My flight from Istanbul, Turkey landed fewer than eight hours earlier. Darkness filled the city of Kigali at that time, so I drew back the curtains of my room and peeked into the new day. A peaceful landscape of red roofs and rolling hills stared back at me. Good morning, Rwanda.
I had deplaned on the runway of a visibly sleeping city the night before and walked toward the building that read “Kigali International Airport.” No lights or lanes guided me. Few airport staff members even looked my way as I meandered alone toward the “ARRIVALS” door. Only a small number of passengers exited the already half-filled plane, as the aircraft still had another late-night stop to make in Kampala, Uganda.
Once inside the airport, I made my way toward a wall of fellow foreigners. I grabbed a pen, filled out the country’s entry form and waited in a short line for one of the three Passport Control workers. When one man signaled me to approach, I handed him my passport and waited for his questions.
In the meantime, I scoped out the area. It seemed I could see most of the airport from where I stood. Directly past the Passport Control station was the smallest duty free shop I had ever seen. Just beyond that I noticed a central lounge area. And, peering over the railing just next to me, I saw baggage claim, just one level below.
Mister Passport Control scrolled the computer and glanced through my information. After about 30 seconds of silence, he slammed my passport back on the counter. “Wake up!” he yelled, as I jumped out of my 12:15a.m. standing coma. He laughed cheerfully and waved me through. “Have a good visit!”
The ride from the airport was what optimists might call an adventure. Kigali only just started receiving street names two months ago, so few houses have addresses. The plan had been for a Tulane University driver to pick me up from the airport (Tulane has an office in Kigali) with a phone that I could use to call my roommate en route.
“You will never find the house,” my roommate Julie emailed to me. “We’re about a 10-minute walk from the U.S. Embassy, but you have to drive down a windy dirt road to get here. Call me when you arrive, and I will guide the driver.”
As it turned out, the phone service was down throughout the city that night. We couldn’t make any outgoing calls or send emails. So, between my new temporary old-school phone, the driver’s Blackberry and my U.S.-serviced iPhone (which I knew wouldn’t work, but I stubbornly tried anyway), we found ourselves circling the neighborhood for over an hour with no one to call and nowhere to go.
There we were, my new overtired, visibly irritated driver friend and I cruising Kacyiru hill accompanied by my 49.8-pound suitcase, two carry-on bags, three phones and Adele and Akon serenading us on the radio.
In one of our weakest moments, my driver even tried dropping me at two different hotels – neither of which had any business answering their locked gates at 1:00a.m. “We can’t keep circling around like this,” he explained. “The Embassy will become suspicious of us.”
This was also around the time when I become increasingly aware of the fact that I was in a foreign land with no local cash, limited local language skills and not a single idea of what to do. All my plans and backup plans had already failed miserably.
Finally, around 1:15a.m., my roommate answered. When the phone died of low battery about 20 seconds later, my driver – now much more energized – sped us to a tall building and hopped onto its front patio to find an outlet. A guard stood out front and, as he turned, I got a glimpse of the AK-47 rifle he had casually slung over his shoulder. This was yet another unexpected addition to my already disorienting evening.
I tried not to draw attention to myself, but I could not help but keep even a corner of one sneaky eye focused on the rifle. I believe he also had a similar feeling of curiosity, as he could not help but stare back at the dissheveled-looking white girl staring out the windshield at him.
When my driver hopped back in the car, I asked him where we were.
“Tulane,” he responded.
What? “That guy is guarding the Tulane office?” I asked. “He has a big gun.”
The driver laughed. “Yes, there are other shops in the building,” he explained, “but all guards carry guns.”
We met my new roommate and her boyfriend soon after in front of the U.S. Embassy. As I started exiting the passenger seat, they immediately stopped me. “No, no. It’s better if we all go together.” And, so we did. My dear driver drove the car like a boat battling crashing waves down the long-awaited bumpy dirt road toward my new home.
We had made it. I was 21 hours, two cities, two countries and two continents away from my last night’s rest, but my tired driver and his choice of pop radio hits guided me home. And soon after, I climbed under the mosquito net onto my sheet-less, pillow-less mattress and went to sleep in Kigali.