Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rental Cars? Self Drive? Rwanda

I rented a 4 wheel drive vehicle, and my son and I drove ourselves throughout central and western Rwanda.

It seems that most people who rent a car also get a driver.  We didn't want to do this.

Self-drive is a perfectly good option if you have the right attitude and preparation.

1.  A 4-wheel drive vehicle with a HIGH GROUND CLEARANCE from the road is necessary.  Many "roads" in Rwanda through smaller or remote areas are just potholes with no actual "surface". 

2.  Make sure you know how to drive a 4 wheel vehicle properly.  While we never had to use the low gear 4 wheel setting, we were switching between 2 wheel drive on real roads for better mileage and smooting handling to 4 wheel drive on dirt.

3.  Know how to downshift so you don't ride the brake.

4.  I guess that something like 40 percent of cars have a right-side steering wheel, but Rwandans drive on the right side (as in the US).  So, be prepared that your rental vehicle (like ours was) had a right hand wheel.  I have driven a right-hand wheeled vehicle before (on the island of Dominica in the carribean) but the driving side of the road was on the left so the wheel position was in equivalent position.  But driving on the right side with a righ-side steering wheel is a bit disorienting, especially in using the rear-view mirror.

5.  It is worth the investment to purchase two safety-reflector vests.  These cost about $5 dollars each in the US, and if we had our car break down I would surely have wanted these, because more areas do not have street lights or even sufficient shoulders to park on in case of emergency.

6.  It is required to have a safety triangle and fire extinguisher in the vehicle.  From what I researched in Rwandan statutes, it is also required (but nobody seems to know this) to have carry 4 bandages with pins or attachment, and a bottle of disinfectant. 

7.  Although not necessary, I think it is appropriate to have an International Driver's Permit.  Note that the only officially sanctioned US issuing organizations are AAA and an organization in California.  The point of this is to give this first to a law enforcement or other official and hold on to your US state driver's license.

8.  Speeding is prohibited!  This is taken seriously.

9.  I was stopped at  road-side check point once by Rwanda police.  I passed maybe a dozen of these in the country and usually was waived through.  The officer spoke English, was entirely appropriate, and I did not feel intimidated in any way.  NOTE THAT BRIBERY IS PROHIBITED.  I would never ever consider paying a "local fine" to a police officer in Rwanda.  You don't need to worry if you are stopped or stop for one of these.  Just be polite and respectful.

10.  Try to avoid having your fuel tank be less than 1/2 full.  It is possible to drive for hours without seeing a station.  Stations are full-service (i.e., they pump your gas). 

11.  If you rent a car, try to know where the different fluids go.  We needed additional brake fluid, and I had to be shown where to pour it in.

12.  No driving and talking on your handset.  Also, there is cell service virtually everywhere in the country.  But if you do have a break down, I really don't know how you would describe where you are if you call for help.

13.  In rural areas, you are likely to be greeted by children at the side of the road yelling "agachupa."  This is not the word for tourist or white-person (as I am, the word for which is "mzungu," which is more factual than offensive).  What "agachupa" means is "empty plastic water bottle".  Children know that North Americans and Europeans typically drink bottled water.  In poorer areas, they want you empty bottle (with cap) for them to use personally (actual reuse of the container).  It took us four days to know this, but afterwards we kept our empties and at one place distributed a dozen empty bottles to kids.  (Just pulled to the side of the road and handed them out to the throng of kids.)

14.  If you self drive, you will either get lost or feel like you are lost at times.  Rwandans were always available to help by responding to questions about directions.  However, there is a ritual for doing so:  Don't just be a typical American and ask "Hey, buddy, is this the road to Butare?".  Instead, you must first make a human, respectful connection with the person and only then ask about directions.  So, when you stop your car, shake hands with the person who comes over, ask them how they are today, tell them your name and where're you from, and then ask for directions.  It takes an additional 45 seconds, but you will find, I expect, it to be a refreshingly polite form of interacting (and much better than the American style).  Remember, you are asking that person to help you as a favor, and by recognizing his or her humanity you earn credit to ask for help.

15.  Road maps are lacking, but we found a few beforehand that were reasonably current.  I never saw a place to buy a road map in Rwanda, by the way.  Roads are inadequately marked.  Even in Kigali, there are not really road signs or meaningful markers.

16.  One time in Kigali, we hired a moto-taxi to lead us to where we were going.

17.  In towns, there are motorcycle taxis weaving in and out everywhere.  In some areas of Kigali, there will be cars everywhere, motorcycles weaving, bicycles laden with goods, and people streaming in the streets.  Driving in such circumstances is a bit of a challenge, but not really a problem once you get used to it (after maybe a day driving in Kigali, in my case).

18.  I always carried extra water and snacks in the car, because on several days we found we had to essentially skip lunch to be somewhat on time at our destination.

19. We found it always best to multiple whatever time or distance figure we were given by a Rwanda by 2.5.  So, if someone said it would take about an hour, it shouldn't surprise you if you drive 2 and 1/2 hours.  Ditto with estimates of distance:  3 KM is more likely 7. 

20.  Just for reference:  we pay $95 a day (US) for our 4x4 vehicle, plus gas but no mileage charge.

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