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adios rwanda

July 28, 2009

Yeah, I know they don’t speak Spanish here but they ought to; it would have made things easier for me.  Today is my last day in Rwanda!  I have been doing a countdown for several days now and the day has finally come.  To get home, I still have to travel to several cities with ridiculous layover times.  That’s what happens when you do a budget trip to Africa.

I fly out to Nairobi and stay there for seven hours; then I fly to London where I stay twelve hours (and hopefully explore the city briefly); next I fly to Toronto and stay for thirteen hours; and finally I arrive at San Francisco and hopefully get greeted by my parents if they’re not too busy.

It was an unforgettable experience filled with adventures and misadventures, goods and bads.  But it was one I am glad I embarked on.  My policymaking skill set definitely improved and I felt I got my money’s worth from the classes I took in my first year.  I got t0 meet very interesting people and experience a foreign culture.  I saw progress and poverty.  But I took away from this trip the sense that Rwanda is on the right path and that it can really stand out from its neighbors.

Pepperdine has an opportunity to be a part of this endeavor.  The internships with the Government of Rwanda are challenging and the work you do is significant.  Matt and I worked on a major policy document that affects every public and private entity in Rwanda.  Maurice worked on social protection policy that affects the lives of the poorest in the country.  There are definitely opportunities to affect public policy here for SPP students.

So this is it! Thanks to my fellow SPP partners in crime, Matt and Maurice, to my bosses, to the Rwandan and non-Rwandan friends we made, and to friends and family back home for keeping me sane.  I hope this adventure was entertaining for the reader.

Take care!

good times on the nile

July 28, 2009

Last weekend was my final vacation outing in Africa and this time it was in Uganda for a Nile River rafting adventure.  I, along with Matt and our friend Ashley, took a 5:30 AM bus from Kigali to Kampala, the capital of and largest city in Uganda.  In my last post I mentioned the bus ride to Gisenyi as the worst I’ve ever had, well, we have a new winner.  The nine hour trip was the Ironman of painful bus rides.  The combination of loud music, loud people, tiny and rock hard seats, and terrible road conditions made the ride excruciating.  Looking back, if I had the money, I would fly into Kampala for about 20 times the cost.

The best parts of the trip were the ridiculous movies they played.  The first one was Rage and Honor II, which was a terrible martial arts movie from the early 90s that featured hilarious characters (like a Hulk-sized Swedish henchman with long platinum blond hair and anger issues) and dialogue that would only be considered entertaining on a bus going to Uganda.  If you don’t believe me then consider the movie’s tagline: “The body can be a deadly weapon… When the body is a lethal weapon.”  I freaking kid you not.  To make this whole cinematic experience even more over the top, the movie was dubbed over with the voice a very loud man explaining what was going on in the scenes and creating his own dialogue in Swahili.  The second movie, The Sweeper, was equally terrible and included every idiotic action sequence (like a chase scene featuring a biplane) a B-movie budget can afford.

We arrived in Kampala around 2:30 PM and exchanged some money into Ugandan shillings.  We were staying at a hostel called Red Chilli Hideaway but we did not know where it was in the city.  We were told it was somewhere toward downtown so we started walking.

Kampala was the most crowded city I have ever seen in my life.  The sidewalks were filled with people and shops.  Street vendors (which are uncommon in Rwanda) littered the streets and sold everything from grilled corn to bootlegged Obama inauguration videos.  But the craziest part was the number of vehicles on the streets.  There had to be tens of thousands of minibuses parked and driving around the streets.  Because Uganda was a British colony, they drive on the other side of the road; this only made things more dangerous.  Mototaxis were everywhere too and neither the driver nor passengers wore helmets.  In-sane.

We managed to get down to the Old Taxi Park, a place downtown where thousands of minibuses parked and loaded and unloaded their passengers.  We asked a traffic cop to help us find the minibus that went to our hostel.  She was very friendly and, like most Ugandans we met, spoke English.  She swiftly moved through the rows of idling buses and I tried to keep pace.  Matt and Ashley were lagging behind so I stopped to wait for them.  All of the sudden it felt like someone shoved me hard in the back.  I managed to keep my balance and stay on my feet.  When I turned around I saw a minibus where I was standing and the traffic cop screaming at the driver.  I got hit by a freaking bus!  The conductor and his buddies who saw the accident came out and started apologizing.  The cop was still yelling and it looked like she was about to crack skulls with her baton.  I told her I was okay and Matt and Ashley caught up.  I told them what happened and we continued through the maze of parked buses.  We finally found the bus that went to the part of town we needed to go to and thanked the cop for her kindness.

The ride was comfortable but a little frightening.  The buses there are only allowed to hold 14 people, so we weren’t crammed in like sardines.  But the skill level of the drivers was low and traffic was heavy.  All the horror stories I heard about Ugandan drivers were true’; it was like driving in a city full of teenagers after a night of drinking.  I was happy to get to our destination unharmed.  We got out of the bus and walked up a paved street to the hostel.  We checked into our little room (two uncomfortable beds and a small dresser) and went back to the bar area to eat.  This place was Westerner-central!  There were dozens of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans.  The owner was a European and the whole place catered to that crowd.  The menu had American food, there was a pool table, and American music played in the background.  We enjoyed our burgers and drinks and went to sleep early.

After a night of uncomfortable sleep, we woke up and had breakfast.  There was a minibus waiting for us to take us to the rafting company’s location in Jinja, which was right on the Nile River.  The drive took about two hours and featured near head-on collisions and views of Uganda’s beautiful landscape.  We drove past slums, farms, tea plantations, and factories.  I even saw railroad tracks for the first time in two months!  As we neared Jinja, the sky became cloudy and it began to rain.  The rain lasted only an hour or so and subsided by the time we reached the beautiful location where we would begin rafting.

The company had fruit and tea waiting for us and we left our backpacks and passports with the front desk.  We met the rest of our rafting crew: two Americans, four South Africans, and two Brits.  Our two guides, Inko and Moses, gave us a safety briefing and we put on our life vests, helmets, and paddles.  We walked down to the rafts and split into two teams.  The three of us went with Moses and one of the Americans and the two Brits.  We practiced the forward paddle and back paddle on still water and practiced flipping the boat and water rescue.  Matt volunteered for being rescued by the kayak.  He was a terrible volunteer and basically demonstrated how not to be rescued if you fall into the water.

After the practice it was showtime!  The safety raft and rescue kayaks went down the first rapid – a category five with a gnarly fall – to be in position to save us if we flipped over.  The other team’s raft went first and then it was our turn.  We paddled hard until we got to the edge of the rapid then we ducked down into the boat.  We fell a few meters down and crashed hard into the water below.  I lost control of my paddle and it smacked me in the teeth, Matt nearly drowned, Ashley managed to get a bloody lip, and our “experienced guide” Moses fell out of the raft.  A great start.  After Moses climbed back in, we high fived with the paddles and continued down the Nile.

We hit several more smaller rapids and a few more category fives.  There were definitely some close calls but somehow the three of us managed to stay in the boat.  We didn’t flip over at all, even when we tried to on purpose!  That meant we were either awesome or terrible; I like to think it was the former rather than the latter.  We did get to jump in and swim around before we ate lunch.  The sun was out and hit us hard but we were having too much fun to be deterred by its intense rays.  We continued down the river and ended with a category 4 that almost wiped us out.  We exited the rafts after about 27 kilometers and 4 hours of rafting.  We hiked up a small hill, had some sodas, and got a ride back to the camp.  After a chicken dinner, the three of us boarded a bus back to Kampala.  The whole rafting trip cost only $75 and was done through Equator Rafts.

We arrived late in the night and walked back to the bus depot to catch our midnight bus back to Kigali.  We were exhausted but still stoked from the trip.  Amazingly, there were even more people out at night than during the day.  As we walked back to the depot, Matt told us to hold on while he checked his backpack.  It turned out someone jacked his hat and toothpaste from his backpack.  It could have been worse I guess.  We got to the depot with time to spare and we just relaxed until we boarded the bus for another torturous nine hour trip back to Kigali.

This last excursion was definitely the best one I had this summer.  I am happy we got to get out of Rwanda and do something as unforgettable as rafting the Nile.  Tomorrow is my last day here so I will have one more quick post before I go.  Matt is already gone and Maurice leaves before I do.  Right now I am off to have my last goat brochette!

Until tomorrow…

crossing borders

July 21, 2009

We made it out to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali on Saturday and took a free tour through its various exhibits.  By this time we heard many stories from genocide survivors.  The memorial was a very powerful tribute to the survivors and displayed the root causes of the genocide.  It is also the location of a mass grave filled with the bodies of unidentified victims.  It was the first time I saw video of the actual genocide and its aftermath.  I got the same sick feeling that I experienced when taking a tour of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland a few years ago.  We spent a couple hours there and then met up with a friend Ashley, who we met during the 4th of July Embassy event.

The next day we left in the middle of the morning to the downtown bus stop for our two day trip to Gisenyi, Rwanda and Goma, DRC.  This place is a cluster of people, mototaxis, and buses.  There is no rhyme or reason behind the location of where the various buses operate.  We took a company called Virunga Express because they had a website and the guy on the phone spoke English.  It turned out they were also the best deal in town.  For less than $5 we took a three and a half bus ride from Kigali to the lakeside town of Gisenyi.

This was quite possibly the worse bus ride ever.  The bus itself was a decent looking modern bus – I think it was even a Mercedes.  Then the driver started the engine.  The flip down TV started to play rap and hip hop, like, the kind you see on BET after 11PM; just raunchy and totally inappropriate for a bus trip.  To make things worse, the “music” videos were being played at decibel levels that violated the Geneva Convention’s rules against torture.  I even brought ear plugs with me but they only helped to exaggerate the bass of the music.  This concert of pain lasted for an hour when the bus driver decided to put an end to the loop of bootlegged music videos.  I thought he was doing us a favor until I discovered what came on next.  It was some kind of Rwandan “comedy” that consisted of an “actor” who sounded like a cross between one of those Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz and nails on a chalkboard.  This show was being played at full volume and the sick part was that people were actually laughing at the dialogue.  None of us wanted to be “that guy” so no one asked the driver to turn the volume down to an appropriate level (like mute).  We finally got to Gisenyi, a town with a few paved roads and many hotels and resorts.

We found a cheap place to stay at a Presbyterian guest house downtown for about $5 per person.  We met a couple of travelers who were staying next door: two women, one from Canada and one from Australia.  They were in the country for a gorilla trek.  Maurice, Matt, and I went down the hill to the beach on Lake Kivu.  The beach was no Zuma, but it was sandy and the water was a deep blue and a nice temperature.  Unfortunately, it was not advisable to swim in the lake because of parasites and other nasty things that can make life unpleasant for years to come.

We made our way down the beach toward the Serena Hotel which is a really nice resort located at the end of the beach road.  Maurice even managed to buy “African” art from a vendor on the way into the hotel.  Apparently the staff thought we were staying there because we made our way to their private beach area which included a hot tub and pool.  There were Muzungus everywhere!  We saw Europeans, Americans, Arabs, Asians, and other Africans.  Everyone had money and the hotel’s grounds reflected this fact.  The place looked more like Malibu than Rwanda.  I noticed some kayaks at the edge of the beach and we found out we could rent one for about $10 for an hour.  We each got one and rowed out on the lake.  I thought it would be a good idea to see if we can reach this small peninsula with our time limit, but we never made it that far.  It turned out it was better we didn’t because the peninsula was in the Democratic Republic of Congo – not a place you want to illegally cross over to.  After returning our kayaks we sat down and watched the sun set over the lake.  It was an amazing sight and marked our first vacation together as a group.

The next morning we met our neighboring travelers and headed out for a trip across the border into Congo.    Things are not really good across the border: war, famine, and volcanic eruptions.  Rwanda even went to war with Congo and genocide perpetrators hide out in the forests near the border and make raids into Rwanda from time to time.  But the political situation is supposedly improving and it was safe to visit the border town of Goma during the day.  Unfortunately our Australian friend did not cross with us because she would have to buy another visa to get back into Rwanda, so the three of us and our Canadian friend proceeded.

The Rwanda-DRC border was very simple: two guard shacks with gates separated by 50 yards of empty land.  Getting the exit stamp was a matter of waiting in line.  We crossed the Rwandan line, entered Congo, and proceeded to the immigration office right next to the guard shack.  A Congolese police officer took our passports and vaccination cards and we waited abut 30 minutes before we had to pay the $35 entry fee.  The process was made easier because our Canadian friend spoke fluent French.

We got our passports and vaccine cards back and proceeded down the unpaved road to Goma.  A woman that exchanged currency came up to us and we exchanged one dollar into Congolese currency to have as a souvenir.  So far everything looked like Gisenyi except the mototaxi guys had different helmets.  We continued to walk down the road past nice hotels and a big sign informing people about HIV/AIDS featuring Chris Brown.  We turned the corner onto the main street.  It was unpaved, filled with cars, and under construction.  The only real difference at this point was the unpaved road surface and the large number of UN vehicles.  We went up the road toward what we hoped was a cheap place to eat.  We stopped at one restaurant that featured “NO WEAPONS” signs and $15 goat kabobs; no thanks.  We then stumbled upon a very nice restaurant called Sole which offered a $5 buffet.  It was nice inside, like an African lodge, and the manager was friendly.  We decided to continue downtown and come back in an hour when lunch was ready.

Downtown was where all illusions of similarity between Congo and Rwanda ended.  There was UN base with armed guards wearing their silly blue helmets.  It was the Indian army that was in charge around these parts and they were posted at the entrance of a UN hospital that treated UN and Congolese soldiers.  We talked to one of the doctors and he told us there were 5,000 UN peacekeepers in Congo and that most the tours in the area were canceled but that Goma was safe in during the day.

We went further into the middle of downtown and down some smaller streets.  The ground was covered in black ash and rocks from the volcanic eruption sent lava flowing down the streets a few years ago.  Unlike Rwanda, there was a ton of garbage littering the ground.  Also unlike Rwanda, no one was freaking out that a bunch of white people were walking down the street.  This was amazing because we were in an area with no UN personnel or other foreigners.  But no one cared and no one asked for money.

The streets were lined with hotels and shops that sold food, clothes, and other household goods.  We asked a man for directions to the market and he led us to a grocery store – not what we were looking for, but we went in anyway.  This place was very cool; it was a modern supermarket with everything you could find at Ralph’s but made in India.  They had a bakery and I bought an eclair for $1.  It was awesome!  I don’t think I had any pastry the whole time we were here and this eclair really made me long for home.  We made it to the buffet, which was one of the best we had during our whole trip in Africa.  We ate and set off to find the real market again.

We retraced our steps and continued deeper downtown.  Some English speaking Congolese guy attached himself to Matt and was trying to sell him something.  Maurice and I watched him carefully in case he tried something.  We were getting into a sketchier part of town, if that’s even possible.  It was getting late and we had to catch our bus back to Kigali so we agreed to start heading back.  We went through town again and back to the border.  We got our stamps and entered Rwanda again.  Back to civilization!

We walked back to town and said goodbye to our Canadian friend.  She was really a godsend because without her French skills we would have been stuck at the border for a while.  Plus she was very interesting; she mortgaged her home to take a trip to Antarctica!  We got on the bus going back to Kigali.  It was much nicer and didn’t have the same torturous music as t he first one.  We got back to the city after dark, ate downtown, and took a taxi back home.

It was a fun trip and the three of us finally got to get out together.  Depending if we can scrape together enough money, we may have one last sweet trip before we leave next week!  Until next time…

take this job and fill it

July 18, 2009

Friday was my last day working at the ministry and now it’s time to go on a well-deserved vacation.  We managed to finish our project on good governance and ended up with a 35 page report and an annex the size of a small dictionary.  It was exhausting and challenging work but we got a lot out of the experience.  The nature of my job required me to dabble in a variety of subjects: government service delivery, decentralization, liberalism, transparency, accountability, national security, civil rights, organizational effectiveness, and foreign policy.  Basically everything that concerns government was in this report.  Unfortunately, “create a space program” was never one of the items we got to include in our final draft.

With the end of work comes the end of some cool working relationships.  My two bosses that I reported to are two of the most hard-working and intelligent guys anyone can come across.  Despite the lack of skilled support staff (see Matt Saha), our bosses were responsible for running all good governance and local government related policy programs.  When you think about all that encompasses “good governance” and “local government” you will understand the immense pressure these two are under.  Couple that with an inadequate working environment and you have an example of what selflessness is.  These guys aren’t making anywhere near the money NGO employees make for doing less work under better conditions.  Next time I hear the SEIU complain about not getting a COLA I will laugh, and laugh heartily I will; if you want to see “poor work conditions” in a government office then please visit a developing country.

There are also a few charecters that I will miss seeing around the office.  Actually, three come to mind:

1) Sleepy McSleeperson: this is an older (by Rwandan standards) man with a Santa Claus figure that slowly shuffles through the ministry’s hallways looking for who knows what.  Although a hard worker and intelligent, he has been know to take unscheduled naps from time to time.  I like to imagine this is what Saha will turn into in just a few years.

2) Chatty McChatterson: when you think of professional security at a government building, you think of well-armed and vigilant guardians like the CHP or Capitol Police.  Chatty only fulfills the first description.  Armed with his trusty AK-47, Chatty roams the front parking lot of the ministry, striking up conversations with other guards, employees, and the guys who sell phone cards outside the gate. More often then not, you can find Chatty having a heated conversation on his cell phone.  Never one to pay attention to anything, Chatty casually swings the assault rifle slung around his shoulder or sits on his wooden chair with the gun on his lap and the barrel pointing down the sidewalk toward pedestrians.  I can only hope his safety is on.

3) The Pants Man: Towards the beginning of the internship, Matt and I were working in our office when a man entered the room and struck up a conversation with one of our bosses.  Now, random people walking in to chat about who knows what is not out of the ordinary.  But what happened next was.  The man approach Matt and I at our desks and asked us if we wanted to buy pants.  I asked the most natural question someone in my situation would ask: “What do you mean, ‘buy some pants’?”  He proceeded to tell us that he was going from office to office selling a bag full of pants.  He had jeans, slacks, shorts, and any kind of pant you can think of.  He even showed us his merchandise.  He was true to his claims: he did, indeed, have quite a few kinds of pants to sell.  After giving ourselves looks of confusion, we kindly declined his offer and he left the office.  After he left, we asked our boss what that was all about.  Apparently, the aforementioned Chatty McChatterson mysteriously allowed a solicitor to slip past his guard.  Now this guy was going office to office and selling pants.  People were also buying his pants, which was weird to us, because how do you even know they fit? (We found out later that, according to a theory of one of our bosses, the way you determine if pants from mobile pants dealers fit without trying them on is to measure the waist size in proportion to your neck because supposedly the human neck is around half the circumference of the human waist.  I have yet to see any studies that support this theory.)  Matt and I thought this whole business what hilarious and Matt ingeniously coined the phrase “I’m the Pants Man” in reference to the Scatman John song “Scatman (Ski Ba Bop Ba Dop Bop)”.  Since that infamous day we have encountered several other Pants Men operating around the country.  They are quite eager for your business, so please, if you see the Pants Man, consider being his client.

This internship was definitely a once in a lifetime experience that I am happy I accepted.  We celebrated last night by watching “I Love You, Man” at the US Embassy and going out with the Marines.  Their housing is freaking sick, by the way.  Be happy to know our guys are being taken care of here.  It was a fun night and we got to meet other Americans and say goodbye to a few of our friends we met while in the country.

We plan on doing some travel this next week, so stay tuned for some misadventures later in the week!

a week of meetings

July 11, 2009

I traded in my boat trips for office work this last week and was able to get quite a bit accomplished in the office.  Keep in mind “quite a bit” means something else in Rwanda; it’s not like leaps and bounds were made.  But regardless of the set backs, I was privy to some of the inner workings of Rwandan government.  I am speaking of the common practice of attending meetings.  Meetings are a staple of Rwandan government operations.  Everyone attends at least two or three a day, they come up in the last minute, they last for hours, and they are often cancelled without warning.  Our bosses have to attend so many meetings that we barely see them in the office.  Their absence really makes our jobs that much more important.  But this week I got to attend a few meetings of my own.  I also got to have some meetings cancelled for no reason.  I really feel like I’m in the club or something.

Matt and I met with the National Institute of Statistics to discuss the indicators the government wanted to use to measure its success in improving aspects of governance.  This meeting was tedious but interesting; it lasted four hours but we got to put into the statistical knowlege we gained in the stats class taught by Professor Hawken.  We discussed with the statistician about some of the weaknesses of the indicators.  It was pretty cool to be able to talk about relatively complex statistical concepts with confidence.  I think he was impressed we could keep up in the conversation.

We also met with the UNDP in downtown Kigali.  I never thought I would admit this but the UNDP is one of the more capable institutions in the entire country.  The guy we met is especially sharp.  He really was following this policy document we are working on and gave good feedback, which we tried to incorporate in our comments.

In a way it’s unfortunate because many of Rwanda’s expert policy makers, lawyers, and technicians are leaving the government jobs to work for development agencies and NGOs.  The biggest factor is the pay and work environment: would you want to work for 1/8 of the pay in a building with no basic facilities or would you rather work in a place like the UNDP where there is higer pay and nicer conditions?

We also had the pleasure of meeting with Law School Dean Ken Starr, his wife Alice, and former Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy Colleen Graffy.  Special thanks to SPP and Law School student (and Ugandan law expert) Nicole, Jody, and Colleen for making this happen.  Dean Starr and his wife are on a long trip in East Africa and were in Uganda earlier.  They were very gracious and invited us for an awesome lunch at the Serena Hotel.  This place was like no other place we’ve been to in Rwanda (4th of July at the US Embassy doesn’t count because that’s America!).  There were even toilet seat covers.  Really, that is a big deal to me.  The lunch was ridiculous and unlike other buffets we been to, we could come back as many times as we wanted.  This allowed us to avoid stacking an embarrassingly large amount of food in a volcano-shaped structure on our plates.  We told the dean about our backgrounds, experiences, and work.  It was really cool to have this meeting because we were looking forward to it since we arrived.  We parted ways and saw the dean and his wife board the most awesome vehicle I’ve seen in Rwanda: a huge green Safari Tours SUV with two spare tires in back; this thing was a beast.  I passed them on my mototaxi as they made their way to the airport.  Their next stop is Israel!

Colleen was nice enough to meet with us and the other Law School students for dinner at our favorite (aka only) Italian restaurant in Kigali.  We swapped experiences and talked about the future of Pepperdine internships in Rwanda.  There is definately a lot of potential in Rwanda and the school can have a big impact in the country’s development.  Like us, the Law School guys had more responsibility that the average interns.  The lack of capable staff really allows students to do much more important work in government than they would in an NGO.  We showed Colleen our neighborhood and our place and walked her back to the taxi stop where Matt tried to create a bidding war between taxi drivers.  It was a really great day and we are happy we made some very cool connections with the Law School administration.

Hopefully next week is more internet-friendly and I will have time to blog more often.  Until then, adios.

adventures on the low seas

July 3, 2009

Since we started our internship, Matt and I have been working on a comprehensive policy document that incorporates different aspects of good governance in Rwanda and informs institutions of their responsibilities for implementing various policy actions. We put together a draft of the document and annexes and on Tuesday we presented our work to dozens of policy makers. This was a task that normally would make me want to flee the country. I hate public speaking; it really freaks me out. But lucky for me, and my bosses, I had a lot of practice with this kind of policy presentation during my second semester at Pepperdine. The strategy class taught Professor Shires eradicated all of my fears of public speaking because of the many presentations we gave during the semester. Despite the large amount of people, the lack of chairs, no water, and stuffy room, Matt and I conducted a stress-free 40 minute presentation and received praise afterward. I felt like we really accomplished something significant, especially since we were just interns. Also, bonus ego points for us because there were a few other interns in the crowd who had to attend a meeting conducted by other interns.
The next day we took it easy and went on a little road trip. Matt and I traveled west to the town of Kivuye located on the coast of Rwanda’s largest lake, Lake Kivu. The lake is 800 meters deep and very blue. It is littered with small volcanic islands that are home to domesticated goats and cows as well as wild monkeys. About half of the lake is in Rwanda and the other half is in Congo (because we wanted to return to America in one piece, we stayed on the Rwandan side). Our driver David took us to a beautiful resort called Bethanie located at the foot of the lake. It looked empty and we only saw a handful of visitors at the restaurant. We walked down the steps and met the local band of boat captains who immediately began to fight over our business. One said he would take us out for two hours for 20,000 RwF and another guy offered a three hour ride for that price. Finally, we settled with the first guy who agreed to match the three hours and to show us one of the islands.
We walked down to the boat. Wow. It was a wooden boat with a white tarp that provided shade. There was a hole in the floor boards and water entered the boat. So far so good. In the boat there was a sign that disturbingly read “DON’T WORRY” in crude blue paint. We were given life preservers and we joked that they must have been filled with sand. The captain, who we referred to as Captain Wayne Brady due to his striking resemblance to the comic, slowly took us out to the middle of the lake. Somehow, the boat didn’t sink and we began to see more of the lake. The lake was so vast and open that we saw the faint outline of Congo 60 kilometers from our boat. We made our way to a large island whose peak was taller than any other island on the lake. It was very green and had a rocky shoreline. Other smaller islands were adjacent to this large one.
Captain Brady tied the boat down to a tree and we went ashore. Neither Matt or I expected much from this trip so we were surprised when the Captain and David said that we were going on a hike to the summit of the island. I was totally good with this because I put on sunscreen, had a hat on, brought a change of clothes, and wore hiking shoes. Matt, however, was wearing a dress shirt, moccasins, and no socks. It was embarrassing. But he agreed to go and we began the hike.
The path took us up the side of the island and past thick trees. We heard weird screeching sounds coming from the branches and we soon found out we were not alone. Little did we know, but this island was home to thousands of bats. So to our surprise, when Captain Brady began to make loud noises with his plastic water bottle and throw rocks into the trees, a storm of bats flew out over our heads. They were pretty mad too; imagine your just chilling out, upside, being a bat, sleeping, whatever. Then some jerk starts making loud noises; you wake up, and you’re like “what the… keep it down!” and then all of the sudden a freaking rock twice your size comes flying through your house and almost kills your bat wife. Now you (and your 3,000 neighbors) flip out and fly out of your bat homes and into the bright light, which only further angers you. Well that’s pretty much what happened. For us, it was quite an amazing sight!
We continued past the bats and got to the top of the island. We had a 360 degree view of the lake and proceeded to take pictures of the amazing sight. We stayed on the summit for a while to take in the sights and catch our breath. From the top we saw a farmer tending to some cattle on the other side of the island. We were told that these cows actually swim from island to island in search of grass to graze on. We climbed back down and got back on the boat. Captain Brady took us out to the smaller islands and we saw, and scared away, some of the bird life living on the lake. We went by this island that Matt and I dubbed “Monkey Island” for its supposed wild monkeys that you had to pay to see and that no one ever saw. We also saw an island that was home to domestic goats that we named “Brochette Island”.
We continued back to the resort and saw other resorts and homes that were located on the edge of the lake. For such a beautiful and large lake, there are very few resorts. We passed a canoe carved from wood with metal and plastic patches where the holes were. The fishermen on board were weaving their own net and one of them climbed on board our boat. We slowly passed the canoe and made it back to the dock. Our boat trip ended and we went to the restaurant. One and a half hours later we got our food, ate, and left to pick up a group we came with that had to attend a day-long meeting.
It turned out that this group did not have lunch, so we returned to the resort and waited for them. This time we were out in 30 minutes after we warned the group of the terrible service. We got to see the sun set over the lake, which was quite a treat. We finally head back to Kigali around 6:30 PM and made it back home around 10:00 PM. Lake Kivu is a beautiful place that I hope to see again before we leave.
Tomorrow is 4th of July, which is also Rwandan Liberation Day, so it should be an interesting experience to celebrate Independence Day at the US Embassy and Liberation Day later in the afternoon.

safari!

June 25, 2009

Okay, one life goal complete: African safari is off the list!  Next up is total world domination.  The day began with Matt and I being picked up by our driver, David.  Unlike the roads going north, the road to eastern Rwanda was relatively straight and had no pot holes.  I failed to mention in my last post how horrible the roads to the north are.  The potholes are so huge that cars have to swerve into the opposing lane in order to avoid them.  This makes for some scary close calls.  The roads outside of Kigali are virtually empty of vehicle traffic except for buses and a few cars.  The reality of Rwanda is outside of the city.  People walk or take bicycles to their destinations.  They care huge loads of bananas, wood, and other items on top of their heads or strapped to their bikes.  It is amazing how these people manage to carry the most awkward objects; we saw a man riding a bicycle with a huge metal gate strapped to the frame of the bike!

We continued east toward Akagera National Park.  This park is the eastern most park in Rwanda, about two hours out of Kigali, and is home to big game.  As we neared the park I got more and more excited.  We went off the paved road and traveled 25 kilometers on a dirt road past small villages until we reached the gate of the park.  The surroundings were green but the huge hills that make up most of Rwanda’s landscape disappeared and made way to low hills and valleys.

We pulled up to the visitors’ center and were greeted by a guide and led inside the building.  We started to freak out because we forgot to bring money with us (we had $60 and the fee was $80).  But our driver, David, totally helped us out and spotted us the rest of the money, which happened to be everything he had in his wallet.  We are eternally grateful for his generosity.

After paying and signing our receipt we were assigned a guide who explained to us where we would go.  Since we had a commitment later in the afternoon, we had to settle for the shorter (4 hour) safari.  The guide’s name was Tito; he was about five-foot-nothing, spoke great English, and was very enthusiastic about the animals.  Tito was up front with David in the 4Runner and Matt and I were in the back, armed with our cameras.

We took off down the well maintained dirt road and drove off the road onto a rough dirt road that took us to the heart of the park.  This road was extremely rough; a 4X4 was the only kind of vehicle capable of traversing the road.  The bush around the road got thicker as we went further into the park, but all of the sudden the view opened up and we came head to head with a family of zebras.  I was looking at freaking zebras in freaking Africa!  Matt and I started taking pictures like we were paparazzi snapping photos of Pierce Brosnan outside of Coogie’s.  The zebras didn’t mind and they didn’t try to hide from us.

We continued down the dirt path and came across a few impalas.  The guide told us that one male would head a herd of thirty females.  Matt and I joked that situation was either the best thing or the worst thing in the world.  We ran into (not literally) another herd of zebras and then more impalas.  We caught a glimpse of a giraffe but it was totally being a Loch Ness Monster and not letting us get a good look.  I ended up with a blurry but legitimate picture of him, or her, whatever, it was an awesome giraffe.

We continued through the Savannah-like terrain and saw a few baboons.  These guys scattered as we neared; we only got shots of their weird-looking butts.  We kept driving deeper into the park and spotted a solitary buffalo.  It saw us and booked it into the bush.  We were tracking it but the huge beast somehow pulled a Slimer and disappeared into the thick woods.  We couldn’t leave the vehicle because if the buffalo was near, it would charge us.  We finally tracked him down and even found his herd.  But they were 100 yards from us and behind trees too thick to drive through.  We were satisfied with seeing a glimpse of the herd, so we continued on the trip.

The whole time we were in the car, dozens of large flies were coming in and out of the open windows.  These guys were biting us.  Hard.  They had no fear either.  Or any honor; they went for the face!  We made our way to a clearing where we saw a huge group of dozens of baboons drinking from a pond.  This was quite a site to see!  Our SUV crawled slowly passed the baboons as they began to scatter.  We saw mothers with their babies riding on their backs and other baboons were playing on the trees.  They made their high pitched screaming noises as we moved passed them.

We finished with the first leg of the safari and began to climb up a mountain.  David expertly, and quite quickly, navigated up the difficult terrain.  We made it to the top where there was a campsite.  For $20 a night, you could camp out in the park; renting the tent costs about $4.  We took a few photos of the view and drank water.   Then we were off to the last part of the safari.

We made it down the hill and continued toward a huge lake.  We were told a boat ride costs $20 and that we can see alligators and hippos there.  On the way down we saw a huge stork and an eagle.  There was a fishing village at the shore of the lake where more baboons hung out.  There was also a giant, child-sized bird giving us a dirty look as we exited our vehicle near the shore.  We got out and started taking pictures.  That’s when we heard weird snorting noises coming from the water.  We looked and saw the heads of hippos poking out and going back under.  Freaking hippos!  We took pictures and looked around one last time.  It was getting late and we had to go to a meeting.  We drove back up to the visitors’ center, thanked our guide and headed back for Kigali.

The road back was silent but joyful.  Grandpa (aka Matt) slept the whole way.  Big surprise.  We got back home and met with Maurice, who also went on a little road trip up north with a minister.  We had a great week and we are ready to chill at home for a few days.

Check out my Flickr for pictures.