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Traveling in East Africa: a primer

RWANDA | Saturday, 26 December 2009 | Views [609]

When I starting thinking about taking this trip I wondered how much planning I should do ahead of time and how much I could just figure out as I went.  When I backpacked through Europe it was during the high season, and I had to make reservations well in advance to secure a seat on a train or a bunk in a popular hostel.  In contrast, when I travelled through Central America I planned nothing in advance (save my return flight) and was able to make my way around three countries with no problem. 

The more I read about the tourist infrastructure in East Africa the more I thought I should make some key plans, like flights and hotels in popular spots (such as Zanzibar around the holidays).  But when I tried to book these reservations I found some companies and countries more accessible than others.  Kenya Airways, for instance, has an easy-to-use website and processes credit cards.  Precision Air, out of Tanzania, is more of an “email with our Reservations desk” kind of process, and they don’t take credit cards; you either wire money in advance or hope they don’t cancel your booking and pay in person.  RwandAir was the worst of them all.  You “book” online, and they (supposedly) email you back with details a la Precision Air.  But the one email I got three weeks ago never allowed me to follow up, and when I went to their website again this past week the flight I wanted didn’t exist but a different one, three hours earlier, did. 

So I arrive in Kilimanjaro intending to finally buy this ticket (RwandAir doesn’t have offices in many airports so this was the first time I’d be near a ticket agent) and the office is closed.  Apparently my flight from Dar was too late and everyone at the airport went home.  So I show up yesterday morning to buy it.  He’s not there; he will arrive at 3pm for the 5:30 flight.  So the flight is at 5:30, even though the website says 2:30?  Yes, we promise, 5:30. (I get very nervous when someone promises me something here… I’ve found that people generally give the answer they know you want to hear, whether it is “15 minutes” when I ask how long the flight has been delayed for – correct answer: 4 hours – or “no stinging nettles in this forest, flip flops are fine” as the wretched plants sting my ankles.)

So I return at 3pm and wait outside the ticket office.  No one is there.  At 3:30 one of the janitors from the airport comes out and tells me to wait inside, I’m making people nervous just standing there, he’s coming, just be patient.  At 3:57 the ticketing agent shows up and proceeds to chat with a security guard until 4:10, at which point the janitor points me out and he ushers me into his office.

“I need to buy a ticket to the 5:30 flight to Kigali.  I have a reservation” (show printed email with booking and price of $194) “and just need to pay the price listed.”  No, the price is now $277 he says. “Why?”  Because you were supposed to wire money and that has a $50 fee on top but now you are pay in cash the price is more.  “That makes no sense.  If there was a $50 fee for wiring money then by paying in cash I am bypassing that fee; moreover, the new price you are trying to charge is $85 more than the booking so the math doesn’t work out.”  He grunts.  He types things.  It’s now 4:20.  He clicks and types and avoids making eye contact.  “I’m a student if that can help you find me a lower price.”  He ignores me and keeps clicking, though the speed has been greatly reduced over the previous few minutes.  Finally, The price you pay is $207.  (It’s 4:35.)  “Okay.”

With 55 minutes to go, I pay the man and he follows me into the airport, puts on a yellow vest, and stands behind the check-in counter.  He grabs the ticket he just gave me out of my hand and tells me to put my bag on the scale.  I check in, go through customs, hit the restrooms, and make it to the gate just as they are about to board.  I look through the big windows to the tarmac and our awaiting plane: the same guy is now driving the trolley with our bags on it.  And as we settle into our seats he comes on board the plane to count passengers and give the manifest to the pilots.  Perhaps that is why there is rarely anyone in the ticketing offices… they are multi-tasking?

In any case, I made it to Kigali, city of rolling hills and paved roads.  The contrast with Tanzania and Kenya is stark, and not just because the official language until last year was French (they are trying to join the East African Community and that requires English apparently), they drive on the right side of the road, and their power outlets are European instead of British.  No, what’s strange is that this almost feels like Europe with its functioning traffic laws, little use of horns, and policemen who act as security forces instead of nuisances looking for a bribe.  (In Zanzibar I was in no fewer than three taxis who were pulled over and had to pay bribes for transporting white passengers – apparently white passengers require a special permit, and while my drivers all had that permit, the police were insisting it was the wrong one.)

I’m looking forward to seeing more of the city today with some friends, Greg and his colleague Nathalie, who work for the UN in the DRC and are in Rwanda for the holidays.  We’re meeting up for coffee at the Hotel Milles Collines (the “Hotel Rwanda”) then heading to the genocide memorials.  Tonight we will snag a bus to Ruhengeri, with the current plan to trek Mount Bisoke and see the grave of Dian Fossey in Volcan National Parc tomorrow.  We’ll see how that all works out… Cheers!

Tags: adventure, crazy airport stories, kigali, rwanda, tanzania, travel friends

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