Trip Start Jul 22, 2006
Trip End Feb 10, 2007

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Flag of Rwanda  ,
Thursday, August 3, 2006

From the day we arrive on the planet,
blinking, step into the sun...
There's more to see, than can ever be seen,
more to do, than can ever be done...

-Random African Woman, The Circle of Life, The Lion King

Once again a warm and hearty welcome to yet another instalment Jeff's 'yet to be famous/infamous' travel logs. For the uninitiated, this travelpod will serve as the most frequent and direct method of conversation between you and me for the next few months. It will at times be humorous, at times contradictory, and at best, legible. It will allow you to have a window into my world and a snapshot of my opinions; and, if history and past travel logs have demonstrated anything, a glimpse of my frustrations, anger, and homesickness, which you can clearly follow along with. Yes- you my friends and family are privileged in the sense that you will be allowed to experience Rwanda at its best and without its worsts- through my own uniquely negative and critical eye. Enjoy. (Oy!)

Oddly, my trip to Africa begins in Latin America. A month ago, while in Tuxtla Gutierrez, I was relaxing, studying Spanish, and generally enjoying life with and at JP's house. Unexpectedly, after already being rejected for a position in Cambodia after my first interview with them, I received another email from the United Nations Association in Canada informing me that I had been short listed for a position in Rwanda (!) working for the UN. As any recent graduate of an international relations program would know, for us an opportunity to work for the UN is akin to winning the nerd lottery (if only there were such a lottery!) or for you 'normal' people, banging the prom queen. As such, I accepted the interview, and would you know it- within 3.5 weeks I was accepted, back home, trained in Ottawa, and on a flight heading for unknown sub-Saharan territory. For your information - I still really have no clue what I got myself into.

For those who are unfamiliar where Rwanda is, don't fret. Before last month, neither did I. When asked where Rwanda was (a common occurrence in my life, let me tell you) I would vaguely point at a map in the middle of the Balkans, hoping that I would reach within a few hundred thousand miles of the country. It wasn't until two weeks ago that I knew Kigali was the capital city. And you should have seen my face when I realized it was in Africa! Apparently, Rwanda is a tiny landlocked nation nestled in central east Africa, surrounded by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you still have no clue, use goggle earth and search for it- and just like I've said many times in my life for unrelated circumstances - 'it may be small, but it's definitely there.'

Now that you've located it, (and then spent the next two hours aimlessly zooming in and out of cities in parts of the world you never knew existed) you'll realize that Rwanda is probably in a part of the world you know nothing about (unless your name is Genevieve Meisenheimer.) Once again, in case you got lost -YES- Rwanda is in Africa.

For those who are interested, you should feel comforted in the fact that I too know very little about this part of the world; in fact, my first (and only) experience with sub-Saharan Africa until my departure had been in Mr. Allen's English OAC course where I chose to read Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', a festive colonial piece whose main message explained that the reason the 'blacks in Africa were savage' was not because of their own 'primal nature' but instead because of 'the land they lived in turned them that way'. While Heart of Darkness was originally written about Congo (recall : next door), Rwanda too stands out in a continent of so-called 'savagery' because of its recent dark past. Most people recognize Rwanda for two reasons- 1) the clearly relevant movie entitled 'Hotel Rwanda', (not a hotel chain, sorry to disappoint) which dealt with number 2) the horrific genocide that occurred here in 1994. Clearly, if you've seen the movie or you understand the term genocide, you know that it's clearly not the best selling point for a country (FYI, genocide = bad). You can be sure that you won't see any reference to these events in the tourist brochures, unless they are the evil tourist brochures that are handed out by Flight Centre.

Regardless of my limited exposure to what can only be described as racist and prejudiced accounts, I decided to challenge my knowledge and head forth into the 'dark continent' to find the light. What I've found so far has been nothing but surprising. (Oh ya- you can be sure that my mom was thrilled when I told her I was going.)

After a short goodbye with Matthew and Tracey (and JP, thanks to MSN) and a drive to the airport with my Dad and Lisa in his new BMW (!), I checked in to My Travel Airlines, 25 kilos overweight. Not ready to give up the amazing deal I got on the flight by paying any excess baggage charges, I mentioned the purpose of my trip to the check in staff (in case you forgot - going to Rwanda to work for the UN) and suddenly the fees disappeared. Clearly, this whole UN shtick was already paying off! Afterwards, I proceeded to the gate, plugged in my ipod to ready it for the flight, and sat for a rest. Soon after my row was announced, and I rushed off to board the plane. As I was about to enter the gate, a girl who I happened to be sitting beside earlier ran up to me, and reminded me my ipod was still charging, and asked whether or not I was planning on bringing it on my trip with me. While I knew that she would have greatly enjoyed watching numerous Top Gear episodes on her flight, I decided that my UN job would allow me to give back enough to society and that she should back off, and get her own ipod. I rushed and picked it up. Yes, I know, what an idiot. Do you really need more stories to prove this point?

I arrived in England thoroughly refreshed as I had found 3 empty seats on the flight and managed to fall asleep across them. Arriving in my second official homeland (by nationality), I quickly transferred from plane to train, chatting with a Chinese-Swiss Francophone and a group of Argentineans. In a matter of minutes I had pulled out all my language skills and was commenting in French about the similarities between Nor Mai Gai and Tamales (you'd be surprised). Shortly thereafter, I arrived in Brighton, where Jess (another JPC from UNAC, going to New York to work for UNICEF) picked me up and shuffled me to her university residence. Once my bags were safe and sound (and not causing my hernia to flare up), Jess and I headed out to the town to grab Sunday Roast which apparently is a Sunday favourite and then to tour the city. That evening, we had a fantastic Japano-ethnic group dinner and wished farewell to one of Jess' roommates. The next day, we headed out for a breakfast on the beach (cheese and bread, the classic 'European buffet'), toured the pier, and got married (check out the photos). Our honeymoon that evening, in typical classy Jeff fashion, was celebrated with an incredibly expensive yet miniscule salad, which led to a short walk to a local fish and chips stand and a subsequent fish and chips dinner on the beach, as we watched the sun set. The following morning at 5 am I was back on the train to the airport, and still 10 kilos overweight. Once again, I found myself forced into using the UN excuse, oddly again with the same successful results. Clearly, I should have brought much more stuff.

My flight to Africa felt short and rather eventless, except for the odd butterflies in my stomach every time the screen would show our current location and track- which provided acknowledgement of where I was actually heading. As I landed in Kigali, I was still blissfully unaware of what lay ahead for me. Nervously, I crossed the tarmac and reached the terminal, and I headed towards the customs and immigration desks. As I waited, a man passed through the counters with a sign reading 'Jeffrey Bower, UNDP' and I was pushed to the front of the line (I had always wanted one of those signs!). Soon after I reclaimed my bags, had them scanned for any possible arms that the Toronto, London and Brussels staff had missed (!), and headed out the door past the mass of people waiting for their relatives to the UNDP SUV.

I entered the Jeep and I met Paul, last year's JPC and current on-contract employee for the UNRC. Still in Rwanda 6 months after his UNAC position finished, Paul's the type of guy who's always joking around- a Montréal native whose humour reminds me oddly of Matthew's (I have yet to decide if that is a good thing!). As we headed into Kigali proper, I commented sarcastically that I was disappointed that I wasn't picked up in a white jeep with a big 'UN' on the side. Paul told me that instead he had picked me up in the UN's de-mining jeep and said that that's a much better story to tell. I agreed. De-mining UN truck is way cooler than just a tiny UN four by four- but I still had to get into that white UN SUV I've seen so many times.

Paul has arranged a house for me in a safe neighbourhood. While the roads weren't yet paved (much like the rest of the roads in Kigali are, I would soon find out), the area was relatively close to downtown and also relatively safe. We arrived, I threw my bags into the house, met and said hello to Laura, my roommate, and then headed off for a short dinner at Papyrus, the local Italian eatery. It was there that I met Luca, my boss, who, after a few drinks, commented that 'this isn't how you and I should be meeting for the first time, I'm usually more professional than this'. Suddenly, I figured my time here would be okay. After pizza and a beer or three, I returned/stumbled home, and quickly fell asleep on my luxurious air mattress.

On Wednesday I awoke bright and early thanks to the sunshine shining through my windows (which didn't have blinds, and clearly without blinds, the sun does shine brightly). Startled to see me away, Laura quickly invited me on her ride to work (which would end up with a drop off downtown. A few minutes later, her ride arrived, which happened to be a huge white SUV with the UN sign on the side; not 24 hours had passed and already I had accomplished my goal.

After being dropped off, I walked around town and got my first good glimpse of Kigali. Surprisingly, for a capital city, there's relatively little of interest in town, and the CBD is nothing more than three 'tall' bank buildings and one large traffic circle. Clearly, the next six months were going to be fun not because of the city. Living in Hong Kong has spoiled me beyond recognition when it comes to appreciating what it means when someone says 'oh, this is the biggest city', because I get expectations of 88 story IFC buildings and Festival Walk shopping malls. Where's Giordiano? Or Park and Shop? Baleno? On the bright side, Kigali is relatively very clean, as developing nations go; the central part of town is covered in trees and is often in the shade, and life generally moves at a much slower pace than expected. As such, a delightful stroll was in order, and after my well-needed two minute walk, I was ready to give up exploring the city, until a white woman approached me and asked where I was going. I told her that I was new to the city and had no real plans. She suggested I visit the cloth market, Ginkogoro, and I accepted with and spontaneously broke out into choreographed dance with the entire street. (No Matthew, that did not happen, aside from whatever dreams of choreography you have.)

I headed to the market and was quickly surprised as to how low quality and poorly run it was. Under a tin roof, the hot and steamy alleyways were tightly cramped with absolutely nothing of value, except for what can only be described as the 'running shoe graveyard', a place were all odd and unsellable shoes from the world's market come to die. DC, you'd be in heaven. After finishing the market, I walked back up towards the brick low-rise prison, and made my way into what is my office to introduce myself more formally and meet the other staff.

That meeting led to an invitation to a goodbye party for a staff member who was leaving. I walked to his house, broke, because the bank that was supposed to be open on Saturday clearly wasn't, but since I have gift guilt after years of being evil-eyed for forgetting Tracey's birthday gift, I descended one block lower on my hill and walked through the slum to hopefully find something acceptable to bring. Although I wanted to bring a giant 2l bottle of Coke to the party, unfortunately the slum's Pusateri's had just run out of stock. Instead I bought some mixing juice for the party (can't have enough juice, I always say!) I continued through the slum towards Kareems, paper bag in hand (plastic bags are outlawed in Rwanda, fantastic idea btw) and everyone was kept staring at me. At first I couldn't figure out why (did my clothes clash?) but instead after the 15th 'bonjour muzungu (foreigner)!' that my white skin clearly made me stand out. Go figure.

The party really began at 8 and by that point I was so full of brochettes and pasta and deviled eggs that I barely had room for whatever buckets of alcoholic beverages were being provided (notice the term buckets- I kid you not). At one point in the party, Luca came by and said "You know, this really isn't a normal introduction for UNDP staff... you definitely had the best orientation of anyone in Kigali'. I spent the rest of my evening schmoozing and getting my face known. Apparently, people knew I was coming; the arrival of the new staff is quite an event here, for with it brings the potential of ending loneliness for perhaps one lucky individual... Unfortunately, I'm already taken- by God. (Save me Jebus!).

Anyways, at the party I met a very fun and cheerful girl. Figuring we were getting along so well and risking our newly founded friendship, I asked her two stark questions, the second dependent on the reply to the first

Question one: What is your name? Answer: Rachel.
Question two: Are you Jewish? Answer: Yes. Is my nose really that big?
We really hit it off that evening and, to my surprise, I was immediately invited to her house the following evening for dinner with her and her friends. Not one to pass up free food (especially since I still had no money) I accepted. Food tastes better when you have to do nothing to get it and you pay nothing for it. Mmm... lazy pizza...

The following day my roommate Laura mentioned that she might be looking for another house for the following month and she invited me to come along with her to check out possible options. I accepted, and we went to see three houses, two of which honestly were gross (one was empty, dark and sombre, and the other was tiny, dirty, and the toilet was in the closet) and another house that happened to be the place Paul had originally wanted me to move into but due to circumstances beyond his control I would not be able to until next month. After seeing that particular place, replete with sofas, televisions, internet, Xbox and Game Cube, I started to pack mentally in my mind. As we left the house, I checked my surroundings and soon realized that I was just exactly where Rachel had told me her house was. I called her and asked if I could come over early- she accepted, and then the pizza was mine for the scarfing. About 10 Americans came over for Pizza as well, and we ate as much pizza, pasta and garlic bread as we could.

The following day turned out to be my first day at work, which surprisingly was uneventful and consisted of me reading background documents for 8 hours straight. That evening I went for dinner with Rebecca (my other now ex-roommate) and her friend, and they chatted about the realities of having absolutely no sex life while abroad and commented on how horrible one and a half years of abstinence can be. For a second I almost felt an emotion - what's it called- sympathy? but then Rebecca (30) informed me of her plan to go to Zanzibar in a week alone with a 20 year old for 6 days, alone. Alone. Did I mention they would be alone, on a romantic Tanzanian beach, alone? Good. Alone.

The rest of this week has been standard. Work has finally moved out of the 'reading background information stage' to the 'menial to semi-menial task state'. Hopefully by the end of the six months I will achieve the status of 'chief factotum' or something of the sort.
Oh- I forgot to mention; Tuesday I had to be at work by 7:30 a.m. for a monthly meeting and on Wednesday I was in the office at 7:00 a.m for a training session. As I had been a student for the last 5 years, I had almost forgotten that these times existed. Do they exist? What world am I living in? Where am I? Africa? Don't bullshit me.

Clearly this post is almost as long as an undergraduate essay. If you make it this far into my travelpod, you automatically get to warp to level 4, unless you are using the princess because she clearly is cheats anyways. For those are more interested in the day to day details of my life : i.e. what food is like, what the weather is like, what work is like, what living in a post-genocidal society only 12 after the crisis is like, you will have to wait and read on in further posts to finally get a sense of Rwanda. I promise to update more frequently in the future and more importantly more succinctly- to be honest, I highly doubt anyone will actually make it to this point, except for you JP- which is fine, because realistically this blog is just for me and you- you see, I can be selfish and caring at the same time! And you said it couldn't be done! Wait, you said that I always do that, don't you... damn, and I tried hard. No I didn't.

Well, for now I'm going to head off. You should hear from me again in a few days, unless the lions eat me or I get speared by some random tribesperson. (Btw, if you think that either of those are even remotely possible, I implore you to come visit me)

Missing you all already, except for you Robin, because you have long hair and thus you forever haunt my dreams-

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