A transit visa allows you only 3 days in Burundi, and because its tiny and all travel advisories I read about it before coming suggested I shouldn’t go at all, I opted for the 72 hour sampler. Rwanda helped transition me into a French frame of mind, but I find the African-French accent more difficult to understand. Adjusting to another exchange rate is always tricky, since changing money at the border gives you a pretty good chance to getting ripped off handsomely. Its about 1500 Burundian Francs to $1US, and the smallest bill is 50 francs – you can imagine how many bills you end up with if trying to carry $20USD in small notes. The actual bills are the most well used pieces of paper I’ve ever seen, something so worn it should be taken out of circulation and put in an ancient articrafts museum.
In 3 days, I only had a few hours in the rural areas in my transit in and out of Bujumbura, the capital city. After crossing the northern border from Rwanda, things changed slowly to reintroduce me to another country. The terraced hills became fewer, a little more crooked. The language in Rwanda and Burundi is basically the same, but people spoke differently. The villages became more haggard, people – dustier, things – cheaper. Arriving from the rolling hills into the city was an unexpected site – Bujumbura lies on a flat plain bordering Lake Tanganyika.
Transitioning to French as the lingua franca was a small problem, but only for me since others spoke enough English to help me through any language failures. Feeling lost in communication was the least of my problems when I tried to navigate Bujumbura’s central market. It’s this intensely vast market, open at the sides but covered by a vaulted roof high enough to keep fresh air circulating through the congested corridors.
Arriving at one of the entrances resulted in stares and cheers, and I guessed it was from wearing shorts so I took my scarf and wrapped it around me as a skirt. People quieted once I was inside the market, and instead I heard quite “Karibu’s” and felt faint touches on my arm as I walked past each vendor, welcoming me to look in their stall. The market was overwhelmingly large, but perfectly organized, with each type of good in its designated corner. You can anything you can imagine there, from clothes to flour to pesticide and alcohol. I wandered in circles and made left and right turns that just resulted in me turning myself around so many times I had no idea where I started. I never walked the same alley twice, and only when I returned back to the raw meat butcheries did I recognize a corner of the market I’d already seen. I was totally lost for about an hour, and felt like I had been to the most dense shopping market imaginable. It was a zoo of people and things, unintelligible calls for what they sold, and I, the only person not buying or selling anything.