Thursday, February 13, 2020

Rwanda ROCKS... one of the best days of my life!

Want a breathtaking, unforgettable experience? Trek into the mountains of Rwanda and spend time with the Gorillas... it is even better than you can imagine. Today was the highlight of the trip and one of the best travel experiences EVER.
First, you are not across a wide clearing from them (like I anticipated).  In fact, I did not use my zoom on any of these photos.  No kidding are right next to these magnificent creatures. They could reach out and hold your hand. The gorilla family we visited is one silverback male, 8 females and 5 babies (ranging from just a few months old to toddlers). The moms look deep into your eyes... soulfully. The youngsters play around you and are sassy and so very, very cute.
Can't you just see it in his eyes:  "What naughtiness can I get into today?"
The "Why are you disturbing my nap?" look
The toddler gorilla posing and showing off his tricks for us.. "Look what I can do... pick my nose and raise one foot at the same time.. I am a genius!"
The Silverback Alpha Male ...stuffing his face and deliberately ignoring us
This is how close you get to them
Before we started up the mountain (and it is an almost 3 hour trek uphill to get to where this family was hanging out), we met Francoise ... one of the guides who was Diane Fossey's tracker for 5 years. (The cool experiences and stories he must have!)
And then off we went...
Observation: Rwanda takes gender equality to a new level. It is against the law to pay women less than men and 68% of the parliament is female. The thought is that women are less likely to invoke unrest, a civil war or another genocide. Peace and prosperity are priorities and the country likes its chances better with women at the helm. I loved the fact that one of our trackers today was a young woman (there are only a few of those still). The rifle is supposedly to ward off aggressive buffalo but I'm betting if anyone tried to hurt a gorilla she might well use it on a tourist!!! I wouldn't mess with her, she was a badass.
The gorillas are so important to the economy and well-being of this region, the village has a special ceremony each year where they decide on the name for each new gorilla baby born that season. This is an auspicious event as they must select just the right name to bring good health and long life to every new gorilla.  The naming ceremony comes with pomp and circumstance and takes places in this special statue pavilion made from woven and braided wheat strands.
Observation: Popular names for young men born after the genocide (so 21-24 years old) bear witness to the country’s hope for reconciliation: we have met several with names like Innocent, Peace and Justice. One of our porters today was the third “Innocent” we’ve met. 
Children born of genocide rapes and then abandoned - or those orphaned when both parents were murdered - created a groundswell of street urchins in the mid 1990s. The government started a massive public education campaign asking people to adopt those kids and bring them into their homes. It worked. And today there are really no homeless people in Rwanda. No matter how poor they are, some distant family member will put an extra mat on the floor and give you a home.  

Yesterday, we visited a charity -Handspun Hope - that has built a place of healing and serenity for “vulnerable women” (defined as widows whose husbands were murdered in the genocide; women with HIV who are rejected by their families; disabled women with infant children). 
The women at the home raise goats and angora rabbits, shear them, wash, dye and spin the wool and then knit it into sweaters and scarves. The spinning wheel is powered by her foot ... which has to move at exactly the right pace and rhythm to make the yarn perfect and not tangled. It's seems crazy difficult.
They also  turn the rough wool into felt gorillas... for sale at hotel gift shops. 
The home and it’s gardens are bordered by a high wall which inspires a feeling of safety. And the whole property is beautiful, lush and peaceful. The women sit in groups all day, chatting and gossiping and working. You hear their soft laughter. There are also counselors and therapists available. This charity is clearly doing real good for traumatized women. You leave feeling better about their chances for true healing.
Shout out to Amakora Lodge where we stayed while in the gorilla national park area. Very high end and super pampering. There was - literally - a gaggle of people for the Gaiter Ceremony every morning where they tighten your boots and zip up your gaiters and bless your trek. (Because you are obviously not expected to be able to do those types of simple tasks for yourself).
I am not even exaggerating...this place takes Super Luxury to a new level. Everyone had their own villa ... each equipped with giant beds and claw foot tubs.
We were even met by drummers from the nearest village when we arrived. Audience participation encouraged.
Observation: My kingdom for a ... bicycle. In the villages, after a cow, the most valuable possession is a bike. And there is tremendous ingenuity around all the things you can pile onto a bicyle and still peddle it.
I leave you tonight with my favorite topic... the children of Rwanda.  I have hundred of photos of them.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Exploring Rwanda

So much to tell you ... so little time.  
Day 5: We started the day with a trek to see the colobus monkey. Several fun facts .. "colobus" means disabled (because these monkeys are missing thumbs ... which seems like a especially dangerous evolutionary flaw, especially when swinging from trees is your daytime activity); they look like British barristers wearing the black robes and white wigs; they cannot drink water ... so their urine is very concentrated and smells terrible.  (I told you the facts were "fun").
Photo credit to Marnie Cervenka 

ObservationRwanda decided - over a decade ago - that their best income option was tourism and, to attract tourists, they needed a country that was clean and safe. The government thus requires every Rwandan to spend one day a month cleaning the country. On the third Saturday of each month, from 9am to 1pm, every citizen must clean and sweep the street around them or some part of the city/ village. Littering is a finable offense and tidiness and cleanliness is highly encouraged. It’s worked! While Rwanda is a very poor country (coffee pickers work full days in the blistering sun for less than $1 US per day), there is no trash anywhere. Pretty impressive.

Day 6: We set out on a two day kayaking adventure on Lake Kivu.  And I mean "trek" as we did 18-22 KMs per day (which, in case you were not sure, is a LOT...  I have the blisters on my hands to prove it). Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.  The water was as still as glass. 

We spent one night on a deserted island in tents. But not roughing it... far more like “glamping” with a hot meal, mattresses with fresh sheets and blankets and table and chairs set up under the trees. All very colonial and “out of Africa”-ish.

The border between Rwanda and the Congo (DRC - Democratic Republic is Congo) runs down the middle of the lake, so you can see both countries at once.  Love the canoe boats made of planks of wood with cotton and gum stuffed into the cracks.  

Villagers make their cows swim out to the close islands in the mornings to eat the fresh grass.
ObservationThe government has committed to having every home supplied with electricity by 2025 but water is still tough. Villages have a central water pipe and fetching water in a plastic jerry van is a time suck every day. Clearly lots of gossip is shared.
Clever plan for giving everyone a street address:  each house is marked by a number on the outside. The government came by with a bucket of red paint and just started numbering: simple and effective.

Because of the genocide, the country is very young-centric with 65% of the country being under the age of 25.  The hope for this country is in the bright eyes and quick smile of its children.

Again, the light in their eyes captured in street graffiti
And last .. isn't my Booth still a hunk (even at 60 and in a stupid trekking hat) ???

Friday, February 7, 2020

Ruminations from Rwanda

We came to Rwanda to visit the "Gorillas in the Mist" for Rainey's 60th birthday.  Our group includes our daughters Elizabeth and Emily and our good friends Marnie and Greg Cervenka.

Let me just say this up front… I am struggling in Rwanda.  The history of this country sits atop of everything I see and feel.

Day 1: we went to visit the Genocide Museum ... a very sobering beginning to this trip.

When the Germans and the Belgiums came to colonize Rwanda, they decided to create two tribes: the Hutus and the Tutsis.  They randomly assigned every person who had more than 10 cows to be a Tutsi and the poorer people became Hutus. And just like that ... social inequality divisions were born.  The Tutsis were given better education opportunities and jobs in the colonial governments.  The Hutus were relegated to being laborers and farmers.  The Rwandan genocide here started in a way that should be frighteningly familiar: a Hutu political movement that stirred up the emotions of the uneducated to believe that they were being looked down upon by the elites; the charismatic leader encouraged hot feelings of hate and revenge; he stoked the flames of divisiveness and engendered cult-like devotion; plus a media source that amplified only the meanness and hostility against the Tutsi (think Fox News). In April of 1994, the Hutu president's plane was shot down and he was killed. The state-sympathetic media blamed the Tutsis and inflamed the divisions. Politicians called the Tutsi “cockroaches” and called for the extermination of those inferior beings. When the emotion was at a fever pitch, the violence started.  In 1994, in the course of just 100 days, Rwandans turned against each other: neighbors against neighbors; husbands against wives; roving gangs of Hutu men rioted in the streets … and in the end, the Hutu majority killed 2 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus (those who refused to participate in the nationwide “purge”).  Women were raped, tortured and hacked to death; children stomped upon or beaten to death and men dragged from their houses and murdered in the streets. 20,000 people killed every day.

This country just marked the  25-year memorial of the genocide and it is still reeling from the horrors.  As a visitor, everyone you meet here – who is older than 45 – makes you immediately ponder, “What role did you play in the genocide?" Murderer? Aggressor? Observer? Victim? Every guide book says to not ask people today if they are Hutu or Tutsi, since those distinctions are not allowed here anymore.  But since 75% of the Tutsis were wiped out in the genocide, it stands to reason that most people you meet are from the group on the very wrong side of this tragedy.

The Genocide museum, to give full credit, provides an unvarnished and impressively honest chronicle of the events.  It is disturbing at a core level. I am so sick of the meanness and ugliness of our country and Rwanda brings those feelings home in such a gut punch way. 

Day 2: We visited the King’s old palaces: both the one from before 1932 (a rush-thatched hut) and the royal permanent home from the 1930s (which is just a basic house with few frills). The royal line ended in the genocide when the family was killed.

Of note is that in the hut palace, the king had a giant bed made of rush mats, and when he made love to the queen, beautiful women had to stand at the end of the bed and clap and sing.  Nothing creepy about that at all… !!!  I felt sorry for any King who suffered from performance anxiety. Talk about audience pressure.

The King’s favorite pets were these long-horned cows (I mean, seriously, he obviously did not get the concept of a pet… why did no-one get the poor guy a kitten?)  We got to meet the cows and their guardians (wearing nothing short of rent-the-runway glam outfits) who sang for us – and the heifers – a fine little diddy with reed pipe accompaniment.

The King's love of cows even shows up  in the street graffiti...

Next up … the National Museum …

And my all-time favorite photo … Mom washing her baby ... using the age old method of blowing water through a reed straw right into butt… Yikes!!!

Day 3: We went deep into the country which is hilly and cool and perfect for tea plantations

Beautiful tea picker

Saw lots of monkeys besides the road

Day 4: Dawn marked the start of our hike in search of the chimpanzees.

The chimps move fast through the jungle during the day so you have to set out early to catch them while they are still waking up and eating breakfast. A tough hike through thick jungle later… we found two male chimps and a female … SPECTACULAR viewing.


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