A skinny white guy in a suit of some synthetic taupe-color material drops his pack on the seat next to me and gets back off. I’m immediately nervous. An abandoned bag can mean only one thing. It’s a bomb. Left next to the one American in the bus. It is how we think now isn’t it? Many last minute boarders with big bags. Where’s the guy? How could he know there’d be an American on this particular bus? He really didn’t look very al Qaeda-like; his suit jacket was that of a wine-sipping European and he was clean-shaven. Ah ha, a new disguise—spy first, then those other explosive duties as assigned. I report the bomb…I mean bag…to the bus driver. He looks at me oddly and says the man will be back because he has a ticket. Yeah, like that makes a difference. But he is back before anything blows up.
It’s raining and very green as we climb out of the valley and low hills of Kigali. We’re driving on good roads in a comfortable bus through banana plantations and orderly villages. The spy’s on his cell phone. He has dark lanky hair, sharp features and speaks softly; all I can hear from his language is that its foreign! When he opens his bag I see some clothes and books, no weapons of destruction—but hey I’m an American and we know to look for bombs everywhere. Maybe he’s a German spy…has a LeCarre look about him. He is texting a lot. The spy and I are in the front seat behind the driver—which I booked in advance, not considering the dangers lurking in the most innocuous of places. And I could not possibly know the bus driver would talk loudly and constantly to his assistant for the next six hours all the while driving as though pursued by demons–a ride worthy of Hollywood.
Cool. Rain. We keep climbing. I don’t eat or drink before long bus rides therefore eliminating the need to eliminate so I’m always comfortable. It is an uneventful ride to the border. Past fine houses in the hilly suburbs, tiny villages dotting the banana-growing hillsides, people walking, biking, always with bundles. Black children in blue uniforms in red schoolyards. Red mud-brick houses, blue-painted concrete storefronts, green and yellow bananas. Nice. Gauguin-esque.
In an hour or so we cross the border with little hassle. I haven’t gotten a visa in advance and am told I must get it at the tourism office when I reach Bujumbura. I cannot, I say, because I will return to Kigali too early. Then I must bring $20 and the paper the border official has just filled out in long-hand to this office on my way back. I agree. We smile.
Soon a stop but I haven’t changed money and I don’t have to pee so I don’t get out. Beautiful African urchins and their big brothers and sisters are selling candy, cookies, rolls, bags of rice and tins of oil, bananas, mangoes, papayas and loudly-objecting chickens.
The spy changes into a black t-shirt at the border and seems more relaxed, ready for a bit of conversation. Turns out he is Russian which is even more spy-like. He lives in Rwanda and works in computers. He claims. He’s coming to Buja to visit his friend, a French water systems manager. So he is a gay spy. Not very Bond-like…who would be the gay equivalent of Pussy Galore? Since my spy is an IT guy I ask for advice about my next communication device. He advises me to get a droid, not an I-phone. Says droids are the future. And he should know for god’s sake; he is, after all, a spy. He talks about his wife and kids in Russia. So he’s a bisexual spy. Wow.
Upon arriving in Buja and thanking Ivan or Serge or Vladimir or whomever for his valuable information, I take a cab to the Novotel because he said there are no ATMs in Buja but Novotel will take credit cards. I did not peruse or bring with me the Lonely Planet pages for Burundi. Where, in Buja, had I been better prepared, I could have had a fine hotel room for just a little cash.
Turns out this Novotel isn’t really a Novotel; the franchise has been cancelled undoubtedly due to its state of musty decrepitude. Besides rooms are more than $141 per night and they only take cash.
“Can you recommend a hotel that will take credit cards?”
“Maybe the Source of the Nile.”
“Where is that?”
“Just walk around the corner and up the street by the school.”
“Can you call them to see if they have a room?”
“I guess so.”
I feel a little less carefree then previously because of my temporarily worthless credit cards. However I am not a twenty year old who can sleep in any old corner on a dusty mat and make it an adventure so if I wind up at a luxury hotel I really can’t afford…it’s only for a night! I walk about three blocks past a park-like stretch to a fancily shabby and quite large hotel set back from the road in pleasant green surroundings. It is the Source of the Nile the sign announces.
“No, we don’t have any rooms.” Oh dear, I put on my tired little old lady face, well, actually it is already on, and say in my most basic English, “What do you think I should do? Where should I go?” An Egyptian flight crew is checking in, a rather demanding bunch…but my guy looks worried for me. Imagines I’ll just sleep on one of the lobby couches if he doesn’t do something and how would that look. “Wait, we’ll fix you a room.” Hundred plus on my AmEx but I’m happy. I motion that I will go and eat while they prepare the room.
At this moment it is 6pm in Bujumbura, Burundi and I am very happy. I did it. So I’m not Marco Polo but explorers come in all sizes, shapes and ages. All around me people are speaking Kirundi, French and Swahili; the words pour over me like afro pop without guitars. I am served une omelette parfait, browned nicely, not one of those nasty stateside omelets, all puffy outside and runny inside, with two glasses of fine red wine. I must be back at the bus by 9 am so I go to my room which is large and business-bare. I think it doubles as a meeting room in the day but it has a big sliding door and balcony, AC/fan and large flat-screen TV and I can look out at the mountains and the moon over Buja. A creamy sweet amarula is my celebratory nightcap. I have just enough Burundian francs to get to the bus in the morning and buy some kind of a souvenir before I board. Life is fine indeed.
Poolside for breakfast. First some really beautiful old guys come poolside, dressed in casual business clothes and discreetly, with the use of large towels, change into their trunks and leap happily into the water. They have noticeable pot bellies and sagging man-breasts, those universal accoutrements of aging, but it is true that the darker one’s skin the less visually distressing the aging process. Eventually some middle-age ladies in modest swimsuits join the guys. They all swim laps and chat and laugh and enjoy a warm rainy morning in the pool with friends. It has the feel of a Rotary club breakfast meeting and makes quite a charming tableau.
Breakfast includes trays of avocado-green avocados, thinly-sliced tomato-red tomatoes, translucent-white and green onions and cucumbers and fleshy orange papaya. Only the bread products are bad—how un-French-like. I consider the long bus ride ahead and only nibble.
At a nearby table Frenchmen are smoking, talking, smoking, eating, smoking, gesturing, smoking. Other side, another table, the Chinaman. This guy has been damaged by the infamous air of whatever Chinese city he is from. He coughs and hacks and chokes catching his germy mucus in the big white handkerchief. Cough, hack, spit into the hanky, flip flops flop loudly as he circles the food table; another Chinese guy joins him who looks embarrassed by the unsavory sounds of his companion. French and American pop music serenade us.
Breakfast over; it’s on to the bus station. What can I have for my remembrance of Buja? How about a shiny plastic bag with Barack on one side, Michelle and the girls on the other.
Home. My seat companion is African this time. We smile a lot at each other but cannot even share any words of French. She falls asleep slumped against me, but in African space it’s okay. And shares a cake with me later. Back to the neatness of Kigali. While Bujumbura isn’t quite as modern and spiffy looking as Kigali it is a fine African city I am pleased to have visited. I have learned some things; I’ll never make it as a writer of spy thrillers—my imagination just doesn’t extend to the part where there is actual sex and violence—and I know to get a droid when my cell phone contract expires in February. Oh yeah…and I have a NEW STAMP IN MY PASSPORT.