alex jeffries

Out for a Walk

Published (updated: ) in letters from near and far, rwanda.

The day started like a missed connection.

We’d met in passing the night before. She was in from Sweden on a work trip but soon to be fun trip, and I’m here from Los Angeles on a fun trip which happens to include work. The next morning, we ran into each other at the poolside bar. We talked about plans (I had none) and agreed to meet there again in 45 minutes to go exploring.

Then I remembered I didn’t have any local money. Figuring I could make it to the bank and back in time for our rendezvous, I grabbed my remaining dollars and went to an ATM. The ATM was out of order. Then I went to a bank, and spent twenty minutes on a series of couches, trying to understand the line, or lack thereof, of people sitting head down looking at their phones before popping up and intercepting a bank teller. Then I found a foreign exchange bureau, well after my 45 minutes had expired. I started the walk back, annoyed at myself.

Then, on the main street, in front of the president’s house, we ran into each other again.

Turns out, she didn’t have money, either. It seems excellent travelers think alike. I used my newfound expertise, we squared away our situations, and then we each hopped onto the back of a motorcycle taxi despite explicit warnings against this sort of thing. I gave my driver a hug around the midsection, which elicited a grunt, before adjusting and grabbing the rails on the back. We put on our helmets and we left for the market. On the ride over, we saw buildings with the scaffolding still exposed, moto taxi passengers playing on their phones and holding groceries and kids, and Kigali.

Then we walked into the market.

Kimironko market in Kigali, Rwanda.

We walked around the food stalls, past the cuts of beef hanging in open air, past the tree tomatoes stacked in rows ten and twenty high, past the musty potato aisle, past the new handsaws and keys and technicolor buckets, past the woven baskets and fabric (so much fabric) and the men inquiring about custom shirts and ties and suits.

Passionfruit.

We bumped into a hotel guest I’d previously met, and she asked if I liked the blue fabric she’d selected. When I didn’t respond positively, she asked if I might like it as a Hawaiian shirt. I balked again, and she said I should imagine I were five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier and that I did in fact like Hawaiian shirts. We walked past her, too.

The fashionable aisles of Kimironko market in Kigali, Rwanda.

Then we walked to find snacks to help the anti-malarials go down. Motorcycles abound here, and while not quite in Bangkokian levels, they keep you alert. Cars pull in and out of narrow storefront parking stalls, attracting soft honks from motos that need to make themselves known. We wander about, and away. Soon the market which had loomed so big and had been the object of our day was but a murmur behind us.

An Energy Drink.

We kept walking. With an energy drink called Energy Drink in my hand, and a jar of local peanut butter in my backpack, I was ready for a walk, though at that point we hadn’t made any formal decision to walk all the way back, or even toward a destination along the way. We just walked.

While we walked, we talked. About mental health, and past relationships, and talk shows, and confidence, and iced lattes. We walked past a young couple staging a photo shoot, where they had been taking photos hours before when we rode by. We talked about the electoral college. We walked by the Rwandan answer to Chipotle, to a mall that was an hour and a world away from the teetering, bursting fullness of the market — polished, with gelato, metal detectors, and kids playing a video game version of the World Cup.

As we left the mall, we addressed our situation. We were both of the mind that the best way to keep seeing this city was to walk, so we walked. This time down quieter streets, with kids who said hi, and with views of hills more green than the ones before, and on roads made up of sun-soaked and shaded cobble stones.

Just one of the thousand hills in Rwanda.

I have felt more at ease in conversation here. I don’t think it’s borne out of a confidence in why I’m here, in the way that I feel comfortable speaking at work because it’s backed by the idea that I am a person who has been employed for a little bit, and so must know a little bit about what he’s doing.

Here, I have no moorings. What I set out to do, I’m not really doing. I am doing a lot, but I’m not the best at it. So, while the confidence I expected to come from covering my hands in flour is not there, there is some ease. I remember feeling this way in Haiti (a connection to hectic motorcycle taxi rides, perhaps), a looseness about myself, and the country, and the international community I found myself in for a night. Meanwhile, at parties at home, in the language I speak, at the dinners I host, I can stumble and slip into familiar insecurities. Here, in these hours, and over those kilometers, there was comfort.

As the sun set, we turned the corner and found ourselves back on our street. With barely a goodbye, we parted ways. I sat in my room, sweaty and not-too-sunburnt.

I feel stripped down not being in the life I’ve built for myself, without the job and family and friends at arm’s reach, the projects on my desk and the books on my nightstand. Here, I am only the decisions I make in a day. On this day, I was open and ready for an opportunity, and the unexpected heights of a meandering conversation and walk continue to delight me.

Being the decisions I make in a day, instead of the ones I had laid out weeks (friend plans!) and months (travel!) and years (career!) in advance also leaves me open to lows without the safety net of stability. I’ve felt those lows here, too.

But for a day with no plans, what a day.

Sunset over Kigali.