Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Kigali, for a quasi-tourist, is somewhat of an enigma. You can certainly tell that the culture has not had to tolerate people from different cultures, and also that a large number of people have never lived or travelled anywhere else. It is very much an oral culture, a place where you know all that you need to know by living here. Everyone knows where everything is and how everything works. Although, frankly, not everyone has the same information, so someone is actually wrong! Many assumptions are made about foreigners, but especially that strangers cannot comprehend the things that are so evident to Rwandans. As I have mentioned before, the buses have no sign on the front to indicate their destination. This remains a mystery to me and I have to ask every time. Another example is that streets have names, but rarely will you see a street sign. This is very frustrating for a visitor who wants to know how to get to x or y or z.
People are somewhat bemused when they are asked where you can buy this or that. They will tell you that that kind of store or business or product is everywhere. But if you don’t speak or read the language, if you don’t know one road from another, if you don’t know all the landmarks, if you weren’t born here, how can you tell? And the Rwanda guide books are filled with mistakes. Even the tourism office is not always able to help. The last time I was there, I needed more information about something. I got vague information at first and when he saw I still didn’t understand the details of what I had to do, he explained a bit more. And finally, after a third stab, I had enough details to actually be able to follow through. At the tourist bureau! And the sad part of that is, they think tourists are stupid to need so many details! Ethnocentric, do you think?
A couple of weeks ago, Simone and I had a plan to visit Nyungwe National Forest, where there are several species of monkey troops as well as chimpanzees. The forest is large and you have to have a vehicle to be able to appreciate all the various aspects of the park, especially to track the chimps. Also, we wanted to make a few short side trips, to a cheese factory and to a coffee roasting business. I wanted to rent a car; not a car and driver, just a car.
I saw a sign (in English!) that advertised a Rav 4 at $50/day. I thought that sounded affordable. When I went in to inquire, it turned out that that price was for long-term rentals of more than two weeks. Furthermore, to rent a car for two days to go out of town, I needed to have a driver as well. Why, I asked, when I have been driving for over forty years, accident free, including in Paris, including on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in England? Why? Well, this is Africa, she responded. People could just drive away with a car to Burundi or Tanzania. In other words, steal it! And this is pretty much the status quo everywhere. Car plus driver for two days, between $200 and $300US. Yikes! How on earth do we manage in other parts of the world to keep theft from happening?
I googled car rentals at Kigali international airport. It listed Avis, Alamo, Hertz and some other companies as having services there. But trying to actually connect with one of them was impossible. In fact, I am skeptical that there are actually any there at all because none of them show Kigali or Rwanda as a location.
I googled car rentals in Kigali and up popped a map with dozens of downtown locations and decent prices, but we are back again to street names and business signs! As far as I have noticed, there is nothing recognizable to see, like perhaps a fleet of cars out front that might indicate you could rent a car there.
We have tapped into our friends, acquaintances and even strangers to try to figure out a way to rent a car without a driver without costing an arm and a leg. We have even stooped so low as to ask to borrow. Probably totally inappropriate, like asking a neighbor in France to borrow his lawnmower. (He mowed our lawn himself rather than let us touch it.) I am completely stymied. But I have not given up. Somehow, we will find a way, figure something out.
But meanwhile, it is somewhat frustrating. And to be fair, this society, though perhaps insular at some level, really works very well. Plus everyone is very helpful, always. If I sound a bit frustrated, well I am, but only because I have not yet cracked the code to the information I need. And I may never, and I will just have to learn to live with that.