If you know me well, you will know that I have trouble slowing down. My whole life I have been quite the multitasker, involved in various social networks and volunteering organizations, along with an array of personal hobbies, and always seeking to self-improve. I told myself that when I move to Africa, I will slow down and learn to take life at a slower pace. So I found myself a bit troubled halfway through my trip over Christmas to Uganda and Rwanda when I remembered a promise I had made to myself back in Calgary - that I would stay put in Kenya for some time until I felt totally relaxed. Well, it seems that I forgot this promise because I've only been in Kenya for 2 months and already I've travelled to 3 countries in East Africa. However, I am a also strong believer that everything happens for a reason, and looking back on this trip, I know I was meant to go on it. Not only did I meet some amazing people that reinforced in me such a strong sense of belonging and human connection, but I also learned a lot about myself in all the moments I spent alone. Travelling alone is something I really like to do, but I realized something on this trip. We can check off all the boxes, and see all the wonders of the world, but something even more sensational than that, is experiencing these amazing moments with other people, and living in the shared human experience together. On another note, I realized I really am happiest when I'm on the go, so maybe slowing down is one of those things on the "should" list that I think will make me happy if I achieve it (because I read somewhere that it would). Instead, I'm learning to do what makes me feel good, whether I think I should do it or not!
My experience entering the country wasn't the best, which I really tried to let go of so it did not skew my perception of Rwanda and it's people, but sometimes our mind and emotions are much harder to control than we'd like to accept. I only had 5000 UHX when I left Uganda, which converted to 1100 Rwandan Francs, and when the "matatu (mini-bus) Driver" told me it was 1000 RWF to get from the border to Musanze (Ruhengeri), the destination town for exploring Volcanoes National Park, I couldn't believe my luck! That was until halfway through the matatu ride - after 20 minutes of being giggled at and touched by multiple people who were not used to seeing a mzungu (foreigner) - that I realized the man who took my money was not affiliated with this mini-bus at all, and now I was penniless and being charged double what everyone else was. I've become pretty accustomed to being over-charged, this is something you experience in practically every country you travel to outside your own. BUT after 1 week of constant bargaining, Rwanda was an overload that took me over the tip of my patience iceberg. I found the experience in this country to be much more intense for the way that people stare at you as a mzungu and for children running after you asking for money. I had to check myself (my privilege and my attitude) multiple times the first couple days because I noticed I was becoming a lot more impatient with everyone I met. Why was this bothering me so much when I'm used to it and have accepted it in the past? The conclusion I came to is that just like any other human being - I want to be treated like an equal and I didn't feel like I was.
After taking a breather, I went to explore the local market in Musanze. The first thing I noticed about Rwanda, is how clean it is. I honestly saw less garbage on the streets than I do in Canada. Rwanda is apparently the 3rd most densely populated country in Africa, but it really didn't feel like it to me. In contrast to Kenya, it is very clean and safe and has an air of calm about it that I haven't experienced yet in East Africa. The women dress beautifully in their colourful Kitenge and my heart swelled with pride when one of them told me they liked my skirt. The next morning, I went to Volcanoes (Virungas) National Park and hiked up Volcanoe Bisoke (elev. 3711m). This was a very challenging hike, especially when we had to descend in pouring rain, making the path extremely slippery. I fell in the mud multiple times and realized I have an extreme fear of slipping down a mountain slope - probably due to a bad experience snowboarding when I fell off a little cliff - so I'm not judging myself too hard about how slow I was coming down. Never underestimate your own power though, and never give up. Even though I was near tears, I made it down safe and sound. We technically touched into the side of the Democratic Republic of Congo which shares this National Park...so can I count that as another country? ;). I was supposed to go on a Golden Monkey tour the next day, but I actually saw one on this hike, and given that tourism is quite pricey in Rwanda, I was happy to head early to my next destination - Gisenye on Lake Kivu.
It was a beautiful bus ride from Musanze to Gisenye, and Lake Kivu is absolutely stunning. I stayed at Inzu Lodge on Rubona island and pitched my tent there for a couple nights. The views from this eco-lodge were stunning, and the garden was home to more colourful birds (if you want to see more bird photos, check out my last blog from Uganda where my bird obsession began). I didn't see many other tourists walking around on the streets, so again I was struggling with all the children asking me for money. I really wanted to go swimming in Lake Kivu, but it took me a long time to find a place where I felt comfortable enough to get in a bathing suit with all the eyes following me around. I checked out Tam-Tam beach, and then headed for the natural hot springs where I finally found the courage to go for a swim. The hot springs were amazing! I got a full body massage from the local women and cooled my body down by going for a swim in the lake. Looking up at the sky from the water, I felt completely at peace. At this point on the trip, I was starting to feel a bit lonely, but ask and the Universe shall provide and that night I met 3 sisters from Nairobi who were staying at Inzu Lodge and we shared some laughs and wine.
I took the bus back to Musanze through to Kigali on Christmas Eve. This is where my loneliness really started to kick in as I realized that most of the city was sitting at home with their families (duh). So what does a single lonely person do...buy a bottle of wine and chocolate and prepare to make themselves feel better! Thankfully, the Universe intervened and connected me with one of the most generous, kind and loving families I have ever met. Before heading down the path of self-pity, I took myself to get a manicure and pedicure. Until this point I was having trouble connecting with Rwandan's because there was a bit of a language barrier. Up until 2008, Rwandan's learned French as a second language, and only since then has the government implemented English to be taught in schools. I am embarrassed that as a Canadian I don't speak French (my excuse is always - "I've from the West" - but I'm starting to feel like that's not a legit excuse), and my Kinyarwandan is also very poor. My whole experience changed when I met Anita and Anny though. Anita, who's the same age as me, is a beautician and speaks fantastic English, so we had lots to chat about! After hearing my story, she kindly offered to bring me home to spend Christmas with her family. I feel like I will never be able to repay Anita, Anny, Bella (Anita's daughter who reminded me so much of my niece Bella) and their parents for how special they made my Christmas this year. They took me to a delicious brochette (kebab i.e. meat on a stick) and mbuzi (roasted goat) place for brunch, where I think I may have eaten a whole roasted goat to myself. We walked off the food with a detour to a peaceful and non-touristy lake near the Burundi border where we did a mini-photo shoot (I chose the best ones out of the 400 we took below). I thought this was an annual custom for the family, so when the girls told me their parents did this specifically for me to ensure I had a nice Christmas, my heart melted. Their parents didn't speak any English, but feelings and emotions go past language, and I felt like they accepted me as part of their family that day. I definitely consider my adopted soul sisters (Anny, Anita and Bella) as part of my family now too. PS - the wine tasted much better when shared with Anny and Anita and I think Bella enjoyed the chocolate much more than I ever would.
Boxing day, I caught the bus to Butare on my way to Nyungwe National Park. Unfortunately when I got there, there were no more buses to Cyangugu (which stops at Uwinka and Gisakura, the 2 entrances to Nyungwe), so I had to spend the night in Butare (or Huye). As always, the Universe knew what she was doing because I'm thankful I got to stop here. I explored the National Museum where I learned about the different tribes and saw a replica of a traditional village hut, and ate the best ice cream I have had in East Africa so far - honey and coffee ice cream scoops with ground-nuts, passion fruit, banana and honey as toppings! I also had a moment that will stay with me for a long time and is a little hard to admit but I think it's important to share these experiences, even if we are embarrassed about them. After almost 1 week of being asked for money by children, I had learned an automatic response that included shaking my head and saying no. This isn't because I'm heartless, but because I'm aware that quite often young children are kept out of school by parents or strangers who keep them on the streets to earn money and end up taking all their daily earnings thereby keeping them in poverty. I also don't want to perpetuate the image of white people as landing in Africa and giving out free donations, because history has shown that this does not empower people nor make a nation stronger. The tricky thing, is being able to sense when someone is truly in need, and how you can help. A child, dressed in rags, who was clearly hungry spoke out to me "Mister, please I'm hungry" and stuck his hand out at me. What did I do? Shook my head an kept walking, after I had only hours ago indulged in ice cream. I'd like to think of myself as a kind and generous person, but I am really ashamed of my actions on this day and it's made me question who I am at the core of my being, and what my true values are. What did I learn from this? That I've still got a long way to go in my mission of slowing down and being present. I believe if I had been more present in that moment, I would have realized the gravity of the situation, and had acted differently, maybe buying a meal for this child instead of giving money. Too often I get caught up in the big picture, wanting to do something that will change the world and have an "impact", when sometimes we only need to help one person to make a big difference. I'm working on being more present so I can find at least two children to help in the near future to make up for this. I encourage all of you to look around and see who you can lend a helping hand to today too.
Nyungwe National Park is one of the oldest rainforests in Africa and one of the most important areas of biodiversity with 13 different species of monkeys, including chimpanzees who are our closest relative with over 90% of the same genetic make up! I pitched my tent at the Uwinka entrance and did a spectacular hike through the rainforest on the Imbaraga (meaning strength) Trail and ending on the famous Canopy Walk where you get a monkeys-eye view of the forest. I saw a golden monkey and back at the campsite saw many blue monkeys. I was taking pictures of this one blue monkey incessantly, when he came up to me and stole my bread from my breakfast plate! I think he wanted to remind me that nothing comes for free in this world! The next day I took a boda-boda (motorobike) to the Gisakura side of the park and hiked the stunning Waterfall Trail. I sat in front of that waterfall for a long time and was completely mesmerized by the drops of water crashing down. This rainforest is truly stunning and I would highly recommend visiting it if you are in Rwanda.
After my Waterfall hike, I caught a mini-bus back to Kigali. I'm always impressed by how many people and items can fit on these small buses, and by how comfortable people are with one another in such cramped conditions. The music is blaring, people are singing along, laughing and practically sitting on each other. Something like this would never fly in Calgary, people get mad if you sit next to them on the bus when there are empty seats! It's all a matter of what we are accustomed to though. For my final day in Kigali, I started the morning at the Genocide Memorial and checked out the local markets before saying bye to my dear friends Anny and Anita one more time and making a final stop to watch the moon rise at the famous Hotel Rwanda. A quick note on the Memorial, which was very well done, and leaves a powerful impact on anyone who visits it. What happened in Rwanda in 1994 is devastating, and what's even more devastating is how the world stood by and watched. Before colonialism in the early 50's, the Tutsi and Hutu tribes of Rwanda lived with one another in harmony. When the German's and Belgian's came, they were extremely interested in the ethnic differences of these tribes, and after lengthy studies where they measured physical features like the lengths of noses which they attributed to one tribe or another, they introduced identity cards based on "ethnicity". By pointing out and exploiting differences in the tribes, the Colonial powers were able to gain access to land when it suited them. This unfortunately created a dividing line between the tribes and set the grounds for the future genocide. In only 100 days, a massacre killing occurred and almost 1 million people lost their lives leaving many more survivors to deal with extreme trauma. The United Nations was set up after World War II to prevent another genocide like what happened in Germany, however, the world failed to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide (and many more around the world to date). The good news, is that after the genocide, an incredible transformation has taken place and Rwanda no longer recognizes tribes. There is only one Rwanda, one Rwandese people and one Kinyarwandan language. The country is now unified, and stands stronger than ever. And they did this on their own accord, without the intervention of the international community.