Now, unfortunately despite their reputations for beauty I cannot claim that I loved Burundi and Rwanda, in fact I had a pretty rough time. In both countries I was shouted at the whole way. Although in Burundi the people were very friendly, in Rwanda the people very serious., it was a similar experience. A very stark contrast between the two and I am sure, this serious hard working attitude in Rwanda is a remainder from the hell that they went through 20 years ago.
In Rwanda everything was immaculate, the houses pristine, well kept and smart. Everything well organised and sparkling clean. (No plastic bags allowed in Rwanda as I discovered at the border as Mr Jobsworth McJobsworthington made me unpack all 11 of my compartmentalised plastic bags, I'd had since Namibia, within my panniers and empty every single one!). Everything regulated and law abiding, I couldn’t get a SIM card without a Rwandan ID: “Are you suuuuure I can’t? Mr roadside shack shopkeeper? Hint hint.", “yes.”, “perhaps you could use your ID? It’s very important I contact my friend Tom in Kigali.”, “no.”, “there’s nothing we could arrange?”, “no.” “you have a nice day too.”.
In Burundi the people, always on the brink of shouting at me suddenly did a double take as I spoke in their language. “What?! An Mzungu speaking our language?? Let’s be friends!” (N.B. When referring to ‘the people in....’ I am referring to the villagers who live on the roads, not those who live in the big cosmopolitan centres of Bujumbura, Kigali, Kampala, Nairobi etc.). The Burundians were “MZUUNGU EH!” crazy and day in day out I was hissed at, whistled at, shouted at and laughed at. Makes it tricky to escape when you are climbing mountains bigger than any I had tried in the previous 2 months. Although very friendly and in such stunning scenery, I again started being worn away, mentally.
The other thing they do in Burundi and Rwanda is follow you, the children ran alongside me as I went up the mountains asking me for money and chocolate, like I was the Pied bloody Piper. The men on bicycles follow me along the roads making jokes about me in my ears.
Five Burundian and Rwandan anecdotes:
1. Burundi: Outside Bujumbura there is a 30 Kilometre climb, the biggest ascent I had to do all trip. Knackering. Two guys decided they’d follow me, fine, I’m used to it. After a while, it became pretty annoying, they would flank me either side, occasionally nudging into me ‘as a joke’ which would take all my speed and momentum away. Every time I stopped, they would stop, then laugh at me. Pretty frustrating.
Now, I’m not an aggressive guy, in fact I’d say I’m pretty passive (this is not what my family think “Ivan, you’re such a psycho! Guh.”, but hopefully my friends agree.) I haven’t been in a fight since aged 10 with Lawrence in the DT classroom... I even missed the infamous Bondi fight back in first year. I was over with Pip - “Women and Children stay back!!”. So to get me to lash out must be relatively serious.
Having stopped to try and shake these guys for a 50th time, they started mocking me again, as I started cycling again I joined in the laughter and made to gently cuff one of them in mock amusement round the ear, as my hand got closer to his face, my anger came to the fore and I ended up accelerating more than I had meant to. God it felt good. 2 minutes later, I realised that they had vanished.
2. Burundi: Another guy follows me, inches behind me on a big downhill. I start slowing down, he drives full on into me and rips off my pannier, in the process snapping off the fairly vital hook that puts it on my rack. Me furious, asking "what are we going to do????" He amused, vanishes.
3. Rwanda: Same as above but this time rips the hook replacement cable ties (even better than my old pal Duct Tape) off. He again vanishes. More sheepishly than the first guy. (Always at the same time as this is happening. Whistle, hiss. Whistle, hiss. Mzungu Eh!! From everyone on the road side.)
4. Burundi: Cycling along with around 10 followers, trying to speak to one of them in French, I am tired and grumpy having had my pannier broken earlier that day and the fact that I am on my 110th uphill kilometre that day.
“Tu aime les Burundians?”
“Oui, J’aime beacoup. Mais je deteste ‘Mzungu eh!!’ Et je deteste aussi quand il fait “whistle” et “hiss”. C’est comme je suis comme des animaux”
“Oui, cest comme tu est un animaux”
This conversation confirmed the worst. As I had only ‘herd’ whistling and hissing when farmers or shepherds are moving their cows, donkeys and goats. I am, unfortunately in the same bracket. Demoralising.
5. Rwanda: The first cyclist I had seen since Botswana! Luc, a very gentile French man who had cycled the globe and I stood on the side of the road for half an hour and shared a few bananas and traded stories (suddenly very self conscious of my previously fluent French. Back into English). Here is what I wrote in my journal that evening, word for word:
“About 20kms of the way up, (having just clapped/slapped a guy ‘jokily’ on the face as he had deliberately been following me and trying to piss me off. Curiously as soon as I ‘hit’ him, he vanished!) I met another solo cyclist! Yay! We had a great 20 minute chat, and he was (French) completing his round the world tour, he had been all over.
It was the most comforting, reassuring thing. He said how exhausting it is here psychologically. The begging, the waving, the M-Zunguing. He said he was bored of Africans, that he never gave anything to the begging villagers. That backpackers see a different world, that for duo cyclists it is easier because you can share a joke - he had been with a guy in Ethiopia, that he heard Malawi was hell from other solo cyclists.
Suddenly all my concerns, and the things I have been berating myself for were shared. I’m not such an evil guy. But other cyclists find this aspect hard. Especially comforting as he has been so many other places.
Luc, was really nice and has lifted a weight of self negativity off my shoulders. It’s not just me.”
I hope that this little extract reveals a little of the internal turmoil I was going through that was suddenly shared and lifted. I was so cross with myself for not loving everyone like Lara and Mace do, what's wrong with me?? Why do I get so grumpy?? Why does everyone say Malawians are the best people in Africa when I found them the worst?? Etc. Etc. It was a great moment, the solo cyclists experience is pretty different it seems. Another thing Luc said : “Malawi and Ethiopia, backpackers paradise, cyclists nightmare”, In Ethiopia the children throw stones at you! He was bypassing Malawi by reputation and bee lining for Cape Town. (Almost the best thing about seeing Luc was how impressed he was with my pace! He had just spent two weeks in Kigali resting!)
But, for me, someone who apparently “Just loooves travelling mate. Not sure why mate, it’s all about the cultures and the experience mate, the people, you just gotta go with the flow. Mate.” When you’re not enjoying yourself, it is very very hard to admit that to yourself. My schizophrenic thought process goes as follows:
“this is so shit.”
“But you’re in Africa! Experiencing new things! This is what you love!”
“this is so shit”
“But look at that amazing view and all these amazingly friendly people”
“this is so shit. All these amazingly friendly people piss me off. They won’t leave me alone.”
As ever, my poor mother gets the brunt of my mood. On our 1 conversation per country - if she hinted that I wasn’t having a good time, I snap at her “I’m having an awesome time!! Back off Mum. Guh.”
It’s sort of similar to when your girlfriend is annoying you and you start bitching about them and Mum takes your side. Snap. “Uh Mum, you just hate her!” Thank God I’m a man.
Fortunately though, my unhappy stages were only ever temporary and through this whole trip I was prone to the most ridiculous mood swings. I’d go from miserably cycling in the rain being missed by millimetres by flying busses as my bike has broken again, to finding myself in someone’s house drinking chai chatting, whilst everyone in the village wants to come and be friends with me- amazing. If I was ever feeling down, I would reread my journal and remember that the bad parts were all in the minority and for every annoying person, a friend would more than make up for them.
Having mentally lost it for a third time in 3 days in Rwanda as my pannier was ripped off my one of my ‘support team’... I was edging closer to the brink. Singing Macey Gray - Pavarotti style at the top of my voice as I fly down the mountain (which I think I might actually be quite good at?!), laughing hysterically, ignoring everyone or shouting ‘Mzungu eh!’ like a lunatic right back at them. Get this man to Shutter Island. Quick. The timing of staying with my friend Tom in Kigali could not have been better. Our evening in a fancy restaurant, poker and an atrocious round of golf and constantly talking at him brought be back to normality. I was pretty fed up. Thank you Tom!! The one very depressing thing about staying with Tom was once he saw me topless: “Bloody hell Ivan, that’s pretty impressive. You’re still quite fat.”