Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

Kigali day 1: Moto-taxis and art

Despite last-minute changes that almost prompted me to cancel my two-day Rwanda stop, I ended up spending my happiest day of 2017 in Kigali.

Early that Thursday morning in August, after three full days in Uganda, I caught a short flight across the border to Rwanda. In hindsight, the newer, cleaner Kigali airport gave me the first clue that these neighbouring countries had many differences. Kampala's airport hadn't been dirty, exactly, but years of use leave a mark even bleach can't remove. By contrast, Kigali's seemed fresher and more like the airports I've seen in Singapore and Europe.

Once on the road with my prearranged taxi driver, I soon noticed another difference: motorcycle helmets and sidewalks! When I had to take a motorcycle tour of Peru several years ago, my friend had no safety gear (nor did anyone else seem to). And in U.S. cities like Phoenix or Grand Rapids, pedestrians sometimes have to make do with what passes for a shoulder.

Not so in Kigali. Eventually I would learn that, not only do all motorcycle taxi drivers carry helmets for their passengers, they also all have to register with the government, pay taxes on what could easily be unreported income, and wear ID vests with a large number, in case anything goes wrong. A far cry from Uganda's infamous "boda-boda" taxis, which one website said would make a praying person of anyone!

A short drive from the airport, my driver turned into a long residential street where they're still building houses. Outside an unmarked gate, he stopped while the apparently live-in guard undid the lock. Inside, my Airbnb house waited: a two-story home, which had a large water tank and pump outside, a modern and well-equipped kitchen inside. Between the guard and the housekeeper, who came most days, I assume the single Indian woman who rented the house (and subletted a room to me) was wealthy by Rwandan standards.

After I'd settled into my room and done a little research, I set off to catch a walking tour in the Muslim quarter, Kigali's oldest neighbourhood. I soon faced a problem, though. I didn't have time to walk there or take a bus, and car taxis didn't seem to roam the quiet neighborhood. As the housekeeper and I rounded a corner in search of a cab, a boy of about three, who'd been standing with his mother at a tiny shop, spotted us. With a huge grin, he ran up to me and thrust out his hand, holding mine in a tiny, warm grip until I had to walk on.

After another block, we'd seen some motorcycles, but no car taxis. The housekeeper delicately probed my threshold for risk. Though my lifelong fear of motorcycles still holds, I'd survived that bareheaded ride in Peru--and these drivers actually carried helmets. Refusing to think of the lice risk, I agreed to a price (about one eighth what I'd paid for the car from the airport), strapped on the loose-fitting helmet and looked for a handhold.

Based on a quick look at Google maps, I had a rough idea where the Muslim quarter was, but I couldn't get my phone's roaming internet to work once I left the Airbnb. When we pulled up where the driver thought I wanted to go, I knew he had the wrong spot. It started to rain lightly. After consulting my phone's offline map and asking several people for directions, he finally got me to the women's cooperative that offered the tours.

Despite the delay, I hadn't missed the tour. In fact, the group consisted of me and my English-speaking guide, Sheba, a 20ish neighborhood native who wants to become an engineer. He gave me a wonderful tour, rich in exactly the details I love to learn about other cities. I saw men's and women's hair salons and learned about some of the older, more traditional styles that indicated marriage or engagement.

He showed me the neighbourhood women sewing some of the colorful bags and housewares sold in the women's cooperative shop. We went inside a small tailor shop, where I learned about the different kinds of fabric used--kitenge wax prints like I bought in the Netherlands last year, and bazique (?), a shiny, coated fabric used in formal wear that's easier to clean. We looked at the style books used to choose an outfit, and he explained that they don't often use paper patterns, despite the elaborate, fitted styles of more traditional garments. Tailors there may have very small shops, but their vast clothing knowledge and sewing skills left me awed.

The tour also included a milk bar (non-alcoholic shops something between our coffee shops and bars) and a lesson about the comical, oral translation of foreign films, which get dubbed with voice-overs rich in commentary--including on parts without dialogue, such as fight scenes.

Turning a corner past sweeping views of Kigali's many hills, we walked to the local market, where I went inside a small vegetable shop and learned how they make cassava flour. Apparently the raw roots contain a lot of arsenic, so they soak them in water long enough (perhaps a few days) to leach it out, then dry the roots and pound them into flour.

After stopping to take a photo with three school-aged children who asked ME for one, though on my phone camera, we finally returned to the women's cooperative. I was very hungry by then, on account of missing lunch, but full in spirit.

I took a little longer to browse the cooperative's shop, then caught a second motorcycle taxi (this time, clutching a large woven basket between me and the driver). My next destination: an art gallery with a weekly Thursday night happy hour. Thanks to navigation help from one of the women at the cooperative, my second driver delivered me without mishap.

The two-story gallery sat on a side street not far from my Airbnb, with a backyard view of neighbouring hills that had jeweled with evening lights by the time I left. Some online reviews complained that foreigners overran the happy hour, but I mostly talked to one of the painters, Kenneth Nkusi, who helps run the gallery. And in any case, Kenneth later told me their biggest sources of sales are overseas buyers from America and Europe. A foreign-dominated crowd probably helps their business.

After a drink and some teriyaki chicken from a kind of pop-up food stand (served by a kimono-clad Japanese woman), I walked up the street and out to the main road. This led to a large interchange much like what you'd see in Singapore, then onto Kigali's beehive-shaped convention center and a western-style shopping mall complete with grocery store. A few errands later, I walked the near-mile back to my Airbnb, thrilling as I passed multiple recycling bins along the sidewalk. The Rwanda I saw that first day had surprised me from start to finish.