When I first began to think about going to Rwanda, a country on a continent so far away and previously unvisited, there was plenty of uncertainty. I had to get a bunch of shots. I hate shots. Along with the shots came a litany of health cautions, that sounded something like this:
“You return from Africa. You’ve shown all your photos and told all your stories. You had a wonderful time. 2 weeks have passed. You begin to throw up. Do not go to your regular doctor; see an infectious disease doctor. You might have. . . ”
Fill in the blank.
I heard it at least three times with different blanks. I used the insect repellent that you allow to dry on your clothes and that lasts through 6 washings. I brought 25% deet. I’m still taking antibiotics as malaria prophylactic. As I said, the first night I slept under the bed net. I bought a money belt.
Friends asked me about whether or not Rwanda was secure, if you had to be cautious and careful, if there was unrest in the region. I assured them that from what I could tell, it seemed to be a peaceful country. I reasoned that Rwanda had had a very painful lesson in peace.
I write about these cautions and uncertainties, not because I don’t believe them, but because caution is required for all travel, not just Rwanda, not just Africa. Or Mexico. Or China. Or Europe. Or New York City. You are in a new place. A new place deserves alertness. It is outside what you know. You learn how to navigate in your new surrounding.
Here’s what I found. No one drinks anything but bottled water if they have a choice. Rwandans are also cautious about malarial mosquitos but the treatments have become much less radical so they know that they can be cured without great inconvenience. There seem to be fewer violent crimes than we experience in American cities, the ones that tourists are most exposed to are pickpockets.
I left my camera, wallet, computer equipment in my hotel room, taking only the money that I intended to spend. I paid attention but I wasn’t overly concerned. I acted just as if I was in a large American city except for drinking tap water and eating raw food that couldn’t be peeled.
And I smiled at strangers. A lot. I always got a smile back. I learned to say Mara Mutsi, which meant that I could only go around in the morning or look like an idiot. I did both.
When I was leaving, in line to board the plane, I found this story. Picture this:
We’re standing in line to go up the stairs into the plane. About four people behind us is a young, fresh-faced man, holding a guitar by the neck. It has no case. He is also getting ready to board the plane. I worry about his guitar.
Me: Did you get that guitar in Rwanda?
Him: Yes. Big smile.
Me: It’s very nice.
Him: I think so.
Me: How will you protect it to get it home?
Him: I hope someone will help me find a place to put it.
Me: Do you play guitar?
Him: Yes. And as I was coming into the airport with it, the guard asked me the same thing. When I told him I did, he said that I couldn’t pass the checkpoint without playing it.
I wanted to hear him play but I didn’t ask.
Him: So I played it. The guard listened and nodded his head. Then I asked him if he played. He said he did. I pushed my new guitar toward him. He said, “You have to hold this then” and he handed me his big gun.
Me: Did he play?
Him: Yes, but I was so nervous holding that gun. I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do with it.
We all laughed. It made me think about all of the young men whom I had seen with guns around Kigali, policing the city. Were the guns not loaded or is Africa so familiar with guns that they almost disappear? Then I thought about handguns in the U.S. and realized that almost everyone you see could have a concealed hand gun on them. I might prefer knowing by seeing the big guns.
But I also wonder about the guard. He wouldn’t have handed his gun to someone if he was uncertain about what was going on, right?