Traveling outside of Kigali by bus is always an adventure. The first step to get to the bus station in Nyabugogo. The first time you step into this jungle of people, buses, taxis, bicycles, and motos may be overwhelming. If you come in a taxi, instantly three or four people will be running alongside it, holding onto the window, and trying to convince you to take their company’s bus. When you get out of the taxi, they will be pulling your backpacks out of the trunk and carrying them to the different ticket booths. You may gently but firmly take your backpack back.
After buying your ticket, you are corralled to the bus. You can also just get onto a bus and give a ticket agent money to buy a ticket for you. If you choose this option, they don’t take as long trying to spell your name correctly but instead might just give you and all the people you’re traveling with the same name. While you wait for the bus to leave, you enjoy the stifling hot air of the idling bus, especially if you’re sitting in the sun, and shake your head no to each of merchants walking up to your window holding Kinyarwandan-Swahili dictionaries, sodas, jewelry, belts, wallets, old newspapers, and shoes.
The bus fills up with other travelers—women holding plump babies and big purses, men in robes, others in suit jackets—you move your things so others can sit down next to you and get to wonder what brought your neighbor into the city and who will be meeting her when she gets back home. Or perhaps she lives in the city and is leaving to visit someone? The aisle disappears as people claim the fold out seats that take up that space. Once the aisle is completely gone, it is time to leave. The bus makes its cranky exit, boys and men running alongside it. That first whisk of air that flows through the window is delicious. You are moving!
The bus gains speed as it leaves town, and soon you are traveling along the mountain roads. The roads are not wide, and they are sometimes steep and curvy, but none of this stops the bus driver from passing the slower trucks in front of him when he sees an opening. Occasionally this leads to honking cars coming from the other direction and a swerve back into the correct lane, but the driver always remains in control.
The time in the bus traveling is time well spent. With the wind rushing past you and vistas of Rwanda’s thousand hills, you feel free and taste the sweetness of possibility in the air. You can do anything. There is a strange sense of exhilaration and endorphins.
Outside the window, you watch people’s lives fly past, goats standing precariously on rocky ledges, teenagers straining to push bicycles loaded down with bananas, sugarcane, potatoes, firewood, up one of the thousand hills, toddlers playing outside their cement houses, waving to the passing cars, sometimes a small child carrying an even smaller child on her back. You pass small villages with the Tigo and MTN advertisements painted onto the cement buildings, and inexplicably three or four hair salons (called saloons) in one strip of buildings, all of them with customers inside. You see schoolchildren in their uniforms walking home, old men leading cows, farmers in their banana fields, women with baskets of fruit on their heads, sometimes ponds of tilapia with little huts built above the water for rabbits. You wonder about these people you pass—what is their impression of the world? What would they teach you if you could stop the bus to walk alongside them?
Inside the bus, sometimes people talk loudly, sometimes no one talks, sometimes the radio is on, and you might even hear the President, Paul Kagame, speaking, or local music with commercial breaks. The commercial that concerns you the most is a Coke ad that is in English and enjoys using the word “hashtag.” You question whether that should be a word that is celebrated globally.
The bus stops for a break and you join the flood streaming off the bus. There is a place to get snacks, and you buy samosas, rolls of dense, nutmeg bread, and some unidentified ball of food. Later when you’re back on the bus, you bite into it to discover it is a meat.
Sometimes the bus just rolls to a stop on the side of the road, and young men run up to the window to sell wheels of cheese and grilled ears of corn. Many of your fellow travelers hand a couple of coins out the window and begin biting into the corn. Soon most of the bus is munching on corn, and this shared meal also opens up the passengers to start talking to each other, laughing and breaking the corn ear in half to share it with others. It makes you smile and wish even more that you spoke Kinyarwandan, though some things don’t need a spoken language to be understood.
As the bus gets closer to your destination, it begins making more frequent stops, letting your friends off in the villages, on the side of the road, and picking up others to bring them the short distance to the bus station. Often people stand on the dirt by the road waiting for their family members to get off, waving and hugging when they see them. You begin to get restless, as the bus stops and starts again and again and again, so close to the end of your journey. Eventually, though, the bus does roll into the bus station. You have arrived, but you already are missing the air pushing itself into your lungs and the beautiful Rwandan landscape and people flying past. Sometimes the journey is better than the destination.