Into a sea of friendly faces, I walked through the door.  So many old friends I see too seldom, we are a tribe of waterbabies brought together by the game, but united by a common spirit.  It was the annual Christmas party, which usually brings some out of woodwork who have drifted out of the pool, or the area or the country.  Old friends… with histories and stories and backstories, friend/ships ~if you will allow me, gentle reader, to wax corny~ that sail through years, crossing paths occasionally, but sometimes tying up unexpectedly in the same harbor for a night.  Two of my oldest friends in this community were there before my eyes, quite out of the wild blue yonder, icing on the chocolate cake.  

I find dear friends where I live now, but they arrive and depart quickly, uncertain when or if we’ll meet again, connected by a brief time in a special place.  But these people are the ones I don’t doubt I’ll ever see again, even when it is too long.  So, after all the merry was made, hugs and kisses shared, and everyone had found their beds, I lay awake with so many good times replaying on the back of my skull.  The laughter and shenanigans and adventures and competition and support in hard times were all there, in faces that light up my own whenever the wind and the tides wash us up together again.  Thank you my friends, my tribe, for welcoming me home with open arms every time and without reservation.

(Sorry for the further diversion, Jimm.  I know you’ll understand.  Wish you had been there, too.  The gorillas are coming.)


Onward and upward, north to Lake Kivu, where we stopped for lunch at a tropical spot in Gisenyi where Kigalese take a nice weekend away.  The temperature was lovely.  The palms swayed.  And I finally had my ugali.  Throughout our posh safari in Tanzania I repeatedly submitted my wish to eat local fare, including ugali, but apparently it is too pedestrian for European tourists.  Never saw it.  Made with yuca flour (wikipedia says fufu is yuca while ugali is maize, but I’m going with what the man who brought it from the kitchen said), it’s sort of a bread, kind of a dumpling, definitely a starchy substrate for more flavorful sauces and stews eaten out of hand.  I really liked it.  It was elastic and expanding and seemed to retain its original volume ~a ball, not as big as my head but bigger than a softball~ through at least one additional lunch, then very slowly diminishing with daily depredations when mealtimes fell too far apart for my metabolic needs.


After our leisurely lunch, when I may have even napped for a minute under the palapas, we were on our way to Musanze.  Except the car wouldn’t start.  There is a funny little ginkle ~that word requires more explanation than I am prepared to give.  Suffice it to say, a doohickey that performs a task for which it is not needed~ that must be touched to the after-market security system in order for the ignition to engage.  It looked like our ginkle may have been … damaged.  How were we going to replace an old ginkle for an even older car, only loosely rented from a man for whom we hadn’t even a phone number?  A staff-member of the lodge/restaurant was happy to take a look.  That drew a half-dozen other men.  Does the sound of a car bonnet lifting make some homing beacon, audible and irresistible to only Y-chromosomes?  Several of the men had ladies, obviously dressed in their Sunday best ~gorgeous, traditional dresses and headwear~ standing back, arms crossed but patiently familiar with the ritual.  Hmm, might  just be a dead battery.  We won’t discuss the earlier conversation regarding the increased safety of driving in daylight with the headlights on.  A few of the men disappeared and immediately reappeared with … a coat hanger?  I stepped back a little farther, with the ladies in waiting.  And yes, these guys successfully jump-started our car not with cables and big alligator clips, color-coded with rubber handles and all, but with what looked like nothing so much as an unwound metal coat hanger.  Very impressive.  I thanked the ladies, in French as they were probably of the pre-English language generation, for their time and their husbands.  They lit up in smiles, said it wasn’t anything, and looked distinctly proud that their men had saved the stupid tourists a great deal of trouble and probably money.  We drove for a good while before turning that engine off again.  It never gave us any more lip.

It was well-after dark when we arrived in Musanze, triangulating a meeting place by phone with our proprietress.  The meet-up was successful and absolutely necessary.  We never would have found the place, down and around unlit, unpaved, unmarked back streets as it was.  After a quick change-a-roo so Jimm could have facilities (I never saw where “down the hall” would have been if he had kept the first room offered), we were soon tucked in under our respective mosquito nets.

In the morning we headed up to Virunga Lodge, the older posh lodge serving Volcanoes National Park, just to see it and take in the view.  We didn’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, not being guests and definitely looking worse for wear, but figured we could have a drink and be gone before the guests returned from their morning trek.  When sad sedan just couldn’t make the final incline toward the mountain-top lodge, we were forced to park it on the side of the road and go it on foot, which would have been alarming enough to the guards who only ever see white people turn up in Land Rovers, but we immediately collected an entourage of raggedy school children for whom we were the most exciting thing to happen all week.  About a dozen boys and girls took our hands and a few started chattering away in both Kinyarwanda and English.  The boy responsible for the goat tried to carry it in order to keep up with the rest, but not lose his goat, who did not want to be carried.  There was shouting… and wrestling… and bleating.  All of them were darling.  Most of the children went to school in the other part of the day (the blue and khaki are uniforms).  When the girls asked me what my job is, I desperately wanted to be able to show them that a woman can be anything.  It was an encouraging sign that they assumed I had a job.  I don’t.  I’m a housewife… and a terrible liar, so I told the truth and said it’s my choice and that by going to school they can choose to be anything they want, too.  They escorted us all the way up to the lodge gates where the guards gave them such a frowning that they scampered away quickly.


Goat&GirlsSo we had a coffee, enjoyed the million dollar view, confirmed that Virunga Lodge is a bit of an aging lady compared to Nyungwe Forest Lodge, and took our leave… into the waiting hands of our new young friends.  This boded well for the car being where we left it and in approximately the same condition, which it was.  As we were attempting to extricate ourselves, a boy of about 6 invited us to his house.  When I asked, he swore his mother said it was OK.  We met his family… and neighbors… and goats.  The patriarch spoke French rather than English and was so tickled when I pulled out a few phrases.  He was sorry that Jimm had no more sons than just Craig.  Yes, but I just left it at that.  We visited a while, then finally made our way back to the car.  These folks, living in 2-room mud huts, farming unspeakably steep hillsides, have the same million dollar view as the guests just above them staying in the posh lodge.  It was something special to meet those people and see their home, rather than blasting past in an SUV, oblivious.


The next day brought us Golden Monkeys!  Another permitted trek with guides, trekkers, and rangers, the ratio of travail to pay-off was still much better than Chimpanzee Day.  The Goldens spend time lower in the trees, seeming to mind us not a whit, maybe as much as to turn their backs to our cameras, but no more than that.  The troop was on the move, so we followed, and as the sun came out we got some very nice shots at the end of our allotted time with them.  As we would have with the gorillas, it’s one hour, no more, then get out of their living room.  Fair enough.  It was a pleasure to be there, where they live as they should, in the wild, valued and protected.



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:


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