Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Monday, October 4, 2010

Anda #1: Rw

Crossing from Tanzania into Rwanda, you get a bit of a "we're not in Kansas anymore" feeling. After hours bouncing across dirt roads on an overcrowded bus that smells of dried fish (that's the Tanzania side)...all of a sudden you're on a smoothly paved road, winding through beautiful hilly scenery, in a new minibus with plenty of leg room and only one adult butt per seat. Bliss! Welcome to Rwanda.

Two other nice things about the Rwanda border at Rusumu: There's an impressive waterfall as you walk over the bridge between Tanzania and Rwanda (Rusumu Falls)...and, if you're American, you don't need a visa for Rwanda. It had been a few countries since we were able to get stamped in without forking over a bunch of cash, and it was a nice welcome.

Rwanda is a very small country, and its main tourist draw is the opportunity to track mountain gorillas in the north, where the country borders Uganda and DRC (the other two countries where you can track them). Permits to do this are expensive ($500 US apiece) and difficult to come by on short notice, so we were prepared to spend some time in the country waiting. Luckily, a friend of ours who is working in gorilla conservation put us in touch with a tour operator who is very good at getting short-notice permits (Amahoro Tours, whom we recommend), and we were able to go track six days after our arrival in the country. So that gave us six days (duh) to get to know Rwanda.

Out first destination was Kigali, Rwanda's capital. It's an attractive, very clean city set on several hills (Rwanda is the land of 1,000 hills), so almost anywhere you are, you have a great view of some other part of the city.

This is not where we stayed, but here I am in the lobby of the Hotel des Mille Collines--Hotel of 1,000 Hills, but better known as the Hotel Rwanda. This is where the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, saved scores of people from the genocide in 1994. It's right in the center of downtown and looked like a comfortable place to stay.
This cinema was around the corner from the much less fancy hotel where we did stay. And guess what it was showing? "Eclipse," the third movie in the Twilight series! Andy and I hadn't been to a movie yet in our seven months in Africa, and since we happened to see both of the first movies last year ("Twilight" on a bus in Peru and "New Moon" at half-price movie night in El Salvador) and it only cost $2 for a ticket, we decided to go. We turned out to be the only ones there, and the movie was played off a computer and was almost certainly pirated, given the frequent warnings that scrolled across the bottom about piracy. Pretty hilarious. As was the movie, but it was a fun night out.
Since we never seem to remember to take street-scene pictures anymore, I snapped this one down the street from the movie theater. You can see how there's no trash in the streets, and the motorcycle-taxi drivers and their passengers all wear helmets. Amazing!! Another fun tidbit--apparently, plastic bags are illegal in Rwanda. You get offered paper ones at the grocery store, etc. The rest of the world could learn a bit from Rwanda in this department...
The one thing you can't miss if you visit Kigali is the Genocide Memorial museum. It's a really well-set-up, and as you can imagine, incredibly sad commemoration of the horrific Rwandan genocide that took place in 1994. I don't have photos from it, but some features are a history of ethnic conflict as fomented by the Beligan colonisers, clothes and shoes of victims, video testimonials from survivors, pictures and profiles of murdered children (favorite foods, favorite toy, manner in which they were slaughtered)...unbelievably awful, but really necessary viewing. There are other memorials set up around the country, and the sheer number of people who were killed is staggering.

Kigali, and Rwanda in general, look so shiny on the surface these days, that it's really hard to imagine the streets filled with corpses and murder-crazed, machete-wielding gangs going door-to-door with death lists. But it happened, only 16 years ago, and if you visit a memorial or even just talk to a Rwandan, there is no avoiding how it affected every single person in the country. The people who are our age now were teenagers then, and it's incredible to think about how they all lived through members of their family either being killed...or being killers.

But Rwanda today is a different place, and is totally worth visiting. Our next destination was Butare, home of the National Museum and University.

A quirk that we've found not just in Rwanda, but all over East Africa, is that every hotel room, no matter how cheap, gives you a pair of flip flops. Ostensibly, these are to wear into the bathroom so you won't slip, since most of the time the shower isn't separated from the rest of the bathroom and just sprays all over the floor. I think it's kind of icky to wear these communal flip flops and usually don't...I mean, I doubt they're getting disinfected between users. Anyway, in Butare we got a particularly colorful pair.

Here's a view of some terraced farming on the outskirts of Butare. Because of the hilliness, most farming in Rwanda looks like this.
Here's the National Museum. It has mostly ethnographic displays. It was a little dry for my taste, but very comprehensive if you'd like to learn about traditional life in Rwanda.
We walked around the University campus. It looked pretty much like an American state university, with one important difference: The basketball court was crawling with vervet monkeys.
The University has an arboretum where we saw many, many varieties of eucalyptus tree. We assume they were planted to test how well they'd do in a Rwandan environment.
My favorite trees in Rwanda are these purple-flowered ones, which we think are jacarandas. They are everywhere and are so beautiful--one day, I will plant some alongside my aviary. Here are a few students studying under one on the college campus.

From Butare--also known as Huye--in the south of the country, we traveled to Musanze--also known as Ruhengheri (for some reason every town in Rwanda has two completely dissimilar names)--in the far north of the country, a trip that took only four hours. This was so we could finally go track gorillas!

Our day began at 6AM with a ride to the national park headquarters, where all of the permit-holders were divided into different groups to visit the different families of gorillas up the mountain. A maximum of eight people can visit each gorilla family, and you can only spend one hour with them.

Rwanda is known for having easier-to-reach gorillas than Uganda...except for the Susa group, which requires a three-hour climb through dense brush to reach. Guess which group we got assigned to? Andy was excited ("If we paid $500, we may as well get to do the most hiking possible!" he said), but if you know how I feel about hiking, you may guess that I felt a little differently.

The only nice thing I can say about our hike was that it went through many different interesting landscapes, and always with impressive volcanoes in the background. We started by trekking through farmers' fields outside of a small village.

Next we went through my favorite part, a bamboo forest. We felt like we were tiny people lost in a giant front lawn, a la "Honey I Shrunk the Kids."

Adding to the giant-stuff-around-us theme, we found the biggest earthworm we'd ever seen hanging out in the bamboo.

The longest and most painful (literally) part of the hike involved climbing (ugh!) through rainforesty brush filled with stinging plants (ugh!!) that attacked any exposed skin you might have.

But, of course, it was all worth it when we came upon the gorillas.

Our group had more than 20 gorillas, including three silverbacks (mature males), which are huge and scary as they patrol the group, and several babies and juveniles, which are adorable as they tumble around, playing together.
One of the silverbacks:
The gorillas were feeding and moving farther and farther uphill during our hour with them, so we scurried to follow.

Fresh gorilla poop! (That picture is for Matt.)

Who is hairier, Andy or a silverback? Tough question.
Little gorillas are cute.
We got quite close to the gorillas, sometimes only a couple of meters away, but it was still really hard to get a good picture of us and them in the same shot. This is the best we could do.

And that appears to wrap up Rwanda--we returned to Musanze in the afternoon and caught a bus to the Uganda border after a late lunch. Rwanda may not be overloaded with exciting attractions, but the cleanliness, beautiful countryside, ease of getting around, and lack of harassment from tourist touts was enough to make it one of my favorites in the region--a great place to relax a little between more hectic places like Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. Plus, those gorillas are pretty terrific. High marks!


  1. How exciting! I felt like I could reach out and touch the gorillas. But I'm with you, Tara, regarding the hiking. Ugh!

  2. I literally said "WOW" outloud in my office when I saw the first gorilla picture. So amazing.