It has been almost exactly a month since I left Africa, flying first from Johannesburg back to Dar for one last round of goodbyes, and then onwards from there.
It already feels like a dream. The first time I saw a giraffe. The way Lake Malawi glimmers as the sun sets. Touring Kigali on the back of a motorbike. Watching the world spin below me from the top of Kilimanjaro. Shivering next to a pool of boiling lava in the Congo. Drinking red wine and eating pizza and talking books at Saverios Restaurant in Dar. An afternoon with a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The dusty red roads of Kampala. Kissing a giraffe in Nairobi. The Tanzanian line dance on my 30th birthday. Christmas in Ethiopia. Swimming in a waterfall in Madagascar. Laughing until I cried in Maputo.
These things that I know to be true. The sunset is most spectacular in Zimbabwe, the sky most beautiful in Madagascar, the water most blue off the coast of Tanzania. Maputo has the best egg tarts, Dar the best Indian food, Ethiopia the best coffee. On a good day, it takes 24 hours to drive 400 kilometres in Madagascar, 15 hours to cover the same distance in Malawi, 12 hours in Tanzania, anybody’s guess in Mozambique.
There are good people everywhere, more parts happiness than sadness. One day, a child in Goma smiled at me and gave me a piece of lava, from the volcanic eruption that destroyed his family home. I carry it in my purse. Another day, a woman sitting beside me on a long bus ride bought me some bananas, a piece of manioc, and a bag of peanuts. She didn’t speak English but she smiled at me when I thanked her. I carry this with me too.
When the picture accompanying this post was taken, I was sitting on the beach with four people I had met a day earlier, eating crabs we had marinated in garlic and tomatoes, drinking a 2M beer, and talking about tides and wind patterns and 3 am departure times. A picnic spread out on the canvas sails we had removed from the boat to use as a tablecloth. Happiness in the form of a poem.
I carry all of it with me.
I counted the stars in Madagascar. I know I am very lucky, both for the adventures and the people I have met along the way.
These are the things I have learned.
It is April 7th and I am back from the Congo and stuck in Gisenyi once again. Buses out of the city have been cancelled because it is Genocide Memorial Day in Rwanda. I intended to spend only one night in this town, but I have been here for four days.
I’m not the longest resident tourist, though. RT and GJ have been here for a week. And at breakfast today I met Gabriel, an American who broke his leg coming down Mount Nyirangongo and who has spent the last ten days in Gisenyi recovering.
Plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda, so Gabriel has fashioned himself a device out of tinfoil, tape, and garbage to protect his cast from the rainy season. The tinfoil is smeared with gobs of red, and RT asks in horror whether this is blood. “No”, he says,” it is just the remnants of the hamburger I had for lunch one day.”
The ticket seller at the bus station tells me there is no bus from Kibuye to Gisenyi. “You will have to catch a bus back to Kigali and then catch a bus to Gisenyi from there”, she tells me. This means that I will have to backtrack to central Rwanda to catch another bus back west to the Lake Kivu region. “Are you sure”, I say, “because in Kigali they told me that there is a bus every morning to Gisenyi”. The ticket seller makes a quick phone call on her cell phone and tells me that I am right. “Meet me here tomorrow at 9 am and I will sell you a ticket. The bus leaves at 10 am”.
I ask a few more people about the bus and am told that the bus to Gisenyi leaves at 8 am, 8:30 am, and 9 am. To be safe, I decide to get to the bus station the next morning at 7:30 am. I am used to the pre-dawn departure schedule of the bus companies in Tanzania and I am relieved that the bus is leaving relatively late.
The next morning, when I arrive at the bus station I am told to go wait at a nearby gas station. There are about five other people sitting on a small wooden bench. I put my huge backpack down on the floor and sit down next to it. Everyone stares at me. One older man asks me where I am going. He is also going to Gisenyi and confirms that the bus will leave from the gas station at 8:30.
I wait and wait and wait some more. At 8:30 I am told that the bus is just around the corner and that it should be here “soon”. At 10:30 the bus finally wheezes and rattles to a stop in front of me.
Most of the buses in Rwanda are sleek new minibuses that hold about a dozen people and leave on schedule every thirty minutes to ferry passengers between major cities.
This bus is old. From another generation. There are rows of benches with enough room to comfortably hold three people on the left side of the bus and two on the right. I’m squished between three women, an old man, and a baby. I’m lucky to get a seat. There are at least thirty people stuffed into the aisles. One man is carrying two squawking chickens under his arm.
The road between Kibuye and Gisenyi is unpaved and muddy. The bus is large and awkward and we slowly wind ourselves around Rwanda’s hills. We stop every twenty minutes to pick up more passengers. It seems impossible that they will all fit into the bus, but we all shift and make room. At every stop, hawkers try to sell snacks, reaching up to pass pineapples and peanuts and cookies through the windows of the giant bus. The woman sitting next to me piles five pineapples onto her lap, balancing them next to her sleeping toddler. She tells me this is a good place to buy pineapples and asks why I am not buying any.
Hours pass and I am hot and hungry and tired. My leg starts to cramp up and the toddler next to me spits a wad of gum into his hand and shows it to me proudly. He puts it back into his mouth and wipes his hand on the man sleeping in front of us.
In the late afternoon it starts to rain and we stop under a tree to wait out the worst of it. After a few minutes, we continue on and I can see the volcanoes in the Congo out of the dirty bus window.
The bus finally pulls into Giseyni at 4:30 pm. The town is dusty and hot and we all push against each other in our rush to get off the bus.
The distance between Kibuye and Gisenyi is approximately 94 kilometers.
Someone who was murdered in the Rwandan genocide was wearing a t-shirt that reads, “I love Ottawa”. The t-shirt is blue and the script is yellow. Size small. I saw it yesterday at the Kigali Memorial Centre. Hanging in a room along with clothing worn by other victims. A white scarf with blue birds. Superman sheets. A string of pearls.
Someone who was murdered in the Rwandan genocide loved chocolate. Her name was Chanelle. Her favourite sport was jogging with her father and her favourite thing to drink was milk. She liked to watch TV and listen to music. Chanelle was eight years old when she died. She was hacked to death by a machete. I saw her picture yesterday.
Someone who was murdered in the Rwandan genocide had only ever had one picture taken of himself. The one on his driver’s licence. There is nothing else left. He wore glasses. His driver’s licence hangs in a room along with photographs of hundreds of other victims. Most are smiling and laughing. Some are serious.
It is estimated that nearly a million someones were murdered over a 100-day period in 1994. The Memorial Centre tries to provide victims with a voice, by displaying clothing, pictures, and anecdotes. One room is filled with skulls and bones, another with pictures of children who were killed, a third with personal effects. There are video interviews with survivors and newspaper articles.
250,000 victims are buried in the grounds adjacent to the Centre, their names listed in small white letters on a concrete wall. Their graves are surrounded by bright red, purple, and yellow flowers.
A t-shirt, chocolate, and a driver’s licence. Bones and clothing. The things we do to each other.
This is the saddest place I’ve ever been.
This past weekend was a long weekend in Tanzania and I flew to Rwanda to meet my parents who are traveling there.
I arrived in Kigali late on Thursday night. By plane, Kigali-at-night is a string of white Christmas tree lights wound around a series of thick, forested hills. Our hotel was at the top of one of these hills and Kigali, with its red earth and small, square, brick houses, stretched out all around us.
In the morning, we caught a bus to Musanze, which is the departure point for gorilla treks. Although Musanze is a vibrant and colourful town, it was cold and rainy. At night, I slept in the down jacket that I wear during Edmonton’s winters and that I am planning to use when I climb Mount Kilimanjaro in December.
We woke at 4:45 am on Saturday morning and drove about 45 minutes up the mountain to meet everyone had been lucky enough to receive gorilla permits. The leaders were to break us into groups of six or seven. Each group would be assigned to a different gorilla family.
Locating the gorillas in their natural habitat involves a two to six hour climb up a mountain and through a jungle. With rain, mud, and jungle so dense you sometimes have to crawl through it. Trekkers are told to wear long pants, long sleeved shirts, hiking boots, a rain jacket, and gloves. Despite this, one tourist from Germany showed up in a dress shirt, golf shorts, and shiny white leather loafers. Two sisters were wearing jeans and cowboy hats. Another woman was contemplating whether her canvas TOMS would hold up in the mud while a representative from the Rwandan Tourist Board tried to convince her to buy some rain boots. A middle-aged man brought along a multi-coloured hoola-hoop.
Fortunately, we were assigned to the Titus group along with four appropriately attired tourists from Czechoslovakia.
The bright green slopes of the volcanoes, originally all jungle, have been deforested for farming. The terrain is now grass, stone, and mud. There is a rocky path that winds up the volcano to the jungle where the gorillas live. On the way, we passed small houses and gardens with potatoes planted row by row. Children ran from their houses to the side of the path to wave. A curtain of mist crept down the narrow path to meet us and it began to rain.
My stomach had chosen the week before the gorilla trek to revolt against life in Africa, and by the time we began our climb on Saturday I hadn’t eaten in nearly four days. This meant that the steep climb up the side of the mountain was pretty awful, made worse by the embarrassment of having to ask a porter to drag me part of the way up.
About two hours into the climb, we reached a tall stone wall marking the end of the farmland and the beginning of the jungle. The wall is meant to keep the jungle in and the villagers out. A line of boulders piled stone upon stone to protect the jungle from the hungry farmers, who would pull it up to grow another potato garden. A man with a gun, in an official-looking uniform, was guarding the jungle, and when we arrived he helped us scramble over the fence and into the jungle.
The jungle wrapped itself around us until we were on our knees in the mud and tangled up in vines and roots and leaves. There are no trails and our leader had to move ahead of us with a machete to clear the way. I wondered at how the crumbling stone wall could keep the jungle from growing over it and under it and back down to the bottom of the mountain.
We waded through the jungle to the spot where the Titus group had last been spotted. The gorillas were no longer there. Captivated by the scent of eucalyptus trees planted by farmers in neighbouring villages, the gorillas had moved back down the mountain in search of the trees, had scaled the stone wall out of the jungle, and had reclaimed the surrounding farmland.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.
Back down the mountain and across the stone wall we turned to see several black objects in the distance, lumbering across the face of the mountain with a quiet, clumsy, grace. There were nine of them in total.
When we caught up with the Titus family they were busy devouring the eucalyptus trees. The blackback closest to me–body pressed against a tree and long black fingernails wrapped around its trunk–was gnawing at the eucalyptus. The silverback was also nearby and was peeling bark from a tree in order to feast on the sap. A pile of discarded bark an afterthought at his feet.
I blinked and there were gorillas all around. Climbing up trees. Balancing between trees. Rolling on the ground. Sitting side by side by side. Scampering through a neighbouring potato farm.
Fixated on the eucalyptus trees, the gorillas paid little attention to us, even though we were standing only several feet away.
Mesmerized by the gorillas, we paid little attention to the time, and our leader had to tell us several times that our hour with the gorillas was over. We left them, backward glance after backward glance.
People who have gone gorilla trekking almost without exception say the experience is moving because they are able to establish a human connection with the animals. And, yes, there is a flash of recognition – even understanding – when you meet a gorilla’s eye. But to me the animals seemed more mythical than human. So spectacular that even now, after spending a morning with them, it is hard to believe they are of this world.
So stunning that, as I lay in bed that night, I tried to convince myself that they were real and that the whole thing hadn’t been a dream.