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Journal Entry:

Friday, November 30, 2001 23:04:29

Central Africa 2001: 9 - Bujumbura, Burundi

Thursday, November 29, 2001 - When we checked out of the hotel in Asmara, Eritrea I gave them the rest of the Nakfas (the local currency) to apply to the bill before putting the rest on my credit card. It was lucky that I didn't have more, as they would allow it to be applied to food and drink, but definitely not the accommodation part of the hotel bill!

A quick taxi ride with our same driver, Tasfal Lidet, got us to the airport. Once again, customs and immigration were efficient and honest - no bribes required. The airport security was strict, and all the metal detection and X-ray equipment was modern and worked. In spite of the small size of the airport, and the relatively few flights, there were 7 shops and a bar/cafeteria in the departure area.

On the way to our Regional Air plane, we passed the Daallo airlines plane that we would have been on had we not found out about Regional. This time it was a Tupolov. When they bought their planes they must have said, "We'll take one of each." It must be a nightmare keeping spare parts for all the different makes and models. The only thing they have in common is that they are all Russian.

Regional was once again very professional, and ran on time. The flight to Djibouti was about ¾ full, and about half full from there to Nairobi. On the way from the airport to the hotel we passed a large herd of wild giraffe grazing in a field adjoining the highway - something we failed to see in all the areas animals where supposed to be! I was so surprised I forgot to take any video!

At the Inter-Continental we received a warm welcome. The doorman who opened the taxi door welcomed us, inquired as to how our trip was and remembered where we had gone, then we were welcomed back by reception, bell staff, concierge and almost everyone else. The maitre d' in the restaurant even laid on free desert.

It was an easy morning, as our fight to Bujumbura, Burundi didn't leave until noon. Michael couldn't drive us to the airport, as he had an appointment, but he had a friend who also had a London cab (this one red) waiting to take us to the airport. As usual, the check in and all formalities were done very quickly and efficiently.

I did a little more research on Burundi while we waited in the departure area, and it definitely seemed to indicate that we were in for an interesting time of it. The advisory from the Canadian Embassy said for following, among other things.

" BURUNDI October 11, 2001 ATTENTION

Canadians should not travel to Burundi. Canadians in Burundi should leave. Canadians who choose to remain in Burundi despite this warning should exercise extreme caution and maintain close contact with the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya (see below), or the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa, Canada.

The United Nations has declared a phase IV alert in the south and Bujumbura-Rural, requiring all UN staff in remote areas to return to Bujumbura and all non-essential staff to leave Burundi. Phase III, under which certain staff members and their families must be relocated, is in effect in the north and northeast.

All areas are unstable due to ethnic and political tensions. Two failed coups d'état occurred in April and July 2001. Increased insecurity has previously been linked to benchmark dates set under the peace process. A transitional government is planned for early November 2001. A cease-fire with rebels has not yet been achieved. There are frequent attacks and ambushes by rebel forces operating throughout the country and increasingly in and around Bujumbura, including the suburbs of Kinama and Kamenge. In December 2000, a bus was ambushed and at least 10 of its passengers summarily executed. A Canadian of Burundian origin and a British aid worker were among the victims. There are threats to all aircraft flying in to Bujumbura airport. In December 2000, a Sabena passenger flight was hit by machine gun rounds while landing at the international airport in Bujumbura. Two people were injured.

A curfew is in effect throughout the country from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m."

To further titillate us, and pique our interest, Lonely Planet's February 2000 edition said:

"WARNING - We strongly advise that you keep your eye on developments in Burundi before contemplating a visit, or even passing through. The country had been engulfed in a horrific civil war for many years, with no sign of imminent peace."

On this encouraging note we boarded our flight for an on time arrival at the airport, where customs and immigration were no problem at all. Everything seemed calm and peaceful, and the airport was a nice looking, quite new building. We were taxied to the Hotel Novotel and checked in with no problem.

It didn't take long to find out that virtually no one speaks English here; French is the main language, so it was not possible to find an English speaking driver/guide. We hired a taxi to give us the grand tour, with Tim and I pooling our joint French knowledge to make out what we were being told.

The City of Bujumbura is very pretty, with most streets paved and tree lined. Many streets are wide, with grass and flowers growing on the boulevard down the center. Buildings and factories seemed modern and well maintained. We went through the wealthy area in the hills on the way up to one of the two universities here, and while there were many beautiful homes, we were surprised at the comparatively minimal security around them. We also visited the hospital, president's office, port and some beaches on Lake Tanganyika. Everything seems very well organized and calm, although there is a very strong military presence here - truck loads of troops being ferried about and armed soldiers in view everywhere.

The amount of new construction indicated some confidence in the future from local investors. All in all, after the severe warnings, the whole thing was somewhat anticlimactic! This was the last country on our list which has dire warnings out on it, although the locals say that the warnings are true for the countryside, but if one stays in town - no problem. There is still a curfew in effect.

In the evening we walked across the street from the hotel to another bar/restaurant, and changed $20 into Burundi Francs at a street money changer on the way. The black market rate was a third higher than the official rate. It would seem this is a country of extremes - extremely rich or extremely poor, and for hotels and restaurants extremely expensive or extremely cheap. We had a few beer at the restaurant, which are ¾ litre size. I was drinking Amstel, which is brewed here, at a cost of ninety five US cents per bottle. A steak dinner ran $2,85. Tim didn't feel like eating much, so just had a sandwich. I decided to head off to a highly recommended restaurant on my own - a big mistake.

I walked back to the hotel with Tim, and we were immediately surrounded by a mob of street kids who where plucking at our cloths looking for anything they could beg or steal. When we entered the hotel grounds five armed troops closed in behind us shutting them out. The very below average hotel rack rate is $140 per night, a ridiculous price for what they offer. The air conditioning didn't work and the windows can't be opened, making the room a hot box. It seems some places are trying to get anything they can right now and never mind the future, although there did not seem to be a siege mentality among most people.

I took a taxi to the restaurant, Chez Andre, was very nicely laid out - open air, and beautifully decorated. I was the only customer the whole time I was there - 8:30 until about 10 PM. The food was good, not great, and the service so bad that twice I had to walk to the bar to request another drink. The price of dinner, even at the black market exchange rate, was $US 40. I guess they have no one customers due to the evacuation of UN forces and missionaries, who are prime clients for this type of place.

As they have workable email here, another surprise, I'll get this off. We'll walk around the city this morning, killing time until our 3 PM flight to Kigali, Rwanda.