“Why don’t you want to go?” I ask Matt. I face forward, only watching Matt’s face in the very edge of my vision.
“I’m just nervous.” My heart jumps joyfully and I turn my face to him, already grinning. He winces as soon as the words are out of his mouth.
“So… You’re scared?”
“I’m not scared! Nervous doesn’t mean scared. It just seems really dangerous. Virunga is a really dangerous place. The whole freaking Congo is! And we don’t have any of our stuff. No one else is going. It’s going to be really cold at the top. I know how you hate the cold. And it’s really expensive. I mean, it’s going to be really expensive. I don’t know if we can afford it.”
“Being afraid isn’t a good reason enough not to do something. I think it’s actually a good reason to do it. Lava, Matt. Lava.”
“This is crazy. You’re crazy.”
Matt’s right of course, he’s been right about everything since I started badgering him about this yesterday. Hell, I’m scared to death myself. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a bit… unsettled and fighting is often pushed to the east. Virunga National Park is in the east, just across the border from Rwanda. The lives of rangers there are perilous and lost all too often. We are terribly unprepared, all of our stuff is still on the truck, which we left behind in Uganda. We will have to rent sleeping bags and borrow clothes and we only have two tiny daypacks, one without even a hip belt or real straps. It will be dangerous, not to mention expensive and uncomfortable and cold. I really hate being cold. And yet… we could catch of glimpse of life in the DRC. We could climb a volcano. See the world’s largest lava lake. We could sit on the rim of the crater and even if we’re freezing, we could watch it bubble. Even sweeter, by doing this we could contribute to the park and the local economy in a valuable way. We could do this. We could see LAVA.
“So we’re going?”
Matt sighs a little and slouches, looking miserable as he orders another beer.
“I’ll take care of the details.” I say, grinning.
Two borrowed shirts later we waved goodbye to our friends and headed off to make our way to Gisenyi!
Walking back to the market alone feels strange. We’re really alone in Africa this time. The group we’ve been travelling with and our trusty leader are already on their way back to Kenya. I bite down on the nerves squirming in my mouth and it tastes sweet. It’s feels good to be alone again, searching for public transportation. I tuck my thumbs into the strap of my little daypack and study an untidy line of matatus. The tiny vans with extra rows of seats crammed in them don’t look too promising. A young man walks up to us. He holds out his hand and smiles, teeth bright and straight against his full brown lips.
“Hello! I’m James.” I shake his hand and smile back in spite of myself.
“Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“Aaah USA! America!” I nod and keep walking slowly into the market. Matt ignores us.
“I have not met many people from America. You see, I’m a student here. I’m studying tourism! I need to practice my English, perhaps I could practice with you?” James is not the first Rwandan student to search us out for English practice. I know to expect him to request a gift or money before we part ways. But getting hustled in Rwanda is a deeply charming experience and having a self-appointed translator was pretty useful yesterday. I can barely remember how to say thank you in Kinyarwanda.
“How do you like Rwanda?”
“We love it here! It’s a beautiful country and the people here are so friendly.”
The three of us make our way over to the unruly line of vans as James peppers me with questions.
“How much is it to go to Gisenyi?” I ask a tall spare man leaning against the door of a van with a hand lettered sign for Gisenyi in the window.
“500 francs.” The bus driver answers us in English. That’s about 60 US cents.
“He says it will be 500 francs.” James volunteers and deciding this is a reasonable price we all climb into the small matatu.
Another man approaches the van with big, bouncy steps. He moves like his bones are captured birds, jumping and flapping for the sky in an effort to escape his skin.
“It’s 500 for your bags too.” He gestures at the small daypacks sitting in our lap and his arm bounces all loose and disconnected again. James looks deeply uncomfortable. I’m still trying to decide what to say when the driver straightens out of his scowl on the bumper. He comes around the front of the van, yelling loudly. After several heated minutes in Kinyarwanda the driver turns to us.
“Only 500 francs! Do not pay anyone more than that! Do not pay anyone yet!” He yells at us in English as the other bounces away in what very well could have been a huff.
“You see? Only 500 francs.” James pipes up with a huge grin.
I chat with James in the heat of the matatu and sweat trickles down our neck. Matt watches the market and James asks unconvincingly how to pronounce different words.
“I think you should buy a ticket and take a big bus. These won’t leave until they fill up and it is very crowded.” James says finally, fanning himself with one hand and waving at a lopsided line of larger buses. They are definitely bigger but they seem to have way too many seats in them. Matt and I exchange a look. “Gisenyi is several hours away.”
I shrug and we climb out of the small van, James trots ahead of us and waves down a bus driver.
“They have seats! They are leaving now!” I tuck a bill into my palm, passing it to him as we shake hands goodbye. He smiles and waves, the note has disappeared.
Matt and I take the last two seats, they fold down sideways into the aisle of the bus. Every time someone behind me reaches their stop I stand up, fold my seat up and crunch out of the way. Everyone is behind me.
“Hi, I’m Fred.” The man next to me says in an… certainly that’s an American accent?
“Hi. I’m Bryci.” I study him. I’ve never met anyone named Fred. Fred is a big man, I have to lean away from him and look up to see his face above me. He’s maybe my age, with a politician face, one of those instantly likeable, trustworthy faces. I try to retain a little suspicion as I imagine his dark features kissing babies and making promises. The corner of his eyes wrinkle up with his smile behind his frameless glasses.
“Where ya from?”
“The United States.”
“All right! Which state?”
“Wyoming. What about you? Where are you from?” I’ve decided he must be American.
“Oh okay, that’s not too far from Canada! I went to school in Canada, in Toronto! I’m from Rwanda though, I just moved back home!” Fred proceeds to tell me most of his life story as I shuffle in and out of my seat on our way West.
I look behind me to check on Matt, he’s seated next to a round woman in a traditional gown in vibrant geometric patterns of orange, yellow and green. She’s breastfeeding a fat cheeked infant and the baby waves and coos at Matt around his mother’s breast. Matt blushes and gives the infant a little finger wave as he studiously watches the roof of the bus.
“Where are you guys going?”
“Gisenyi, do you know which stop it is?”
“Sure! I’m getting off there too.”
I check on Matt again, he’s now holding the baby and bouncing him a bit awkwardly while the woman laughs and plays with the child’s hands. Matt’s face is scarlet. I exchange one of those rare, perfectly happy smiles with the mother and turn back around.
“This is our stop!” Fred says, visibly restraining himself from leaping over me and out of the bus. Matt hands over the baby and we follow Fred to a sidewalk lined with motorcycles.
“How you gettin’ to your hotel?”
“Probably just walking.”
“Walking?!” He sounds horrified. “Take a mototaxi okay?”
“Erm.. all right.”
“I’ll tell them for you.” He huddles up with several young men with helmets under their arms. They have a heated discussion in Kinyarwanda, a couple occasionally leaning back from the circle to look at me and Matt.
“Think this is a good idea?” I whisper to Matt. He gives me a sour look.
“Give me the money and I’ll pay them for you. It’s 300 francs for both of you. Now don’t pay them anymore when you get to the hotel.” Fred says. I only have a 500 franc note and hand it over to him. “All right, now you go with these two, they have helmets.” Two young men break away from the group looking well-pleased. They gesture to their bikes, taking special care to point out the hot tailpipe and shout, “No!” while touching it. Fred hops on his own motorbike, squatting the rear end and waves goodbye.
We’re whizzing down the road on our respective mototaxis when I realize Fred used our change for his own taxi. I giggle as we speed around a corner, hoping it was money well spent and we actually make it to our hotel.
When they drop us off exactly where we’d hoped I pause to look out at the lake.
“Matt! Look! It’s the exploding lake! What’s the name of it again?”
“Lake Kivu. I mean its not really exploding it just has the potential to, you know.”
“Noooo I do not f*cking know!”
I breathe out a heavy sigh, I never should have mentioned this.
“Kivu has a lot of dissolved gases in it. Lots of carbon dioxide is trapped in there. So much that if it were to escape, like if something disrupted the lake and it belched, it would suffocate everything within several miles of the lake. It has methane too though. Which they’re actually trying to harvest now. It could power the entire country and then some.”
“Suffocate? What? Is it dangerous?” Matt looks horrified.
“I don’t know. I mean explo…. turnovers happened at two other lakes like this in the 80’s and it killed thousands of people and animals. They were quite a bit smaller than Kivu, there’s only three in the world and it’s the biggest. So yeah, I guess. There are also depressions around here that collect lethal seepages of carbon dioxide, they’ve suffocated some children in the villages around here.”
“Oh my god. What about the belch? Why would that happen?”
I shrug my shoulders. “Volcanic activity? But I mean, when Nyiragongo erupted in 2002 it was huge. It destroyed most of Goma but the lake didn’t explode. And we’re fine right now so, I think we’re fine.”
“Would the methane harvesting disrupt it?”
We watch the still, smooth surface of the lake for a moment before we check into a small room with bars on the windows. That night lying in bed I feel like I can’t breathe. Tomorrow we set out for the DRC and the volcano she contains.3