Borderline Adventure of the Man of Many Hats

Dear readers and watchers,

Warm greetings from a simple man who does wear many hats… You have previously read about me as a founder in female clothes, learned about me as a lonely videographer and watched me as a dad deeply proud of the school his kiddos attend.

Primarily, however, I will be your tour consultant and organiser of experiences I worry nobody else could put together. My 20 years in the Gorilla Highlands region have simply exposed me to so much at so many different levels that I feel it’s my role to share…

Only Man on “That List”

Two days ago I sat on a moto — that’s what we call passenger motorcycles in Rwanda — with a huge backpack on my shoulders that packed many things, the strangest among them a weighing scale (more about it in the second installment). I was heading to my homeland Uganda for the first time in a full year, using a back door few other people attempt to open, when it dawned on me…

This is going to be an adventure.

People might enjoy following it.

I pulled one of my phones from the much smaller “frontbag” and began documenting… I opted for photography, not video, because my journey would include crossing the border and I wasn’t sure how well recording would be received there.

The white bus in front of us was my not-meant-to-be. I was shocked by the queue at the Musanze bus terminal; too many people seemed to want to travel north. Covid regulations had reduced the numbers of passengers allowed, the vehicles were probably fewer than they used to be because of the closure of the border — but I needed to be at Cyanika, a village on the border, by 7pm. I had called our man of the land there, Rukundo, who assured me that the post would be open until then … and that nobody was allowed to cross. But I had made some pre-arrangements that were hopefully going to work.

So I jumped on a bike. It’s a means of transport I honestly love, because of how free it feels. 30 minutes on the smooth tarmac road would be nothing to complain about. Then something odd happened. A police car was driving super slowly in front of us and the moto driver just wouldn’t overtake it! We proceeded like snails and I began to wonder about my photo project. Would I reach Cyanika in time to still catch some good light?

Thankfully the policemen-moto convoy didn’t last for more than 10 minutes. Eventually, they turned off the motorway for fuel or something, and all was good.

Before walking to the border barrier I took this selfie; the cap needed to be on my head because of the motorcycle — to stop virus transmission you are required to wear something under the helmet with no windshield.

I was impressed by the first border official’s willingness to be photographed. The policeman moved away after my request but the main man was totally cool. Maybe it helped that I used to pay a visit almost weekly in the normal times…

When he heard that I had obtained a special permission to use Cyanika he said, “Oh, so you are on that list.” He checked the printouts I came with (The List and my Covid test results) and welcomed me in.

I still had another step to do. The actual Rwandan border office. I braced for delays, questions, complications. None of that took place, at all. Just friendliness and professionalism.

The List that made all this possible was arranged by the Ugandan embassy. It spelled out Ugandan nationals like me who had been cleared by Rwanda to return home using land crossings. Everybody else was heading for Gatuna, the main post, but I wanted to take advantage of my proximity to Cyanika, its casualness and access to Kisoro, a Ugandan district close to my heart.

Why all this? Because Rwanda had limited its land borders to cargo traffic (truckers travel to their destinations supervised), which is one of the drastic measures that had kept it comparatively unaffected by the coronacrisis.

… And so, for the first time since March 2020, I stepped into Uganda. The white tent for ebola checks was still there but closed, of course. The Ugandan border official wore no mask. I was offered a boda boda (the moto equivalent) before I even officially entered.

The Local Riding Into the Night

Once outside of the border zone, negotiating the transport price, I was told by the locals to remove my mask (in the we-don’t-do-that-here way) but I kept it on. Just not for very long…

I always say to newcomers that few things demonstrate the differences between Rwanda and Uganda better than the moto/boda distinctions.

Rwanda:

  • motorcycle type that wouldn’t be practical for more than one client
  • strict usage of helmets for both people on the bike
  • relatively safe driving

Uganda:

  • as many people as humanly possible at the back and front of the motorcycle
  • blatant disrespect for laws that mandate helmets or limited use of one for the driver only (unless it’s Christmas and the police need some bribes to buy gifts for their wives)
  • road madness

In short, less than an hour after moving extra carefully behind a police car in Rwanda, I was driven at breakneck speeds into the night by a helmet-less youngster on rocky backroads in Uganda. I was home.

“Are you still coming?” was everything that my host wanted to know when I called. When had a late hour ever stopped me, ha ha?

I wasn’t paying attention to the road all the time — perhaps I was focused on staying on the bike? — but I was quite pleased with myself when I caught the driver’s error as soon as he took a wrong turn. “Don’t take me to Nelson’s place. I’m going to Lake Kayumbu, not Lake Chahafi, remember?” I felt like a local. (Nelson Mugisha is an investor who has built a fancy lodge in his birth area, a frequent advertiser in the booklet I publish.)

I guided my rider through the darkness to the second of the twin lakes and asked him to stop in the middle of nowhere. I walked on a narrow village path, my phone providing a little zone of light, to a Church house above Lake Kayumbu. I had made it.

Media Guy in Paradise

Gerald, an Anglican preacher, and Jackeline, a primary teacher, welcomed me to the humble home provided by his employer. The first thing I noticed in their little “living room” was a pile of bibles and the solar power system that runs the music gear at the Sunday service. I was positively surprised by the strong light and an opportunity to charge my gadgets.

The couple are the overnight hosts of our hikes that connect Lake Bunyonyi to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, the Rwandan border or Kisoro. I wanted to check on the facilities we had built on church land after a year of no business, to be ready for the Dutch group hiking in May.

There was some paradox in discussing how to obtain cold beer with a religious professional who isn’t allowed near alcohol. Not for me, I don’t drink either, but for the Dutch whose main requirement seems to be regular supply of iced hemp…

I felt a little uncomfortable showing up the way I did, hours after they expected me, but well aware of the local culture. I politely offered to continue my journey after dinner, to which Gerald laughingly replied: “You want to go to Kisoro at this hour? Don’t we always host your people?” I explained I didn’t come with a tent. He said: “Don’t your guides spend the night here without tents?”

Following a tasty meal of posho and beans — Gerald complained that I had not eaten enough — Jackeline brought papyrus mats, a thick mattress, crisp bed sheets and a light blanket to the tiny room. As an additional touch she installed a curtain giving me some privacy.

I felt blessed. This was going to be one of the simplest places I had ever slept, but with joy in my heart. There’s nothing like hospitality in an African village!

But I first had to post Marcus’s blog… Luckily for me they had installed a cell tower nearby and the 3G was shockingly decent. I was in fact in a special zone, with great connectivity from Rwanda allowing me to be in touch with my family there, and with my Ugandan internet bundle finally been put to good use — the monthly bundle I had been extending month after month since March 2020!

I woke up early, doing some more work on my iPad until the day began to dawn. Then I opened the door and … even though I knew what to expect I was still taken aback by the beauty! The sight of one tiny island straight in front of me, rising from a tiny lake with volcanoes on the horizon reminded me of those Instagram clips where a camera follows a pretty lady to some cool setting with incredible views.

It was suddenly obvious what I had to do for the upcoming Weekly Companion — a video story about this place and my hosts!

The story continues and ends in the Man of Many Hats Makes It Home at Last blog post…

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Responses

  1. Great read and amazing sunrise in the companion! Thanks for taking us virtually with you on the border crossing journey. I agree, your comparison with the moto/boda decribes the difference between Uganda and Rwanda very well 😉

    Also interesting that you have to wear something under the helmet to prevent spreading of the virus. I called with my brother in law the other day and was surpised that it was unheard in Austria to walk through a doormat filled with water at every entrance to prevent spreading the virus on your shoe soles. For me, living in Mexico, a normal thing doing since day 1 of the epidemic. Any more countries here doing such thing?

    1. How fascinating! The only time we did anything similar here was on country borders when ebola was a problem in Congo… Yeah, it’s usually a scarf under the helmet, the driver is supposed to disinfect it before you put on, and the visor is removed so that your breath doesn’t stay in.

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