Just as everyone was probably expecting me to travel further south after Victoria Falls all the way to South Africa, I made my way back up north inland to the landlocked countries of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, by crossing Lake Tanganyika, the longest lake in Africa. Not the best decision made though, as the rainy season was commencing in this part of Africa and I was met with pouring rain for a good part of every day. But the hilly cultivated landscapes all across this region were indeed very captivating, which were made even more lush by the daily showers. At all times while I was stuck within the tiny backseat of a matatu, I was staring out through the window in awe, hoping that I could get out of that stuffy vehicle and have a long walk amidst the hills covered with patchworks of different shades of green and yellow, of banana trees, maize and cabbages.
Although I missed the passenger ferry up the longest lake in Africa which departed only once every two weeks, I managed to find a cargo boat making almost the exact same trip, but to Burundi instead of Tanzania. This was made possible after a whole afternoon of inquiring at nearly every shipping company at the tiny port town of Mpulungu in northern Zambia. Aside from the crew, there were about 10 other passengers boarding the same boat, mostly Burundians but also a few Congolese. Over the two days spent on the boat, I was pleasantly surprised by how everyone on the boat was helping out each other in all daily matters: woman A washing clothes for woman B; woman C looking after the kids for woman A; woman B cooking for man A & B; woman C sweeping the floor of the boat. I guess the women might start breastfeeding each others’ babies if we were to stay on the boat for a bit longer. For a moment I was really mistaken that they all belonged to one family! Only later did I found out that they had only just met each other when they boarded the boat. As part of the family for those two days, I helped with some of the cooking and cleaning as well. It was a very interesting ride, and Burundi and DR Congo both being Francophones, I had to start picking up my broken French again. As it turned out, the sentence that I used the most was: J’ai oublié tous me Français!
The highlight of Burundi was the fact that I fell into a ditch, filled with waist-deep muddy water, in the middle of the road – together with my mobile phone and iPod. It was quite a hilarious sight, with everyone on the roadside cheering for me as I climbed out of the ditch. Ironically, I had my swimsuit on underneath my shirt at that time, because in that morning, I had actually attempted to go to this Coconut Beach in the outskirts of Bujumbura on Lake Tanganyika. Tribal tensions broken out at the border between Burundi and DR Congo caused the government to make a hasty decision to shut off all visits to the beach during the time when I was there. And so I was dressed, all ready to take a dip in the lake, but instead, I fell into a ditch. My iPod recovered after a day of malfunctioning, but here’s to my mobile phone: May you rest in peace.
The past month really hadn’t been the month for me. I always took pride in the fact that I haven’t had anything big lost or stolen through over 2 years of travelling. But in this one month alone, I had suffered the following losses:
- DSLR camera stolen
- Kindle screen smashed
- Mobile phone drowned
- Battery of laptop died
- Headtorch smashed
- Travel towel lost
- Rain cover for backpack lost
To comfort myself, I treated myself to the best omelette in Africa – only found in Burundi!
Rwanda truly earned its name as land of a thousand hills, little round hills covered with green and yellow terraced farms dotted the whole countryside, while little round hills covered with red-roofed houses dotted the capital city of Kigali. Definitely one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes I had seen so far in Africa, and in my life.
Underneath this beauty though, lies a tragic recent history of genocide. Nowadays in Rwanda, skyscrapers were built, roads were paved, plastic bags were banned, traffic was orderly and civilized. As much as I had witnessed how Rwandans were working hard to struggle from a country of ruins to remake itself into one of the cleanest and fastest-growing countries in east Africa, the country was still covered by an aura of sadness. The wide toothy smiles so typical of Africans didn’t appear as heartwarming in Rwanda, children jumping up and down crying, “Mzungu Mzungu!” seemed fewer in this country, and street beggars were no longer unreasonably strong and healthy – they were real beggars in need with one or several limbs mutilated or missing.
For some reason, my debit card didn’t work with ANY ATM machine in Rwanda. Desperate for cash, I went to a Chinese doctor to see if I could change the stack of Chinese Yuan I had been carrying for almost a year with no apparent use. (It’s a long story as to how I came to be holding all these yuans with me.) The doctor agreed without any hesitation, and even gave me a better than market rate! Afterwards, I was asked to join her to this big feast of meaty Chinese dishes with her friends, together with a meal of homemade steamed dumplings the next day. 四海之内皆兄弟 – what a true phrase. I came to discover that travelling strengthened not only my sense of identity as a Chinese, but also my appreciation towards the bonding with others of the same ethnicity, such closeness and warmth immediately felt whenever I met any Chinese, who, amazingly, can be found in every remote corner of the world.
I also went mountain gorilla tracking in Musanze. This was a tough decision to make as it was probably one of the most expensive activities in Africa! I know the gorillas were amazing and everyone said they were amazing but was it really worth US$500 for only an hour spent with these fluffy relatives of human beings? With the very generous help of two Korean volunteers staying there, I managed to track the gorillas for half the original price!! Specific details of how this happened are a bit too sensitive to mention here – you could ask me in person later on if interested 😀
Needless to say, the gorillas were as how everyone said, amazing. Although I am not sure if I would be able to say the same thing if it really cost US$500… might as well stay at home and watch Godzilla all over again. We were too lucky to be able to track an active family of gorillas within only 2 hours of scrambling through dense rainforests, spiky plants, slippery, muddy ground, and half an hour of super heavy pouring rain. Though I would have loved to trek for a few hours more, given that I had already paid US$250 for everything! I will put up some video clips of these funny animals when I have the chance!
The website of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China said whether I needed a visa or not to enter Uganda was “to be determined by the relevant authority” – such a typical Chinese style of legal drafting. So I inquired with the Ugandan embassy of Kigali, who responded with absolute certainty that I needed a visa for Uganda. But when I arrived at the border, cash ready at hand to be paid for a visa on my Canadian passport (as there was only one page left on my Hong Kong passport), I double-checked again whether I would really need a visa with my Hong Kong passport. The officer replied, “No of course you don’t need a visa! Why aren’t you using your Hong Kong passport?” Huh?? What the…. So here are my conclusions: (1) The situation was really determined by the relevant authority; (2) Uganda is one of the few countries I encountered that recognized dual nationality. But most important of all, at the end, I saved US$50 of visa fee!!
Having spent a few relaxing days paddling in dug-out canoes around beautiful Lake Bunyonyi, I spent a few days partying out in Kampala, then went on a rafting trip through some Class 5 rapids at the Nile River – and consequently drank quite a bit of water from the source of the Nile.
That hand with the paddle on the upside of the raft is mine.
Hiking through small villages and farms in and around Sipi Falls.
I also got a new hairstyle – please appreciate, as it was over six hours of patient work by lovely Rose, on the floor of a tiny shack on the roadside, and under a mere candlelight after night approached…
In Mbale, I joined Rina from Israel to a Jewish service to celebrate the festival of Yom Kippur, in one of the handful of small Jewish communities in Africa, and miraculously bumped into all the Israeli travellers I had met separately in different places in Uganda. It was an interesting experience, especially the power cut right in the middle of the service – a special feature that could only be found in Africa. Same happened at the football match of Uganda vs Kenya, which I watched with about 40 others in a makeshift “cinema” with a bamboo rooftop in this small town of Kapchorwa. Not only was the cinema run by a generator, the power in town having been cut off for two days, the reception to the channel was gone after half-time, leaving everyone anxious about the likely outcome of the match. Many switched to the radio afterwards… such is the daily life in Africa.