When my family got off the plane it was relatively late. The flight had been delayed about 40 minutes and they had to fight their way though about 300 other Muzungus before they could exit the baggage claim. We stayed at the hotel for a day and let them recover from then time change and excruciatingly long flight, which they tell me, was exacerbated by a screaming Rwandan child the entire 8 hour leg from Brussels to Kigali.
“I thought I was going to kill that kid. Like seriously. I really considered it.” Tam told me.
“Don’t kill the kid; just strangle the mother. You’re automatically eliminating all the other mistakes she would have inevitably made, and promoting an end to bad parenting.” I replied.
My mother stared at me in horror for about thirty seconds before I assured her I was joking. Mostly.
I started their tour of Rwanda by taking them to my site. Many of the locals kept asking how long I would be staying, and the answer of “Oh, we are only going to be here for the afternoon,” seemed nothing short of shocking. My housemate threw a minor tantrum when she supposedly discovered that I wasn’t going to be there with my family for the entire week, despite the fact that we had repeatedly discussed my schedule for my family vacation. On the part of my family, they seemed to handle my site fairly well. I was very impressed to see them make it up and down my mountain with very little trouble. They saw the campus, met some of my students, took some photos and then walked back to the house without as much as a comment on the temperature. I guess the months of hiking preparation paid off.
After visiting my site, our Rwandan tour began. We met our driver, Bizimana, right after our return from Mulindi. Our first stop was to the Akagera game park which was fabulous. The lodge itself was beautiful and relatively vacant so we had a lot of space to move around. There were also animals that would just walk onto the lodge grounds. Baboons would hop down from the roof and hang out on the dinning room balcony, which was nicely juxtaposed with sunsets over the Lake Ihema. Driving through the National Park, we were assigned a personal park ranger who could explain just about any fact about any animal we saw. Akagera has several families of zebra and giraffes, and the ranger insisted that we drive off road on multiple occasions in order to get the closest (and therefore best) photos possible. It was a perfect introduction for my family to Rwandan hospitality.
“Wait, are we allowed to do this?” My family asked as the ranger encouraged them to exit the Range Rover for a better view of the wildlife.
“I dunno. But, they want you to have the best experience possible, so I’d just roll with it.” I replied.
After Akagera we returned to Kigali for an exceptionally short night, due to our 3am wake up call. If you want to see the rare Rwandan Mountain Gorillas and you plan on staying in Kigali, don’t stay up late the night before. However, since the Larrs never listen to rational advice like that, that night we went out for a fabulous dinner and drinks with several of my best PCV friends at Heaven. Heaven is the only restaurant in Rwanda where one can get a cocktail. Even at the nicest hotels, when you order the most basic drink (say, a screw driver) the bar tender will bring out a glass or orange juice and a shot of vodka and allow you to do the honors of mixing the drink yourself. So this was a rare treat for all of us.
I smiled at our waiter and ordered a Vodka Martini--extra dry, with extra olives. And ten minutes later I had one! I may or may not have gotten a little misty eyed after the first sip. So, what? Shut up.
In any event, the outing brought us back to the hotel around midnight. I slept most of the way to Ruhengeri in the car, which worked out better than I could have hoped because for the majority of the drive the sun was still down. We stayed at a lodge next to the trekking center, grabbed a bite of breakfast, and then rushed over to the briefing—which really wasn’t much of a briefing at all. The walk to the Gorillas site was only about 35 minutes so our guide, Papa Francois, gave us tid-bits of information while we hiked. The group only had about 9 tourists, but including porters, and armed guards (which I inaccurately thought were meant to protect us from wild animal attacks) we had about 15 people hiking towards the site. The guards and the porters stopped just outside the glen where the Gorillas were hanging out and Papa Francois gave us a few last bits of advice for dealing with gorillas.
“So, if a gorilla comes up to you and grabs you and pulls you somewhere, just go with him. Sometimes they like to play.” He said.
My mother and sister laughed until it became clear that Papa Francois was being perfectly serious.
“…But I don’t want to get grabbed by a gorilla.” My mom stated with deep concern.
“… Well, it’ll be a unique life experience!” I encouraged.
To my disappointment, no one was kidnapped by gorillas. For the most part they seemed perfectly happy to peacefully co-exist with us sitting a few feet away and snapping no-flash photos. The experience was relatively reminiscent of my daily life with Rwandans villagers. We would stand a few feet away and gawk at the gigantic furry creatures as if they were from another planet, and they would occasionally send us an exasperated glance or grunt in return.
“Don’t worry Mr. Gorilla.” I thought. “I know exactly how you feel.”
A few of the younger ones approached us on a few occasions, but the guides helped diffuse the situation before anyone came within touching distance. Kwita Izina (the baby gorilla naming ceremony) happened just about a month earlier, so there were baby Gorillas on the site as well. I got video of one playing with his older brother and doing somersaults in the grass. So. Cute.
We rejoined the porters and guards about an hour after meeting the gorillas. Papa Francois began telling anecdotes about the dangerous geographic make up of the Virguna area. It was at about this moment it occurred to me that the armed escorts weren’t for protecting us from potential animal threats, but rather to shoot any straying, foreign militants. Ouch.
When we returned to the Lodge Bizimana had arranged a surprise birthday celebration for my mom, complete with cake, songs, and a card from the hotel. It was pretty adorable. The following days were non-stop treks around the Virunga area (where I met a kid I am determined to sponsor), and took part in Golden Monkey trekking. Eventually, the tour ended with a down tempo day in Gisenyi beside Lake Kivu. The proprietor and I had some interesting conversations, not the least strange of which went about like this:
“So, you live in the Mulindi of Heroes?”
“Yes. It is a great honor.” I replied.
“Have you gone to see Kagame’s house yet? I mean, where he stayed during the war?”
“No, but I have seen Kabuga’s house. I drive past it when I go to Rushaki.”
“Ah yes. He is a bad man. He is very old and will probably die soon,” he said with nonchalance I normally don’t hear used when discussing Kabuga.
“I have heard a lot about him. Like he just got mixed up in the wrong affairs.”
“Oh well, all rich people are like that.” He stated.
I raised my eyebrows. “Like what?”
“You know. Sponsors of massacres and things like that.”
“… Are they, really?” I smiled awkwardly. I had no idea how to respond to his statement and luckily Tam arrived at that exact moment and dragged me onto the veranda for a picture of some weird species of lizard. Saved by the sister.
To balance out the crazy, I also met, Betty, who quickly became one of my favorite Rwandans of all time and solidified my desire to work in Gisenyi if I do a third year in Africa.
After Gisenyi we retuned to Kigali for a night and then had another obnoxiously early wake up call so we could make our 7am flight to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. More on that trip later.