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999 Days Around Africa: The Road Chose Me
A few weeks ago in Dar Es Salaam I applied for and was granted a one month tourist visa without any trouble. Waiting in the embassy felt exactly like all the embassies I visited in West Africa, and when the friendly ambassador and I chatted for ten minutes in French, I had a very strong sense of Deja-Vu.
Very few people visit Burundi, and so I am not entirely sure what to expect as I wind up into the mountains of Tanzania approaching the border. I know gas is much more expensive there, so I stop at the last station and fill everything to the brim – given how small Burundi is this makes it very likely I will never need to buy any gas there at all.
In a few places in East Africa there is the idea of a “One Stop Border” where a single building has everything needed from both countries, making the borders much easier – at least in theory.
I drive past the building on the Tanzanian side, and am shocked to see signs that say I need to move over and drive on the Right. When I switched from Right to Left going from Angola into Namibia about a year ago there wasn’t so much as a single sign, so I’m impressed there is one now. After swapping over an armed military man waves me down as says I must have an Ebola check. I line up at a small shack where my temperature is taken – again something I have not seen for a very, very long time. The Military man asks for money or food before lowering the rope.
Rolling up to the border I see immediately it is chaotic. There are hundreds of heavily loaded trucks trying to cross, and plenty of men milling about – the usual kind that look as if they are up to no good. Another boom gate must be lowered, and immediately the military man asks for money, and then food.
I see already Burundi will be like a few countries I got to know in West Africa.
After parking the Jeep inside the gated area I move inside and hand over my passport to Tanzanian Immigration for an exit stamp. The man there immediately passes it across to Burundi Immigration – he explains they will check my visa and make sure I’m allowed to enter. This way he won’t stamp me out of Tanzania. until we’re sure I will be stamped into Burundi.
That….. might just be the most intelligent thing I have seen at a border. Ever.
After lots of scrutiny the Burundians agree my visa is good, and so I’m stamped out of Tanzania then into Burundi in just a few minutes and a few questions in French. At Customs the Temporary Import Permit for the Jeep is stamped out, and then Burundian Customs stamp it in and write out an Temporary Import Permit good for a month. I’m required to pay a fee of about $18USD for the Jeep. I’m not quite certain if this is for the TIP, or for some kind of road tax, but I don’t really care that much and pay the official and get a printed out receipt with a hologram for my money.
Outside, men surround me wanting to exchange money. I’m trying to do all the negotiating in French, and I feel a bit vulnerable holding all my important documents and passport out in the open. As usual, everything turns out completely fine.
The guys give me a good rate to change my Tanzanian Shillings into Burundian Francs, and we each count our respective stack of bills twice before shaking hands, thanking each other and going our separate ways.
After another Military man checks my papers and also asks for money, I’m free to drive out into Burundi, an I’m again impressed to see a “keep right” sign on the road.
I’m not entirely sure about safety in Burundi, and so for my first night I opt to camp in the gated parking lot of a large hotel with an attached restaurant and bar. I leave the Jeep there and walk back into town to buy a few things, and immediately I feel that I’m welcome, but also an extremely uncommon sight. Normally kids yell “Mzungu” when they see me, though here in Burundi I notice even adults do the same, and look quite surprised. I throughly enjoy running errands in French, and somehow manage to get through it all.
Back at the hotel I sit in the restaurant to read while watching an enormous torrential downpour – I have arrived at the beginning of the “small” rain season, and I notice to see a fully-uniformed military man sitting at the bar.
Across his chest he cradles an AK47, while in his hands he holds a large beer which he is quickly drinking.
Now that’s something I’ve never seen before!