Friday, June 18, 2010

Can Rwandans Count?

Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills. After traveling north for 3 hours on a jam packed mini bus blaring Enrique Iglesias I can assure you there are way more than a thousand (thank you motion sickness patch!)

After a couple weeks working with the kiddies, we needed to get away from it all for a little r&r. Okay, in reality we just wanted to see a bit more of the Rwandan countryside.

The drive along the winding roads was really beautiful- much different from the other countries I'd been to in Africa. Rolling hills, dotted with small towns and almost completely used for farming-- from what we hear, perhaps over farmed. It was amazing to see the locals along the steepest hillsides plowing fields of mostly maize and potato (no surprise since those are the staples of EVERY meal. Btw, maize and corn are not the same thing as I sadly learned after excitedly biting into an ear--- wow, was I disappointed).
Of course, you also see the local women carrying all sorts of things on their heads, but this time with a baby strapped to their back-- I am sad to have left Africa without learning how to carry stuff on my head :-(

Our first stop was Gisenyi, a town on Lake Kivu about 1.5km from the border with Congo. The town was pretty basic- your standard dirt road main street with shops and a market.
One difference from Kigali may be the number of white people-- we noticed pretty quickly that we were more of a novelty here since people would stand in front of us and just stare. The kids were a bit more forward, saying "Muzungu, give me money." After a bit of time, I just decided to be super friendly and "bonjour" everyone that stared at us.

Well, to be honest, I didn't say hello to everyone. Interestingly, this area was a stronghold of the Hutu hardliners leading up to the genocide. Over the last 15 years they have been holding community trials to hold people accountable for their actions. They house those found guilty in the local prison where they perform community service. On numerous occasions we passed groups of prisoners walking down the street or highway and were able to distinguish the genocidaires by their pink uniforms (the common prisoners wear orange). Very creepy to be face to face with people that have committed such horrific atrocities! I marvel that the Rwandans have been able to reconcile and move forward for the good of their country.

We stayed at the Peace Land Hotel which was up the hill from town and overlooked the lake. It was quite nice to start the day with breakfast and a view (of the Congo--- the peninsula jutting out the right hand side of the above picture).
The World Cup started while we were in the area, so we of course watched our fair share of games from various spots. The Africans are very excited and proud to be hosting the tournament and supporting the six African teams playing. They also seemed to like England for some reason, which I wasn't so happy about during the match against the US--- luckily England was nice enough to give the US a goal so I could gloat about the 1-1 tie.

Before leaving we (L to R: Devon, Daniel and Jonny) traveled about 8km south to another part of the lake which was idyllic, with beautiful flowers, fishing boats and a taste of local life. For a change we had a really delicious meal, but like everything in Africa, it look a while. Yes, so long that some of us missed the bus back to Kigali. Still not sure how it can take HOURS to grill chicken and fish- we were guessing they had to catch the fish first?

Next stop, Musanze- the town closest to Volcanoes National Park where for a small fee (aka crazy pricey) you can trek to the mountain gorillas for 1 hour.
Since I booked my gorilla permit before I left NYC, I was on my own for this part, but the guys at the Virunga Hotel were super welcoming.
Ephrem spent hours trying to find a group I could join for the drive up to the park entrance to save me money. Although unsuccessful, he got me a driver, stayed up all night and then escorted me to the park the following morning at 6am where he arranged the group of gorillas I would see. Like everyone, he had a story--- he was actually born in California, but can't prove his citizenship since all documents were lost in '94 and anyone that would know details is now dead.
There doesn't seem to be anyone you meet that doesn't have a tragic story- don't misunderstand, it's not as if they talk about it all the time, it's just so common that any basic conversation often leads to some sad tid bit being revealed.

The Volcanoes National Park is wedged right between the borders of Congo and Uganda--- the only place you can see mountain gorillas in the world since there are only about 700 remaining at the last census (could be off given the recent war in Congo). There are 250 gorillas in Rwanda of which they have 8 groups for tourists and 8 for research.

I trekked to the Agashya group with an American family from Rochester, NY and a few others, along with our guides and trackers. Only a short 30 minute hike and we were in the forest with the family of 24 gorillas, including one silverback.
We did our best to keep our distance, but for the most part we were constantly stepping back or climbing through trees to get away from the curious youngsters. At one point, the silverback was on the move and ended up right next to me as I had no room to move back--- they are SUPER HUGE, so it was kinda scary. Sorry, I have no photo proof as I was too frightened to snap a picture!
The hour went by very quickly watching them swing from trees, or fall to the ground when the branches broke under their weight. They were pretty cool!
After the gorilla trek it was time to head back to Kigali for my last night at the Favor Guesthouse. Leopold (the chef) and Judith (the Scottish manager) were really lovely and made our stay very pleasant; however, we still liked to escape every now and then for some non African food.
My last meal in Kigali was at my favorite Sol e Luna--- legitimately good pizza with some very poorly named cocktails, as Daniel pointed out ;-)
That only left time for me to stop by the office one last time to say goodbye to the kids and staff. For my parting all the kids sang me a song about how God will protect me- it was really very sweet (albeit very religious)!
Although it was hard to leave the kids, I will admit that I was ready to leave Rwanda. For some odd reason, I appeared to be allergic to the country. Perhaps it was the amount of greenery, but the entire time I was sneezing, coughing and congested. I guess my body doesn't like all that fresh air!

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