This blog entry about the events of Sunday, January 15, 2012 was originally posted on January 23, 2012.
DAY 16: “We have a problem,” said the KK Security guard with U.S. Embassy clearance displayed on the badge hanging from his neck. He called in for backup on his radio and awaited further instructions on how to handle me, a suspect with ambiguous motives, in front of the U.S. Peace Corps gates in Kigali.
Just my luck, I thought. I decided I’d just be honest and play dumb American tourist because I was in fact, a tourist, an American, and totally dumb for getting into the situation in the first place.
KIGALI IS RWANDA’S CAPITAL, a mid-sized city spread out over the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” It is quite a relaxed city, with virtually no litter, nor traffic and congestion — which is rather odd for a major African city, or any major city in the developing world for that matter. Prior to my stay there, I had heard many good things about it; my guidebook described it as having a relaxed, almost “Mediterranean” vibe. Tom, my guide on the Congo Nile Trail called it “very European.” Walking around town, I finally knew what that meant: with rolling hills and red roofed houses — especially in the suburban areas outside the city center — it was almost like an Italian mountain town. In the downtown area, the little shops, sidewalks, and transplanted pine trees made it look like a little modern village in Germany or something.
It was Sunday when I decided to explore Nyarutarama, a suburban part of town away from the city center, on my final day in the country. (I might have spent time with Maia, whom I met in Malawi but now lived in Kigali, but unfortunately she was away in Europe.)
Newly obsessed with Akabanga, the flavorful Rwandan hot sauce, I made it a point to get as many bottles as I could, not only for myself but for hot sauce-lovin’ friends and family back home. (Tom told me it was exportable.) In the city center near the Hotel des Mille Collines, I had already searched every grocery store and supermarket, but it wasn’t so easy to come by.
“Est-ce qu’il y a le petit Akabanga?”
I managed to get about a dozen little bottles, but ventured off to the suburbs to look for more.
THE NYARUTARAMA NEIGHBORHOOD IN NORTHEASTERN KIGALI is home to a few embassies — I noticed Uganda, DR Congo, and Tanzania — as well as the headquarters of the United States Peace Corps. I remembered how Sarah (from gorilla trekking) had called Rwanda’s office the “Posh Corps” and from the looks of the neighborhood, I could see why. Located in an area of big houses where I assumed a lot of ex-pats lived, there are many first world conveniences within walking distance: an Irish pub, a gym, a fancy Italian restaurant, not one but two sushi restaurants, a fancy coffee shop in a little mall (the MTN Centre), and the ironically named “German Butchery” chain supermarket, which catered to the ex-pat population.
My motive for going to that area spawned from the fact that more than one person I’d encountered praised Kigali’s sushi (which is flash frozen and flown in to the landlocked country): Englishman Dave (from the flight to Entebbe) and Peace Corps Kevin raved about it, and Tom (Congo Nile Trail) had heard good things. (FYI, according to one of my cookbooks, flash frozen seafood is often considered fresher than “fresh” fish, which often sits out longer at room temperature.) It came as a bonus that I found some more bottles of Akabanga to buy (picture above) at the German Butchery market.
I was walking down the main road, towards the other sushi restaurant (I had time to check out both menus before deciding which one to eat at), when I took a harmless picture of the Peace Corps gates.
“Hey!” the guard called to me. “Did you take a picture?”
Apparently I wasn’t sneaky enough to put my camera away in time, like I usually do, because my retractable camera chain had broken. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know. I can erase it if you want.”
“You can’t take a picture,” he told me, staring at my camera, not knowing what to do with it. “We have a problem.”
The jig was up; I’d gotten caught for taking an illegal photo of United States government property. Why that is so illegal I’m not sure, but you can figure that the American government is pretty alarmist when it comes to photography like that; that JPEG file could be used against the very safety of Americans abroad. Unfortunately, I didn’t appear to be typically American.
The guard, who wore a “KK Security” uniform (a local security company I assumed), and an official-looking U.S. Embassy security clearance badge around his neck, radioed in the situation in the Kinyarwandan language, to the main security desk. Soon, two other guards rushed to the scene, and it was a bit intimidating when the first guard continued to radio in information to other parties on the line, and his voice was amplified by the two other CB radios held by the two other guards that surrounded me.
“Why did you take a picture?!” he asked.
I had no real excuse other than I’m a shutterbug — a dumb American shutterbug with stereotypical Japanese habits. I took the photo thinking that maybe I’d link to it on a blog entry (this one), and send the link to Sarah or Kristin to confirm that it really did look like it was “Posh Corps” in Kigali.
“I was just going to show my friend,” I answered calmly. “She works in the Peace Corps in Uganda.”
“You work in Uganda?”
“You know people here?”
“No, I was just taking a picture because I was going to show her, ‘Hey I was here too.’”
It was obvious that English wasn’t the guard’s first language so there were some things lost in translation. He asked for my ID and I handed over my passport. U.S. of A.
“Trinidad...” he read, as the second guard looked in as well.
The third guard smiled at the recognition. “I think I know it,” he said.
“Trinidad,” I said to them. “You know, like the boxer.” I made playful punching motions with my fists. Guard #1 was unphased and flipped through my passport pages. Mali. Israel. China. Turkey. Colombia. Jordan. Croatia. Korea. Chile, etc. — enough to confirm I’m an International Man of Mystery.
More staticky voices in Kinyarwandan echoed through the three radios as if other security officials were scrambling with the protocol of an international security breach. How far up the chain the incident was going I didn’t know, but I wouldn’t have been surprised it if went all the way up the State Department.
“You work for the Peace Corps?” Guard #1 continued his interrogation.
“Why are you taking pictures?” he asked again. I explained the whole thing a second time.
“What’s your friend’s name [in the Peace Corps in Uganda]?”
“Kristin.” Thank goodness he didn’t ask for her last name.
Guard #1 relayed my story to the parties on the radio, and I couldn’t make out the Kinyarwandan words. I deduced that he was saying something to the effect of, “[He’s a tourist. From America. He has an American passport. He’s a friend of someone in the Peace Corps in Uganda. He has a map and a camera.]” He got a reply and then continued his questioning. “What else did you take a picture of?”
He was fishing to see if I had any other photos of United States property (I didn’t), but I played dumb and honest. “Well, I took pictures at the memorial, and I’m staying at the Hotel Mille Collines, so pictures of that too.”
“What’s in the bag?” He noticed the only other thing I had on my person was a little brown bag.
“Uh, it’s Akabanga,” I answered timidly. I handed over the bag and he opened it slowly as if I might have had an anthrax trap or something. Looking inside, he saw bottles of the Rwandan hot sauce, and had a look on his face like What idiot is walking around with hot sauce, and why are there so many bottles?
“It’s my favorite,” I admitted to them, truthfully.
More back and forth radio conversation, presumably this time about the hot sauce. Alert the authorities! He’s got hot sauce!!! I wondered.
“You can’t take pictures,” he repeated again to me.
“I’m sorry. I can erase it,” I offered. “I figured it was just the outside [of the gates], not inside so it’d be okay.”
Guards #1 and #2 took my passport and brought it into the security office booth, leaving me alone with Guard #3, the friendliest of the trio. I stood there, trying to look as innocent as possible, thankful that all of this hadn’t happened just before I needed to leave for the airport. I just hoped I wouldn’t have my passport detained.
Guard #2 called me into the office for more questioning. “Where did you enter Rwanda?”
Hell if I know, I thought. It was 3 a.m. when I crossed the border. I didn’t have an answer. Fortunately, Guard #1 was flipping through my passport, transcribing all my information. “Show me [the stamp].”
I found the stamps opposite the Easter Island ones. “Katuna,"I finally answered after reading. “I entered at Katuna.”
He wrote that information down. The interrogation continued about everywhere I’d been since I entered Uganda, followed by Rwanda. “I went to Kigali, then Musanze, then Gisenyi, then I came here.”
My story was too detailed and unrehearsed given the situation, that it was believable. Guard #1 continued to write down my story for the record.
“Where do you work?”
It was too complicated to explain the world of freelancing. “Uh, Discovery,” I said simply.
He wrote down “Discovy.”
In the end, so much time had passed that they could only believe I was telling the truth, and was only following orders as a formality. “I’m sorry,” I apologized again.
“We are sorry too,” Guard #2 reciprocated.
“You’re just doing your job,” I told them. Guard #1 handed me my passport back. Yes. “Thank you.”
I walked away from the Peace Corps compound, where taking this little photo got me in big trouble. I waved farewell to the friendly Guard #3. “You know Sakae [the sushi place across the street]?” I asked him.
“I know it.”
“Is it good?”
“I’ll try it out.”
Next entry: Forget "Africa"
Previous entry: Remembering 1994
The conclusion, coming right up…
Posted by on 01/23 at 10:15 AM
I got in trouble taking pictures of the border crossing in Mexico walking for San Diego in to TJ.
Posted by on 01/23 at 01:53 PM
Glad someone else is a fan of Akabanga - great stuff!
Posted by Richard on 01/25 at 06:56 AM
THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY
Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year.