Burundi Wheels

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7 September 2015 by Justine



Beautiful market between the Burundian and Tanzanian borders at Mapanda, Burundi

Cycling in Burundi – November 2014

For our route in Burundi, we decided to ride along the Lake Tanganyika from its beginning – in Bujumbura. To get there, it is a gorgeous, effortless ride down. Starting from Kayanza in Burundi that morning, we rode nearly 100km – and relatively took our time – and were done by 2PM. But that road is a CRAZY road. Few metal cross-shaped memorials along the way confirms it, and so are the engulfed cars that we see from the road, eaten by the jungle. The way down doesn’t seem to stop. No wonder, since we were more than 1700m above sea level this morning, and Lake Tanganyika (and Bujumbura) is at 775m. I am SO happy not to climb up this way – the joy of always going forward and not knowing what’s ahead of us. Another advantage of going down so much – and fast – is that by the time that the local people sees us, (…) we’re already gone. Yes, the African craziness of surrounding the White people as they step foot is still on in Burundi. On this road, the motivated ones will run after me for few meters, since I’m following JP haft of a kilometer behind, but my concentrated poker face certainly isn’t suggesting to do so. The truth is that I have the vertigo just at looking down and I can easily imagining myself ending up in the wild ravine, flying down in the jungle without a parachute.

The people surround us alright for the few avocado snacks we allow ourselves to take in local bars. We sit inside, behind an old bed sheet suspended as a screen door, and we can see about sixty dark eyes staring at us from the dirty window and the cracks in the wall. The other customers of the bar are working hard pretending not to care about our presence. Anyways, we are so into the crazy taste of our sandwich made of an entire avocado and fresh tomato slices on a hand-made bun, eaten with a hot cup of sweeten black African spicy tea that nothing else than that heaven-like twenty-cent snack exists for the moment. The owner of the bar, proud like a lion to host us, orders his right-hand man to watch our bicycles and to chase away the intruders. As we exit the bar, an old granny without teeth is asking for money – we give her an avocado and her wrinkled face lights up for few second.

The craziest thing about that road is on two wheels. Bicycles are everywhere in Eastern Africa, but in here, few kilometers away from a capital, even with this truly challenging relief, they are kings. As we go down on our 40kg full-steel touring bicycle with the fingers on the breaks, the local people, twice as loaded, overpass us – because they don’t have breaks (…). In the tight curves suspended over the tropical jungle, crossing villages with dozens of kids and cattle running in every directions, among the human and motored traffic, the potholes and few construction zones, those cyclists are IN-SA-NE, and worst, they seem to enjoy themselves. We see them as they overtake us, sitting on one cheek, relaxed, as they go down at 70 to 90km/h with no gears and no breaks, on crooked frames and wheels, sometimes three bicycles wide. They carry charcoal, furniture, living animals, fruits, water, gasoline, women, children, and yet, they go faster than a sport car would drive on those same circumstances. (…)

But remember: those guys are going down. On their way up, the “lazy” ones will attach their bikes on the top of a bus, a car or a taxi-motorbike. But the “real” ones – the ones that can’t afford the 25 cents gas-share – will find another way. In order to maintain the adrenaline level as high as on their way down (…) those guys will wait for a truck to slow down or to get going, and they will grab the tail gate until the truck stops some kilometers away. Nothing too exciting so fare, you’ll say. Well, the trucks are scarce, and cyclists are numerous. So when a truck leaves, everyone tries to hold on – the lucky ones directly on the tail gate, and the others, on their lucky friends. And there they go, like an army of ants on wheels, holding on what they can with few fingers, entering the same steep curves, construction fields and potholes, into a cloud of black poisonous smoke, and followed by other vehicles that are overpassing whenever, even in curves – that’s crazy. Welcome in Burundi.

Cycling in Bujumbura is quite something. Entering a South-African town will be the same: one level of pervert follows another, and then the middle class, if existing, shows up, and then, the different level of wealth. The first neighborhoods of Bujumbura have that chaotic and dark vibe that Indian cities have. Never we would have walked there alone at night. And then, a modern boulevard, with trees and flowers beautifully maintained in the middle lane in between the street lamp. The boulevard leads to the governmental buildings, embassies, and then, eventually, to the market place. From there, it’s a ten minute walk to the Lake. Along the lake, many resorts for different style and budget. All of them are fenced all the way to the beach, with security guards here and there.

Since we contoured Kampala, Bujumbura is our first African capital and we have a lot of expectations… Wi-Fi connection, night live, backpackers (small, friendly and cheap hotels for people traveling with a backpack and public transport), information about our next route and big grocery stores to satisfy some of our cravings. Nothing. Far from being disappointed, we hang out at the beach the first night and met a bright young men who wanted to practise his English, but who kept on switching back to French after few words. His name is Filbert, he is braving the authority of his father to work as a DJ in a bar, and he is the first African with whom we can actually have a proper conversation on various subjects – staying in rural areas is certainly not helping us on that level.

We got ourselves a room in a small hidden hotel besides a bar. Like so many other times, we ended up locking the bikes in the room, and sleeping outside in our tent. With only a small window without any screen and no fan, there was no way we could sleep good in that tiny cement room. When the music stopped around midnight, we thought we could finally sleep. Turned out our hotel was a bit of a love house. The couple who rented the room besides ours for the night thought it was really funny for two Muzungu to sleep outside. The second night, since it was a Saturday, we thought we would come enjoy the music on the other side of the wall. What a surprise to see Burundian in their twenties, having many 2$ Heineken beers and Smirnoff Ice breezers bottles on their tables, with plates and plates of grilled meat, while we were quietly sharing an Amstel bottle (a non-exported beer). When I think of it back, I don’t remember that many times seeing local young adults, acting equally between girls and boys, in a local bar, who could have been dressed up the same way in Montreal, freely enjoying themselves. Overall, we definitely stopped more often in small rural local bars with room temperature beer (or local maize beer) and male clientele.

As we walked on the main road of Bujumbura, stopping in every bakery we saw to buy samosa, mini pizza, croissant and pastries, we thought of our friend Carlo who comes here to teach cinema every year. With his friendly laugh, sense of humour, unlimited patience, deep calm voice and smooth effectiveness, he totally fits in the background – anyone without three of those things wouldn’t socially survive in Africa.

Bujumbura is our starting point along Lake Tanganyika, which we will try to follow all the way in Tanzania down to Zambia. There is a boat, the MV Liemba, leaving Kigoma in Tanzania every two weeks and cruising to Zambia, but it seems very hard to actually get on it even though we tried to synchronize ourselves with its schedule since the beginning. That 70 meter-long German boat, built in 1913 during the First World War, was brought back in service in the 20’s by the British, and is ferrying Tanganyika since then. We will do whatever to jump on it and live the Liemba experience. Everything, except waiting for it more than… Two days. In other words, we won’t make it and will end up cycling everything. But that’s another story…

After two nights in Bujumbura, we got back on the saddle under 30-something degrees, even at seven in the morning. Soon, it was just us on the road and some local cyclists. In the water, children are swimming naked, the elders (eight or nine years old) holding the youngest (down to one year old) in their arms. They would either disappear under water to shyly escape our presence, wave at us, or showing us their best moves by jumping in the water. The road is flat, tarred, and is often directly along the lake. It’s quiet, and there are villages every 5-10km to get water, fruits, dry fish and bread. A real piece of cake to cycle!

The people in the fishing villages is a bit too happy to see us. Once again, they surround us very close, with no notion what so ever of personal space, and stare at us, waiting for the bravest one to speak up in English or in French. To get some tranquility for our only night along the lake in Burundi, we decided to camp in the jungle. We are on the road, checking right and left to make sure no one sees us, and very fast, we make a right and follow a tiny path that goes in the bush, hoping that THAT path will lead us directly on the lake on a secret paradise beach – NOT. The path soon splits in many other paths. We leave our bikes, and go by foot. We drop colorful leaves to find back our way back in all those cross ways in the dense jungle. We finally find an open space in a savannah-like field. I want to camp here – JP prefers to camp in the jungle. We couldn’t have two less alike ideas of a safe campsite. Open air, able to see ahead, on dry soil, OR under palm trees and thorny bushes, with mosquitos and spiders. JP wins. At the end, I admit, it was a great experience. Even though that jungle patch was only few hundred meters wide (but many kilometers long), we could hear that typical tropical bird and insect soundtrack, with the noise of the heavy dead palm leaf, knocking other branches on its way down (as a quick note, there are more than 2500 species of palm tree in the world and yes, the leaves of those oasis-like trees are a few kilograms heavy! You DON’T want to receive one on your head, or on your tent). We saw the Milky Way that night, as the sky was as clear as it could get. Just after sunset, as it was getting darker and darker, we were sure that no one would come bother us. Our tent is set up on the only free spot without bushes around, which consists of a three path junction. There is no electricity in those little villages and when it’s dark, it’s pitch black. No flash lamps, only cellphones screens and fireflies. We were wrong. Sneaky like a panther, a small Pygmy jungle man suddenly appeared in one of the paths. About five feet tall, bare foot, with a dark piece of fabric around his hips, holding a machete as long as his arm, he brusquely stopped. After staring at each other for half of a seconds; us, realizing that tribal people was still living in that jungle patch in basic ways of life; him, probably wondering if we were either spirits or ghosts; he ran in the bush and disappeared – which is funny, because he was the one holding a huge knife… We were now almost sure no one would come and bother us during the night…

After a certain point, we needed to leave the lake and go inland. Without warnings, a 19km pass with 800 meters of elevation to go Mapanda and the Tanzanian border was waiting for us. Fortunately, it was made of brand new asphalt, with almost no traffic at all. Besides the kids that followed us for about two kilometers (which is extremely long when you cycle up at a walking pace), asking for stuff and grabbing our paniers, and besides the steamy sun that cooked my brains, it wasn’t that bad (…). Seriously. Honors to the cyclists who climbed that pass fully loaded in one single stretch – I surely didn’t, even on my Surly. JP would have done it for sure, if it wasn’t for his athletic girlfriend that was slowing him down – he’s a human JEEP, after all. I admit, I pushed my bike. A lot. Under the two o’clock sun, I was feeling (and probably looking) like a boiling shrimp in a pot filled with my own sweat. Nothing serious, only two hours and a half of pleasure, to enjoy even more the iced water spring that was waiting for us 1km from the pass, and the cold shower in our guesthouse in Mapanda that night. Drunk with the euphoria of being done cycling for the day – and most likely sun-buzzed, I didn’t even notice how terribly filthy the walls of the shower room were. Then, true to our habits, we paid the 4$ asked for a double room and pitched the tent on the porch, in the freshness of the stormy night, under the laughs of the manager and his friends.

Quick note on the kids that followed us that day… Like all the other hundreds of situations like this, we asked them to go home on a very convincible voice tone. They were: one, getting far from their village; two, dangerously walking in the car’s lane; and three, getting on our nerves for grabbing our paniers. Predictably, as we were more and more insistent, they were simply repeating everything we were telling them. JP would use the “bad-guy-with-the-scary-beard” technique, turn around, and chase them for few meters on his bike, but they would run back after us right away, laughing even louder. Hopeless (…), we played a game that, at least, made us pee our padded pants. Imagine a dozen of African kids, all bold heads, tall and tiny ones, all wearing brown broken clothes and a huge smile, with no shoes on, loudly singing : “Qui veut de la poutine? Moi, je veux de la poutine! Une poutine! Une poutine! Deux poutines! Deux poutines! Je VEEEUUUUXXX de la PPPOOOOUUUTTTIIIINNNNEEE!!!!” (Who wants a poutine? I want a poutine! One poutine! One poutine! Two poutines! Two poutines! I want a poutine!) and so on. Best technique so far. Out of breath, they finally ran home.

We went out to get a fabulous chip-maia (a greasy and salty two-egg omelet cooked over a hand-full of fries, usually served with a side of fresh tomato salad – the best snack for a cyclist) when a policeman asked us our passports. After few travel, you get to understand that some policeman are using their authority for no good reasons on tourists, sometimes in order to get something from them, or just to be acknowledged. Some countries are worse than others, and since it was our first “arrest”, we used a defensive respond. With a huge smile, without even slowing down our stride, we said: “our passports are in our hotel. Thank you, goodbye” – and it worked! But the next day, we felt like idiots – idiot tourists. The policeman wasn’t trying to give us trouble… The Burundian border post was right across our hotel! Without a stamp, we would have cycled 21km of dirt road to the Tanzanian border for nothing, and then, we would have had to cycle it back to get our stamp, and then again back to the border. 63km in the butter, only to prevent a possible argue with a local policeman… What a memorable end to our route in Burundi that would have been… Instead, as we were cycling, we watched courageous men carry heavy banana bunches on their back, from the jungle 800 meter elevation down, up to the border posts. Each bunch being the exact same weight of our bicycle – 40-50kg, but with no wheels on. A powerful image to keep in mind as we end this chapter, and move on to the next: Tanzania.

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