Serenity Now, please.


When we last heard from the intrepid L clan they were in Nyungwe National Forest in Southwestern Rwanda. Here is the second part of their sordid tale, complete with car chases (not really), explosions (lame ones at best) and romantic dining in the dark (nope).

Nyungwe National Forest is no day trip. You need somewhere to stay to pull off a visit, and there are really only four options: the ultra-swanky spa-cum-Lodge, running several hundred bucks a night per person; the slightly more affordable Top View Hotel, which gets very mixed reviews; the even more modestly priced (but still not cheap) Gisakura Guest House; and finally a bunch of slightly sketchy (but downright affordable) just-pitch-your-tent-here options in and around the park.

And then there’s the Mission at Kibogora. About an hours’ drive on the other side of the park, overlooking Lake Kivu, the mission was founded in the 40s by methodist ministers, later grew to support a sizable hospital, and has recently added the beginnings of a medical school/university sort of thing. The compound has room for dozens of visitors and is used partly for visiting missionaries and doctors, partly as a guest house for retreats and the occasional stray traveler like us. It is a magical place, complete with two adorable puppies, stunning views of lake Kivu, and a peace and serenity that is pretty blissful when you’re coming from the awful hustle and bustle of Kigali.

Getting there is a production, however, particularly in the dark. The directions we were given went something like: “follow the crappy dirt road, then take a left on a narrow, even crappier dirt road, continue on that until even the dirt gives out, then keep going a bit and knock on the gate.” Those directions were pretty much spot on, but we still had our doubts with every turn. You’re not going to stumble across this place by accident, but it is so definitely worth the schlep once you get there.

Comfy beds, decent food, great company – and did I mention puppies? Waking up to the sunrise over the the lake was inspiring and rejuvenating – the best way to start a day in Rwanda. For those who are religiously inclined, there may be even more to it than that, but I wouldn’t know about such things.

One small fly in the oitment, though: we were running out of gas in the worst way. See, our ancient RAV4 comes with four-wheel drive, no AC, hand-cranked windows, and a gas tank the size of a toddler’s bladder. It’s a ridiculous thing – 40 liters or so, which doesn’t last long with our oversized truck tires and five people on board. After the first day of hiking, we had cruised back to the mission on fumes and little else. Not a gas station in sight the whole way. Fear not: the good people at the mission had assured us that they had gas they could sell us. The plan was for us to head back to Nyungwe, do a second day of hiking in the national park, and then go home to Kigali from there. So, I got up at the crack of dawn and tracked down Innocent, the chief mechanic, to inquire about the purchase of 30 liters of gas to get us all the way to Butare. Innocent, a sweet old guy who seemed to know what he was talking about, looked at our car and assured me that as soon as he was done with morning prayers, he’d get right on it. He prayed, I paid (a little above market price, but, that was just fine for the service of getting gas when we needed it most), and back he came, accompanied by a sidekick lugging two full jerry cans. And into our tank went 30 liters of…. well, yes. This is where the story takes a sad and melancholy twist, because what he so carefully poured through his sock-lined strainer was in fact diesel. That’s not a good thing to do to a gasoline engine, and when Lucas started up the car a little later (the best part of his day), the engine turned over happily for about 30 seconds before it simply faded out. And then adamantly refused to do anything at all.

I headed off to retrieve Innocent. He took one listen to the car and instantly diagnosed the problem. Diesel in places where decent diesel shouldn’t be. Yes, yes. Thankfully, Julie, the  cheerful acting head of the mission is pretty resourceful, and she assured me that a) this sort of thing had happened before (in hindsight I’m not sure why that was supposed to be reassuring, really), b) that Innocent knew how to fix it, and c) that we’d be good as gold in a couple of hours. That scenario would throw our plans to go back to the park and hike for the day, however, so Julie arranged for a driver to take us back to the park in one of the mission’s cars where he’d wait, and then someone else would drive our car to the park to meet up with us once the diesel had been exorcised from the fuel lines. Piece. Of. Cake. What could possibly go wrong?

Off we went to the park, trying to ignore that we were leaving our car behind in the back of beyond. We had an ugly nasty no good terrible encounter with the penny pinching asshat from hell at the Nyungwe Visitor’s Center (see earlier), had some fun doing the vastly overpriced canopy walk, and returned in time to have lunch and cheer at the good news that our car was basically ready and would be heading out momentarily to meet us. Excellent.

Five minutes later, Julie was back on the phone. Small snag hit. Apparently, our car wasn’t going anywhere after all, because it had, well… caught on fire when they tried to start it, and things that shouldn’t have, had, well… melted. Apparently, when purging diesel from a gasoline engine (and this really truly happens more often than one would think), the custom in these parts is to use acetone to clean things up. There’s no doubt about it: acetone is awesome stuff and will clean pretty much anything off anything else. But it is also incredibly amazingly marvelously flammable stuff, and if you’re careless enough to leave even a tiny bit of it floating around the engine when you try to fire it up, it may well fire up a little more than you had bargained for.

The mechanics’ adventure in pyrotechnics had stranded us in the national park, a solid five hour drive from Kigali. It was coming up on two in the afternoon, so even a best case scenario would barely have us back home before dark. But our car was presently a full hour away in the opposite direction, apparently smoldering like a not-so-extinct volcano, and definitely not going anywhere fast. Even more problematic: most of our stuff was still sitting in the car, since we’d opted not to bring it in with us to the park in the loaner car.

Innoncent would fix our car, Julie promised, it would just take a while. In the meantime, the mission would send out a car with our stuff, and then Silas – the driver who had taken us to the park in the first place and was still there patiently waiting – would drive us back to Kigali. He would also be given money to buy spare parts – apparently a bunch of wires and the RAV4’s air filter had perished in the conflagration in the engine room.

By three pm we were on the road to Kigali, stopping only in Butare for some “fast food,” which in perfect Rwandan form ended up being handmade sandwiches that for no apparent reason took half an hour to produce. Sunset in this part of Africa is regular as clockwork: Dusk starts at about ten to six, and half an hour later it’s pitch black. There’s a reason why most NGOs and the US Embassy have a “no driving outside the city after dark” policy: between the trucks with no lights, the invisible bicyclists and pedestrians plying the sides of the main roads at all hours, and the occasional pot hole that could have its own zip code, you’re going to have a bad time. Silas was driving us in the head of the Kigobora mission’s nice Land Cruiser, so perhaps he was just being exceptionally careful, but his way of dealing with all the new challenges on the road was almost as painful as reckless driving. Every time a car, truck, or bus approached in the opposite direction, he’d pull over and stop. Completely. That did little to improve our time, and the two hour run from Butare to Kigali ended up taking almost four hours. But to his credit Silas got us home in one piece, and along the way news had trickled in from Kibogora that our RAV4 hadn’t fared as badly as initially feared – apparently, no spare parts would be needed from Kigali after all, so after spending the night with his son in town, Silas would just head back to Kibogora, spend the night there, and then drive our car all the way to Kigali. Poor guy.

And that is in fact what happened. Silas showed up with the RAV4 two days later, and while it would be far fetched to claim that the paint melted off the hood or the gaudi-esque new shape of the once square air filter compartment compliments the crappy old tub in any way, shape or form, it’s really only marginal damage. It runs just as well (or poorly) as before, and given the amount of hassle the good people at the mission went through to mitigate the disaster, I’m perfectly ready to forgive and forget.

‘Twas an adventure, no doubt, great stuff to tell around the camp fire back home, but perhaps one that we could have been without given the already overwhelming amount of deal-with-it-ness we’re facing day to day.

(Yes, for those of you who were wondering or had no clue, this is the reference in the title. The American equivalent of a “classic” quote).