Sometimes life works in mysterious ways...I landed from Africa about a week ago and when I did, the world was different from the one I left 12 days earlier. COVID-19 has changed how we are living at the moment. I write this to re-live wonderful memories of this trip and allow us all to dream and be transported to another place without breaking the rules of social distancing. Travel will come back and when it does, I highly recommend adding Rwanda to your list :)
You may wonder about the title of this post---Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills. The country is beautiful! I was able to see a staggering 70% or so of the country in just over a week (Rwanda is roughly the size of Maryland). I began my journey in the capital of Kigali and was immediately taken by how clean, organized and beautiful the city was. This was in contrast to many of the other capital cities in Africa. Rwanda is a leader in environmental legislation and hire people to clean the streets, so they are immaculate. Rwanda has had a ban on one-time use plastic bags for years and I honestly didn't see one anywhere. Also in contrast to other areas of Africa, nearly all of the roads in Rwanda are paved. My dad asked what the roads were like and I said they were way better than those in Chicago (where he lives...).
As you may remember, Rwanda experienced a genocide of epic proportion in 1994---over a million people were killed in a 100 day period. I knew of the genocide in general terms and knew the Tutsi and moderate Hutu people were the main targets. I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda with Don Cheadle. It turns out I knew nothing (and the movie wasn't accurate in many ways). Each region of Rwanda has a Genocide Memorial that includes the mass graves of the victims. The Memorial in Kigali is the most visited and the mass graves there alone hold at least 250,000 bodies. How does one wrap their mind around the kind of number?? The visit at the Memorial begins with a short video of survivors describing their experience and the audio tour and exhibits do an excellent job of explaining how decisions made starting from colonialism (Rwanda was briefly a German colony, before being transferred to Belgium) created an atmosphere over years that allowed this atrocity to happen. It also describes the 100 days and the amazing recovery that has occurred over the past nearly 26 years. It is depressing, but also uplifting to see how Rwandans have handled the aftermath and are now considered the safest country in Africa (and one of the safest in the world).
After my visit I asked my driver very casually if he was in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me that he likely was and that he likely had some terrible stories to tell. My driver has been in the tourist business for over 20 years and sharing his stories are a part of the way he processes what he saw and did during that terrible time. He is Tutsi and had been sent to Uganda in the the months prior so he could continue to go to school. The rest of his family remained in Rwanda. It is not my place to share his stories, but he suffered unimaginable losses. He lost his father, brothers, cousins, friends and so many others. One of his closest childhood friends killed his family. Many Rwandans were in a similar position and they could have all chosen revenge on those that killed their families or they could choose to forgive (or try to forget). An astonishing amount of Rwandans chose not to retaliate---they said they would be just as bad as those that killed during genocide---and tried to move forward. He asked the childhood friend where he could find the bodies of his family and went to try and recover the bodies (this was weeks, if not months, after they were killed). I can't even begin to process how difficult this must have been. He was enlisted in the Ugandan army during and after the genocide--it was the only way to survive---and the stories have no happy endings here as well. Violence took over everyones life in one form or another. He tried to get out of the army to go back to Rwanda to help his remaining family members---his mother and 3 siblings. Eventually a presiding officer took sympathy on him and allowed him a discharge. He brought the money he had earned in the Army to his mother and went to school to be a tourism driver in Tanzania so he could have a future.
We had a chance to talk about the genocide as well as Rwanda today each day as he was my driver for my entire stay in Rwanda. I feel like I know a Rwandan now and have a friend the next time I return :)
I headed to Nyungwe National Forest from Kigali. The main reason I headed here was the chimpanzees. This is one of the few spots in the world you can see them in the wild. I had no idea this area would be so beautiful!
This area of Rwanda grows tea---those are tea plantations in the distance. So green and lush.
The journey to trek for chimpanzees starts early in the day. It is easier to find them earlier in the day before they get active and start moving. I was staying close to the park office, so I could leave at 4:45am, but others in my trekking group were staying further away (not a lot of accommodations in this area) and had to leave at 3am. We were assigned a group of chimps that required about an hour's drive to the hiking start point. Trackers go out early each day to find the chimps and then track them while one of the park wardens lead the group to the chimps (they are in touch by cell phone to have the most up to date info). The maximum number of people allowed to visit the chimps each day is 12. My group had 5 the day I went. I had heard that the chimp trekking could be challenging and a porter was recommended. A porter helps to carry your day pack and help you in tricky parts of the trail. My advice is to take a porter even if you are an expert hiker. These are very rural areas and there aren't a lot of economic opportunities. Tourism related activities employ more people than most other industries (other than tea). Poaching (killing the wild animals) is down dramatically now that tourism has brought other ways to make money. Each spot is different, but the suggested pay for a porter is between $10-$20. That is a large amount for the porter and a drop in the bucket for Americans traveling in Rwanda.
I was surprised to see a woman as part of the porter's group. I asked my driver to hire her for me (many porters do not speak English). I try to employ females during my travels as often as possible. Many women face discrimination and I want to support them. My driver said there are only a few women porters in Nyungwe.
I was there in the very beginning of the rainy season and I knew things might be a little muddy, but I wasn't expecting what I found. I guess this was still nothing compared to how muddy things can get, but the hike to see the chimps can be a challenge---a lot of up and down and to do so on slippery slopes is not fun. I didn't even have a minute to take a photo. The warden begun the hike and it was on...every brain cell was engaged with not falling. The porter Irene probably saved my life (or at least my leg) more than once. We started around 7,000 feet of elevation and gained about 1,000 feet in about 1.5 hours of hiking. I was exhausted by the time we saw the chimps. However, all tiredness was forgotten when I saw the chimps chomping on a fig and leaf breakfast :)
Chimps don't like muddy trails either, so they were all up in t he trees during our allotted one hour of viewing. The forest is quiet---just sounds of the birds and insects----so you can hear them chem and crunch while eating and can even hear them when they are grooming and scratching. It is really a phenomenal experience to be part of their world! The hike back was easier because I had the memories of the chimps fresh in my mind. Needless to say, after all of the mud and help I needed, Irene received a nice tip. It is also customary to trip the trackers and the park warden.
This is just the beginning of my trip experience, but this ends this first blog post. More to come....
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.