Remarkable Rwanda: A Haiku
dedicated to Brendan Starr
land of potatoes,
volcanoes and gorillas,
all smiling faces.
Rwanda is often referred to "The Land of 1000 Hills," however we quickly found out Rwandans have nicknamed it to "The Land of 1000 Smiles." This came as no surprise given how genuinely happy and helpful everyone is here.
We arrived at Kigali National Airport around 9:00pm on Tuesday evening after a somewhat rocky start (coincidentally this was also our third year wedding anniversary). After an emotional goodbye with my parents (lets face it, all of my goodbyes are emotional), our excitement really started to escalate. We were so excited in fact, we weren't phased at all when the pilot announced we had a two hour delay due to weather just seconds after getting situated. When we realized we only had a one hour connection for our flight to Brussels with no other flights leaving until the following morning, we started getting concerned we would miss our pick up from Kigali for our Gorilla Trek. Somehow we had the foresight to work in a buffer day, but missing that connection would mean spending the night in DC and having zero time to rest before heading out on the trek.
First the Altima explodes on day four of our cross country drive and now we may miss the first excursion we planned before leaving the states? C'mon universe! We decided to chance it. We landed at IAD at 5:40pm to a text alert saying our connection was delayed from 5:45p to 6:00p. Sweet, 15 extra minutes. The plan was simple, Brian and I needed to run like hell. Turns out, I'm not much of a runner. I didn't make it very far before I keeled over desperately gasping for air while Brian was delicately galloping to the next terminal as if he was on the Discovery Channel. SOMEHOW WE MADE IT! What followed was pretty standard other than the fact that we didn't realize we had a third layover in Uganda and our bag filled with clothes, a laptop, and three phones for a family in Ethiopia we are visiting got lost in transit. After 27 hours of travel, we finally made it to Kigali - our first stop.
Okay - back to Kigali. When we told friends and family we were visiting Rwanda, the initial reaction from most was pure horror. We heard a lot of "have you seen Hotel Rwanda?" (yes we have). We reassured everyone that we did our due diligence and while yes, the Genocide happened 22 years ago, Kigali is said to be one of the safest cities in all of Africa.
Rwanda is incredible. The landscape, despite a layer of pollution and fog, is similar to what I can only describe as a combination of Hawaii and the Hollywood hills. Banana trees and colorful flowers cover the endless hills while the streets are completely littered with pedestrians, never trash, and yet somehow a sense of calmness still remains. At first, Kigali felt chaotic, but it wasn't long before everything settled into place.
We have been so spoiled here, Brian and I have joked that perhaps we shouldn't have started off the trip on such a high note. We spent three lovely nights at the Heaven Boutique Hotel in the Kiyovu neighborhood up in the hills. It's also referred to as the Presidential neighborhood since I'm sure you can guess, the President lives here. Additionally, it's a neighbor to the famous Milles Collines hotel from the movie, Hotel Rwanda. While the movie wasn't filmed on location (most of Hotel Rwanda was shot in South Africa) it is the actual hotel that was managed by Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) which housed over 700 Tutsi refugees during the Genocide that claimed the lives of over one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
While this isn't meant to be a history lesson, you can't escape the existence of what happened here while visiting. The very first activity we planned was visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, where an estimated 250,000 Rwandans are buried. It serves as a place for family members and friends to mourn the lives of loved ones lost. It's a place for those who never found their brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. It's filled with sadness and anger paralleled with beautiful gardens and landscape offering a sense of tranquility. It was an emotional visit to say the least but one that can't be missed.
Following the memorial, we headed back towards the hotel and sat outside at Bourbon Coffee (we realized later it's basically their version of Starbucks) for lunch. It's located inside a pretty busy shopping mall, and while the food wasn't anything special, the terrace and view were. Its mixed with both locals and tourist, almost having an SF vibe with every other table consumed with laptops and cell phones, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
After a couple hours, and some liquid courage, we decided to venture out into a less touristy area. We had read about the vibrant and busy Nyamirambo neighborhood (the location isn't correct on Google Maps when you search, but it can be found here), filled with shops, restaurants, and bars. Brian used his haggling skills to talk the cab fare down a couple thousand RFs (Rwandan Francs) and we were off. To say we were the only tourist would be an understatement. Well - it's a fact I guess, because we were the ONLY tourist there. It was insanely busy and chaotic but also exactly what we were craving. I really wanted to buy a dress from one of the shops but sadly I didn't have the confidence yet (hey, it was only the first day!).
We walked around, trying to manage taking in the scenery while watching our step as the water drainage system was a giant four foot wide by three foot deep hole between the road and "sidewalk." I'm fairly certain a couple of young school girls were making fun of Brian for taking pictures of chickens roaming around...or perhaps they were making fun of his nose, we will never know. It was such a nice evening we ended up walking an hour or so back to our hotel, a fact that the hotel staff found surprising for their guests, just in time to settle in for our anniversary dinner Brian had arranged.
While we were exhausted, the excitement of our next excursion kept us up well past our ideal bedtime. Next up, our Gorilla Trek.