Friday, February 22, 2019

To (Burundi)ch Their Own

This pun elicited a significantly higher groan-to-chuckle ratio than my Rwanda one did. We went so off the beaten path this time I can honestly say I don't know anyone who's been to this country by choice (or maybe even at all).* Burundi doesn't have much of a reputation as a tourist destination, and to be honest I would not recommend it for the faint of heart - experienced and intrepid travelers only!

It was a tough trip even before it started, as it took us three separate appointments at the Burundian Embassy in Nairobi to get our visas. The process included many long, inexplicable, and confusing waits as well as bureaucratic hurdles like requiring payment in cash, but only in U.S. dollars... at the Burundian Embassy... in Kenya. (Needless to say, that had M sprinting down the street to an ATM and then another street for a foreign currency exchange bureau. Also, to be fair, my friend S seemed to have a much more straightforward time with the Burundian Embassy in Washington, DC, so your mileage may vary.)

Once we actually arrived in country, though, I was glad we'd gone. Burundi is unlike anywhere any of us had ever traveled (and we travel a lot). Its tourism sector was fairly nascent, which was readily apparent throughout our trip. As just one example, we were the only visitors we saw in the entire country, including at every single stop on our day tour with Augustine Tours (the only major tour company we could confirm online). English was extremely limited, so I dug up my high school French skills for an intensive 12-hour immersion and constant conversation with locals and interpretation for M and S. By the end of the day, my brain was fried!

We visited some very cool sites, such as the reputed source of the Nile (which we've noticed several East African countries claim). Regardless, we learned about the interesting history of European explorers searching for the source of the Nile and the journey of the German who discovered the site we visited in Burundi. He even had a pyramid erected there to pay tribute to Egypt! I definitely wasn't expecting to see a tiny stone pyramid on a mountain in Burundi.

Then we took a quick hike to go enjoy the stunning Karera waterfalls surrounded by a lush tropical jungle. We didn't have time to hike to all five of the falls, but I wish we'd been able to do it! Our final stop was the Gishora drum sanctuary. Drums played an important role in the historical monarchy in Burundi, and we learned a lot about royal life (like the king's hut pictured below), Burundian drum culture, and conflict during the colonial era.

So in our short time in Burundi, we got to experience a taste of its rich culture, history, and nature. We appreciated the uniqueness of this particular visit, something that is so difficult to achieve in an increasingly globalized, commercialized, and homogenized world. At the same time, we also learned not to take the comforts (e.g., English speakers, online visa applications, hotels without cockroaches, etc.) of our more common tourist experiences in Kenya and elsewhere for granted. Especially after a trip like this, there's nothing quite like coming home and using your own shower and sleeping in your own bed!

*CORRECTION: I definitely underestimated my intrepid and adventurous friend circle, because after publishing this post I learned I knew at least two people who have traveled to Burundi! What a small world.

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