These Fragile Shells

(Hey travel fans~ Not to worry, Rwanda is still percolating in my brain and at least two more InBlogress files.  But today is a somber day and I need to think about it out loud.)

The wife of a team mate in California, I didn’t know her well back then.  But after we left, there was FaceBook and we became Friends.  We grew to know each other a little better.  I watched how Keri lived her life, raised her daughters, loved her man.  She was a realist, but always kept a positive outlook on the world.  She was tough and fiery and loyal.  And a year younger than I am.

My tribe is reeling.  How do you post something funny about your kids on FaceBook one night, go to bed, wake up feeling pretty bad, then just slip out of this world?  I wouldn’t dream of intruding on their grief, but Keri did have a shining place in my life.  I know she wouldn’t go down without a fight.  She’s beaten health crises before.  There are no answers to “why?”  Why her?  Why now?  But something in me still cries out “How?”  How does a person go from doing all the things, being fully engaged in life, to … to … stillness, absence?  It’s one of those things, too big, too horrible, to fit inside the moment it happens.

The clichés are there; tell those you love that you do, life is uncertain, live every day as though it were your last.  They are fine.  But I’m going to miss you, Keri.  I want to honor your life better than that.  You were an example of how to give, how to serve, how to love.  There was certainly more I would have learned from you.  But I’ll take what I have, remember you, and try a little harder.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Do you remember our day of chimpanzee trekking, long on trekking but short on chimpanzees?  When we returned to the ranger station to make arrangements for the next day, a troupe of vervet monkeys did their very best to make up for their shy cousins.


Several adults and a pile of juveniles scampered around the driveway, lawn, and security hut.  The guards were not amused.  It would have been so easy to hand any one of them an ill-advised treat… and probably be bitten for it.  The monkeys, not the guards.  They were generally peaceful, regardless of the firepower about their persons.  Vervets are wild animals, not playthings.  They have no idea how cute and cuddly they look, unless you spy those very serious incisors inside there.  Definitely not cuddly.  All business.  And you thought monkey-business was funny stuff.  This is an art piece I did not long after, having been reminded of their antics upon reading a particular bit by Sir Terry Pratchett.  You can google “Pratchett Tak strive” and learn more than you ever wanted to about that.


So, while the primary reasons for visiting Nyungwe are in fact primates, there is the jungle itself.  Getting all up close and personal, in the trenches as it were, traipsing after said primates was ever so authentic, but rising above the mud and vines and thorns has its appeal.  Beginning at the Uwinka Visitor Center, the Igishigishigi trail leads out to the recently completed canopy walk.  One of three on the continent and the only one in the region, it’s a rare opportunity to be in the jungle without being in the jungle.  High in the air, amongst the treetops, the suspended walkway affords stunning views straight out over the Uwinka valley.  Cloaked in flowing mists and fog, one may imagine the world before we started really mucking it up.






On our way out of the park, we had a watershed moment.  Even though we decided to forgo the grueling two day hike to see the source of the Nile ~sources of rivers are notoriously… humble~  we did do this:



3l'Hoest'sHere we are in the south-west corner of Rwanda, in the Nyungwe National Park.   This is chimpanzee and monkey territory.  We were greeted first thing by several monkeys just hanging out along the side of the road.  Upon checking our resources, they were easily identified as L’Hoest’s Monkeys, known for.. wait for it… hanging out along the side of the road.  Nice of them to stick to the job description.

NyungweLodgeAfter exchanging the jungle scenery for rolling tea plantations, we arrived at our accommodations.  It’s a long drive in and there are very few options, so I went with the posh lodge because I could.  Turned out to be an excellent call as the posh lodge in Volcanoes National Park is a previous generation yet much more expensive and, frankly, showing her age.  Nyungwe Forest Lodge deserves the international awards earned.  Sitting amongst the low rolling hills of tea fields, grander mountains in the background, it’s an oasis in dark wood, flagstones, fireplaces, and expansive windows.  The buildings of individual guest rooms are set away from the lodge, along the edge of the tea fields, facing the forest, primed for primate passing.


Obviously, the staff has been rigorously trained for European-type tourists.  The dining and bar staff were nearly obsequious.  I think the new servers were instructed to ‘go over’ the menu with each table, but didn’t dare risk assuming that we could read the actual words for ourselves.  There were always vegetarian options for Jimm and myself, even if they were too often Italophile.  Why do non-Italian, even non-European, places think people who have travelled to a foreign land would want the food they’ve left behind for two weeks?  Because they do.  Which is a shame.  Cuisine is such an integral part of a place, of a people, chefs should take pride in their own and share it gladly.  Tourists who want their own food in a foreign land need to expand their horizons just that bit much more.  I’ll tell you about the amazing, expanding, delicious ugali in an upcoming post.

In addition to providing breakfast-to-go for early morning treks, a beautiful spa space with resident massage therapists, and an infinity pool looking out into the jungle, the general attentiveness of the staff was outstanding.  We’d done a particularly muddy trek one morning and the boys left their boots outside our rooms because they weren’t fit for indoors.  Several hours later as we were relaxing in the lodge, having drinks and nibbles, enjoying the fireplace, a young man appeared, flourishing two pairs of boots… clean nigh onto sparkling boots.  Jimm didn’t recognize his own.  No charge.  Sadly, I’d left mine in the car.  An Austrian friend has since informed me that it used to be that way in all the nice European hotels.

ColobiSo, a nice European lodge has been set neatly down in the heart of Africa, surrounded by a variety of monkeys who casually pass by the secluded balconies.  We did an official trek ~paid permit with guides~ for Colobus, which was wonderful.  We were able to observe them from as close as directly beneath them and their gorgeous bell-pull tails.  However, they do in fact live in the trees immediately surrounding the grounds of the lodge.  We saw a few, looking ever so miserable in the rain, as we were on our way out.

We were also visited by a troupe of grey-cheeked mangabeys commuting just behind our balcony.  Rwanda’s only population lives in Nyungwe.


Red-tailed MonkeyAnd I’m certain there was one Red-tailed monkey in the lead.  Lodge staff said they are very rare in that area, although they are not “Endangered.”  I think homo sapiens, cockroaches, and rats may be the only species on the planet who aren’t endangered to some extent.  Anyway, he was too quick for me to photograph, but this is definitely my guy.  There was no mistaking that incredible tail.

I’m afraid I’m going to give short shrift to the chimpanzees.  After a long drive over rough road in the very early morning, a tortuous and muddy jungle trek up & down & up & down following the professional trekkers who were following the troupe, those wonderful apes didn’t deign to alight where they could be seen as any more than shadows high up in the trees.  This is as it should be, truly.  They are wild and deserve the ability to escape from prying human eyes.  However, if I’d known that on that first up we’d seen a few as clearly as we were going to, I could have forgone the rest.  Their conservation is so important that I’m still glad to have contributed, both to the organization and the local guides and trekkers who are trying to make a living from keeping them alive rather than the other thing.  More on this when we get to the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.


The 1st chimpanzee we saw...

The 1st chimpanzee we saw…

And the rest of the day looked mostly like this:



To begin at the beginning, Public Health Border Control.  Yes, fresh off the plane from Amsterdam, before customs even, our temperatures were checked by hand with something aimed at the forehead of every arriving passenger.  Can’t trust those Dutch, you know.  All of Africa is taking Ebola very seriously right now.  We passed, were admitted into Rwanda through the shiny and very new Kigali airport, and were met by our friend Jimm who has been teaching there.  Most conveniently, he had just finished his contract and was free to be our semi-local guide.  He took great glee in gaining the locals’ discount, declaring himself to be Rwandan and showing his residence card.  Rwandans are, as you may surmise, black.  Jimm is as white as we get.  Everybody gets the joke and finds him amusing.  And gives him the locals’ price for his trekking permits.  Even at that, most Rwandans couldn’t afford to do many of the things we did in their gorgeous National Parks.

Local Wheels

Local Wheels

We chose to rent a car from a friend of a friend of our friend (cash and a handshake) and drive ourselves, being the middle ground between inexpensive, reliable but not entirely convenient, and mighty uncomfortable public transit and a wildly expensive but comfortable organized tour.  Mzungus ~that is, white people~ almost invariably arrive at the airport, are collected into a Land Cruiser by their tour guides and drivers, and are seen in them exclusively.  Yes, like our last safari.  Don’t get me wrong; that is an awesome way to go.  But we were up for a different sort of adventure this time.  The kind that earns double-takes, stares, and frantic waving and smiling from nearly every child we passed.

The first morning we spent visiting Jimm’s school, learning about Rwanda, and having lunch with the students.  In the afternoon, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center.  As I’ve written about previously, it’s a hard thing to understand.  The museum is very well-done, very informative, everything posted in French, Kinyarwanda, and English.  There is a memorial room where people are welcome to post photos of their loved ones killed in the genocide.  The piece that touched me the most was a written note, from a girl to the aunt she never met.  It said she knew the woman had dreams she was never able to fulfill, but the girl herself has so many things she intends to accomplish, she hopes one of them will be her aunt’s dream as well.  Rwandans are a people looking to the future.

After a lovely dinner at the highly rated Heaven with a colleague and two fellow hockey players, we were back to Jimm’s for the night.  The Hollywood-romantic mosquito netting over the beds is absolutely necessary.  Jimm says they arrive in unpredictable waves, annoying but as of currently, non-malarial within Kigali.  We’re taking the Doxycycline nonetheless.  And burning mosquito coils.  <lightbulb> The downstairs renters at home who burn incense like freaking hippies? Not incense, mosquito coils!  #3rdWorldSimilarities

Oh, here’s a curious thing.  Electricity is prepaid by a scratch-off card with a number which is entered into the meter in some fashion.  Jimm was never privy to that process, it being someone else’s job to do it.  Internet can be bought the same way.  Used in conjunction with a cellular modem, the hidden code is entered on-line.  It’s a bit unclear how one does this for the first time.  Jimm did say the “unlimited” internet is good for a week… unless you use it up.  He got nowhere debating the meaning of “unlimited.”  The real trouble was his inability to commence a new week’s service from a new scratch-off card because the seven days of the old one had not passed.  Having learned that lesson, he became more watchful of his data usage, much less YouTube.  Another interesting facet of ex-pat life there: when foreigners take up residence, they are expected to employ a certain number of staff ~cooking, cleaning, security guard, that sort of thing~ to support the local economy.  For a bachelor working full-time, having someone do the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry for a reasonable sum is a pretty good deal.  However, his first ‘girl’ had married and moved to her husband’s family home, never to be seen again.  The new ‘girl’ seemed aware that he was leaving soon and was beginning to slack.  She normally kept the kitchen stocked with fruit, but having been given the usual money, there was no fresh fruit in appearance.  Nor was she, even without the knowledge that he would not be needing her to cook for him this week.  Good help is hard to find everywhere, I suppose.

1000 Hills... at least!

1000 Hills… at least!

So, we packed up the car and Jimm performed the full-contact driving to get us out of the big city.  But after that, traffic was light, the roads excellent  ~thanks to the Chinese investing heavily and sending their engineers overseas to oversee, the highways are better quality and more pleasant to drive than the autostrade here~ and the kilometers rolled by, taking us into the jungle of Nyungwe National Park in the south-west corner of the country.

To be continued…

Roadside Greeter: L'Hoest's Monkey

Roadside Greeter: L’Hoest’s Monkey

Rwanda: 1st Impressions

We’ll get to the gorillas later, and the Golden Monkeys and the chimpanzees and the mangabeys and the Colobuses… Colobi?… I want to start with the people.

Rwanda has another horror story to be filed under “If it happened to them, it could happen to you,” like the story of Nazi Germany.  I recommend you google and read a thorough account of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  It’s difficult to wrap the mind around.  500,000 – 1,000,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by their fellow citizens in 3 months.  It’s a story of favoritism, propaganda, paranoia, xenophobia, and pack mentality.  Also mass insanity and almost indescribable blood-lust.

It happened.  It was horrific.  But the beauty of the story is Rwanda today.  The perpetrators ~ les genocidaires ~ who fled the country in fear were forcibly repatriated.  The worst stood trial and were sentenced.  But the rest were expected to rejoin society, to be Rwandan with the rest of the nation.  It was too expensive and pointless to attempt to punish everyone who participated.  People live and work, side by side, with those who put the machete to their parents, siblings, and children.  It was only twenty years ago.

Right now Rwanda is a shining star in Africa.  President Kagame’s emphasis on communication and education, in conjunction with international aid, is building Rwanda for the future.  The monthly day of service (clean up) for all citizens in the capitol builds community and pride.  They are constantly sweeping and mopping homes and businesses to keep the dirt streets’ dust at bay.  The national ban on plastic shopping bags makes a remarkable difference in the cleanliness of the land.  Perhaps those awful decaying bags which festoon the trees and fences in other emerging countries are gateway garbage.  It’s noticeable.  Trash stands out rather than composing the background.  Rwanda is clean.  Maybe cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.  The genocide drew acute attention to this country over the chronic needs of its neighbors.  Christian organizations do tremendous amounts of good work.  Rwandans see them as the ones who come to stay, to really help.  The desire to thrive in peace is so very evident, businesses from hair salons to guest houses called Peace in both English and Kinyarwanda are in every town.  While there is plenty of sittin’ around, watchin’ the day go by, the roads are lined with people, everywhere, walking somewhere, pushing heavily laden bicycles or carrying burdens up on their heads.  Curiously, bicycles are strictly for boys and men while top o’ the head carrying is almost exclusively a thing done by girls and women.  Out of necessity, their posture is amazing.  I’m thinking of taking it up myself, as if the locals in my own town don’t stare enough already.

The people we met were invariably friendly and curious.  Also beautiful, strikingly so.  The underwater hockey team, which our friend started in Kigali, was so tickled to have us turn out to practice with them.  Those big, bright smiles will stay with me forever.  The students at our friend’s school were like teenagers anywhere, yet maturely focused on their precious opportunity to go abroad for university and bring that education back to Rwanda.  The national language was changed from French ~left by colonial Belgium~ to English in order to prepare for interaction with the larger world.

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Currently, Rwanda is lead by a … strict father in President Kagame.  Some would use less generous descriptors for his style.  But he has accomplished great things for the country and the people when such leadership was necessary.  Of course more freedom is good ~I’m American, after all~ but they needed that leadership then and may need it still.  It would break my heart to see this growing, emerging, beautiful civilization fall to ruin if put into gentler hands too soon.

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