Rwanda

Rwanda 7/02/06 - Gorilla Trekking (Sabyinyo Group), Ruhengeri Market, Kigali

There was no point in showering before the gorilla trek, so we woke up shortly before 6 am. I put on the gorilla dung-stained pants from yesterday (no sense in dirtying another pair) and we gathered our camera equipment, water, and protective gloves. As we entered the dining room at 6, we were greeted by a foot-tall wooden carving of a gorilla, wearing a hat. We hadn't noticed it before, and the staff told Craig that it was the "Welcome Gorilla". We were soon joined by Will and Kate for breakfast. We ate omelettes, cereal, toast, and cheese. Will and Kate had talked to Celestine at the front desk, and he had promised to help them try to secure standby trekking permits this morning. Johnson agreed to give them a ride to the park office, and we left the hotel at a little after 6:30. The skies were a pallette of pinks and oranges behind the volcanoes. It was quite serene. We passed farmland where chrysanthemums were being grown for pyrethrum production. Johnson had a couple of kids pick two of the flowers for me.

We once again drove down the pitted road to the park headquarters. This was one of the worst roads that we had experienced so far in Rwanda. It was kind of ironic that one of the biggest tourist draws in the country was only accessible via this road, but it was obvious that with all of the road construction in the area, they just hadn't gotten to it yet. When we arrived at the Parc National des Volcans, the office was absolutely packed with people. It was much more crowded than yesterday, and things didn't look good for Will and Kate, as they were hoping for spare permits. It turned out that a lot of these people were going on golden monkey treks (which can apparently accommodate as many people as want to go) but there were a lot there for the gorillas as well. Johnson had told us that they sell merchandise in the office, but it was so crowded that we couldn't even get near the counter. Johnson signed us up (along with Barbara and Filipe) for the Sabyinyo Group - the group led by the largest silverback in the park.We were excited to hear that it was another nearby group. We like to hike when it makes sense, but this was about seeing the gorillas more than hiking in the Virungas. If we had less far to go, so much the better. We would have more of the day to explore other parts of Rwanda.

We were hoping that Will and Kate would be able to join the group as well; it would be a reunion from yesterday. There were indeed two empty gorilla slots, but one was in our group and one was in another group. Will and Kate would have to split up, and they opted not to go after all. We said our goodbyes and said that we would be in touch later in the day (we all planned to be in Kigali by evening).

As the crowd in the office thinned out, we purchased computer printout photos of yesterday's group (Group 13) and today's group (Sabyinyo). We also purchased a nice map of Rwanda. We met Francoise, our guide. He has been tracking gorillas for 26 years, and he had the aura of someone who was totally in tune with the gorillas. As a young man he had been getting involved in poaching, but was taken under the wing of Dian Fossey and her staff and rehabilitated to become a tracker and guide. Also in our group were Kai, from Washington D.C., and the South African ambassador to Kigali along with her husband. We all got into our respective cars (Francoise rode with us and Johnson) and drove to the starting point of our trek. It was a different starting point from yesterday's trek, but was very similar. We parked the car near some village buildings.

Walking sticks were distributed and we began our trek through the farmland, very similar to yesterday's trek. It was a very gentle walk. Before we knew it (at around 8:40), we were at another stone wall on the edge of the parkland. As soon as you passed through the entrance in the wall, there were stinging nettles, so we were glad that we had brought work gloves. Once again, as soon as we entered the forest we could smell the aroma of the vegetation. Some people in our party weren't dressed properly, and thus got stung by the nettles more than the rest of us.On the walk, Francoise demonstrated how the gorillas eat fresh bamboo, and we each tried a taste. It tasted like bitter greens. He also demonstrated the amazing amount of water that gorillas can extract from thistle plants. He chewed up some thistle, and water gushed out of the stalk and down his chin. Gorillas don't actually drink water; they get all of their hydration from plants. That allows them to live in areas where there isn't an exposed source of water.

Before we knew it, Francoise was telling us to put down our belongings. Were we really this close to the gorillas already? It seemed that we had just started walking! It was now around 9:10 am. As soon as we came upon the gorillas, it became apparent that Francoise was a great guide, because the gorillas respected him as one of their own. He was clearly an old friend. He made comforting vocalizations which they returned. If there was vegetation obscuring our view of the gorillas, Francoise would nonchalantly pull it aside, acting as if he was a gorilla foraging. Like yesterday, Craig and I were each armed with a camera. We thought that this "divide and conquer" strategy would allow us the best chance at getting an accurate photographic record of the experience. Francoise told us that if a gorilla approached us, we should move out of the way slowly. At one point a juvenile started to walk towards Craig and myself. We separated (each stepping aside), but the gorilla brushed against me, grabbing the belt of my hip pack, and swinging around me like a tree. It was amazing. A gorilla actually touched me. I was not scared at all. It was just such a matter-of-fact occurrence. I really was blown away by the gentleness of these creatures. There were several babies in this group, the youngest of which was 8 months old. Two babies were tousling with one another, and it was quite amusing to watch. They were tumbling around, sometimes baring their teeth at each other trying their best to look tough. It was fascinating to look at their hands and feet - so human-like (except for the opposable big toe). The apparent mother of one of them looked on unconcernedly as she ate. Babies were occasionally hoisted onto their mothers' backs. Francoise knows 6 gorilla vocalizations, and would use the appropriate one for a certain situation. At times he would encourage them vocally to move on, to urge them into a clearing for better viewing. At one point a gorilla with a baby on her back put her hand on Francoise's shoulder as she walked by.

After we had spent sufficient time watching the babies play, it became obvious that Francoise was now on a mission to find the group's silverback. He led us through the brush until we found him. This was the largest gorilla in the park, at 220 kg (around 450 pounds). We found him seated, pulling down limbs, stripping the leaves, and eating them. He was very large, but he was always either sitting down or walking on all fours.The silverback that we had seen yesterday had actually seemed bigger, as he had been standing upright. The sunlight was beautiful and we were able to get some great close-up shots of him. He would meander away and we would follow. At one point he got up and crawled within a couple of feet of Craig. Yet he was not at all intimidating. The time didn't fly by quite as fast as it did yesterday. Francoise told us to take our last photos. As Craig snapped one more, his memory card was full. What perfect timing! We walked back giddily. The gorillas had been so visible in the sun, we were certain that we had gotten some good pictures today. We had seen several babies and the largest silverback. It was so amazing that these two gorilla groups were so close to human civilization. We really wished will and Kate had been able to join us, as it was another truly amazing experience with the gorillas.

When we got to the stone wall, everyone was whispering excitedly. The guides laughed and said we didn't need to be quiet any more, as we were no longer in the company of the gorillas. We all laughed. Francoise gave us each a hard candy. We walked through the farmland back to our starting point. A bunch of children had gathered near the vehicles, and a teenaged boy was selling watercolors of the gorillas. We had read that Rwandan children do this, and we had been somewhat disappointed that there hadn't been anyone yesterday. The paintings were on ragged paper torn from a sketchbook. The depictions of the gorillas were quite nice, and there were English messages (such as "Please Save Us") written in pen above the painting. Sometimes the artist had made a mistake with the writing and had scratched a word out. The boy was asking $5 US for a painting. We were glad to give it to him, and chose our favorite painting out of his stack. Nobody else in the group bought a painting.

The ambassador and her husband rode back with us. Johnson dropped us at the hotel for a shower and then took them back to the park office and to pick up our certificates. We were once again met with glasses of juice on our arrival at the hotel. We would be heading back to Kigali tonight. Johnson arranged for one of the hotel staff to scrub our hiking boots clean after the jungle trek, so that we wouldn't get in trouble for inadvertantly bringing soil back home (Would they wash the dung from my pants as well?). We showered and got packed up, meeting Johnson in the dining room for lunch around 1:00. We had cream of courgette soup, goat meat, rice, and potatoes. They had run out of Fanta so I had a Coke, and Craig had a Primus beer. For dessert we had vanilla cake with a custardy sauce.

Then we hopped in the vehicle and headed back toward Kigali. We stopped at the Ruhengeri market. Because it was Sunday, not every stall was open, and it wasn't all that crowded. There were lots of clothes, veggies, sorghum, wheat, millet, and small dried fish in baggies. Johnson told us that the clothes in the markets were second-hand, and most had been donated by people in other countries. Because of this, a lot of the people of Rwanda have seemingly incongrous clothes of various styles. We saw a lot of Michael Jordan shirts for sale in the various stalls. One of the boys who came over to talk to us was wearing a Drew Bledsoe New England Patriots jersey. We patted him on the back and told him that's our (American) football team. It was kind of funny to us that in the past few years, Bledsoe had gone from being our star player to being relegated to second-hand markets in Rwanda. The few new items for sale were knock-offs. Johnson talked to some mothers and kids. He picked up one of the children so I could take a photo. Another child then started to cry because he wanted a photo too. Johnson picked him up and we got one of him too. Johnson had a very gentle and loving way with these children. Two men were ironing clothes. Their irons contained hot charcoal. They ironed the second-hand clothing and it looked good as new. Johnson said that he had never bought new clothes or shoes, everything was second-hand and bought at the market. It was very affordable, and he always looked very well dressed. There was one stall where a woman was getting make-up applied and she seemed embarrassed that the muzungu were watching.

After leaving the market, we took a scenic non-tarmac (aka dirt) road. We passed a place where hand-made bricks were drying in the sun. This is where many of the bricks for the country's building needs were produced, and we saw kilns and other tools used in their production.The red earthen bricks were neatly stacked in piles. We realized how self-sufficient Rwanda was, producing a myriad of foods and building materials as well. When you add tourism to the equation, things were starting to look good for the economy for the future.

There were sweet potatoes growing. We passed a couple of very clear waterfalls. Yams, sunflowers, and sugar cane grew in the fields. Locals were fishing in a home-made dugout canoe. As we passed by the river, we tried to take a photo of them. They shouted to Johnson that they wanted some money. He laughed and talked to them, and they eventually agreed to the photo (all except one of them, who hid when I actually took the picture). As we passed a valley, a small boy working in the fields down below us saw our vehicle and desperately tried to get our attention. He waved and waved. Craig finally caught sight of him and waved back. The boy was so happy that he started jumping up and down with excitement. In a place which has seen so much violence and suffering, the smallest gesture can really go a long way.

We passed a large hydroelectric plant. We stopped at a Catholic church atop a hill overlooking Lake Ruhondo. People can arrange to stay there overnight. It was so beautiful and peaceful. You could hear goats, cows, and people in their fields miles away. The acoustics of the mountains were really amazing. It was as if the entire area was a big speaker. The grounds of the church were very nicely landscaped. We wandered around and then sat on a wall enjoying the gorgeous view of the lake. A couple of locals walked up the hill and tried to sell us their hand-made fiddle type instruments made of wood, cow horns, and wire. One guy started to play "Frere Jacque" and followed it up with an excerpt from Beethoven's 9th. It was amazing that he could make it sound so good with only two strings. They put on a good demonstration, but by this time we had bought so much stuff. These things looked delicate and awkward to transport home, plus who knows if you are even allowed to bring them home, since they are made of cow horns. We decided against it.

We went back to the car and resumed our journey to Kigali. We saw some beautifully terraced mountains that reminded us of Colca Canyon in Peru. There were lots of kids and adults waving to us as we passed. A baby called out "Muzungu" which is the Kinyarwanda word for white person. Johnson explained the different nuances of the word. It can mean white person, clean person, rich person, or person who is always on time (a trait they associate with Westerners, who don't run on "African time"). We saw fields where eggplants were being grown. People on the sides of the road were selling baskets containing 30 eggs. We saw the red hot poker tree, which we had seen at Mama Wilson's in Arusha. It is a treatment for inflammation of the eyelids, wounds, syphilis, malaria, and asthma. As we went up and down the hills, Johnson said that he needs to change the brake pads in the Land Rover every 2-3 months, and the shocks every 6-8 months. The terrain is definitely not easy on vehicles.

It was a long ride, and Johnson started telling us some stories about his younger days. Johnson knew that Craig was a beer afficionado, and had been telling him about Rwandan banana beer, known as "cakenke" (not sure about the spelling). Johnson told us that when he was in the army he used to brew banana beer. They would dig a firepit and place bananas and banana leaves inside. They would pile soil on top. After three days they would take it out and mix it with sorghum flour. He talked about his family when he was growing up.

These stories soon segued into stories about the genocide. At first we weren't quite sure that was what he was talking about; it came up in such a matter-of-fact way. He mentioned "the man who killed my father" and Craig and I were trying to process that information, wondering what it meant, when he continued. It was the most harrowing thing anyone had ever told us. I won't go into the details out of respect for Johnson, but I think it is important to relay some of the general facts. Johnson was in school in Uganda during 1994. He was forced to join the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an army of exiled Tutsis. They forced him to learn to use a gun and put him on the front lines after 2 days. While he was fighting, the genocide was in full swing at home. Johnson's childhood best friend (a Hutu), killed Johnson's father and two brothers. This was a friend who was an honorary member of the family. He had slept at their house, he had eaten with them, etc. But once the genocide began, none of that mattered. He tortured and killed the three of them in some of the most horrendous ways imaginable. Johnson's mother, sisters, and younger brother had managed to get to an orphanage run by Johnson's cousin. There they were safe, and survived the genocide. The killer went looking for them, though. He knew the town where Johnson's mother was from, and he went there to find her and kill her. She wasn't there, but he found Johnson's grandparents and seven cousins, and killed all of them.

Johnson looked at Craig in the rearview mirror as he spoke, and he kept asking if we understood. He would then rapidly change gears and point out a beehive in a tree, the kind that we had seen on TV shows about Africa. We just couldn't even process our surroundings any more. Our brains were reeling with Johnson's revelations. It was at this point that we stopped waving to children. We just couldn't even muster a smile. We will always remember the haunting image of Johnson's eyes in the rearview mirror while telling accounts of these horrible events.

He continued the story. While Johnson was fighting for the RPF, he found a baby girl in a box. She had apparently been orphaned during the genocide. He became her guardian, and she is now around 12 years old. When Johnson returned home after the RPF took Kigali and the perpetrators of the genocide fled the country, he visited the jail where his former friend was serving a life sentence for the murders of Johnson's family and others. Johnson made him tell him everything that had happened, and where the bodies were buried. Johnson asked why he did it, and was told that he didn't know; just because they were Tutsi. The killer begged for forgiveness. Johnson couldn't forgive him, because he is only human, and he feels that it is up to God to judge. Johnson's family recovered the bodies and had them re-buried at the genocide memorial in Kigali.

The story just left us stunned. We had known about the atrocities that had happened during the genocide, but to hear these horrible details coming from someone we ourselves knew...how could he have talked about the politics of the genocide with such detachment at lunch yesterday? We hadn't known whether he was Tutsi or Hutu yesterday. Now we knew all too intimately. It really struck us how resilient the human spirit can be. These people had all been through so much, yet they put on a brave face and still find reasons to smile and try to get on with their lives. We had seen so many smiling faces in Rwanda, we had gotten such a warm reception from people. We felt guilty for being fairly ignorant of the genocide when it was happening. It was impossible to process all of these feelings at the time. Johnson said that we would go to the genocide memorial in the morning. He apologized and said that he didn't know if he would be able to go in with us. His father and brothers are buried there, and he has a very hard time going there with clients. After hearing his tragic story, the last thing we expected him to do was to accompany us through a memorial that he was so emotionally bound to. The conversation in the Land Rover lasted for over an hour, and it emotionally exhausted all of us.

We were all very quiet, and Johnson stopped at a convenience store to buy some banana beer for Craig to try. It came in a sealed plastic bottle and was very potent (around 14% alcohol). Craig thought it tasted more like a barley wine or a hard cider than beer. The banana beer got us talking again as we approached Kigali and the sun was setting.

Johnson drove us to the Novotel Kigali and we checked in. I usually fill out the paperwork while we are traveling, and I just automatically filled out the check-in form here. The women working at the desk seemed very surprised, and looked to Craig to see if that was alright with him. They made a joke about not usually seeing the woman fill out the papers, and we laughed. It was interesting to us that even at a business hotel like this which must see a fair amount of international travelers, the employees were taken aback by a woman filling out the official documents when clearly there was a man present who could be doing it instead. We tried to call Will and Kate on Johnson's cell phone but there was no answer. We were hoping that we would be able to hook up with them tonight in Kigali. We needed to talk to someone. And we needed some distraction.

We said goodbye to Johnson and headed up to our room (#506). It was weird, because you had to keep the key card in a slot on the wall in order for the electricity to be engaged. I wondered if that was so you couldn't waste electricity by leaving the room with lights on. We talked for a while, trying to sort out our feelings. Today had been such a bipolar day. The gorilla experience had been totally invigorating and we had been on a natural high. But listening to Johnson's accounts of what happened to his family left us feeling empty inside. We crashed hard. Eventually Craig got in touch with Will on the phone. He and Kate were in Lake Kivu and were planning a day trip to the Congo the next day. They were having a great time. He chatted with them about the gorilla trekking and about Johnson (as they had become friends with him as well). We promised to keep in touch. We were a little disappointed that we would be on our own for this last night, especially with all of the emotional highs and lows of the day. We opened the drawer of the nightstand. Instead of the usual French/German/English Bible that had been present in most of our hotel rooms thus far, there were instead two packages of condoms. There was a note saying to feel free to use them or take them with you. This was very encouaging for an African country with such a problem with AIDS. I wrote for a while and then we went down to dinner on the outside patio.

There was a band playing some classic American music, such as Eric Clapton. There were a lot of people eating and drinking and enjoying the music, but we didn't feel festive. We felt out of place in the city. We wandered around looking at the food options. There was an indoor buffet with quiche, pasta salad, salad, rolls, etc. And there was a barbecue pit outside where a chef was cooking shish kebabs(beef and goat) to order, as well as North African hot merguez sausage. As we wandered around, we were pleasantly surprised to see Barbara and Filipe. We hadn't known they would even be in Kigali tonight, let alone at the same hotel. We were really happy to join them. The camaraderie helped to take our minds off of things. We got some food and I had some white wine and Craig had a Mutzig beer. We hung out chatting with Barbara and Filipe until around 10, then went back to the room, packed our bags for the journey home, and went to bed.
Craig and Steph at the Parc National des Volcans

Francoise, our guide to the Sabyinyo Group

Two Sabyinyo gorillas play-fighting

Sabyinyo mom and baby

Baby Sabyinyo Gorillas Tousling

Watch a mom and baby gorilla scamper awayWatch a mom and baby gorilla scamper away
(20 second clip)


Baby Sabyinyo Gorillas Touslingp

Baby gorilla, Sabyinyo Group

Watch two baby gorillas wrestleWatch two baby gorillas wrestle
(20 second clip)


Baby gorilla, Sabyinyo Group

Watch a mother and baby gorilla eatWatch a mother and baby gorilla eat
(20 second clip)


Watch a mother and baby gorilla eatWatch a mother and baby gorilla eat
(20 second clip)


Craig next to the largest silverback

Largest silverback in the park

Watch the park's largest silverback eatWatch the park's largest silverback eat
(20 second clip)


Largest silverback in the park

Trekking through the farmland

Boy selling gorilla paintings

Johnson and a child at the Ruhengeri Market

View from the church overlooking Lake Ruhondo

Terraced hillside

Kigali at night

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