Thursday, 8 October 2020

Five-year Surprise

My goodness, I've missed an entire month without an update. Been as sleepy as Sophie, above. 

That's not true. I've actually been super busy. I was drafted in to help design and deliver an intensive Writing & Communication course at a prominent university. We've just completed an intensive week of lecturing to first-year medical students. It's been an incredible experience. We've had to develop all the course content online as the universities are currently closed. This hasn't been that difficult for our course, and the students seem happy. The university campus is about two-and-a-half hours out of town down difficult roads, so I'm quite happy to be staying in Kigali for it. Plus, the office in Kigali has a lovely view.

I've been continuing with my watermelon fetish. Ice-cold, out the fridge.

I thought this was a mosquito at first, but then it settled down to snack on my melon, and we just sat there chomping away together.

The end of the dry season was very hot, as always. Regularly 30c a day. The rains have started to come now, so it gets quite chilly at night. 

The lecturing has been going well, but things have not been great in other respects. A couple of months ago the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was assimilated into the Foreign Office. Instead of honouring existing contracts, they started slashing budgets, and my retainer with the survivors' organisations went with it. So, I might still work for them on a contracting basis, but no more retainer, which is upsetting as there was another year to run on that. It's particularly galling that I didn't lose my job to COVID, but to my own bloody government. Typical Tories. 

So, the future is a little uncertain employment-wise, but I'm thinking of taking a couple of months off to write another novel. I'm not feeling too stressed at the moment.

Novel-writing position A


Restrictions here have relaxed a bit. We had a 7 p.m. curfew at one point, but that was lifted because more people died in panic rush-hour traffic than from COVID, so it's now been lifted to 10 p.m. This is also helping restaurants who have been seriously suffering from lack of custom. We're all wearing masks and socially distancing, but it's definitely nice to be able to have an evening meal again.


Almost 40-year-old me emerging from early curfew in a nice new
top that a friend brought back from Dubai.

My friend brought me some clothes back from Dubai. It's been over two years since I was last in the UK and Rwanda is a difficult place to get clothes. Unless you want everything made from kitenge (which is nice - in moderation), you have to scour second-hand markets for something that fits or pay Harrods prices for Primark quality in a shop. So, when Jo went to Dubai we were all thinking 'yay, pants!' Myself and another friend went online to H&M and Next and started loading our shopping trolleys. We were so happy - until we reached check-out.

Some ridiculous law means Dubai online shops only accept Dubai-registered credit cards! We were staring at new clothes, but we couldn't purchase them. A friend of a friend eventually put me in contact with her boss, who has a Dubai credit card, and she had to go in and purchase my underwear for me. Slightly embarrassing, but when needs must. Just can't believe they're turning away business at times like this. I like Next, but part of me wouldn't be surprised if they go under with a sales policy like that.

The only place that would accept my order was Amazon Dubai, as I have a UK Amazon account and card. But the stock available was terrible. Both Amazon and Next were out of 90% of the clothes in my size. It was extremely depressing. So, hobbling along until I can get back to the UK to shop... whenever that might be.

In the meantime, there is alcohol... a Moscow Mule at NowNow, with Jo.

Drinks at Kigali Heights with Solv.


They have a cocktail menu to make you blush:


Slightly more appealing than the Manor's Irish Car Bomb.

Plus a nice view of the Convention Centre in the background.


Solv currently has a very cute lemon-yellow Beetle. It's a lot of fun driving around town with her.




My lovely friend Meg sent me some chocolate.  


My dad also tried sending a parcel of chocolate, which actually got here in under three months. Though, as I mentioned in the last post, Kigali Post Office is pretty dire. It used to be that you paid around £30 a year for a PO box, which entitled you to £1 off parcels. So, because there's no household post delivery here, you have to go collect things in person, and you pay the post office for your parcel. It used to be 500 francs for a PO box and 1,000 if you didn't have one. Then it was 1,000 for a PO box and 2,000 if you didn't have one. Now it's 2,000 for everyone, regardless of whether you have a PO box or not. 

So, there is now absolutely no reason what so ever to have a PO box. For the sake of maybe 5,000-10,000 extra on parcel charges a year, they're blowing off a guaranteed 30,000 because no one is renewing their PO boxes.

Last time I went, I was one of only two people there and it still took over 15 minutes before the person at the desk acknowledged my presence. It's excruciating trying to get your parcel. So, the bright sparks at the post office decided to introduce a home delivery service. You can now get a parcel delivered to your home for the bargain price of 6,500 francs!

Just to put that into perspective. I can get home delivery from any shop in Kigali for 1,500 max. Sharma Supermarket delivers for between 500-700 francs. You can get all the way across the entire country by bus for less than that. 

Why on earth would anybody pay such extortionate rates for post office delivery?

I have no idea who their head of marketing is, but I think they're missing a few marbles. Providing it's not a wisdom tooth extraction, I would honestly rather go to the dentist than the post office.

Aaand relax. I went for a pedicure for the first time in my life. I'm not a huge fan of being touched, and I have very ticklish feet, but it had to be done. I hate wearing shoes and the past couple of years my feet have been getting a bit hard. Solv suggested a place and I decided to check it out. Foot spa, massage chair and scrub. It was delightful and my tootsies are lovely and soft again. All for under £10. Will definitely be going back.


Speaking of green lights - do you remember the most haunted hotel in Kigali?

So, someone's made a valiant attempt to renovate it. It's got nice, new cladding and actually looks pretty normal now. I was going to take a photo to show Harris, but I forgot, and by the time I left the restaurant, it was dark. I stopped to take a photo anyway and, nope, it's still the creepiest building in town...



Green stair lighting? Honestly? Unbelievable. 


Stay out of room 1408.

Actually, following on from that other post and Andy - some sad news. So many wonderful nights in Kimironko with Andy, Chris, Coco and the band. But, with all the bars closed, the curfew and no live music, they've been seriously struggling. Andy decided to relocate his family back to Burundi in search of work. I roped my lovely friend, Emmy, into driving them to the border. Seriously sad to see them go. Beautiful people!

This was the scene at the border. He had to get special permission from his embassy to cross.




Got a lovely picture of them back in Buj, having made the journey safely. That's birthday cake on the kids' faces.



Feels like the end of an era with Harris gone and the band disbanded. Hope it's only temporary, but realistically, I reckon it's going to be a while before we all see each other again.

Continuing with music news, and the title of this post...

Something quite special happened the other week.

Five years ago, I had to vacate a premises quickly after the landlord's family discovered he was gay and went psycho-homophobic on him. He helped me to find the place I live in now, but whilst viewing a few other places, I found the most incredible piano in the basement of one of them. This kicked off the whole piano building adventure I later went on. 

I never forgot that piano. It was the most delightfully Gothic thing I had ever seen. I can just about play the intro to Corpse Bride, and when I do, I imagine I'm playing it on that piano - in the middle of a thunder storm. 

Problem was, although I never forgot the piano, I had no idea where the house was, so I couldn't find it again. A couple of years ago, I asked my friend if the owner of the house would be willing to either renovate it or sell it, but the answer that came back was no. The piano belonged to his family or something, and he didn't want to part with it. I always secretly hoped that once we started the Kigali Keys project, the owner would see that and be tempted to contact me again to talk about restoration.

Flash forward five years and that's exactly what happened.

Only, it wasn't the same guy. Turns out the real owner of the piano is a hotelier in Burundi and a UN worker based overseas. He's currently weathering the pandemic in Kigali. Five years ago he sublet the house to a guy who was renting out rooms. So, the guy I met was not the owner and couldn't have sold me the piano even if he'd wanted to.

The actual owner did indeed get my number word-of-mouth from someone who knew about the Kigali Keys project. I almost cried when we pulled up and entered the house. I recognised it immediately. I knew exactly where I was and exactly what was in the basement. I turned to him and said 'I've been here before.' A very strange conversation ensued, in which I showed him a picture of the inside of his own piano, even though we had never met before, and he explained the story of subletting the house. It was an incredible moment. And, although it wasn't the Gothic Emile Vits he wanted me to repair, he allowed me to race downstairs to look at it. 

It looked as lovely as it had five years ago, but when we took the front off, it became apparent that a mouse had made its home there. Still utterly beautiful to me, though. A 130-year-old birdcage piano. I didn't even know what that was back then. I had no idea what I was looking at, but I knew I loved it.

Now, of course, I do know what I'm looking at and I know it would be an extreme labour of love to repair this. There's so much wrong with her. Having just lost my main source of income, that's another consideration, but... well. There's more to the story.

So, there are two pianos in this house. The other - also exactly where it was five years ago - is a 1968 US spinet. I remembered it, but it didn't captivate me in the same way the Emile Vits did. And, again, I couldn't have told you what a spinet was back then, or what a complete pain they are to work on. 

A spinet resulted from the Great Depression. People were downsizing to smaller homes, so pianos downsized to fit. They're a fraction of the height of a standard piano, and the action (hammers) are dropped down below the keys. This is why they're so difficult to work on, because the key bed obscures your view, so you can't see what's wrong with the action unless you take it out, and the way the action is put together makes it very difficult to get out. With a normal upright you can just lift the action out, fiddle about, pop it back in and check if it's working. With a spinet, it's a real struggle to remove it, so you'd better be sure it's fixed before you put it back in.

Suffice to say, it was a challenge. But I went for it. Three days of concentration - two at his house and one at mine - and by the end of it, we had a working piano, and it sounds wonderful. A lot of the videos I watched said repairing a spinet wasn't worth it because the quality of the sound wasn't good, but I was super impressed by this one. Wasn't expecting it to sound half as good as it did. Well worth the effort, and the sheer look of joy on the owner's face was just wonderful. A really special moment.  


He told me he was here during '94 and both pianos were on the street in Kayovu, not far from the Belgian Embassy. He bought them off the soldiers. They were both damaged but became more so over the years as he couldn't repair them. He himself had learned to play whilst training as a priest, but because the spinet was so damaged, he hadn't played it in over twenty years. Now it's making beautiful music again. 

He's just gone to the UK to visit his daughter, but when he returns, he's letting me take the Emile Vits to have a closer inspection. We'll discuss it after that.

I'm tearful as I type this. I have no idea why I was so captivated by that piano, or why I was so insane as to take my own piano apart to learn how they work, or why fixing pianos has become such a thing for me.

Although, it has taken a couple of days to recover. Saturday was eight hours of heavy lifting and hard work. I've hardly done any exercise since COVID, so my muscles were screaming at me. I was stiff as a board the next day, but happy. 

Treated myself to tiramisu with a long spoon (yes, that's a Black Books reference).


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Early to Bed

I absolutely love mantises. I was doing my laundry the other day when I happened to catch in the corner of my eye that there was one sitting on my shoulder. He looked at me, I looked at him, but when I extended my arm to let him walk onto the hedge, he launched himself into a frying pan that was soaking on the ground. I fished him out with a ladle and let him dry off. Such a cutie. I didn't realise how good they are at jumping. There's quite a few around at the moment and when I see them I collect them up and put them outside.

The title for this post comes from a new ministerial order a couple of days ago. Our 9 p.m. curfew has been reduced to 7 p.m. but the order went out so fast that it seems many people didn't know. If you get caught out after curfew, you spend the night at the stadium. Someone in a Kigali forum took this picture the day the curfew changed - all the people who got caught out. I was lucky, a friend posted it in a popular city forum, but I wouldn't have known otherwise. It's probably a good move to restrict movement again, reported cases are rising rapidly, but a little more notice would be nice. An SMS or a post in the popular online forums when it's something as important, and as sudden, as a change to curfew hours.

I mentioned in my last post about food prices. I was in a popular local supermarket the other day and thought I'd just show the comparison. In the UK, a 100g bag of hazel nuts costs £1.50 in Tesco. Here it's over £9, and £10 for a pack of pistachios. My friend runs a restaurant with a pistachio salad. She says they literally sit there and count out the number of pistachios to include per salad, because they're so expensive.

Above, you can see a £2.99 box of cereal priced at almost £6 - and people buy this.

As we're a landlocked country, the goods arrive in containers at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania or Mombasa in Kenya, but it costs far more money to get the goods overland to Kigali than it costs to get them to the ports. So, things are very expensive. Yet, when you cross the border to somewhere like Bukavu in DRC, which is just as far from the sea, the shops are fully stocked and more reasonably priced. So, it's a constant conundrum. Even stuff that is made here is super expensive, such as butter. A 250g block of butter (£1.50 in the UK) costs almost £8 here, even though it's made in Kenya.

Of course, rice, beans and cassava flour are all very cheap, and you could live off those, but every now and then - actually, most days - you want something a little extra. The problem is that, after travelling to Africa by sea and then overland by truck, the products often suffer a drop in quality. It costs between £3.80-4.60 for a multi pack of Snickers or fun-sized Bounty, but twice in the past month I've splashed out and ended up returning them.

You wouldn't mind, only there's a very specific style of customer service you often encounter. Usually, customer service goes, 1) acknowledge there is a problem, 2) find a solution, 3) leave the customer feeling happy and willing to shop with you again. Here, it can be more, 1) deny there is a problem, 2) if you absolutely have to admit it, blame the customer, 3) hope the customer gets tired and goes away.

This works for these shops as the marketplace is small and there's hardly any competition. If you want to buy an imported product, there's usually only one or two places you can find that product. Sooner or later, you end up returning.

You'd think a shop might be interested to know there's a problem with their cold chain, so that they can hire some help and get it fixed. Instead, I received a long lecture on how they import quality chocolate from the UK, they're the only shop to keep it in the fridge, and how their warehouses are so impressive that I should come and see them and watch whilst they open their chocolate in front of me to prove it's okay. He stopped just short of offering to defend his honour by stabbing himself through the heart with a Twix.

Yeash, calm down. 

Lesson learned - just don't buy chocolate from there anymore.

A good friend gave me a lead on a South African shop selling chocolate near town, but you have to get in quick before they sell out. I'm going to see if I can find it next week.

Talking of chocolate, look what arrived!

This is a Christmas parcel sent by my aunt... in November. 

The post office is a constant sore point for all Kigalians. Stuff takes months to arrive, if it ever arrives. Recently, something seems to be changing. They've got a swanky new website and finally appear to be paying attention to social media.

They've also gone through their cupboards and published a list of almost 6,500 unclaimed items! They put it on a website that takes ages to load, but once it does you can search your name. They also published the list with everyone's personal contact details on because, y'know, why not? You can just look up anyone's name and find their phone number. Which sort of begs the question: if the post office have the person's number - why not call them and tell them they have a parcel?

I had three parcels, two of which appeared to be the same parcel listed twice, but on closer inspection, they could only find one. I was told that the reason it wasn't delivered to the PO box I pay 30,000 francs a year for was because the address was incomplete. As you can see from the above picture - it wasn't. It had my name, my PO box, the correct city - everything you'd need to deliver it to the recipient. It's not like I just arrived last week. I've had the exact same PO box for over six years.

Last year, my aunt's Christmas parcel arrived in March, so she posted it earlier this year... and it arrived even later. Dad's also arrived in March this year. Getting it out of the post office was a challenge. As you can see, it was damaged, so the guy kept telling me to go there and have a look. Not wanting to spend half my day in a socially-distanced queue at the post office, I suggested he WhatsApp me a picture, which he did. 'Great,' I said, 'no problem, I'm happy to take it.' So I sent a moto to collect it and asked for the momo information to pay.

Momo stands for Mobile Money, an extremely clunky way of transferring money between mobile phone accounts, for which you need a code about as long as your arm, full of numbers, asterisks and hashes. Anyway, he wouldn't give me the code to pay for my parcel and told me my driver could pay for it.

He also asked for 2,000 francs, which I'm still uncertain about, as owning a PO box is supposed to entitle you to a reduced parcel fee of 1,000. You have to pay to collect parcels, there's no door-to-door delivery in Kigali and the parcel collection fees, I assume, make up postal workers' wages as there probably isn't the weight of postage to do that by stamps and stationary alone. 

Anyway. Driver is already on his way there when the guy decides the driver also needs a letter of recommendation from me and a copy of my passport.

I was getting increasingly annoyed by this. What should have been a simple transaction (1. I have a parcel, 2. I pay you for that parcel, 3. the parcel gets delivered) is turning into a day-long outing through inconvenienceville. I explained that the WhatsApp message, in which I have given the name of the driver and the delivery company he works for, is my letter of recommendation. I WhatsApp a copy of my passport to both the post office guy and the driver going to collect the parcel. 

Just because he can, the post office guy then insists I call the director of the post office, for no sane reason. So, I do, to explain the situation and ask him politely to help get the parcel to the delivery guy...

Things you wish you never started. Anyway, it finally arrived and, guess what...

There was chocolate inside!

It may have been in the post for nine months, but it was still perfectly edible. 


In between minor irritations, there has been some nice dining going on. My friend introduced me to these 'freezes' at The Hut. They're not on the menu, but they're completely delicious. Like Slush Puppies, but slightly less luminous and made with natural ingredients. Delightful on a hot day.

With a hankering for British stuff, I managed to convince a local bakery to make a batch of Welsh Cakes. I got a free taster batch. It's all good. I'm thinking maybe we try Scotland next, with a deep-fried Mars bar.

My friend Solv and I regularly eat at another friend's tapas bar, but tapas isn't always that filling, so Solv suggested we combine the pork with rice, and it went down a treat. Our own off-the-menu meal for a boozy night out. The staff did a lovely presentation.

Then, we come to the happy place. There's a new very expensive but very amazing restaurant recently opened, Meza Malonga. It's an event rather than a meal. I went with my lovely friend Jo as a special treat. Founded by a young gentleman called Dieuveil Malonga. He's from Congo-Brazzaville and trained in France to become an award-winning chef. The whole experience is delightful.

Fresh Ingredients
Nice View

Ten-month old passion fruit digestif.

It was such a lovely evening, and went a long way to relieving the tension we've been feeling lately, what with the plague and everything.

They also had some nice art pieces made from old moto helmets.

I've also done a couple of piano tunings recently. This lovely one with a hinged lid:


And this grand, which is the first grand I ever tuned and last saw three years ago. Where does the time fly?

Also been trying to get our piano build to work with Désiré. Definitely some issues. More about that here.

Sat down with a well-deserved cup of tea and an episode of Better Call Saul, in which I appear to have the exact same mug.

Graduated to a glass of wine. The not-so-good chocolate shop also sells red wine in orange juice cartons. I was highly sceptical at first, but it was cheap, so I took one home. I then went back and bought the last three cartons. It's very acceptable. It's been between 27-30c every day the past month, so I generally keep it in the fridge. It's been a real treat.

And one of my favourite shops has just gone online. It's run by my friend Flo, keeping the city supplied with fresh fruit and veg, bagels and ice-cream. I've realised that one of the greatest pleasures of being an adult is getting to eat an entire watermelon all by yourself. I hadn't had one for years, and now I'm slightly infatuated.

My lovely cleaner, Claudine, is here helping remove the plaster dust from - well, everywhere. My landlord very kindly sent some guys over to fix up the house this week. Unfortunately, due to a combination of dodgy imported cement and torrential rains during the wet season, houses tend to rot on a regular basis. They usually need patching up every couple of years. My living room was getting to that stage, so a guy came to replace the cement and paint the room. It required me to move all of my belongings into the guest room and stay there for a couple of days, but it looks really smart now.

(panoramic, click to enlarge)

Weird seeing the house so empty.
All finished.

Howl was not so sure about the situation. That look says he blames me entirely.

Had a meeting yesterday, then went out for a meal with my friend Chantal. We went to PiliPili and I was glad to see they'd solved their green pool issue. It was a lovely afternoon, and there was a misty haze on the horizon which layered the hills.