Kigali: City of a Thousand Hills… Argh

kigali_mapFor those of you keeping score at home, you’ve been rid of us for almost a week now, and you’re way overdue for some updates.

We’ve spent some hectic first days on basic logistics and just getting our bearings. Top of the list: cell phones, a bank account, and finding a rental house for the rest of our time here (we’re staying for the week in a house shared by a bunch of grad students and young expats working for the Clinton Foundation – they’ve been wonderful hosts and great company, but we need to be out of here by the weekend to make room for more of them). More about all that later – I already raved about the fact that cell phones actually work and make sense here (unlike the grotesque extortionist nightmare that is AT&T and Verizon back in the Upper Valley), and I’ll get back to the house and car bit later.

In addition to the time change, the altitude, and the language barriers, there are lots of little things to get used to as well: the absolute ban on drinking the tap water; the need for mosquito nets at night; the fact that there’s no ground prong on the power plugs, so your laptop has this unnerving permanent buzz whenever it’s plugged in and will give you a rather decent zap when the mood hits it. Or the oddly random speed bumps that have some serious attitude – hit them too fast, and they’ll obliterate you and your car.

Speaking of which, we’ve been lucky enough to borrow a friends’ car for the week, which has helped us get around and get stuff done. But five days behind the wheel here has also led me to realize that Kigali is perhaps the single most confusing city I’ve ever tried to navigate. There aren’t really any landmarks where you need them the most; the (well paved and extremely clean) roads wind their way up and down hills in a way that’s sure to quickly lose you your bearings – and because you’re always surrounded by hills, it’s hard to get a sense of where you are in relation to anything else at any given point. Add to that the fact that everything is spread out across lots of neighborhoods with no real city center and an almost complete lack of street signs, road names, or directions, and you’ve got a recipe for some challenging driving. Oh, and did I mention that to a novice foreigner like me, a lot of the names sound the same in the thick of things when asking for directions in bad French from a stranger who only speaks Kinyarwanda? We’re in the ‘hood called Kacyiru, not to be confused with Kicukiro south of us; the kids’ school is in Kimihurura, which is nowhere near Kimironko where we’ll be grocery shopping when we move next week? Lots of directions are given using landmarks you’re just assumed to know (“so, take a left at the ministry of defense, follow that dirt road past the place with the great fried chicken, and…”)

The upshot is, you’re more or less lost all the time, and yet you need to always be on top of your game and assertive, otherwise one of the speeding and madly overloaded lorries or packed minibuses or insane motorbike taxis will make your lane their lane or force you out of the traffic circle like it’s no big deal. It’s all quite tiring and exhausting, and I can’t wait to get out of the city tomorrow afternoon when we head out to Lake Kivu for three days.