The Mille Collines (of Hotel Rwanda fame) was a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, African fabric, a three piece suit and a white mask.
When you come in, you are greeted by a doorman and an armed guard – different people.
Look over your shoulder, you can see other armed guards – who survey you with a combination of curiosity, indifference and outright hatred (note the casual manner in which they hold their machine guns).
To the right, the concierge welcomes you and the attendees to either side do the same (wearing a shirt and a tie) – note the guard against the wall looking at your shoes.
To the left are the elevators, the stairs leading to the offices and the rooms on the first floor (never could figure out who stayed there).
In front of you are some chairs – a lounge (of sorts), so that you could sit and watch the show.
This area was always a source of education and amusement because I could watch the Rwandans greet each other. Greetings were extremely interactive and nuanced; I never figured it out. For example, as one family of three greeted another of four, I saw approximately eight different interactions, (I blinked at one point and might have missed one). Women greeted each other differently – differentiated by age and perhaps marital status. Men greeted each other differently – varying by age, level of familiarity and time of day.
Around the corner from the lounge is a curiosity shop, which is funny as the whole place was curious.
There is the back entrance to a beauty salon, which was entered from outside (grooming is fundamental in Rwanda). There was also a drug store and one or two vendors – make sure not to make eye contact too consistently for this either brings a sales pitch or a potential bride.
Down the winding stairs and you are in the bar, an outdoor café-like area with tables, chairs, umbrellas (to protect you from the heat), a pool, the generally empty tennis court, immaculately attended lawn, a fence and an occasional armed guard (yes, again).
The guests downstairs are the same people but they rotate:
There are suits for chilling – mostly whites but a few blacks (the people not the clothing). These are there for business – check the papers, the seriousness, the lack of gesticulation. Nobody move – fast, nobody get hurt – slow.
There are suits for bathing – again, mostly white with an occasional African and no African Americans. Indeed, I only saw three American blacks from the U.S. in all my years going:
- A brother from Brooklyn who constantly complained about the country
- A brother from Detroit who had strayed far from home
- And, the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda at the time.
There are prostitutes - all African, all the time. Specifically, they would be strewn about the lower-level as singles or occasionally a “haggle” (a gaggle with which the interested would have to negotiate). The girls would be in nice clothes but somewhat overdone. They generally wore too much at once (makeup as well as individual garments) as if to reveal that this was their best shot but that if you did not like that one there would be another soon on the way.
There are also dignitaries – see the gold, check the Gucci.
Now, I had problems with all of these people.
The suits did not know how to act. They were used to people deferring, being served by the dark-skinned person. They had no comprehension or time for the American black who was not quite ready to hold the door for them (despite being there first).
The suits that swam were cool until they joined the dry suits and this just brought back the problem noted above.
The dignitaries we don’t discuss without some alcoholic beverages and a couple of hours.
The prostitutes were odd. Now, having grown up in New York during the 1980s, I was very familiar with prostitutes. Before you go there, 42nd Street before the Disneyfication and destruction was a virtual parade of these professionals of the pavement and pick the wrong avenue in the lower east side at the wee hours of the morning and you will find out more than you wanted to know about the world's oldest profession. But I digress, the Rwandan prostitute was something of a different cut from what I had earlier observed. The ones in New York seemed to be equal opportunity oriented. If you had cash, might have had cash or perhaps could spell cash, then they would talk to you. Basically, they would talk to anyone. The Rwandan variant was kind of racist. Like one of the African American brothers said, they looked the American blacks over and just couldn’t quite place him. You were not from Rwanda which made you “mizungu” (white person, outsider, money) but you also weren’t white. As jungle fever was literally the lay of the land (pun intended), this was very confusing for them. In their perplexed state, they generally tended to be kind of rude as if you were in their way.
"The girls" also left me alone because I once checked the wrong box upon check in and we kind of had an altercation. That night at all hours of the evening, I heard scratching and whispering at my door. Evidently it was some kind of code. Check a box or don't check a box and company comes a callin'. Scratch, scratch, scratch; whisper, whisper, whisper. It was like something out of a scary movie (remember the Wicker Man) except instead of someone whispering “kill, kill, kill” it was someone whispering “blow, blow, blow”. Actually, the scratching situation kind of freaked me out because I didn’t know what the hell it was at first (it woke me out of one my malaria induced psychological thriller dreamares). Awakened, I sat there for what seemed like hours, wondering when they would take a hint and go away. I was going to tell them to beat it (not like MJ but more like DMX or KRS) but I didn't know about the politics of prostitution in Rwanda. Is there a pimp in the hallway? If I call down, will I get spit in my food? Who knew.
After a while though, I just couldn't take it anymore. I swung the door open and there was three prostitutes standing there. One was closer to the door than the others. I told them that I was not interested, would never be interested and they should just quit it. They kind of looked me over as if surprised that I was in the room, looking over my shoulder for the whiter person or just checking my luggage. Not losing a beat and haggle in full swing, there was this kind of exchange that was basically like, “come on Mizungu, be upset but we still got rent to pay.” Remembering growing up in New York, I was sympathetic for a second and might have even laughed but nevertheless I cussed ‘em out for waking me up and told them that I would not be so nice the next day if they came back. At this point, my tone was somewhere between Big Daddy Kane or 50 (pronounced fiddy) Cent. (Note: They did not return. I spoke to the guy at the front desk and told him that the solicitations had to stop).
Later still, back state-side, I went to rent the Wicker man. This was the story of the cop who went to some remote locale to investigate a crime but who was actually there on some locale ruse. Recalling his denial of temptation and his being brutally killed for his purity, I was happy I did not think of this at the time. Now, I say this because Rwanda freaked me out enough already. I did not need to be thinking of different ways that I could get whacked when in country. Indeed, one of the ways that one passes time in Rwanda was trying to think of what it reminded them of. While there, I generally thought I was somewhere between Alien, the Wizard of Oz, Night of the Living Dead, Apocalypse Now, the Blair Witch Project and the Hills Have Eyes, set against the marvelous backdrop of the Diane Lane movie when she was hanging out in Italy. Did I mention that Rwanda was beautiful?