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Friday, August 26, 2011

So I haven't been blogging much lately...

…and I feel like I owe everyone an explanation. When I first came to Rwanda, it was easy to blog about my experiences because everything was new and weird and exciting. But as things become more and more mundane, it’s easy to forget what I’ve already explained or what needs explaining. For example, this morning I had the following conversation in Kinyarwanda with one of my neighbors:

Me: Good morning!
Neighbor: Good morning, Grace. (My neighbors call me Grace if they can’t pronounce “Gelsey.”) Jesus has risen.
Me: He reigns over us all.
Neighbor: What is the news of your family?
Me: Well, my parents were in Rwanda two weeks ago.
Neighbor: Oh yes, I saw them. You must be very happy.
Me: Yes, it was very good to see them.
Neighbor: You have gotten very fat.
Me: Thank you.
Neighbor: God bless you.
Me: Have a nice day.

Now that I have that out in writing I can see at least three things that probably don’t seem normal to anyone back home. I have several conversations exactly like that every day and it never occurred to me to talk about it. So I encourage all of you, please, to email or comment if you have any unanswered questions about Rwanda or my experiences. I probably have answers, it just hasn’t occurred to me to share them.

Ababyeyi mu Rwanda Part 2

I’ll pick up where I left off in Butare. We got in late on a Wednesday, checked into a hotel and spent Thursday exploring the town. Butare is one of my favorite places in Rwanda and I highly recommend it as a travel destination to anyone visiting this country. It’s home to a university, a national museum, a large outdoor market, several western-style restaurants and a big local crafts store, among other things. It also has Nzozi Nziza, the ice cream shop that made all my dreams come true back in November (probably why it’s called “sweet dreams”). The best part is the whole town is arranged in an uncannily logical order with the museum at one end, the restaurants and market in the middle and Nzozi Nziza at the other end near the university. We started at the museum and made our way to Nzozi Nziza, hitting pretty much everything of importance except the outdoor market. All in all a successful day.

Our plan for the following day was Nyungwe Forest, a national park located about two and a half hours south of Butare by charter bus. Since Nyungwe is one of only three major ecotourism destinations in Rwanda I assumed that buses stopped there, but it turned out that the nearest stop to Nyungwe was Cyangugu. I had no idea where Cyangugu was but I assumed that it must be fairly close to Nyungwe. If we couldn’t figure out where to get off the bus we could just go to Cyangugu double back without losing too much hiking time, or so I thought. The clerk at Sotra Tours corroborated this notion.

In actuality I was very, very wrong about the proximity of Cyangugu to Nyungwe, but I’ll get to that.

The ride into Nyungwe Forest was an experience unto itself. Passing out of Butare town, we meandered through smaller villages until we came to the edge of the park where the scenery changed perceptibly from farmland to rainforest. Even barreling down a paved road we could hear a cacophony of insects and birds, and at one point we saw a small black monkey creeping through the underbrush. Trees rose up on either side, appearing to fight their way out of a tangle of exotic-looking grasses and vines. For what seemed like hours we continued down the paved road with the forest whizzing by. I saw a sign for a lookout point and wondered aloud if we should get off the bus, but my dad said he thought there would be a more obvious place to stop. So we waited.

And we passed out of the park into the tea fields of Karama.

At first I think we all kept hoping to see an entrance sign, but after about forty-five minutes of tea fields it was obvious we were no longer in Nyungwe. I suggested that we get off at the nearest bus stop, but that happened to be a tiny, sketchy-looking town somewhere between Karama and Karembe so instead we opted to go all the way to the end of the line.

Cyangugu turned out to be almost two hours outside of Nyungwe. It’s so far southwest it shares borders with both Burundi and the DRC. A very friendly Sotra Tours employee helped us find a bus back into Nyungwe, but when we finally got into the park it was too late hike even the shortest trail and make it back in time to catch the last bus to Butare. My parents were extremely positive about the whole thing. They took a bunch of pictures of the park entrance and walked around the periphery a bit. My dad told me later that our impromptu trip to Cyangugu was one of the more interesting parts of their visit. I’m sure he meant it, but I still feel blessed to have such tolerant parents.

The next day we went to the market. The market at Butare doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you get inside it’s an enormous and paradoxically claustrophobic maze of vendors and merchandise. Narrow passageways divide racks upon racks of everything from radios to pineapples to donated shoes. I expected my parents to be overwhelmed but neither of them seemed at all ill at ease, even with people pointing and staring. At one point my dad noticed a young man wearing a hearing aid and struck up a conversation with him in sign language. We even got a good deal on a couple of bolts of igitenge cloth.

That afternoon, after a quick and violent rainstorm that lasted exactly the right amount of time for us to have lunch, we caught a bus back to Kigali. Our original plan was to go straight from Butare all the way up into Gisenyi but after our nine-hour round-trip adventure to Cyangugu and back we decided to take a breather in Kigali first. It was an evening well-spent; I introduced my parents to Shokola* and we spent most of dinner arguing whether the winged animals landing in the trees overhead were birds or large bats. (For the record, they turned out to be bats.)
The last stop on our trip was Gisenyi. If Butare is my favorite town in Rwanda, Gisenyi is a close second. Like Butare, Gisenyi is a sprawling college town with a lively downtown and a quiet periphery. One advantage it has over Butare is that it’s situated right on the eastern bank of Lake Kivu. An actual sandy beach runs all along Gisenyi’s eastern edge and continues into the DRC. Rumor has it you can stand in Gisenyi and touch Goma without any consequences, but we didn’t try it.

There are lots of unique tourist attractions in Gisenyi, all of which we completely ignored. Instead we spent two days walking up and down the beach, exploring the outdoor market and eating brochettes at the Bikini Tam Tam. It was heaven.

I ended up going back to Kigali with my parents before heading out to Kibuye for the AIDS conference. They saw me off at the bus station and met a few other of the other volunteers. It was hard to say goodbye, but it felt good to part ways on a high note. They said they want to come back to Rwanda, time and resources permitting. The best part of the trip? Visiting my site and meeting the people there, according to my dad. If that isn’t a point for Goal 3 of the Peace Corps, I don’t know what is.

Love you, Mom and Dad.

*Shokola is an Arabian Nights-themed restaurant in downtown Kigali, close to the Hotel Milles Collines.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ababyeyi mu Rwanda Part 1

It seems that the longer I go without updating my blog the harder it is to do so. My mom and dad have been stateside for almost a week. The seminar in Kibuye was a success in many respects and we did discuss specific ideas for HIV/AIDS-related projects. So far, returning to site hasn’t been nearly as difficult as I expected. I’m happier than ever to be back in my little village and starting school again. But before I get too sidetracked, a lot of people have been asking about my parents’ visit, so here’s the promised rundown.

I should preface this by saying that in Rwanda, things almost never go according to schedule. I made an itinerary for my parents so they could plan a travel budget but I didn’t count on actually sticking to it for their entire visit. My most detailed plans were for the first night, and they only included hotel reservations and prearranged transportation. Louise helped me find a driver to pick them up at the airport and since he was a friend of hers he agreed to drive them for free. I was optimistic that in the very least I’d get them safely from the airport to their hotel without any major snags,

The night of my parents’ arrival, as Louise and I stood in the middle of the Gihara market waiting for our driver to show up, I felt somewhat less optimistic. Our original driver, Noah, was in Gitarama because I’d mananged to give him the wrong date. He’d supposedly found an available taxi at the last minute but we had no idea who the driver was or when he was coming, only that he had Louise’s number and he’d call us when he got to Gihara. My parents’ flight was scheduled to land at 7 pm. They had no way to contact me and I had no way to contact them. For the first hour of waiting I was too excited to be worried, but by 7:10 both Louise and I were still stranded in Gihara and Louise was talking about beating Noah with a stick.

We did eventually get to the airport, but only after taking moto taxis to the main road, locating the driver’s parked car and offering him partial advanced payment so he could buy gas. I had visions of my mom and dad looking bewildered and forlorn on a bench outside the airport with all their luggage, but it turned out that their flight had been delayed an hour. So our timing was perfect. Yet another of life’s reminders that everything works out if you just kwihangane.*

That night in Kigali my dad and I decided to grab some late-night dinner at White Horse. We were the only customers. We sat on the patio because the wait staff had converted the inside of the restaurant into a dance club complete with smoke and lights. When we came in one of the waiters ran up to us and yelled, “Welcome!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

From Kigali, we took a taxi into Gihara where we were greeted with open arms. The nuns prepared a room and insisted we join them for lunch, dinner, and breakfast the next day. All in all it was a nicer setup than some of the hotels we stayed in. My dad said he wanted to repay the nuns for their hospitality and asked them if there was anything he could help them with, perhaps something that needed fixing. Sister Donatile said he could take a look at their electric stove. “We can’t figure out how to plug it in,” she said. No wonder. The power cable had no plug, just a bundle of frayed wires where a plug had once been. My dad said he’d see what he could do.

He spent the rest of the trip casually scouting for electronics stores. We never did find a plug, but I have to say I admire him for trying. Love you, Dad.

Our second day in Gihara, I took my parents to visit my headmaster and his family and then for a walk up past my school. Initially I had planned on making a loop back to the town center but on a whim I decided to lead them into Kagina (sp?), a neighboring village that’s known locally for its pottery. We ended up running into the village chief who gave us a full tour not only of the pottery collective, but of a local school as well. By the time we were done touring the village we had acquired a crowd of a few dozen children. Here's just a few of them following me and the chief:

That night we took a charter bus from my site to Butare. While we were waiting for the bus a crazy man played a song for us on a hand-fashioned instrument made from discarded bottles and what looked like fishing line, but otherwise it was an uneventful evening.

From Butare the plan was to take a charter bus into Nyungwe Forest for a day hike. We never did make it into Nyungwe, but we did end up having an adventure that took us most of the way to the border of Burundi. But I’ll save that story for my next post. It’s a story that deserves to be told in chapters.

*Kwihangane means “to bear with it” or to have patience.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hey, I'm Back!

As I’m writing this I’m sitting on a balcony at the Centre St. Bethania in Kibuye looking out at a rather grey and foggy Lake Kivu. Peace Corps is hosting a seminar here on HIV/AIDS for education volunteers and their Rwandan colleagues, the purpose of which is to support HIV/AIDS initiatives in secondary schools. So far we’ve had sessions on communication and behavior change and HIV/AIDS epidemiology. I’m hoping we’ll discuss specific project ideas at some point but even if we don’t it will have been an informative few days, not to mention how nice it is to see everyone again.

I just had an amazing week traveling around the country with my mom and dad. We had a great time together and I now have a renewed appreciation for my site and Rwanda generally. More details to follow when I have time to write a longer post!