Sunday, January 14, 2007

Travels in Africa: my return trip from Dakar, Senegal to Bukavu, DR Congo

This is how it should have gone: arrive at Dakar airport at approximately 14:00h, in plenty of time to check in for 16:40h flight. Take Kenya Airways flight KQ 513 from Dakar to Nairobi, arriving Nairobi at 05:40h on Saturday morning. Leave Nairobi at 08:00h and arrive in Kigali, Rwanda at 08:25h (Rwanda is one hour behind Kenya), in plenty of time to take the 11:30h flight down to Cyangugu, where the office car would pick me up at 12:05h and take me across the border – allowing me a comfortable day and a half to recover from the trip and get my head together in time to arrive at the office refreshed at 08:00h on Monday morning.

No such luck! This is what actually happened:
Arrived at Dakar airport in 45 minutes, at 13:30, because there was less traffic than expected. Hadn’t had time to think about lunch. On checking-in found that flight was delayed until 21:30. Had already given away remaining CFA (west-African currency) so had no cash to buy food or even think about returning to town; Kenya Airways did not provide any refreshments for waiting passengers. Seats in the departure lounge were metal, and very uncomfortable. The flight finally commenced boarding at around 22:30 and we were airborne by 23:30. Seats were unassigned (after all the effort I had made to ensure I got an aisle seat close to the front!). We were served an indifferent meal at midnight. Wanted to sleep, but after 45 minutes the plane landed in Bamako (Mali), where it stayed for another 45 minutes, lights full on, systems revving noisily – impossible to sleep. At 09:00 Senegal time, midday in Kenya, we landed in Nairobi, without the benefit of breakfast, which had been cancelled for some obscure reason related to the previous delays. I had missed my connection to Kigali, and also the further connection to Cyangugu.

At Nairobi airport there’s a woefully under-staffed service desk where people go to check in for their next flight if they’re in transit, or to sort out messes like mine (and almost everyone else on my flight). I spent over three hours at the service desk, waiting for someone to figure out which flight they would put me on to get to Kigali, and what to do about the fact that the Sunday flight to Cyangugu had been cancelled and there wouldn’t be another one until Tuesday. Having enjoyed one small meal in the previous 24 hours, and a mere three or four hours sleep (no Maggie Thatcher, me!), I was expecting to keel over at any minute. Some intelligent person decided they’d best put me up in a hotel overnight and send me on my way to Kigali the following day. Once that was decided, I then had to go through immigration (Kenya Airways paid the $20 transit visa fee and I breezed through), and make my way downstairs to the airline’s hotel accommodation desk and wait in line again. When the young woman asked for my boarding pass for the following day’s flight (required before a hotel room voucher could be issued), which I didn’t have, and then told me I needed to go back upstairs, through immigration to the departure concourse, to the service desk to get one, I knew that I’d reached my limit of physical and mental endurance. “I haven’t eaten anything for over twelve hours, I’ve had only three hours sleep, and I think I’m going to faint” I told the woman in desperation. Fortunately she was sympathetic and there wasn’t a crowd waiting for assistance, so she told me to sit down, conjured up a box of hot, juicy chicken, grabbed my ticket, and went off to do battle at the service desk far more efficiently than I could have done. About half an hour later, boarding pass and hotel voucher in hand, I went out to board the hotel bus. I was more tired than ever, and when I discovered an empty bus that was not going to move until it was full (about two hours away), I burst into tears from sheer exhaustion. Once again I was rescued by a sympathetic person - this time the bus driver, who went off to make whatever arrangements he needed to make, and then returned to drive me, the sole passenger on the bus, to the hotel on the highway halfway between the city and the airport. On the way the driver did his best to cheer me up by pointing out the giraffe family in the park outside the airport, and I cheered up thinking how wonderful it was to see giraffes and to be in Kenya, where everything was looking unusually green after all the rain, and knowing I’d soon be in the luxurious Panari hotel and could order a pot of good Kenyan tea, which I knew would automatically be served with milk, unlike in Senegal where milk is an unusual request.

Soon after 16:00 (four hours after landing!) I was settled into an eighth floor room with extensive views towards Nairobi city center in one direction, and flat parkland in the other, running a hot bath, enjoying the tea, and grateful that I’d put a change of underwear and clean shirt in my carry-on back-pack, as my suitcase was still at the airport. At 07:00 the next morning a mini-bus picked up me, and a small group of other passengers, to take us back to the airport. The place was jam-packed with people of all colors and nationalities waiting in lines all over the place. Fortunately I didn’t need to check in again, so stood in the immigration line, which moved with unexpected efficiency. The same efficiency was not in evidence back at the service desk, where I’d been told to go and collect my $100 compensation from Kenya Airways to help me get from Kigali to Cyangugu (not enough to cover the actual cost, as it turned out), and where the long line promised another three-hour wait and the certainty of another missed flight. So I went right to the front of the line and asked, as loudly as I could, for the duty manager, and asked him for the money I was owed for my delayed and cancelled flights. For anyone who knows me, you’ll know that I never jump queues, but at that point if I’d stood in line again I really would have missed my flight to Kigali, and not having any cash on me I really had no other option. After another half-hour or so of waiting, someone from the finance office finally showed up to give me a crisp $100 bill and a waiver form to sign – no getting any further compensation out of them! After a quick stop at the duty free shop (where they take credit cards) to pick up chocolates, Kenyan macadamia nuts, and the latest Alice Walker and Scot Turow novels, I headed for gate 4 from where the Kigali flight always leaves. Expecting to come across at least one person I knew, I was not disappointed. As I walked slowly through the departure lounge looking around at the mix of faces, someone called out my name – my boss’s partner. And I was lucky, because she knew it would cost me more than $100 to go by taxi down to Cyangugu, and she gave me another crisp $100 bill before we landed in Kigali.

As soon as I was through immigration I switched on my mobile and called Ezra, the most reliable Kigali taxi driver I know. My luck was in, and he was available for the long drive. He was there at the curbside within 10 minutes and we headed into town, first to change those crisp bills into Rwandan francs, and then to fill up on gas. It was close to a year since I’d made that drive from Kigali down to Butare and I enjoyed it as always. Rwanda’s rolling hills were greener than ever after a strong rainy season – unlike the same time last year – and the familiar countryside was restful on the eyes. After a couple of hours we arrived in Butare, my old “ home town”, and stopped at the Ibis Hotel for lunch and to hand over gifts sent from Rwandans in Senegal to a friend in Butare. Christopher, who works with IRC in Bukavu, found me there at the Ibis. He’d also come down from Kigali by taxi, and was waiting for the IRC car to meet him in Butare and then take him the next 3-hour segment of the drive. He invited me to join him, so I told the happy Ezra he could head off back to Kigali. And then Christopher and I waited, and waited. Turned out the IRC car had left Bukavu a couple of hours later than it should have, and also had a flat tire on the way. It finally showed up at 16:00 – by which time we knew there was no way we would reach Cyangugu in time to make it across the border which closes every day at 17:00. That would be my third night on the journey since leaving Dakar. We made a brief stop in Gikongoro to get the tire fixed, enough time for me to call my Dutch friend Doutsen who came to chat for ten minutes before we set off for the drive through Nyungwe forest. Towards the end of the drive the mist moved in, it grew dark, and the way to Cyangugu seemed longer than ever. Eventually we got there, and drove up to the entrance of the Peace Guest House (run by the Anglican church in Rwanda). Dinner, an omelet for me, fish brochette for Christopher, took the usual hour or so to arrive, and I was instantly missing the excellent fast “fast” food available all over Dakar. My bed for the night felt cold and damp compared to the comfortably cool, dry nights in Dakar. We skipped breakfast in the morning, had no trouble crossing the border – no bribes requested, nobody checked our health documents, nobody asked to look through our luggage – and I arrived at my office by 09:20 Monday morning, just about two days later and much more tired than planned!

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