The staff at the Burundian consolate in Kigoma must not get many visitors. My request for travel and safety information and a visa is met with curiosity- Who am I? Why do I want to go to Burundi? Why will I travel without a husband? Do I want one? Those maters (mostly) settled, debate ignites. What route should I take? What is the going rate for a transit visa? How many hours can I stay in Burundi with said visa? It takes a second visit to sort out the business of my onward journey. A water crossing direct to Bujumbura (my original plan) is deemed impossible, so I’m told to board a bus at 6am for the border. The $20 visa can only be purchased in US dollars, and the office cannot provide change for a larger bill. So, after leaving the office, I get a $20 bill in order to pay at the border.
I rise before dawn the next day and hire an overpriced car to the bus park. I should say the overpriced car, because at that hour there was only one. And I had to wake him up. When I arrive, the dirt lot is completely abandoned save a handful of empty vehicles and a mad man. I wait. No Burundi bus. Finally, two hours later, the skeleton of a van clatters into the lot. This, I’m told, is my chariot. The interior is stripped of any features that may have originally made the vehicle attractive or comfortable. I stake out a spot in the back corner on the series of metal poles and plywood that in better days could have been called seats. I wait. By 9:30, the driver has collected enough people (more than enough in my book) to begin. We take off, the engine straining at first, then settling into a comfortable putter. We coast and climb- mostly climb- the misty hills east of Lake Tanganyika. We take on a few more passengers. One climbs into my row through the trunk. There is something sharp digging into my side. I will have a bruise.
Soon, the tarmac ends, replaced by thick, red mud. Several times, the tires spin and strain, the van fishtailing before regaining its hold on the slippery earth. The view is spectacular.
At some point, I doze off for a few minutes. For some reasons, chaotic public transport sometimes lulls me asleep. I wake to find the man next to me has closed in– his arm draped around the back of my “seat,” his luggage and body slowly creeping into my precious space. I begin the battle to regain my turf, pushing back, adjusting, making myself as large as possible. Slowly but surely, he retreats and, though still squished, I retake my tiny transport territory.
The Tanzanian border post is an office on an otherwise abandoned hillside. I unfold and regain feelign in my limbs. In the small office, I had over my passport to an official who asks me my profession. When I tell him I have been a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda, a man who has been traveling with me lights up. He worked with a PCV in Burundi during the ’90s. This man, D., takes me under his wing. We hire bicycles to carry us through the mountain forest of no man’s land to the Burundian border guard. There, I am glad to have D’s help.
At the shack, I must buy my visa. Prepared, I hand over my $20 bill. I am informed that, due to a tiny ink spot on one corner, the bill is not acceptable. No other currency is acceptable, and if you have a bigger bill? No change. An argument ensues when the official, once agreeing to take other currency, refuses to provide me with a receipt in said other currency. Clearly, whatever I do, someone is getting his payday. D steps in and sorts it out, paying for my visa in (too much) Burundian currency. When we drive away in a station wagon, I’m still angry.
But the journey calms me. At the next village, D. buys bananas to share, and I offer my peanut butter. D. tells his story- it is a story of Burundi, of war, of perseverence. We talk of the promise of development and the cruelty of the region’s politics. When the next muffler-less car is full, it takes off, roaring with each shift, winding through hills, in and out of the clouds at high speed. We race through villages, all with political party flags lining the road. We descend from the hills and trace the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, the sun setting over Congo on the opposite shore.
In one of the weirder twists of the universe, the shared story for D and me does not end there. He set me up with Burundian currency, a cheap hotel, and friends to show me Bujumbura when we got to the city in the evening. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and I promised to track down the PCV he worked with during the 1990s. I did this a few weeks ago, and the two are back in touch after 18 years. D. and I have also kept in contact, exchanging some ideas about development projects in East Africa. Yesterday, I sent an e-mail that mentioned I am still traveling, currently in Morocco. I got a quick response asking, “Where are you precisely? I am in Morocco too, in Marrakech.” What?! Well, it just happens I’m in Marrakech. So this afternoon, I will meet D. for a pot of sugary mint tea.
I just finished reading Cat’s Cradle, and am tempted to wonder if D. is in my karass, a concept that’s part of the book’s fictional religion. “If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons…that person may be a member of your karass.” A karass is a sort of life team that works together, ignoring national, institutional, occuptional, familial, and class boundaries, “as free-form as an amoeba,” writes Vonnegut.