Family vacation. Two little words that strike fear and dread in the heart, but also trigger fond memories of long summer days and even longer road trips. Family vacation in Rwanda? Well, that is another case...
Family vacation kicked off the afternoon of August third when my older sister, Margaret, arrived in Kigali via Ethiopia. Her flight was on time, and on a continent where time is relative, I took is as a good sign that my relatives were able to arrive relatively on schedule.
The waiting area at the airport is designated by a quasi-official rope barrier. I disregarded this, and lurked casually on the other side. Through the clear glass doors, I saw my sister arrive, try to exit, get pulled aside by the customs agent, have her illegal plastic bags confiscated, and finally make it out. Obviously, the Howells do not come from a long line of even semi-successful smugglers.
After getting settled in at the hotel, we headed out to explore the town. First stop? The cafe at Simba supermarket to get African tea. African tea is one of the things in Rwanda that is always guaranteed to contribute vastly to my happiness. It's very simple--Rwandan tea, whole milk, and fresh ginger boiled together and served hot. At Simba, you also get a cookie. This too contributes to my happiness.
African tea was as safe bet. One of the major themes of this vacation was: "Do you think that has gluten in it?" My mom and sister recently learned that they have gluten allergies, which meant that family vacation was dominated by talk of wheat, and the graphic detailing of its effects on the digestive system. I'll never look at a loaf of bread the same way again. But on the upside, I got a lot of left-over cookies.
Next, we went for a wander through the back lanes of downton Kigali, counting stacks of neon colored mattresses and the number of vendors who tried to sell us airtime. It's a proven fact that the number of MTN hawkers that approach you on any given day is inversely proportional to your actual need to buy airtime. Eventually, we found our way over to the ibitenge mecca, a warehouse filled to bursting to room after room of printed fabrics. Margaret immediately began scheming up craft projects.
After a much-needed afternoon nap, I introduced my sister to the starchy wonder that is Rwandan buffet. Starch is to go-to food staple here in Rwanda. Potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes, cassava, plantains, pasta--at a nice buffet, you'll find all of these, plus some variety of unidentified meat, a vat of beans, and a vinegar-heavy cabbage salad. The truly class establishments offer unlimited mayonaise.
The next day, we had plenty of time to kill before the parents arrived in the evening. I, of course, was up at the crack of dawn. Margaret managed to sleep in significantly later. She is somehow not a villager. By the time she'd finished dozing away the best hours of the day (Vacation Theme II: "Is Moog awake yet?" "Hahahaha"), is was lunch time. I decided that we should trek out to Kimironko market and buy out the fruit section. After living in Rwanda for two years, I think I've forgotten just how amazing the food can be. Sure, there's only about fifteen things you can find at any given market (the market I go to never makes it past ten), but the fruits and vegetables are incredibly fresh and perfectly ripe. As Margaret commented after taking a bite of the mango we bought, "I had a mango in Baltimore last week, but it was nothing like this!" Rwanda has probably ruined me for tropical fruits. But the apples here are crap.
Kimironko market is a sight to behold. The produce section is open-air, housed under a lofted tin roof. When you first walk in, the smell of ripe fruits and vegetables, cut with an undercurrent of dirt and sweat, can be overwhelming. We threaded our way through the throngs of buyers and sellers, settling on mangoes, a pineapple, baby bananas, maracuja (passion fruit), and tree tomatoes.
Maracuja and tree tomato are what I affectionately refer to as "Bite and Suck" fruits. First, you bite a small hole through the tough outer skin. Then, you suck out the juicy, seedy innards. This skill takes time to perfect. More than one unsuspecting bystander (my dad included) has fallen victim to another person's seedy shrapnel. When eating a Bite and Suck, proximity isn't exactly deadly, but it sure can get messy.
Finally, it was the evening, and time for the rest of the family to touch down. Now, before I continue, a word about my parents. They do not hesitate to call themselves "two old farts." But for two self-described old farts on their first trip to Africa, they did amazingly well. I basically made them live my Peace Corps lifestyle (with a limited budget, it was necessary), and they survived ten kilometer hikes, squishy buses, rainstorms, Rwandan buffet, limited ammenities, medieval plumbing, and moto rides. There was the occasional threat to pee in a trash can (cough, cough MOM), but they took everything in stride. I think they could better be described as "two old sharts": they might be full of hot air, but there's some substance there too...
Once we'd settled into the hotel, we continued the Howell family's love affair with Simba (Vacation Theme III: "Where should we eat?" "Oh, let's just go to Simba.") It also began what was to be a two week romance with the fried potato, more specifically, the French fry. The advantage to having gluten intolerant visitors straight from the States? Not only did I get their bread, but I got their mayonaise too.
Monday was safari day. Rwanda has a small game park, Akagera, in the east on the border with Tanzania. We left Kigali bright and early. Out driver, Charles, picked us up at 4:30 so that we could get to the park by 7:00. We were almost at the park entrance when Charles got a phone call: the south gate was closed. So, after a harrowing 7.5-point turn on a bumpy dirt road, we headed up toward Uganda and the north gate. Charles drove with typical Rwandan abandon, and at one point the side mirror broke off and went flying into the bush. With the classic Rwandan gift for understatement, Charles merely remarked, "It was repaired badly." As he ran down the road to find it, the rest of us waited in the car, watching smoke billow out from beneath the hood and wondering if we would ever make it to Akagera.
Rwanda might be the land of 1000 hills, but only three of them are in the eastern province. The east looks more like the traditional image of Africa that most people have in their heads--long yellow grass, acacia trees, rolling plains. Until I saw it, I hadn't quite believed reports that a place like that could exist in Rwanda. I just assumed that my friends had wandered into Tanzania by mistake.
Eventually, we made it into the park. Mom immediately went into bird-watching mode, although to her credit, she didn't bring a bird book with her. Despite being one of the smallest and least visisted game parks in East Africa, Akagera was more than worth the trouble it took to get there. We saw: monkeys, baboons, warthogs, giraffes, hippos, many varieties of antelope, water buffalo, zebra, and too many birds to count. We visited Akagera during the height of the dry season, when everything was covered in a thin but noticeable layer of red dust. The zebra weren't black and white, they were black and red. Knowing the Rwandan obsession with avoiding the dirty, I half expected to find a squadron of women armed with brooms, hiding in the underbrush and waiting until nightfall when they could emerge and dust the animals.
The first third of my family's visit was a wild-life excursion. Two days later found us trekking mountain gorillas through a rainforest rainstorm (Vacation Theme IV: "Who's going to fall down next?"). We visited the Kwitonda group, who were as unenthralled by the downpour as we were. We rounded a corner in the bamboo forest to see two huge silverbacks hunkered down, grunting. The smell was a combination of wet dirt, wet dog, and other, less delicate, liquids and solids. We hacked our way through the underbrush to the bamboo nest, where we met more silverbacks, as well as some mamas, babies, and youths. The rain let up long enough for them to become active, crawling around the nest and coming out to eat, play, and inspect the visitors. Throughout, our guides kept up a steady "conversation" with the gorillas by grunting a variety of friendly, non-threatening greetings.
Virunga park specifies that visitors much stay a certain distance away from the gorillas at all times. However, the gorillas themselves respect no such boundaries. At one point, my dad had to practicaly throw himself backwards into the bamboo to avoid getting trampled by an aimlessly meandering silverback. By the end of our expedition, we all felt ten pounds heavier, thanks to the rain and mud permeated through our clothing. We got back to the hotel for much-needed showers and lunch, where my sister accidentally ordered a mayonaise-filled pineapple. Only in Rwanda...
The next afternoon it was off to Gisenyi, on the shores of Lake Kivu, up by the border with the DRC. Kivu is one of the few places in Rwanda where you can get good fresh fish. Sure, there are sushi places in Kigali, but it's hard to be anything less than suspicious about ocean fish in a land-locked third world country. We took a five kilometer trek out to the penninsula, in search of a restaurant called Paradise. Once again, I've got to give the old sharts credit: they trekked up and down those hills in the mid-day muggy heat without any real difficulty. I had warned them that they should train for Rwanda's hills and altitude, and they did--much to the amusement and confusion of the rest of the Yakima valley, my dad would put on long jeans and walk up and down a hill in the 90 degree July weather. Well, it paid off.
After Gisenyi, it was time for the long-awaited visit to my village. My family got their first taste of the squishy bus experience, as we piled into an International twegerane. The road was windy, but thanks to the alarming squeak that our bus was emitting, the driver drove most of the way at about 20MPH. So we were all able to enjoy the scenic beauty of Rwanda without the usual terror that accompanies that stretch of road. Of course, the trip took about an hour longer than it should have.
I had decided not to make my family stay at my actual site, Rubona, for their visit. My house is somehow not set up for visitors. Instead, we spent two nights at the Catholic parish in the town about an hour's walk from my village. It had electricity and mostly functional western-style plumbing. Neither of these things exist in my village. The town, Rusumo, isn't large enough to warrant paved roads, but it has its fair share of shops and restaurants. I took my family to my favorite bar for dinner. The waitstaff there all know me, and after we staked out one of the cabanas, the waiter came over, examined us, then exclaimed to me, "What is the meaning of this?!"
We ordered rice and beans, which the waiter promised would be ready in an hour (Vacation Theme V: "Yeah, they're just placating you."). According to my family, I am not guilty of operating on African time, always telling them, "Oh, just fifteen more minutes," regardless of the actual timeframe. I also apparently now stand way too close to people while talk or waiting in line. One time, I picked my nose in public. America is going to be a shock to the system.
My parents had expressed a curiousity to experience African church. I decided to give them the full experience, and took them to the Pentecostal church near my village. I go there occassionally with one of my colleagues from school, but I knew that our presence was still going to cause quite a stir. The children's eyes nearly fell out of their heads, and the same can be said for many of the adults as well.
During the service, there was much singing, much dancing, much testifying, and of course, my parents had to give speeches. My sister was spared from this quintessential part of Rwandan culture, much to her relief. At the end of the service (and it only lasted three and a half hours, perfectly reasonable), the pastor presented my parents with an agaseke basket to thank them for visiting.
Next we went to my village, where my family was able to see where I've been spending the last two years. They also got to meet my umukozi Alice, who had been excited for their visit for the better part of the last year. It was the school holidays, so most of my coworkers weren't in the village. We went to my school, and poked around the village, where we were enthusiastically greeted by the few villagers that were out and about. The old women, in particular, were amazed by my mom, ogling her long gray hair and chattering in Kinyarwanda about how they couldn't believe that such an old woman would come to Rwanda (Vacation Theme VI: "Hey mom, you just got called an old woman. Again.").
It was a hot, humid day, so after we took Fanta Coca at the shop, we went back to Rusumo for the night. We were all exhausted from the ten plus kilometers of hiking, but I was slightly apprehensive about the next day--I suspected that it would be my family's first chance to take a real twegerane. I was right. When we got tot the main road in the morning, there was not a big bus to be found. I've told my family enough about Rwandan public transportation that they knew what to expect, but no amount of knowledge can really prepare you for your first time on a tweg. Fortunately, the convoyer was kind and put the four of us and our big bags in a row to ourselves; the rows in front and behind were each bursting with five or six people. The road from Ngororero to Gitarama is one of the least traveled and least policed in Rwanda. So of course, people drive with an imaginative lack of respect for speed limits and traffic laws. I'm proud to say that none of the Howells vomitted on the bus, but we were all looking a little worse for the wear by the time we screeched into Gitarama. Buses here are enough to test even the most iron of stomachs.
Our final destination for the day was Butara, home to the National Ethnographic Museum, the National Universtity, and the Nzozi Nziza ice cream parlor. We made it to two out of the three. The national museum has a wonderful collection of artifacts and art, although the picutre of "ancient" farming techniques look almost exactly like what I see in my village on a daily basis. The ice cream parlor has...ice cream. The university occassionally has blue-balled monkeys roaming the campus, but we chose ice cream over testicles.
With time winding down, we had just one more stop before heading back to Kigali for the last few days. If the first third of our trip was a wildlife excursion, the last third was a museum extravaganza. We spent one night in Nyanza, the former seat of Rwanda's monarchy and home to the King's Palace Museum and the Rwesero Art Gallery. My family loved Nyanza, and it holds a fond place in my heart as well--I spent my first ten weeks in Rwanda there, doing training.
Then suddently it was time to say goodbye. We'd done it--four Americans gone 'round Rwanda, and we'd emerged relatively unscathed. Granted, both parents had to pop Cypro, my sister got an ear infection from the shower water (one more reason not to bathe, if you ask me), and I wiped out on the pavement and had a huge bloody scab on my knee--but we were overall unharmed. No one had malaria, no ebola had snuck across the Ugandan border and liquified our innards. So it was a successful vacation!
Despite the gathering ominous thunderclouds, my parents and sister made it out of Kigali on their respective flights with no problems. They're still famous in my village. When I walk by, one of the old mamas will often start telling everyone in earshot about their visit.
So that was the highlight of my holidays! I have a months and half left in Rwanda, and then...America! I finish my Peace Corps service on November 20th, and plan to fly out that night. Getting home right in time for Thanksgiving? After 25 months away, I can't think of anything better!