Rwanda – “Land of a thousand hills”

And a thousand hills indeed. Crossing the border from Uganda clearly felt like crossing into another country. The scenery turned greener, the hills more magnificent in height. We ascended and the air was far less dusty and smelled of pine and other conifers which dotted the hills. In each valley the fields were flooded with tea bushes. 

Tea bush fields - Rwanda

Tea bush fields - Rwanda

(Coffee accounts for 75% of exports here followed by tea and an ingredient for making permethrin, which is used in mosquito-proofing clothes and bed nets.) The roads were paved and smooth, and I watched the landscape and people as we wound through the hills on our way to the capital Kigali, a city of about 600,000 people.

 

 

Rwandan countryside seen from bus window

Rwandan countryside seen from bus window

 

 

 

The clock goes back an hour, so we arrived at 7:30pm. From the bus ride, Matt called the Hotel Mille des Collines for the next two nights. We hired a taxi to take us there and arrived looking like we were on a bus for 11 hours. Were we shocked when we arrived at the hotel. It had been renovated since the tour book we read and was a 4 star hotel as we found out. Foreigners abound and I felt like I had left Africa when I walked in. Kinyarwanda and French are the main languages here though many speak French. The staff at the front desk literally started laughing at us when we told them how we arrived. One thing I have to give to French speakers as frustrating as it is for me is that they can be as proud about their language as English speakers. Many foreign hosts in my travel experiences practically apologize when their English is bad, but not French speakers. Although it was annoying at first, I accepted the subtle disdain the staff had given our English-only language skills.

 

It was clear most guests flew in on the fancy Brussels Airlines and had private hires bring them to the hotel. After making fun of the Ugandan shilling (it has the lowest value of any currency in East Africa), they then declined changing our shillings into francs (they only would exchange Euros and US dollars). However, one of the staff felt “sorry” for us so he cut us a deal on a hotel room, which I shudder (sp?) to think about what the regular price would have been given how expensive it still was.

 

More on the history of the hotel as told by Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_des_Mille_Collines):

“The Hôtel des Mille Collines is a large hotel in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. It became famous as the building in which more than a thousand people took refuge during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The story of the hotel and its manager at that time, Paul Rusesabagina, was used as the basis of the film Hotel Rwanda. The French ‘des Mille Collines’ (‘of a thousand hills’) is another (poetic) name for Rwanda. The real hotel does not actually appear in the film which was largely shot in South Africa. The hotel does however appear as itself in the 2005 HBO film Sometimes in April which was shot on location in Rwanda.

The Belgian airline Sabena owned the hotel at the time of the genocide. The European managers were flown out and Rusesabagina, manager of the smaller Hôtel des Diplomates at that time, was made manager. With the help of his wife he bribed the Hutu Interahamwe militia with money and alcohol to keep them from killing the refugees in the hotel. He also managed to provide the refugees with food and water.”

Matt and I grabbed a delectable buffet dinner at a restaurant across the street named “Chez Robert.” The food, much of it local dishes, proved to be excellent. In good French form, painstaking details was paid to preparation, presentation, and delivery. I felt awkward that my experiences in Rwanda so far were comfortable. Great roads, nice hotel, wonderful food, but this is how it started.

 

Our breakfast and vista the next morning was unforgettable. 

View from the breakfast table - Hotel des Mille Collines

View from the breakfast table - Hotel des Mille Collines

 Not only did the open air dining room overlook the city during the sunrise, the breakfast-included spread included imported Belgian cheese, amazing croissants and pain au chocolate, crepes, NUTELLA!, juices, fruits, other cheeses, meats, etc. Basically, it was out of control. Well fed, Matt and I prepared for the more somber part of the day. Since the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre did not open until 10, we changed money at forex bureau and then headed to a craft market first.

 

 

 

 

Since none of banks here take international ATM cards, the money-changers have a field day. Matt bargained hard for us to get reasonable exchange rates. These were some shrewd guys, and a heated exchange took place but we compromised eventually. We took a taxi to the craft market getting 2 things each and discussed with the taxi driver (who was Ugandan) about his time here in 1994. He found safety but remembered the bodies strewn about the streets in the capital especially.

 

It was hard to picture that. This country had the appearance of the North Island of New Zealand with the good transportation infrastructure of a place like Costa Rica. People seemed extremely friendly. My expectations for here were being changed quickly. My entry on the genocide memorial follows in the next post.

 

After we can back to the hotel, we read and talked by the pool. 

HdMC pool

HdMC pool

Dinner tonight ended up being wonderful French fare at a steal of a price. We went to the New Cactus which overlooked part of the city. The ambience, service and meals were fabulous. Why don’t more people come to Rwanda we thought.

 

 

That night we walked back to the hotel on a well-lit, well-paved street knowing well it was safe by international standards. We walked to a supermarket inside of the fanciest mall I have seen in East Africa to date and entered the very busy Nakumatt, a Kenyan-based supermarket that I particularly like. After we walked out, we then walked around the nicest coffee café I have seen in East Africa. It even took credit cards. For all I know, we could have been in a fancy part of the U.S. It felt so odd.

 

After a good night’s rest and operation amazing breakfast part 2, we checked out of the hotel, walked past a gas station playing classical music, and hopped onto 2 boda-boda without needed to heckle for the price. The boda-boda drivers here wear helmets, vests, and give passengers a helmet to wear. They basically drive the opposite of Ugandan boda-boda drivers!

 

One can still see the scars of the genocide. Missing limbs, scars were present on some. The poverty in Kigali did not seem as apparent as in Uganda and certainly Kenya, but I assume it lurks outside the city. I was here for such a short time and talked with too few people as a result. I did not know what to expect in Rwanda, but I did not remotely expect to have the experiences we did. Some of the Ugandans said they there is less corruption in Rwanda, part of the reason the roads are so well-maintained and infrastructure continually gets better. According to some Ugandans with whom I spoke, Rwandans have limited freedom of speech on the radio and papers in Rwanda, a vestige of curbing the anti-hate messages conveyed through these media during the genocide. We can only hope that peace and prosperity continue to flourish here in a country the world forgot, in a region so volatile right now. I urge everyone to consider going here at some point if they can. The famed national parks, Kigali city, and most importantly, the education given at the genocide memorial would make for a multifaceted trip and probably some good economic stimulation for a place looking well towards the future while remembering its past.

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One Response to “Rwanda – “Land of a thousand hills””

  1. Ingina y'Igihanga Says:

    Oh, finally got to it I think.

    You certainly didn’t mix much, you’d’ve seen more friendliness. You’d also have seen that that lurking poverty is not necessarily there, on the general AFRICAN standards.

    That bit about freedom of speech is classical Western stereotyped baggage you brought from USA, it’s not something you observed ON THE GROUND. Say you do not agree with me!

    II, Kigali

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