the beach at Lake Tanganyika in Burundi

 

I know I shouldn’t complain about business travel to Africa. It’s always a rewarding experience. But it’s also an exhausting one. For nearly three weeks I had been waking up at 6, cleaning out my work emails, and leaving the hotel by 7. We would be on the road all day seeing projects. With the sun long set, I would return to my hotel room, eat an overpriced and usually mediocre hotel meal, and crash. So when I suddenly found myself with a free afternoon in Burundi, I was thrilled.

To say that post-conflict Burundi doesn’t see many tourists would be a gross understatement. Travel on the highways is banned after 6 pm when the military pulls back to their garrisons. I attended a security briefing at the embassy a few days into my visit where I learned I had been violating protocol for at least three days by such rash measures as taking local taxis and traveling without a radio link to the security station.

The threat to life and limb and the nearly complete lack of tourism infrastructure were obstacles to enjoying my rare bit of leisure time, but the Lonely Planet guide raved about the beaches of Lake Tanganyika where “the waves are strong enough to keep away the parasitic snails that infest most of East African bodies of water.” What had really gotten me excited was the brochure from the swanky hotel, “Club du Lac”, that had quietly been inserted into my passport when it returned from the Burundian Embassy’s visa desk. I guessed the Ambassador’s brother must be an owner. Either way, the lake, the hotel, and its beach sounded great. Even better, the US security officer had actually signed off on the safety of the place. But really, I needed a little downtime.

I was not totally sure that I could just walk into the hotel and onto their stretch of beach, but I have always been a big believer in begging for forgiveness rather than asking for permission. I changed in the hotel bar restroom, slipped on my cheap Chinese mirrored sunglasses, and walked out to the sand as if I knew what I was doing.

Lake Tanganyika

It was a Saturday and one of the rare beautiful days in the middle of the rainy season. Dark green mountains rose up on the Congolese side of the lake crested by white clouds. A pristine beach with ocean-worthy sand lay in front of me. A bored guard with his AK-47 was throwing rocks at a can for want of people to watch. I had the beach almost entirely to myself. A European diplomat and his wife were playing in the shade. Figuring them not to be the bag-snatching type, I asked them to watch my things while I went into the waves. They pleasantly agreed.

The water was cool and fresh with the wind blowing just hard enough to stir up some surf. It was fantastic. The view was pristine, and I was alone in the water, the only soul taking advantage of the natural peace and tranquility of floating in the lake. It was a Saturday and people in this poor country could only afford to take their Sundays off. I had the water all to myself. Floating on my back, looking at Congo bobbing in and out of my line of sight, I had to admit that while it was not quite adventuring like I used to do, the government-sponsored travel had its moments.

Half an hour later, I strolled out of the waves, glowing with the realization that I was in the heart of Africa, that it was beautiful, that I was loving my job, and that I would get to come back to all this in the near future. I walked back to get my bag from the European couple.

“How was the water?” the man asked.

“Oh fantastic,” I replied. “It really was just the right temperature and so fresh. Like the ocean but without all the salt.”

They nodded politely in agreement. “So you don’t worry about the hippos?”

I looked at them, looked down, then at the mountains as I collected my thoughts.

“Thanks again.” I grabbed my bag, slipped on the sunglasses, and walked over to the bar for a drink.

Posted by Jett Thomason, 20 Jan 2010