Africa Day 10: Travel arrangements, Africa-style

Posted in africa 2008, travel at 4:39 am by wingerz


Day 10: March 24: Flight to Nairobi


Just ran into our first major snafu of the trip – seven are being left behind in Kigali because not all of our seats are reserved. In fact, I’m not sure if any of the seats were reserved. Getting the rest of us on the plane is a struggle (handled admirably by Bob and Abhinav), and we hold the entire plane from leaving until we’re on. (In the banner image above, that’s Bob on the left, working on the airline computers. This is clearly not an ideal situation.)

In other fun travel news, Panos stepped behind the counter and ran up the check-in luggage conveyor belt to retrieve his bag. Good times. We’re heading to Dar es Salaam through Kenya, which is supposedly safe now.

Assorted group travel notes:

  • no one has been late or missed any of the (very) early-morning meeting times
  • Bob and Abhinav continue to take fantastic care of us, insulating us from having to worry about anything
  • some people are addicted to playing cards


Africa Day 10: Leaving Rwanda

Posted in africa 2008, personal, travel at 4:19 am by wingerz

Day 10: March 24


Roads in Kigali trace concentric circles around the town center. All of the large roads are paved. Scooter taxis, many with driver and passenger wearing green helmets, weave through traffic, coming precariously close to cars and vans. The traffic is not bad and the cars are in good shape. While traffic drives on the right, steering wheels on the right side are not uncommon depending on origin of the car.

One unsettling thing about Kigali is the abundance of barriers and armored guards. Nearly every building is surrounded by a structural deterrent. Fences are topped with barbed wire, spikes, or broken glass. The history of inequality and instability manifests itself in the architecture.

The countryside around Kigali is quite beautiful – the main road to Volcanoes is excellent for the most part, with an effective drainage system (concrete channels carry muddy water down the hillside to the bottom of the valley). Dense forest has been cut away for farming – potatoes, bananas, coffee, and tea are grown all around the country. Small muddy paths wind up around the hillsides; the walk home looks to be very exhausting for those in the hills. A brownish-red river meanders through to the source of the Nile. Everything on the hillsides is green, whether it is terraced fields, banana trees, or forest.

Occasionally we pass through small towns. Villagers wave to us and some children ask for money. We see them wearing dirty branded clothing – Old Navy, MSU, etc.- donations from the United States. A child runs alongside our jeep on a rocky road – so rocky that he is able to keep up with the vehicle until he is admonished by his father. We do not give them money because it encourages them to skip school.

The food has been pretty underwhelming – lots of bananas and potatoes. Meats include fish, chicken, beef, and goat. Nothing is superbly flavored but it does hit the spot after a long day of being on the road. Rwandan service is atrocious. We have come to rely on buffets for meals that need to be shorter than 1 hour. For dinner last night we sought something quick and convenient around 830pm, but our food didn’t show up until 90 minutes later. They don’t have the operational model to support a party of 22 ordering 22 different things – the table next to us ordered about 5-10 chickens, all prepared in the same manner, and they received their food way before we did. Perhaps in a few years they will have a better idea of how to operate efficiently in the services industry.

* * *

The Rwandans are a proud people with a strong national leader. Every month there is a day designated for all Rwandans to participate in community service. After the work is done, they gather with fellow local community members to discuss ways to improve. The elimination of the use of all plastic bags from the entire country is the result of one of these meetings

Considering what they have been through, the Rwandans are a welcoming group. One of our drivers, Johnson, forgave the friend who slaughtered his family. On a larger scale, Rwanda has welcomed the world that turned its back in 1994. Our stay has been pleasant, with the friendly locals, modern infrastructure, and cool weather. Would have liked to spend a few more days here.


Africa Day 10: Shopping in Rwanda

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 2:36 am by wingerz

Day 10: March 24, morning


We went to two markets today. One was a touristy craft market and the other was a more local market. Picked up some dishes and some fabric for a tablecloth. Didn’t make it out of the fabric section into the rest of the market, but it was a beautiful place to lose ourselves – colorful patterns lined the “walls” all the way up to the top of the high ceiling. Occasionally a shopkeeper on the other side would poke her head through the fabric wall to investigate our transaction. Deeper inside the market the light was dimmer but the fabrics were just as colorful and intricate.

Jen made a last minute stop to pick up a basket.


Africa Day 9: Gorillas in the mist

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 12:45 am by wingerz


Day 9: March 23, Volcanoes National Park


Our guide, Olivier, stops us at the top of a small hill. The thick vegetation has been cut away to form a small clearing. Moments before, we had taken off our packs because the gorillas were close by. A tracker had been following the family all morning and communicating their location back to us. Suddenly, Olivier makes us step aside as a black creature scurries up the hill past us.

We descend down the slippery slope, trying to find footholds and handholds in the dense vegetation. Mist surrounds us; it has been drizzling all morning. We’ve been hiking for about an hour with our guide and armed guard. Half an hour of it was through the farmland surrounding the park. We reached a 3ft-high stone wall that marked the forest boundary. We climbed over it and spent 25 minutes trekking through the dense forest in search of the Umubano family. The hike has been very difficult – slippery, muddy, and steep. The stinging nettles are plentiful and I feel their painful stings through my pants. Sliding down some of the slopes is sometimes the fastest, most graceful way to get to the bottom.


We finally catch up to the gorillas when they stop to have breakfast. We go off the trail and into the vegetation. Olivier hacks through it with his machete to give all of us (including the gorillas) more room to maneuver. Charles, the huge silverback, plods towards us and Olivier pushes us out of the way. We spend an hour observing the family of eight gorillas. Olivier makes grunting noises to soothe them. They do not feel threatened by us, and we take care to not make any sudden or menacing motions. A young gorilla hangs out under Charles’ watchful eye. They eat methodically. Their faces are striking in their humanity. Our time with them flies by, and they start heading out before the hour is up. A baby hitches a ride on its mother’s back, and we follow them up the hill. We get one last look at them as they disappear into the misty jungle. The young one spins around playfully once, as if to say good-bye.

Later we learn that another group of our travel companions got to see something more exciting – one of the younger males sneaking a quickie in with one of the female gorillas while the silverback was away, a definite no-no in the social structure. The silverback is the leader and protector of the group, and only he is allowed to mate with the females.

* * *

This is where Diane Fossey did her research on mountain gorillas. There are five families that tourists can visit; the other families are for research-only. Eight visitor permits per family are granted each day, each at a cost of $500 (!), and the visits are limited to precisely one hour (though the hike can last quite a bit longer, like four hours each way). Conservation efforts have been well-rewarded; the mountain gorilla population has approximately doubled to 600-700 in the past twenty years. Lately there’s been a lot going on on the Congo side of the jungle.

* * *

This marks the end of the wildlife-focused portion of our trip. This has definitely brought back some old dreams of becoming some sort of biologist. Exhausted beyond belief tonight.



Africa Day 8: Remembering the genocide

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 3:46 am by wingerz


Day 8, March 22, Kigali


The Kigali Memorial Center houses powerful exhibits about the Rwandan genocide, along with other genocides of the 20th centruy. We tour the outdoor gardens and mass graves first – they are still being constructed. The first two levels are finished. The remains of over 200,000 people (of an estimated 800,000-1,000,000) will rest here when all of the graves are complete. The mass graves contain coffins, which contain multiple bodies. They are covered by large stone slabs. Colorful flowers brighten the landscape, but do not lighten the heaviness of the atmosphere. There are a few bouquets left to mourn the dead, and a very large black wall with small print to remember the names of the deceased (still in progress).

A lot of the discussions today were about the ingredients for genocide – chief among these in Rwanda was a deep divide between the Hutus and Tutsis. When Belgians colonized the area they distinguished between the two, giving the Tutsis ID cards and preferred treatment. In modern-day history, the distinction is mainly a social one, not a racial one. There was marrying between the groups, and switching was possible. When it was unclear which group a person belonged to, the Belgians made the distinction on the basis of personal wealth, designating the rich as Tutsis. They were given cushy jobs in the government and were expected to control the Hutus, leading to widespread resentment.

The genocide was carefully orchestrated, with propaganda being distributed through print and radio channels in the years before. This was particularly effective due to the low literacy rate. Name lists were assembled to identify targets. When a plane carrying the president of Rwanda was shot down, events were set into motion. Death was dealt by a myriad of gruesome tools – machetes, clubs, spears, and rifles. No one was spared; women were raped and killed, and children were killed since they were the future of the Tutsis.

It’s still impossible to really understand the magnitude of the atrocity. The exhibits inside try to bridge this gap by presenting intensely personal views. They seek to de-desensitize people, who cannot comprehend the numbers because they are so large. Videos of survivor interviews play and color photographs document the events leading up to the genocide, the three-month descent into hell, and the aftermath. Articles of clothing found in mass graves have been retrieved and presented as outfits. Upstairs one orange room (filled with the profiles of children) led to another each with a brief description and horrifying cause of death. Another room featured skulls (some fractured) and bones from victims, along with dark, ghostly images of faces.

It didn’t make much sense to me in high school, and now that I’m more familiar with what happened, it’s still not clear to me how things escalated so quickly and how the world let it continue.



Africa Day 7: Off to Rwanda

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 2:48 am by wingerz

[Here we go again – going to try to finish off the Africa blog entries before the end of the year. So far, we’re about halfway through the trip.]

Day 7: March 21, evening


Greeted by pouring rain at the airport. The Kigali airport looks quite modern, as does the city itself. There are a lot of new buildings, a lot funded by post-genocide foreign aid.

Scooters taxi people around – a common sight is two people with green helmets riding on a single scooter. On the corner outside our hotel several men in yellow vests sell phone cards, and they also hold phones that can be used to make international calls. Prices range from $1 minute down to $0.20/minute. Internet cafes are plentiful, but connectivity is not that great – one cafe was out of commission when we went to use it. The one we ended up using had a slow connection, and a man shut down all power to the monitors in the cafe without warning.

Service is not yet a strong suit of the Rwandans. Coffee took over 1/2 hour and we had to leave without being served because we didn’t want to be late to dinner. Dinner at an Italian restaurant took over 2 hours. Ellen’s laundry, promised to be done by 5pm, was not delivered within a half hour of the deadline so she stormed into the laundry room to find out what was going on.

This is now one of the safest cities in Africa, thanks to a very strong stance against petty crime (apparently police can and will shoot thieves). It definitely feels safer here than in other places like Dar and even Karatu, but we don’t stray far from the hotel.


Africa Day 7: End of Safari

Posted in africa 2008, travel at 9:12 am by wingerz

Day 7: March 21, lunchtime

through the metal detector

Our guides take us back to the airport to catch our flight to Kigali, Rwanda. We anticipate a leisurely good-bye lunch in the airport parking lot. Unfortunately, in the first of several travel snafus, we discover that we are not going to be let back out of the airport after checking in for our flights. Worried that we won’t get to eat lunch and see our guides off with proper good-byes, we talk airport security into letting them come through with our lunches. They also carry four knives through (for cutting vegetables), which is kind of amusing.

Up until this point, we have been well taken care of. Our guides are friendly, efficient, and helpful. What we don’t realize is that this is going to be the best service we experience. We have been spoiled, and we will sorely miss their punctuality and propensity for planning ahead in the days to come.

the food is safe

Most of us eat standing up, and we are very sad to say good-bye to our wonderful hosts. Our safari experience has been fantastic, meeting our lofty expectations. It’s also made any hotel seem luxurious for providing a roomful of dry space, water, and electricity. We are slowly adjusting to being in a completely foreign land; now that we’ve been introduced to Tanzania by our guides and the animals, I’m feeling a bit less intimidated by the cities. Next stop: Kigali, Rwanda.


Africa Day 7: Waiting for School

Posted in africa 2008, travel at 12:04 am by wingerz

Day 7: March 21, morning


This morning as one of the cars stopped to change a tire, I was approached by two young boys. One of them asked me to take his picture. After I took his picture, he asked for something in exchange. I gave him one of my pens, and Mark gave him some chocolate and cranberries, which he shared with his companion. I wish we had brought extra school supplies for sharing with the children that we encountered.

The boys were waiting for school to start; the simple schoolhouse was down the road a bit.


Africa Day 6: Descent into the Crater

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 11:37 pm by wingerz


Day 6: March 20


Our descent into the Ngorongoro Crater is down a very steep, rocky road. The views are absolutely breathtaking – the flat basin, occupying roughly a 10 mile x 12 mile area, is covered in green grass and teeming with wildlife. The main geographical features include a small hill which may have been the remains of a mountaintop that once stood higher than kilimanjaro, a saltwater lake, and a small forest. We stop at the bottom, a bit woozy from the bumpy ride. From the floor of the caldera, green hillsides slope up to the crater rim. Wildebeests and zebras coexist peacefully and are completely unafraid of people. Ngorongoro has been criticized for being a bit too Disneyland-like, but we’re all ready to see animals up close..


Assorted sightings:

  • Hyenas walk into the road and settle in a muddy puddle. We spot another hyena eating a wildebeest skull; they are exceedingly good at extracting nutrients from every last bit of animal.
  • Lone male wildebeests space themselves out, staking out territory for the upcoming mating season
  • Young zebras are fluffy, brown and white; their stripes darken as they age. One playfully rolls around in the dust.
  • We get sick of seeing zebras – they are everywhere, including up ahead of us, blocking the road.
  • A huge, old elephant hangs out in the distance. It can’t afford to damage its tusks.
  • We’re also able to spot a black rhino – there are only about 13 left in the world, all here in the crater. Apparently there is also a baby rhino, but we miss seeing it.
  • One of the lakes is full of flamingos. Even with binoculars it can be hard to discern individuals.
  • On our way out of the park, we see two lions lounging in the grass near the highway. Apparently there is one lion for every square mile of the Ngorongoro region. They don’t even get up for us.
  • Other sightings: jackal, Thompson and Grant gazelles, elan, lots of birds, warthogs.

The crowding is not terrible – at our lunch spot there may have been about 20 jeeps, parked near a freshwater pond (with hippos). Most of the time we see other jeeps scooting around the park but they are, for the most part, confined to the dirt roads. The day passes quickly and before we know it we are driving through the forest, then up and on our way out of the crater. Not only is Ngorongoro fun to say, it’s also one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. It’s a great place to end our safari experience.



Luxury camping

Posted in africa 2008, personal, travel at 12:43 am by wingerz


Day 5: March 19, evening


This camp is much nicer – it’s an actual campground with fantastic amenities like hot running water and electricity (the generator is turned on in the evening). The shower is amazing, the first running water we’ve had in three nights. It feels luxurious, even though we need to bring our headlamps in to provide light and have to hang everything from two hooks on the back of the door. There’s an outlet with a surge protector, soon there is a long line of camera batteries waiting to be charged. Dinner is the usual starches and stews; the open gathering area is quite nice. The sound of large rain drops hitting our tent wakes us up in the middle of the night.

Karatu is a nice-looking place town – not as well-developed as Dar, but it certainly has a more welcoming feel. It’s the gateway to Ngorongoro Crater, tomorrow’s destination; the Serengeti and the Crater are to the northwest. Built on the tourism industry, internet cafes are plentiful and some of the people are dressed in a more western style. The main highway is busy with safari vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians, with the latter two always coming precariously close to being hit.

(The next day we take up an offer to do a few articles of laundry, and arrive back to find it drying on some bushes. A few of the bushes are thorny, making extrication a tricky process.)

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