So I guess I’m officially at the point in my life where I forget to blog about spending a few weeks in Rwanda and Uganda. I am equally horrified and pleased with myself. As usual.
Here are your spoilers up front:
- Rwanda is absolute paradise. Garden of Eden. Cradle of Life. Evict all other assumptions you have about what this country is like.
- My ego enjoys it when you guys think I’m “fearless” but we were so safe and everyone was super friendly and welcoming. I didn’t experience anything remotely resembling fear (of my surroundings) until we got back to Denver: a rather safe city.
One last note on fear: Anytime I go on a trip, people tell me to “be safe.” That’s fair. I have to tell myself to “be safe” when I’m only going to Whole Foods, because of stuff like this but people also ask “aren’t you scared?” when I tell them about an upcoming trip. I know I’ve talked about this elsewhere, as well as making a comparison between gun-related deaths in countries I’ve traveled to and the states (one more spoiler: Rwanda’s murder rate is 2.52/100k to America’s 5.35/100k) but I came to a realization while we were away, and it’s this:
I may as well do “scary” things because fear is something I carry with me everywhere I go.
I had a panic attack our first night in Kigali. Not because we were in Africa. Not because it was an unfamiliar place, a strange bed. No– I had a panic attack because I have some kind of PTSD hypervigilant wounded person situation that makes me wake up in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, heart pounding, with one thought: this is it.
Even though I was able to retrace what woke me– the sound of a plastic chair scraping on a patio outside– it didn’t change the fact my body was convinced this was a true Kill or Be Killed situation. It had nothing to do with where we were. And it only happened that one time, which may actually mean it happened less while we were away than it does when I’m at home in my so-called “normal” life.
ANYWAYS my point is this: We do and don’t do a lot of things because of fear. I’m not saying all fear is illegitimate, I just think there’s an argument for… I don’t know, doing things even if they seem scary. Because if you’re me, fear is going to latch onto whatever it can find regardless of how “safe” you try to keep yourself.
Part One: Rwanda
Rwanda is like if Ecuador moved to Africa, had a baby with Nepal, then got KonMari’d because the country is *spotless*. I’ve heard complaints from people in Austin and other US cities about having their plastic bags and straws taken away, but damn– if Rwanda is any evidence, it works.
When we first got here, I posted on Facebook about how this was the cleanest city I’d ever visited. But as the trip went on, it turned out all the cities and villages were that clean– in my random videos you can see workers sweeping the dirt and dead leaves from the gutters. I never really saw any litter. It’s also super safe. You can walk around at night without any fear of someone messing with you. I’m not sure I’ve ever been or lived anywhere else where you could say the same.
We brunched at the Hotel des Mille Collines (aka “Hotel Rwanda” a la Don Cheadle) where 1200+ people sheltered during the genocide in 1994. It was disorienting to sit with that information, looking out over the city knowing this same vantage point would have given those who hid there a view of the genocide unfolding, or that the pool full of children and European tourists had been slowly drained for cooking. Even weirder was the non-far-away-feeling of the place, thanks to a live band covering Beyonce’s Halo (a song that haunts me) and a mounted TV flashing Trump’s phosphorescent face on CNN with the headline “Trump says he never said Mexico would pay for the wall (he did).”
The First Thing You Think of When You Think of Rwanda
I was in 10th grade the first time I learned about the Rwandan Genocide, though I was 8 years old when it happened. My high school Current Events teacher was old as dirt with a few strands of white hair and he popped a VHS into the rolling TV and said “I’ll probably get fired for showing this to you, but you need to know. Otherwise, it will just happen again.”
What I remember most from his news coverage were images of bodies floating down a river, and my confusion over the word “genocide.” I thought that word only applied to what happened in Nazi Germany, and I thought it was a one time deal— perpetuated by the embodiment of evil, and left in the past like some marker of how bad we were once capable of becoming.
We toured the genocide memorial in Kigali our first day. There’s a beautiful garden out back, with tropical flowers and palm trees and mass graves where 250,000 people are buried. That’s more than double the population of my hometown.
People seem to think incidents like the Rwandan Genocide just kind of happened. Like there are places in the world where things are different, humans are different, and in those places— “thank God we don’t live there”— something like genocide can just happen overnight. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how anything works. The killings were long in coming. Decades and decades of racial tension concocted by colonialism and racist religious teachings, cemented by oppression, stoked by propaganda, and then planned. Meticulously.
Inside the memorial there are rooms full of photos, provided by the families of the victims:
>Moms holding babies.
>Kids grinning with school certificates.
>Couples on their wedding day.
>Family portraits where everyone is smiling— other than a scowling four year old with his arms crossed who is clearly not having it.
They have that barely old look— like photos I still have stacked in the bottom of boxes, waiting to be stuck in an album. But they also look familiar because they look like YOUR families that I scroll through and like on Facebook and Instagram every single day.
Each photo is clipped to a long metal wire, and when you lean in to look closer, your breath makes them flutter back and forth like clothing on a line.
Another room is dedicated solely to the children. Below their photos it lists information about them. Favorite food. Best friend. Favorite toy. Just like you do when your kid has a birthday. Except then it explains how they died.
I’ve seen the movie. I’ve read several books about Rwanda. But I honestly never understood how it could happen. On a soul level, I still don’t. But I’m starting to kind of get it because of what’s happening in my own country (not to mention in the past). It’s far too easy to teach someone to hate a group of people by telling them *those people* have taken everything from you, or that they will if you don’t stop them.
In one of the museum exhibits there was a quote from a guy who grew up being told the Tutsis (the victims, 70% of whom were murdered) were responsible for the genocide. But then he researched it for himself and discovered that was a lie and said something like “now I go out and find the truth for myself.”
The media and propaganda played a huge role in what happened in their country 25 years ago, and it scares me because it’s starting to feel familiar. When we talk about innocent human beings as threats, when we make policy decisions that make it clear we value some lives more than others— where do we think it’s going to lead?
A few days later, we were at Lake Kivu eating breakfast to the sound of one million goats and Alex showed me a Facebook post shared by one of his family members. I’ll have to talk about this some other time, but it was chilling how similar this “must save America’s white culture from being diluted by outsiders” message was to the racist propaganda used to stoke the genocide in Rwanda.
I’m not Wikipedia. I know .000infinity% about anything, and I myself have a tendency toward divisiveness and hostility against people I think are wrong. But I want to do better, and like that earlier quote, I’m trying to go out and find the truth for myself.
There was another quote written on a wall toward the end of the tour. I don’t think I will ever forget it.
“If you really knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
And Then We Hit The Road
After Kigali, it was time to road trip. We rented a Toyota Rav4 from a local business in Kampala, Uganda– which meant the car had to be driven eight hours to us overnight by two guys. They handed the keys over like BYE and I was like “anything we need to know?”
They gave us the rundown on gas station selection– anywhere is fine in Rwanda, some places are shady in Uganda. Then added “if someone flashes their lights at you, they’re probably trying to tell you something.”
If you know me at all, you know I can’t live with this degree of subtlety. I was like “what? What do you mean? What are they trying to tell us? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?”
Dude was like *shrug* “Maybe there is police ahead. Maybe something in the road. You will find out.”
After a few hours on the highway, we had a better handle on Rwandas Road Rules:
- Drive on the right side of the road. Even if, like us, you’re in a car made for driving on the left side of the road..
- Except you pretty much stay in the middle of the road, to avoid hitting people walking on the sides
- Other drivers use their blinkers to communicate whether it’s safe to pass or not– someone in front of you will put on the right blinker if you can pass, the left if you should wait.
- Honking isn’t rude, it’s a signal that you’re going to pass someone or that they should be on the lookout.
- No one gets mad. No one road rages. Everyone works together.
- Trust what other people are trying to tell you. If there is a blind curve, construction, anything, people will wave for you to slow down in advance.
We drove with the windows down. It smelled like fresh cut grass and eucalyptus. Outside of the city, kids waved, whistled, and shouted “MZUNGU!” when they saw us– which was long before we saw them, because they have some kind of superpower that allows them to spot you inside your car from the top of a hill at a distance. Technically, Mzungu means “white person” but more technically it means “clueless idiot wandering around.” You can see how those two things could come to be interchangeable.
Any time we stopped to snap a photo (constantly) children would materialize out of nowhere. They were polite and shy, but curious. Mostly they stood close by and stared until we said hello. Then they would smile and say “helloooooo” back.
I am not entirely sure that’s even the name of the village where we stayed. Or if it counts as a village. It was really just one short road up the side of a hill near Nyungwe Forest, with a handful of guesthouses, a resto-bar, and some shops. The directions to get there were like “in 57km go straight through the roundabout,” then “in 47km turn left.”
Accommodations were scant– we had to choose between paying $40/night and $700/night. GUESS WHAT WE CHOSE.
I’m fairly whatever about where we sleep– but imagine driving six hours, pulling into the gated entry of your guesthouse, walking through the open front door to an empty compound and wandering around until you find someone to pantomime at that you are “Alex” and have a room reserved. This random person then digs a key out of a basket on a random shelf, shows you to your room– where the door doesn’t open fully because the bed is in the way, the mosquito net doesn’t *really* cover the bed, and the water in the bathroom doesn’t work.
This was the night I discovered that I can live without running water for 24 hours but I can’t say the same for going without WiFi.
For dinner, we were presented with a menu. We’d order something, they’d disappear for a while, then return to say they didn’t have whatever it was. Finally, I was like “okay, what DO you have?”
“… boiled meat.”
“What kind of meat?”
“Boiled meat, no problem. What animal is boiled?”
“Oh, yes. Cow. Boiled cow.”
I pictured something kind of like the sole of a shoe floating in brown water, but that’s because I’m an idiot and unable to realize that “boiled cow” should be taken as “beef stew.” It turned out fine. Two hours later.
Hanging Out With Chimpanzees
We woke up at 4:15AM and “drove to the junction,” AKA where the only road meets the only other road, and picked up a man in Army fatigues who guided us to a trail in Nyungwe Forest where we tracked a tribe of chimps in their natural habitat. We were prepared for a long day, but ended up coming across them after only an hour. It was MIND BLOWING. They’re just running around the trails, screaming at each other in the trees like you’re living in a Planet Earth episode, and reclining up in the branches, eating leaves. Doing chimp stuff.
Nyungwe Forest hasn’t been a National Park for very long, but they’re super focused on conservation and have managed to almost completely eradicate previous issues with poaching. In 2003, there were 400 chimps in the forest. By 2014, that number had jumped to 600.
The chimps used to pal around with the baboons here but then there was some kind of dramatic monkey war and now they’re sworn enemies.
On the way back, I asked our guide if they always see chimps when they take visitors out.
“Sometimes tourists get hurt before we get there,” he said, “but if we make it—yes.”
I feel like I’m going to live for a thousand years just because I got to breathe the air in this place. Which is a slightly foolish thing to say, because there’s actually a bunch of Methane trapped at the bottom of the lake/gates to hell that they’re trying to extract and sell because if the lake turns over it will poison the air breathed by thousands of people. So let’s not let that happen.
Our guesthouse/cabin was right on the lake, so we spent mornings drinking mango juice and hot coffee, staring at the lake while a thousand strangled-sounding goats yelled at each other with increasing mania. Nights were spent drinking beer and staring at the lake while those thousand strangled-sounding goats continued yelling at each other with increasing mania. Other than the night it stormed– when we were trapped inside the bar area watching an Indian soap opera with overly enthusiastic Kinyarwanda voice-dubbing over it.
There’s usually a point in the middle of whatever adventure when I suddenly remember I don’t know how to swim. Usually it’s when I’m in the middle of a large body of water, like Lake Kivu which is 1500 feet deep (and getting deeper) because it’s in the Rift Valley where two plates of the Earth are tearing apart.
When our guide came to pick us up for the boat tour, he was like “change shoes, we climb mountain” and me and my flipflops were like HOLD UP because my brand of travel is one where I never actually know what I’m about to get myself into.
Alex offered me a life jacket but I was like “nah, toss it to me if I fall in,” and comforted myself with the idea that I could just float until another boat came to rescue me. Then we got out there and realized there weren’t any other boats. Even better.
Halfway to the island we were going to hike, we saw something splashing about in the water.
Guide: *points* “Ottas”
Me/Alex: “What? What’s an otta? A kind of fish? A bird?”
Guide: *stares at us like we’re idiots* “Ottas”
We then lose our shite— even though we’re surrounded by monkeys and about to be on safari and actually have this same animal in the creek back home— because OTTERS are exciting no matter where you are.
We hiked Napoleon Island, which is only about Denver altitude, and I was like “auh yeah I hike mountains all the time in Colorado, I’m so hardcore,” except Colorado isn’t on the equator and it doesn’t have 75% humidity. I nigh on died, but you could see everything from the top, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo just across the lake.
Musanze – Volcanoes National Park
This is where we truly had our arses kicked by the jungle. We booked a hike up a volcano, once again not fully understanding what we were getting ourselves into.
Words like “hike” and “trail” have different meanings in East Africa. In places, the trail was less than the width of my body, with stinging nettles poking in from both sides. In other places— about 75% of the hike— the trail was mud that came up to our mid-calves.
Porters with machetes and guards with AK-47s hiked along with us. They kept reassuring us the guns were for the wildlife though I’m pretty sure it was because we strayed super close to the DRC border, but the machetes were to cut back any growth that blocked the trail and occasionally chop branches from a tree to give our feet something to aim for.
My shoe was sucked off my foot more than once. I wish I could have snapped a photo or video of the trail, but it was impossible. My phone couldn’t leave my pocket, which made it all the more mysterious when I came down to discover a deep gouge across the front of my screen.
Not surprising though. Both Alex and I were covered in scratches, scrapes, bruises and rashes.
Here’s why all of this was worth it: We saw two mountain gorillas, just chillin’ in a field alongside the trail, munching on plants. There are only 880 mountain gorillas left, and they’re considered critically endangered— though their population is now increasing thanks to conservation efforts.
I don’t have photos because you’re supposed to pay $1500 (each) to see and photograph gorillas in the wild. We just got super lucky. Maybe because the gorillas think it’s entertaining to come watch sad humans trip and fall up the side of a muddy mountain, and word spread that we were particularly pathetic.
We also got to see Dian Fossey’s camp where she lived and worked with the gorillas and was photographed by National Geographic. I remember seeing films about her and her favorite gorilla, Digit, when I was a little kid but I didn’t know she’d been murdered the year before I was born.
Near her cabin and research centre (which were destroyed in 1994 during the genocide) is a graveyard where she buried the gorillas she worked with, as they were killed by poachers. After she died, they buried her with them.
It’s hard to imagine how she managed to live and work that far up in the mountains (all my volcano photos are near her camp, because I couldn’t manage to take any others) though it’s definitely an enchanting and other-worldly sort of place.
In keeping with my general approach to life, I try and ask for lessons from each new experience. So what did the volcano have to teach me?
- I need to join a gym.
- Athleisure is not suitable for hiking through stinging nettles.
My hands were so stung up that I had trouble moving my fingers for about 24 hours. But you know what? Worth it.
When we were planning our itinerary, Alex mentioned offhand “oh and there are caves near the volcanoes.”
I was like— caves? CAVES?!
Because my interests align almost perfectly with a Neanderthal’s: warmth, snacks, and caves.
The Musanze Caves run beneath the entire city, though we only toured about 2km. They were used to shelter people during wars for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, up to and including the genocide in 1994. Though to be fair, they didn’t go into those details very much.
The local belief is that King Rugonzu II Ndoli (1500s CE) stuck his walking stick into the ground and the magical forces beneath the earth opened up so his people could hide from their enemies, then spring out to sabotage them once they’d passed.
Of course, our guide was like “but I believe in science, so I’ll also tell you the caves were formed 65 million years ago when large gas bubbles formed in the lava flows from the volcanoes.”
Apparently the caves have yet to take off as a tourist attraction, so it was just me, Alex, our guide, and— as always— two guards with AK-47s.
Oh and lots of bats.
Alex was like “there will be bats.”
I was like “awesome!”
He was like “okay just making sure that wasn’t worrying.”
So I was like “oh bats are bats. I wouldn’t be worried unless we were in like—“
*Realizes the place that bats are scary and carry diseases like Ebola is pretty much exactly where we are now.*
Oh well. They’re still cute and they eat bugs.
Crossing the Border from Rwanda to Uganda
I got to check a new life experience off my list: Land border crossing with a rented vehicle in Africa. I’ve done plenty of land crossings in SE Asia, but usually I had the benefit of filing off a bus and following a bunch of strangers through customs.
Not so much when crossing from Rwanda to Uganda.
Thankfully Rwanda is home to the most welcoming people ever, so random people basically pointed and shooed us from place to place— first of which was a World Health Organization tent for an Ebola screening. A guy pointed at an upturned jug with a slow trickle of water and was like “wash your hands,” so I let the water drip all over them and made a show of getting them good and wet even though there wasn’t any soap. Still, I felt like I was performing a task for a test and wanted to make sure I passed.
A woman waved a digital thermometer across my forehead and held it up for me to see. “Your temperature is 35.3.” I tried to scan her face for signs of whether that was good or bad, but she just thermometered Alex and told us to cut everyone else and go to the front of the line. I felt a little bad about this, until someone said something in Kinyarwanda and everyone else started laughing.
The WHO official asked me for my temp, then my passport, and while still holding it in his hand he asked for my name. I told him, and he wrote down a combination of letters in his spiral notebook that spelled something similar but not quite my name. But I kept my mouth shut because I’m cool with it if he’s cool with it.
We then filed in and out of four-ish more buildings, getting different stamps and paperwork filed for the car. Nobody seemed at all worried about what we were doing in their country. Normally when I talk to customs officials I’m like “I’m a tourist, I promise!” Then they ask where I’ve been and for how long, and I don’t remember the answers to these questions because I live outside of time and space. But these people were like “Did you see gorillas? What made you choose to visit Rwanda? How does Musanze compare to Kigali?” Which were all questions I could answer.
When we finally got our entry stamp for Uganda, it was from a guy who was watching a video on his phone that someone had texted to him. When he realized we were standing there he was like “oh, sorry” *hits pause* “you see gorillas?” *stamps passport*
We were told we could exchange our remaining Rwandan Francs for Ugandan Shillings at the border, but once we were there we didn’t see anything resembling a currency exchange. So we asked, and someone started shouting “Phillip! Get Phillip!”
Phillip (I presume) arrived and pulled out a fat stack of cash from his pocket. “You want US dollars? Shillings? Francs?”
I’m bad with the maths and had barely managed to fix my brain on translating 880 francs to $1USD so in the hustle of the moment I completely blanked on what the exchange rate for shillings was supposed to be (like 3400 or something). So we changed $200 and hoped for the best. It turned out he gave us a great rate— because all my inherent skepticism and well-earned cynicism was completely unwarranted in Rwanda.
I’ll be back next week (or whatever– how does time work?) to tell you about Uganda. Which felt like almost a completely separate trip. But until then, I leave you with this video I made on my iPhone during the brief (horrifying, desperate) moments when I didn’t have access to WiFi. It won’t embed for some reason so you’ll have to watch on Facebook (guys its been so long since I blogged that I can’t figure out how anything on here works. Hi I am one thousand years old).
Have you had any adventures in 2019? What role does Fear play in your life? Where is the next place you want to go?
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