Burundi

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.

 

the sewing section

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.

Informal Couchsurfing

Right now Im sitting at the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. The lake is so big it looks like Im looking out at the ocean, but I know Im not because there are 5 hippos wading in the freshwater grunting like asses every few minutes. Its 5:17 and the sun is about to go down, directly infront of me. Im at a place called the Touristic Beach, which is a huge restaurant/bar/patio/disco venue with seats for about 300 people, but Im only one of about 11 people, half of them staff, in this whole place. Im the only non-burundian, and alone, so it’s a perfect time to write.

the very lonely touristic beach, except for the wading hippos

Im staying here with a Burundian/Belgian couple, a pair of couchsurfers that live right by the lake. Its such an amazing luxury to be welcomed into someones house with a place to sleep, and in todays case, a hot lunch, when they’ve never even met me before. Couchsurfing truly revolutionizes travel.

Ive only had to stay in paid accommodation 2 nights so far, and my previous two hosts were informal couchsurfers. Elaine, a Tawainese American living in Kampala, offered me to stay with her when a mutual friend of ours wasn’t able to, after knowing eachother all of 15 minutes. I had her spare room, in the company of one playful mouse, who somehow found it entertaining to climb into my mosquito net, scurry up the side of it, hang upside down from the top, and then drop straight down on my shoulder, scaring the hell out of me dead asleep. Elaine lived on campus so it was perfect for attending my conference, and we went out one night for hookah and Ethiopian food before she literally gave me all the information I needed to plan my trip to Rwanda.

me and jon with a big silverback

She connected me with a couple of Belgian guys and one awesome South African guy named Jon in Kigali, where I was headed next, and after intending to only stopover a couple days, spent 3 nights in their house one night in Parc Volcan. There we managed to see the gorillas for an actually affordable price because of a friend of Jon’s, and took the best trek to the Susa group where more than 30, totally habituated gorillas surrounded us on a Dr. Seuss-esque landscape.

From Jon’s expat life I bounced to Ed’s expat life. In Bujumbura I spent half my time with an ex-schoolmate of Jon’s who introduced me to the mini-Europe community living in Bujumbura. On my first night there, we went out in a group for dinner to Belvedere, a patio restaurant on the hillside overlooking the city. None of us actually knew it at the time but we had the best seats to the lunar eclipse, so we watched the moon turn yellow, then orange, then almost deep red before totally blacking out. As eerily as it disappeared, it starting growing, fading to yellow again, until it returned to its normal white glow despite the apocalyptic feeling of it all.