Rwanda, Uganda and Beyond

Trip Start Jun 19, 2005
Trip End Jun 19, 2006

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Flag of Kenya  ,
Friday, October 14, 2005

We should have known that the on-time departure from Kampala to Kigali was too good to be true. When smoke began to billow from the roof and a pneumatic hissing eminated from the direction of the air brakes, we figured we might be in for a delay. The driver did his best to pretend everything was going smoothly but eventually the obvious mechanical problems and mounting protests from the other (all African) passengers forced him to make a pit stop. We eventually (meaning after a really long time) made it to the Rwanda border, where the advent of flat-screen computers, combined with a customs official who fancied himself quite the ladies' man and made some pretty reasonable offers to purchase Heather, resulted in another 2 hour delay. On the Rwanda side, in the absence of all that technology and romance, we breezed through immigration and as we waited for the first of what would be many military searches and check-points, Mike saddled up to a distinguished-looking gentleman to see if he could get the low-down on the approximate cost of a cab from the bus stop to a hotel in Kigali. He turned out to be a Kenyan with a PhD in history and a firm grasp of local economics. "You realize of course that according to all of us, and quite independent of the facts, we see you (muzungus) as being without exception quite wealthy. Your taxi driver will assume because of the color of your skin that you have more money than Kofi Annon, so you will pay a bit more."

We ended up sharing the taxi with a couple Scots, who we figured would pick up the tab since they must have at least as much money as Sean Connery. We spent the next couple days exploring Rwanda's capital together. As we wandered around the city the next day, we began to notice the wounds - angry scars and amputations abound in this town where just over a decade ago the very same streets were littered with dismembered corpses. We couldn't help but wonder how many of these people bear less obvious injuries, and how many others go about their days with impunity, having inflicted these unspeakable atrocities, now hiding in plain sight. Thoughts such as these engender quite a thirst, so we had a nightcap at the Hotel de Mille Collines, the sight of the cinematic Hotel Rwanda, where one mans courageous refusal to turn the other cheek saved a handful of precious lives. It was hard to imagine as we sat poolside beneath lush palm trees that here too terror had reigned.

The next day we hired a cab to take us to the recently erected Genocide Memorial, home to beautiful ceremonial gardens and mass graves that contain the remains of some 250,000 of the more than one million genocide victims. Near the current gravesites workers dug into the fertile ground to make room for the bones of victims that still turn up in urban construction sites and rural fields throughout the country.

Inside the Memorial, video clips of interviews with survivors punctuated the thorough historical explanation of the roots and inner-workings of the genocide. The international communities' complacency became painfully evident and impossible, at least from our politically na´ve perspective, to justify. Gruesome photographs of the mass killings, corporeal remains and tattered clothing helped drive the point excruciatingly home. The bloodied Cornell sweatshirt and child-sized "I Love Ottawa" t-shirt, alongside family snapshots made it impossible to separate ourselves from these innocents, to dehumanize them as their murderers must have done. In one room, photographs of murdered children, Rwanda's abandoned future, included captions that listed the victim's favorite colors and foods, and their causes of death (bludgeoned, decapitated in her mother's arms, stabbed in the eyes, burned alive, etc).

Needing a break, Mike walked around outside the Memorial and ended up standing next to our taxi driver. In response to Mike's questions about life after the genocide, the driver patiently explained in perfect French that life in his country had become "impossible." He showed Mike the machete scars on his torso and neck, saying that he had been left for dead among the corpses of family and friends. He stared off into the hills and with a trembling lip and tearful eyes said "there are churches here that are still full of bodies and they have had to close the doors." What can people like us do, Mike asked. "Rien. I'll n'ya rien a faire." Perhaps the most difficult aspect of being here is the realization that despite all the good works in progress, on some level he is right - there is nothing to be done. Needless to say, we had a lot to think about as our minibus pulled out of Kigali, past the crew of workmen clad incongruously in the pink polo shirts and Bermuda shorts of the accused. Their hands tore this place asunder, and are now literally engaged in reassembling it even as these men await their day in tribal court, or gaccaca.

The road north to Ginsenyi snaked through unbelievably lush countryside, with terraced fields of tea, coffee, bananas and sugar cane. The man in front of us laughed and chatted with his fellow passengers, and while it was hard not to notice that part of his skull was missing, his levity seemed to compliment this picturesque landscape, adding hope, humor and beauty to the journey. We spent three days on the shores of Lake Kivu, in the scenic shadows of a chain of seven volcanoes; just a couple hundred meters down the beach, large villas occupy the small peninsula town of Goma, Congo. We considered taking a day to see Congo for ourselves, but there isn't enough Prozac in the world to enable H's mom to deal with that, so we gave it a miss. Traveler friends with less anxious moms confirmed that Congo is very much a war zone in places, with guns and decimated buildings everywhere you look. What a difference a border makes!

From Gisenyi we made our way over a rain-soaked mountain pass to Ruengherie, the primary base camp for Rwanda's thriving gorilla trekking enterprise. Having hooked up with a couple other travelers with whom we planned to share the taxi ride the next morning, we made like kids on Christmas Eve and tried to tame our anticipation in order to get some much-needed rest before the big hike.

We were lucky and early enough to be included in the group of 8 that got to visit the coveted Susa group the next morning. This is the largest group of mountain gorillas's accessible to tourists anywhere in the world, and the subject of Diane Fossie's groundbreaking research. Under the close supervision of an experienced guide and several armed military guys (there to protect us and the apes from the poachers who killed Fossie), we ascended through terraced fields and into the jungle. The thwang of our tracker's machete cleared the thick vines to carve a path deeper into the mist, and before we knew it we were surrounded by gorillas.

They don't seem real, more like animated stuffed animals, their jet-black fur standing out in stark contrast amidst the brilliant green foliage, sage eyes peering out from leathery faces to observe our approach without the slightest sign of distress. Being habituated to humans their entire lives, they just go about their business, which seems to consist of eating copious amounts of leaves and bamboo, napping and occasional outbursts of rough play. There were two silverbacks, massive masters of their domain, a bunch of lower males and some big mama's with brand new babies, including a set of twins, the only known of its kind on the planet. They all permitted us to get within the 7 meters allowed in the strict rules that govern gorilla trekking, and then they did the rest, chomping, snoring and playing, sometimes approaching to within a couple feet of us. From this close proximity, we were duly impressed, and emerged more than a bit surprised that they're not approaching their own school boards to distance themselves from any evolutionary association with us, instead of the other way around.

We were still on a primate high when we boarded yet another local minibus the next day for Lake Binyonyi, which we had heard was a great place to chill for a couple days. It turned out that we needed every minute of the r&r time to recover from the hair-raising ride, which included a sardine-packed vehicle to start with (meaning not only stuffed with people, but also sticky and shiny with fish oil from its last passengers, who were either fishermen, or some sadistic cult sent to destroy Mike, or both). But not to worry - we soon broke down and had a chance to inhale non-fish-scented dust on the roadside until we could thumb another ride which took us over an insanely beautiful but death-defying tightrope of a road that switched back through the mountains and finally into Kabale, where we kissed the ground before jumping in one last pick-up for the final stretch. Binyoni was great, a serene lakeside retreat where we ate, drank and paddled around in a dugout canoe until the time came to head back to the big city.

Back in Kampala, over beers and Uganda's version of a veggie burger (coleslaw on a bun), we decided to spend a few days in the north, near Murchinson Falls. We motored up the Nile, past schools of semi-submerged hippos numbering in the hundreds, who, along with hungry-looking crocs eyed us closely from the murky water. On the shore, the occasional giraffe and elephant could be seen in the distance. At one point, everyone on the boat but us began furiously thrusting binoculars to their faces. Bird watchers, normally a sedate group, went wild at the sighting of a rare shoe billed stork. While this particular feathered friend left us less-than-impressed, we must admit that despite our ongoing membership in the Bird Watching is Boring Club (BWBC), we can't help but appreciate Uganda's vast array of birds, including little ones with impossibly bright colors, and really big ones, like eagles and falcons which are pretty cool to watch even without a book and binocs. We finally arrived at the foot of Murchinson Falls, where the mighty Nile is funneled through a gap no more than 10 feet wide, creating supposedly the largest volume of water anywhere in the world. En route we enjoyed another primate close encounter, this time with chimps, who really do swing from branches and fill the jungle with grunts and cries that, along with tarantula-sized spiders on the wall of our thatched hut, cicadas screaming in the night made it impossible to forget the fact that we're in Africa. Having seen all that water rushing over the falls, we knew that before we headed out of Africa, we had to make our bid at taming the Nile.

Yeah, right. You try taming class 5 rapids (probably more like class 6 or 7 by U.S. standards) in a 14-foot raft. Granted, our guide was the Ugandan Olympic freestyle kayaking champ, and we had Heather and her paddling prowess on our side, but even then we managed to swim through all but one of the major rapids. Did we say swim? It was more like being tossed around in a huge, malevolent washing machine. Fortunately, there's so much water that any rocks that might otherwise do some serious damage are safely submerged, so it's just you and millions of gallons of water, obscuring up from down and making for some serious airtime as the waves catapulted us from the raft and into the torrent. We traded aqueous war stories over complimentary Nile River Special beers en route back to Kampala - the perfect end to one of our best days in Africa.

An all-day, class 4 bus ride later we find ourselves in Nairobi. It's hard for us to believe, but the time has come to trade jambo's for namaste's, apes for yaks, safaris for treks, Africa for Asia. We fly to Kathmandu Sunday night and though we hate to leave Africa, we are pretty excited to get to Nepal for some much-needed physical activity, and an up-close and personal encounter with the Nepal Himalayas. But before we do, our travel agent's decision not to book our new tickets (a little detail we discovered just today when we stopped by Air Emirates to confirm our flight) seems to have resulted in yet another fortuitous change of plans. Instead of a six hour lay-over in Dubai, we'll have almost two days to check out one of the seven territories that comprise The United Arab Emirates, about which neither of us knows a single thing, other than the fact that it is currently Ramadan, a holy time for Muslims and apparently a very cool time to be in Dubai. We'll let you know...
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