These are my surroundings. The room is boxlike with bare concrete floors. Yet there are small mercies for which I should be thankful. Apart from the occasional marauding mosquito the Umbrella Hotel in Kibungo is free of pests. Here in the Rwandan hills it is still the cool season. The long rains have yet to arrive. Until they do the gnats, beetles, mosquitoes and countless other bugs will have to wait their hour.
The Umbrella Hotel is situated in this unprepossessing town along the main road between the Rwandan capital Kigali and the Tanzanian border. I would not describe it as "simple but charming". It is simply "simple". The only furnishings are a bed and the rickety table upon which I am now typing. There is a fake red rose and a photocopied notice from the management advising guests that the nightly rate is 5,000 Rwandan francs (£5) per night. Beyond the room I can hear the voice of Celine Dion - a great favourite in Rwanda - belting out some terrible torch song on the tinny speakers of the bar. A few local businessmen and government officials are drinking. Sometime soon Colonel Dan, scourge of the cattle rustlers and officer of the Rwandan army, may visit for a beer.
There is no other choice of hotel for the traveller making his way across Rwanda towards Tanzania. To make this spartan den a little more homely I have set up my usual comforters on the desk. There is a photograph of my wife and child taken in the Burren, that lonely and beautiful landscape of stones in Co Clare, and a piece of driftwood from the beach at Whiting Bay in Waterford. I have also placed my books there - a collection of Japanese poetry and John Le Carré's new novel. The former is a delight but the latter is a sad disappointment. Far too self-righteous for such a gifted and knowing pen.
But I digress. I am really writing about the road, about memory and loss, and my own susceptibility to what Frank O'Connor called "the poetry of change". He coined the phrase in his story The Ugly Duckling about a man returning home to settle his family's affairs after the death of his father. The city is my own - Cork - and the places O'Connor describes are the streets of my childhood. Here in the late reaches of the African night I do not have to will myself to see them clearly: the grey slate houses leaning like old aristocrats against the hills of Sundays Well, the shaky bridge across the River Lee above Fitzgerald's Park, the night thickening among the trees of the Marina late on an August night. The Marina. That long walk beside the Lee at Tivoli where O'Connor and Sean O'Faoilean walked with their heads full of words, their hearts caught between love for that old city of water and frustration over its snobbery and its strict limits.
The limits these writers kicked against were artistic and personal, though neither would have accepted any delineation between the two. O'Connor once remarked that though he had left Cork, the city had never left him. I understand what he means, I think. The foreign correspondent makes his home in any number of places. He has a base in some city or other but night after night he wakes in strange rooms. It is a chosen life, not an imposed one, so no plea for sympathy here.
Still, it can be desperately lonely. After 25 years as a reporter I could not begin to count the places in which I've bedded down. Nor I am unfamiliar with the sensation of waking in panic and wondering where I am. Those few seconds in the murk of early morning can leave you feeling a childlike sense of abandonment. You reach for the bedside light or torch or frantically strike a match, until you see the familiar photograph and claw your way out of the void. No place on earth is lonelier than that moment. There and then you understand what Robbie Robertson meant in those simple but so deep lines from The Last Waltz.
Unless you love the music of The Band you probably won't have seen Martin Scorsese's wonderful tribute filmed around their last concert. The Band's creative driving force, Robbie Robertson, is asked by Scorsese why they are giving up touring. Robertson speaks in a voice that summons up images of small clubs in Detroit and great stadiums in California and all the highways in between. "Its a goddamn impossible way of life," he says.
Rarely have so few words carried the burden of so much experience. The older I become the greater the struggle of the road. Don't misunderstand me: I love the difference and vitality of the world, the adventure of new places and conversations. I still count myself lucky that somebody pays me to go to the places I do. But something has shifted that makes the contemplation of journeys spark a certain weariness. I know that I don't travel as much as I once did or anything like as frequently as some of my colleagues. But the years add up; the nights in strange places accumulate and the sense of wondering quite where I belong becomes more acute with every journey. In Frank O'Connor's story the character is absorbed in the familiar landscape of his home town but also feels lost, alienated by the choices he has made, the distances travelled.
Here in Rwanda I have opportunity to contemplate distances travelled. I first came here 10 years ago during the genocide. I was 32 years old and I was about to be changed for ever. Rwanda left its mark on me and I have never really been able to leave the place. Every other year I come back. This latest assignment is for Panorama, for a film to mark the 10th anniversary of the slaughter. It is fitting as Panorama's makers were the people who sent me here in the first place. So change, in all its manifestations, is on my mind.
The country is being re-built but it is tormented by memory. All day we are listening to the stories of those awful days in 1994. We are hearing them in a country much altered from the one I knew in May and June of 1994. Rwanda is changing. I have changed. But I doubt that I can ever see this country other than through the eyes of a 32-year-old man. He still wakes here in dreams of blood.
Now in this small room I long for home and family. And I also crave the landmarks of an earlier life. If I could this minute I would walk along the Marina and then all the way across the city to the small lake we called the Lough at Glasheen. One winter's night 30 years ago I saw wild birds skitter on the newly frozen ice of Christmas week. In my grandmother's time the winters had been cold enough for skaters to take to the ice. Instead, I will wake early tomorrow to heavy mist and the sounds of birds and insects rising from the valleys. It is the most amazing noise, like the first morning of the world. The first-time visitor would recognise great beauty in this scene. But I don't know what I feel or think. Perhaps it is best to admit to confusion. Yes, I am floundering, bridling against this present tense and hankering for places I left behind long ago. O'Connor's poetry of change is lyrical but it is full, too, of questions and sad silences.
The writer is a BBC Special CorrespondentReuse content