Published: July 31st 2009June 22nd 2009
The minibus I catch to Bujumbura originates in Kigali, and I'm the only new boarder so I have the least comfortable seat available - and that's without taking into account the sizable lady next to me nor her luggage which is taking up all my legroom. However - and it's possible I dreamed this - the minibus also has aircon so I may be cramped but at least I'm cool.
The border with Burundi is reached in barely half an hour and immigration is a model of efficiency. I'm stamped out of Rwanda, stamped in to Burundi, and even have time to change all my Rwandan francs at a price little different to that on Yahoo Finance - all within 45 minutes.
Two hours later, after a hilly journey little different to those I took in Rwanda, from a crest we see Lake Tanganyika before us with Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, sprawled along its northeastern corner. We wind down from the heights and, on disembarking, it feels like the temperature has gone up ten degrees centigrade from Rwanda.
Burundi is similar to Rwanda in that it has a high population density. It also has a similar tribal mix, and
Belgian colonial rule exploited and deepened Hutu-Tutsi divisions just as it did in Rwanda. The main difference is that the Tutsi have been in power for most of Burundi's post-colonial history. However the inevitable result of these tribal divisions is that the last few decades in Burundi have hardly been peaceful, with the early '70s seeing an anti-Hutu mini-genocide ("only" 200,000 killed) and another 100,000 going from both tribes combined in the mid-'90s. With there having been something of a lull in the fighting for over a year, I feel it's not a bad time to pass through.
It appears that Burundians share at least one trait with their Rwandan neighbours, namely an inability to give directions. I pop into a cafe and ask a waitress to show me where we are on the WLP map. I helpfully indicate the stadium and main market, which elicits "Ah!"s of recognition, but she is incapable of pointing out our location. The entire staff of the cafe comes over to assist but no-one can help me. I then try asking for directions to my intended accommodation and am told it is closed. A waiter then offers to show me to another budget
place, a kind offer that I reluctantly accept. I much prefer plodding around on my own as it helps me to orient myself, plus travel has sadly made me suspicious of anyone giving up their time - especially work time - to help.
The waiter's name is Eric, and his English is about as "good" as my French. He leads me to a place that supposedly has rooms from BIF8,000 (=~$7), but these cheapies have been taken by other guests and only BIF30,000 rooms are left. The next option is a ten minute walk away, and the woman says they have BIF25,000 rooms available, however when she actually checks the guest list it appears that they're full. With visions of this being another Rwandaesquely expensive experience, and already fed up with trudging around in the heat with my backpack, I decide to take the room at the first place. Except it turns out that, when they consult their guest list, they're full too. The manager suggests a nearby alternative, which is one I've read about on the web as not being great value for money. Though the reception girl has too much attitude and commits the massively irritating sin
of switching to English when I ask her to repeat something in French, the room is good and the fact that it only has a cold shower is not a problem in these temperatures. Plus the manager turns out to be extremely helpful, though he morphs my name from John to Johnson over the course of my stay, presumably unintentionally.
I'm desperately in need of a shower but I feel I owe Eric a drink so we hit a nearby cafe. He says he really wants to spend more time with me so I agree to visit the lake with him the following afternoon.
I have a quick wander around the city centre noticing one enormous difference from Rwanda - people don't really give a damn about my presence. Even the map vendors show zero persistence. I'm not surprised to see an Obama shop but, disappointingly, Burotica turns out to be an office furniture store. Prices of goods are a little lower than Rwanda, though DC is still through the roof. Once darkness falls, the mossie hordes descend and I'm bitten with a voracity that reminds me that I'm back in steamy climes.
My intended transport out
of here, two days hence and thus right on the limit of my three-day transit visa, is unfortunately fully booked, which poses a dilemma for me. Do I purchase a visa extension or throw myself on the mercy of the border officials when I overstay? The hotel manager advises that obtaining an extension is both quick and cheap - sadly, only one of these adjectives turns out to be correct.
I submit my application first thing the next morning. The officials are as friendly as their counterparts at the border, and I'm told to return at 2PM to pick up the extension.
2PM sees the immigration office still closed for its lunch break. The doors open at 2:15PM but the required officials don't appear until 2:30PM. The guy I'd dealt with in the morning seems to have forgotten me, though I'm the only white person who'd been there, and he looks surprised when I say I've already applied. He hunts through some heaps of processed applications and mine isn't among them. He tells me to wait.
Just behind me in the "queue" is an Irish guy submitting similar visa extension applications to mine, though in his case
it's for him and a number of NGO co-workers over from DRC for a few days. He has less patience than I do with the process and, after an hour of waiting, he hassles the guy about this and his passports suddenly appear, fully processed. This seems more than a little unfair to me, so I also approach the guy. He looks surprised that I'm still waiting, asks me how long an extension I wanted, and I take from this that my application has not progressed since I handed it in six hours previously.
Another hour goes by. There are now several other whities pacing the floor, waiting. One of them, a French chap, tells me that it's much better to simply pay the overstay fine at the border instead of applying for the extension - the cost difference is negligible and you don't waste time in the way that I'm doing. I approach the immigration officer again and complain mildly at the length of my wait, as well as the fact that the Irish guy had apparently leap-frogged my application. This is clearly the wrong tactic, as his smile drops and I get an earful of French whose
content I don't understand but whose tone definitely suggests that any criticism of the efficiency of his department will not be tolerated. Twenty minutes later, with the staff packing up in anticipation of closing time, I - one of the earliest applicants of the day - am the second last applicant to receive their visa. The final insult is that this five-day extension takes up an entire page of my passport.
This whole episode means that I'm already well over an hour late for my rendezvous with Eric, but he's still there waiting. I apologise and explain what had happened but he's not angry. We start walking towards Lake Tanganyika.
I learn that Eric is 25 and is currently earning BIF50,000 (=$45) per month for working 6 days per week, 7AM-3PM, in the cafe. His wish is to study music at university, but with university fees running at BIF200,000 per month, that isn't going to happen any time soon. Long term, he'd like to move to NYC and try to emulate his hero, Akon.
The place where we hit the shores of Lake Tanganyika is no great shakes, though the lake is clearly vast (in fact the
longest freshwater lake in the world, and the second deepest after Baikal). I'm hoping we'll find a cafe here but Eric says there is nothing much nearby. Then, pointing at a group of men clustered under a tree near the water's edge, he says it's not that safe around here due to the crowds of druggies. The WLP has mentioned Saga (pronounced Sagga) beach as the best in the region so I suggest we go there. Eric's face brightens, and he says that will be much better. After some initial problems finding a cab (my mzunguness doubles the price for the first guy we speak to), we hop in one and speed off.
Saga Beach has the appearance of a venue for a sedate spring break, with plenty of young people standing around chatting or lounging on the sand, but with no bared breasts or mouth-mixed cocktails in evidence. Various booths are dispensing drinks but Eric suggests we head to a restaurant shaped like a boat at the water's edge. A stiff onshore breeze is whipping up the waves and keeping all but a hardy few out of the lake. Drinks prices are ridiculous, with a soda costing more
than a beer at my (by no means cheap) hotel. A man walks by with a Bob Marley banner. A sound system starts up, causing an outbreak of dancing, but we only catch the music when there's a lull in the wind. A scan of the beach suggests that I'm the only mzungu
there, as well as the only person over 25.
The afternoon proves to be quite confusing. I'd assumed that Eric wanted to practice his English, but it's me that ends up driving the conversation. My second guess at motive (how jaded I am ...) was that he wanted to ask for money but he doesn't do that either. So I'm unclear as to why he wanted to spend time with me, a situation all too familiar with every girl I've ever dated. Once he starts texting on his cell phone, I decide that I no longer care about his motives and am more concerned about my own time being wasted, so I say I'm going back to the hotel. We flag down a cab, and Eric then asks if I mind if two of his friends come back with us - they'll apparently pay BIF2,000 of
Place de l'Independance
the BIF5,000 fare. One friend says hello, the other totally ignores me. Back in town, I receive neither money nor a word of thanks. There's nowt as queer as folk.
The WLP raves about Buj nightlife but also warns about how dangerous the city can be after dark, so I ask for some local advice. Eric has told me it's not safe for white people to be on the streets at night. The hotel manager tells me it's perfectly safe at all hours. It's hard to draw a consensus from these two extremes, however my enquiries about where best to go out soon settle this for me. The reception girl tells me that I won't find anywhere playing music before 3AM. For me, a night out without music is not a night out, especially when I have no friends to go with, and having to wait until 3AM for music is not acceptable. I hit one of the recommended Friday night places, and it's totally dead until at least 10PM when I go home. Buj nightlife is not going to be graced by my presence. However there are more smokers here than I think I've seen since Egypt so
that definitely lessens the appeal.
Visa and money issues mean that my glimpse of Burundi is limited to just a sliver of Bujumbura but it would appear that the country is quite different to its northern neighbour Rwanda. Perhaps in the future I'll get an opportunity to return here to give it a more extensive visit. However now it's time to return to an anglophone region. Dull but possibly useful info
i. Belvedere is supposedly the best bus to Bujumbura - their buses originate in Kigali and pass through Butare/Huye at about 9:30AM. You can book a seat from Butare/Huye at their office, which is next to that of New Yahoo (just north of the Ibis Hotel on the other side of the road). The bus has aircon, costs RWF6,000 (i.e. you pay the same fare as if you were coming from Kigali ...). It takes 35 minutes to get to the border with Burundi, maybe 45 minutes for the border formalities, then about 2.5 hours to get to Buj.
ii. It's a nice and easy border crossing. A 3-day transit visa is the only option available at the border and costs $20 - the staff speak no
English but are friendly and appear used to foreign travellers.
iii. The FX booths at the border give an excellent rate without the need for any haggling.
iv. The Belvedere stop in Buj is just north of the city centre on Chaussee du Peuple, so head south and you'll soon see the Face a Face Internet cafe, hence can orientate yourself on the WLP map.
v. I stayed at the Saga Residence, paying $25 for a large double room (probably the most attractive I've stayed in on this trip) with en suite and a TV but no fan or AC. There was only cold water but, in the steamy air of Buj, that was just the ticket. The manager Jean-Claude is very eager to please. There's also free Internet access but there's only one machine so be prepared to wait. The food is good but a tad pricey and the service is superslow.
vi. Hotel Le Doyen appears to be closed. There's a place next to Patisserie Trianon on Avenue du Commerce (go through the arch above which is written Ceprodilic) with rooms apparently starting from BIF8,000 - they were completely full. You could also try the Pacific Hotel (on
Avenue de Euphorbes, I think), charging BIF25,000 - they were also completely full.
vii. If you are going to overstay your transit visa, don't waste your time/passport page getting an extension. Instead, simply pay the BIF15,000 overstay fine (assuming you overstay less than 15 days) at the border when you leave. If you really want to get the extension, though, you'll need a photocopy of the information page of your passport, a photocopy of the entry stamp page of your passport, one passport photo, $10 (for a 5 day extension), and a spare page in your passport.
viii. A taxi to or from Saga Beach from or to the centre of town costs BIF5,000.
ix. You can get a cash advance from the Banque de Credit de Bujumbura - go to the Western Union section on the left and there's a flirty English-speaking woman to assist. I've no idea of the fees, but I didn't need to use my PIN.
x. Tourist Information is now on Boulevard de l'Uprona, a couple of hundred metres from the junction with Chaussee du Peuple.
xi. None of the FX bureaux have Tanzanian shillings, but apparently people in the market do.
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