Our day Thursday could have been in an episode of a sitcom. A few of us (and Alphonse – the RVCP vice-coordinator) decided to go to Bujumbura, Burundi for the weekend to see their acclaimed beaches (and to eat at the esteemed bakeries). Getting to the border required a cramped bus ride over bumpy Rwandan roads. But the real fun began once we had our passports stamped and our visas in hand.
Once over the border, and in our taxi-car, we saw a fist fight, passed overcrowded villages, saw men hanging onto the back of semis, witnessed bribery, sat in a taxi crawling with cockroaches, had our driver approve our hotel room, ate a left over buffet for dinner, and slept in a bed crawling with bugs, oh and showered in the dark in a bathroom where you could hear everything from the next room.
The following morning I was beginning to think these mystic beaches didn’t exist. Seeing Bujumbura had given me a whole new perspective of African cities, and of the luxury we had in Rwanda. Finding a pristine beach seemed out of the question, and a little ridiculous compared to the downtown areas of Buja. We wandered around the streets and saw men doing their laundry in the gutter between the roads. Actually we only saw men – where were all the women? We found a restaurant for breakfast but it had dark wooden tables in a sketchy looking hall. Eventually we sat under a canopy made of black tarp and branches and got decent food. Huge chapattis and omelets. The owner, who played Lazy by Bruno Mars on his phone, told us how to find the beaches.
We all pilled into a car-taxi and drove. We passed dilapidated buildings, men, dusty roads, and then started to see the beach. We were dropped off at the top of a road and walked down, nearing a faded pink building that said Bora Bora in blue writing. Still unsure of what to expect we mounted the steps to this restaurant and on the other side, much to our amazement, we saw the gorgeous lake with beaches and palm trees. White wooden floors with white cushioned couches and little wicker tables looked out at the pool deck, lounge chairs, canopies, banana trees, volleyball net, and the beautiful blue water. The Burundi – ‘real Africa’ – we saw earlier faded in this quasi-Caribbean paradise.
To our right was a long bar with several people sitting around drinking cocktails. We all oo-ed and aahh-ed at this little spot of heaven. How, I thought, could this city share so much poverty with so much beauty. It was apparent as soon as we stepped into the beach themed restaurant that only the rich and the touristy frequented this spot. Down the beach a little further was a restaurant and bar for locals.
We lounged around the pool on comfortable chairs, sipped delicious fruit cocktails, and swam in the clear water. It was nice to be able to relax in a place so foreign to our home in Butare. We left as the sun was setting and made our way back to the hotel, stopping for dinner at a very western looking establishment. As the five of us oo-ed and ahh-ed again over the menu of milkshakes, steak sandwiches, and fruit smoothies the American couple next to us laughed at our food-induced delight.
The next morning we’d planned on returning to the beach for a few more hours of R&R. But it turns out, as our Ugandan hotel manager informed us, that Saturday was the community workday. And no cars or buses or restaurants would be open until late morning. And so we woke up late (well 8 am), ate at the hotel, and than left around 10. On our way to the bus stop we passed by the bakery. It’d been featured in Lonely Planet and we’d been dying to see it / eat the pastries since we’d been in Burundi. To make it even better, the shop packaged the baked goods in pink cardboard boxes – just like Georgetown cupcakes. We each bought two items, one to eat right then, and one for the bus ride back.
Getting back to Butare was as adventurous as getting there had been. The six of us were split up and Maeve, Carrie, and I shared a car with a Rwandan nun and driver who seemed intent of scaring us as much as possible with his weaving, frequent stops in small villages, and high speeds. Yet despite the driving, despite the man next to Carrie who’s only known decibel was LOUD, and despite the man who jumped in the trunk for a few kilometers, we made it back to the border and eventually back to Butare.
I’m SO glad I decided to go to Buja. Part of this trip and putting yourself out there and experiencing everything you can. Things might have been cramped in the car, our hotel might have been a little sketch, but its all apart of experiencing this place that is as foreign to Washington DC and Vermont as anything. And I want to see as much of it as I can.
Being in Burundi allowed me to have a whole new perspective of Rwanda. Alphonse said that a bribe like the one in our car never would have happened in Rwanda. And when I walked to the Internet café early this morning I could only appreciate the men sweeping the garbage from the sidewalks, the friendliness of the people here, and the peacefulness we live with.
Burundi, despite the similarities with Rwanda, still has a long way to come. The beach was amazing, but that beauty and the R&R we got isn’t reality for the majority of Burundians. I loved being there, I loved having Friday to relax, and I loved the chance of being able to put our Rwandan experience into perspective.
A weekend that had a crazy beginning ended with gratitude from me and memories of beaches and bakeries.
ps – i’ll try and add more pictures to this when the computer isn’t being as slow!!