Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rwanda, Part 1

I landed in Kigali the day before Rwanda’s election with only the faintest idea of what I was going to do. I had been emailing some contacts there about getting a press pass and calling some journalist friends of friends; I wanted to do some sort of radio thing if I could swing it, and the guy at the media office had made it seem like getting press credentials would be a cinch.

Apparently, however, even in distant Rwanda people have somehow cottoned onto the New York City News Service, and they weren’t impressed with my press pass. I couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone as to whether credentials were necessary to do any reporting, period, or just necessary to get access to the big election events. Since I didn’t want to get arrested or deported and thus banned from covering events in Rwanda for life, and seeing as none of the media organizations I had contacted seemed interested in a story AND since I was stupid with exhaustion after three of the last four nights spent more or less sleeplessly nights on buses, I decided to let myself off the hook and just enjoy witnessing the day.

This being election day, everything was closed. The genocide memorial museum, all government buildings, even most restaurants. BUT! Hotels are always open, and so I suggested checking out Hotel des Mille Collines – better known to most people in the wider world as Hotel Rwanda.

So while Rwandans were lining up to cast their ballots all around the country, I found myself sipping a beer with a couple of friends by the pool of the swanky hotel where Paul Rusesabagina famously smooth-talked the Interahamwe, bribed them with top-shelf liquor, and generally bad-assed them into sparing the lives of more than a thousand Rwandans during the genocide. It was all kinds of surreal, watching the smartly-dressed waiters serve chilled lagers to pasty foreigners while children laughed and paddled in the bright blue serene water, all the while wondering what the scene might have looked like fifteen years ago to the man with fierce facial scars who gave me my change.

After a delicious dinner of Indian food at the first open restaurant we were able to find, my new friend Elizabeth (who I met at the hostel where we were staying) and I hopped motorbikes to head uphill to the national stadium, where I estimate at least 20,000 Rwandans had gathered to watch the election returns come in.

It was huge. In between massive cheers as the regional results were announced, people went nuts for what seemed like every DJ and musician of note in Rwanda or Burundi, and save for the podium of journalists near the stage, we were two out of maybe four wazungu amid the thousands of people on the stadium floor. It was fantastic. Rwandans seemed nearly as elated to see us there as they were about the election. It was great to really engage with people and hear what they had to say about Kagame and the election. It’s fascinating to me how, with everything that’s been in the news lately about the regime (slightly sinister assassinations, brooking no opposition, etc.) a massive majority of people truly do seem to genuinely like, even love, their president. When he finally came out, the screams reminded me of being at Invesco in Denver when Obama made his entrance.

I’m also pretty sure I’ve never been groped so much in my life. C’est la vie.

We called it a night then, but not before Elizabeth had provided me with a business card whose value over the next few days I cannot possibly overstate, because that’s how we met Emmanuel: scrappy Congolese fixer, connected-up-the-wazoo tour operator, and general go-to badass extraordinaire – all five feet zero inches of him.

Next up: GORILLAS!

Friday, August 13, 2010

I spent 100 hours...

...pretty much exactly like this over the last three weeks.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Back to Arusha

Two days later…

Arusha wasn’t quite as surreal this time around; it’s taken on a homey, oh-yeah-I-know-this-place-now, comfortable kind of vibe for me. I visited Bangata again and was gutted to discover that Mama was again away visiting Pili. I had another nice visit with Baba and Farajah, but I’m determined to one day see Mama again. Just another reason I need to come back to East Africa again.

I also went to a school on the outskirts of town with my friend Sam where his friend used to teach and is now helping to support with Kipepeo Clothing, a T-shirt line he created that showcases drawings by the kids – rhinos, airplanes, whatever they feel like drawing. They’re great shirts and the friend sends all of the proceeds to the school. I got the grand tour and saw the kitchen and bathrooms the school is hoping to improve – it was cool knowing exactly what the money would be going to. We brought pens and sketch paper for the kids to do some more pictures as well as some candy and a soccer ball as gifts. It was nice to get away from the pure tourist track, as much fun as that was to do in Jinja.

Now, we’re off to Rwanda! Forty hours on a bus. And one big election to cover. Hooo boy.

A Four Lines Feelings Check On A Bus In Uganda

This one’s for the Open Sky crew.


I’m sweaty, I have to pee, and my calf is throbbing where I burned it against the exhaust pipe of the boda boda (motorbike) that took me to the taxi (Ugandan matatu) from my friend Laurie’s place this morning. There are little raised bumps and scratches all over my right forearm where her adorable but bitey puppy Kit used me as a chew toy last night. I’m a little sunburned, especially on the tops of my knees. I have that slightly hollow feeling that comes with being a bit hungover. I’m thirsty and hungry. There’s a wonderfully cool breeze blowing in my face from the window and I’m being bounced around as I watch the little farms just outside Kampala speed by, all red earth and big green leaves and rolling hills divided into neat fields. My ass, already tender from horseback riding yesterday, is not pleased. My shoulders are sore from paddling the Nile the day before and my hips are still a bit out of joint from bungee jumping. I hear people having low conversations in Luganda in front of me and behind me. I’m listening to “Tabasamu.” I smell exhaust and ME, and I’m not sure which is gnarlier.


I’m wishing I could drink the bottle of Rwenzori water sitting so invitingly in the seat pocket in front of me, but I already have to pee, we just left Kampala, and I have no idea how far out our first stop will be. I’m wondering what ungodly hour it will be when we get into Arusha and if it’ll be late enough to skip getting a room somewhere… but I’m also in dire need of a shower. I’m marveling at the beauty of the landscape. I’m hoping that Mama Pili will be home this time when I go to Bangata. I’m thinking about last night’s hilarious escapades and already planning on trying to make a “Rolex” when I get home – essentially a Ugandan breakfast burrito with eggs rolled up in a chapatti (think “roll-eggs). Because it was AMAZING.


Nervous, elated, amused, giddy about all of the above. A little irritated that my phone continues to function only when the mood strikes. Relieved as hell that I made the Akamba bus with zero minutes to spare after a mad boda boda ride through Kampala’s insane traffic. Missing my friend Eva, who I left behind in Jinja and is the best travel buddy anyone could ask for, but happily anticipating meeting up with the next friend in Arusha.


When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom just like a wavin’ flag.

Happiness hit her like a train on a track. The dog days are over. The dog days are done.

I followed you into the park through the jungle, through the dark. Moats and boats and waterfalls alley ways and pay phone calls, I’ve been everywhere with you. Laugh until we think we’ll die, on that summer night  everything is sweeter when with you. and in the streets we’re running free like it’s only you and me, the truth is you’re something to see. Home, let me come home. Home is wherever I’m with you.


Turns out I’m in effing Nairobi again. When I bought the bus ticket, they neglected to mention that it wasn’t a direct trip. It’s 4:16 am and I’m sitting groggily in the 24-hour restaurant above the Akamba station learning the hard way that just because it’s open all hours doesn’t mean it actually has food that whole time. My visions of a hot, hearty breakfast spread (“Spanish omelette with chapatti and beans, please?”) got a rude awakening in the form of a samosa and chapatti made somewhere back around Nam, a hard-boiled egg, and instant coffee with no milk.

I’ve got two hours and change before my connecting bus to Arusha gets here. It’s cold as balls out – I’m already nostalgic for nice, warm Uganda – and the bathroom in the restaurant is locked. Oh, travel. You’re a little brat, but you’re MY little brat and I love you.

Written in Jinja on Wednesday

I would just like to state for the record that Eva and I are the dream team of travel buddies. Together, our halfway decent Swahili becomes pretty damn good Swahili. We are amazing at charming bartenders. One of us will have a good idea, and the other will add another layer that makes it GREAT.

I love her. That’s all.

Monday, August 2, 2010

I'm pretty sure...

...that heaven looks a lot like sunset motorcycle rides through Ugandan villages, smashing down Silverback rapid on the Nile, and cute Australian bungee jumping instructors calling me "sweetheart."