Brock Weir's Blog
September 7, 2007 – Reflections on two weeks at The New Times
I started working at The New Times on August 28, a little over a week after arriving. This delay is, according to our coordinator Shelley Robinson, to give us time to get over any jetlag, adjust and oriented in the Rwanda, which is to be our home for a month or more.
As was expected, I experienced a bit of a culture shock when I got here which lasted for a few days. I can’t pinpoint anything specific that could account for it, but as I was going through the culture shock I also felt a bit of trepidation about what to expect at The New Times.
When the trepidation hit, I soon realised the value of this orientation week. While exploring Kigali and Butare, as well as figuring out how to navigate myself around the city, I also took the time to familiarize myself with the paper.
Back issues were in ready supply at the house in Butare, as well as at the former “student house,” just up the hill from our current house. I familiarised myself with its content, format, and current “hot” issues at the paper. I also tried to get a handle on the names of reporters…but as I’m terrible in remembering names, I had a feeling this would be in vain.
One of the journalists at The New Times, however, is called “Margaret Thatcher.” Somehow I had a feeling I’d remember hers.
On August 24, my first Friday in the country, Shelley took me around to The New Times to be introduced to the journalists and get acquainted with the newsroom. During the taxi trip there, I tried to memorize the route from the house to The New Times. This effort had to be aborted though as our driver took a wrong turn at a roundabout. I’d have to start again from scratch.
After one more turn around the roundabout (“Around The Roundabout”…must keep that in mind if I ever decide to write a delightful musical comedy set in post-war Britain), we were soon back on track and arrived at The New Times.
Their building is deceptive. Set directly in front of the Supreme Court buildings, one would think the building is merely six or seven storeys tall, but there are three stories below the ground floor which are accessible by car via a very rocky hill branching off the main road. The newsroom is located on the absolute bottom floor.
My first impression of the newsroom was that of a dark and dreary room scattered with orderly clusters of computers, which lent the room an atmospheric hum. Whatever thoughts I had about the room’s dreariness, however, were soon pushed aside by the sheer warmth with which I was greeted.
September 2, 2007 – My name is Brock and I’m arachnophobic
Before I left Canada, I was fully aware that I would come back with new perspectives on many issues including the press, politics, and poverty. I didn’t realize that upon leaving Rwanda, I’d be leaving behind a particular bedtime ritual I have practiced for as long as I can remember.
I loathe spiders with a passion. I can co-exist peacefully alongside flies, beetles, crickets, and their ilk, but when confronted with a spider, I’ve always been possessed with a lust to kill.
If, for instance, I saw one climbing across the floor – or up a wall – I’ve always gone into Rambo mode and swiftly hunted it down. The more brutal the kill, the better. A crunch or an audible “splat” underfoot? All the better!
Before retiring for the evening at home, I did a thorough wall, floor, and closet check to better ensure my potential night-time encounters with those eight-legged freaks would be slim to nil.
After a couple of days in Kigali, however, I realised this would be an exercise in futility…and wholly unnecessary.
After arriving here on August 19, I went to my room to unpack for a little while. I quickly discovered three spiders having a grand ole’ time in my closet and deftly slaughtered them.
A few hours later, I was typing on my computer in the dining room when I saw some sort of creature – slightly obscured by a curtain – climbing up the wall. It appeared to be a gecko on closer inspection.
“Great, one more thing to worry about,” I thought.
It certainly put my arachnid vendetta into perspective. Now, instead of worrying about swallowing a spider in my sleep (I know this is unavoidable, but there’s no harm in giving avoidance the old school try), I now had to consider a disgruntled gecko dive-bombing onto my face in the middle of the night.
The bed net concept was no comfort. Geckos have teeth.
I couldn’t, of course, kill a gecko. That would have been cruel. They’re not creatures that aren’t, like spiders, inherently evil. (PETA, if you’re reading this, I’ll be wearing a rain poncho through the arrivals gate at Pearson. Please leave the red paint at home)
I reluctantly left the gecko to its business and went back to my computer to try to contact the outside world. Needless to say, though, I kept one eye on the lizard.
After a half-hour of sending off three emails (this country makes one have a whole new appreciation for high-speed internet), I still had one eye on the gecko…until something else grabbed my attention.
Lurking in a corner just above, but to the left of the window was a medium sized black spider. If it weren’t for that distracting gecko, it wouldn’t have made it that far up the wall.
Not wanting to fall down on my self-appointed duty, I rummaged around the living room to find some sort of weapon, settling on an old copy of The Walrus. Rolling it up, I tried to make a surprise attack on the dining room but before I reached my target I saw the gecko scurrying across the wall.
In a few seconds, that spider was a meal.
This was a miraculous turn of events. In just seconds, both my arachnophobia, and my 35-minute-old fear of an unprovoked gecko attack were obliterated.
If the geckos were here to keep the spider population down, I could rest easy.
If they scratch my back, I’ll certainly scratch theirs. I haven’t quite figured out the mechanics of that yet though. If I do, that would warrant a separate blog entry. Stay tuned.
Speaking of obliterated childhood hang-ups, Rwanda has managed to cure me of another one.
Again, as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted a pet goat.
Personally, I related to George W. Bush’s utter fascination with “My Pet Goat.” I bet it was a damn good book. Pictures too.
To my mind, a goat was the most practical pet imaginable. First of all, they’re adorable, second, they provide milk, and third, they cut the lawn. What more could you ask for?
When I left to come here, I didn’t think I would succumb to the peer pressure to actually eat my ideal pet, but I’m sad to report I caved.
Yes, I ate goat… but not just ordinary goat, goat on a stick, otherwise known as brochette. Even typing these words makes me feel like a sell-out, and I would feel a whole lot worse if they weren’t so delicious.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve become quite the goat brochette connoisseur. I feel the need to mention this in a blog as a permanent record of my betrayal. Recommendations for penance are welcome.
August 26, 2007 — The great laundry mystery
When one does a load of laundry in Canada with of two or more pairs of socks, it is common knowledge that at least one of the individuals won’t make it out of the dryer.
The general principle holds true in Kigali…for a time.
Two days after I arrived in the city, I was getting ready to have a shower. After picking a pair of pants out of my still-packed suitcase and tossing them casually onto the bed, I went down the hall to the shower to wash my off my liberally applied OFF bugspray (a staple in my portable pharmacy).
When I came back a short while later, the pants had disappeared. Since they disappeared two pairs of formerly white socks – now an orange-red thanks to the vivid coloured dust from the roads that penetrates every dwelling -- I immediately thought the worst. Setting off on a search through our house which was, at that point, still uncharted territory, I stop to investigate the front-loader just off the kitchen.
They weren’t in there.
Nor were they in any of the buckets or baskets around the washer. Following what I hoped was a trail, I find myself in the rear of the house (actually, it could technically be the front). They aren’t lurking anywhere near the porch, nor are they hanging on the line with the socks I put out there the day before.
The trail was cold.
All I could do now was wait.
The next day, I suddenly found myself going to Butare. Unfortunately, my beloved pants did not arrive back in time for departure. Hell, I almost missed the bus myself. After a great overnight stay visiting the town, university, the program’s instructors teaching at the National University – and a local shopkeeper who was quite sure we had met before – I returned home to no pants. The London-Rome-Addis Ababa-Kigali socks, however, somehow found their way back to my shelf.
After another day of longing, I round the corner to my room to find our wonderful housekeeper just coming out of my door. On my bed, I found my pants – at last! – and two intact pairs of socks.
I don’t know where they went, or why they were gone for so long, but the Rwandans know something about laundry that we don’t. Our housekeeper may hold something bigger than the Cadbury secret.
August 23, 2007 — It ain’t gonna get any fresher than that!
There is a certain romantic mystique to be found exploring the streets of Kigali and Butare on foot.
As a fan of classic movies and TV shows – and an aspiring journalist – I somehow long for the days where a kid would be out on the street, bag over shoulder, hawking the day’s news with a shout or a placard. I’m so happy to report this custom is alive and well Kigali. Whether they are selling The New Times, Newsline, and despite the fact that these newspapers just might not be from the past couple of days, the enthusiasm is there and it is hard to resist.
In the days I’ve been here, the most sellers I’ve seen have been congregated at either end of the Volcano bus route between Kigali and Butare.
This is a smart move.
Most people getting on the bus in Kigali or Butare are bracing themselves for the two-hour plus drive to either place. Fortunately for me but unfortunately for them, I couldn’t possibly read a newspaper on the drive; it is far too fascinating and beautiful. The beauty, coupled with my penchant for falling asleep in any moving vehicle when the sun is shining, would leave very little time to read.
The Volcano stop back at their station in Kigali is right in the heart of the city. The station is very small; a somewhat wider than average alley in all honesty, but it is surrounded by countless businesses and innumerable people. In many cases, some of these innumerable people are a significant chunk of the business community.
When I came back from my first trip to Butare, for instance, a father and son invited me to inspect the quality of four pairs of suede sandals they were selling. They might do better business moving their operations closer to the teeming bus stop at the bottom of the hill. To the hapless muzungo who might have lost a shoe attempting to clamber off one of the packed-to-the-rafters vans, their wears might very well be a godsend.
After politely inspecting – but ultimately declining -- the footwear, I attempted to cross the street to the Bourbon Café (a place that never fails to remind me of “Rick’s Café Americain”), a veritable oasis in the city, but not before another sales pitch.
Another father-son team was crossing the road in the other direction with about 48 dead chickens. I initially thought they were going to veer around the corner to one of the cafes, but all 50 of them were heading my way.
Upon shoving one of the freshly dispatched hens into my face, the son insisted I buy one… or more! Intrigued as I was by this new definition of fast food, I had to turn it down. It might have been nice thing to bring home to Marie, our very nice cook, but I haven’t seen her prepare anything yet that wasn’t already beheaded, plucked and/or skinned.
After just finishing that sentence, this thought crossed my mind: If these chickens still had a good head on their shoulders, how exactly were they killed? Hmm…I may have to go back to that corner.
August 20, 2007 — Heathrow to Kigali: Trial by ordeal
After hearing the horror stories of other interns who took the Ottawa – Washington – Addis Ababa flights to Kigali, I might consider myself lucky…but my own flight over here following a five-day stopover in London was definitely no cakewalk.
When the travel agency gave me my flight options, I had no hesitation in opting to spend a few days in London to satisfy my appetite for all things royal. After gorging myself on five palaces, one castle, a museum, a stately home, and an abbey, I attempted to make my way from my hostel at Earl’s Court to Heathrow.
Wherever one goes in London, one is bombarded by ominous signs warning tourists, presumably, never to get into an unlicensed taxi. When the taxi – conveniently arranged by the hostel – pulled up, I was a bit dismayed to find it was an ordinary, “unmarked” Mercedes-Benz…well as ordinary as a Mercedes could possibly be. The driver got out of the “taxi” and I was further surprised to find a 30-something man dressed in business attire. This driver was far removed from any others that I experienced on the iconic “Black Taxi” service. Since the ride was arranged by the hostel, I steeled myself and got in the car, safe in the knowledge that if this was a ride to my doom at least I was going out in style.
Much to my relief, we arrived at Heathrow right in time for a torrential downpour.
But this worrisome cab ride was merely a prelude of things to come.
After struggling to put my two suitcases onto the trolley (my mother assembled a fully equipped portable pharmacy in the larger case), I deftly navigated the rickety wagon down the slope towards Terminal Three.
I couldn’t find online where exactly I was supposed to go once in the terminal, but I was thrilled to find a sign labeling clearly stating the desk and baggage check for Ethiopian Airlines was in a station marked “G.” This brief moment of joy lasted until I reached Station G, where I was told by an adamant man dressed in a crossing guard’s vest that Ethiopian Airlines was holding court in Station B.
Trying not to be outraged, I hitched up my wagon and tried to navigate it through a seemingly solid mass of people to get to Station B. At Station B, a woman in a uniform – a flight attendant’s uniform, not a crossing guard’s – told me that I (I!) was “very much mistaken” and that the Ethiopian desk was “logically” at Station E. Off I went in the direction of Station E, which turned out to be under the full jurisdiction of Singapore.
The uniformed woman at Station E (these women are staked out about every 10 metres across the terminal, a testament to the terminal’s convenience) tells me that they were really at Station G.
This process continued for 50 further minutes, with seven full trips across the terminal. If I missed my flight, they could have given me one of those uniforms. I came to know the place like the back of my hand.
Seven trips and countless people victimized by my trolley’s wheel later, Ethiopian finally opened up its desk at … wait for it … Station B!
A further 45 minutes of nothing awaited me at Station B while the baggage check women chatted endlessly. At their earliest convenience, they called us up to take our baggage. During my treks across the terminal, I spied numerous signs which stated passengers could only bring one carry-on through the terminal…so I knew there would be trouble ahead.
As I approached the desk, the woman who I’d be dealing with gave me and my two suitcases, backpack, and carry-on bag a once-over and looked up at me with a curious expression of exasperation mixed with a dab of relish.
We went through the standard procedure of processing the e-ticket and examining my passport photo – a dead-ringer of Ronald Reagan’s mug shot, if he had one. I was charged for the first suitcase. I think the portable drug store weighed me down. The second one was fine. Then it was time to deal with the carry-on.
“Well you can only take one piece on the plane with you,” she said.
I explained to her that I saw the sign and asked if she had any means of disposing of the offending bag. She did not.
After a bit of negotiation, and a completely repacking my smaller suitcase, backpack, and second bag, I eventually convinced her to check in my backpack.
(If any of next year’s participants are reading this, take note: If you are flying to Rwanda through Heathrow with a second carry-on bag, look the person at the desk square in the eye and challenge them to dispose of your bag)
The next step in my progress through the airport from Hell was the first of three security checks, which took a further 40 minutes. The first station was a bag check which would have been painless, save for the fact I had to dissect my carefully repackaged carry-on. The boarding pass check and the shoe scanner were the next two stations. Oddly, they did not check my passport … but I guess I have a trustworthy face.
After this “harrowing experience”, I was then subjected to the forced consumerism that is the Heathrow duty free. I was not as pleased with it as Garrett seems to be. In fact, I was outraged. I tried to get through there as soon as possible, and when I came out the other side…Ethiopian Airlines had no assigned gate.
Enough was enough.
I needed a drink.
I scouted out this ridiculously “posh” looking (according to a passer-by) seafood counter (yes, a seafood counter!) in the middle of the hall where I bought the largest beer on the menu with a coca-cola chaser. Those who say wine is ambrosia have not tried to reach Kigali through Heathrow’s Terminal Three.
At long last, I was slightly refreshed…and relaxed. This was excellent as I had a further hour and 10 minutes before my plane was assigned a gate.
Once on the plane, I was actually looking forward to nine hours of nothing.
Ethiopian Airlines provided a fantastic flight. Good food, good movies and TV shows, a cabin which made my Air Canada plane to London look like a jalopy and a fleeting bird’s eye view of a dimly lit Rome in the evening. It was a nice way to cap an otherwise disastrous evening.
Compared to Heathrow, Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa was an oasis of calm. The corridors were clear and the people were friendly. The same can be said for the wonderfully welcoming, small Kigali International Airport
Upon reflection, I’ve come to two conclusions about Heathrow.
First, to the people camped outside the airport on August 18 to oppose the construction of a new terminal, try going in to terminal three in the evening. You might change your mind.
Secondly, if I ever need to fly back to England, and Heathrow is my only option, I’ll go by boat.