Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Well, this is the end. Today I fly out of Entebbe Airport, and after a few nights in London eating meat pies with Eric and Tom, I will be home in New York early next week. It's been just about 31 months since I left home and came to Africa with the Peace Corps.

31 months is quite a long time. The world has changed; to give you some idea, when I arrived in South Africa, Hurricane Katrina hadn't even hit and New Orleans was just another city. It was the summer of 2005, and I was twenty-four years old. Now, at twenty-seven, I'm returning home to the spring of 2008. I will be returning to a different place than the country I left, and I will also be returning a different man than the person who left.

There's no way that I can summarize my experiences in South Africa and beyond into a few closing paragraphs. Even the entirety of this blog is just a rough outline of what has happened these past 2 1/2 years. I'm curious to see what happens when I get home. How will I adjust? In some ways, returning home will be the most daunting thing I've had to do since I left. It will definitely require the most drastic readjustment. I've heard stories from other long-term travelers and volunteers who have returned home after long, life-changing periods away. And after a few brief questions from friends and family (like, "What was it like?" or "What did you do?" ---- I don't even know how I would begin to answer questions like that), the curiosity disappears and everyone returns to talking about their own lives and what's been going on in their world. And the travelers, having returned home, realize that they have changed and home has changed and there's this vast chasm separating the two. And they have nothing to talk about, nobody who can relate. Will that be me? I have no idea.

My experiences have profoundly changed me. And while I'd love to include some insightful quote from one of the many books I've read in Africa, what keeps running through my head are some verses from the song "Wanderlust" by Bjork---a song about leaving home and setting off for the great unknown:

"Did I imagine it would be like this?
Was it something like this I wished for?

Or will I want more?"

To answer her questions: No, No, and Yes. I'm not sure exactly what I expected when I left New York and flew to Johannesburg in August 2005. I'm also not sure exactly what I expected, two years later, when I left Pretoria and started my long overland trip to Kampala. I know for a fact I didn't imagine things would turn out the way they did. But I'm happy that they did. Our experiences make us who we are, and if I could do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing.

And so, I'm leaving Africa, but I know in my heart that it will only be temporary---I will be back, one day, hopefully sooner rather than later. The places I've been and the people I've met have had too much of an impact to just leave it all behind and return to the life I knew.

Since I am leaving Africa, that means that this blog must come to an end. It's called "Omar In Africa", not "Omar's Life". So, to those of you who have been reading along and following me on my travels, and especially to those who have been following this blog since I started it in 2005, thank you.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Travel Update #9: Fort Portal, Uganda to Kampala, Uganda

I'm happy to say that my trip is ending on a good note---my time in Uganda has been drastically different from my time in Rwanda, and I am thankful for that. Languidity has been replaced by activity. Since my last post just over one week ago, I have been busy pretty much non-stop.

On Sunday Brian and I were up before dawn and sitting on a bus to Kampala in the dark. We didn't leave for quite some time, though, and by noon we were in the big, bustling city of Kampala. We didn't see much because after getting off of our bus, we immediately got on a bus to Masindi via Hoima. Twelve hours after leaving our guesthouse in Fort Portal, we arrived in Masindi, a tiny insignificant town in the north of the country. Masindi's only real draw is that it is the closest town to Murchison Falls, a destination I'd been looking forward to visiting for quite some time.

We arranged a lift into the park that evening, and early the next morning (as usual, we were up before dawn) we left for the park. Our first stop was the Kaniyo Pabidi Forest, inside the Murchsion Falls Conservation Park boundaries. Pabidi is a very large, beautiful rainforest, and is also the cheapest place in Uganda to track chimpanzees. That was the real reason for our stop in the forest---chimps. Brian and I decided that instead of doing a brief chimpanzee tracking walk, we would spend the entire day doing what is known as "chimpanzee habituation"---that is, spending the entire day in the presence of the chimpanzees to habituate them to human contact. While this was also offered at the more famous Kibale NP, which we had biked through just a few days earlier, doing it at Kibale would have been more than twice as expensive as at Pabidi.

We arrived at the park visitor center, and within a few minutes we were off with two guides and one chimpanzee researcher. After only a few minutes of walking through the forest, we began to hear the unmistakable pant-hoot calls of chimpanzees, far up in the trees. Moments later, we were under a canopy of trees as a small group of 4 chimpanzees sat far above us, eating figs from tree branches. After a few moments of this, the chimps, in a flurry of hoots, moved on. After a few moments, we started following.

We were walking along the trail through the forest, looking around us at the beauty of our surroundings, a guide in the lead and me directly behind him, when he stopped dead in his tracks and put his arm out to stop me from going forward.

"Python!" he whispered.

I looked at the ground and there, on our trail, only a few meters in front of us, was the biggest snake I had ever seen. The giant python, which the guides estimated as being around 4 meters long (about 12-13 feet), was lying there in the grass, slithering along, its beady eyes looking around, its forked tongue flicking back and forth. We stayed there looking at this beast of a snake for about 20 minutes, taking pictures. It was fascinating; once the snake had heard us coming, it had stopped and was lying still in the grass, directly in our pathway. We couldn't continue that way to follow the chimps, so eventually (after a brief scare where the python suddenly coiled up, facing us, seemingly about to strike--at which point we all turned and ran away from it until we were out of strike range) we turned around and took a different path through the forest.

It was about an hour of walking through the maze-like paths in the forest, up and down hills, across wooden branches that served as "bridges". Eventually, though, we entered into another clearing, with some huge fig trees rising far above us. Up in the trees, we observed anywhere from between 15 to 20 chimpanzees, including some infants (I never was able to get a fixed count).

We set up shop; we put down our bags and sat down to observe. Unlike the mountain gorilla-trek, we were not interacting with the chimpanzees. We weren't anywhere near close enough to interact with them; we were on the ground, and they were in the trees. We also weren't close enough to take any quality pictures---perhaps with a camera with an extremely strong zoom, I could have gotten some quality pictures of chimps. And although that might sound very uninspiring, compared with the breathtaking experience of gorilla-tracking, it was wonderful. Sitting on the forest floor, or lying in a pile of leaves looking up into the trees, for hours, watching the interactions between these chimps, was a perfect way to spend a day. Their eating, their playing, their grooming and conflicts and their frequent hooting and shouting frenzies, their swinging from tree-to-tree, we just sat there watching it all. We watched these interactions until 4pm---8 hours after we had set out in the morning. Then, finally, we started the walk back through the forest to the visitor center. It took almost an hour, and thankfully we did not see any pythons on that return walk.

Our driver had been waiting for us, and from the visitor center we continued to the Red Chilli Restcamp, in the middle of Murchison Falls NP. He dropped us off there, and we walked past the marabou storks standing in the grass, watching us, and the warthogs grazing a few feet away, to our banda for the night. We had planned on taking a boat launch up the Nile River the following morning, and then hiking up to the falls, and then taking the afternoon boat back. Then, however, we discovered that there would be no boat launch in the morning; only in the afternoon. We spent some time discussing options and figuring out what to do----some late-night planning that is common when arranging things on your own.

Eventually we figured out and arranged a plan, and at 8am the next morning (thankfully, we did not have to wake up before dawn) a driver picked us up from the restcamp and drove us along a dirt road to the top of the falls. To give you a brief description of Murchison Falls: they are a 43-meter tall waterfall, where practically the entire Victoria Nile River, flowing from its source in Lake Victoria, is driven through a narrowing passage until it reaches only 6-meters wide; at that point, it plummets down. Because the water is narrowed so much (the Nile is a very wide river, and pushing all of that water into so narrow a space gives it a lot of surging energy), the Murchison Falls are the most powerful surge of water to be found anywhere in the world. The roar of the waterfall is extremely loud, and its spray rises up violently. It's an incredible sight, even moreso because it is not heavily touristed; when we went, it was just Brian and I, with no one else around, looking at the most powerful surge of water in the world.

We stayed there for a while, walking around, and then taking a hiking trail to some amazing viewpoints. After a few hours, when we had seen everything there was to see, and had stared transfixed at the roaring water until our hearts' content, we left. We drove back to the restcamp and, after a small lunch, boarded a boat along with other travelers and did the afternoon boat trip up the Nile to the falls. The 3-hour trip was notable not so much for the view of the falls that it afforded us (nowhere near as awesome as the view from the top), but for the huge amount of wildlife that we saw on the riverbank as we floated along. We passed more hippos than I had ever seen before, numerous crocodiles in the water and sunning themselves on the shore, waterbucks, elephants, and some very rare birds. I had thought the sunset cruise I'd taken on the Zambezi in December was rewarding, but that paled in comparison with the amount of wildlife I saw on the Nile.

After the conclusion of the boat trip, our driver was waiting for us, and we hopped back into the car. It was a long trip out of the park, and it was starting to get dark. We were driving fairly quickly, scaring baboons off of the road and sending colobus monkeys scurrying through the trees. Then our tire went flat, and our driver told us that we didn't have a spare. Thankfully another car was a few minutes behind us, and after some haggling between our driver and the passengers in the other car, Brian and I were squished into the other car along with our bags and the car's passengers, and we set off, leaving our driver behind.

An hour later, we were back in Masindi, and the following morning (having woken up in the pre-dawn darkness as usual), we took the Post Bus (the bus that takes mail from post office to post office) back to Kampala. Instead of going via Hoima, the way we had come a few days earlier, we took the direct road from Masindi to Kampala. I thought that maybe this would be a good-quality road, but I was gravely mistaken. I have been on all sorts of roads throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, and I have to say that the road from Masindi to Kampala may, in fact, be the worst (tar) road that I had ever been on---the only road that comes close to it is the highway from Maputo in Mozambique, in the area around Xai-Xai. First we swerved around large potholes, then had to wait for some construction vehicles, and then we entered a stretch of speedbumps---I have never seen so many speedbumps on a road. It seemed like we were going over a speedbump every 5 seconds or so for many minutes on end. It took us 30 minutes to proceed 10 kilometers at many points. Everyone in the bus was being bounced around by the bumps; I was actually airborne often, my rear jumping off of the seat and then slamming back down again. Perhaps if the seat had been comfortable it wouldn't have been a problem, but I arrived in Kampala with a very sore behind.

Again, we didn't stay in Kampala---Brian and I put on our bags and then walked from the post office to the "Old Taxi Park", which is possibly the biggest, craziest, most chaotic taxi park I have ever seen. It was ordered chaos in which I could not see the order. More than once, Brian and I would be walking through a narrow space between two matatus and would find that they merge into one lane, blocking any walkway. So we would have to turn around and retrace our steps. Ordinarily that would be fine, but with large bags, it was an ordeal. After a while of wandering around the maze of the taxi park and getting lost a few times, we found an omnibus (coaster) going to Jinja. We got on the bus, and soon the bus started moving---but it took quite some time for us to navigate the lanes through the taxi park, with people jumping out of our way and numerous other taxis coming precariously close to hitting us.

Eventually we left the city and were driving along the highway to Jinja. I was surprised to find that this heavily-trafficked route, connecting two very large towns, and the only way to get from Kampala to Nairobi, was only one lane in each direction. This is mind-boggling, especially considering that it is the main shipping lane for all goods coming from overseas to anywhere in Uganda or Rwanda (or even the eastern DRC). Imagine if the I-95 between New York and DC was only one lane, or if the 405 in Los Angeles was only one lane, and you have some idea of what this road was like. There were some hair-raising moments, when our coaster would try to pass a slow-moving vehicle and would have to quickly squeeze back into the lane seconds before
an oncoming car would pass us. Sitting on the coaster, I wondered how many accidents happen on that road, and I realized that I didn't want to know.

We eventually arrived in Jinja, and got into a car heading up to Bujugali Falls, our final destination for the day. The Explorers Campsite, where Brian and I stayed that night and the following night, was the first "backpackers" that we had stayed at since December, and it was nice to be around other travelers again. We were all there for one reason: white-water rafting. That's the reason why so many people travel to Bujugali Falls---to raft the source of the Nile. In the morning we set off for our full-day of rafting. I vividly remembered the insanity of the Zambezi when we rafted it, and I was prepared for the another crazy, adrenaline-filled day.

The first thing I noticed when we got into the water was the warmth of the river---the Nile is refreshingly nice to swim in, like a nice cool bath. The second was the scenery: while the Zambezi flows through the narrow, imposing Victoria Falls Gorge, the Nile is surrounded on all sides by green grass and bird-filled trees. Villagers washed their clothes in the water at the banks of the river as we floated by. On our raft, in addition to Brian and myself, were three Brits and two other Americans, Marcus and Jeff. Our guide, Paolo, is one of the best rafters in all of Uganda, and is a member of the Ugandan National Team---that was very reassuring.

We did a full day of rafting, and I really enjoyed it. Whereas the Zambezi was densely packed with 23 rapids, the Nile only has 12---this gave us more calm stretches inbetween rapids to relax or to float down the river. Quite a few of the rapids were Grade 5, and some of the other rafters were a bit apprehensive as we approached them, but Brian and I weren't. The Nile is not nearly as intense or as challenging as the Zambezi, and the steering is much less technical. Unlike the Zambezi, I never once felt in physical danger on the Nile. Perhaps that was a sense of over-confidence. We flipped our raft 3 times, as opposed to only once on the Zambezi. And although the rafting was not nearly as challenging (considering that the Nile is considered an intense, top-notch rafting destination, it's easy to see why the Zambezi is considered the biggest, most challenging rafting in the world), I have to say that I enjoyed my day on the Nile more than my day on the Zambezi.

The following morning, Marcus, Jeff, Brian, and I left Bujugali Falls and went to Kampala. This time, for once, we didn't continue onwards from Kampala, but stayed. I have been in Kampala since Friday---my final destination on this African journey. On Friday night, I went out to a local nightclub with Marcus and Jeff---we were thankfully the only muzungus in the entire place, and we spent the night dancing with the locals to Ugandan music and the occasional Western Hit---we were happy to hear TWO songs by Rihanna, and surprisingly not even one by Akon (the first time that's ever happened to me in Africa).

Marcus and Jeff left the following morning, but Brian and I stayed, and since then we've spent the days walking around, soaking up the city, eating delicious food and enjoying the atmosphere. I think that Kampala is my favorite African city among those that I've visited on these travels---it's huge and crazy and lively. The people are incredibly friendly. The matatus are comfortable---they only allow 3 people per row here!

The city is well-situated, set on hills and valleys, almost like Kigali but much much bigger and livelier. At the bottom of the main hill in the city center are the bus park and the taxi parks, and the huge markets (like the Owino Market which we visited----more like a market city than anything else)---a chaotic African city. But walking up the hill, past Kampala Road, the city changes and there are wide avenues, huge gated houses, and parks. It's all very clean and modern. There's even a shopping mall with a movie theater in Kampala (where Brian and I saw the movie "Cloverfield"). Kampala, in short, is almost like South Africa, but without the constant threat of danger.

Yesterday, Brian and I took a half-day trip to the Equator. Uganda is one of only 10 countries in the world that the equator passes through, and it's a 2-hour drive from the city center. We took matatus there and back. At the equator are two circular monuments marking the boundary between North and South, some overpriced craft shops, and some bowls of water where an employee demonstrates the Coreolis Effect (which, having seen the demonstration, seems actually true).

On the matatu heading back to Kampala, I realized that I was on my last long-distance matatu trip in Africa. Part of me was glad that I wouldn't have to worry about squeezing into tight seats for a while, it also hit me that my time in Africa was coming to an end, andl I wished that I could find some way to prolong my journey. At least the matatu trip wasn't boring, though. I was sitting in the back row, in the middle. A few minutes after I got on the matatu, we stopped to pick up some more passengers. One guy had a large sack, which the driver and conductor squeezed into the back, directly behind me. I immediately realized that the sack was full of fish, due to the unmistakable smell. Soon, we left, and immediately the matatu was filled with the intense, pungent odor of fish, like a fish-shop when the power goes out. It was very unpleasant, especially considering that the fish were directly behind my head.

After a few minutes of enduring this, the matatu pulled over. There was nobody on the side of the road, so I wondered why we had stopped. Immediately, the conductor slid open the door and jumped out. He ran into a field of bushes, grabbed handfuls of plants, and stuffed them into the back of the matatu, around the bag of fish. He was trying to mask the smell, and soon enough the matatu was filled with the aroma of the plants. For the rest of the trip back to Kampala, the matatu smelled like a lovely, fragrant garden.....full of rotting fish.

Brian left this morning. We have been traveling together for months, since Mozambique, but here is where our paths diverge. I'm heading to London and New York; he's heading to Istanbul. Today is my last full day in Africa; tomorrow I fly out of Entebbe Airport. I'm going to really enjoy the day, and to savor it. I will truly miss Africa----of course I will miss those unforgettable moments like lying on the forest floor surrounded by the hooting calls of chimpanzees, or of floating down the Nile River, but I will also miss the rotting-fish-garden matatu trips. I'll miss it all.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Travel Update #8: Cyangugu, Rwanda to Fort Portal, Uganda

My travels are continuing forward to their grandiose climax (or so I'd like to think) -- Uganda is my final African stop on my travels for the time being, and my time in Uganda is getting short. How did it come to this?

When I last wrote, I was in Rwanda, enjoying a wonderfully lush country. I had planned on visiting the Nyungwe National Park after I wrote; well, the next day, I did visit the park, and it provided Brian and I with yet another instance when our Lonely Planet guidebooks let us down in Rwanda. Thinking that LP knows it stuff, we went to Nyungwe with $20 for the entrance fee, as we had read in the guidebook, and were supremely disappointed when we arrived at the ORTPN office in the park and were told that it would cost us $50, not $20. Well, neither of us had $50 with us--we'd only brought enough money for the day. And so we were turned around and spent the next 90 minutes waiting on the side of the road for a ride back to Cyangugu.

That's not to say that our trip to Nyungwe was a waste, though. On the contrary, our early morning ride there was one of the most beautiful rides I've been on in Africa, leaving the terraced hillsides of the Cyangugu area and continuing on, up hills and around curves, through dense jungle, with imposingly large forested hills rising up around us. It was early, and all of the valleys and the spaces between the hills were covered with mist, rising up and giving everything an ethereal air. That drive alone was worth the hassle of the journey. Unfortunately the Onatracom bus that I was on was moving continuously; if it had stopped anywhere, I would have been able to take a fantastic photo.

The following day, Brian and I left at the crack of dawn and spent the next 6 hours on an incredibly crowded bus along a fantastic (and fantastically bumpy) dirt road from Kamembe to Kibuye. It had rained earlier, so the going was tough. Luckily Brian and I both had seats, unlike many others who were crammed into the aisle like New Yorkers on a rush-hour subway. Eventually we got to Kibuye, a small town with absolutely nothing to do. We were there for a few days, relaxing and napping and walking around and swimming in the cold waters of Lake Kivu. Even though the weather wasn't great while we were there, the scenery was still lovely. We also met a wonderful Canadian couple and spent hours chatting with them about everything from riots in Kenya to shopping malls in Dubai to poverty in Saskatchewan. Just talking to other backpackers was a welcome change---Rwanda is not a heavily touristed country, and Brian and I had not met any other backpackers for weeks. (and have barely met any since then, although that will soon change)

From Kibuye, it was another overcrowded bus to Gisenyi (on this one, I had the opportunity to sit in a window-seat where there was no window---just a lot of cold air blowing in my face). Gisenyi is on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, sharing a border with the Congolese town of Goma. Goma has a very interesting recent history, which I'm not going to go into now. I went to the Rwanda-Congo border post, but although Brian and I considered crossing into Goma to check it out, we decided against it.

It was in Gisenyi that it really hit us---we had set aside far too much time for Rwanda. Granted, we were waiting around because we had booked a trip to see the mountain gorillas on the 21st, and earlier dates had been booked. But, spending over 3 weeks backpacking around Rwanda can get really boring. For anyone who wants to visit Rwanda, I would recommend 2 weeks at most.

We spent 6 nights in Gisenyi. There was copious amounts of internet usage. There was the unfortunate night spent in a "dorm" consisting of Brian, myself, and 24 drunk Rwandese men. Needless to say, when the men started chatting at 4am and listening to music, the two "muzungus" were not amused. On a better note, we ate some of the best cheap African food I've had in all of my travels. I went to the beach and swam in Lake Kivu a few times---for as long as I could put up with the stares from locals and the blatant calls of "muzungu!" I also visited another wonderful market, but alas, I could not find any more "CU On The Ramps" t-shirts. At one point I was wandering aimlessly by myself through the market when two small children, probably around 3 or 4 years old, ran up to me and bear-hugged my legs. I smiled, but when I tried to walk, they clutched onto my pant-legs, following me. I was basically dragging these kids around the market, as they looked up at me smiling with goofy grins and women in the market laughed. It was all very amusing. In Gisenyi I also had the good fortune to spend time with locals--people around my age, with a working grasp of English (not always so common in a Francophone country). Spending hours with them, hanging out in their homes, eating meals with them---that's what I will remember about Gisenyi. Some have suffered and seen things I can't imagine. It hit me, looking through family photos and having people point out their murdered family members. And one guy in particular had both of his hands chopped off during the genocide but still managed to surf the internet with his stumps.

After Gisenyi, it was finally time for Brian and I to head up to Ruhengeri--our final stop in Rwanda. Ruhgengeri itself is an insignificant town, but when we were there, our eyes were drawn to the horizon, to the imposing Virunga volcanoes rising around us. We were only there for 2 nights; after our first night we woke up before dawn and were waiting outside of our guesthouse at 6am for our ride to take us to the Parc National Des Volcans. We drove out of town and soon were at the park, with the towering peaks of the volcanoes rising high in the background. This was where mountain gorillas had first been "discovered" and classified, and where Dian Fossey had worked until her murder.

We checked in and were assigned to our tracking group---Brian, myself, and 6 other tourists, along with our two guides and an armed soldier (for the protection of us? or for the gorillas?) set off to find the Hirwa group at the base of Sabinyo Volcano. Sabinyo, with its craggy peaks, lies at the junction of 3 countries: Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We started off, and after about 30 minutes walking through pyrethrum fields, we soon entered into the forest. It was an easy hike through tall bamboo, and after 20 minutes or so we found them: the Hirwa group of mountain gorillas--1 silverback male, 5 females, and 6 children. We were able to get to within a few meters of these majestic creatures, and we spent an hour with them. It was absolutely incredible, and although it cost $500 (about as much as I had spent during the entire previous 3 weeks in Rwanda), it was money well spent. It was one of the best experiences I've had during my travels (possibly the best) and will rank among the best experiences of my life. When our hour with the gorillas was up, it was difficult to leave. I spent the rest of that day, my last day in Rwanda, in an elated mood. We had truly ended Rwanda on a high note.

The next morning, Brian and I crossed the border into Uganda. We went from Ruhengeri to Cyanika, across the border, and then from Cyanika to Kisoro. Kisoro is a crappy little town, from what I saw of it, and after 2 hours spent waiting in a matatu (minibus) for it to leave, we were off to Kabale. The 3 hour ride from Kisoro to Kabale was crowded, and amusing in parts (like when the matatu broke down on a remote road and was miraculously fixed), and absolutely breathtaking in other parts. There was one point on the journey, when we were high up on a mountain-pass, looking down across lush, hilly, terraced fields rising and falling to the base of the Virungas in the distance, and then we rounded a turn and were treated to another panorama, with Lake Bunyoni and its clear blue water nestled inbetween green hills.

Eventually we arrived in Kabale and continued on to our final destination of the day, Lake Bunyoni. For our two nights in Bunyoni, Brian and I camped. Bunyoni and the areas around it are among the highest points in Uganda, and up in those highlands, alone in my tent, I shivered through the night. For the two nights we spent in Bunyoni, I was thankful that I'd brought thermal underwear and a fleece on my travels.

On the one full day that we spent in Bunyoni, Brian and I hiked to the top of the tall hills that surround the lake. From that high viewpoint, we were able to look out at the lake. Bunyoni is a breathtakingly beautiful lake, studded with wooded green islands. After soaking up the view for a while, we descended back down to the lake, and rented a canoe. We spent the next hour or so doing what is locally known as the "muzungu corkscrew"--where we would both start paddling and would end up going in circles. We spent a long time trying to get our canoe to go straight, to no avail. Eventually we realized that we could only go straight if one person was paddling, and from then on we were able to maneuver our canoe around.

The next morning we left Bunyoni; Brian went to Kabale and I continued on by myself in a crowded matatu to the small town of Ntungamo; from there, I squeezed into a "shared-taxi"--basically a private car that ferries people around, cramming as many in as possible. With 4 in the front and 4 in the back, we set off for the town of Rukungiri, where I was headed to meet a Peace Corps Uganda volunteer named Megan, who I'd been put in contact with. I was really excited to be at a PCV site in another African country, to compare our Peace Corps experiences, and to see what local Ugandan life is really like.

Whereas I was an "education" volunteer living in a village, Megan is a PEPFAR volunteer living in the town of Rukungiri. She is a "new" volunteer, having just sworn into service in October, the same week that I COS'd (ended my service) and left South Africa. I spent three nights at Megan's house in Rukungiri, living the Peace Corps life again and loving it. We purchased fresh produce at the local market and cooked (my first time cooking in a long time!). I did dishes, I bathed in a bucket. All very familiar. We walked to and from Megan's office in town, greeting people in the local language, Runyankori. Or, at least, she greeted and chatted in Runyankori while I smiled. (I was also amused to hear Megan speaking in her "African voice"---any Peace Corps volunteer in Africa would know what I'm talking about---the Ugandan equivalent to saying lots of "Is it?" and "Eish!!")

I spent two full working days with Megan at work; as much as I'd love to say that I was a witness to majestic heroic acts of service and community development, I can't. That wouldn't be Peace Corps. Peace Corps is lots of waiting, and making small progress in slow steps. Things change bit by bit; that's why they give us 2 years. I read a lot when I was with Megan at work; so did she. On the first day, we were at her office in Rukungiri; on the second, we went out into "the field" on a project that she is working with--training people in local villages about starting and running small businesses----growing coffee, or raising goats, for example. The villages we visited around Rukungiri are beautiful, hilly and green, surrounded by banana trees. Megan was supposed to speak to the aspiring entrepreneurs and teach them about leadership, but due to miscommunications (as always in Peace Corps), nobody brought her materials or gave her any time to speak. Megan is highly motivated, however, and she has a lot of great ideas about projects that she's planning; we spent a long time talking about them and I gave whatever small advice I could from my own personal experiences in South Africa (which aren't always applicable in an entirely different country, a different culture, a different experience---but maybe). I'm sure she's going to do great this next year-and-a-half.

It was wonderful and refreshing, spending three nights in Rukungiri; but soon it was time for me to leave, and on Wednesday, in the pre-dawn darkness, I let myself out of her house and walked to the bus station at 6:15am (sunrise is around 7am in Uganda). I got on a bus to Mbarara, and finally after waiting, we left at almost 8am. I arrived in Mbarara at 10 and switched to a matatu; after 2 1/2 more hours of waiting, we were off to Kasese, with the driver speeding and the engine smoking. Southern Uganda is lush and green, there are banana trees everywhere, and rolling hills---just wonderful and lovely and beautiful. But as we neared Kasese, all that went away, and we were driving through flat, dusty, brown savannah. After Rwanda and southern Uganda, being back in a savannah seemed like the height of desolation and infertility. We whizzed by a sign marking the Equator; I had started my travels south of the Tropic of Capricorn, and had now made it all the way into the Northern Hemisphere.

A few minutes later we pulled into Kasese--one of the crappier little towns I've encountered on my travels. It was about 3pm by this time, and I had to wait at the taxi rank in another matatu until 4:30, when we finally left for Fort Portal. Soon enough, after about 40 minutes or so, the land lost its barrenness and flatness, and became green again. With the Rwenzori Mountains to our left and green hills around us, I was happy again. The scenery was soon just as it had been in Rukungiri and other parts of southern Uganda. I arrived in Fort Portal, my final destination, at 6pm, almost 12 hours after I left Megan's house.

Brian was here, waiting for me. The next morning we booked some activities for our remaining time in Uganda (he's leaving Uganda on the same day as me, and flying to Istanbul to start the 2nd leg of his long journey), and then we left Fort Portal, on a shared-taxi to the crater lakes south of town. This is a lovely, green, hilly area, and we stayed at a place called the Lake Nkuruba Community Nature Reserve & Camp Site---a community-run place where proceeds go towards a local orphanage. It's extremely basic----latrines, an outdoor bucket-shower, no running water, and absolutely NO electricity. But the staff---community members----are extremely friendly and helpful, and I really enjoyed my time there.

On our first day at Nkuruba, we went for a short hike, walked to a neighboring village and walked around a busy market, ate at a local restaurant and chatted with some highly talkative individuals. It was all great. We also went swimming in the lake, which is surrounded by thick, steep forest. As we swam in the lake, monkeys could be heard and seen jumping through trees or coming down to the water to drink. The lake is thankfully bilharzia-free (according to staff), but it is FULL of tiny fish, each only slightly larger than a grain of rice, and when I would stand or sit in the water, they would swarm. Thousands of them surrounded every exposed inch of my body and started nibbling, eating dead skin that I couldn't see. They were cleaner fish---like the ones I'd seen nibbling at a manta ray's gills while diving off of Tofo. Having these swarms of fish nibbling on me was one of the strangest physical sensations I've ever had---not pleasant, but not unpleasant either. Just very, very strange.

The next morning, Brian and I were up early and rented "mountain-bikes" for the day. I put the word in quotes because the bikes we got had no gears, terrible brakes, and hard seats. Basically, they were terrible bikes, but we set off with them anyway. We wanted to bike to the famous Kibale Forest National Park. The journey there was through small dirt trails, up and down hills---we'd have to walk the bikes up the hills and ride down clutching the brakes as hard as we could. My hands still hurt from holding onto the brakes so hard.

Kibale is one of Uganda's most famous parks; it is estimated to have the highest density of primates in the world, including many chimpanzees. To get into the park and go walking costs money, but there is a dirt road that goes through the park that it is free to drive through or bike through. That's the road we took. Walking up and riding down hills, stopping to see monkeys jumping through trees, and enjoying the wonderful scenery of the huge, imposing forest. From Nkuruba, we'd ridden and walked for 17 kilometers to the main park tourist office, and then took that same route back. 34 kilometers on crappy bikes, having to walk with the bikes up steep hills, was exhausting work. I'd say that we rode about 35% of the time and walked the other 65%---that's a lot of kilometers to walk uphill on dirt roads, dragging a bicycle. Add in the hot equatorial sun and some downpours, and it was quite the workout. But it was a beautiful trip through the forest, and it was free!

Today we had planned to go on a walk around the campsite and neighboring areas, but we were sore from our ordeal yesterday, and it was raining, so we decided to return to Fort Portal and take care of some errands (like writing a blog entry). Tomorrow we have a long day of travel ahead of us, to Masindi in the North-west part of the country. We have a lot planned for the next week or so---a stark contrast to all of the lounging in Arusha and Rwanda. Knowing that my time is limited makes me appreciate it that much more.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Travel Update #7: Arusha, Tanzania to Cyangugu, Rwanda

After having spent far too much time in Arusha (and in Tanzania in general), Brian and I left on a long, long trip overland through Tanzania to Kigali, Rwanda. The commonly accepted way to do this is to take a bus from Arusha to Kampala, Uganda, via Nairobi, Kenya, and then to take a bus from Kampala to Kigali. Due to continued unrest in Kenya, and especially in towns along the road to Uganda, we decided that we would take the "road less traveled" and do a southern loop in Tanzania.

With only a very basic idea of how we were going to get to our destination, Brian and I left Arusha pre-dawn on Monday, January 28, on a bus bound for Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. This involves a long loop around (not through) the Ngorongoro and Serengeti National Parks, through the small towns of Singida and Shinyanga. After over 13 hours on the bus, through some wonderful scenery (and some very un-wonderful scenery), we finally arrived in Mwanza at dusk. Mwanza is a thoroughly unremarkable town, but we were able to run some errands. We spent one day in Mwanza, and then were off on another pre-dawn bus ride, this time to the small town of Benako, near the Tanzania-Rwanda border. After 9 hours of ear-shattering Swahili music, we arrived in Benako, and took a taxi to the border post at Rusumu Falls.

As we neared the border, I noticed that the landscape was gradually becoming greener and hillier; the flat, endless plains of Tanzania were behind us and we were surrounded by verdant hills. After getting our Tanzania exit stamps, we walked down the hill and across the bridge that separates Tanzania from Rwanda. It was a surprise when, crossing the bridge, we found ourselves looking at a large, powerful, surging waterfall. Aside from the Victoria Falls border post, it was the most scenic border I'd ever crossed.

One thing I noticed at the border was that the waterfall was not clear or blue, but a deep, rich brown. It looked almost like a waterfall of chocolate-milk. At the time I was wondering why that was the case, but then I remembered that Rwanda is one of the most over-grazed countries in the world; it is so densely populated, and practically every square inch of land is cultivated. This has led to serious erosion, and that erosion was going into the rivers and turning the water brown. (Jared Diamond, in his book "Collapse", even suggests that environmental issues were one factor to contribute to Rwanda's genocide)

We hopped on a minibus, and immediately, I could tell that I was in a beautiful, hilly, lush country. Everything was green, every view was like a panorama postcard. (Also, for the first time, I was in an African country that used an American road system, with the driver in the left front seat, driving on the right-hand side of the road. That took some getting used to, especially when crossing the street in Kigali.) Soon the sun went down, and I noticed an extreme lack of lights of any sort on the road; we were in darkness, sans-electricity. That made it all the more surprising when we turned one corner and the sprawling city of Kigali was before us, lit up like a beacon in the dark, extending as far as we could see.

We were dropped off in the center of town, and got into a taxi to take us to our guesthouse. After a lot of confusion and uncertain communication, our taxi driver eventually got us to our destination, a crappy little guesthouse right in the center of town. (Rwanda is a French-speaking country, and neither Brian nor I speak any French)

The next morning, we walked around Kigali, and the first thing I noticed was how hilly it was. Kigali is a city built on hills; this gives it a beautiful, scenic look, but also makes it tiring to walk around for long distances (as is the habit when on a budget) and especially when I'd go on my morning runs. The second thing I noticed about Kigali was how modern it is; I was expecting to find a city bearing the scars of the horrors that happened there, a city that was slowly catching up, like Maputo. Instead, I found a modern city, with break-neck construction everywhere, with excellent roads, streets full of cars, minubuses, and the ubiquitous green motorcycle-taxis that everyone seems to always be taking, sidewalks filled with well-dressed, good-looking people (Kigali has some of the most beautiful women I'd seen in my travels through Africa, but unfortunately due to the language barrier I wasn't able to communicate with any of them), with internet cafes around every corner, and with plenty of new buildings. One could arrive in Kigali and walk around its streets having no idea that 14 years ago those very same streets were filled with decomposing bodies. The city even has a modern shopping mall with a fancy European-style coffee house, full of NGO workers and well-to-do Kigali-ites (Kigali-ans?) on their laptops, taking advantage of a wi-fi internet connection.

We spent 6 nights in Kigali, but it never got boring or old. On the contrary, I loved being in Kigali, walking around, soaking it all in. Brian and I booked ourselves into a gorilla-trekking safari on February 21 (I can't wait), we ate some fantastic food and some very cheap food (and, occasionally, some fantastic cheap food). We enjoyed some of Kigali's nightlife. We went to the Hotel des Mille Collines, the one-and-only Hotel Rwanda. This was the place where Paul Rusesabagina protected hundreds of people during the genocide, made famous in the 2004 film. The actual Mille Collines looks nothing like the hotel used in the movie, and in fact resembles a Holiday Inn more than anything. It is a nice place, though.

The most memorable part of Kigali for me, in addition to the surprise at being in a modern city
, was a visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre. I'd been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Neither one holds a candle to the Kigali Memorial Centre, though. To get there, Brian and I each hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi and held on tight as the driver swerved through city traffic, up and down hills, and took us to the outskirts of the city. The memorial lies on a large plot of land, most of which is taken up by gardens and spaces to walk and think. Over 250,000 people are buried there at the memorial, their bodies having been exhumed from mass graves around Kigali and other parts of the country. Knowing that the place is a giant mass graveyard adds a dimension of gravity that other museums and memorials cannot match. Inside the main memorial building, there are three exhibits: the first, and largest, is a detailed account of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, starting with its roots in colonial times, and ending with the current situation in Rwanda. The second exhibit discusses genocides of the 20th century, from the slaughter of Armenians by Turkey, to the Holocaust, to Cambodia and the Balkans. The third exhibit is a memorial to the children who were killed during the genocide. I was so moved by the memorial that I went back two days after visiting, with pen and paper, to record some quotes, which I will include below.

In the main exhibit, the horror or the genocide is steadily, unflinchingly portrayed. Never done for pure shock value, the exhibit is instead extremely sad and depressing. Atrocities are recounted in clear, vivid prose, chosen for maximum effect. Here is one example:

"Women were beaten, raped, humiliated, abused and ultimately murdered, often in sight of their own families. Children watched as their parents were tortured, beaten and killed in front of their eyes, before their small bodies were sliced, smashed, abused, pulverised and discarded. ... Victims had their tendons cut so they could not run away; they were tied and beaten. They were made to wait helplessly to be clubbed, raped or cut by machete."

The exhibit then goes on to discuss the international community's failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda, with its anger barely concealed.

"On 21 April, the UN Security Council passed a Resolution stating that it was 'appalled at the ensuing large scale of violence in Rwanda', which had resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children. The same meeting voted to reduce the UNAMIR force to 270 volunteer Ghanaian personnel and to limit its mandate. ... Diplomatic staff and foreign workers left the country. Many left their colleagues, employees and friends to the mercy of the killers. Dignitaries of the Habyarimana regime, authors of the genocide, were evacuated. The number of foreign troops in the evacuation would have been sufficient to stop the genocide."

After leaving this portion of the exhibit, the next room is full of pictures of genocide victims, provided by their families. Walking around this room, looking at all of the happy, smiling people, couples, and families is truly sobering, as a video plays of survivors talking about their family members who were killed during the genocide, remembering their last moments together. Immediately following this room is a startling, darkened, haunting room full of skulls and bones collected from mass graves around Kigali. Many of the skulls bear obvious machete wounds.

After this, we walked into the main section of the first exhibit, with large quotes written along the walls. One is extremely poignant: "When they said 'never again' after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?" --Apollon Kabahizi

While this was all sobering and informative, the moment the memorial truly hit home for me was in the exhibit of Rwanda's lost children. Walking into the first room, a plaque reads, "In memory of our beautiful and beloved children who should have been our future..." and there are large, wall-sized pictures of happy, smiling children. It is a simple memorial, never over-done. Each picture is accompanied by the name of the child and a simple plaque with some information about them. After a while, this became too much to bear; I can still remember the moment when I started crying. I was looking at a picture of a happy little girl in a dress, with the plaque bearing the following description:

Ariane Umutoni
Age: 4
Favourite food: Cake
Favourite drink: Milk
Enjoyed: Singing and dancing
Behaviour: A neat little girl
Cause of death: Stabbed in her eyes and head

That is only one example of the numerous displays in the childrens' exhibit. At the end, there are pictures, submittied by their families, of many hundreds of children, all of them no longer with us. This is the end of the memorial; after this, we walked out into the sunny daylight, into the gardens, surrounded by the graves of the dead. It was an extremely sobering experience; Brian and I were both quiet for hours following our departure.

After so many days in Kigali, we knew it was time to leave, and on Tuesday morning we took a minibus to Butare, the main town in southern Rwanda. One thing I have noticed in Rwanda much more than other African countries is the number of amputees and other disfigured people walking around. It's pretty obvious, actually. While they aren't everywhere, and it is very easy to spend time without running into them, they are very easy to find. Missing legs, missing hands. Waiting for our minibus to leave Kigali, sitting inside, I was approached by at least 3 or 4 people with missing arms, holding their stumps up to the window, asking for money. I was caught off-guard that first time, but it has happened over and over again in Rwanda, and I can feel myself desensitizing to it. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing.

The ride to Butare was spectacular, as all of the rides I have been on in Rwanda have been---it is truly a stunningly beautiful country. Butare is actually very close to the Burundi border. Butare is an unremarkable town, and we were only there for two nights. On our first day there, immediately after arriving, Brian and I took motorcycle-taxis to the National Museum, which is the exact opposite of the Kigali Memorial Centre---a simple, uncontroversial description of the landscape and traditional life of Rwanda. There is no mention of genocide or conflict in the museum.

The following day, on a day-trip, we took a minibus to the town of Gikongoro, 28km west of Butare. On the way there, through green cultivated hills, we passed groups of prisoners in their standard-issue pink outfits, hundreds of men working the fields and rice paddies, with a few armed prison guards keeping an eye on them. These men are the genocidaires, the men who did most of the murdering during the genocide. While the architects of the genocide are being tried in Arusha, the rank-and-file members are serving their time, doing manual labor. I wondered if any of these men were the ones who killed little Ariane Umutoni by stabbing her in the eyes and head.

Once we had arrived in Gikongoro, we hopped on the back of motorcycle-taxis and were off, swerving around cars and people, and soon we were off of the paved road and were on a dirt road, going down a steady hill, toward the Murambi Genocide Memorial. Rwanda is full of memorials; it seems that every town has one to take advantage of "genocide tourism". I did not want to do this, and as such, the Kigali Memorial Centre and the Murambi Memorial (both of which I had heard about long before arriving in Rwanda) were the only two that I visited; I did not and will not visit any others.

Upon arriving at the memorial, a former technical college, we were greeted by an elderly man named Emmanuel. With limited English, he told us that during the genocide, 50,000 people had fled here for protection from the Interhamwe militias. But they were not safe; soon the Interhamwe came and over the course of 2 days, they killed everyone. Out of 50,000 people, only 4 survived. Emmanuel is one of these lucky four; he has the bullet-hole in his head to prove it. He said that his entire family had been killed at Murambi.

We walked around the grounds of the technical college, which is set, like much of the country, on top of a hill, looking out at beautiful panoramas of green cultivated hills and mountains. An elderly woman walked up to us with a ring of keys; she gave them to Emmanuel and he walked us towards a classroom block. As we neared the block, I noticed a smell unlike any I'd smelled before. It was a thick stench, one that fills the nostrils. Emmanuel unlocked the first door and opened it, and Brian and I stood there, looking at a room full of corpses. These corpses had been preserved with lime to look exactly as they had looked when the killers struck fourteen years ago, their bodies contorted in agony (due to rigor-mortis, their bodies were forever contorted as they had been at the moment of their death), their flesh shrivelled. Many of them had mouths open in a neverending silent scream, their hands raised to protect their faces and bodies; machete wounds were still visible on many of their heads, their skulls cracked.

We walked from room to room; each room Emmanuel opened was full of more bodies, the smell of death everywhere. I had to keep my hand over my mouth and nose, covering it, because of the horror of what I was seeing and also because I didn't want to get nauseous. We walked through room after room of adults, children, and small toddlers, their bodies lying there as a testament to the horror of the past. While the Murambi Memorial was not as sad as the Kigali Memorial Centre, it was much more horrific. The images of those bodies in those darkened rooms will stay with me forever.

We walked the 3km back to Gikongoro and took a minibus back to Butare. The next day, on Thursday, we left Butare and took another minibus to the town of Cyangugu, where I am currently. As usual, the ride was spectacular, especially when we drove through the Nyungwe National Park, once we were closer to Cyangugu. Cyangugu is the main town near the Nyungwe park, where Brian and I are going tomorrow. In a beautiful location, on the southern tip of Lake Kivu, Cyangugu is also a border town; it is the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Eventually the minibus arrived in the town of Kamembe, which is the main town near Cyangugu. Brian and I got off of the minibus, and were immediately surrounded by people asking us where we were going and offering us inflated "muzungu" prices to take us to our destination. We were especially confused because when we said we were going to Cyangugu, we were told that we were in Cyangugu. When we said we were going to town, they said "You are in town." Or, that's what I assumed, because they were mostly speaking French and I could only follow a little.

Eventually, tiring of the uncertainty, we just decided to take motorcycle-taxis to our guesthouse. This was a challenge, because we had our big bags with would we manage on the back of a motorcycle? The solution (there is always a solution) was that the driver put my large beast of a bag in the front section of the motorcycle, between his legs, and used his legs to keep it in place. It wasn't totally balanced, though, so we drove slowly, re-adjusting along the way. Eventually we arrived at our guesthouse, and I was surprised at just how close we were to the border. The Rwanda-DRC border was literally a stone's throw from our guesthouse; we were looking out at the Congo.

We have been here in Cyangugu/Kamembe since Thursday, relaxing and enjoying the town. There is a wonderful local market where I've seen piles and piles of used clothes donated from America and Europe. I figure that some of my clothes were also in those piles, and was surprised while looking through one pile to find a "C.U. On The Ramps" Lerner Hall t-shirt, a free shirt that had been given to our freshman class at Columbia University back in 1999. I wondered if this was my old shirt that I had donated and was now holding thousands of miles away.

I had totally forgotten that I'd ever owned a "C.U. On The Ramps" shirt, but it seemed fitting; being in Rwanda, I've seen that the past is still alive in the memories of its people and in those amputees I've seen everywhere. You can forget the past, but it will find you....sometimes, even on the other side of the world.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A brief note on pictures

Well, I am currently in beautiful Kigali, Rwanda. For the past four days I have been trying to upload some of my pictures onto this blog, to no avail. After more than five unsuccessful attempts, I have decided not to post any more pictures on this blog until I get to another major city with a fast internet connection (i.e. Kampala, Uganda).

I will be writing another blog post soon, though. Being in Rwanda has given me a lot to say.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Travel Update #6: Zanzibar, Tanzania to Arusha, Tanzania

Although it has only been 5 weeks since my last update, and I am still in the same country I had been then, I cannot remember a time when I had more to write....or less desire to write it. But here goes.

After my last update, I left the maze-like Stone Town and headed back up to Kendwa Beach in Zanzibar; the only reason I'd gone back to Stone Town in the first place was to see Eric and Tom off, and soon enough I was back on the beach staring out at turquoise seas. I stayed in Kendwa until New Year's; it was a long time spent doing absolutely not much at all. But doing nothing never got boring; there was always a lively mix of old and new friends around. Brian, who I had traveled with in Mozambique and Malawi, was there. Mayerlin, a friend from Peace Corps South Africa, was there. Eric McDermott, another Peace Corps friend, soon showed up. I met wonderful new people, notably two volunteers working around Arusha, Lisa and Shannon.

One of the only active things I did during my time in Kendwa was a day-long scuba diving trip with Brian and Eric. We left early in the morning on a small wooden motorboat, on a 2-hour journey around the northern tip of Zanzibar, to the Mnemba Atoll, site of a gorgeous coral reef teeming with tropical fish. We did two dives, which were beautiful even though choppy conditions led to poor visibility. The trip back to Kendwa, in the afternoon, was a bit of an adventure though; the seas were surging, a rarity for the usually-calm waters around Zanzibar. Our small boat was getting tossed, rocking back and forth, all of us inside getting drenched with water with each sway. The boat literally would be at a 45-degree angle and then rock back to an extent where I thought we might capsize. Luckily we didn't, and when we finally got back to land it felt like heaven.

On New Year's Eve, a group of about 20 of us hired out a dhow to take us on a sunset cruise; the sun set on the most amazing year of my life over the calm waters of the Indian Ocean, as we sat in the dhow, swaying in the breeze. I said goodbye to 2007, and the next day, on January 1, 2008, I finally left Zanzibar, having spent over two weeks there. I took the ferry back to Dar Es Salaam, and was a man with a purpose during my two nights there. My camera was broken, and I was determined to find a new one in Dar. I went to numerous shops all over downtown Dar Es Salaam, looking for any affordable, good-quality digital camera I could find. Unless I wanted a camera with 3 megapixels and no zoom, the only cameras I found cost over $500 USD. This was unacceptable to me, and so I spent one hectic day on a wild-goose-chase around the outskirts of Dar, trying to find a camera. After wandering around on the Msasani Peninsula (and inadvertently finding Dr. Pepper---only the second place I've seen it during my entire time in Africa), I heard someone mention a rumor of a Game store about 10 km outside of Dar in the other direction. I'd been to Game numerous times in South Africa and knew that their prices were reasonable; I set out to find this store. After spending 30 minutes waiting for a daladala (local, shared transport) on a random road somewhere, and seeing no daladalas go by, I decided to hail a taxi (a rare splurge). Eventually I made it to the Mlimani City mall--the only indoor shopping mall I've found in Africa outside of South Africa. I was able to buy a new Sony digital camera at Game, and the mall even had a movie theater, where I was fortunate enough to watch the Will Smith movie "I Am Legend."

That evening, Lisa and Shannon arrived in Dar, and early the next morning the three of us left Dar on a bus to Moshi/Arusha. About 45 minutes outside of Dar, our bus inexplicably broke down, and we were stranded on the side of the road for over 2 1/2 hours. We were on the 7am bus; it was disheartening to watch the 7:30 bus, the 8am bus, all the way to the 9:30 bus, pass us by on the road. But eventually, as is always the case in Africa, we were on our way. And eventually, I made it to Moshi, my final destination. Lisa and Shannon continued on to Arusha, and we made plans to meet once I came down from the mountain.

After two nights in Moshi, relaxing and preparing myself mentally for the climb up Kilimanjaro, I took a daladala to the town of Marangu, and then walked quite a distance along a dusty road to the Kilimanjaro Mountain Resort, where I met the rest of my climbing group. I had booked my climb before leaving South Africa, with a company called the Africa Walking Company, and they booked us into the very fancy mountain resort for the night before the beginning of the climb. It was by far the nicest place I've stayed at during my travels; I had a huge room all to myself, with a king-sized bed, a flat-screen television, a private balcony, and a huge bathroom with a bathtub and a shower.

Unfortunately I couldn't really enjoy the room all that much because that night I became ill; it must have been something I ate, because I was back-and-forth between my bed and the toilet all night, and the following morning I didn't feel too much better. But with all of the excitement and anticipation of heading out for the mountain, I didn't pay too much attention to how I was feeling and was soon on my way with the rest of my climbing group for "Kili."

Unlike the backpackers, volunteers, and other long-term travelers and ex-pats I've met and spent time with during the past 2 1/2 years, the other 11 people in my Kilimanjaro climbing group had come to Tanzania (in many cases, all the way to Africa from other continents) just to climb the mountain, or to climb the mountain and go on a safari. Many were on 2-week vacations from work. Some were extremely naive about Africa. (One man asked me if they spoke Swahili in South Africa and expressed surprise that poverty-stricken Tanzanian villagers wore clean clothes) But they were a wonderful group of people and I'm happy to have spent a week with them. I thought back to my life before Peace Corps, to my own 2-week vacations, and realized again how lucky I am to have had the experiences I've had in Africa. They would not have been possible on any number of 2-week vacations put together. We were a diverse group of people climbing the mountain, though; I was the youngest, and the oldest was a 79-year old man from Wisconsin. Our group included Americans, English, Welsh, Irish, and two black South Africans, Vusi and Lebo. It was so refreshing to me to see and be around black South Africans, outside of South Africa. Before them, the only South Africans I had run into on my travels had been white.

We set off for the mountain, and drove for almost 3 hours to the Rongai Gate, where our path up the mountain, the Rongai Route, begins. By the time we arrived there, it was mid-day and I could start to feel my body protesting again. I ignored it, and we soon set off on the uphill trail. 10 minutes into the hike, I could feel that something was definitely wrong. Tim, an American in the group, volunteered to carry my day-pack for a while to help me. But it didn't help much; soon afterwards I was vomiting everything I'd eaten that day. Could I even continue up this mountain? I thought. I contemplated turning around, but Tim encouraged me to continue on, and other group members supplied me with oral rehydration fluid. Soon enough, though, I was on my hands and knees, regurgitating all of the rehydration fluid.

That first day, a 4 hour walk on a steady, not-very-steep uphill, was meant to be the "easy day", meant to prepare us for the more grueling days ahead. For me, the first day was complete agony. I was the last member of the group to make it into camp that evening, and immediately collapsed into my tent. I decided that if I didn't feel significantly better the following morning, I would not continue with the climb. After taking the anti-sickness medicine Maxalon, combined with a good night's sleep and the encouragement of my fellow group members, I woke up the following morning feeling tremendously better and ready to continue up the mountain. I still wasn't at 100%, and I didn't feel completely better until I got back to Marangu after the climb, but I trekked on.

The climb up the mountain was long, and tough, and scenic. Almost the entire time, we either had the iconic peak of Kibo ahead of us, or the jagged Mawenzi (unlike some other routes, like the Marangu route, where Kibo only shows itself after a few days). After that first night, the effects of the mountain began to kick in--diminished appetite, lack of sleep. I think that because I didn't acclimatize properly on the first day, that affected me for the entire climb.

Eventually "summit day" arrived. We were awoken at 11:30pm, in the middle of the night, at Kibo Camp, 4700 meters above sea level. By 12:30 we were on our way, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up in our thick pants and thick jackets, in the pitch-black darkness with only our headlamps to guide us, going "pole-pole" (slowly) all the way. It was incredibly tough; the effects of my sickness, that I hadn't recovered from, in addition to the lack of sleep over the previous nights, combined with the altitude, made it extremely slow going and difficult for me. At the "Jamaica Rocks" below Gilman's Point, I physically collapsed but was able to get myself up and over the rocks and onto Gilman's Point, at 5680 meters above sea level. I had made it to the top of the crater; far enough to earn a certificate. I looked out into the crater (the top of Kilimanjaro is not flat; its a volcano and the crater goes down a few hundred meters), seeing snow around me and glaciers in the distance. It was late; it was past 8:30am when I made it to Gilman's Point, and I should have been there by 6. After a rest, where I ate some energy bars and gathered myself, I was ready to continue on the final 2 hours to Uhuru Peak, at 5896 meters above sea level. One of our guides, Hans, agreed to take me, but soon enough we both realized that we didn't have enough time to make it to Uhuru, and make it back to Gilman's, and then make it all the way down to Kibo Camp in time. Although I wanted to continue to Uhuru Peak, I realized that we wouldn't be able to make it, so we turned around at Stella Point, at 5744 meters above sea level. We went back to Gilman's, scree-d down the 900 meters to Kibo Camp, ate, rested for a bit, and then continued on another 3-hour walk to our final camp for the night, Horombo Huts, at 3700 meters.

January 10, Summit Day, was my 27th birthday. Before the climb, I'd had a romantic image of myself on the top of the mountain, watching the sun come up on my 27th year. The reality of the situation was that my birthday was spent in pain mostly, 16 1/2 hours trudging up and down a mountain, 1000 meters up, 2000 meters down. I began the day walking in the darkness with a headlamp; we didn't make it to Horombo Huts until 8pm, walking in the darkness (again) with our headlamps. It was a supremely exhausting day, and I'm happy that I was able to overcome my sickness and make it to Stella Point. That night I slept like a baby.

The next day we said goodbye to our guides and our porters (the porters who go up and down Kilimanjaro are incredible---carrying 15 kg on their heads, running past us going up and down the mountain every day), and descended the final 1800 meters to the Marangu Gate. At that point all I could think about was getting back to the hotel and taking a hot shower; when that finally happened, it was the most refreshing shower of my life. I'd been so dirty that the water that ran off of me was black.

The next morning I said goodbye to the rest of my group and was lucky enough to get a free lift back to Moshi. I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived to find Brian there. It's been nice to have company; we have been traveling together since then. After one night in Moshi, we took a daladala to Arusha and met up with Lisa and Shannon.

We are still in Arusha, two weeks later. It's funny how time passes; Arusha is a thoroughly unremarkable town but I've come to tolerate and appreciate it. It's full of street touts trying to scam you, but after a while you learn how to ignore them. On our first full day in Arusha, Brian and I walked around to some of the numerous safari operators with offices in Arusha, getting quotations on safaris and comparing prices. We found a good, reasonably priced 5-day, 4-night safari with a company called Shidolya Tours that Mayerlin had recommended, and booked the safari with them.

The next day, on Tuesday, Brian and I visited the UNICTR (United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), which is situated in Arusha. The court is in session, holding proceedings against many of the architects of the Rwanda Genocide, every Monday - Thursday. That day, Brian and I sat in on the Nsengimana case--the accused is a Hutu Priest who assisted in the massacres of many of the Tutsis in his parish. I've been in court before, as a juror, so the technicalities of legal proceedings are not entirely new to me. What makes the tribunal stand out is that, inbetween technical proceedings about evidence being submitted for the record and lines of questioning, the subject matter being discussed was just so intense. A witness described walking into a technical college and finding the bodies of men, women, and children, their skulls smashed and broken with clubs. When we got back from safari, I went to the tribunal again and spent hours listening to the Ndilindiliyimana case (a very high-profile military case)---startling testimony about assassinations and military action. One affable, elderly witness described how he, a Tutsi hotel owner in a small town, had been warned that he would die at 9pm one day; at 7pm a military convoy arrived seeking cfood and lodging. At 9pm the Interhamwe Militia arrived with machetes but, seeing the military vehicles present, turned around and spared this man's life, along with the lives of other Tutsis hiding at the hotel. He went on to mention that they all survived, and some of them ended up at the Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali (the Hotel Rwanda, famous from the film). Sitting in on the tribunal was intense stuff, but I'm happy to see that justice is slowly being done.

On Wednesday, Brian and I left for safari. It was a beautiful trip, and we were able to see a large number of animals. We saw a rare leopard; we also saw many elephants up close, including a rare tusker elephant, prides of lions (including playing cubs), hippos both in and out of the water, huge herds of zebras, wildebest, buffalo, hyenas, and other common animals like gazelles. We also managed to see a pride of lions eating a buffalo, which was very cool. Five days was a perfect length for a safari; we saw what we wanted to see but by the end we were ready to get back to Arusha. We spent one night at Lake Manyara, two nights in the Serengeti, and one night at the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. Serengeti and Ngorongoro were both, in particular, beautiful places. Serengeti National Park is HUGE; we drove for hours and hours and never visited the same place twice. Because the park is so large, its animals are spread out; we drove for hours without seeing a single animal at some points. Ngorongoro, by contrast, is relatively small, with a huge density of herbivorous animals---namely, wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo. Because of that, we could not drive for more than a few minutes without seeing animals. In terms of scenery, Ngorongoro is an absolutely stunning place, green and lush plains teeming with animals, lakes filled with flamingos, and forests. The drive up to the rim from the crater, along the steep crater wall, was beautiful and a bit nerve-wracking. All in all, our safari was a very worthwhile experience, and I'm happy that I was able to do it. It's a shame, though, that so many people come to Africa only for safari; for me, that isn't really Africa---it's only one very small part of it. For me, it was a side-note to a much larger, better story.

After we returned to Arusha, to hot showers and Japanese food (yes, Japanese food), we explored more of the city. Brian and I, along with Dan, another traveler we met in Zanzibar, found a movietheater on the outskirts of Arusha and saw the movie "American Gangster." But after three more nights, it was time to leave Arusha again---Brian and I went with Shannon, whom we had met in Zanzibar, to the village where she works as a volunteer.

Shannon is a volunteer, not with any official organization like the Peace Corps, but out of her own determination and her own funds. She lives in a Maasai Village about an hour north of Arusha on the road to Nairobi, at the base of Mount Meru (the 2nd highest in Tanzania and one of the highest in Africa). We took crowded daladalas to her village, walked through fields and greeted people as we passed, walked past kids playing around rondavels (in Tanzania they call them "bomas"), and arrived at the house where Shannon lives with a local family. It was all very reminiscent of my experience in Peace Corps. Shannon works as a teacher at a primary school in the village; I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the school, to observe some classes, and to see the similarities and differences between rural schools in Tanzania and rural schools in South Africa. (verdict: there aren't that many differences, which should say more about the low quality of South African schools as opposed to the high quality of Tanzanian schools) I did manage to sit in, and sing along with, a 170-student kindergarten class....170 students and one teacher in one extremely crowded room.

We also went for a wonderful walk through Shannon's village, Ilkurot. Maasai men and boys were walking through the plains, shepherding large groups of cattle. Women carried buckets on their heads up and down-hill from the village water tap. One group of about 15 women, when we walked by the boma where they were congregating, were so excited to see us that they started dancing; soon enough, us three "wazungu" were in the middle of the group, doing the traditional Maasai dance along with the village women. After so long traveling, it was wonderful to be back in the Africa I know--not the beach-front destination or the adventure spot or the tourist trap, but the simple rural community. And even though I was thousands of miles away from Tshamahansi and from South Africa, I felt at home.

On Thursday, we returned from Ilkurot back to Arusha; thankfully, our time in Arusha is almost over. We had planned on taking a bus to Mwanza today, but because none are running on Sunday, we will be leaving at 5am tomorrow for the long journey. After a night or two in Mwanza, we will continue on to Kigali, Rwanda. It will be wonderful to be away from "touristy" Tanzania and into a place that has captured my imagination (both positively and negatively) for the past 14 years.

More than anything, I will be happy to leave Tanzania. Much has happened to me here, and I have had some wonderful experiences (Kilimanjaro, safari, Ilkurot) that I will remember for the rest of my life, but there's only so much that one can put in a blog. Real life is never as neat as the narrative; beneath the exotic-ness of travel, life does go on just as it does elsewhere. Life didn't stop when I arrived in Tanzania; my life on leaving Tanzania is drastically different from my life on entering Tanzania.

I'm looking forward to moving on; Rwanda is calling.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Travel Update #5: Lusaka, Zambia to Zanzibar, Tanzania

When I wrote my last travel update, I was in the midst of spending a few days in the unspectacular city of Lusaka, Zambia. It's a fairly large city, and I was able to accomplish some errands (like blog posting) while there. It's a city that reminded me more of South Africa than anywhere else I've encountered on my travels--like a South African outpost in the bush. With its Ster Kinekor theatres, its Game store, its Shoprite and Spar supermarkets, its Pep stores, it was all very South African and a bit surreal.

While in Lusaka, I ran into Brian again. This would be a common thing--I spent time with Brian in Lusaka, and again in Livingstone, and most recently we ran into each other here on Zanzibar.

On Monday night, 3 December, Erica arrived in Lusaka; the next morning we were off for Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. We took a bus from Lusaka to Livingstone, Zambia; a minibus from Livingstone to the border; then we walked across the Victoria Falls Bridge to Zimbabwe. I'd read so much about Zimbabwe this past year, the horror stories, the second-hand (and first-hand accounts) I'd heard from people, that stepping onto Zimbabwean soil made me a bit apprehensive.

The apprehension soon vanished, though. When we exited the Zimbabwean border post (where a very friendly immigration officer speedily processed visas for us), the cloudy day turned into a torrential downpour. We had planned on walking the 2km into Victoria Falls town, but the rain changed our plans; we quickly hopped into a private taxi, which promptly broke down in the rain. The driver spent the next 20 minutes working tirelessly, getting himself soaked from head to toe, to get the car working, and got us to our destination, dry.

During the three days I spent in Zimbabwe, I saw determined human beings faced with terrible circumstances. With such terrible inflation (the current unofficial exchange rate, at least when I was there, was US $1 to Z$ 1,600,000), people are doing all they can to survive. Shops are either empty of goods or stocked with certain products to give a deceptive appearance. In a large supermarket in Victoria Falls Town, entire shelves were taken up by mayonnaise or soya mince, only one row deep on the shelf. The illusion of plenty.
Zimbabweans are extremely resolute and hard-working; it is easy to see the effects of poverty and economic collapse everywhere, but their responses to it are surprising. I had expected to be surrounded by pitiful beggars; instead, everyone was trying to sell me something or offer a service. They didn't even need money, necessarily---an old tee-shirt for trading, or an old pair of trousers, or a used pair of shoes---anything that they could trade. I saw young men offering intricate carvings and asking for only a simple tee-shirt in exchange. People volunteered to carry your bags, to arrange tours for you---anything for a little bit of American money or some sort of good that could be bartered. Zimbabwean money is basically useless, and a sort of barter system has taken root. Everyone wanted to exchange something for something else. Only the very elderly or the disabled begged for money or goods. I cannot overstate how impressed I was with Zimbabwean peoples' resoluteness, their determination, their willingness to work, their friendliness, and so on. I wish I could have bought stacks of local carvings or crafts, and help them out, but I had no space in my bag for anything and had to refuse. There was really nothing that I could do.
The main reason I was in Zimbabwe was not to view the effects of economic collapse, it was to view the magnificent Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the largest waterfalls in the world. They put Niagara Falls to shame. Walking around Victoria Falls Park in Zimbabwe, on a cloudy, rainy day, the sheer beauty and scope of the falls was apparent.
Tom, one of my good friends and a fellow South Africa RPCV, had flown to Victoria Falls to join me for a portion of my travels. Erica and I met him one evening, and we went out to dinner at a large, touristy restaurant called The Boma. It was a tacky place, trying to sell the "traditional African experience" with tribal dancing, interactive drumming, and other African stereotypes. The pampered tourists loved it. Erica, Tom, and myself went for the food, however, and were not disappointed. The Boma is an oddity in Zimbabwe---a place where the meat is plentiful and varied (we ate crocodile, ostrich, buffalo, eland, kudu, and impala, along with beef and chicken), and the food is abundant. I wondered what the ordinary Zimbabweans fruitlessly trying to sell their Nyaminyami pendants on the side of the road in town would have thought of The Boma. They probably would have been as surprised as anyone to see The Boma's depiction of "traditional life."
Eric, another of my PC-SA friends, arrived in Victoria Falls soon afterwards; he and Tom explored Victoria Falls while Erica and I crossed back over the bridge and back into Zambia. We spent the next few nights in Livingstone, Zambia, randomly running into two other South Africa RPCVs, Adam and Andrea. Livingstone, only a few kilometers away from Zimbabwe, has an entirely different vibe. While Victoria Falls Town was designed for tourists, and seems desolate without them, Livingstone is an actual African town, chaotic and bustling.
From the Zambian side, we visited the falls again (known in Zambia as Mosi oa-Tunya, "the smoke that thunders"). One one adrenaline-filled day, we went white-water rafting on the Zambezi, the biggest, most dangerous commerically raftable river in the world. Of the 23 rapids we plowed through that day in our 6-person raft, 4 were Class-5 Rapids (the most dangerous), and many more were Class-4. It was my first time rafting, but it was an adventure. In a similar vein to my bungee jump off of the Bloukrans bridge one year earlier, I started with the best. The world's highest bungee for my first jump; the world's biggest white-water rafting on my first trip in a raft.
The entire day was intense, from the walk down the slippery gorge, to the first rapids, and then to the more intense ones later. Knowing that people often die on these rapids (someone had drowned only a few weeks or months earlier) only made the experience that much more intense. Our raft did flip, on the craziest rapid of the day, rapid #8 ("The Muncher"). As I was tossed underwater, I quickly grabbed the rope that rings around the raft, and was able to hold on as we went hurtling downriver, still in the middle of the rapids. I came up for air under the raft, but was soon able to get out and was helped up onto the overturned raft, which we rode for the rest of that rapid. When the waters were calm again, we flipped the raft right-side-up, and paddled on to the next rapid. All in all, white-water rafting on the Zambezi was an exhilarating experience.
On another day, we took a trip out to Livingstone Island, an island in the middle of the Zambezi directly above the falls. To do this, we had to arrange a guide; he took Erica and I out along slippery rocks, wading through ankle-deep water, across the Zambezi, a few meters away from where the water we were in went plummeting down the falls. Eventually we reached the island; from there, we were able to jump into the river and swim to a spot just at the top of the falls. At this point, some rocks were protecting us from falling over; the guide held me by the ankles as I stretched out over the side, looking at the water rushing off of me and falling down the falls. One slip from the guide, and I would have fallen down the falls and died. Again, more adrenaline--it was quite the experience!
Soon enough it was time to leave Livingstone; after a night in Lusaka, Erica flew back to Jo'burg and Eric, Tom and I took a bus from Lusaka to the small Zambian town of Kapiri Mposhi. At Kapiri, we boarded the cross-border Tazara train, which would take us all the way to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The trip was supposed to take 40 hours, but ended up taking over 46. Thankfully there were only four of us in our 2nd class sleeper compartment (as opposed to the 6 supposed to fit in each 2nd class compartment) --- the three of us, and a friendly Ugandan named Livingstone.
The train ride was long, and at some point during the trip all 3 of us became ill, but it was a fairly comfortable ride, and was far more comfortable than any of our other options. And on our last day on the train, a few hours before we arrived in Dar, we went through the Selous Nature Reserve, and were able to see elephants, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffes, and large numbers of impala from our seats on the train.
Once the train came to a final stop in Dar, we were able to disembark and make our way through crowds of people and touts towards a taxi driver who took us to our guesthouse. We weren't in Dar for long, though--we left the next morning on the ferry to Zanzibar--but in that limited time, I could see that Dar is a large, vibrant city (bigger than any other city I've been to during these travels), and I'm looking forward to spending a few days there when I leave Zanzibar on January 1.
Zanzibar....the name itself just brings all sorts of thoughts to mind. The Afro-Arab island paradise in the Indian Ocean. It's a wonderful place, and though it falls a bit short of being "paradise" it is still a wonderful place to spend some time. Eric, Tom, and I spent our first few days and nights wandering the labyrinthine streets and back-alleys of Stone Town, getting lost and then finding our way again. Everywhere I looked, I would find a curio shop, or a Mosque, or a beautiful building with an intricately carved door.
After spending time in Stone Town, we journed North to Kendwa Beach, a pure, pristine beach with soft white sand and turquoise water. I've never seen water anywhere the color of the water I've seen in Zanzibar. Kendwa Beach is the most beautiful beach I've seen on this trip, and possibly the most beautiful I've ever seen. By chance, we also happened to run into some more SA RPCVs on Kendwa--very random.
While we were in Kendwa, I celebrated the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Adha (or, as it's known here, Eid-ul-Hajj). I walked from Kendwa up to the tarred road, then took a daladala (shared transport) to Nungwi village, where I did my Eid prayer with the locals. Then I went back to Kendwa, where the receptionist wished me an Eid Mubarak and gave me a delicious plate of homemade Zanzibari biryani.
On Friday, we left Kendwa and returned to Stone Town; on Saturday, Eric and Tom left on the ferry to return to South Africa and England, respectively. I've spent the past two days wandering the streets of Stone Town by myself, getting lost physically and mentally, and then finding my way again. I've been dealing with a personal issue, and walking through these streets has helped me to be alone with my thoughts and to deal with them. Tomorrow I head back up to Kendwa....back to that perfect white sand.
(On a related note, my camera has recently malfunctioned. I'm only able to post pictures that I was able to extract from before it stopped working....perhaps I will be able to post my Zanzibar pictures in the future)

One section of Victoria Falls, as seen from Zimbabwe

This is the amount of water rushing through the falls in LOW season.

Me at the Zimbabwean side of the falls

The view from Livingstone Island, Zambia

Erica and I on Livingstone Island

Rafting the Zambezi

Raft-flipping on the Zambezi