In a rare twist for me, 2019 started without having made any plans- even tentative ones- for international travel. For years, I had been planning to take my younger niece to Japan that summer for her high school graduation- just as I'd done for her older sister 4 years previously. As the year began, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that such a trip would not be able to happen. In addition to various logistical issues, I was struggling mightily with depression and anxiety and didn't feel like I could plan a trip for myself much less for another person as well. It still pains me more deeply than I let on that I had to give up on this dream, but sometimes life takes crazy turns.
Although I didn't feel mentally up to planning a trip, I still wanted to travel since I know that my adventures bring out the best parts of me. During idle moments, I browsed through the websites of some well known group travel companies looking for ideas. After my amazing New Zealand trip, I was searching for another destination that would challenge me in some way.
In a certain circle of my online friends, it's almost de riguer to take a trip to Uganda that involves gorilla trekking. I previously hadn't even considered those trips because they require a decent level of fitness. Every time that I saw someone post gorilla pictures, I'd smile and think, "That's just not a trip for me." But things had changed- in March 2018, I'd joined a gym where I'd been exercising consistently. I was intrigued with the idea of tackling a challenge I never would have considered before joining my gym. Once the thought entered my mind to travel to that region of Africa, I knew in my heart that it was the path I needed to take.
The original reason why I wanted to find a trip that combined both Rwanda and Uganda (instead of just Uganda) was because it would allow me to see an additional country. But it proved to be a fortuitous choice because it gave me the opportunity to learn more about the horrible 1994 Rwanda genocide of which I was mostly ignorant. I'm very committed to visiting sites with sad and tragic histories in order to honor the memories of the victims and to affirm my desire to treat others with love and respect. Throughout my life, I've struggled to understand that hatred and division that has led to such massacres. I will never have the answers… but I will never stop questioning.
Of course, since I'm an animal lover, I looked forward to the opportunity to get close to some species that I've never previously seen outside zoos- particularly gorillas and chimpanzees. I knew the treks could be difficult, but I hoped that they would lead to the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that would be more than worth the effort. My plans inspired me to read some of the works of Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall chronicling their work with primates. I'd obviously heard of both women before, but my additional familiarity enhanced my pre-trip enthusiasm. I also had extreme respect for how their passions led them to chart such unique life paths for themselves.
Usually when I take a group trip, I book at least a short solo excursion either before or afterwards. However, I didn't do so this time in great part due to my depression and anxiety. Since I was traveling over the week of July 4th, this allowed me to only take 5 days off from work.
As my departure neared, I grew excited for my 5th journey to Africa. Ever since my first trip to the continent in 2010, I've grown more and more appreciative of its treasures- partly because it is so different than my suburban US existence. I wasn't sure how hard the treks would be for me, but I hoped that if I encountered any difficulties, I'd be able to trust in my strength and determination and keep moving forward.
My attempts to pay my rent on time sparked some unexpected pre-trip drama. I'd been conscientious about trying to get this task accomplished because the payment was due on the first but I kept getting errors when I tried to sign into the online portal. And then the day before my trip, I came home and saw a note taped to the door stating that my complex would be under new management effective immediately. So I spent the night before my departure wondering if the furricanes would be evicted while I was gone since I had no idea how to pay the rent on time.
Fortunately, someone answered when I called the rental office on the morning of my trip. She told me to wait for payment instructions but when I asked if it would be ok for me to submit my rent super late since I was about to leave the country, she suddenly was able to let me know to whom I could make out a check. I walked the check to the office in the afternoon and felt a huge sense of relief that my cats would not become homeless during my absence.
My flight was scheduled to depart at 6:30pm and my awesome friend Brian came over at about 2pm to drive me to the airport. As I always do, I dramatically proclaimed how much I already missed the furricanes almost as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot. Excited to embark on my latest adventure, I was wearing one of my "Come From Away" t-shirts along with a cheap pair of blue floral leggings that I'd originally purchased for my Belize cave exploration. It wasn't the most styling combo- but I had not one but two long haul flights ahead of me and I was dressing for comfort.
The check in area at Newark airport was quite chaotic with crowds hovering around the kiosks. I wasn't able to finish my check in on the device and when an agent came over to assist, she told me it was because they needed to see proof of my Visa to enter Rwanda. This surprised me because Rwanda offers VOA (Visa On Arrival). In fact, that seems to be the preferred option- but I'd applied online before reading advice against doing so which meant that I was able to show the agent an approval letter which satisfied her query. I hope I would have still been able to board if I hadn't had paperwork… but the airport staff might have had to do some research to confirm that VOA exists for US citizens; I'd be surprised if they knew Rwanda Visa rules off the top of their heads.
Speaking of my Rwanda Visa, a funny thing had happened when I applied for it online… After filling out all the forms, uploading a copy of my passport and submitting the required $30 fee, an error displayed on the screen and I never received any confirmation emails. The process is only supposed to take a few days so eventually I tried to contact the appropriate agency via Twitter, email, and Facebook. While I finally got a reply on Facebook, they eventually said that they needed to research the matter further…and that was the last I ever heard from them. I tried following up a week later but to no avail. So I felt like I had no recourse other than to submit a dispute to my credit card company. It might be a coincidence but soon after I took this action, I finally received a confirmation email which was followed promptly 3 days later with an approval. Now that I finally had the Visa I'd paid for, I tried to cancel my credit card dispute… but alas they did not reinstate the charge.
The way the United check in process is supposed to work is that you check in at the automated kiosk which prints tags for your luggage and then you enter a queue to check your bags (if necessary). It annoyed me to no end to see people getting in the second line while a family member was still at the kiosk. It wasn't rocket science and people trying to game the system just made the process take longer for everyone else.
The first thing I noticed after passing through security was that the terminal was decorated with rainbow balloons and flags to celebrate Pride. Very cool- I don't think I've ever seen an airport decorated similarly… although to be fair, I've seldom traveled by air during the month of June.
I had almost 2 hours to kill before my flight so I decided to eat a sit down dinner at a pizza place near my gate. It was so high tech that each table had iPad-like tablets for customers to use to place their orders. These devices also offered buttons with other shopping and information options but I did not explore any of those. I was pleased to discover that I could get 20% discount on my meal because I had a United credit card. When I was idly wondering why it was taking so long to get my food, I realized that my original attempt to order had not fully gone through because I hadn't swiped my credit card, figuring that I'd be able to do that later. It was slightly embarrassing to gaffe using technology which is usually a strong point for me. In my defense, it was also unconscionable to me as a developer that the app did not present a warning that my pending order was going to expire due to the lack of a credit card.
I'd decided to get the Four Cheese Pizza without realizing that it did not have tomato sauce on it. Not a huge deal, but it made the meal more like cheesy bread than what I'd hoped for. I had no idea what my meals would be like in Africa, and I was glad that my last US dinner was classic comfort food… even if it wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind. I must have been hungry because I finished the whole thing.
After taking out my contacts, I found a spot to sit on the floor by the gate to wait….yet again. Seriously, these airports need to have more extensive seating areas. I don't recall having so many problems finding a seat in overseas terminals- just in the US.
I took a few moments at the airport to reflect on the journey ahead. I felt calm and was looking forward to all the possibilities that were awaiting me in Africa. Unusually for me, I had done very little research on my destinations so I felt a sense of mystery as to what to expect. I figured I'd just go with the flow and embrace whatever the trip had in store for me. Reading Facebook comments from friends who had been on gorilla treks made me even more excited to get on my way.
When I boarded the plane, I noticed to my delight that it was a 787; I'd obviously known that when I'd booked but I'd put it out of my mind. Economy class was configured with a 3-3-3 configuration and as usual I was in a window seat. I dodged a bullet when the couple who had the middle seat asked the woman on the aisle to switch with one of them (to another middle seat) so they could stay together; they could just as easily have asked me. The woman they asked gladly agreed, remarking that it would give her good karma the next time she needs to ask someone to switch so she and her boyfriend could be together. I feel no shame in admitting that she is a far better person than I am.
We had a 30 minute delay taking off because there were people who had checked their bags and then decided not to fly. For obvious security reasons, their bags needed to be retrieved from the plane. I had over a 2.5 hour layover scheduled in Brussels so I wasn't overly concerned, but it was annoying nonetheless. I just wanted to get going!
The safety video included references to the then upcoming Spider Man movie and it seemed to be trying too hard to be hip and amusing. Still, I was relieved to see it because it meant the plane was finally able to get on its way.
The flight was mostly blissfully uneventful. Having just eaten an entire pizza, I only picked at the dinner I was served. But I asked for 2 glasses of water and downed one immediately. I think I was feeling just a bit dehydrated.
I'd originally planned to watch the movie "Captain Marvel" during the flight but when I was scrolling through the available titles, I was intrigued by a Japanese film called "The Traveling Cat Chronicles." Japanese and cats? Perfect! I thought it would just be a cute story narrated from the point of view of a cat, but it packed an emotional whallop. I totally hadn't been prepared from the terse description to feel all the feels and cry all the tears. I've subsequently ordered the book it's based on and can't wait to read it. I definitely recommend it- just know what you're getting in for.
I slept even worse than usual on the flight, partly due to the fact that the lady next to me kept knocking into me. But when I was coughing so much that I felt like I was dying during landing, she was kind enough to give me her unopened bottle of water which was a huge help to me. So I can't think poorly of her.
As I saw the European countryside unfold outside my window, part of me regretted that I hadn't booked a stopover in the continent on either end of my trip. I'd toyed with the idea of doing so and including a night in Luxembourg partly since I'd never been there. But I ultimately wasn't able to put anything together. I reminded myself that it was probably fortuitous that my time in Europe was limited to the airport since the continent was in the midst of a terrible heat wave.
Upon landing at Brussels Airport, I was able to find out from the monitors that my flight would be departing from the T gates. To get to that part of the airport, I apparently would need to take a shuttle bus. Transiting between terminals was all clear and easy, even if I had to sit on the bus awhile to wait for it to fill up. However, once I got to the T gates, I realized there was virtually nothing there in terms of shops or places to eat. It was a lovely modern terminal… but it was totally devoid of anything interesting to do. It looked like all the flights to Africa took off from that area which was segregated from the rest of the airport- I was able to walk to a point where I could see the usual stores and such just beyond. But I wasn't sure if you could get out there- although I was positive that if you did, you'd need to go through security to get back to where I was and that was a hassle I didn't want to deal with.
I'd have preferred one very long flight but the connection wasn't too bad. At least there were more than enough seats in the bright modern terminal so I didn't have to sit on the ground. I wasn't exactly wide awake but I wasn't as tired as I felt I should have been. I still felt oddly calm and questioned why I didn't feel more excited. I decided that it must be because I've reached a point where flying to crazy places is just a fact of my life. Don't get me wrong- I am still in awe of the wide variety of places I've managed to visit and I appreciate each and every stop I make around the world. I eagerly look forward to my next destinations just as much as ever. It's just that the actual action of flying halfway across the world feels very natural to me.
I was glad when it was finally time to board my flight to Kigali for the last leg of my long journey. I was even happier when the middle seat next to me was vacant. As I continued to mentally wish for no one to sit there, there was an announcement that we'd be delayed because there were 2 passengers who hadn't boarded despite their luggage being loaded onto the plane. Great, so we were doing that same thing again that we did in Newark. This time they said that they'd wait for the people to arrive or the bags to be located, whichever came first. I don't recall seeing any last minute passengers so I'm going to guess that their luggage was removed.
The plane finally touched back at 10:53am, just about 30 minutes late. The Brussels Airlines safety video was legitimately cute and amusing. It featured an animated bird and every so often inserted a comment whose humor came from its truth- things like describing the oxygen masks as "funny looking".
For the main meal, I was given a choice between beef and chicken. Selecting the former, I was surprised that when I took the metal cover off my main course, there was just a single meatball in the container… looking very lonely sitting in sauce alongside some very processed looking mashed potatoes and veggies. There was ample room for 1, if not 2, additional meatballs to fit comfortably. The food tasted as adequate as it looked but I was hungry and it was serviceable. On a positive note, the tray included an egg tart dessert that was quite tasty.
I spent much of the flight alternating between watching the movie "Captain Marvel" and then pausing it to catch some fitful sleep. I enjoyed the film but Marvel movies still aren't really my thing. After it was over, I popped on "Come From Away" on my iPod.
About an hour before landing, we were served "barchetta caponata" which seemed to be some kind of pizza roll. It was adequate. My excitement kicked into high gear as I realized that I'd soon be back in Africa. Although after almost a day of transit, I was looking forward to just getting somewhere already.
When we landed in Kigali, it was around 7pm and it was already dark outside. I don't really like arriving at my destination when it's so late that you can't see or do anything… but sometimes it just works out to do it that way. I walked down the stairwell from the plane and then into the terminal where I got in line for customs. I had to enter the same queue as those who had not pre-paid for their Visas so the process hadn't saved me any time, although it was nice not to have to fumble for cash. As is typical, I was so overtired from travel that I didn't really have the energy to be enthused about my new environment.
After waiting awhile for my checked bag, I was very happy to finally spot it at baggage claim. Then I looked for the driver that was supposed to meet me. I'd expected a sign with the name of the tour company, but instead I saw one with my first and middle names. I didn't change money because I'd heard that you can generally use American dollars. The main issue that I ran into was having a paucity of currency to use for tips since I hadn't had a chance to get bills smaller than $20- I need to try to be more mindful to do so in the future.
Driving through Kigali in the dark, I was struck both by the hilly landscape as well as by the people walking along the roads. It was hard to get a feel for the area at night but the unique design of the Kigali Convention Center stood out and made a huge impression. It's a dome shaped low rise building with multicolor lights that seem to dance across it. Unfortunately, I was not in any position to take photographs, even bad ones, but you can find some online if you search.
After about 25 minutes or so, I arrived at my hotel and was greeted with a (non-alcoholic) orange and red swirled welcome drink. I was too tired and thirsty at the time to ask what was in it, but it was refreshing…. and if I recall, a bit tangy. I think it was probably made with tree tomato juice.
I completed the formalities of checking in and was then led to my room. As I'd expected, my roommate had already arrived although she wasn't in the room at the time. The guy there said something about my mother being downstairs and, after a moment of confusion, I gently corrected him and said that I was not traveling with any relatives. I was rooming with a total stranger- and, unlike my experience with previous group trips, I hadn't even received her name in advance let alone been able to communicate with her. It was pretty obvious now that she was going to be older than me, which is not a big deal… and it's probably better than rooming with someone significantly younger. I'd have preferred a solo room but in this case the single supplement was exorbitant on top of an already hefty base price. So I reluctantly figured I could manage with a roommate for a week.
I sat down on the bed and contemplated whether to cave into my hunger or my fatigue. It was already 8:45pm and I soon decided I was just too tired to wait for a meal. Besides, I wanted to get to sleep at a reasonable time so I could be ready and energized to start the fast paced tour the next morning.
I was only in the room a short time when D came back and introduced herself. She'd already met up with the rest of our 6 person group and she eagerly described the others to me. J and G were a couple who came from Boston, as did D. There were also 2 solo male travelers: F from Taiwan and R from Indianapolis. D had never previously taken a trip so far away, but she'd felt a longing to see Africa and she went with it; she was even continuing on to spend a week in Kenya after the conclusion of the Rwanda and Uganda tour. I admired her spirit, especially at her age which I later found out was over 70. She seemed friendly and sweet enough, even though I didn't immediately click with her. At least she wasn't a partier or a smoker and she didn't seem self centered so I figured we could make it work.
I was amused to think that I had to come all the way to Africa to sleep on a proper bed after having slept on a mattress on my living room floor for the previous 2 weeks since a Verizon tech had broken my bed frame. After my long travels, I was relieved to call it an early night. I looked forward to the adventures which would start to kick into high gear the next morning.
I was disappointed not to sleep very well overnight. D had gotten up a couple times to use the bathroom and I think the light disturbed me much more than any noise. In any case, I was up for hours after the second time. The beds were firm which was ok with me, but the pillows weren't as comfortable as they could have been.
When I got out of bed around 7am, one of the first things I did was to take a look outside. The sunny morning revealed lush grounds peppered with palm trees. I was staying at the Hotel des Mille Collines, which is famed for the real events that were the basis of the film "Hotel Rwanda" which I finally saw a week or so before my trip. Recent Rwandan history is enormously colored by the 1994 genocide which resulted in the deaths of as many as 70% of the country's Tutsi population. The murders were brutal- and were often carried out by people who had previously been considered friends. It sounds crazy- although it's arguably even more unbelievable that the country has seemingly been able to move on and heal in the subsequent 25 years. The historical significance of my hotel was that its manager at the time was bravely able to save hundreds of people by sheltering them at the hotel. It stirred my heart to awaken at the site of such valor.
We went downstairs and walked by the pool to reach the open air restaurant where we'd be taking breakfast. R, the guy from Indianapolis, was seated by himself so we joined him. I was immediately intrigued by both his looks as well as his intelligence and a zest for travel that rivals my own. I can't recall if J and G, the married couple, joined us for breakfast but they also felt like kindred spirits- especially J, the wife. F from Hong Kong was a little more quiet but a great guy.
After we ate, we migrated to a deck where we met up with our guide, T, to review the itinerary and our expectations. T was a great guy, with a bit of a dry sense of humor that was first revealed by telling us that we would need to get injections at the border crossing to Uganda. F endeared himself to the whole group when he talked animatedly about how he'd been inspired to take the tour after seeing a video of gorilla trekking. I soon found out that both J and R ran marathons and I felt insecure about my own fitness in comparison.
After our meeting, the 7 of us set off at about 9:30am in a simple green 4x4 vehicle. The hotel seemed quite lovely and I was a little sad I'd had so little time there. Everyone else had flown in at least a day earlier so they'd had more of a chance to enjoy the premises as well as to get used to the time zone. D has actually flown in 2 days early, but when I'd asked her if she'd gone anywhere in the city, she said she had not.
Our first stop of the morning was the Kigali Genocide Memorial. I'd only vaguely known about the Rwandan genocide prior to my trip planning since African current events are not always widely covered in the US. The more I learned, the more bizarre it seemed- the genocide didn't take the same systematic format as the Holocaust or Cambodia. While regular people certainly carried out orders in the concentration camps, the difference is that they did so in an "official" capacity rather than going to a neighbor's house with an intent to kill. In Rwanda, propaganda put forth by the ruling party to get rid of the "cockroaches" and an elite military group inspired huge numbers of ordinary citizens to join in carrying out the murders, typically with crude tools like machetes. In a mere 100 days, an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 people perished. Obviously, the situation was a lot more complicated than I can relate in a brief summary. As much as I've read about the topic beforehand and in the museum, I don't think I will ever be able to wrap my head around how it happened.
Almost everyone in the country was affected by the genocide, particularly those in the target Tutsi ethnicity. Many orphans were left- and those who were children 25 years ago are now entering the prime of their lives. Fortunately, the current populace seems committed to learning from history so as not to repeat it. The memorial was a fitting tribute, and it's a destination that also serves to help the local population honor the memories of those who perished and to help them heal. We saw busloads of local teens coming toward the end of our stay.
As we entered the memorial, we were each given a rose to place at one of the areas of mass graves. Engaging in the activity of gently placing a flower at the graves made me feel more a part of the tragedy than if I'd passively ambled through the area; I assume that was the point. I was touched to see that family members had left more elaborate floral collections.
After paying our respects, we entered the indoor part of the museum which began with a short movie followed by exhibits laying down the history of the genocide and its aftermath. Photography was prohibited in this area unless you paid a fee which I certainly did. (I think it was $20- which is hefty based on my experience with having to pay for the privilege of using my camera in foreign museums, but I felt like it was a worthwhile donation) None of us had elected to pay extra for the audio headsets but our guide got them for us anyway. I'm not sure they were necessary since everything was labeled well in English as well as at least one other language. After following the timeline of the events, we entered some of the more moving areas of the hall. Reminiscent of the killing fields, there was a display of the victims' skulls. Another nook contained clothes of those who perished which brought to mind similar displays in Auschwitz. And then there were the angled walls lined with rows of small photos dangling from wires; these were the faces of those whose lives were abruptly taken away.
In the middle of the hall was a circular area which contained a series of modern sculptures inspired by the events before, during, and after the genocide. I was moved to see a familiar quote from the Talmud on one of the glass walls leading this area: "He who saves a single life saves the world entire." In the outer rim of the hall were 2 stained glass windows, each of which depicted a stairwell with skulls in front of it; the first you encounter seems more turbulent while the second conveys more of a sense of peace. My research informs me that these were designed by an Israeli artist who was the son of Holocaust survivors.
What really elevates the museum is that, while it greatly focuses on the events in Rwanda, it also aims to convey the sad fact that its theme is universal. The second floor features small displays dedicated to other tragedies such as the Holocaust, Pol Pot's Cambodia, the Balkans, Namibia and Armenia. It is beyond the scope of the museum to do more than touch on each one very briefly, but even these small mentions made the overall message more powerful.
The final area of the main exhibition is The Children's Room. A sign before entering simply states "Tomorrow Lost", alluding to the great potential lost to the country when these children perished as well as to each individual's own future being stolen away. This room displayed paired photos of children along the walls. In front of each photo was a small stand on which were listed some brief facts about that youngster. These mini biographies always started with 4 short relatable factoids such as that 4 year old Ariane's favorite drink was milk and her behavior was "a neat little girl" or that 10 year old David enjoyed making people laugh and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then the fifth line briefly reported the chilling cause of their death. The simplicity of the presentation and the evocation of personal remembrances were quite effective at driving home a powerful message without basking in pathos.
Beyond that room was a short film that I believe chronicled the story of 2 young survivors who ended up getting married. They talked about how difficult it was to trust people now but that they needed to continue living their lives. This allowed the visit to end on a bit of a happier tone, although undertones of sorrow still remained. The museum tries to inspire its visitors with hope, even though it never shies away from depicting the true horrors of what happened. I found out later that some in my group were too shaken to make it to the end. Every person experiences a museum of this kind in their own personal way and no reaction is more or less valid than another. But if you have a heart, it's sure to affect you deeply. We spent about 2 hours there; I probably could have spent a little more time exploring the outdoor grounds if I'd been on my own.
After a sobering morning, we headed to Nyamirambo township where we visited a women's cooperative that was formed to help elevate the status of local women. As part of their mission, they provide education and vocational training. The items in their small store were all, or mostly, made by local artisans in the program.
We spent about 50 minutes taking a walking tour around the neighborhood. I was a little disappointed that the tour was led by a man but he was involved in the project and was an excellent guide. While walking along dirt roads that occasionally offered glimpses of the city's dramatic hilly landscape, we learned about the local daily life which I always find fascinating. One of the most interesting things I discovered was that Rwanda abounds with milk bars where locals congregate to drink milk and also socialize. These establishments appear to be unique to the country.
As part of our tour, we stepped into a hair salon where a young girl was getting her hair braided; these types of salons also are plentiful but that is obviously not unique to Rwanda. We also passed a mosque, and learned about local foods including cassava, a vegetable whose green leaves we saw crushed and which we also saw drying out in white stalks under the sun. I enjoyed just seeing locals carrying on with their daily lives- boys with their arms around each other, an old woman sewing, a mother in colorful patterned dress carrying a baby…. so different on the surface from the people I encounter in my local community yet, at core, the same.
At the conclusion of the tour at around 1:15pm, we entered a modest courtyard where we were treated to a homemade lunch prepared by the mother of our guide. A simple table in the center held 8 simple pots, each of which contained a local dish in addition to a pot of white rice. I sampled 4 of the offerings and they were quite tasty! Unfortunately, I can't recall what they all were. I remember some sweet potatoes and meat were included. It was a really very pleasant, relaxed meal, and I enjoyed sampling local foods that had obviously been lovingly prepared.
Stopping briefly to take in a dramatic view of Kigali, we headed on the road for a 2.5 hour drive to the lodge at Volcanoes National Park where we'd be spending 3 nights and taking a couple of treks. I hadn't completely adjusted to the time difference so I kept falling asleep during the ride.
The lodge was divided into individual bungalows which were quite spacious. They weren't very luxurious but that was fine with me. After getting settled, I wandered outside where the nightly cultural dance show had begun in the center of the property. I saw R on the outskirts and so I went over and started talking to him. He was concerned that his cigar smoke might bother me, but it was fine especially since we were outdoors. I enjoyed conversing with him and comparing notes about our travels- both the places we'd been as well as those we hoped to see in the future.
As the sun went down, the temperature outside grew very cool, much moreso than I'd expected. We were in the mountains so it made sense that it was colder than in Kigali. After sitting out in the chilly air a bit, I welcomed the chance to go inside for the buffet dinner. My favorite selections of the meal were the tomato soup (my notes say it was unusual although they don't specify how so), the spinach and the potatoes.
After dinner, we retreated to our bungalow which was downright COLD since it wasn't heated. I chuckled recalling that I'd been concerned that our hotels wouldn't have A/C! I immediately regretted not packing longer pj's; I had to improvise by using the leggings I'd worn during the flight because it was clearly too chilly for shorts. Someone from the lodge came by to light a fire in the fireplace in the sitting area. It felt pleasantly toasty to sit in front of it. But it wasn't very effective in warming the vast area of the room, and the beds weren't that close to it.
I didn't see any bottled water and mine had run out so I was in a quandary about brushing my teeth. The local tap water was not safe for that purpose but there was no phone and I didn't relish the idea of walking all the way back to the main building by myself in the dark. (D still had bottled water from the day) But safety and health came first so I reluctantly set off in the darkness on my own to fetch water. I was told that they must have run out of bottles and they gave me a pitcher filled with safe water. I'm pretty sure that someone walked me back to my cabin.
Getting ready for bed, a part of me still wondered if I belonged in the group. Most everyone seemed so accomplished and more fit. Some truth would be revealed the next morning when we would set off on our first hike. I felt bad since D was so sweet but I knew I'd have done better if I'd had my own room; that says more about me than her. But I still figured I'd make the best of the situation.
Do you know the feeling of lying awake in bed and every so often glancing angrily at the clock as you try unsuccessfully to will yourself to sleep? That was how I spent much of my 2nd night in Uganda. After my roommate got up to use the restroom and turned on the lights in the room, it took me hours to fall back to sleep. I recall seeing the time move from 12:40 to well after 3am. At least it felt surprisingly toasty underneath the blankets; I'd been worried that I'd be chilled all night since it had been so cold after sunset.
D had the alarm set for 5am so we could have an early start for our golden monkey hike; I didn't hear it at all (because I think she had headphones on) so when I saw her turn on the light, I thought she was getting up another time in the middle of the night. Given my lack of sleep on top of my previous night's poor sleep, I felt physically sick from fatigue. D laughed it off, saying that since she'd had problems sleeping the previous night, now it was my turn. The flaw in her logic was that I hadn't slept well the previous night, either- which I'd mentioned. I was not amused.
I enjoyed the porridge for breakfast and managed to eat some of a cheese omelet as well. Food was helpful, but I still felt so poorly that I considered going back to sleep and skipping the hike. It broke my heart to even ponder the possibility of missing an activity I'd so eagerly anticipated- one that I'd likely never have the opportunity to engage in again. As I was debating my options, my mind flashed to one of my gym coaches who has often said that our bodies are capable of more than we think, and ultimately I decided that I owed it to myself to give the hike a try. (note: when I mentioned this episode to the coach, she stressed the importance of sleep. Ummm… yeah, she was totally preaching to the choir!) Still, at times I found myself on the verge of tears because I wanted so badly to feel the excitement I'd expected and deserved… but it was impossible for me to feel anything beyond overwhelming fatigue.
After breakfast, we took a short drive to what appeared to be a central meeting place for primate hikes. Some of the others mingled but I hung back because I was so tired and also a little overwhelmed by the clusters of people who had gathered to wait. Eventually, we joined a handful of other people and sat in an open roofed semi circular enclosure where we met up with our guide to hear a briefing about our upcoming experience.
After the short meeting, everyone went back into the vehicles in which they'd arrived and drove a short bit to the starting point of our hike. At that time, we each had the option of hiring a porter who would carry their bag and also help them maneuver through any difficult parts. With my current state of fatigue, it was pretty much a no-brainer to splurge for the $10 even though I didn't expect the walk to be as strenuous as the following day's gorilla hike; if nothing else, I felt good about supporting the local economy by engaging one of the young men who was lined up to offer help. After choosing to hire a porter, he gave me a walking stick to use. From our tour group, D was the only other person to hire a porter but several of the others who had joined our group also hired porters so we headed out with a bit of an entourage.
We walked for about 45 minutes across a field to get to the edge of a bamboo forest. There were a couple patches that were a little tricky, mainly due to mud, and my porter gently assisted me through them like a champ. I don't think I absolutely would have needed the help if I'd felt less fatigued, but it was nice to have a hand to assure that I wouldn’t stumble.
The scenery during this hike was incredible! I think we all agreed that if the walk had ended before seeing any primates, it would still have been worthwhile. I loved transversing the vast open fields, occasionally spotting people or cows peppering the dramatic mountain backed landscape. There were a couple times that children popped up to greet us; they never seemed to ask for or expect money or toys- they just wanted to wave at the visitors. It was so peaceful and beautiful, and the exercise felt good... though it would have felt even better if I hadn't desperately craved a bed.
As we reached the edge of the forest, we were surprised to find out that the golden monkeys were just a few minutes walk inside. We left our bags, walking sticks and porters behind and carried only ourselves and our cameras. Once we entered the bamboo forest by climbing a few rocks and slipping through an opening, we found out that the monkeys were right there; we didn't need to journey any further!
We spent about an hour observing a group of golden monkeys in their natural habitat. Watching these little critters was invigorating to my soul, and distracted me from being tired. There were a few trackers who had joined us to point out the primates. Photography was challenging because they moved pretty quickly (hence the need to rely on help from trackers). There were some muddy paths but I didn't mind because wandering through the endless columns of bamboo was so magical that it almost seemed unreal.
When we retraced our steps back to the car park, I had more confidence since I'd already tread successfully on the path en route to the forest. Nonetheless, I still got some help from my porter on a couple tricky spots. A highlight of the walk back was when one of the guides spotted a chameleon. Even as tired as I felt, I could have easily spent more time hiking through the Rwandan countryside- it was an amazing experience.
After somewhat reluctantly getting back in the jeep, we headed to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International Karisoke Research Center where we learned more about the legendary primatologist as well as about the gorillas she'd dedicated her life to studying. At the very start, there was a display of a gorilla skeleton next to a human skeleton which effectively highlighted to me the similarity between the species in a way I hadn't visualized before. When I saw a chart of the closest primate relatives to humans that included mention of Bonobos I chuckled with the realization that I can't escape things that remind me of "Come From Away"!
Other items of interest in the small museum included a desk Fossey had actually used as well as many photos and mementos. But standing in a museum is not nearly as invigorating as walking through nature and so I was a little too tired to appreciate the exhibits as much as I'd have liked. Whenever there was an opportunity to sit down on a bench while the guide talked, I took advantage of it.
When we got back to our hotel, the staff exchanged our muddied hiking boots for green plastic sandals. Later that evening, our footwear was returned looking brand new! It was amazing how thoroughly the staff had cleaned them. Wearing our temporary shoes, we enjoyed a buffet lunch which featured tasty preparations of lamb and fish. Still tired, I asked for a Diet Coke so I could get a pop of caffeine and was disappointed to be told they didn't have any. I later learned that you needed to ask for Coke Zero. Pro tip: when trying to order a beverage in a foreign country, offer all the synonymous versions of its name that you can manage.
After we were done eating, four of us lingered and talked with our guide, T. I learned that he'd won a trip to Canada in September by virtue of receiving the highest reviews of any G Adventures guide in the region. Very cool! It was fun to relax and chat with likeminded people who value travel like I do.
I went to the room for a short bit to change shoes and then I headed back to a conference room in the main building where we had the privilege of meeting privately with a man who worked in the national park at some capacity- I think as a high level ranger. Our group engaged in a rousing discussion touching on tensions between tourism and conservation as well as partnerships among the 3 countries that share the Virunga Mountains where mountain gorillas live (Rwanda, Uganda and The Congo). Unfortunately, my fatigue really started to hit me hard and I was fading in and out during the discussion. It was kinda embarrassing and I tried as hard as possible to stay awake.
I'd hoped to be able to wash my hair before dinner but the talk lasted longer than expected so I didn't really have time. Instead, I ended up laying in bed under the warm covers. I heard the drumming from the cultural show outside which was good because I it prevented me from falling asleep. Had I succumbed to slumber, I feared I'd never get up for dinner and then I'd probably be awake at some insane hours of the night.
I headed off to the main building well before the scheduled dinner time. I saw that everyone in my group were seated in a circle around the fire talking with travelers from other groups. Not seeing any empty chairs, I sat by myself on a bench to the side. It seemed like a suitable metaphor for my life in general since I usually feel like an outsider who doesn't quite belong anywhere. My feelings of self doubt were probably more acute than usual due to feeling tired and grumpy.
Dinner started a little late. Once again, I enjoyed sampling local specialties. The soup that night was fish soup which was unique but tasty. We had a lot of great soups during the trip.
I was so ready to go to sleep when I got back to the room. D insisted that I needed to take as many measures as possible to try to get myself through the night so, in addition to the ear plugs I always use when I travel, I slapped on an eye mask and took a half of an anti-anxiety pill. I don't like doing either on a regular basis- especially the medication- but I also couldn't continue functioning on so little sleep. My experience on this trip reinforced my desire to book a solo room on future trips if feasible unless I already know my roommate. I feel bad saying that since D was really sweet and tried to the best of her ability to be considerate… but I need to look out for myself first.
I managed to sleep through the night without any major disturbances- thank goodness! Since I got up at around 5am, I was not exactly wide awake and ready to take on the world… but at least I wasn't painfully tired. At breakfast, I asked for Coke Zero because I'd learned from my mistake asking for Diet Coke the previous day. I was bummed to receive a negative answer… and then thrilled when someone magically found one for me. Energized with caffeine, my day was off to a much better start than the previous morning.
This morning would feature the centerpiece event of the trip, the gorilla trek, and I felt both excited and nervous. I was eager for a challenge… but I'd heard that some other groups in our hotel had spent hours trekking through the mud to reach their gorilla group and I wasn't sure I wanted that much of a challenge- regardless of whether I was physically up to it. The previous night, the guy leading our gorilla discussion had asked us what level of hike we were looking for: D, not surprisingly said she wanted the easiest hike possible; the 4 others were craving something more difficult. I hoped for something in the middle- something that would leave me feeling accomplished but not overwhelmed or annoyed.
We drove out to the same central meeting point as we had the previous day for the monkey trek. This time, rather than hanging back, I was mingling and talking to some other people. At some point, someone spotted Dancing with the Star's Julianne Hough amongst those who were waiting to get briefed on their hikes so of course our chatter centered on that unlikely sighting. One of the women we were talking to was a huge fan, so D and I tried to persuade her to go over and ask for a photo. I've seen the TV show a few times when skaters or gymnasts have been on and my mom watches regularly so I eventually decided it might be fun to talk to her. D accompanied me… despite not even having a clue who the celebrity was! We were both really hoping the other woman would follow our lead.
I try to be sensitive to invading the personal space of celebrities… especially when they are people I'm not particularly crazy about. It seemed clear that Julianne was hanging around waiting, just like us, so we wouldn't be interrupting any private moments. I also got the vibe that she didn't mind being approached. I was as smooth and well-spoken as ever (NOT) when I awkwardly asked "Are you Julianne Hough?" Well, she could not have been sweeter or more gracious! She chatted with us about our trip and seemed more than happy to pose for a couple of photos. I'm glad I took advantage of the rare opportunity that presented itself to me because now I will always have a cute photo as well as a fun anecdote. Unfortunately, the woman who was the real fan never joined us.
As in the previous day, the crowd was eventually divided to receive their pre-hike briefings. Gorilla hikes are strictly limited to a maximum 8 tourists. The 6 people in my tour were joined by a young couple from Mexico. Gorillas travel and live in distinct social groups. Each hike is designated to visit one of several groups that are habituated to human contact. But the visits are strictly controlled such that each gorilla group is only observed by one tourist cluster a day and the contact is limited to one hour in duration. Each morning the local rangers track each group since their position is likely to change from day to day. We were told that we'd be meeting a group named "Amahoro" which means peace and that it included 22 members of various ages. Sounded good to me!
My biggest hope was that we wouldn't be hiking in the same area we'd covered visiting the golden monkeys so we'd have the opportunity to explore a new landscape. (at least one gorilla trek had departed from the same place as us the previous day) As we drove quite a length over some extremely bumpy roads, I realized that we were definitely headed to a different departure point.
I was fairly well rested and had gained some confidence from having completed the previous day's hike, but I still hired a porter for $10 because I expected the gorilla hike to be tougher. The guide handed me a super cute walking stick which had a carving of a gorilla on top; that alone was almost worth the money. My porter's name was Elphas, which was close enough to Elvis that it led me to crack some jokes.
Once again, we crossed through scenic fields that were backed by dramatic mountains looming in the distance. We saw workers and children along the way- even more than we'd spotted the previous day. The terrain was easier than it had been for our golden monkey trek since there were no patches of mud. I felt so lucky to be hiking through such a tranquil and scenic verdant corner of the world.
After about an hour of walking, we reached the entrance of the forest. I expected the hike to increase in intensity at this point. But almost as soon as we had entered the lush foliage, there was a frantic call to drop our bags and walking sticks since a gorilla was coming. What?!?! I'm not someone who searches out extreme physical challenges nor am I an experienced hiker, so when I say that I was disappointed at the ease of the trek (relative to what I'd read and heard about others' experiences), it really means something. Ironically, when I researched the Amahoro group recently, many of the pages I found online allude to the hike to track them being difficult; obviously it varies each day depending on the group's position.
Navigating the terrain inside the forest proved to be trickier than getting there, especially since we no longer had the benefit of porters or walking sticks. I was quite surprised at how claustrophobic it felt to be standing in narrow clearings amid dense foliage while trying to get a good view of a primate who was often partially obscured. I guess I naively imagined that we'd be standing in the open with gorillas clearly visible in whatever direction we looked, but that was not the case at all. We would all crowd around and jostle respectfully for camera positions as we watched 1-3 members of the group; when they retreated, we would then follow the guides to another location.
That said, it was nonetheless amazing to be so close to these magnificent creatures in the breathtaking landscape that was their natural habitat. While we were strictly warned not to touch them, they obviously had their own set of rules- or lack thereof. We were waiting for a female gorilla to cross to the male when the latter decided he was the one who wanted to move; he did not care that our group member, R, was in his path and proceeded to grab R's leg and started to drag him down a small hill. It all happened in an instant, so I don't recall exactly how it ended; I'm assuming a guide intervened. Fortunately R was fine- and in fact enriched with a unique tale to share with his friends and family!
After about an hour, we had to say goodbye to the gorillas. Knowing that the walk into the forest had been super easy, I felt comfortable keeping my DSLR camera around my neck so I could take better quality photos on the way back. My porter tried to help me a few times but I waved him off because I was absolutely fine; I'm super cautious when my camera is out and the fact that I rejected even the slightest assistance is a testament to how easy the terrain was. We posed for some group shots beating our chests like gorillas, and also took some photos with a group of adorable children that we encountered on our way.
We were back at our vehicle by noon which meant that our hike had lasted just over 3 hours total- definitely on the short side since I've heard they can sometimes last as long as 7 hours or more. Since we had time to kill, we stopped at a cluster of shops on the way back to the lodge. I wasn't really interested in buying anything especially since I felt self conscious due to over attentive vendors. I know that's just how things are- but I have a hard time with it nonetheless.
After once again exchanging our dirtied boots for green plastic sandals, we had lunch at our lodge. Today it was served in an outdoor buffet. The piece de resistance of the meal was absolutely the tomato soup, of which J and I were particularly big fans. I had to go back for seconds after my main course since I discovered that they had added croutons after my initial visit to the buffet. The selection of entrees and side dishes was also great… but the soup was a definite highlight!
After a short break, we headed out to visit a cultural village. I was a little skeptical about the excursion after having felt disappointed by such a village in Namibia. However, it turned out to be surprisingly fun. I'm not sure how much of that was due to the experience itself being superior and how much it was due to feeling more comfortable visiting with a group instead of being by myself; I suspect that it was a mixture of both reasons. One of the best things about this village is that one of its missions is to reduce the harmful effects of poaching by providing local ex-poachers with an alternate means of income.
As we walked from one traditionally styled hut to another, we learned about traditional Rwandan culture and had several opportunities to actively participate in the experience. I had a lot of fun pumping air to fan a fire so a blacksmith could show how he crafts instruments. I honestly didn't even really know what I was doing, I just enjoyed it.
At another area, quite a few members of our group tried their hands at archery. I… was not at all a natural. My first attempt was a completely pathetic fail in which the bow fell just inches in front of me. But I kept at it because I was determined to achieve at least a modicum of success. When I was finally able to manage a shot with a trajectory that covered some distance, I celebrated proudly to the cheers and high 5's of the locals. My arrow hadn't landed near the target but I was thrilled to have finally made a credible attempt.
There was another hut where we could buy traditional banana beer. Only F was brave enough from our group to try it. I think he said it was pretty strong; he definitely was not in any rush to have another.
And then we reached a hut where the locals asked for a volunteer to be Queen. Obviously my hand shot up just about as soon as they asked because, hello, I'm not about to throw away a shot to be royal! Also I love to be front and center amid a crowd. Then they asked who wanted to be King and I realized "oh shit, this isn't going to be me being a badass single queen because of course that isn't how things are in traditional African villages." There were 3 men in my group and I can't say I was disappointed when R, the attractive single one, eventually ended up volunteering.
I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. It all started pretty innocently as R and I were directed into the hut where we were dressed in traditional attire on top of our street clothes. I was happy to be dressed in teal, a color which is quite flattering to me. We came out, waved regally to the crowd… and it was basically the kind of thing I expected whereby I was able to have a little fun playing dress up and having fun with my new title in front of the group as we learned a little about the culture.
And then they said it was time for the wedding ceremony. Wait- WHAT?!?!? I think that R, having been through a painful divorce, had an even more difficult time with this concept than I did. After the initial shock, I just went with it and played along. I was directed to sit in a litter which the locals then raised up as they clapped and sang while carrying me over to a hut where R was waiting. They set me down in front of him and then directed him to carry me inside and close the door. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the locals were posing like they were trying to hear what was going on inside. And then we came out and R made some joke about it being good for him… or asking if it had been good for me… or honestly I don't know what exactly he said since my mind was just going crazy as I kept laughing at the zaniness of the situation.
I have never EVER expected to get married, but I definitely enjoyed being able to spin a tale of doing so even though it was obviously all in jest. The improbability of me being a bride- especially to such a handsome groom- made the whole event hysterically amusing to me. I definitely got way more than I'd bargained for when I'd volunteered but it was a great time for sure. I just let go of who I am and my life history and threw myself enthusiastically into the joy of the moment. I am so grateful to J and G for taking photos and video to chronicle what is likely my only experience ever as a bride.
We ended our village tour watching some traditional dancing which I joked was for our wedding party. There was much laughter that night about how R and I were the king and queen… references and jokes kept popping up for the duration of the trip.
Back at the lodge, we gathered around the comfortably toasty fire and enjoyed some snacks before being ushered into dinner. Since there was a vegan group staying at our lodge, the hotel had decided to prepare a vegan buffet that night for all the guests. The food was really good, especially the pumpkin soup. I felt like our small tour group was definitely starting to gel more now that we'd spent a few days together sharing some memorable experiences.
While getting ready for bed, I had a wonderful talk with D about life and a lot of stuff. Although the roommate situation was not ideal for me, I have a lot of respect for D for coming on this trip and traveling so far for the first time in her life when she was about as old as my mom. I also gained respect for some things she'd been through in her life.
Every trip you hope for a day that isn't just great- one that reaches the heights of off-the-charts amazing. I felt lucky to experience this epic day in Rwanda which assuredly will be remembered fondly alongside my best travel days ever. The gorilla hike, despite some disappointments that were easier to chronicle, was fabulous beyond description. And then I had an absolute blast at the cultural village. To top it all off… we also enjoyed that amazing tomato soup with croutons for lunch! The day synthesized diverse experiences and feelings and also expanded my comfort zone. It was exactly the kind of priceless day that epitomizes why I choose to prioritize travel in my life.