinary hotel anywhere in the world.

With the four hour return trip looming in our future, we began the long drive back to our camp in Uganda. About ninety minutes outside of Kigali, our driver pulled over to the side of the road seemingly in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t call it a town, but there were the resident hawkers selling fruits and vegetables and whatever else. A minivan full of white faces always attracts attention, though, and soon we were surrounded by half-naked children and surly-faced men. Our driver explained that when we had been stopped by the policewoman earlier in the day, she had retained his drivers’ license and he was supposed to meet her here to retrieve it. We waited some time, but she didn’t show up. An agitated call from our driver revealed that she had already gone back to Kigali. He emphasized that he had ‘clients’ (us) and that he was in a hurry to get us back. After all, he had earned $450USD from us that day and probably didn’t want to explain the implications of African politics. He compromised with the officer to go back and meet her half way so we turned around and drove an hour in the wrong direction. Again, she wasn’t at the designated meeting place when we arrived and again we were encircled and gawked at by the local residents before finally the policewoman made an appearance. The driver gave proof of changing the required light bulb, probably paid a bribe that was conveniently factored in to the high price of our transport in return for his coveted license, and well after dark drove us back to reunite with the rest of our overland companions.

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