A Journey

Urugendo

A journey

I want to share an entry from my journal. This happened about a month ago (of course, because I’m absolutely not on top of blogging, sorry). I was in Huye, a local regional town, for what turned out to be a long, tiring morning, and I headed home, wanting nothing more than to curl up in bed with a good book. Instead, when I got home, I had this to write:

I get to the gare (bus station) and do my usual thing where I tell the first bus employee who approaches me what town I want, let him put me on a bus, and give him money to buy me a ticket. The bus guy puts me on a bus, brings me my ticket and change, and assures me it is the correct bus. I put my change away, put my ticket somewhere, and realise my leftovers from Chinese are beginning to leak oil through the box and bag, so I scramble to get it out and into a second bag before it can make a mess in my backpack where my cardigan, laptop, and notebooks are.

I finish that and realise I have no idea where my ticket is.

I check all my pockets and every part of my backpack two or three times in a mounting, disbelieving panic. I never lose my ticket; I’m a very careful person, and yet I can’t even remember what I did with it. All I remember is seeing it in my lap while I put my change away. I check all the pockets again, stand up to check my seat, the floor under my seat, the aisle…

People near me ask what I’m looking for. I tell them, and they look, too, but we find nothing. A six-inch-long ticket has magically disappeared.

When the convoyer comes, I tell him I lost my ticket and offer to pay again. He says it’s no problem.

I’m so flustered about the ticket that I don’t pay attention to where the bus goes. Suddenly I look up and realise we’re on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. We should be on a paved road through towns and forests.

In Kinyarwanda, I ask the guy next to me, “This bus goes to Nyanza—is it true?”

He says, “No. Are you going to Nyanza?”

I say the bus employee told me this was a bus to Nyanza.

He and several other people shout to the driver that there’s a muzungu who wants to go to Nyanza and that, also, she doesn’t speak French, which is bad, because they all speak French and not English.

The bus driver says we will turn around.

We do not turn around.

Half an hour of dust and curves later, we reach a crossroads that has motos. I try to stop the bus to get off and take a moto back to the gare. They all say no, and tell me we’re going to a gare where there will be a bus to take me to Nyanza. I gesture forward and say, “There are buses that way?”

They all say yes. So I stay on the bus.

Fifteen minutes of dust later, they stop a private vehicle going the opposite direction, and I hear the bus driver explaining that there’s a muzungu trying to get to Nyanza. They tell me the car will take me back to the gare. I tell them I am not getting into a private vehicle with strangers.

I spend a while extremely frustrated that they wouldn’t let me get a moto much closer to Huye but now want me jumping into some car to essentially hitchhike back.

We are now in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road dusty and bumpy enough to rival the backroads of the desert I left behind in America. There are no people, no houses, certainly no gare. I regret not jumping off at the first chance I had and resent these people for stopping me.

Ten minutes later, they stop a bus coming the opposite direction and tell me it will take me back to Huye. But that bus’s driver refuses to take me unless I pay, which my driver thinks is robbery; he therefore refuses to let me off.

I begin to suspect the motos were my best option and that the people didn’t want me to have to pay extra money. I try to tell them I don’t mind paying extra. I don’t know how to convince them that all I want is to quit going the wrong direction and get home as fast as I can.

An hour down this forsaken road, rattling over potholes and past foliage coated brown with dust probably kicked up by the buses that rattled by before us, we finally meet a bus that will take me back for free. I trudge through thick red sand to the other bus.

I climb on and discover it’s already filled past capacity. Most rows have five people or more, and the doorway is clogged with luggage. The passengers stand and crowd and shove and herd me toward the back of the bus where, in the next-to-last row, a young man moves over to squeeze onto the jump seat with someone else, giving me the window seat.

I sit, grateful.

I don’t cry, but I consider for the millionth time that I could have just stayed in bed today.

We begin the journey back—dusty, bumpy, crowded, uncomfortable. I breathe in dirt despite the closed windows and balance my slowly leaking Chinese leftovers in my left hand, nearly tossing it with every rock and pothole.

The man beside me introduces himself as a university student and begins asking the normal questions about where I live and how long I’ve been in Rwanda and why I wound up on the wrong bus an hour from the nearest village. And then, when I expect him to begin with the questions I hate about whether I’m married or if I’m a spy, he asks, “Are you a Christian?”

He proceeds to explain that white people brought Christianity here, but now it’s difficult to find any who actually believe. He tells me he has a friend in Nyanza who is “very serious about God.” He asks if I know other PCVs who are believers and when I explain that there are some but we don’t meet often, he says he wants to put me in contact with this friend, because God made our souls to need fellowship, and it’s difficult to be alone, especially in a country where the culture and language make it difficult to form relationships.

If there’s no shared experience, he points out, it can be hard to form relationships, but when people believe the same thing, no matter their skin or culture, the spirit can be felt there, and there is a bond.

He asks about my favourite Bible verses for different situations, and we talk about Christ coming not to condemn but to save, about Paul’s assertion that “it is through grace you have been saved,” about God as the great provider who sees even the sparrows that fall.

He points out that compared to America, Rwanda is very undeveloped; I point out that while America was developing, Rwanda was struggling with colonialism and other difficult events, and that I see the people here as very strong, very optimistic, and very courageous, working to both maintain their culture and develop their country. He asks me, when I see this disparity, what it makes me think of God. I have to admit I still don’t know that answer.

He tells me he thinks God put me on the wrong bus so I could meet him, because God did not intend our spirits to be isolated.

I think he may be right.

My life often feels like a long, uncertain bus ride in the wrong direction. Especially lately, I find myself wondering if maybe I got on the wrong bus. Today I was reminded that God has guided me this far. I have never once doubted that I am where he wants me. I’m not on the wrong bus. I may not see it through the dust and confusion, but somehow there is something he wants to show me down this road.

(Oh—and I did eventually get home, and without having to buy a second ticket.)

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Isolation

“Also, I left my headphones on my couch, so now what do I do if I hate people?”

You probably understand the frustration underlying that text and the sense of camaraderie in my friend’s immediate reply: “I have no good solution for that, sadly.”

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Headphones are more than a convenient gadget to me and a gazillion other people—probably including you. They’re not just a nice way to get my Panic! At the Disco fix when I’m in public and can’t blare “Hallelujah” for everyone else to hear. They’re my safe place in a crowded waiting room, my sanity in the chaos of a subway station, my sensory anchor in a sea of abstract finals-week concepts.

In many ways, these flimsy rubber earbuds build a safety barrier between me and the world. They save me from having to make eye contact. They protect against mindless small talk. They lock me into the task at hand when ambient conversations tug at my attention.

But they also isolate.

And in a lonely world full of synthetic relationships, perfunctory “how ya doin’?”s, and long-distance Facebook friends, isolation becomes a real danger—especially for introverts and/or shy people. It becomes a vicious cycle: we’re surrounded by people and pummelled by stimuli every moment of the day, thanks to work, classes, and social media, so we retreat into solitude—but because all of that social stimulation is surface-level, we’re people-weary and yet soul-numbingly lonely at the same time. So we venture into the chaos of crowds, only to reemerge, still exhausted and still isolated.

I noticed this paradoxical near distance one evening as my flatmate and I sat on neighbouring couches in the living room, both sipping tea, both doing homework—both sealed by earbuds into individual cocoons of music. We sat within arm’s length of each other for several hours without once engaging.

To speak—to share an experience—became an intrusion that required pausing music, removing an earbud, emerging from a private world.

In a moment when we could have shared the companionship of background music and quiet presence while we studied, we instead chose to lock ourselves away. For either of us to fill the room with music would be to invade the other’s privacy and convenience—an infraction of the worst kind in a culture where, somehow, steady individual comfort has taken the place of dynamic interpersonal relationships.

I still carry my earbuds everywhere I go. I plugged them in to shut out voices on the bus this weekend, and I will turn up the volume to seal my private world around me in the science building this afternoon.

But in the quiet of my flat, with my flatmates nearby, in those shared moments of doing homework and washing dishes and stealing chapters of recreational reading…in those moments, I leave the earbuds out and leave myself open.