Buzzed Up and Bummed Out in Bujumbura, Burundi

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Africa » Burundi » West » Bujumbura
June 10th 2012
Published: September 9th 2012
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The drive from Kigali to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi took about 6 hours. For some reason, Burundi only allows tourists get a 3 day visa at the border for $40. To get a month visa, you must apply in advance and pay $90. It didn’t make much of a difference to me, as I only planned on spending a couple of days there, but it seems ridiculous that Burundi would try to hinder the few tourists to make the effort to get there.

The drive through Burundi was quite spectacular. It was all winding roads through mountains and very rural land. We were stopped for a while just before Bujumbura, as the police tried to get a bribe out of the driver. On the bus, I met Lambert from Kigali, who spoke very good English. This was a blessing because Burundi, like Rwanda, is a Francophile country, but unlike Rwanda, it is very difficult to find anyone who speaks decent English. It was doubly lucky, as the Lonely Planet section on Burundi was pretty sparse on information, so I had no idea where I was going to try and stay. At the bus station, we met Lambert’s friend Nepo, also from Kigali, but who lived in Bujumbura. Nepo made sure we found a hotel and the 3 of us took a taxi through Bujumbura to get there.

My first impressions of Bujumbura weren’t very good. It is very underdeveloped and it is hard to believe it is only 136km from Kigali, which seemed a world apart. My initial impressions probably weren’t helped that the hotel we checked into was in an area of the city called Bwija, where most of the Congolese refugees have settled. Most of the buidings and structures are in a serious state of disrepair and there are open latrines on the street, which, judging from the smell, are in use. It was definitely one of, if not the worst cases of urban poverty I had seen.

That evening, Nepo invited us around to the house he shared with a few Indians, who he also worked with. Nepo and one of the Indians got busy in the kitchen and served up a feast of food, all while they ensured that I had as much beer as I wanted. Their generosity was absolutely humbling. I hoped to repay it, when we met a guy I had been in touch with on couch surfing at Havana Club, but they were having none of it.

The next day, Lambert had us up early as he wanted to change hotel. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but thought it must have been because of the area of the city it was in, so I was surprised when he brought us to on a few blocks away. I wasn’t in the humour to debate it, but it transpired that Lambert wasn’t happy that breakfast wasn’t included in the price. After we were checked in, we went into town and got some lunch of fish with rice and a spicy sauce. The fish was served whole, with the skin, head, tail, the works still attached. I was fairly used to this, so got to work digging out the meat and left the fishbones, head and tail on the plate. Lambert’s surprise that I had left these on my plate was only my matched by my surprise that he had eaten every last morsel of the fish – head, eyes and everything.

We met up with Nepo and went out to the beach at Lake Tanganyika, just outside of town. The beach was absolutely beautiful and the water was really nice to swim in. I was surprised at how built up it was though. There were a number of fancy bars, one with a swimming pool. There were also a lot of white people around, which showed how many NGO’s were in town. I took part in a game of beach volleyball, which was good fun, despite some French idiot wearing a bandana and pink speedos, who was barking instructions at people as if it was the Olympics. Afterwards, I had a surreal conversation with a guy from Kazakhstan about Shane McGowan and the Pogues.

I was getting restless on the beach, as it was the day that Ireland were kicking off their Euro 2012 campaign. We got back to the hotel just in time for the kick-off of the Spain Italy match, which was on before. There was a decent crowd watching it and it seemed like a good place to watch Ireland play Croatia. However, just after the Spain Italy game, the signal started to act up and on the advice of the hotel manager, I rounded up Lambert and Nepo to head into town and find somewhere that would be showing the match.

We got to a bar, which was fairly quiet, just as the teams were coming out. I had enough beers in me at that stage to stand up and belt out Amhrán na bhFian (perhaps for the first time in Burundi). The match didn’t go well for Ireland as we lost 3-1 to a superior Croatia team. There was one moment of elation, when Sean St. Ledger equalised for Ireland and lead a chorus of ‘Ole, Ole’ in the bar, who at this stage who were fairly amused and entertained by a mzungu shouting at a football screen.

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