Land of 1000 Hills
Updated: Feb 23
I flew into Rwanda without much of a plan or much consideration at all. I found a reasonable flight from Entebbe into Kigali, and I booked, without much thought as to what I would do once I arrived. Of course, there were many things I wanted to do… but… once I was actually there, materializing them all was a different story.
I was stumped by transportation.
Without reasonably priced shuttles or public transportation, my adventures were pretty much drawn to a screeching halt. I had anticipated visiting the shores of Lake Kivu and trekking through the Nyungwe Forest to see Dian Fossey & Digit's graves. It had also been an idea to continue my journey through Burundi, eventually making my way back into Tanzania.
Perhaps there was public transportation that no one told me about... but nothing was readily available at my touristy fingertips. Even extensive reading and research on numerous travel & local sites provided me with no feasible solution. Unless I flew or I took a taxi… or I rented my own car, I was stuck.
I decided to temporarily remove all transportation issues from my mind, and just enjoy what Kigali had to offer. After all, I wasn’t on a set schedule. I had some wiggle room and I figured a solution would eventually rear its ugly head.
As soon as I cleared customs at Kigali airport, I hit the ATM for some local currency and then jumped in the first taxi I saw. The ATM was programmed to only dispense a certain amount of bills, and because denominations are absurdly low, it kept altering my total, which only proved to confuse me immensely. Finally, after battling the buttons for long enough, I eventually agreed, unknowingly, to withdraw the equivalent of $2 Canadian, paying an additional $7 in bank fees.
No! No! No!
I kept hitting the CANCEL button over and over again, but it was too late. It spat out one solitary bill… and I had to begin the entire process again.
Calm… calm… calm…
… it’s just all part of the adventure…
I find that every single day in Africa, I have to tell myself that, in order to avoid becoming completely and disgustingly unhinged.
It’s a thing.
I had heard about how clean Kigali was, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for HOW immaculately clean it actually was. Anyone that visits Kigali would be hard-pressed not to notice this. What an exceptional city and what an electrifying breath of fresh air… having been exposed, for so long, to such filth and litter in so many East African towns and cities.
My taxi driver took me directly to my hotel. I use the word 'hotel' very loosely, as it was more like a run-down shabby shack that had received a coat of cheap paint… and now felt confident enough to present itself to the world as acceptable tourist accommodation.
It's surprising what photo editing can do these days. In Booking.com, it appeared cozy, colourful, casual… with a slight hippy influence. As soon as I walked onto the premises, I realized how incredibly deceptive the photos were. Walking into my room only served to confirm my fears.
It was very run down and empty, in an almost eerie way. The couple of guys that I assume were staff, just stood there staring at me. It was as though they’d never had to deal with a guest before and neither of them were quite sure what exactly to do with me. My room was quite grubby… and in desperate need of a thorough clean. Understandably, there was no complimentary soap… BUT there was also no complimentary toilet paper either… which immediately raised some concern.
There was also no garbage bin.
This is odd to me.
Why? Why not?
After I’d sorted my belongings out for the evening, I wandered down to the bar/restaurant area, and asked if I were able to purchase a bottle of water.
They didn’t understand a word I was saying… and instead of putting their best foot forward and attempting to meet me halfway in the pursuit of communication, they chose to just walk away.
My room had wire mesh, as opposed to window panes, which left me open to the elements. When I mentioned ‘elements,’ I am referring to everything from mosquitos to the all-night music to the early morning laundry ladies to the stranger who sat directly outside speaking on his phone. I got it all.
I always complain… until I remember how much I paid per evening. Then everything falls into perspective.
Shut up, Joanna!
So... I altered my mindset and chose to take pleasure in the simplicity. I took comfort in knowing I was in a room very reminiscent to that of Van Gogh.
Quite peckish… and eager to see what Kigali had to offer in the way of tasty cuisine, I scoured the city map for a lovely little restaurant nearby. It wasn’t long before I landed on a little gem called the Soy Asian Table. I love Asian food, so it was a no-brainer! I was going!
Out I went, dressed for success and anxious for my Asian meal… without one thought to the hills that might put a damper on my evening stroll.
Google Maps presented me with a 20 minute walk... Do-able.
BUT… Google Maps did not account for the country of 1000 hills… and I think I encountered 999 of them that night. It was a struggle I had not properly prepared myself for.
Up Up Up.
Up Up Up Up.
I finally arrived at my Soy Asian destination, but it was tough. In addition to the treacherous incline, everyone was staring at me. I actually had to take a photo of myself to ensure there was nothing embarrassing plastered across my face.
The trek ended up being nothing in comparison to the irritation of the vexatious mosquitos that feasted on my weary bones as I dined, but at least I was eating one of the tastiest meals I’d had in Africa so far. Slightly out of my price range, but I justified it with exercise.
Three glasses of wine deep and in the absolute dead of dark, I opted for a taxi ride home, though I probably could have rolled.
Would have been cheaper.
With the entire next day at my disposal, not a plan in sight… and up for anything, I decided it would be a lovely afternoon to walk to Hôtel des Mille Collines. The sun was shining, the sky was blue… and my knee felt indestructible. Odd, after the taxing trek the evening before. Of course, I had already sworn off Kigali climbing, but today, I was inspired by the traveler's magic of waking up in a new country. I felt refreshed and ready to conquer any incline that might stand in my way.
If anyone remembers ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ Hôtel des Mille Collines was actually the inspiration for that movie. Here was exactly the location where Paul Rusesabagina helped to save 1,268 Rwandans, during the 1994 genocide.
Mille Collines is French for “a thousand hills.”
That should have been my first clue, but I often don’t catch on too quickly.
Once again, the hills were almost the death of me. My fitness level was not up for a day exploring the region of the rigorous rolling hills. In my defence, when you’re plotting out your route on Google Maps, it is an afterthought to check the topography. Hills did not necessarily stand out as a hindrance.
Well... let me tell ya...
They’re there… and I would hazard a guess there’s more than 1000. The up up up never seemed to end, yet I was determined to make it to the top… and that’s exactly where Hôtel des Mille Collines was situated. Right at the top.
I made it.
I was flushed, breathless, sticky and drenched with sweat, but I made it… in a dress, I might add.
The hotel was beautiful, though not recognizable at all. To avoid further embarrassment and to hide away my bloated, beat-red, tomato face, I hurled myself in a corner nook of their café bistro and sat until my face simmered into an acceptable shade of plush pink. When my respiratory system finally returned to semi-normal and I was no longer desperately gasping for breath, I sat & enjoyed a refreshing beverage and a bowl of chocolate ice cream, while listening to the easy listening sounds of the Sunday afternoon jazz band.
I conquered my fear of the boda boda here in Rwanda.
Although, here, they refer to them as the ‘mota.’
Ok… yes... in a previous blog, I mentioned how dangerous they were - and still are… BUT…
Rwanda LAW commands;
Two people ONLY on one motorcycle.
EVERYONE on a motorcycle wears a helmet.
All motorcycle taxis must be clearly recognizable. They were all wearing bright red vests.
Everyone must follow the rules of the road. There are actually rules AND regulations, including traffic signs, traffic lights and lane dividers!
If ever there was an opportunity to take advantage of a cheap mode of transportation and avoid the ghastly hills, it was here in Kigali.
The following day, I wandered up to the Niyo Art Gallery. I figured it was close enough to my accommodation to warrant the short stroll. I made sure to have a look at the distance and topography… and I was confident I could conquer the 60 metre rise.
It was all worth it when I arrived at the Niyo Gallery and I was met with an eruption of colour! This place was positively glowing. I wandered through, truly captivated with every piece of art.
The Niyo is a place for creativity to thrive. It was founded by a man named Pacifique Niyonsenga, and he, along with other local artists, works to keep kids off the streets by teaching them about art and music. It is a safe haven where Rwandan artists can experiment with their own originality, and let their imagination flourish. I think I might have taken about 700 pictures.
From the Niyo, I made my way to the Kigali Genocide Museum.
I knew this was going to be tough… and I had deliberately put it off until I was feeling the timing was just right. The museum is a final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi.
As soon I walked through the front door, I was met by one of the young guides, who insisted on giving me a brief introduction to the memorial, before allowing me to go any further. She spoke so quietly that I really had to lean in to hear her, as she really emphasized the historical importance and significance of each exhibition in the building. I’m such an emotional wreck, I choked up and tears flooded my eyes before I’d even begun the tour. A man behind the counter ran towards me, handing me tissue and a bottle of water. Very kind, though slightly humiliating.
If I thought the entrance was overwhelming, I was definitely ill prepared for what was waiting for me inside. The museum took me on a walk through the history of Rwanda. It began with the German occupation, leading right through WW1, chronicling the troubles between the Tutsi and the Hutu, the 1959 revolution and, of course, ending with the 1994 Genocide.
‘Our Future Lost’ was the area of the memorial dedicated to the children who died during the Genocide. It was truly heart wrenching and I was glad I'd had the forsight to pack tissue.
Adorable photos of innocent babies, toddlers and young kids lined the hallway, showing happier times. The plaque placed in front of every photo told their tragic tale.
Their favourite food...
Their favourite drink...
Their favourite song...
Their best friend...
Their last words...
How they died...
How they died.
Thrown up against a wall. Beaten to death. Stabbed. Beheaded. Hit multiple times with a machete.
Devastating doesn't seem to be the right word to use.
It was a disaster what happened in the first place. It was repulsive that the children were involved. There must be a very special place in hell for the people that massacred the children.
Rwanda definitely lost their future. It was truly a heart wrenching experience, confronted with these unfathomable crimes.
Outside were the mass graves and a memorial garden, where the victims of the Genocide could go to grieve, remember, reflect and feel closer to loved ones lost.
Out of pure respect, I chose not to take any photos at the Genocide Museum.
When I began my exit out of the museum, I met up with an older English lady who was resting on one of the benches at the front entrance. We got talking and after a brief conversation, I inquired as to whether or not she would be interested in joining me for a glass of wine. Still not overly familiar with Kigali, I suggested the rooftop bar again, as it seemed quite close to her accommodation and definitely worth the visit for someone who had not already experienced it. As the wine arrived, which was quite a bit of time due to some serious miscommunication about which Pinot we wanted, I was hit with a wave of exhaustion.
Weeks of adventure suddenly caught up with me.
It was a battle to keep my head upright, stay awake and actually engage in the conversation. I must have looked quite rude, beelining out of there, jumping on the back of a boda boda... and speeding off...
Oh, man, did I sleep.
Almost 12 hours.
After much debate about my next move, I finally decided I had to forgo Burundi. I exhausted myself trying to find suitable transportation to anywhere reasonable… and every search brought me right back to nothing. Unless I planned on hitchhiking, relying on the generosity of strangers, jumping in the back of a pick-up truck, getting a taxi across the country or paying a ridiculous amount of money for a charter flight… I had nothing. Perhaps I would have agreed to be more adventurous had I not been alone, but considering my circumstances, it only seemed responsible to head back to Tanzania.
Believe me… I checked everything from Zambia to the Comoros, in pursuit of my next big adventure. The cheapest ticket I could muster was just short of $300 and took me through Nairobi, with an 8 hour layover.
I figured it was do-able, considering I was in desperate need of catching up on my writing.
I booked. February 16th.
I was on my way to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania… and back to Arusha.
Just two more days…
Three days staying in rubbish accommodation was enough to catapult a rapid move into a more inviting guesthouse. My determination to escape resulted in Yambi… and pure bliss…
Yambi Guesthouse was a charming hotel located in the suburbs of Kigali and exactly what I was looking for to complete my stay in Africa’s Singapore. It was vibrant, it was beautiful… there were OTHER PEOPLE… and the staff were both approachable AND eager to assist where possible!
It was at Yambi, I met Marta, from Poland.
She had the whole day free, as I did… and together, we decided to venture off to Kimironko Market on the back of a mota. Zipping along, dodging & weaving our way through traffic, as we made our way along the streets of Kigali. It's an exhilarating, almost rebellious feeling, being on the back of a motorcycle... but I knew I was in much better hands whizzing through the streets of Rwanda than anywhere else in East Africa.
Kimironko is the busiest market in Kigali, chocked full of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, fabric, new clothes, old clothes and assorted other necessities. Basically, anything you ever thought you might need or want, it can be found at Kimironko.
There were a few fellow travellers at the guesthouse, of which I was grateful. I always like to mingle when the opportunity presents itself and it's always interesting to hear others' stories. I even met one girl who was traipsing through East Africa without any travel insurance, because… get this… ‘she’d never needed it before, so why should she now?”
I couldn’t even fathom the thought… especially knowing how disaster prone I am. If I let my insurance lapse for even one day, I am positive I would be bitten by a crocodile, fall off a mota… or my luck... be attacked by a wild gorilla...