Spring Break 2012…Kind Of

Our SIT program does not have any actual school holidays and days off from our internships depend on where we work. Some of us get holidays and some of us do not. I do not; I get an extra day of work on Saturdays actually. However, just like most jobs, days off can be negotiated for. Needless to say, we did not get a spring break vacation.

A couple of weekends ago my classmates and I decided to go to the beach. It was one of my classmates 21st birthday and his dad fronted some money for a celebration so we organized a couple of nights away in Gisenyi. It just so happened that this weekend away coincided with most of our home institutions’ Spring Breaks.

We took off late Friday afternoon on a three-hour bus ride from Kigali to Gisenyi, it’s actually called Rubavu now. Our accommodation was a small Presbyterian hotel that was nice and cheap. Five of us stayed two nights for 44,000 Rwf or less than 75 dollars; not bad for a short walk from the lake, hot water and a flushing toilet. ☺ My standards for nice have clearly been Rwandized.

Friday night one of my classmates and I walked down to Lake Kivu after the sun had already gone down and just admired how beautiful and peaceful it was. Then we went to eat and had some communication complications. Gisenyi is very close to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo and as such there are a fair number of Congolese in the area. I ordered our food in both English and Kinyarwanda with a mixture of hand gestures to indicate the proper numbers. We ordered two beers, two goat brochette, two chicken brochette and one order of chips. Clearly our waiter was not a fluent speaker of this language combination. What came out was two beers, four goat brochette, two whole chickens cut and cooked and two orders of chips. Eventually we figured everything out but of course everything cost more than our waiter had told us when we got the bill. It was all delicious though and a bit of an adventure.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then walked down to the beach at Lake Kivu. We did the super muzungu thing and paid to lie out on the beach front of Hotel Serena. We got to use their chairs, umbrellas, towels and swim in the pool and have toilets so I would say it was worth it. It was really nice to just lay there for a couple of hours and especially nice to swim! The weather was beautiful; it rained for a couple of minutes but did not get cold so it really was not biggie.

The beach along the lake stretches the entire way that we walked. Most of it was 30 or so feet park-like landscaping from the road up to the sandy part and was open to the public. Once you got to Serena property though there was a fence made of trees and bushes and then a little chain across the sand where trees wouldn’t grow, this kept people from accessing the Serena beach unless they paid and entered through the actual hotel. The Serena part of the beach was not any cleaner or nicer; it just had beach chairs and umbrellas and then the actual hotel bits (pool, waiters, etc.). 90% of the people on the Serena side were white (not including hotel employees) and 99.9% of the people on the other side were black. Also, only maybe eight people (including ourselves) got into the water on the Serena side and there were at least 20 people swimming right past the little chain fence. It was very interesting to observe. It should be noted that Lake Kivu is a volcanic lake and it is advised not to swim in it for health reasons. Clearly this warning resonates much more with foreigners. Either that or native Rwandans are not really warned about it.

The day was very nice though and after a couple of hours and a healthy sunburn we headed back to our hotel. On the way back we wanted to stop by the Gisenyi market because we had been recommended to do so. Not really knowing our way around Gisenyi we ended up walking around the entire city before reaching the market. It was a pretty sizeable market. I finally bought some wax. Wax is traditional African fabric that many people stereotypically think of women wearing when they think about Africa. I also got some regular fabric with zebras (pronounced zed-brahs) on it. I will hopefully get some cute things made of both of them at some point before I leave Rwanda. Afterwards we ended up going on an even lengthier trek through and about the town trying to get back to our hotel. It was raining and a while after the sun went down we gave up and stopped by another hotel to see if they could help us find our way. The hospitality of the people here never ceases to impress me. The receptionist at the hotel walked us all the way back to our hotel to make sure we found it. We actually we not too far away from it and would have eventually found it after some more wandering but the gentleman walked about 10 or 15 minutes out of his way to take us there. It was very sweet of him. By this point we were pretty worn out so we just went to dinner after freshening up and then headed to bed.

The next day we decided to go to a smaller town on the lake that is a popular fishing spot, Nyamyumba. This is also where the Bralirwa factory is. They produce the majority of beers consumed in the country. We took a taxi along the lake to Nyamyumba, about ten minutes away. When we got there we walked down to the ‘dock’. It was more just a shorefront where about 12 fishing boats were tied up. People were selling sugar cane, ibitoki (green banana), fish and a couple other items. A man came up to my friend and me and told us to come get on his boat so we gladly accepted. We paid the man 10,000 Rwf ($16.67) to take four of us on an hour-long boat ride around an island and to the other side of a large hill. The weather was perfect and it was really enjoyable. He pulled up around the side of the big hill and we saw about ten kids and younger adults playing right off the shore in one area as well as on the sand. I saw some smoke coming up and figured they were cooking something. Our boat captain pulled up on shore and told us to get out but as we did he pointed at the ground saying, “amaze shyushye.” That translates to hot water in Kinyarwanda. I still have to process the things said in Kinyarwanda a little slower than in English so I stepped off of the boat before I realized what he said. This realization coincided with putting my foot into the boiling hot water. Turns out that what I thought was smoke coming up from someone cooking was actually steam coming up from the head of the natural hot springs we were at! I had never been to a hot spring before so it was really exciting. The water was literally hot enough to cook a banana or an egg (we were told) and I believe it completely. There were a couple of pools that got less hot as you went towards the lake but even the water in the lake that touched the shore was pretty warm. Even standing on the mounds of sand between the pools of hot water, and most likely above more pockets of hot water, was almost too hot to bear and definitely too hot to stand on for more than a couple of seconds. I was really impressed at how some of the kids could sit in the shallow pools and splash the water over their bodies. After a couple of minutes our captain told us it was time to go so we went back around the hill and island to the fishing dock. After our little excursion we bought a stalk of sugar cane to share (100 Rwf or .17 for a 6 foot length) and headed to a restaurant for some fish.

While sitting at our table a woman brought a bucket of tilapia caught that morning to our table and let us pick out which one we wanted to eat. Each fish was 1,000 Rwf (US$ 1.67) and pretty well sized. She cleaned them for us and the restaurant cooked them for a charge of 300 Rwf (US$ .50). We munched on our sugar cane and ate pineapple while we waited for the fish. I bought the pineapple earlier in the day (also for 300 Rwf or US$ .50) from a woman walking around selling them and the restaurant cut it up for us.

If you have never eating sugar cane I should have you know it is a time-consuming, deliciously rewarding jaw exercise. Starting from one end, you have to get a pretty sturdy grip on the edge of the cane with your teeth and peel away a couple of outer layers to get to the inner sugary part. A cane usually has a one-inch diameter and a one-foot length has 3 or 4 segments to it. You go around the cane, a segment at a time, peeling the outer skin away bit by bit. This is no easy task and wears your mouth out pretty quickly. Inside this skin is the edible part of the cane. You bite off a chunk of the fibrous, juicy interior, chew it until you have sucked all the sugar out and then spit out what is left. Peeling a segment can take around ten or fifteen minutes, especially if you are pacing yourself, allowing your jaw to relax between peelings or just not a very apt eater of your cane. The rewards of you labor, sucking the sugar out, takes about five minutes. Needless to say, you put in a lot of work and depending on how much you like sugar cane, might not get much out of it. I personally find it delicious and really do not mind the extra work.

Additionally, I have found Rwandan restaurants to take a notoriously long time to prepare food. I am sure you have heard people joke about food taking so long because they have to plant the seed, harvest the produce, prepare it, etc. This joke applies to just about every establishment I have ever dined at here. The fact that our fish literally had to undergo every step of preparation asides from being caught should serve as an indicator of how long we had to wait. Also, unlike the Mexican restaurants that I miss so dearly, there is no Rwandan equivalent of chips and salsa and thus no free snacks to nibble on while you wait for your meal. I found that sugar cane is a perfect solution to this small inconvenience. Sugar cane really could take up an hour or so of your time while satisfying your hunger and keeping you from noticing the time it takes for your meal to come out.

It started raining halfway through our sugar cane munching so we moved inside to some couches where our food did eventually reach us. The fish was very well seasoned and absolutely delicious, very well worth the wait. I also really appreciated how cheap the meal was considering how delicious it tasted.

After eating we took a bus back to Gisenyi and waited for the big bus to leave, taking us back home to Kigali after a much-needed vacation.

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