“A deep look inside……”, Kigali, Feb 20th, 2011

The gorilla trekking on Tuesday, Feb 15th, ended quiet harsh as I had to say good bye to Angela and Sarah after 10 days of travelling together. But, as hard as it sounds, it took about 4 minutes and I met the next Sarah. Not as crazy as the English one but Sarah from Germany was just as friendly and helpful. On the bus from Kinigi to Gimnesy (border town to Congo) we talked about her volunteering in Rwanda and she called some friends. Carlo and Flo agreed to couch surf me and 1 hour later I was with them in a pub, watching football and playing pool. They also volunteer in a local school, teaching sport and live together in a quiet spacious house. It reminded me a lot of the movie fightclub and I mean that positive. Two 20 year old living together in Africa, of course they not “make their rooms” every Friday and with the water only running occasionally the comfort comes through the warm welcome, their open minds and the fun we had together. I took my first “bottle shower” à 1,5 liters to get wet and soap, another 1,5 to rins off. It works -- fantastic.

Wednesday I wanted to take it easy but it came different. Around 11am I called Emanuel, the tour operator for Congo. “I am in Kigali” he says and “you get your Visa here”. Ok, the Congo temptation (and the volcano) is strong. One hour later I sit again in the bus, reach Kigali at 4pm and rush to the embassy. The reception / secretary lady does not give me much hope but tells me all I need to bring the next day, 2 copies of this and that, photos and so on. On the way back my motor bike taxi runs out of gas. He solves the problem be lifting it up and turning it around. The last view drops of petrol reach the engine, enough to get me to town, I did not know that this works. The evening is dominated by the Arsenal – Barcelona game in the Champions league. The 2:1 victory is celebrated like Rwanda won the world cup, dancing men in the rain and horning cars all over.

Thursday is Congo Visa day and an experience of its own. “You are not a resident of Rwanda?” the nice lady asks me, “well then you can not get a Visa for Congo.” Two minutes later (in which I only looked at her and asked why she did not tell me that yesterday): “Maybe I can do something for you…” In that moment it clicks, I understand that this is the bribing game of Congo. And not just that, it’s a different world. The ambassador himself goes to the toilet. All, and I mean all, stand up and wait until he is “done” and passes us again and closes the door from his office. (I wonder what we would have done if he had went their with a newspaper…………) On top of that everything here is happening in French and the greeting procedure is bumping head at each other left, right and front. Interesting.

Anyway, I show my appreciation to the lady and one hour later I have a personnel interview with his excellence himself, the ambassador. Why did you not get the Visa in Germany, why do you want to go to Congo and so on. After a view words of French from my side the ice is broken and instead of the secretary translating he now speaks to me in fluent English. Finally, with a blink of an eye, he says. “But do not attempt to work there…….” When leaving for town, it will take 3 hours to make the visa, my lovely secretary says: “You can bring me a present…” What would you like I ask. “Even money is fine………….” And so it happens, I do pay my first bribe ever, 10 dollars make her very happy and they also speed up the process. At 1pm I have my visa, at 2pm I sit in the bus with Emanuel, at 7pm I cross the border into Congo with him and at 8pm I eat fried fish in my hotel room.

What makes this whole trip even more exciting is that today, yes, exactly today, as I get my visa and hike the volcano tomorrow the main German news site publishes an article about this very volcano and the likeliness of it erupting soon. See yourself under this link (in German):


Friday, Feb 18th (I hope the elections in Uganda go without violence today) I am being woken up at 4:44am by the sound of someone cleaning the floor in front of my room. I had that in Ethiopia before so I don’t question it too much, rather listen to music and think of what is going to come. Today I get to see Goma in daylight but the impression from last night is confirmed. Good lord, this is a different world, poverty at its worst, unwanted UN soldiers everywhere (3.000 are based here and get good money). Two representative examples. The biggest supermarket in Goma (500.000 people live here) looks like a run down “Konsum” in old east Germany. Shelves are full, with one and the same product. But I get what I need for the trip, bred, a can of fish and water. The second example are the ever present Congolese bicycles which I see all the way out of town. They are big, made completely out of wood and have no chain. Uphill they have to be pushed, downhill 5 people jump on it for the ride. The taxi driver knows how to built them, charges 30 Dollars for one but most people can not afford them. Emanuel adds that those with the bikes are the fortunate once. I see also one man with a “real” bike, he must be rich……….. . Striking is also to see the lava stone everywhere. In the 2002 eruption the lava went all the way into town, destroying many houses and half of the airport run way. Since then, big plans can not land anymore, small once have only one try to land safe. That is the reality if Goma in 2011. After 25 minutes we reach the park entrance and I get to see the Volcano I am going to climb, the Nyiragongo.

The group I am going with could have been a bit more exciting, a French family of 5 and a UK wildlife worker. But the weather is perfect, my porter nice and one of the French daughters tries to speak English which I appreciate a lot. The hike is quiet tough as it is hot and steep but what really gets on my nerves are the constant brakes. I do not mind to wait for the others but I sweat and every 10 minutes we stand in the cold wind waiting. Oh well, the reward is amazing. At 3pm we have the last brake at the point where vegetation stops and 20 minutes later we reach the top. Wow, amazing, that is a once in a lifetime experience, looking deep into the earth. Understanding how little I am, how vulnerable and at the same time how fortunate to see this makes me and all of us shut up for a while.

I help the porter to built my tent and to make a fire. It gets chilly at night and the wind picks up as well. This wind is also the reason that the red lava lake is only possible every 5 minutes or so for a view seconds. Everybody else is too tired so that I have to convince the guide to walk with me on the west rim of the crater alone. After some resistance he agrees and actually enjoys it as well. It’s an amazing walk like on the moon it feels, right at the edge and with better views of the lava lake than where we have the tents.

Talking of tents I hope my tour operate does not know that his tent is completely broken. Not a single sipper works which means that the door does not close. With the wind so strong this is scary (listen yourself in the video) but I do manage to sleep relatively well.

At 5am I get up and my wish comes true. Everybody still sleeps and for one hour I have the crater for “myself”. I enjoy to the fullest wondering if I come back here again, maybe with Gabor one day. Nobody appreciates nature like him and he must see this.

The hike down is quiet pushy. They are afraid of bad weather but it turn nicely. At 11am we back at the park entrance. Emanuel takes me to the border. There are two, a big and a small one. Having used the big one coming I want to take the small one back, also because I can walk from here to Carlo and Flo’s house in Gimnesey. Big mistake. The hassle is one thing but the bribe attempt another. “Sit down here” the rather big police director says while his people work hard to handle the flow of people. “Do you have a visa for Rwanda?” he asks. I do need one I reply. “Yes you do.” I respond a little tense: “Sir, I entered Rwanda already a week ago coming from Uganda, I know I do not need a visa!” Noticing and not liking my temper he goes “I only want to help you, relax, I will call the colleagues in Rwanda.” Now this is a deciding moment and I realize it. If he makes that call he has to take a decision, either taking the bribe attempt all the way or us the call to give up on it. I try hard to let my eyes and face speak a clear language which is that I prefer to go to prison in Congo than giving him a single cent. It seems to work. He puts down the phone commenting “they must have changed it”, passing my passport to his colleagues who give me the exit stamp within 10 seconds. Even Emanuel takes a big breath as we leave the office. He walks me to the other side and I thank him again for this great trip.

Back with Carlo and Flo we go to the “La Bamba” again for meat sticks and potatoes watching Bundesliga live. Later we switch to a rather posh place to see Munich beat Mainz 3:1 in the evening game. Another round of pool and fall unconscious at 1 am at night. Sunday morning they take me to a very nice hotel on the lake side. A hot chocolate while booking my flight from Bogota to New York in June, followed by a lake swim and hot shower, what could I complain. Again meat sticks and potatoes before I take the bus back to Kigali. Here I have dinner with John, the American journalist. The idea to take a small walk around 10:30pm I forget quickly. Heavily armed soldiers walking up and down the street where my hotel is, a little reminder where I am, in stable but volatile Rwanda. Tomorrow I want to visit the other 2 genocide memorials………………

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