Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Whirlwind Tour

**Photos to come when the internet is more cooperative!**

My first international visitor arrived two weeks ago! EM flew from DC into Kigali on May 18, and we embarked on a whirlwind tour of Rwanda. I led him on what I now call the “Best and Worst of Rwanda” tour…we started by going out to two genocide memorials so he could see for himself the tragedy of Rwanda’s past, and then proceeded during the rest of the trip to all the best that Rwanda has to offer…great brochettes, bustling markets, bodega bars, and, of course, gorillas.

After two days in Kigali, we took a jeep out to Akagera Park. After my monkey-less experience the last time I was there, I was hopeful that the second time around, I would be luckier. And were we ever! We saw baboons and monkeys! I have also said that my life would be complete if I saw an elephant in the wild, and I’m happy to report that my life is now complete—we didn’t just see one, but FIVE. They were bathing and eating on a lake shore. They had enormous flappy ears and, while big, seemed smaller than the elephants at the zoo. I’m pretty sure they’re smaller than South Asian elephants. We left the car and watched them further down the shore, perhaps 100 yards away, as they collected wet grasses with their trunks and whipped some of the excess water onto their shoulders before eating them. The largest elephant finally tired of being a spectacle—he grunted and started moving toward us, which prompted everyone, including our guide (who, I don’t think, had seen elephants in a long time, because he started taking pictures with his camera phone) to start running back to the car.

We stayed at the Akagera Lodge that night, the only hotel in the park, primarily because I had heard that baboons basically owned the place. Unfortunately, the hotel staff had chased them away because there was a wedding that afternoon. I had to content myself with the baboons in the park. Surprisingly, the food there was pretty good—we had fresh frog’s legs! (No, this was not my suggestion—it was actually EM’s.)

The next day, we headed back through Kigali, taking an Okapi matatu (I should clarify the difference between a matatu that has a name and a local matatu…the former are more expensive and are essentially express vans that go between the major cities, and the latter are cheaper and stop EVERYWHERE, and are generally derelict) to Gisenyi. EM had so much luggage (half of which was soccer balls, which I will talk about in another post!) that we had to buy the whole matatu seat, and we still weren’t comfortable.

When we arrived in Gisenyi, we were at a loss to figure out how to carry all of his luggage to my house; thankfully, the Gisenyi street children, who all know my name (they call me Morgani) were there to welcome us and anyone else who could spare 100 francs. Six children carried all of our bags, for which I paid them handsomely—a big bag full of our snacks for the safari, which included a big bottle of water, Pringles, cookies, peanuts, and apples!

EM came to work with me that week. We went out monitoring on Monday, and had a great interview with a returnee from Congo-Brazzaville that had returned to Rwanda thinking that his wife and daughter were dead. When he returned to his land, he found his wife had still been faithful to him and was cultivating his fields, and his daughter was in fourth grade! His story will be reported in the next UNHCR Rwanda newsletter. At night, we had drinks with Boniface, the HCR driver, and even though EM thought he could keep up with Boniface, he couldn’t….we had drinks with him twice, and every time, Boniface drank him under the table.

On Wednesday, we took a break from work to go to Ruhengeri to see the world-famous Rwandan mountain gorillas. An endangered species, there are only 300 left in the Congo-Uganda-Rwanda tri-state area. The tourism office certainly uses this knowledge to their benefit, as the price to see them was a bank-breaking $400 for EM and $200 for me, since I have resident status. You buy your tickets in Kigali at the ORTPN (tourism office) and have to arrange your own transport to Kinigi, the base office from which the gorilla treks depart, by 7:00 am. When you arrive at Kinigi, you can choose which gorilla group you would like to see; for the older or less athletic, you can see some groups which are easier to reach, but those families are generally made up of 7-10 gorillas. The gorilla group that was the furthest away and required the steepest climb was the Susa Group, made up of 37 gorillas. This was the group that Dian Fossey, the famous gorilla researcher who was slaughtered by poachers (see Gorillas in the Mist for details) studied.

Of course, we chose the Susa. How could you not?

So off we went to Karisimbi, the tallest volcano in Rwanda (and the only place that you can find snow here, but only during the coldest months and it’s only a fine dust that covers the top 5 meters of the mountain). It is now dormant. I had gone monitoring in the area before, so I was quite familiar with the route and the warnings associated with it. Boniface, the HCR driver, had told me that it was dangerous to be there after 5 pm, as the Interahamwe make frequent forays into the area there. During the day, though, it’s fine, and I left my fears behind as we started to climb up the base of the mountain.

To our surprise, we were accompanied by 3 Army soldiers; one in front and two behind. We asked why, and our guide told us that there are wild buffalo in the mountain forests that are very aggressive. Apparently the Army soldiers shoot in the air to scare them away.

Riiiiiiight. We asked ourselves how many people actually believed that crap. You don’t need three armed soldiers to scare a buffalo!

In reality, as Boniface had warned, there is still insecurity in that particular area. The government is taking precautions to avoid what happened in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Park a couple of years ago—a group of gorilla trekkers and their guide were slaughtered by Interahamwe.

At moments like these, I realize that, honestly, the genocide and its aftermath have repercussions in every aspect of life here, even the tourism.

We left the cultivated fields at the base of the mountain and entered a dense bamboo forest. The bamboo forest gave way to a rainforest, replete with vines and stinging nettles. I had never heard of them before, but now I’ll never forget them. Those things hurt like hell. They sting across your clothing! I made the mistake of touching one, and it felt like someone was stabbing my forefinger with invisible needles. It turned red and developed spots where I had touched the plant.

We climbed over and through vines and up steep, slippery inclines until we met up with more soldiers and ORTPN workers. We left our bags with them and were led to the gorillas.

The first one we saw was the beta male, a silverback. Interestingly, these mountain gorillas’ backs change color when they reach full maturity, at about 25 years old. Not surprisingly, they’re just like humans—their hair goes gray as they get older! He was reclining on his back, his bare stomach exposed to the sun.

We moved on and saw the alpha male, who was also reclining. We had caught them during their afternoon nap, which follows “happy hour,” so to speak, when all the gorillas play and romp. While they didn’t do much for the first 20 minutes or so, the alpha male let out a call alerting the other gorillas that naptime was over. Soon, there were baby gorillas tumbling out of the trees, down bamboo stalks. A female wandered over to the beta male, who grabbed her violently and threw her in front of him, after which he started to mate with her while picking insects out of her back hair and eating them.

How romantic.

The most amazing thing about the gorillas is that they are family. Literally. Their expressions and behavior are remarkably similar to ours. The alpha male was sleeping while a baby gorilla inadvertently tickled his nose with bamboo leaves—just the kind of thing kids do to their fathers. A mother held her baby in her arms, and every time the baby started to crawl away, the mother would pull the baby back in. Another baby was rolling around, playing with its mother. One gorilla started peeing from its nest in a tree (thank God I wasn’t standing there). Their resemblance to us made me feel a little guilty. You had to feel bad for them—here we were, strangers gawking and taking pictures of them when all they wanted to do was take a nap or eat in peace. It’s not the same kind of feeling as watching other animals.

We spent an hour with them before we had to turn back. Our driver insisted that we take a local matatu to get back to Gisenyi, as he didn’t have any gas (all taxis and taxi-motos in Rwanda run on empty, both because gas is expensive and because if someone steals the vehicle, it won’t go very far). We hopped onto a matatu and headed west. At one matatu stop, we got into an accident and had to change matatus…several were fighting over who got to take the muzungus!

He came with me to work for the rest of the week, which was largely uneventful, as we were unable to get to the camp. Thursday was a refugee day of mourning for the Interahamwe massacres in UNHCR camps in the 1990s, and we were advised that it would be inappropriate to visit the camp. On Friday, every vehicle we had at our disposal had broken down. Oh, well. Life in the field, I guess.

On Saturday, we headed into Goma, Congo with my friend Danielle and the Canadian Ambassador and his daughter, of all people. We took a tour around the city, but since we were in a Rwandan car, the driver refused to take us to certain parts of town. According to Boniface, there are areas of the city where Rwandans never go because they might not come back. As a result, we spent the day going in circles and taking side routes. The city is an anarchic wasteland. Once you cross the border, you suddenly feel as though there is no order. I’ve been there several times, and will devote a whole post to it soon!

We headed back through Kigali on our way to Uganda. (This time, I decided to take the path most taken.) We took a matatu up to the border and a taxi from there to the lakeside. The camp was as peaceful as ever. This time, there was a big Anglican church group there from Pennsylvania—they had just finished three weeks working in northern Uganda and were resting before heading home. We arrived on their last night, which, to our surprise, was celebrated by the camp staff with a big bonfire, Ugandan songs, and traditional dances under the stars.

It was a very relaxing vacation…breakfast on the deck of our cottage, overlooking the lake, lazing on lounge chairs by the water, jumping off the rope swing into the lake (this was EM’s domain, I was too chicken), canoeing. The canoe was actually the cause of a mini-fight because our boat kept turning around in circles, and EM thought it was me, and I thought it was him. We heard laughing on the shore and were quite sure that the natives were laughing at the stupid muzungus who couldn’t steer a simple canoe. In reality, the boat was just too big and with too flat a bottom for us novices to control! (I later talked to other expats who had the same experience, and I’m now starting to think it’s a great joke for the workers on the island.)

To end his trip, we returned to Kigali and spent the last couple of days in luxury. (By luxury, I mean that there was a hot shower with good water pressure!) We had drinks at Republika, a hip bar in Kigali, had a delicious lunch at the Silverback (at the Hotel Gorillas—I give it 4 stars. Really the best meal in town), lounged by the pool at the Intercontinental, and then finished off with dinner at the Diplomate (the restaurant at the Intercontinental, named after the old Hotel des Diplomates, on whose site the Intercon is now situated). Dinner at the Diplomate is so overrated that I feel cheated for having spent time there.

The following day, I took EM back to the airport, and he was off to Nairobi. It was nice not only having such great company, but also going around with someone whose skin color attracted more attention than mine!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off let me thank Morgan for her AMAZING hospitality. It was a great pleasure to be able to share in her Rwandan experience and I can't thank her enough.

Second, GO TO RWANDA. Right now. Book your flight, you won’t regret it. The uniqueness and beauty of the country can’t properly be explained in any blog (although Miss Courtney does as good of a job as anyone could). The country needs to be experienced.

It sounds strange but some of my favorite moments had nothing to do with hunting gorillas or coming face to snout with a wild boar. What I will really remember is sitting in a bodega drinking a beer with Boniface, Morgan’s driver for UNHCR and a Rwandan, while discussing the intricacies of Kinyarwanda. Then there was taking the front seat in a matatu with no window handles, a shattered windshield, a seatbelt that we had to tuck in between our legs, and a seatback that was only half attached to the vehicle so when we went around a turn my seat changed direction by 90 degrees smacking into the woman sitting behind me. I couldn’t understand what she said each time we had one of these face-to-face moments it did but I can guess it wasn’t “what pretty eyes you have.”

There are so many tourist things to do but don’t cheat yourself if you visit. Take the time to go off the beaten path and find a person or place that can give you a real taste for the culture. And eat brochettes. As many as you can. Trust me.

Thanks again Morgan! Get home safe!

6/09/2006 12:09 PM  

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