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Published: July 17th 2012
I'd reserved a seat on the VIP bus from Kampala to Kigali, which was to take between 8 or 9 hours with a slow border crossing. Good thing I'd checked an updatded guide book and confirmed at the bus station. The Kigali bound buses did not leave at 01:00 in the morning as my guide book said, but at a more reasonable 09:00.
A German researching the kenyarwanda language I was talking to at the Backpackers' Hostel in Kamapala told me that most people need a visa for Rwanda, and that I could apply for it online. I showed him my guide book that said a select few nationals, including Canadians, did not need visas. But, if visas were required, they were issued at the border for US$60. He said he'd travelled with someone who'd been turned back for lack of a pre-approved visa, but didn't know his nationality.
The bus was pretty comfortable and had seat belts. I used mine because the driver seemed to be trying out for a Formula I street circuit. As we were heading out of Kampala, we witnessed another bus that had fallen into a ditch and was on its side. I wasn't quick enough to snap a shot. Luckily, nobody appeared to have been hurt, as it was a very recent accident.
I was seated next to Nina, an aspiring Rwandan model/actress, and we had a great series of discussions on family, studies, work, travel and tourism, etc. Yes, she's part of a large family, and wants to continue with her studies and travel, but most of all she wants work, preferably as a fashion model. Her family was born in Kampala, but her parents were Rwandans. And also that I should not change money at the border, since those guys were sharks. She said she'd help me find a 24 hour forex bureau in Kigali when we arrived.
Since it was a VIP bus, it came with a video or music option. Luckily, the video wasn't working and we got to hear lots of African pop music - thankfully no hip-hop nor jazz. Then sometime in the middle, we got a sizeable sample of female Country music stars including Shania Twaine, Leeanne Rhymes, Dolly Parton, etc. Yes, in Africa. No wonder I love this continent. Good African rhythms, plus the occasional country and western, with no hip-hop nor jazz. How much better can it get?
The bus made several short stops every hour or so, so people could use the toilets, buy food and stretch. We came to the border crossing around 15:00. I got the required Ugandan exit stamp, and walked down to the Rwandan side to get an entry stamp. Sorry! Everbody must pre-apply for a visa. I was asked to go back to Uganda and apply online. What!
The German guy was right after all. The visa rules had changed. Oh Oh! When I said I wasn't going back to Uganda, the immigration official asked me to go talk to the manager. So I did.
The manager asked me why I thought there was no visa requirement for Canadians? I showed him my guide book. He read the part and said, they'd got the visa fee wrong too ... the visa fee was now only US$30. After lots of seemingly unrelated questions such as where I work now? where I used to work? what was the nature of my work? why was I visiting Rwanda? who invited me? I told him the primary purpose of my visit was to visit the genocide memorial(s). The secondary purpose was to get to Lusaka, Zambia to join up with my family. He asked me for the $30 and told me to go back into the line. After 15 minutes or so, another immigration official brought my passport with a Rwandan visa stamp and a receipt for the $30. Whew!
All in all, in was efficient and courteous with no hint of misdealings in terms of corruption (subtle bribe requests). Quite impressive.
Good thing I'd set aside US$60 in my pocket, just in case I had to pay. I made sure none of the money I needed was in zip lock plastic bags. Rwanda has a strict policy of not allowing plastic bags. The German guys said that one time when he was flying from the Congo into Rwanda, and got to his hotel room, he found that all his plastic bags had been replaced with paper bags in his suitcase. Nothing missing, or moved around. Just paper instead of plastic bags. Yes, he'd locked his bags, and the locks were still attached!
Great goal to stop wastage of non-renawable hydrocarbons. But, why only plastic bags? There were plastic water bottles, and plastic wrappers on food items, and those weren't being targeted. But, I confess. I'm now a plastic bag smuggler. I keep the paper items in my money belt in zip lock bags. Otherwise, the money, passport and immunization health card get all stinky from sweat. And no, paper bags won't solve the problem. They'll just end up as soggy paper bags. I also had my wet flip flops in a plastic grocery bag, under my damp towel. But, since the bag check was very cursory, and the customs guy only checked the edges of my back pack, I got away with that bag too.
In all this hassle, I forgot to snap some shots of the border crossing itself. Oh well ...
Also Had to change my watch back by an hour. And guess what! The Rwandans drive on the right and the Ugandans don't. I'd always wondered if there was anywhere in the world (no, the Chunnel doesn't count) where one side of the border drove on one side and the other drove on the opposite and how chaotic that would be ... well, here it is, working just fine. Since the border process is so slow, there wasn't mass confusion about which side of the road the vehicles should be driving on at any point in time. BTW: The guide book failed to mention this little fact. Can you see yourself as a cross Africa driver doing the Cairo to Cape Town route, having to figure this out by yourself, when you see a bus or articulated truck coming at you in your lane on that narrow highway after crossing the border? The time zone changes aren't mentioned either.
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