I broke the toilet

Literally. I broke my toilet. I had been in Africa for two days and already started tearing things apart.

This shattering of the ceramic toilet-top perfectly symbolizes my adjustment process to the city of Kigali: The top hides shit beneath its surface, but when ill-treated winds up in pieces on the floor. This is also my life.

If someone asked me to sum up my first week in Kigali in three words, I could do so easily:

  1. Starving.
  2. Destitute.
  3. Helpless.

It wasn’t the city’s fault. It wasn’t mine either. This situation evolved from a sort of cyclical effect that whirled within the crossing-over process of my American culture into that of Rwanda’s. That cyclical effect went something like this:

I had limited access to money due to:

  1. Not being able to find an ATM (length of search: 1 day)
  2. Not finding an ATM that actually worked (length of search: 3 days)
  3. Not having enough money while waiting for my government loan reimbursement (length of search: 7 days)…

I could not buy food or water because I could not access money to buy the food or water with…

Once I ran out of the cash I finally got access to, I could not get back to the ATM because I did not have enough cash to pay the taxi-moto driver 700 RWF ($1.14) to drive me the ATM…

I could not call or email anyone for help because I did not have access to Internet or a phone…

I did not have access to Internet or a phone because I did not have enough money to buy Internet or airtime for my phone…

And so the cycle continued for about seven days.

The situation was actually quite simple: I was in Africa trying to reach America, but all lines had been permanently disconnected.

It didn’t take long for the blunt realization to hit me. Almost everything we use to access anything in the United States requires electronics or Internet. I could not even drink a clean glass of water, because my money was trapped on the electronic piece of plastic in my wallet.

Of course, I tried to prepare for this transition. I knew nowhere in Kigali accepts debit or credit cards. I knew the city’s ATMs would only usually work. I tried exchanging money ahead of time, but failed to consider that exchanging two of the smallest world currencies – Danish Krona into Rwandan Francs – would not be a popular option between Copenhagen and Kigali.

I adapt easily to new cultures and situations. New experiences typically excite rather than overwhelm me. I came to Rwanda looking for a new opportunity to grow – and grow I already have. This first week in Kigali pushed my personal threshold to a whole new level. It took me three days to eat one full meal and seven to eat two meals in one day. I felt myself pinned against corners – a place I don’t often find myself stuck in – with one option: fight my way out.

It was an enormous challenge that taught me enormous things about my character, strength and will to carry on despite my continuous urge to hop a plane home with a big chocolate brownie and cry.

When I finally accessed enough money to buy Internet three days after arrival, my stubborn will to maintain independence also dissolved. I used my 15 minutes of available computer battery life (none of the coffee shop outlets worked) and emailed my parents for help. Actually, it was more of an SOS distress call. My ship was drowning, I explained. And, I desperately needed a loan before I went down with it.

I have thanked God every day since for parents who love me enough to rescue my sinking ship.

During my second day in Kigali, I used my toilet and it wouldn’t flush. Because I thought myself capable of a task like fixing a toilet, I removed the upper lid and allowed it to slip from my hands onto the tile floor.

This is how I broke my toilet. But, when I saw those poor, broken pieces scattered about the bathroom floor, I found a broom and swept them up again.

14 replies »

  1. Sorry to hear that you had to go through that. One would have thought the locals would have extended some hospitality when it came to food.

  2. Damn, Sara. It goes without saying that I’m sorry to hear how tough this is on you. Of course, I’m also certain that you’re plenty tough to manage it all, as well. And I’m grateful that you’re making the time to chronicle the journey.

  3. Great piece, Sara, though I hate for you that it was such misery that inspired the this fine writing. Thought the ending especially poignant and lovely. Sometimes sweeping up the pieces makes us feel we have a little control, doesn’t it?

    Wonderful stuff….

  4. The bright side: you only broke a non essential portion of the toilet.

    You know it’ll get better, and then this week will be one of those stories you love to tell. Or maybe you don’t, but i can almost promise this to be the case. My first week in Russia was similar. I had money after a few days, but my slight preparation for reading the language didn’t help because the kiosk signs were all in Cyrillic handwriting and you had to ask for what you wanted to buy. At this time and outside the city center, no one spoke English. I tried and failed a few times.

    For most of the first week i lived on hand-rolled smokes, starbursts and altoids. But then i figured it out and was more brazen and confident for it in most all endeavors. You will be too.

  5. Keep sweeping, Sara. That’s exactly the kind of strength of character that is so, so valuable and so, so admirable. That’s exactly why you’re awesome.

    Your series has been great. I’m thankful that you’ve taken us with you on your adventures (and misadventures) in Rwanda.

  6. Seconding Lex in his near-promise that this will end up being one of those stories you love to tell, although it make take a while. Kudos to you for your resolve in the face of adversity!

  7. Another bright side: I learned the magic trick that now makes the toilet flush on a regular basis.

    Thank you all for the feedback. It’s always nice to hear about other travel experiences…Lex, your hand-rolled smokes, starbursts and altoids were my cashews, leftover smushed Cliff bars and boiled tap water.

    And I must say, the one thing I kept reminding myself of that week was “at least this will be a story to tell.”

  8. What an amazing story. I’m with Lex. This is one of those experiences you will recount again and again over the years. In some sense, this is why we travel, isn’t it? It’s the challenge of making your way in an environment that’s way outside your comfort zone, whether that’s figuring out how to use public transportation when you can’t read the signs, or finding clean food and water when you know they’re in short supply.

    Good for you for pushing through. It’s a great story.

  9. And I am really proud she is my daughter. Trust me, it is really easy being her parent, well except for when she doesn’t stop talking and I want to go to bed! :}

    Thanks for being an inspiration to all of us, Sara! And thanks for supporting her, Scholars & Rogues readers.


  10. This is likely to late to help, but the Bank of Kigali only about a 10 minute walk from City Center is really reliable for the ATM. It accepts everything but Discover, and to get there is 250 RWF if you take the mini bus (taxi) from the Minister bus stop in Kaciyru. You’ve likely already figured this out, but that might be helpful anyway!