We were laying in the ocean on a greek island drinking probably more Gin Tonic than we should have, when Philip and me decided we should achieve something truly other-worldly amazing. We came to the conclusion that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on Tanzania would qualify for such ranks.
A few months later we were sitting around a map talking travel. We set a route that would take us from Tanzania – Zanzibar – Kenya – Uganda to Rwanda. -> Fast forward to the south of Uganda at Lake Bunyonyi.
We organized a taxi that would take us all the way from the lake to the border and to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
I can’t remember how much the driver wanted for the drive, but I remember I wouldn’t have gotten a lot of beers for that amount in Vienna. The drive to the border was short and this is where it got real.
Philip holds an american passport, so he got stamped into Rwanda and was through. But I needed a visa. I gave the immigration officer my passport, like I was waiting for the stamp, but he kept telling me something about a visa. I tried to play the confused, white backpacker having no clue what he is talking about. I knew that you have to pre- register for a visa on arrival, but there was no way to do that with the internet connection in South Uganda. Instead, I showed him a telephone number from a guy we met the night before, called Lizard. It’s not the trust-worthiest name, but he wanted to help us cross into Congo. Good enough. I told him how this was my number for my Visa On Arrival Registration and I should be able to collect my visa right here, then I pulled out some US Dollars. It seemed he had his eyes on the cash only. It seemed to work. I paid my most expensive visa to date, 100 US Dollars, and got stamped in. Maybe it was a few bucks too much, but I didn’t want to argue, because I knew I should have had a visa and relied solely on his approval.
After we sorted out the visa issue our driver told us he needs to wash his car. We were like ‘Does this has to be now?’ and ‘Why?’. He told us how the Rwandan Government does not allow dust coming into their country. Therefore all vehicles coming into Rwanda need to be washed and clean before they drive across the border. As you can imagine, all the cars are dusty because of the sandy roads. We laughed a bit, but were soon to find out, that Rwanda is in fact, one of the cleanest places we’ve ever seen.
Despite being one of the smallest countries in Africa, it sure is the one with the most hills. The capital Kigali is dominated by the mountainous landscape and is spread wide around many hills.
Philip and me were lucky to know locals, who were generous enough to let us stay at their house. The family was definitely upper class, as the house was spacious with their own cooks, cleaners and more.
In 1994 Rwanda was headlining every international newspaper, due to the horrible genocide. In a duration of about 100 days up to a million Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, were killed by the Interahamwe, a hutu paramilitary organization. To this day scars of this genocide are visible throughout the country. While walking around we saw dozens of people with amputated arms or legs on every street. At first it is a shock and you start to realise the impact these dark days had on millions of people. But after the first shock settles, no matter how bad you feel, there is no way around visiting the Kigali Memorial Centre.
The Kigali Memorial Centre is the most important sight in Rwanda and cruelly shows the dark history of this beautiful country. The location of the memorial is perfectly placed on top of a hill overlooking central Kigali and the sight itself is gorgeous. The nice little entry area with a fountain and flowers would never indicate the horrors shown inside.
A visit to the Memorial is a real journey into the 100 days of pain and death Rwanda infamously lived through. You take steps down to a pitch-black room only lit up by pictures and videos. There are numerous pictures on a wall, showing dead bodies on streets, loose arms and legs, skulls etc. You name it. It’s there. It’s beyond shocking and heart breaking. I have never seen such cruel pictures and videos anywhere on the planet, not even when I went to Cambodia’s killing fields and concentration camps in Austria and Poland.
The most jaw-dropping part however, were screens showing clips of how people were tortured and killed with an exact description, like machete, acidity and so on. I started to feel dizzy walking through the dark rooms, only lit up by haunting pictures. It is a cruel experience, that may take an hour of your time to show you just a tiny glimpse of the pain Rwandans went through. But to understand Rwanda, its history and people it is of utmost importance to learn about it.
Another famous spot in Kigali is the infamous Hotel Des Milles Collines. It got famous, when Paul Rusesabagina, the former manager, gave shelter to thousands of people during the genocide, saving their lifes. His heroic act was later the story of Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda. We visited the hotel, which is today part of the Kempinski Group and definitely the nicest hotel in town.
Despite its history, Rwanda is an absolutely amazing country with some of the most friendly people I’ve encountered. The easiest way to explore Rwanda is by mini bus. Philip and me took them all around the country, before we wanted to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo. We arrived at Gisenyi at Lake Kivu, a town in West Rwanda. A gorgeous lake, located about 1km from the border, with nothing essential to do. There are a few “fancy” hotels and that’s about it. We arrived at a restaurant with an enclosed guesthouse. We asked for a room and the guy said he has one small room and one big room for the same price. Awkward, but we wanted to see both. Well, he opened the big room first and let us take a look through the door and we couldn’t believe what we saw. There was a hooker inside the room. We politely said no and took the smaller room with two single beds. We walked around the lake and soon crushed the beds to get ready for our day trip to Goma, Congo.
Goma is a difficult place for two reasons. First of all, right next to the town is a giant active volcano, that erupted some decades ago, leaving the town destroyed and killing half its population. Goma is now back alive and locals actually used some remaining lava parts to build houses etc. Second of all, many of the rebels, responsible for the death of thousands during the genocide, fled over the border into DR Congo and are hiding in and around Goma. Sounds like a charming place, doesn’t it?
We got up early and together with our local friend Prince we set off to walk all the way to the border. We came closer and closer and there were many people from Congo obviously using the border in the morning to get to work in Rwanda and vice versa. A lot of kids were following us out of interest and we were sure, that they don’t see many white backpackers around here.
We thought we would have a good chance of crossing the borders without any hassle, due to the local friend. Oh boy, have we been wrong. At first, border officials took our passports and disappeared for forever. In the meantime, we were like fish in a fish tank. When the official came back and wouldn’t let us pass for a day, our local friend started to talk to them and he tried to persuade them. That took another 15 minutes and then we were brought into a small house, where we were told a border crossing would cost us 250 Euros today. We were puzzled.
Prince said, there is nothing he could do and that they thought they could make easy 500 Euros with us. I told him, to tell them we are broke backpackers and just wanted to visit Goma for today and will be back in Rwanda in the afternoon. They didn’t care. They wouldn’t even go down with the price a bit. It got to the point where I seriously considered to pay this ridiculous amount. But Philip and me acted smart, said no and then we got denied entry. We left the border gutted. It was the first time I was denied entry for an unofficial reason.
I’ll definitely be back here and try to visit Goma. The volcano with its gorillas is very high on my list and I have no doubt I will visit them rather soon than late. We continued to explore Gisenyi and the Lake Kivu region, from where we have seen the forests and shores of Congo. We got so close.
We used our last money to buy one way tickets for a flight to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, which marked the end of amazing weeks in East Africa. A region I can’t wait to visit again.