How we found sanitary pads on the way to the Congo

Rabson, talking to us on Lake Bunyonyi

As I explained in my last post, Steve and I made this trek to Africa because of the Ugandan grannies. But after flying here via Qatar (and stopping there for three nights), the granny research consumed only four days. It seemed a shame to come halfway around the world, then turn around and go home after such a short time. Also, another adventure called to us.

Several years ago, Steve and I became aware of the plight of the bonobo (along with chimpanzees, Homo sapiens’ closest relative left on earth). There’s a bonobo sanctuary in the heart of Africa that is doing great work for this crucially important but highly threatened species. After visiting the grandmother project, Steve and I wanted to visit that sanctuary.

This isn’t easy. Lola Ya Bonobo (literally “Paradise for Bonobos”) is located outside the city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second largest country in Africa, the DRC is also one of the most tragic. It’s ridiculously rich in resources, mineral and physical, yet it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the bloodiest histories. It does not welcome tourists. As far as I could make out, it has no tourist industry. To go there, someone has to invite you, the invitation has to be approved by multiple ministries in the Congolese capital, and you have to send your passport to the DRC’s embassy in Washington DC to receive the crucial stamp.

Here’s the one in my passport, acquired after Lola Ya Bonobo invited us and all the bureaucratic hoops were jumped through.

Transportation options are limited, but the Rwandan airline does fly to Kinshasa nonstop from the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. The flight is only two and a half hours long, and Rwandair has an excellent reputation. The only problem (for us) was that this flight only operates a couple of times of week. Steve and I couldn’t get to Kigali from Nyaka (the Ugandan village where the granny program is based) on Sunday, and the next nonstop wasn’t until Wednesday (i.e. tomorrow).

Happily what initially looked like an irritating delay turned out to be a pleasure. I learned that we could be driven from Nyaka to Kigali via the site of Uganda’s most beautiful lake, Lake Bunyonyi. We planned to hole up there for two nights, review the work we’d done in Nyaka, and write about it. But yesterday morning, we couldn’t resist spending a few hours in a boat on the lake.

For $20 a person, the hotel where we were staying arranged for a motorboat, a guy to drive it, and a soft-spoken 23-year-old guide named Rabson. Rabson looked very young, but he’s been guiding for about three years, and I quickly found him to be quick-witted, conscientious, and knowledgeable.

The morning had started off a little drizzly, but as we putted along, the sky cleared. Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda, and it’s filled with 29 islands, most uninhabited. It has no dangerous animals like crocodiles or hippos, and almost no fish.

Only tiny ones like these, skewered for sale at the local market.

The islands create a landscape that reminded me a bit of the New Zealand fiordlands. But the steep hillsides surrounding the water are an intense tropical green, dotted with banana groves. People swim in the lake, and it provides drinking water to the local villagers.

As in so much of Africa, kids were gathering it here.

Rabson loves birds, and he pointed out many interesting specimens to us, including these.

A pied kingfisher
Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane

He recounted the history of some of the islands. Then he began talking about something that startled me: namely, how most kids in Uganda reach puberty without knowing anything about menstruation.

When girls suddenly begin to bleed, it shocks and horrifies their classmates. Girls have no access to sanitary pads, so they use torn-up t-shirts or leaves or other crude substitutes for sanitary pads that sometimes trigger infections. But Rabson had met someone who was trying to do something to change that and he wanted to take us to meet her.

Steve and I had seen so many African marketplaces over the past few days, I wasn’t dying to see another, but we held our tongues. We sensed it was important to Rabson to share this.

Our boatman pulled up to a dock on the mainland. We disembarked and walked into the jumble of stalls and food sellers that takes shape there every Monday and Friday. We followed Rabson up the dirt path to a compact wooden shack, where a friendly face beamed at us from a window, welcoming us. Rabson pointed out the poster on the front of the building, explaining the project, then his friend Harriet Rwosa stepped out and invited us inside.

If someone told me Harriet was educated in England, I would have believed them; her English is excellent, an ebullient flood of words. But she’s lived all her life in this village. We learned that she’s 27 and married. But she only went through the local high school. Although she yearned to continue on at a university, her parents lacked the money to send her. Like most girls, in her school years Harriet had experienced menstruation as a curse. Every month it kept her out of class, causing her to to fall behind her male peers, a new experience for her. Time had passed, and somehow she’d gotten the idea to design and market cheap, reusable sanitary pads that would enable girls to continue their education, even while menstruating. About a year and a half ago, she’d made her first pads on a little foot-powered Singer sewing machine, and she had marshaled the funds to create a little craft shop to support the purchase of materials to make more pads. Some were lined with a soft toweling. For others Harriet uses a local fabric that resembles flannel. It costs more, she told us, but it’s also more absorbent.

For $10, you can buy 3 pads for a girl. I gave her $20.

As inspiring as Harriet was, I felt equally moved by Rabson, who believes in what Harriet is doing and is trying to help any way he can. As we walked back to the motorboat, he told us he had been bird-watching on one of the bigger islands when he happened to meet Harriet, there to pass out pads at the island high school. She told him about the project, and Rabson immediately understood its importance. One day when he was in the fifth grade of primary school, he had shared a bench with a 13-year-old girl. When she stood up at the end of class, blood stained her clothing and the bench. Today Rabson mimes the reaction of the other kids; their shock at the sight of this frightening blood. They jeered, hooted, cruelly mocked their classmate. She was so mortified and humiliated, she never came back to school. Rabson says not long after this incident, she was married and had a child, but her husband later left her. Her life was ruined for lack of a sanitary pad, something that Rabson still clearly finds appalling today.

He disapproves of giving out free condoms, without also handing out pads to girls. Having sex is something you choose, he declared. But you don’t have a choice about menstruating.

This is true. Hearing Ugandan 20-somethings testify to it, seeing some moved to action by it, inspired me and touched my heart. It made me wish I could return to make a documentary about passionate, energetic Harriet and the lives she’s already changing.

I almost certainly won’t have a chance to do that; it’s not my talent. But I’m grateful to be able to write about her here. I’m thrilled to be spending the night in a really nice hotel in central Kigali, overlooking the Hotel Mille Collines (the inspiration for the cinematic Hotel Rwanda.) I’m happy to have a good fast internet connection to publish this post. In just a few hours, we’ll take that flight to the Congo, where it’s unlikely we’ll have much in the way of WiFi or phone service. But I plan to write every day about our experience in the bonobo sanctuary, and I’ll post the results as soon as possible.

Battery power

With our trip to East Africa fast receding behind us, I didn’t think there’d be anything more to write about it. Then the following showed up at our door the other day — an envelope from Rwanda! Sent in a very official plastic envelope, emblazoned “Securite assuree (Safe and secure).”

Rwanda bureaucracy1

Inside Steve found an even more official looking letter from Dr. Alexis Nzahabwanimana, the “Minister of State in Charge of Transport,” who was responding to the letter Steve had written him.

Rwanda bureaucracy2

Steve had been complaining about an incident that I didn’t report on in this blog. It occurred June 12, when we flew from Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) to Tanzania on Kenya Airlines. Here’s how Steve described what happened:

“After passing the first checkpoint, I checked my baggage, which contained items such as large bottles and a pocket knife that are prohibited in the cabin. In my hand luggage, I had some AA and AAA batteries that I need for my electronic devices. These items are not on Kenya Airlines’s list of prohibited items. I have traveled all over the world and I have never been told that dry-cell batteries are prohibited from airline cabins. Had Kenya Airlines advised me that these items are prohibited, I could have tucked them in my luggage before checking it.

“At the second checkpoint, the police confiscated my batteries.  I explained that they were not on the list of prohibited items, but the officer in charge was not amenable to reason. The loss of my property caused me considerable inconvenience and some expense.

Steve wrapped up with a lecture: “If Rwanda is to realize its goal of becoming a high tech center of East Africa, it is important that visitors not have their property confiscated illegally, especially when it relates to their electronic equipment. I am bringing this matter to your attention because I hope you will correct this improper behavior on the part of the police through appropriate channels.”

Dr. Nzahabwanimana begged to disagree. Batteries are a component of improvised explosive devices, he pointed out, helpfully including for our edification a diagram of how to build one.


As “a signatory to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that establishes international Standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs) that have to be complied with by all its signatories to Safeguard International Civil Aviation against Acts of Unlawful Interference,” Rwanda had a duty to keep such potentially dangerous goods out of airline cabins. Hence, the police “were therefore acting within the confines of the International Standards and National regulations…”

Dr. Nzahabwanimana also included a “Dangerous Goods List” that included “Batteries, dry, containing potassium hydroxide solid, electric storage” on it. Steve jumped right on that, determining it to be part of an obscure UN document. He also researched the US Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) guidelines. We all know how lax they are — but they make it clear dry batteries for personal appliances can be transported in cabins.

Steve was threatening to write back and argue with the Africans some more. For my part, I’ve been urging him to spend the time instead earning some money that we might use for further travel to electrifying destinations.

Genocide and beyond

One souvenir of visiting Rwanda I’m unlikely to lose is that I finally get the difference between Tutsis and Hutus. It’s actually quite simple. The tiny Batwa (Pygmy) people were here forever. Then about 700 BC, medium-size farming people (Hutus) moved in and started kicking the Batwa out, chopping down their forest, and cultivating the land. A thousand or more years after that, tall, cattle-herding Tutsi people (aka Batutsi or Watutsi) arrived and immediately started lording it over the Hutus (and Batwa, tho there were so few of them and they were all out in the forest, so nobody really cared about them). The maltreatment (of Hutus by Tutsis) got worse in the early 20th C. under the Belgians, who made everyone carry passports identifying their ethnicity. But by the time Rwanda gained independence (in 1961), the tables had turned, and Hutus finally came into power. They then began exacting revenge on their former oppressors, instituting quotas for jobs, harassing and even killing Tutsis, and so on. This continued for 50 years, until resurgent Tutsi power and international pressure were poised to make Rwanda a more democratic and multinational place. But this didn’t sit very well with the ruling Hutu fanatics, who began planning a final solution to the Tutsi problem. In April of 1994, the (Hutu) president’s plane was shot down while landing at Kigali Airport, (where our plane for Tanzania took off). To this day, the identity of the shooters remains mysterious. Within an hour, barricades went up, and the killing began. By the time it ended, about 3 months later, a million people (primarily Tutsis but also some moderate and/or heroic Hutus) were dead, with millions more damaged in one way or another.

Today the biggest tourist attraction in Kigali is the Genocide Memorial. S and I visited it yesterday afternoon. It’s well done, forcefully conveying both the heartbreaking scope and the details of this disaster. I also admired the efforts made to put this genocide into perspective (as one among many) and to analyze the components shared by all genocides. The resolution that it must never happen again was a repeated motif — along with the acknowledgement that this resolution hasn’t fared too well over the past 100-plus years.

Talking to Tom Tofield, our biking guide at Lake Kivu, didn’t exactly fill us with hope that Rwanda was forever done with violence resulting from ethnic strife. Tom told us that large tracts of land in northeastern Rwanda had been granted to the family and friends of President Kagame (the Tutsi military hero who’s been president since April of 2000). Tom also talked about the involvement of the Rwandan elite in the illicit trade in Congolese coltan (that mineral ore critical to so many electronic products) and military arms fueling the continuing bloody upheaval in eastern Congo. Many of those arms, by the way, having been manufactured in the good old USA and Britain and donated to the Rwandan government.

It was depressing. But in Kigali, we heard more encouraging talk. This morning (6/12) we had coffee with the weathered British expat (long married to a Rwandan woman) who for almost 10 years has been working as the government’s chief advisor on science and technology. (A business associate of Steve’s had set up our meeting with him.) Mike ticked off one exciting development after another: the network of high-speed fiber-optic cable that now connects every region in the country, Carnegie-Mellon’s opening of a Kigali campus last August, MIT’s interest in establishing a climate-research station on top of the highest mountain in Rwanda, and the talk of building a cable car to get up to it, one which also might serve tourists. He spoke almost reverentially of President Kagame’s goal of transforming Rwanda into a knowledge/information economy, and the 5-year plans for achieving that.

Steve and I tend to be skeptical about grandiose industrial policies imposed by authoritarian governments. The sensibility of this one seems to us particularly dubious. It’s hard for us to imagine tiny Rwanda, still in need of basic things like decent roads and widespread access to clean water, competing successfully with the likes of China and India. But, as weird as it sounds, I can also imagine factors like the genocide and Rwanda’s current status as one of the cooler countries in Africa being wild cards that may affect how things play out, perhaps in unexpected ways.

Our meeting yesterday morning with the team at Gasabo 3D was much more solidly reassuring. Gasabo was founded 5 years ago when a Rwandan engineer named John Rugamba began collaborating with Solidworks (one of America’s biggest CAD companies). Steve always harbored doubts about kthe original business plan (which had to do with converting drawings from 2D to 3D), and indeed it never amounted to much. But Gasabo’s still in business. They’ve evolved into doing architectural design and project management, plus they’ve also gotten some cool mechanical projects: designing components to make it easier to use biogas (generated principally from livestock excrement); creating a machine to crush Rwandan peat into pellets for heating. They’re still the only native mechanical design firm in the whole country, and they’re obviously not coining money. The crew of 10 was crammed into a room that’s not much bigger than my living room. But they have a vision and some forward momentum; we could imagine them surviving and eventually prospering.

Kigali, too, impressed us, living up to its reputation as the cleanest capital in Africa. People seemed honest, and no one hassled us. We felt safe strolling around. As we walked, I thought of something that Paul Theroux says in his latest travel book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari. He argues that one reason to travel, a good one, is to see how things have changed.

I’m almost tempted to return to Rwanda somewhere down the line, to see how it all works out. But now we’ve left it behind. Our flights from Kigali through Nairobi, then on to Tanzania landed early (both of them), and we glimpsed the legendary snows of Kilimanjaro in the soft light of sunset. Our bags were not lost; our prearranged driver showed up. We’re installed in our cheap hotel in Moshi, where dinner was delicious and cost $18 for to. Tomorrow we return to the Nature portion of the program.


Travel serendipity

The driver showed up on time yesterday to transport us from Nyungwe to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. The national museum in Huye, which we visited en route, was well done, and our stop at the palace of the former Rwandan kings was interesting. (I particularly loved the ceremonial cattle, whose enormous horns would give a Texas longhorn horn envy!)

For my money, though, our coolest experience yesterday came when we stopped at the Cafe Connexion in Huye. We’d heard about it during our hike in the forest Sunday. Our three hiking companions were expats in their early 30s, living and working in Kigali (an American woman architect, a British gal working for an NGO, and an American guy who was an ER doc working part-time for Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health.) The Brit was particularly chatty, and she said Cafe Connexion was serving the best coffee in all of Rwanda. She urged us to make the short detour.

That worked well, as we finished visiting the museum around 12:30 and quickly ate the picnic lunches the lodge had packed for us. While we were in the museum, our driver had figured out the cafe’s location (across the street from the university, biggest in the country, serving 24,000 students.) We walked in and were greeted by a tall, energetic man who looked to be in his 40s. Speaking perfect English with an unmistakable Latin-American accent, he told us the proprietor had stepped away, but he could serve us. He talked non-stop as he whipped up our cappucinos, blowing us away with his story and his enthusiasm.

Born in Panama, Mario had grown up on a coffee farm, then he’d gone to school in Hawaii, near Kona. Somehow, he’s wound up teaching biological pest-control methods to agronomy students at the Rwanda’s national university. But his main job was working for a small family coffee-roasting business based near Sacramento, and he was on a mission: to turn Rwanda into a true coffee culture.

On a coffee break with Mario Serracin

Coffee is already Rwanda’s biggest cash crop, and the country’s coffee farmers already have achieved some fame. They all grow a variety known as Bourbon (which Mario says originated on the island of La Reunion in the Indian Sea). Maraba Bourbon coffee, grown near Huye, has won international recognition for its flavor. But it was grown with pesticides and inadequate knowledge about the cultivation requirements, according to Mario. In his travels, he had found an organic coffee plantation near Lake Kivu (S and I grew excited when we realized we had walked and biked past those very trees while staying in Rubona and biking with Tom.) It was this organic Kigufi coffee that’s available at the coffee house — and very delicious, I can attest. Moreover, Mario was buying the whole crop, shipping it to California for roasting, and selling it all to Costco. This was great for the Lake Kivu coffee farmers, whose income had climbed from $300 to $1000 a year on average since Mario began buying from and advising them. But Mario wanted to spread a taste and appreciation for coffee within Rwanda, where the vast majority of people have nothing to do with it. (They drink tea with milk in it.) Hence the cafe, which opened one year ago. A couple of college students had been trained as barristas, and the prices were rock-bottom. (We paid about 85 cents for each of our excellent cappucinos.)

Interior of the cafe, aka the CxC Coffee Shop

There were signs the plan was working. That very morning, at least 50 people had shown up, astonishing Mario. If I ever return to Rwanda, I expect to see a lot more coffee-drinking. And in the meantime, I’m going to be on high alert next February, when Mario says the Kirkland “Rwandan” begins showing up in Costcos. (It’s typically there through April or May, he says.)


Nyungwe, the enchanted bubble

For most of our trip so far, we’ve been staying in modest to budget places. The wonderful Airport Guesthouse in Entebbe, for example, was $60 a night (breakfast included). The lodge by the river near the tree-sleeping lions was $40. But here in the Nyungwe Forest, we’ve splurged. This place is widely considered to be the best in all Rwanda. Now that we’ve experienced it, we can’t imagine that’s not true.

The setting is stupendous: within a sprawling tea plantation that nestles up to the edge of the largest intact montane forest in Central and East Africa. The forest is one of the wettest places on this continent, and depending on which side of the mountains it falls, rain drains either to the Lake Tanganyika (and, at least theoretically, to the Congo River) or to the Nile. In this lushly primordial paradise, biologists have counted more than 300 species of birds, 13 species of primates, and more than 1300 species of trees and plants (including 140 types of orchids). Mountain elephants once foraged here too, but a poacher killed the last one 15 years ago.

This morning we hiked with a park ranger for four hours down to the spectacular Kamiranzovu waterfalls. Gilbert shook his head in wonder, reflecting on how much people’s attitudes have changed since that last elephant died. A healthy chunk of the park fees have been directed to the locals in this area, and they’ve really come to understand the connection, he says. Now, no one poaches in the park, or if the occasional scofflaw tries, people report him.

After the hike, Steve and I were the ones marveling — at how distinctive each of the three equatorial rainforests we’ve experienced has been. Like Bwindi, Nyungwe survived the Ice Age. Never logged, never burned, it’s virginal, uncorrupted. But unlike dense, jungly Bwindi, the forest we experienced this morning was cool (we were hiking between 5500 and 6000 feet) and ancient. Scenes from Jurassic Park kept bombarding me. It smelled wonderful — fresh and fecund. Everywhere we looked, things were growing on other things: moss and vines and aerial roots clinging on trees rootedon hillsides choked with a universe of plant life.

It was slightly surreal to emerge from that tangled wilderness back into the oh-so-civilized tea plantation. The managers cut all the tea plants to a uniform low height (maybe 3 feet tall) so that the much-prized fresh shoots can be easily harvested from the narrow paths that are almost hidden within the profusion of leaves. Those young leaves are lime green, so intense at times they glow like neon. Views from the lodge drink it all in: the tea plants and colossal forest beyond.

Tea in the foreground, forest beyond

And, stepping into the lodge, you enter another universe: one where the profusion of soft lights never go out, where the water in the showers is hot and abundant, where the flat screen TVs come with Samsung remotes, and the staff provides pampering in the extreme. Here, fresh from the memory of those villages we biked through with Tom, I feel for the first time in my life, like a member of the 1%.

I’m not completely comfortable with that. I love being in Africa, but Africa also has these tiny privileged enclaves where you can feel richer than you feel anywhere in America. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

To be honest, it’s been deliciously pleasant. It ends tomorrow morning. We’ve hired a taxi to drive us to Rwanda’s capital, stopping for two major Cultural Experiences en route. Then we’ll have a day and a half of urban adventures (esconced once again in more humble accommodations), before flying off to Kilimanjaro Airport and our safari on the African savannah.


By boat down Lake Kivu

Because Steve loves boats so much, he wanted to write about our trip down Lake Kivu yesterday (Saturday). Here’s his report:

We had read that the road down the Eastern shore of Lake Kivu is so bad it takes two days to drive from Gisenyi to Nyungwe national park. So we’d arranged with Tom Tofield’s Rwandan Adventures to take a boat most of the distance, enabling us to get there in six hours.

Lake Kivu has given me the creeps ever since I read in the National Geographic that it contains a vast amount of dissolved methane and CO2. These greenhouse gasses are held at the bottom of the lake by the pressure of the water above. Because no seasonal thermal mixing occurs, as it does in most lakes, the gasses have not escaped. As organic matter enters the lake, it decomposes, adding to the layer of methane and CO2. At some point, scientists believe that the pressure of the dissolved gasses will exceed the pressure of the water on top of them, and the gasses will rush out the way bubbles rush out of a beer or Coke bottle that has been shaken before opening.

Because CO2 is heavier than air, it would remain near the ground, suffocating anyone near the lake shore. This sort of thing has happened before in smaller lakes, killing several thousands. But with well over a million people living in Gisenyi and neighboring Goma across the Congo border, the death toll from a gas release at Lake Kivu could number hundreds of thousands.

It turns out my fears were overblown. Tom’s wife, Natasha, has earned a doctorate studying the lake and says a gas release might not occur for 100 years. Moreover, efforts are underway to release gas from the lake artificially using new technology similar to that used to separate natural gas from oil. From the shore near our hotel, we could see a prototype production platform that’s recovering methane from the lake and sending it to the shore to fire electric generators. In the future, the natural gas may be bottled to use as cooking fuel, saving more trees from being turned into charcoal.

On Saturday morning, Tom’s boat man, Suleiman and his crew man, Jean Claude, showed up at 8:30 am. We departed at 9:10. Suleiman’s family’s boat is a double-ended skiff about 30 feet long fashioned from wooden planks about one inch thick and eight inches wide. These are caulked with local fibers and some sort of tar, much the way Christopher Columbus’s ships were. Equipped with a late model 35-horsepower Honda outboard motor bolted to a well in the stern, the boat has a sun shade fashioned from tents scavenged from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Some fake leather seats completed our creature comforts.

As we set off down the lake, the wind was out of the south and the boat pounded in the light chop. Later, as the wind shifted west, the spray came over the starboard gunnel, causing us to break out our raincoats and cover our cameras.

We saw larger wooden boats of similar design, each carrying several dozens of passengers. Because the roads are so bad, the lake is a cheap and convenient mode of transport for local people. Yet even so, boat traffic was light. Most of the boats on the lake are paddle-powered fishing craft that depart at dusk and return at dawn. Despite the breeze, we didn’t see one sailboat.

On our way south we stopped at a small, uninhabited island off the coast of Kibuye, a medium-sized town that marks the half-way point down the lake. Our mission was to view a colony of fruit bats that live only in this spot. Suleiman nosed the boat into a clear spot on the shore, and Jean Claude led us up a steep narrow path through thick low forest to see the bats. Unlike most insect-eating bats, these creatures are diurnal, and our approach startled them from their inverted perches in the trees. They circled overhead like flocks of crows or seagulls, their high-pitched barks sounding more like foxes than birds. The bats made an amazing sight, in their own way as unique and unusual as the chimps and gorillas, but completely unexpected.

Fruit bats, hanging out

After half an hour, we re-boarded the boat and continued south. The wind died and the waves shrank to tiny ripples. We took off our rain gear and had a lunch of beignets, cheese, and bananas that we shared with our boat men. We covered the rest of the distance to the tiny town of Nyamasheke on a small bay off the lake. There we were met by the driver of a Toyota RAV4 SUV who drive us to the Nyungwe Forest Lodge. We arrived by 3:15 pm, in time to enjoy the incredible views of the forest before sunset.


Rwanda through the back door

One of our only bad moments of this trip so far came at the little Cyanika border crossing station, after the guy who drove us there from the Traveler’s Rest had dropped us off. Steve and I got ourselves stamped out of Uganda and into Rwanda without a hitch. We opened our suitcases for the dim-witted looking Rwandan customs guy, and he did little more than grunt. We lugged them out into the road, looked around, and saw… Nothing. No driver holding a sign with our names. No taxi queue of any sort. Had Tom Tofield flaked out and forgotten us?

I’d read about Tom in the Bradt Guide to Rwanda. His mountain-biking tours sounded cool, so I emailed him and he wound up arranging three days of our travel here (including the car ride from the border to Lake Kivu). But when we’d tried calling and texting him our last night in Kisoro, he hadn’t responded. Had he died? In the road, Steve pulled out his cell phone and tried one more time. Miraculously, it rang and Tom answered. He pointed out that it was 20 minutes before the pickup time we’d agreed on, NOT 40 minutes after it. I’d been confused by the time change between the two countries. Five minutes later, a clean Toyota Corona pulled up, and we piled into it and sped off to the west.

Over the next two days, Tom’s reliability became evident. Now 42, he was born and raised just outside London, where he became a data-center specialist. While working in Zimbabwe, he’d met his future wife, a Swiss woman who subsequently got her Ph.D. in limnology (the science of lakes). Her work with Lake Kivu brought them to Rwanda 4 years ago, and Tom decided to start the biking company soon afterward.

Originally, Tom had suggested for our first day a bike tour of Gisenyi, the Rwandan town that adjoins the Congolese border and city of Goma. But a few weeks ago, he’d emailed me urging a change of plan. UN troops were arriving in droves, and a fierce confrontation between them and the infamous Congolese rebels looked imminent. Although Gisenyi was peaceful and safe at the moment, whenever the war started, Congolese refugees would flood across the border, and the city would become chaotic.

Instead, Tom had arranged for two young Rwandan assistants, Didier and Viateur, to take Steve and me on a walking tour and picnic. They led us past the biggest employer in Rwanda (a huge Heineken brewery), and we stopped at some natural springs so hot I couldn’t stick my fingertip in the water for more than a second or two. In a nearby pool that wasn’t as scalding, a young woman was scrubbing herself (clothed) and her baby (naked). The pools were a reminder of the geothermal turbulence in this neighborhood. Less than a dozen years ago the massive nearby Congolese volcano, Nyiragongo, erupted, pouring lava on Goma — though only 19 people died because the warnings and evacuation worked so well, according to Tom.

Tom, after our roadside picnic

Our big adventure with him came yesterday (Friday). We walked the short distance from our hotel to his house and he outfitted us with mountain bikes much nicer than anything I’ve ridden before. At 9:30, Tom, Steve, and I pedaled off, also accompanied by Tuizaire (Tom’s chief assistant). Tom’s an excellent instructor, and he carefully explained how to use our 24 gears; how to safely go downhill; how to avoid ruts and rocks. This was great. At one point, it struck me that I had never actually done mountain biking before. Arguably, rural Rwanda is an odd place to start.

But what a grand day we had! Rwanda calls itself “the land of 1000 hills,” and there’s nothing like bicycling to convince one that’s probably an understatement. I doubt we spent more than 30 minutes on flat ground in the course of our 8 hours together. We weren’t pedaling every minute. We stopped for photos. We stopped to gab about one sight or another. On the side of the road, we gobbled down chapattis (think flour tortillas) smeared with ripe avocado and delicious local cheese, and twice we stopped to down soda out of bottles sold in tiny shops in dirt-poor villages. Tom shared what felt like an encyclopedic knowledge of Rwanda’s culture, politics, history, botany, and sociology. If I’d taped everything he told us and transcribed the most interesting bits, it would probably fill 20 pages. And, oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned the scenery — mile after mile of plunging mountains, verdant valleys, exquisite bays.

For years, this was the poorest region in Rwanda, but Tom says coffee recently has boosted the standard of living a bit (taking over many fields once devoted to fruit and vegetables). He also says it’s one of the most densely populated rural areas in Africa, with about 450 people per square kilometer. This became palpable almost every time we rolled through a village. Legions of toddlers and young children would stream out, calling to us and often chasing, until Tom and Tuizaire scolded them away.

I found that fascinating rather than annoying. It was the physical demands of the ride itself that drove me to my limits. We only covered about 20 miles, according to Tom, but the total elevation gain was almost 3000 feet. Steve did great throughout, but I’m ashamed to confess I had to climb off my bike and walk a couple of times during the brutal uphill stretches at the end of the afternoon. And more than once I froze with fear when confronted with vertiginous descents over sand, loose scree, and deep ruts. But no one held it against me, including myself. It was such a pleasure to experience, a small dose of mortification seemed a cheap price.

Mercifully, the shower had hot water on our return. We dined on grilled chicken and were about to stagger off to bed when a small troupe of dancers — 2 young women and 2 young men dressed in traditional garb and wearing wild leonine wigs — came into the dining area and performed. We stayed to watch. It was Friday night in a place not far from where troops were massing, a place where people routinely smuggle in coltan and other minerals that make them rich beyond American dreams. Usually Steve and I gather with friends to share a potluck and watch a DVD together every Friday night. I love that. But on this Friday night I was glad to be here instead.