Rwanda

Rwanda 6/30/06 - Arrival in Kigali, Drive to Ruhengeri

After all of that ordeal, we were only in the air for 25 minutes before landing in Kigali. By now, we were hot, sweaty, tired, and cranky. Kigali is an hour behind Tanzania and Kenya, so we landed at 2:50 local time. We filled out our arrival card and went through immigration. The immigration guy was very friendly and playful, which helped to improve our mood. We headed down to the baggage claim area. The airport was old and dirty and the stalls in the bathrooms were pitch black. They were the worst bathrooms yet on the trip. Cargo started coming off the conveyor belt: a seemingly endless stream of huge cardboard boxes, with Asian writing on the sides, marked "1 of 6", "2 of 6", etc. They each had a sticker on them, and when we got close enough to read them, we noticed that they said "2006 Korea-Africa Exchange Convention." The Korean exchange students were gathering the boxes and piling them into mountains. They tried in vain to fit things on luggage carts. You could barely move in the baggage claim area because it was so crowded with exchange students and all of their supplies. It was unreal.

It took forever for our luggage to come out. In fact, it took so long that the tour guides who were supposed to collect us started to get nervous and wonder what was going on. Our plane was already quite late, and now it had been on the ground for a while and we still hadn't appeared, so Florence, a young woman from Primate Safaris got permission to go into the baggage area to check on us. She introduced herself in flawless English, and we were happy to be greeted by someone. She and Johnson (our guide) had been at the airport since 8 am. They had incorrect information about our flight's arrival time. Add to that the fact that the flight was even later, and they had spent the entire day waiting for us. And we thought we had had a rough day. At least we had been in transit, not just sitting in an airport. By now we had retrieved our luggage. Florence helped us through customs and advised that we exchange some money, which we did.

We met Johnson and hopped into a nice olive drab Land Cruiser. As far as we knew, we were now to drive to Ruhengeri, so that we could go gorilla trekking bright and early the next morning. The day after that would be another gorilla trek and a drive back and an overnight in Kigali, followed by a flight home. We knew about the recent history of genocide in Rwanda, and knew that there were a lot of historical sites and memorials to be seen. We had been disappointed that none of these were on our itinerary, but the entire trip in Rwanda was so short that we just assumed there was no time for it. As we spoke to Johnson and Florence in the car, they told us that they had expected us to arrive in the morning, and had planned a tour of Kigali with a visit to the genocide memorial before we left town to drive to Ruhengeri. By now, however, it was around 3:30 pm, and there wasn't enough time. This increased our frustration at the day's travel hassles and delays. You mean we were supposed to go to the genocide memorial, but now due to delays we couldn't? Florence was quick to look at the rest of our itinerary and assured us that we would have time to visit the memorial before going to the airport on our last day. She immediately put us at ease and we started to settle in. OK, we were actually in Rwanda, it was time to leave the flight stresses behind and start absorbing the sights and sounds of this interesting country.

We drove around downtown, and Florence and Johnson pointed out sites of interest, including the Hotel des Mille Collines, immortalized in the film "Hotel Rwanda." "Mille Collines" means a thousand hills in French, and Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills. The hotel looked nothing like the one in the film, and we came to find out that the film was actually made in South Africa. We asked what Rwandans thought of "Hotel Rwanda," and whether it was historically accurate. Johnson and Florence indicated that Rwandans were unhappy about the fact that it was not filmed in Rwanda, and that it didn't feature Rwandan actors. Johnson said that people were unsure if Paul Rusesabagina (the manager of the Mille Collines portrayed by Don Cheadle in the film) deserved his portrayal as a hero. He said that there were plenty of ordinary Rwandans who had risked just as much if not more than he did to try to save people during the genocide of 1994. Rusesabagina kept the 1268 people seeking asylum in his hotel alive throughout the 100 days of genocide by making deals with the enemy, bribing them, and plying them with alcohol. Despite the controversy about Rusesabagina's worthiness as a hero, neither Johnson nor Florence indicated that the portrayal of actual events in the movie was inaccurate. Over the next couple of days we would come to believe that the film does seem to be a pretty accurate representation of the Rwandan situation in 1994. Florence recommended some other movies about the genocide, including "Shooting the Doves," "Sometimes in April," "Shake Hands with the Devil," and "100 Days." We dropped Florence off at the Primate Safaris office, and she told us she'd see us again on our last day.

Johnson asked if we would like something to eat. It was now 4:30, and dinner at the hotel wouldn't be until around 7:30. It would be a long ride, and we decided that food was a good idea. He stopped at La Gallette, which was a little combination grocery store and German open-air restaurant/bar. The owner was German, and as luck would have it, the Germany/Argentina match of the World Cup was just starting. There were German flags on every table, and Rwandan locals as well as ex-pats were wearing hats and foam hands to show their support of Germany. We were seated at a white resin table and chairs. We were actually lucky to have chairs, as the crowd for the soccer match was getting so large. They were all sitting in front of a big-screen projection TV, glued to the action. We looked at the menu and Craig asked Johnson what he would recommend. Johnson said he usually gets the "sausage curry with chips." This sounded great to Craig, and they each ordered one. Although that sounded delicious, I was picturing some of the curries we had had in Kenya...very spicy. My stomach had been on the mend, but I didn't want to push my luck by eating a large spicy meal just prior to a long car ride. As much as I hated to, I ordered a slice of pizza, thinking that it should be something safe to tide me over.

A few minutes later the waiter came back and said there was no pizza. I think there actually had been, because I swore I saw someone else with some, but whatever. I didn't feel like looking at the menu again so I told him I'd have the sausage curry as well. Thank goodness I did. When it was served to us, it turned out to be currywurst, a sausage with curry powder and ketchup that we had enjoyed thoroughly in Berlin in 2004. I would have been very jealous if they had been eating currywurst and I was stuck with a pizza. We all enjoyed our meal. This food and ambiance certainly wasn't what we had expected of ur first meal in Rwanda! We enjoyed our conversation with Johnson. We used the rest room before hopping back into the car. In order to get to the bathroom you had to walk past the mob of World Cup-watchers and actually walk right behind the TV. We gathered our things and headed back to the car. As we left, our chairs were immediatly scooped up by people and dragged over to the TV.

We drove out of Kigali, through the mountains, and north to Ruhengeri. Kigali was a very neat and clean city. Johnson told us that the last Saturday of every month (i.e. a week ago) was declared a public holiday and everyone (from President Kagame on down) cleans up trash in the city. The late afternoon light was very nice. Hillsides were a mosaic of mud brick houses. People were walking everywhere, and seemed not to give much respect to traffic. They were used to walking in the middle of the road. Most of the way, the roads were very well paved. Rwanda is said to have the finest roads in Central Africa. A Chinese company had been contracted to manage the paving work back in 1985, with Rwandans carrying out the actual manual labor. The roads went up and down through the mountains. We saw people filling plastic jugs at a small dirty water hole near the road. Johnson commented that they come here every day to get their water. We thought about the realities of that, knowing how easy it is to get water from the tap at home, and how much water gets wasted in America in a day. Then we turned a corner and saw where these people were heading with their full water jugs: up the steep mountain road to their homes. Some people were riding bicycles. Others were walking, pushing bicycles laden with the heavy water jugs, crops, etc. We realized that not only do we take water for granted, we also take transportation for granted. These people were using bicycles as a beast of burden, literally using the wheel to lighten their load. It was difficult to process, and we felt guilty to have such a large vehicle at our disposal.

We passed coffee and tea plantations, both of which are big exports for Rwanda. We saw several birds, including the pied crow and the black kite. Johnson was tooting the horn every few minutes in a friendly "I'm here, watch out" sort of way. Even once it got dark, the road was still full of people. Soon it was too dark to really see anything and we were curious about what the countryside was really like. Johnson said it was a shame we didn't get to do the drive in the daylight, but we would be passing this way again in several days. Johnson told us that the highest volcano in Rwanda is 4,507 meters high. We tried to imagine the Virunga Mountains, where we would be doing our gorilla trek in the morning.

At around 7:30, we arrived at the Mountain Gorilla's Nest Lodge (and Golf Club). We would never see any indication of golf during our stay, but I assume there must have been some kind of course somewhere. Most of the lobby was a ghost town, and then we saw that a large group of employees and guides were watching the World Cup on a flat screen TV in a room to the right of the lobby. We went over and stood in front of the empty check-in desk. Celestine tore himself away from the game and checked us in. The crowd was very rowdy, and let out a huge roar while Craig was filling out paperwork, causing him to jump. Celestine insisted that we take an extra blanket back to the room with us because is was "so cold." We walked out the back door of the lobby, through a neat lighted courtyard which contained tables, chairs, and gorilla statues. The lodge was set up as a bunch of two-room bungalows, each named after volcanoes in the area. We went to room 14, in the Karisimbi bungalow. The bungalow faced the opposite direction from the lobby, but we couldn't tell what was back there in the dark. The lock was kind of tricky, and we fumbled with the key for a while before finally getting it unlocked.The room was modest but adequate. I guess I had been expecting something a little more fancy, as the gorilla treks (with their pricey permits) tend to cater to a more affluent customer base, but this is Rwanda, and while they are ramping up their tourism infrastructure, they just aren't quite there yet. That being said, it was fine for us. We were happy just to have a bed and electricity to charge our camera batteries.
Kigali International Airport

Baggage claim, Kigali International Airport

Hotel des Milles Collines, aka Hotel Rwanda

Hotel des Milles Collines, aka Hotel Rwanda

Craig and Johnson at La Gallette, Kigali

Kigali

Kigali

Kigali

Our room at the Gorilla's Nest Lodge

We went to the dining room. We met our waiter, Jean Paul. He reminded us very much of Peter from Maasai Mara, except he was more soft-spoken. They usually serve a buffet for dinner, but tonight there weren't too many guests (only three other tables were occupied) so they were cooking selections off the menu instead. Craig had a beef filet mignon with chips, and I got lasagna bolognese (incongruously found on the vegetarian menu. Also on the vegetarian menu was "Hawaiian pizza," which traditionally contains ham and pineapple). Johnson had fallen asleep in his room, and was a little late joining us, but we did all eat dinner together. It was a nice meal, and we enjoyed it very much. The dining room was covered by a roof but had open walls. Johnson was all bundled up in a winter coat, whereas we were quite comfy in our shirtsleeves.

After dinner, we went back to the room and took showers. I didn't write very much in the journal because we wanted to get a good night's rest before tomorrow's gorilla trek. I was feeling a bit nervous, as we had heard that the trek up the volcanos to see the mountain gorillas can be quite taxing. I had been exercising prior to the trip and considered myself in adequate shape, but since I had been sick for the last week or so, my strength just wasn't up to par, and I hoped I'd be able to complete the trek with no problems. Johnson had seemed to indicate at dinner that he might be able to get us onto one of the easier treks. So we put our faith in him and hoped for the best. We didn't notice the light switch near the bed. There was a candle in the room and Craig lit it after we had shut out the main light so that we could find our way to the bed. We felt pretty stupid about it the next day when we noticed the light switch. As expected, we didn't need the extra blanket that Celestine had insisted that we take. Despite our restless anticipation of the morning's events, it had been a long day and we were soon sound asleep.
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