Welcome to Rwanda — Now, Please Bend Over

I think I’m done trying to be friends with Rwanda. We’re clearly not meant for each other — every time I ask her out, she kicks me in the balls and laughs at me as a I collapse in a heap, then she steals my wallet and runs off to get high with the few friends she’s got left. I’m just too old for that kind of shit. Fresh from the “they write angry letters” department, here’s one I shot off to the head of tourism & conservation (who also happens to own the house we’re renting) yesterday after having my plans for the weekend thoroughly shredded. It’s long and it’s grumpy, so if you’re mostly here for the pictures of animals killing each other and the occasional bike porn, then feel free to ignore this one. 

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Dear Rica,

A few weeks ago, a friend suggested that a group of us climb Karisimbi. It sounded like a great idea – it was one of the things I had really wanted to do during my six months in Rwanda, and since my family can’t visit the gorillas (at 10 and 13, our kids aren’t allowed to come), it would be a chance to at least get up to Volcanoes National Park. 

The outrageous $400 price tag was entirely out of my budget range, so I was glad to learn that as a resident of Rwanda I would be eligible to do the hike for “only” $200. Still expensive for a hike, but hopefully worth it. So, I waited until my residency permit was at long last issued by the Rwandan Government, and this past Monday I headed over to RDB. I showed my visa, paid my $200, and got my permit. Impressive and efficient. Except, five minutes after I had left, I received a call to please come back. Supposedly, there was “a problem” with my permit. Back I went, only to have my freshly issued permit confiscated and be told that I couldn’t get the the lower rate after all.

Because even though I have a residency permit and thus am a legal temporary resident of Rwanda, I apparently am not actually eligible for RDB’s resident rate. My permit runs out at the end of December, which was somehow “too short” for me to climb a volcano in November. It didn’t make sense to me at the time, and it still doesn’t make sense to me now. I am not in charge of how the Rwandan government does business. I don’t know why it took the Ministry of Health (as the sponsoring body) and the Directorate of Immigration well over three months to process my application and at long last get around to issuing the residency permit. What I do know is that my family and I arrived in Rwanda on July 21st and that we have resided here ever since. Nowhere on my visa does it say, “this is only a short-term ‘pretend’ residency permit; the RDB isn’t going to acknowledge it.” I know that it has been a huge pain in the neck to be here without residency permits (you were kind enough to help out the last time that status caused us grief in Nyungwe, but the endless hassles of dealing with the nasty manager of the park cast a gloom over our entire experience there). But since Rwanda has so wisely clamped down on bribery, I don’t know how I was supposed to make the processing of my visa go any faster so I could have had a “longer” visa that would somehow have made me more of a resident in the eyes of the staff at the RDB.

Let me be clear: I don’t think this is just a case of me being a particularly difficult customer. I just heard back from one of the people I was supposed to go hiking with this weekend:

I’m sorry for your situation. It’s indeed very frustrating. I was also about to cancel my own hike, because they didn’t want to give me the group (i.e. more than two people) discount, because “all the other 11 people have resident visa, so you are the only one with no resident visa. Therefore, you are not part of the group of 12 [!!], and you have to pay $400 as if you were going alone”. It’s exasperating.

I can’t imagine that “frustrating” and “exasperating” are words you want to see people associate with tourism in Rwanda. But in my short time here, I’ve experienced those emotions twice at the hands of the RDB; my friend quoted above is clearly less than thrilled; and in Nyungwe, colleagues of ours became so appalled by the treatment to which they were subjected by the park staff that they opted to sit out the entire hike – thus, their experience of a day at Nyungwe was to sit disappointedly at the visitor’s center waiting for the rest of us to come back. I think it’s fair to assume that reviews and recommendations to friends and relatives from all of us will be less-than-glowing. You can have all the glossy brochures you want, but if your policies and rules drive people to the point of exhaustion and word-of-mouth has it that Rwandan tourism is a pain in the neck, then it’s all for nothing.

I do appreciate there may well be a practical cause for all of this grief: perhaps RDB sets budget goals to be met, and your team may simply feel compelled to squeeze every last dollar out of every last muzungu that shows up, no matter the consequences to the brand. If that’s the case, then I do feel sorry for you all; it’s never fun to have someone breathing down your neck forcing you to make bad decisions. Because if the goal is helping people enjoy Rwanda so they’ll come back and bring their friends, then it’s not working. And if the goal is making money for the RDB, then it’s definitely not working, either. Because I’m not going to Karisimbi this weekend. This was the only chance I had, so I’m not going to Karisimbi at all. Which means that RDB won’t be making $400 off me. You won’t even make $200 off me. You’re making nothing – not a single cent. What’s more, I’m not going to spend a night or two at a hotel in Musanze, I’m not going to have dinner there, or hire a porter or rent a tent or buy a snack or fill up my car with gas. I’m also not bringing my family of three, who were planning to do the Dianne Fossey hike while I climbed Karisimbi. All told, RDB’s eagerness to make an extra $200 off me through pointless bureaucratic penny-pinching cost the Government of Rwanda at least $600 in direct revenue loss, and the country as a whole lost an additional couple of hundred dollars’ worth of business. Do the math: the obsession with obscure regulations simply isn’t paying off.

Quite apart from the unprofessional and disappointing stance of refusing to recognize legitimate resident status on the basis of some random technicality, I think RDB’s three-tier Visitor/Resident/Rwandan pricing model is flawed. Visitors come in all shapes and sizes – and with all sorts of budgets. And yet, much in the way that many foreigners ignorantly and unfairly bunch together the entire continent as “Africa” in spite of the huge difference between, say, Rwanda and the D. R. Congo, you at the RDB seem to assume that “visitors” are all the same. Sure, you have your wealthy retired Americans with plenty of disposable income. (My guess is you’d like to think that they represent all “visitors.” They don’t.) But you also have the young student backpacking around the world, you have the eco-tourist on a budget looking for a more authentic experience off the beaten path. Sure, you’ve got visitors from Europe and the United States, with average household incomes that could perhaps justify your hefty price tags, but you’ve also got visitors from countries with significantly lower average incomes, who end up feeling over-charged and disappointed because your pricing model simply assumes that they’re as rich as the Americans you’d like them to be.

Then there are the Rwandan temporary residents. Again, you’ve got your diplomats and your technical consultants on one end, and your missionaries, medical volunteers, and students on the other. I think you would agree that those groups will have radically differing budgets. The cost of living in Rwanda is about the same as in the United States, but for temporary residents like us, it’s even higher, since we’ve had to spend a lot of money on household goods and other pricey imports. We do not have much in the way of disposable income once we’ve paid rent, food, transportation and school fees. But on your chart, we’re still considered “rich visitors, who we’ll give a few dollars’ discount as a reward for having gone the extra mile and stayed in Rwanda longer.”

I don’t know what your market research shows, but I doubt the volume and revenue from tourism in Rwanda can grow much beyond its current level if you insist on a pricing model that only really works for a tiny niche of incredibly wealthy international travelers and alienates everybody else. That may work for something as scarce as the gorilla permits, but how are you going to keep the big parks full if few can afford to go? And what, I wonder, are you going to do if and when your rich elite grows tired of Rwanda and decides to go somewhere else?

As far as I’m concerned, this was the last attempt. I’m done trying to enjoy what Rwanda supposedly has to offer in the way of tourist attractions. It’s just not worth the frustration or expense. If I want to go climb a mountain, I can do so back home in the national parks in Vermont, where it costs exactly zero dollars, no matter what your residency status is. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as Karisimbi would have been, but it sure will be a hell of a lot less frustrating and exasperating.

I wish you the best of luck promoting tourism in Rwanda – you have a lot to be proud of, but given what I’ve experienced in my dealings with the RDB, I believe the business model needs some work before it will work best for Rwanda.


Bonding With the Lions and Elephants

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Our 2nd day in Uganda was spent noodlin’ around in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Since it would have cost us $150 to bring our own car into the park and endless grief if the lame ol’ clunker broke down in the middle of nowhere, we opted to splurge and pay $250 to have a driver take us in a schweet semi-open safari-mobile instead. Totally worth it, not least because it meant I got a chance to focus on photos instead of pot holes for a change. 

We had a blast; (almost) saw a pack of lions make a kill, ran into a herd of elephants — and then kept running into elephants to the point where they had little more appeal than squirrels in the park. We learned that Ugandan Cobs are animals, not snacks. On the obligatory boat ride later in the day on the Kazinga Channel that connects Lake Edward and Lake George we saw all the hippos, buffalo, alligators, and birds we could possibly want, along with some beautiful views across to the D.R. Congo. 

A long day with lots of great memories — best time we’ve had in a while. 


A Not-So-Cheap Date With A Hot Water Bottle

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There is a hot water bottle lovingly nestled in my bed. No, seriously, it’s tucked in between the comfy, clean sheets, wrapped in its own fleecy hot water bottle cozy looking a bit like a softer, gentler Cookie Monster huggie toy. It’s uncanny. I encountered the nugget of toasty pleasure after taking a nice, long hot shower complete with absurdly beautiful views over the plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park, all the way to the Rwenzori Mountains and the D.R. Congo border. The relaxing shower, in turn, followed a delicious dinner, served by courteous, attentive waiters acutely aware of concepts like timing and service, in a tastefully decorated restaurant, once again overlooking thousands of square miles of pristine African landscape.

After three months in overwhelmingly dysfunctional Rwanda — a world class study in shortcomings and ineptitude, coated in thick, impenetrable layers of stubborn denial and delusions of grandure — this is nothing short of heaven. This is Katara Lodge in Southwestern Uganda, right on the boundary of one of the country’s largest national parks (technically in the small town of Kichwamba). We’ve come here in part in the hopes of adding lions and elephants to our list of sights, in part to get some much needed R&R from Kigali. It’s a splurge, to be sure (albeit still nowhere near as expensive as the really swanky safari lodges inside the park itself, where you’re looking to pay a couple of hundred bucks a person per night), but after stepping across the threshold and into the sanctuary of tranquility and sheer bliss, it’ clearly worth every cent.

The only downside to all this restorative deliciousness? Getting there. It’s a good seven hour drive from Kigali, in no small part because Uganda’s roads are notoriously horrible.

qenpAfter loading the car with books on tape (well, okay, iPods, we may be uncool, but we’re not complete Luddites), 10 gallons of water, plenty of snacks, and 5 gallons of spare fuel (see, we’re learning), the first big challenge was getting out of Rwanda at all. At the Gatuna crossing 80 miles north of Kigali we were met by a massive wave of southbound trucks, completely blocking all access to the border post itself. Inch by inch, we weaved our way through this key part of the tenuous and inefficient supply chain that connects landlocked Rwanda with the outside world, running around the clock to deliver everything from fuel to food and construction materials from all across East Africa to the small nation with the voracious appetite. Eventually we faced the stern gaze of the Rwandan immigration officers. “Why was my passport so new?” “Where did Lisa work?” Why, oh why, do you give a shit, just stamp the damn thing and move on. My loathing for bureaucrats knows no bounds, and it seems that with every chance they get, they elect to justify my deepfelt hatred with their actions. 

Next a visit to the dingy police office, where a disheveled officer was listening to Beyonce on his laptop and the walls appeared not to have been painted since colonial days. This fine law enforcer’s contribution to the global war on terror and organized crime was to note down our car’s vital signs in a huge ledger (because if you make a note of the engine number of every car that comes and goes, the bad guys automatically give up and go home — it’s a universal rule). He then proffered a tiny scrap of paper adorned with an illegible scribble, which apparently was our ticket through the creaky gate into Uganda. Change money at a crappy rate with some unlicensed bandit (Ugandan Shillings run 2600 to the dollar, making Rwandas 640-or-so look downright maneagable. When there are so many zeros on the bank notes that people have to stop and count ’em, you know inflation is getting out of hand), then repeat the paperwork, but with the added pleasure of purchasing three days’ worth of car insurance from a small agency run by five cheerful women, one of whom laboriously put together our shiny new policy on a wonderful ancient manual typewriter. Another tiny scrap of paper with another illegible squiggle, another gate, and in a mere half an hour we had completed the complex and pointless kabuki required to get four people and a car across an African border – not bad; not bad at all, considering it can take that long just to get a menu at a restaurant around these parts.

Once inside Uganda proper, we were immediately met with a torrential downpour and the challenge of having to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. I once totaled a car in South Africa because I forgot how that works, so I was a bit apprehensive at first. But the small matter of left hand/right hand soon took a back seat to simply dealing with the craptacular road itself.

The “highway” heading north from the major Ugandan crossroads at Kabale has been under reconstruction for years (courtesy of the European Union), and while they’re making the African equivalent of progress, it remains a study in awful. Unlike in Rwanda, there are thankfully far fewer pedestrians and bikes on the Ugandan roads with which to contend, but you’re still faced with a lethal gauntlet of county-sized potholes, rocks, speed bumps, trucks, goats, cows, car wrecks, and general chaos. Once you turn off the “highway,” of course, things only get worse.

We finally reached Katara Lodge shortly before sunset – thoroughly bruised across body and soul, and slightly amazed that our crappy old car had made it in one piece. To be met at the lodge with smiles, moist towels, a snack, a drink, and to be allowed to simply sit for a bit and take in the tranquility of the lodge watch the sunset was nothing short of perfection.  


Next: joining the lions for breakfast in the park.