I mentioned, in my last post, my affinity for riding in imodoka (vehicles). The actual ride is only part of what makes transportation so interesting and (usually) enjoyable. Looking out the windows and taking advantage of the opportunity to zone out and stare at the passing scenery is quite calming. I live in a very densely populated country here, and it is VERY rare that I find quiet time outside of my home. While a bus or taxi ride will typically start with some level of conversation, the depth and length of conversations are usually up to me. I’ve even started to listen to my iPod from time to time during my bus rides. This is something that I didn’t want to do until I was comfortable with the transportation to and from my house. Heaven forbid I fall asleep and neglect to inform the driver that I need to get off the bus.... But I am now quite comfortable and confident that I can handle traveling around this country with no problem. Since I don’t live in a large town/ district center, I have to alert the driver when I want to stop. I have taken to saying the phrase “driver, I stop here” in Kinyarwanda, but seasoned veterans (aka Rwandans) can accomplish the same thing by tapping a coin on a window. I don’t take any chances with that. And on many occasions, I get the strangest looks from folks on the bus. “Why would this young, female muzungu be stopping a such a small place?” Many times this question gets asked aloud, and I get to answer and tell people about who I am and what I’m doing. I actually love these opportunities and try to use them to inform my fellow bus riders about why I’m there.
Speaking of talking about myself with a bus full of strangers, I would estimate that 80% of the time I have conversations on busses, I get asked about my umugabo. Umugabo means husband. Ntabwo mfite. I do not have. To date, all of these conversations have remained playful and erring towards respectful, and (again) I take them as opportunities. I like to tell Rwandans that I don’t want a husband, that I’m young and want to do many things before I get a husband, and that muri Amerika, it’s perfectly normal to get married at the end of your twenties/ beginning of your thirties. I should also add that I tend to lie about my age. I’m 25... if anyone’s curious. Anyone on the bus, that is. Because (as most of you know) in reality I’m not yet 23. I’m fine with that, but I have a hard enough time convincing people to take me seriously without them knowing my real age. Now, I suppose that there is not much difference between 22 and 25- especially since either way, I’m a young, unmarried woman, but it makes me feel a bit more qualified. Or maybe it’s sort of a defense. I’m already assuring folks that I have a university degree, I have work experience, I have training in my field (albeit minuscule), I’ve been living on my own for quite some time... etc, going further into my age is just more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve also been explaining recently, to co-workers and neighbors, that in America, I am a woman. Here, I’m a girl. Whatever. Tomato, tomaaaato, ya know? As long as people see that I’m serious enough, competent, and secure, I figure I’m doing alright.
Now, this was NOT intended to be a monologue about my views on being a young, single woman (girl) in Rwanda. I wanted to tell you some fun stories about bus rides and bus stations. Bus options in Rwanda: if you’re super rich, you can take a private taxi (car) or you own a Land Rover. I would like that privilege, but it’s not happening any time soon. If you’re traveling to or from a larger town/ city, you take an “Express Bus.” these are mid-sized, white busses that hold about 20 people, and are quite comfortable. If you’re traveling a shorter distance, or to a remote area, you take a Twegerane: a “squeeze bus”- what Rwandans refer to as taxis. In these lovely jalopies, people squeeze in as close as possible. These taxis hold 16 people legally, but I’ve been in one with 20 before. There is a driver, and a ‘conductor’ who deals with money and figuring out where and when to stop. I can attest that these drivers clock long days. My landlord is a driver of one of these taxis: he gets home around 8 on a good night, and leaves between 5 and 6 in the morning. After taxis, you can take a moto, ride on the back of a bicycle taxi (literally sit on the back) or walk. I love motos, but walking is probably my most preferred method of travel in the village. When I walk I get to talk with people. AND, if it’s rainy and I’m the only person out, walking in the rain provides me with one of those rare, quiet, public moments.
As much as I rely on travel as a time for language practice and development for me, I’m also quite glad when I encounter folks who want to speak English with me. This happens most frequently on Express busses, but it’s happened before in other vehicles- even the occasional moto. What I can count on is that no matter what language I’m speaking, I am sure to have at least one overwhelmingly positive interaction with a Rwandan while I’m traveling. I’ve told this to many Rwandans, but it can always bear repeating: the people in this country are some of the most generous, kind and patient people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. This doesn’t mean that there are no “bad apples,” but not enough to make any sort of sizable minority.
Last weekend, at a bus station in Kigali, I was buying a ticket to go home. I was speaking with the ticket lady in Kinyarwanda, explaining to her that I wanted to buy my ticket for later in the day. There was a nice, fancy, middle-aged Rwandan woman standing next to me who lit up when she heard me speaking in Kinyarwanda. I’m used to surprise when Rwandans hear me speaking (attempting to speak) Kinyar, but praise and excitement is a bit more rare. She implored me to keep trying, and let me know that she was quite proud that I sought to learn and use the language in the first place. Little did she know, I don’t have much of a choice- if I want to be able to interact with my community members, I need to speak the language.... but it was still nice to hear.
At this same bus station, a few weeks ago, I met a lovely young mother and her toddler. They made for enjoyable seat mates during the bus ride, and I was able to speak English with the mom.
Once, on a long bus ride, I was sitting next to a young, male student. Ok, not so young... in fact he was probably my age... but he was clearly a student. He was interested in what music I was listening to. This was one of those bus rides where I was gearing up to take a nap, listen to music and tune out the world for a few hours. But why not engage in a little cultural exchange before I get comfortable? He asked to hear my music, so I shared with him. He got one ear-bud, I had the other, and we listened together for a little while. I played him some American punk music (a personal favorite), a bit of classic rock, some hip hop and we ended our listening party with some Rwandan pop songs. I told him that I was tired and wanted to take a nap, and he said thanks for sharing. This kid got a mini sampler of some of my favorites: Jets to Brazil, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Kanye and Urban Boyz.
Every time I get onto a bus or squeeze into a taxi, something new happens. I could write accounts of every single ride I’ve taken in Rwanda and the story would be different. I’ll try to fill you in on some of the more interesting stories as my time here marches on. But, if you really want to understand what traveling around Rwanda is like, you have to come see it. Maybe I’ll get real brave one day and make a video of a travel adventure here. Can my camera take videos? I’m going to go find out. Be well.