Monday, March 15, 2004

What? I didn't tell you? I didn't think it would be a problem...

What's better than a long weekend away? Leaving for another long weekend away... two days later. Yup, I came home from Murchison Falls, spent Tuesday and Wednesday at work, and then took off on Wednesday evening on a flight to Rwanda with three other Canadian girls - Tina, Larissa and Jen. Tina and Larissa are also CIDA interns, working for the Uganda Cooperative Alliance, while Jen is working at a local university.

Rwanda is a teeny, compact little country (map), so we were able to see quite a bit in four days. We took off from Entebbe airport in Uganda at 9 pm, and thanks to the wonders of time zones, landed in Kigali at 8:15. From there we took a cab to the Okapi Hotel, and like the old ladies we are, zonked right out in bed. This brief introduction to Rwanda was startling in a few ways: first, it is easily twice as expensive as Uganda. Secondly, things in Rwanda actually work and there's no garbage all over the place and the fountains have water coming out of them and the streetlights were on and the roads were actually good. I know all of that sounds pretty basic, but after it was pointed out that the streelights actually had lightbulbs in them, we all stared at them, as awe-struck as if you decided to go on a road trip and discovered that the neighbouring town had transitioned from cars to hovercrafts. The lack of garbage (and the absence of the corresponding marabou storks, 3 foot tall garbage-eating Kampala residents) was a really nice change. In fact, Rwanda in total was just absolutely gorgeous. Its called the Land of a Thousand Hills (though a thousand seems like an under-estimation) and so the country is just endless rolling hills, covered in terraced gardens and the green green greenest rainforest, and the cutest, happiest children i've ever seen in my life.

We started off on thursday morning with a trip to the still-being-built Genocide Museum (it officially opens in April, on the 10th anniversary of the end of the tragedy, and looks to be quite impressive and depressing.) Because it only happened barely ten years ago, memories and landmarks are still quite fresh, and it was interesting, in an awful kind of way, to have it pointed out that bridge we were walking across had once been held up by a pile of dead bodies, or to eat lunch at the hotel that provided refuge for hundreds of Tutsis. It was also interesting to see the difference in the two tribes - the Hutus are generally darker, with a shorter, stockier build, while the Tutsis are quite tall and slender, with more golden skin and a tendency to be absolutely beautiful. The differences seemed important, somehow, when you realise how easy it must have been to carry out the genocide of the Tutsis, when it is so obvious how easy it is to identify them.

After our visit to the museum, and a quick stroll around town (it was pretty small), we hopped on a minibus to the small town of Ruhengeri, adjacent to the Parc National de Volcans (Volcanoes National Park). Our arrival in Ruhengeri must have been a big deal, because we quickly had a crowd of at least 30 locals surrounding us, just staring. A taxi driver approached us to take us to our guesthouse, and sensing the opportunity, the local kids, most under 10 years old, started bargaining for our business as well - all these kids just yelling, with quite serious expressions on their faces, '5000 francs! i take you!'. I couldn't tell if they wanted a handout, or just wanted in on the excitement, but either way, it was funny!

Once in the Parc, we hunkered down by the fireplace (it was way colder there than we'd anticipated) of a guesthouse within the park, and got a good night's rest before we set out early the next morning to go on trek partway up one of the volcanoes to see Dian Fossey's grave. (Fossey was a pioneering researcher on mountain gorillas, and wrote 'Gorillas in the Mist'.) The walk was absolutely gorgeous - we were going through rainforest - and the weather was great, not too hot. We didn't see any of the world's last 650 mountain gorrillas, all of which live on the volcanoes of the Uganda/Rwanda border (which we were hoping to do, since official gorilla-tracking permits costs $250 US! We did however, come into pretty close contact with buffalo dung... man, those animals are prolific. Just ask my shoes.) One thing we didn't think about though, is what its like to walk uphill through a rainforest during the rainy season - it is muddy!! (So, I, um, feel bad for the housegirl who has to wash my stuff...) After the trek, which took about 5 hours, we returned to Ruhengeri, all set to get on another bus to Gisenyi, a beach town on nearby Lake Kivu, only to discover that the 2, 3, 4, and 5 oclock buses had all been cancelled (you spend enough time in Africa and this sort of thing ceases to surprise you), and so we went to 'the best restaurant in Ruhengeri' and ate the world's toughest chicken and the africa's most consistently edible dish - french fries - and played cards until 6 pm and the townspeople got tired of walking past and starting at the four muzungu (foreign) girls.

Gisenyi was a real treat - at one point it was something of a beach resort town, but what with the lack of tourists, is now a great bargain. We spent $15 and stayed at the cushy beachfront Hotel Palm Beach and ate italian food for dinner- it was a good way to end a very long, tiring day. The next morning, after checking out of the hotel, we walked from Gisenyi to the Rwanda/Congo border, and crossed over into the Congolese town of Goma. (We did lots and lots of security research, and had been assured that despite an ongoing civil war, that Goma itself was relatively safe to visit.) Goma is a pretty non-inspiring town, but a good chunk of it had been buried by a volcanic eruption in 2002, and we wanted to take a look at the results. It was really interesting - all these building submerged up to the second floor by what now looks charred wood, or a frozen river.

We returned to our hotel in Gisenyi, where our boda-boda (bike or scooter taxis) drivers got a brief beating for being on hotel property while they waited for us to collect our bags, and then boda-boda'd into town and back to the bus station, where we took another minibus back to Kigali, where we spent the night. The next morning we departed Kigali for Butare, a town in the south of the country, which (according to Lonely Planet) has 'the best museum in East Africa', and where I bought a bunch of tourist-oriented handicraft-crap that I actually quite like, ate a yummy lunch of grilled Nile perch fish, got back on yet another minibus to Kigali, and flew back Uganda.

It was a great, but busy, weekend!

Now, I'm back at work, which has become surprisingly stressful - being the new ED is a lot of work! It's providing me with the challenge I need though, to feel that I'll return to Canada with not just some really cool travel under my belt, but also some meaningful work experience, which i guess is sort of the point! So.... I should probably stop writing this post and get back to things, i guess ;-)
Hope all is well with all of you at home.... !Cheers!


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