A Brief Encounter
Tuesday 11
th October 2011

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We woke up naturally this morning without an alarm or any reason to jump out of bed but when we checked the time it was only 6am! Our first opportunity for a proper lie-in and we were up with the bloody lark!

Wide awake we decided we may as well start the day and headed over to the restaurant for breakfast. We began with their juices. They had some really interesting choices on offer so I just had to try them all. The bright red tree tomato juice looked the most tempting but it was too bitter, then the creamy green avocado juice was surprisingly too bland, the spicy "tropical" fruit juice was an improvement but it was the passion fruit juice that was absolutely delicious.

We moved on to breakfast. All the constituent parts of a full English were kept warm in the silver buffet trays. Each had their own individual utensil which cheered me up. The highlight were what they called "hash browns" but they were more like a potato cake and they were better for it. They were so delicious we went back for a second helping.

Fed and juiced we relaxed around our room for a while to allow things to process (if you know what I mean.)

With a weight off our minds we were ready to explore Gisenyi. Our first "experience" happened the moment we stepped outside the hotel's gates as we were approached by a couple of street hawkers.

One guy was selling "Good masks from the Congo - good price" another was selling a voodoo shamen stick which he shook vigourously in our faces to demonstrate. We refused to fall under its spell and we turned them both down.

We were relieved that they politely resigned themselves to not getting a sales from us. There's nothing worse than being persistently hassled.

Free of their attention and guided by a basic map in our Bradt guide book we crossed the Avenue de Independence towards a small visitors information office inside the Centre Culture de Gisenyi.

There wasn't much information to be had but the staff were helpful and directed us towards the centre of town aided by a photocopied google map.

As we orientated ourselves a group of basket laden ladies walked past. I raised my camera towards them and gestured "Photo?" They smiled cheerfully but then rubbed their thumb and index finger together to gesture "show us your money".

As interesting as they looked I didn't reach into my pocket. I just waited until they passed and took a photo of them from behind instead! (Was that wrong?)

Next we followed a couple of people taking a short cut across a grass wasteland. Thankfully they were going towards the town centre and not just home.

According to the map we should have met Rue de L'Industrie. If we were expecting a road then we were sadly mistaken. We turned onto Avenue du Marche.

"Are you sure we're going the right way?" questioned Julie.

"It must be right" I answered trying not to look like I didn't really know. It didn't feel like an "avenue", it was more of a wide dirt track impasable in anything but an all-terrain vehicle.

Still I continued to stride confidently up hill; Julie followed.

We weren't alone in walking up the hill. There were plenty of other people also striding confidently. We were certainly a novelty to most. Everyone one stared at us with great curiosity, some expressionless giving nothing away, others laughed openly at us.

After the earlier incident I felt less inclined to photograph people so I went for inanimate objects instead, although there wasn't much to see along here.

Halfway up there was a budget hotel called Mostej which looked tidy enough and a little further up, having navigated a crossroads with our Bradt guide map we aimed for a cafe called Iby' Iwacu Cafe Resto. The promise of an ice cold drink was spurring us through all the sweaty uphill effort but when we got there our heads dropped when we saw the shutters were down.

In fact it looked like it had closed down for some time. We moved on thirsty past a tiny booth with a Manchester United crest on the door which made me smile.

We reached the end of the road which felt like the centre of town. It looked very different.

There was a tarmac road lined with cubed storefronts, shiny new cars, street lights and several banks protected by crash barriers and armed security guards. It look like Anytown USA if it wasn't for the huge Nyarangongo volcano to the North.

We looked up and down the road and decided that down hill was the more attractive option. It also meant we could probably complete a loop returning back to the hotel.

There wasn't much in the way of shopping opportunities for the tourist looking for that Rwandan souvenir, which for me made it a better experience.

In fact there wasn't much in the way of shopping for the locals either. They seemed to be more business premises than stores.

We did stop at a convenience store called the Remember Shop for a much needed ice cold bottle of water and a little further down we did come across a gift shop.

It was called La Copabu. We decided to pop inside and have a look at what they had on offer.

Their small room was filled to the rafters with local handcrafts like woven baskets, carved mahogany figures (including gorillas naturally) and along the top shelf were a row of bongo drums. The floor was filled with more stuff in boxes.

In fact it was so full we could hardly get in. I think much of the stock was to be displayed outside but they hadn't quite opened up yet.

Some 'milk jars' and 'beer jugs' similar to those we had seen at the Royal Palace in Nyanza caught our eye.

So we squeezed past the excess stock and took a closer look. There were no prices on them so we asked the shop assistant and she wrote the figure down on a piece of paper.

They were more expensive than we expected but for 5000 RwFr we did buy a small one. She seemed very pleased and grateful for our purchase, which was sweet.

Back out on the street we continued downhill briefly. There didn't appear to be much of interest further along except for a prison.

Rumour has it that warlord Laurent Nkunda accused of crimes against humanity is being held somewhere in Gisenyi. Back in 2008 when Julie and I were originally meant to visit Rwanda conflict erupted in North Kivu in the Congo where the Tutsi/Hutu hatred resurfaced as rival rebels fought for control. A humanitarian crisis developed in Goma the town which is one with Gisenyi seperated only by the border. Rwanda almost got dragged into another war on Congolese soil as they were accused supporting Nkunda.

All this was a reminder that peace in this region will always be a precious and fragile commodity.

 We decided not to walk past the prison chosing instead to re-trace our steps back towards the centre of town. Coming at it from this direction we noticed the entrance to a colourful local market. They're always fascinating places to visit and this was no exception.

Everything the residents of Gisenyi needed was here, fruit, vegetables, pots, pans, shoes, clothes, even electrical items like televisions and surround sound speakers. So this is where all the shopping happened!

Amongst it all there was even someone having their hair styled. (or were they just nit picking?)

We browsed down the electrical aisle then after the reconditioned toasters we turned into the clothing department inside a covered area. Menswear had loads of replica replica football shirts for me whilst ladies fashion had plenty to interest Julie.

She liked the idea of buying a colourful wrap around but the long swathes of bright fabrics were over 6 metres long.  I'm not too sure if we had strayed into haberdashery.

We would have looked stupid trying to work out how to wear it like a sari when in fact they were curtains!

We looped around, past the handbag stall and popped back outside into the fishmongers. We could smell the foul stench before we saw the unappetising sun-drying fish. Julie heaved heavily. We had to almost run past holding our breath to reach some fresh air up wind of it.

There was an abundance of fruit and vegetables available. A testimony to all the hard work we've seen all over the beautiful countryside. It was also by far the liveliest part of the market. And not one plastic carrier bag in sight!

We left the market without buying anything but took away with us a great experience.


It was time for us to head back down towards the lake. Continuing our return leg we walked back down the "wide dirt track" du Marche.

Halfway down, when we reached the Mostej Hotel it became a lot busier with school children streaming out of the Paroisse Stella Maris church.

Their ages ranged from teenagers to five year olds. They we all absolutely fascinated by Julie and I.

A few of the older and bolder ones came up to us and shook our hands, one or two others sneaked a quick touch of my arm against my tattoo as they brushed past.

They appeared to have released them from school in order of age as the closer we got to the school the younger they were getting.

Just outside the gates we were joined by a small group of five/six year old girls. They all said "Hello" and we replied. They were walking our way, downhill, so they tagged along.

Every time we turned to look at them they would smile coyly and turn all giggly. They were so charming.

Within a minute I suddenly felt a small hand slip inside mine. It took me by surprise and I jumped. She let go but then returned. I didn't know what to make of it!

It felt very odd walking down the street holding the hand of a six year old girl.

I gently released myself from her grip, smiling all the while as not to upset her and I instinctively patted her on her shaved head. She smiled.

They were all heading towards the short cut across the wasteland so we took the opportunity to go our seperate ways.

Before we did however I asked them all if I could take their photograph. They all declined except for my number one fan who happily posed for me.


I showed her the image on the screen and she held her hands to her face and ran off laughing!

We waved goodbye. I wished I had asked her name. It was such a lovely encounter, one that we'll remember for a long time.

We continued on our way down to the tarmac road where we came across a very grand house. Set in it's own walled grounds it stretched down towards the lake.

"If we win the lottery we'll buy it." I said "That would make a lovely boutique hotel!"

We later discovered (after asking Eric) that it was the house of Rosemary Carr. She moved to Rwanda in 1949 with her husband and worked on (then later owned) a flower plantation not far from Gisenyi.

She became a good friend of Diane Fossey.

During the genocide in 1994 she was forced to leave but she returned as soon as she could. Seeing the scale of devastation she set up the Imbabazi Orphanage to care for the children who had lost everything.

She died in 2006 aged 94 but her orphange continues today.

We walked back towards the Serena hotel along the sandy strand of public beach that ran in front of Rose Carr's house. The only people taking advantage of the lake shore were local children jumping into the water off a small concrete jetty.

Back at the hotel we were back just in time for Julie's appointment for a manicure at the hotel's "spa". She was gone two hours and when she returned she was less than impressed.

"That was extremely tedious" she moaned.

She spent the two hours mostly in silence as Julie clearly didn't know any Kinyarwandan and the manicurist spoke only limited English. Although Julie did work out that she was originally from Uganda and that she had been trained once by Elemis.

The "spa" was just a standard bedroom with the bed replaced with a massage table. The headboard was still stuck on the wall! Instead of having relaxing ambient music the therapist had the television on watching a French language film. It was a really poor attempt. Adding insult to injury she even didn't like the colour her nails were painted.

"It was the best they had" she complained.

We had a late lunch. Julie really enjoyed her chicken brochettes but I had to add a little Akabanga to my toasted vegetable sandwich to spice it up a little.

"Woagh that's hot!" I said to the waiter who came to collect our plates.

"Yes it is hot, even the Indians think it's too hot!" he replied.

We both looked at each other asking "Did he just say that?"

With nothing else to do we opted for a siesta and retired to our room.

When we woke up the sun had set and Lake Kivu shimmered with a silver glow. It was beautiful and so peaceful, especially as we were the only people out.

We sat down on some chairs just off the beach and looked across to the Congo. The mountains on the other side of the lake were some distance away but the twinkling lights of Goma were only a five minute walk away.

It was hard to contemplate the disparity between where we were sat and the conditions only a few hundred metres away.

The gap widened even more when the staff at the hotel asked us if we would like a fire lit to keep us warm and if we would like anything to drink.

They set up a charcoal fire, drenched it in parafin and lit it with a very long matchstick. It wooshed to life, quickly settling into to warm glowing cinder. Then a chilled bottle of white wine arrived complete with an ice bucket.

Adding to the idyllic scene was a firefly. We had never seen one before. It was exciting beyond belief to see this bright green neon light flash randomly in the grass!

A storm was brewing over the hills in the Congo. We could see flashes of orange lighting up the sky. It probably was just lightning, or possibly more excitingly a volcano erupting or as Julie's mind worked it could even have been explosions from a military conflict!

At about 8pm we headed up to the restaurant for our supper. Again we opted for the buffet they had on offer. I filled my plate with the cauliflower and potato curry and although the potato pieces did look suspiciously like left over chips it was very tasty. Julie passed on the carvery which was a whole (and huge) Tilapia fish. Instead she chose pork and plenty of "Irish" potatoes as they insisted on calling them.

I wrapped it all up with a passable bread and butter pudding with custard.

We weren't in the mood to stay up late tonight. After one drink in the bar downstairs watching Wales beat Ireland on Rugby highlights we returned to our room and fell asleep almost immediately.

Next day >>>

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