The blistering, blinding African sun was too hot today, giving the horizon a shimmering, glossy texture, making me question if it was even real at all. I sought shelter at a corner store and emerged with a large, ice-cold bottle of water in hand. Sitting in front of me was the vehicle of my youth. I circled it twice, checking to see if it was a mirage, then got lost in a story from my past; a story which directly relates to the present.
The Van! IT'S THE VAN!
The morning we left was always a crazy, disorganized half-conscious stumble to the van, which was already laden down with supplies and idling in the driveway. With the stars trading places with the purple and pink acoustics of the Alberta prairie sky, we would be off. A modern-day Oregon Trail, I used to think. Six of us (four kids) piled into a variety of vehicles over the years, but it was the Toyota Previa, the ‘eggvan,’ that became the legendary mode of travel for our family.
That van, and those trips helped define our family. They helped define me. Mom and Dad ingeniously put the two rowed backseats flat and covered them with blankets effectively converting the van into a hotel, wrestling mat, card playing table and probably the most conducive environment in which to moon fellow vehicles (“Dad…. Angie’s mooning cars again”). I never really knew where we were going, as a kid that’s not what mattered. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure that even Mom and Dad knew the route, destination or duration of the trip, but regardless, we went without fail every summer.
The van was the viewfinder for the world, using our short two month vacation from school to escape Ponoka, Alberta. The landscape outside the van was a kaleidoscope of North America, changing frames with each sunrise. From the barren plains of blue sky Saskatchewan to the busy urban sprawl of Toronto, or the shining of the crystal clear Lake Havasu, we found the world unfolding into a larger… much larger place than our small hometown.
The van was our courthouse; where law, order and pee-breaks would be decided by the parent who was not behind the wheel. I vaguely remember the occasional threat of, “That’s it, we are pulling over. You are walking home.” Urine-bottles were needed for the weak of bladder and the butt end of many kid jokes (“Hey Rish, want some apple juice?”).
The van brought culture in music; from my parents Bollywood cassette tapes which would always make me cringe, to the always popular techno-house dance beats of Chris Shepard’s Pirate Radio (I know what I want, and I want it now. I want you, cuz I’m Mr. Vain.)
As the hours slowly stretched into days, the van became our jailhouse. We would invent games to pass the hours, such as Hand Freeze; where we would see who could hold their hand out of the barely opening back windows longest in times of rain or hail (ow-ow-OW!). Another famous game growing up was Make Rishi Cry. There was no skill, or pleasure, or really effort in this game, but we played it anyways. In fact, I don’t think anyone, except Angie, took much pleasure in this game, but it passed time nonetheless. To this day, we still don’t know why he cried so much, but we’re quite glad he grew out of that phase (love, Rish, love).
The van was our glue. We crammed one-on-top of each other for days on end, and bonded as a family. We dealt with sibling disputes, lengthy detours (We missed the sign… 150 kilometers ago), an increasingly fish-smelling van, suffocating hot days, difficult border crossings and the occasional car accident, as one. Whenever a problem presented itself, we would simply shrug our shoulders, and pile back into the vehicle. That, after all, was all we could do. We roughed it, only rarely opting to stop at motels (by no means luxury), usually preferring gas station bathrooms as our sink-shower and tooth brushing centre.
Our van was love. One cloudy day in Wawa, Mom decided to neglect the road and utter the now infamous line still used with incredibly hilarity today, “Look at those pretty cottages.” Promptly, we smashed into the lineup of cars which had stopped for construction. The seats were down bed-style and I was sitting up in the middle row, so the accident started my temporary experiment with flying. Dad was lying closest to the front captain seats, and protectively, instinctively barred his strong, loving arm across the seats and stopped me cold on my journey mid-flight, as if I weighed nothing more than a feather. In that moment, I recognized how deep a father’s love is as he said, without saying anything,
“I’ve got you son. You are safe here.”
From these trips, something changed in the world I knew. I developed a passion for the road, for traveling, for adventure, for stories. Writing this entry from a dark computer lab in Kigali, Rwanda, I cannot help but fight the sneaking suspicion that those impromptu summer journeys played a role in getting me here.
The years passed and times changed. The kids grew up and moved on to school and work in the big City while the van, unused and unappreciated, was sold. There are no more summer vacations and no big, blue van to pile into and depart across the continent in.
Our family, however, remains together; getting along more like close friends than family. That van changed everything growing up, forcing us to spend time in a way we never would at home. We bonded and grew up but still share a closeness I now realize is rare in today’s world. In a way, we’ve always been traveling the same road together.
In a way, I don’t think we ever got out of that van.
Anyone who says they came to Rwanda for the food is a liar. Shame on you. Variety is the spice of life, however neither variety nor spice have ever graced this little countries' dietary imagination. The standard Western three meal fare of breakfast, lunch and supper are replaced with the combination of ‘tea’ and ‘buffet.’ Eating after dark, as evidenced by the availability of food past 3pm, is an unspoken taboo. Rwandans are slender people, obviously accustomed to a diet with substantially less food than Canadians.
9:30 am is the time I live for. Starting work at 8:00am on an empty stomach leads to an unproductive morning and a longing…wanting…needing of tea. All staff at the Institute leave whatever post they are occupying at the time (I stopped my own class 40 minutes early solely for the sacred nature of the event), and head to the meal tent, a giant-circus style structure for morning tea. I rush past the ambling ones ravenously, much like Fred Flinstone leaves work at the quitting whistle.
A massive container of African Tea awaits for all to ask the tongue-in-cheek question; Would you like some tea with your milk? Essentially, its steaming milk spiced with ginger and nutmeg and usually served with one (no, really that’s enough), two (this is my effort at ‘blending’ in), three (why does my heart hurt so much?), four (really now, that’s just not necessary) overflowing teaspoons of fresh, brown sugar. For most, this is enough for morning sustenance.
I learned early on that there is enough tea for everyone, so my energies immediately divert to the Golden Tombola; the Holy Grail… the Food Tray. If you get there late, there is a queue, where all former allies and notions of respect for your fellow colleagues get thrown out the window as an unspoken survival-of-the-pushiest contest exists for the breakfast goods. Like traders at Wall Street, you stand back and yell, hoping your order gets heard among the crowd. Waiting for you are 5 items; Boiled Eggs, Chappati’s (flour cooked on a flat pan on an oven with oil), Sambousa (the equivalent of a greasy Indian Samousa stuffed with meat), Spring Rolls (a cylindrical, rolled and deep-fried morsel of goodness packed with beef (?) and an occasional pea, justifying the chef to use the word ‘spring’ in the title). There is also a deep-fried ball of flour (mandwai), but its taste is akin to what you would expect from un-spiced and un-sweetened flour, so I avoid it. I purchase one of each of the desired items (for a total of 450 Rwandan Francs; $0.79 CDN), and make my way to the table with my head down, careful not to make eye-contact with anyone. I learned that my share is far more than the local custom suggests and renders the occasional “Is that ALL for you???” quirk from neighboring tables. Breakfast is served.
Lunch provides a different experience; leaving connoisseurs of the event to ask, “Is that ALL for you???” meaning you simply haven’t taken enough. I’ve given up trying to please everyone, it’s not possible. Apparently someone in Rwanda decided that an informal, impromptu, un-judged eating contest should exist at buffet, everyone silently competing for an unknown prize. It is a testament to humanity how such skinny individuals can fit so much food into their stomachs at one sitting.
For 1000 RWF ($1.75 CDN), the pride of Rwandan cuisine is presented to you in the form of 8 metallic, steaming trays of food set-up in a linear sequence. If there was a Carbs-Only Diet, this would be the model example of it. The locals and ex-pats alike have a variety of colorful and appropriate nick-names to describe the Lunch Buffet experience; with Volcano and Network Down (meaning your cell phone doesn’t receive reception around the pile of food) topping the list as personal favorites. Grab a plate, stand an inch behind the person in front of you (or someone will gladly fill the space) and prepare to be awed.
Tray 1: Rice. Plain, or, if feeling ambitious, the cook adds the equivalent of ¼ of a carrot to the massive tray, in little chunks (for style points, of course).
Tray 2: Stewed Bananas with Onions in Red Sauce (a fan-favorite).
Tray 3: French Fries (Large Chunks, comes with EVERY meal in Rwanda)
Tray 4: ‘African Cake’ (Grey, dry potato gush)
Tray 5: Spinach or Casava (Vegetables? Yes, Please!)
Tray 6: Kidney Beans (Protein)
Tray 7: Meat (Beef maybe? Two very chewy small-chunks are plopped on the plate by the host)
Tray 8: Vegetable Stew (This reddish, lava-like sauce is poured directly on top of the mountain of the food and gushes down the sides, giving the food a “Volcano” like activity.)
When you sit down at the table you wish everyone a good meal by saying, “Mujo Huergway,” which directly translates to “Chew Well.”
Bonus Meal (also known as Supper)
Anthony and I usually stare at each other, about an hour after the sun goes down, and ask the question that’s on both of our minds, “Are we going to eat tonight?” If the answer is yes, we roam the streets of Nyamirambo, or, if we are really ambitious, take a Moto downtown for a hearty fare. You have to work for this meal.
India has chana masala and chicken curry, Germany has bratwurst and sauerkraut, while Mexico claims burrito’s and quesadillas as their culinary delights. Rwanda, on the other hand, has the brochette.
Man kills meat. Man makes fire. Man cooks meat. Game, Set, Match. Skewed meat (goat, beef, or fish) is cut into medium-sized chunks, separated by square-pieces of onions and sequestered on a stick, which is promptly charbroiled (well, well, well done) over a fire. The product is a Brochette which is best served with French Fries, a salad, a grilled banana and a large, cold Mutzig. The whole finale costs a whopping 2000 RWF ($3.50 CDN), and apart from the hair you can find from inspecting the meat (now I claim ignorance and simply not look for it), it is a delightful, but time-consuming way to end the food experience for the day.
To enter the market in Nyamirambo, you need to steel yourself. You will be heckled from all corners, harassed to purchase unnecessary trinkets, ripped off on the things you will buy and stared at by everyone. If you get nervous in crowds, are adverse to random shouts in your direction or simply don’t believe that vegetables are necessary for six months, it’s best to steer clear.
My New Wallet
The market is 3 blocks away from our home and is the fourth biggest of its kind in Kigali. The outer-market, a narrow steep red path that leads down into the main square is lined with unofficial sellers; hawking fruits and vegetables from the baskets lying delicately at their weathered bare-feet. Young men weld noisily at a metal door, blue and white-hot sparks catapulting and arching semi-circles in the sky like fireworks, trying to fashion a replacement part for an upturned Moto in the driveway. Blood-stained apron donning butchers emerge grimly from their darkened caverns, squinting into the bright African sun, announcing their latest conquest, while the local MTN guys attempt to convince passerby’s they need to make a phone call. By the time you cross through the threshold of iron gates that marks the start of the market, hopping the terribly placed three foot ditch, you are already spent.
However, this is where it begins. The innocent square design disguises the inner-workings and maze-like configuration of the venue. With more entrances and exits than Medusa has arms, one wrong turn can land you in one of the darkest alleys, where the light of day has yet to grace.
Today, I braved the market and felt as uncomfortable as a Gazelle at a Lion’s party. After three mentally-preparing revolutions of the perimeter, I gave myself a pep-talk and headed in. Young men scrub heaped mountains of shoes donated from Europe and North America, transforming them into the new-looking relics they once were (an incredible display of recycling) while other stalls specialize in baby clothes, dish cloths, antique radios and sewing machines. After ten minutes wandering through the maze, I was stopped abruptly by the goods at the table in front of me.
I no longer pay with money, just a smile.
Hanging above me on two hangers were two Edmonton Oilers jerseys, one a Special Edition Breast-Cancer Pink Jersey. I fingered the mesh material and quickly put it to my nose without hesitation, searching… hoping… wishing for that reminder of home in the form of sweet, rank hockey sweat. Instead, it had the faint aroma of avocado. I searched for the appropriate merchant, and asked if I could take a picture.
“O ya,” she responded. In Kinyarwandan, this means a definite “No.” I appraised the old lady for a second with pleading eyes, dressed in a traditional, beautiful yellow and sky-blue African dress and headpiece.
“Okay,” I responded in plain English, “We finished last in the league, I understand. I’m embarrassed too. It was a terrible, terrible season. Next season, though, we will be better. Don't lose faith... So what do you say… Please, just one photo?”
“O ya,” she repeated, shaking her head at my indecipherable monologue. She must be a bandwagon fan.
To be fair, the women in the market have never tried to overcharge me. In fact, it seems like such an undercharge. Once, when I had forgotten a hundred francs at a table, mere pennies, the seller rose from her chair and followed me, tapping my shoulder and placing it delicately in my palm with an incredibly gentle motion. They run an honest business, at an honest price, regardless of where you come from. My respect for them is boundless; toiling day in and day out cramped into wooden stilt structures competing with dozens of others for their livelihood. I purchased an avocado, papaya, bushel of bananas and host of vegetables (tomatoes, onions, garlic, green peppers and green beans) for 1500 RWF ($2.60 CDN) and ambled away from the overpowering smell of the fruit section.
I wandered an alley-way of stalls, no longer reserved in my actions as I began bonding with the merchants, inspecting their wares and making friends. I wouldn’t be taken for a fool with the prices, but I wouldn’t low-ball them. In that, we created an environment of friendship and respect. I left the market, thirty minutes later, with a few new epic purchases, a result of a merchant and I digging through his treasure trove of goods, while laughing about the randomness and absurdity of some of the items (what do you mean that nail clipper has a flashlight?).
As I walked away, I realized that like most things that are worth their due, you have to make yourself vulnerable and submit to the Nyamirambo market before you can begin to understand it.
From April until September, I will be living, working, fumbling, and laughing in the bustling city of Kigali, Rwanda. My work will be at the Kigali Health Institute as a Nursing Professor and Clinical Instructor. East Africa is an exciting and strange new land to me undoubedtly filled with challenges, mistakes and adventure. This experience may just change everything. This is the journey.