Wednesday, May 10, 2017

President Of Mali Tries to Ruin Business Flight to Belgium

It was finally time to leave Rwanda. I'm pretty happy with the amount of days I budgeted for Rwanda. I got to briefly visit all 4 of the bordering countries, and I had a couple days to hang out with Matt. Life is good.

A big bummer was my flight out was at 10pm and they kicked me out of my room at like noon. So I killed all kinds of time in the hotel lobby. I didn't eat much because I wanted to unleash my appetite's full fury upon Brussels Airlines business class.

As it got later the guests got fancier and fancier. A couple of women walked in in some sort of traditional gowns and then just hung out by the door. They then rolled out a literal red carpet from the elevators to the door. Something was definitely afoot. 

I asked one of the staff and they informed me that the President of Mali is going to be staying at the hotel tonight. I have presidential taste, what can I say? She wasn't impressed in the least. She said that all of the presidents of the African Union stay here when they have their summits.

A police dog was sniffing around, and there were multiple Secret Service looking guys walking around in suits with earpieces.

 I had to leave before the president arrived which was annoying. Kayitare didn't message me when he arrived like he normally did and I was disappointed until he walked into the hotel and told me that someone had stolen his phone out of his hands through the car window. He was bummed about it because of all of the phone numbers and pictures that he'd lost. To make matters worse the nice highway that leads from the hotel to the airport was closed by the police because: the damn President of Mali was coming to my hotel! So we had to take some really janky back streets to get where we were going.

So we're navigating the back streets and one of my Google Calendar alerts goes off, saying that my flight is now leaving. I am filled with a feeling of dread and get so sick to my stomach that I consider asking Kayitare to pull over. My flight printout is in my bag in the trunk so I have to just sit and stew and worry the entire drive. Somehow it got confused and mixed up the flights, so I was good. Oh man that would have been a day ruiner. I don't even know if this is a daily flight so who knows how screwed I would have been if I missed this one.

We said a heartfelt goodbye at the airport. It's weird I think I will actually miss him. I have his number on Whatsapp though so we should be good if I have an emergency hankering for airmailed goat chunks and banana wine somewhere down the line.

This airport also had a fun business class fast lane through security and immigration. It's really what I deserve. My time is just inherently more valuable than other people's.

It made me smile when immigration took a picture, with a camera, of everyone's passport. The future is now.

I was amused to see that there was a business lounge and I had no choice but to enter. Business is booming!

Again, this is in many ways better than the lounge in St. Louis' airport. Just a fridge full of beer and soda for the taking. No nonsense.

The food was very odd and I didn't mess with it. Pizza, eggrolls, and samosas. And some brown ball-shaped things.

I just want to fly this airline exclusively. Maybe I could get some sort of sponsorship deal going.

You know you've made it when there are warning signs not just about your seatbelt but on the proper way to stow your champagne bottles.

Business class on this plane was a 2-1-2 configuration and this time I got stuck with a two seat row sitting next to... another person! Yuck. Luckily I found another row next to an empty seat. That was a close one.

I don't think I've ever had real champagne outside of a plane. I live at the intersection of baller and cheap-ass.

So yeah I rocked the Laurent-Perrier champagne real good. And I kept the cork because I'm a weirdo and I like to collect actual garbage.

I mixed it up a little with a Spanish Lar de Paula, Rioja Crianza. Mostly just because I only learned about the Rioja region a few months ago during my Spain adventure.

For dinner I went with:

Starter: quinoa-stuffed chicken on a bed of polenta

Main Course: Ravioli with Mascarpone Lemon filling and a vegetable tomato sauce

Belgian Cheese selected exclusively by Kaasaffineurs Van Tricht: Bucheardennes Herbes and Postel Rafael served with dried fruits and nuts (I know what about four of those words mean)

Dessert: Mocha mousse

Coffee and tea accompanied by a delightful selection of alcohol-free chocolates manufactured by neuhaus, Royal Warrant Holder and the leading Belgian luxury chocolatier

I don't think it was as fancy as the meal on the flight from Belgium which was a little annoying but it was still really good.

Embarrassingly after that pretty fancy dinner my favorite thing of the whole trip was this little package of spreadable cheese. The package referred to it as fondue, but it was cold, and it was amazing. It was sort like a fancy European's take on ballpark nacho cheese.

While laying everything out for me the stewardess said she doesn't like cheese. I assumed that Europeans who don't like cheese were all left in the woods as small children.

Oh man. There was some like bible version of a Make-A-Wish kid sitting on the plane next to me. He asked the poor flight attendant if the in-flight entertainment system had any gospel music and then went to reading his bible. My eyes rolled so hard that I believe it was audible. 

They were laying out the best of Belgium in front of him and he's like "do you have any chips?"

I guess this was his first flight ever which is sort of a curse because it's pretty much all downhill from here, kid. Once he started talking to me things deteriorated. He wished me a good meal any time I was about to eat anything. One time he forgot to annoy me before eating and I thought I had escaped but later he hit me with a "my friend, I'm sorry that I didn't tell you to enjoy your food". He said goodnight when I laid down. Good morning when I sat up. Oh man. I just think that "attempt to ruin business class for John on the way to receive life-saving surgery" was a wish that should have been pared down a little before they granted it, you know?

My awesome seat has little walls on either side that when reclined keep me from rolling off and block out some of the light and sounds from the clowns around me. I pondered how nice this was then realized: this is pretty much a crib. And there's a lady that I can ask for juice and snacks whenever I want. Business class is effectively a trip to daycare for adults.

Whenever I see that separate line for EU passport holders I think to myself "someday, Europe. Someday".

I didn't realize my mistake until it was too late, but next time I can just rent a car and do the 133 hour drive via the Trans-Sahara Highway.

At the Brussels airport I attempted to buy a ticket to Bruges but the machines wouldn't accept American credit cards. Lame! I got things figured out by visiting a manned kiosk, though.

As I sat on a bench between the tracks and waited for my train a Belgian lady with an Indian dude came by and waited with their kids and we had a nice chat. The lady informed me that Ghent is like Bruges but better. I really don't need to hear that right now lady.

The kids were a girl and a boy, 5 and 9. The little girl cutely proclaimed that they were going to their grandma's house.

"Does your grandma bake you cookies?" 
"Yes she makes biscuits but there are other better things." 
"What's better than cookies?"
"Cake. Chocolate cake. Strawberry cake. Strawberry pudding."
This chick knows what she likes.

The boy asked where I'm from. I returned the inquiry and he said well I was born in Brussels but I live in India. That boring old story.

I must have made a good impression because the kids asked if I wanted to live with them. Sure why not? At least until the strawberry pudding runs out.

Bruges was the end of the line so I didn't have to pay much attention and could concentrate on my true calling: gazing out the window.

The walk from the train station to my hotel was a good 20 minutes which was kind of strenuous carrying my bags. It was nice to get some exercise though.

My wheeled suitcase was especially annoying to drag along because of the quaint cobblestoned roads. The sound of my suitcase wheels clacking along every bump in them could wake the dead.

When I finally got to my room there wasn't some lame mint on the pillow. There was a mini box of Belgian chocolates! Any weight I lost in the African hinterland has probably been reversed by stuffing my face with fancy chocolates. Success!

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Last Road Trip: Tanzania

The last road trip had arrived. Had a sort of metallic taste in my mouth today. Maybe that goat I ate yesterday is coming for its revenge.

Tanzania was the last country bordering Rwanda I had not yet fearfully stretched my toe into before running away in fear. Let's do it.

I came to the realization that Rwanda is nicer than most of the Caribbean and Central/South America in terms of cleanliness and feeling safe.

Kayitare pointed at a mass of white tents in the distance. "You see there? Those are the tents of Burundian refugees."

Kids learn to carry water at a young age in Rwanda. I saw toddlers carrying smaller jugs of water next to their mothers with giant yellow jerrycans on their heads.

Speaking of which, we finally hit someone. People just saunter onto the highway like they don't know how a fast moving vehicle will ruin their day. I don't think we hit his actual body but we hit the jerrycan he was carrying so hard that it popped in the car's retractable side-view window. He didn't stop.

I could tell that Tanzania was a more robust economy just from the number of cars headed that direction. There was lots of NGO and safari-looking vehicle traffic. What passes for an ambulance having an emergency around here is a white jeep with its blinkers on honking wildly.

Strangely enough people rarely ask us for a ride. In Gambia it was every single person we passed would ask it seemed. You want to feel bad about yourself? Drive past 100s of people carrying heavy life necessities on their heads while in a van that seats 8 with only 2 people passengers. I've probably driven more miles on Rwandan roads that most of the people who live here.

One lady had a whole mattress on her head. I'm obviously fascinated with the whole carrying of things on one's head. Kayitare probably thinks I'm a crazy person. It would be sort of like if he came to the US and just took thousands of pictures of people loading their groceries into their cars in a Target parking lot.

We drove past some kids and they rolled some little green balls onto the street in front of our car. I'm not really sure what that was about even after Kayitare's explanation. I'm going to say that they were nuts that the kids wanted cracked.

People with laden bicycles look sad going up the hill but flying down the hill on the other side full of bananas looks kind of fun.

Kayitare calls a pee break a "short call". It took me forever to figure out what he was saying. It got so bad that I knew the mumbled phrase meant "stop to go to the bathroom" but I still couldn't make out the words. That was a fun bit of African English.

When we arrived at the Tanzanian border I was really surprised at how developed it was. There were large, new immigration buildings on both sides of the line. We just drove past the Rwandan one, which made me a little uncomfortable because now we didn't have an official exit stamp. There was a river of trucks crossing the border, many of them carrying fuel. I guess now we know where Rwanda imports its gasoline from.

The actual border was a river, and upon crossing the bridge we once again switched sides of the road. Tanzania is another left side country.

When we arrived at the Tanzanian side of the border there was an identical immigration building that we entered. We first popped into a room that was empty except for a few chairs with policemen sitting in them. I had a nice little ambassadadorial chat with them. "My name is John, I am from America, nice to meet you", etc. etc. The guy in charge even asked me what I thought of the border and if I had any suggestions to make it better. I didn't but I came up with some crap about how the border seemed to be full of commerce between the two nations something something. He either didn't understand me or just was not impressed. Whatever dude.

We then moved over to the immigration window. Kayitare yet again did his best to hustle a passport stamp out of the immigration lady. She proceeded to lecture/scold me about not having gone through the proper procedures. If I wanted to enter I needed to first go back to Rwanda to get the exit stamp, then I needed to fill out some paperwork, then pay a $100 visa fee. She seemed insulted when she asked how long I wanted to stay in Tanzania and my reply was "5 minutes". The thing is the border was the river we had just crossed, so I was in the odd predicament of already standing in a country that I did not have permission to enter.

She started on this lecture about how all borders have rules and this one was no different blah, blah. Of all people lecturing me about how borders work is pretty rich but ok lady. Have yourself a good day.

After Officer Powertrip was done with her speech we left the office and I walked toward a sign that said "Tanzania" on it for a quick pic. I hadn't made it over when a random man ran over and told us that Powertrip wanted to talk to us again. Ok, cool. Maybe she had cooled down and wanted to try to patch up her poor first impression. Nope. She said something like "you are not welcome here, get in your car right now and leave". A thousand ebolas upon you.

While driving we passed a brightly painted bar named "hakuna matata" which of course made me bust up laughing. I asked Kayitare what's the deal with hakuna matata and he turned to me and deadpanned "it means no worries", in Swahili. More laughing. I asked him if he had ever seen Lion King and he had no idea what I was talking about.

In the middle of nowhere we passed some sort of support for women NGO craft shop. I just thought that I should do my part to support women so that they can support themselves and their families and other good things that good people say. Also I figured that since we were out in the sticks that the prices here would be low. But mostly all of that first stuff that I wrote.

The pointy basket things are called agaseke. I guess they are traditionally made out of the hemp-like fiber of the sisal plant which is a type of agave. I read an article about them in the East African here which says the price of sisal has risen so some women have resorted to weaving the baskets out of discarded plastic shopping bags. They are used to present people with important gifts.

The agaseke is prominently displayed on the seal of Rwanda.

I felt vindicated in my decision to stop here when Kayitare even bought a purse for his girlfriend. My low price theory was correct! I'm a bad, bad man. While I was shopping a little girl kept yelling "good morning!" at me from across the street. I waved and returned the greeting. What I was really thinking though was more like little girl, it's 2pm. Get a job.

One pair of earrings I bought were bird shaped and I asked the shop woman what the bird was called. They were shaped kind of like dodos, so when the lady replied "inkoko" I was excited that I had made a discovery and I couldn't wait to look it up once I got internet access. In Kinyarwanda, one of the national languages of Rwanda, inkoko means chicken.

Kayitare knew that I was leaving the country tomorrow so he wanted to stop at another place along the road for a beer. The tusks on this place reminded me of the Flintstones. Kayitare and I have been together now for like solid days, and a funny thing happened. I think we may have become actual friends. He showed me pictures of his loved ones and we talked about life.

He asked about the body type of my family members. He continued that Americans are big and Europeans are small. Of course I had to ask him which of those I am and he said not big but strong. Correct answer sir.

He was messing around on Youtube on his cellphone and I couldn't resist showing him my Cardinals interview video. Here we are, at a rural roadside Rwandan bar, watching a video shot in St. Louis weeks ago on a phone pulling said video out of signals flying through the air. What a time to be alive. While watching he asked if I was on the team. I couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

I then followed up with the Hakuna Matata music video. He looked at me unimpressed and was like "is this the kind of movies you like?" Hey, don't try to make me look like the weird one here mister "I don't know who Walt Disney is".

I guess I'll leave this here in case you want to get into the African mood.

They had the same chewy goat bit skewers as yesterday but I managed to successfully decline the offer this time. I've cheated the gods of gastric distress enough on this trip I think.

While seated at the bar I can hear people snoring, construction, babies crying, and roosters crowing.

There seems to be a pattern in this country where an establishment will have all just normal seating, except for one set of the Africanest Africa chairs that have ever been assembled.

While I didn't see much of the countries that we drove to I saw a ton of Rwanda.