Sunday, 25 September 2016

A history lesson from Latvia

I spent the last 3 days in the capital city of Latvia - Riga, and have enjoyed my time so much here that I thought it was a good excuse to start blogging again!

Aside from booking flights and hotels, I had done somewhere between f**k all and jack sh**'s worth of research prior to this trip, figuring I could just wing it.  And wing it, I did.  The past few days have been filled with some much needed R&R, some aimless wandering around the city, and a greatest hits tour of the city's tourist highlights.  Let me share with you some of the things I've learned during my trip to Riga (in list form, because apparently that's the only way my brain can communicate information now that I'm a consultant again):

First, before I get to the list, here's a history lesson: the Baltics have a fascinating mix of cultural history, never having been a true superpower themselves, but rather serving as a battleground and eventual prize to numerous empires who have held interests in the region.  Everyone from the Swedes, Russians (obviously), Germans, and even the Polish-Lithuanians have ruled over these lands (have to admit I didn't realize that they were ever a superpower - interesting, right?).  I visited the Museum of War yesterday, and the whole section of the museum dedicated to the 9th - 16th century read like a multi-player game of ping pong, with consolidation of various regions happening over time. The greatest periods of stability (and influence) in modern-day Latvia came from the German teutonic knights in the 12th-16th centuries, then the Polish-Lithuanians and Swedes took turns for a couple hundred years in the region they named Livonia, then finally the Russians kicked everyone else out with a "winner take all" attitude in a conflict called The Great Northern War.  If the *Russians* are calling something a Great Northern War, you better believe it was big, bloody, and bitingly cold. 

Latvia continued as part of the Russian Empire from the early 18th century until World War I, when the borders of Europe once again became suggestions rather than rules, and everybody went crazy with land grabbing.  On top of that, you had the collapse of the Russian monarchy with the Bolshevik revolution, plus the "red terror" that followed to cement the ideological revolution, and then the invading Germany army knocking on Latvia's door and the retaliatory "white terror" that they brought with them.  Interestingly enough, not perhaps not surprisingly, it was around this timee time that the Latvians decided they had had enough of being ruled by others, and that it was time to declare their independence.  So not only did they have to worry about participating in the greatest conflict the world had ever known, but they had to also figure out the whole "how to be a state" thing at the same time. 

They used support from the German military to fight off the Russians, then counted on the Allies to help them beat the Germans so they could officially become a country.  This took a while to get the Russians to agree to, but in 1920 it finally happened with a pinky promise from Russia to respect their borders forever and ever and ever.  They enjoyed two decades of peace and independence before WWII came around and the Russians used that as an excuse to take back their old lands (shock! Stalin?  never!) and punish their prodigal children for leaving by murdering them, conscripting them, or deporting them to the gulags and/or Siberia.  No seriously, a bunch of women and children were just sent to Siberia to die because they weren't considered strong enough to be good workers in a gulag, but they couldn't stay in Latvia because the Russians wanted ethnic Russians to take over their properties.  My guide in the Museum of Latvian Occupation told us the story of his grandmother, who at the age of 19, was packed up and shipped off to Siberia with her step-mother because a next-door neighbor had made up a lie about their family and told the Soviets as some sort of petty retribution for a neighborly dispute.  The lie?  That their family had kept a maid during the period of independence, which makes them upper class, which means that they automatically are enemies of the workers revolution.    Latvia lost 1/3 of its population during this period to either Stalin's machinations or to people fleeing the country as refugees.

It's no wonder in that case that, when the Nazis invaded in 1942, they were greeted as liberators!  The Latvians thought that the Nazis would restore their statehood and help undo the craziness of the Stalinists.  Sadly, their enthusiasm was quickly tempered when the Nazis started doing exactly what they did everywhere else. In one shocking statistic, only ~1,500 of >70,000 Jews living in Latvia when the Germans invaded survived their two year occupation.  Eventually, the Ruskies kicked the Nazis out, and Russia officially appropriated Latvia as part of the USSR shortly after.  The next 50 years were filled with a Russification of Latvia - they were encouraged to speak Russian and do Russian things like stand in bread lines and talk about how great Stalin is.  When the wall came down and the USSR disintegrated, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania all (finally) became their own countries again - hopefully this time it will stick.

Thanks for sticking with me through the history lesson - I find this stuff really interesting, but if you're more of a buzzfeed type of reader, then here's the promised list of other fun things I learned:
  • Riga is a hotspot for bachelor and bachelorette parties from the UK. A lot of hotels and airlines market toward this demographic, and I ran into quite a few groups stumbling down the cobblestone streets wearing matching flower headdresses or holding each other and singing Stand By Me and For He's A Jolly Good Fellow
  • Even though Latvia is on the Euro, things are pretty cheap here.  I had a 60 minute massage in my hotel that only cost 40 Euro!  In the states or Western Europe it would be 2x that price!
  • Speaking of spa treatments, there is a beer spa here in Riga.  You can take a bath in warm beer while drinking cold beer from a frosty glass.  After that, they put you on a "straw bed" to let your skin "breathe" and absorb all the minerals that apparently beer imparts on you.  You can also spring for additional treatments like a beer massage or a beer sauna, where apparently the wood in the sauna has been soaked in beer.  I was kind of curious to try this until I saw the 100 Euro price tag - if I'm going to pay that much to smell like a brewery, I'll do it the old fashioned way - by going out on Hubbard St in Chicago and ending the night at the Hangge Uppe, thank you very much
  • There are still quite a few ethnic Russians in Latvia today - approximately 25% of the population, actually.  This is a consequence of the USSR's policy of resettling Russian people in Latvian lands - a lot of them ended up staying.  The most interesting part of this is that many of these people refuse to fully integrate into Latvian society.  Mostly of the older generations, they hold Russian passports, speak the Russian language, and refuse to call themselves Latvian.  But there is still a movement for them to get the right to vote here, which I admit I find a tad hypocritical
  • Latvian women are gorgeous.  Don't take my word for it - the international modeling community agrees.  Apparently Latvia is among the top 5 countries in the world based on the number of models produced per capita
  • As this is Eastern Europe, there are some seedy things available to you here.  As a female, I am rarely to never exposed to such things, but two German guys I befriended told me about their taxi driver, who was offering to take them to the best brothels in all of Riga. The driver boasted about how beautiful the women are (model-like, apparently) and how they will make you feel like "a rocket to the moon" (a cringe-worthy expression if I ever heard one).  Plus, apparently sex is very reasonably priced here, according to the taxi driver.  When I asked the Germans if they knew what "cheap" was, they blushed and told me they've never actually visited such an establishment, but according to the driver, it costs 30 Euro for 15 minutes of rocket-worthy fun time.  No idea if this is actually inexpensive - perhaps I'll start asking this question when I travel so I can figure out what the going rates are in various places
  • There were a ton of Japanese and sushi restaurants throughout Riga - way more than you would expect for a city of its size.  It seems like 1 in every 3 or 4 restaurants is a sushi restaurant in fact .  I remember noticing this fascination with sushi in Russia when I was there too - maybe the sushi obsession here is driven by the same factors as it is there?
  • My taxi driver from the airport told me a story about this large bridge that goes over the main river in Riga (as we drove across it).  The bridge has suspension wires, and apparently 4-5 years ago, a guy climbed up all the way to the top and threatened to jump off the bridge unless someone brought him a donut.  Yes you read that right - a donut.  The authorities obliged this weird request and the guy came down, but later they put barbed wire on the suspension wires so that no one can repeat this performance and demand more baked goods.  Also, now the locals call it the donut bridge 
  • I would describe Latvian food as hearty peasant-like food.  Most of the dishes seem to involve one of the three P's: potatoes, porridge, or pork.  They also have quite a few legumes - with broad beans and 'grey peas' turning out to be surprisingly tasty.  To be fair, the tastiness factor benefits dramatically from serving everything with a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dollop of sour cream
That's it for now - onto Lithuania next!  I think I'll be able to skip the history lesson in the next post because the stories of all 3 Baltic countries seem to be quite similar...

Auschwitz-Birkenau: All of the feelings

Posting this today - September 25, 2016, but in actuality this visit took place in July of 2016.  I was hesitant at first to publish because of how strong my emotional reaction had been to this visit, and honestly I forgot about it.  Now that I am traveling again - in Eastern Europe especially - I feel it's time to finally post this piece, particularly because staying quiet about these atrocities is never the right answer.

Yesterday I arrived in Poland for a few days of solo traveling.  I began today with the intention of writing a blog about all of today's activities - the fun exploring I've done, sites I've seen, and my own brand of cultural observations.  As the day is now over, I can't bring myself to write about anything except how I spent my afternoon - visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The experience was so moving and emotional that I need to write about it or else I'm worried I won't be able to sleep tonight.  So, here goes.

I've said many times that one of the reasons I love traveling is that it gives me the opportunity to put myself into the shoes of people completely different from myself: people who lived in different times with foreign norms and cultures.  I geek out at the idea of running down the secret staircase Vlad the Impaler used to escape from the Ottomons at his Romanian castle, swimming in the same alpine lake as did Wagner at Hohenschwangau, or watching a fire dance in Bali be performed the same way it has been done for generations. I feel a thrill of excitement from these experiences, and a connection with foreign people and cultures that cannot be simulated in any other way.  Frequently I find myself lost in daydreams about bygone eras and what my life would have been like if I had been born in a different place or a different time.  

I like to travel because it enables me to put myself into other people's shoes, but today at Auschwitz, none of the people whose memories dot the terrain had shoes I would ever want to walk in.  Still, I tried to walk through the museum with the same empathy as I usually approach travel, and as it usually does, the experience evoked many feelings.  Below is my attempt to categorize them.

Before I get to my commentary, let me first give a brief overview of the camps and the museums as they are today.  Auschwitz-Birkenau was divided into three different areas, each built as the needs of the camps expanded and the population imprisoned there grew.  I was able to visit the two main ones today: Auschwitz 1, which was originally a Polish military barracks before being repurposed by the Nazis, and Auschwitz 2/Birkenau, which operated on a much larger scale and showcases the machine-like efficiency with which the Nazis approached their "final solution."  The two camps are about 2 km apart, and a shuttle bus operates between the two.  Auschwitz 1 has been largely reconstructed and turned into a museum.  Inside the rows of brick houses which used to serve as housing, workplaces, or prisons for the unfortunate camp residents, now you can see curated exhibits that attempt to explain what happened here, to whom it happened, and the means with which it was done.  (The question that no museum can answer, but which is rattling around in my brain like an angry wasp, is WHY?  But I'll leave that for later.)  Auschwitz 2/Birkenau is left mostly as it was found when the Russians swept in and ousted the Nazis.  Some of the buildings are still standing, but most of what you see there is the sheer scale of the operation.  The ruins of the crematoria can be found here as well - the Nazis made sure to destroy them before the Russians came, but it doesn't take a very vivid imagination to mentally reconstruct the houses of horror as they once stood.  

And now, my feelings on the experience, in as close to chronological order as I can gather:

Walking in to the complex, I knew that I should expect it to be a downer.  How could it not be?  But still I was excited to see the museum and learn all that I could.  I've always loved WWII history and the stories of the people who lived through it.  The famous Arbeit Macht Frei sign confirmed my feelings - this is a historic place of momentous significance, and I'm excited to experience it.  

Since I was doing a self-guided tour, all of the information I got was from reading the signs posted and walking through the exhibits.  The first sign I read after entering through the camp's gates mentioned that "here" was where the bodies of prisoners who had been executed for misbehavior would be displayed as a warning to others.  Also some people would be executed here too.  My first thought was - "here as in at the camp?  Or here as in this innocuous spot next to a brick wall?"  The site wasn't marked by any gruesome evidence of the terror that took place here.  It's just a corner of a building.  How can such terrible things have happened here - right here - in this spot?  Without this sign present, I would have walked right past and not thought twice about the corner of that building, like I do with so many buildings every day of my life.

After walking past a few more identical brick buildings, I see one has an open door.  The sign above the door explains that what lies inside details the significance of the camp and the war in Polish history.  The exhibit inside details the invasion of Poland, the rapid deterioration of conditions within the state, and the horrific treatment of its people.  Photos lined the walls showing Polish soldiers off to face an enemy superior in size, resources, and weaponry.  Maps showed placement of the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps, extermination camps, and battle sites. Other photos showed  emaciated corpses and brutally beaten prisoners, soldiers holding guns to the heads of civilians who kneeled above a pit filled with bodies of those who had died only moments earlier.  Other walls displayed data around the Polish underground resistance movement and uprisings like the one in the Warsaw ghetto, boasting of the heroism of those who fought against their oppressors.  However, on the same wall, photos commemorate the lives lost in direct retaliation for the resistance activities.  Would those people have lived if the resistance movement had not been so active?  What was the point of symbolically rising up against an oppressor who exhibited such ruthless sadism?  Because there was no way that the Poles would actually would have kicked the Germans out themselves - they were outgunned at every turn, and starving to boot!  Of course I don't mean to diminish the significance of their heroism - and heroism indeed it is - but the practical side of me wonders how many more would have survived if they had been less resistant - like the Danish people were, for example.  

How could I ever think that??  I'm in no place to judge anyone for their decisions during that time.  The hardest challenges I've faced in my life are peanuts compared to what these people dealt with!  I'm sure some would prefer to die in a valiant but futile effort promoting freedom and democracy rather than live long enough to die of starvation while waiting for rescue that may not come.  Shame on me for presuming to impose my 20th century viewpoints on people who lived through more tragedy in 5 years than I will likely experience in my entire lifetime.

The next building I enter into displays what the barracks looked like for the prisoners.  I feel like I'm walking through a scene in a Spielberg movie.  The bunk beds look small and uncomfortable; the fabric scratchy and homespun.  But because this reminds me of a movie, it doesn't feel real to me.  Clearly this is just a movie set that I've stumbled upon.  Right?

The walls of the museum - in each cell block - are lined with mug shots of prisoners taken when they arrived at the camp.  Beneath each photo was the birth date of the prisoner (if known), their date of entry into the camp, and their date of death within the camp.  Of the 1.3M people who entered as prisoners, only 200K were alive when the Allies liberated the camp.  The rows upon rows of photos make me realize the enormity of what happened here.  Each person here had a life; they had a family, a job, problems and drama, dreams and aspirations.  They were like me - maybe not exactly, but in the most fundamental of ways they were.  And then one day their entire life was uprooted, and they were sent to Auschwitz to suffer and die. Why?  I can't answer that question.  No one can.  But their faces now line the halls of the walls that once imprisoned them.  The expression on each face is some combination of anger, sadness, and defiance.  The uniformity of the photos - with their freshly shorn hair and identical positioning within the frames, makes it seem like they weren't truly individuals.  Like they weren't truly people.  What a waste.  What a sad, tragic thing that can never be undone.

I peer into a room showing what the living conditions were for the SS officers who ran the camp, and it gets my blood boiling.  These men are living in luxury compared to their wards!  They have larger, higher quality beds, plenty of space to themselves, and personal luxuries like bathing facilities and reading materials which were denied to the prisoners.  Who were these men?  How could they possibly have slept at night, given the terror they inflicted on other human beings?  What monsters!

The next building houses artifacts that prove the crimes perpetrated here did indeed occur.  When the Allies liberated the camps, they found warehouses filled with the possessions of the people who had come to die here.  I see piles of spectacles, clothing, and a room filled with shoes.  The shoes are dirty and mistreated - many people had traveled a long way before their journey ended at Auschwitz.  I find myself trying to identify a shoe's mate in the pile, which is admittedly a weird way of attempting (and failing) to make sense of the disorder and loss.  In another case I see piles of empty suitcases with names and addresses painted onto them.  These people had been tricked into thinking that they were only being relocated, not exterminated.  The hopefulness with which these people must have written their details on this luggage, imagining that one day they might return to the addresses from whence they came, brings tears to my eyes.

Another visitor going through the museum in front of me keeps taking photos of these things when there are signs everywhere clearly showing that you're not supposed to do that.  Show some respect, punk! 

The final group of artifacts hits me the hardest: the children's belongings.  Tiny baby clothes - many too small for my 1 year old nephew to fit into, dolls with smashed ceramic faces, and discarded pacifiers are delicately arranged in a display.  Who were these children?  Who could they have grown up to be if they were given the chance?  Were they even allowed to have names?  I know that some children were born within the camp's walls - were they just assigned a prisoner number at birth?  Also - the fact that the Nazis saved the clothes of babies who entered into the camp is horrifying.  All of these goods were collected with the intention of being sent back to Germany for reuse.  Can you even imagine being a German mother receiving a used baby bonnet or sweater for your infant, knowing that it had been harvested from the corpse of a murdered infant?  I don't even have the words.  

One of the most sacred places in the museum is the killing wall between Blocks 10 and 11.  This is where the execution by shooting of thousands of prisoners - mostly the "troublemakers" - were carried out.  The wall now serves as a memorial to them, with flowers and candles laid at its base.  These people never had a chance.  They were the ones who tried to escape, who fomented rebellion, and kept ties with the outside world.  They were the ones who whispered of rescue and kept hope alive.  I approach the courtyard with solemnity and respect, but feel hollow with the realization that so many brave efforts to rebel were made in vain. Evil people inflicted evil deeds upon others here, and nothing I do or say will ever change that.  

Anger (again):
I walk past the room in Block 11 from where the "summary judgments" were issued by a kangaroo court of SS officers.  Almost always the sentence was death by shooting in the courtyard outside.  The room contains a simple rectangular table and a row of wooden chairs.  From these seats were so many atrocious and amoral decisions made, seemingly without conscience or consequence. Ugh how could those men do that to fellow human beings?!?!?!?

There are two rooms in which the prisoners about to be executed would disrobe (entirely) before being led outside to their fate - one room for men, and one for women.  I wonder why on earth the Nazis cared about giving them separate dressing rooms?  What were they trying to do - preserve the prisoners' dignity?  BAH.

I'm going downstairs to the lower level of Block 11, which served as the prison within a prison.  The walls are clearly thick, and the ceilings are low.  The narrow stairway and hallway are overcrowded with tourists, and I feel a lump of anxiety forming in my throat.  If this is how I'm feeling, I can only imagine how the prisoners felt when they entered.

I see the "standing room only" cells, which were purposely constructed to be so narrow that a prisoner could not comfortably lie down in them.  In fact, I'm not sure that a prisoner could even comfortably sit down in them.  They were completely walled in except for a small grate at the very bottom of the cell, through which the prisoner entered and the guards presumably provided food.  It must have felt like a cold, dark, vertical coffin.  How long did people survive in these?  I can't even imagine what that would have been like.

I walk past the cell of a pastor who voluntarily died by starvation so as to save the life of another prisoner.  

I'm out of Block 11 - that building was awful.  There are some other buildings in Auschwitz 1 that I haven't yet seen, but I'm running short on time and am frankly glad to have the excuse to leave to go to Auschwitz 2.

The buildings that I am skipping appear to mostly be dedicated to country-specific struggles of the Holocaust.  There's a building for the victims from the Netherlands, from Bohemia, and Hungary.  I wonder about the other countries whose citizens died at the hands of the Nazis - are they similarly represented (and I just haven't walked past their particular buildings)?  

Stepping off the bus at Auschwitz 2/Birkenau, I am amazed at the sheer size of this facility!  Rows upon rows upon rows of buildings (or the ruins of buildings) reveal the scale upon which this facility operated at its peak.  Auschwitz 1 felt cramped and small by comparison.

Sadness (again):
I undertake the long walk from the entrance of Auschwitz 2 to the back of the property where the crematoria were located.  Jews, fresh off the train, would walk along this same path.  First they would be sorted according to whether they were fit for the back-breaking work required by the camp (most weren't).  Those who were deemed unfit would be herded en masse along the same route I am following to be killed immediately upon arrival.  Wooden guard towers are positioned every 50 meters or so, serving as constant reminders of the loss of freedom that these people endured.  

After walking around the ruins of the crematoria for a few minutes, I realize that the camp is about to close so I should start heading back to the entrance.  As I start my return journey along the path through the center of the camp, I realize that so many people were never afforded the privilege of making the return journey.  Suddenly I'm flooded with feelings of gratefulness for being able to live the life that I have.  It's not something that I ever want to take for granted.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Girrrrrls in the Mist

I honestly can’t remember who first told me about this experience, that you can go to Rwanda and hike to meet the same mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey lived with during her “Gorillas in the Mist” period.  I certainly know I didn’t come up with this idea myself, so to whomever recommended the trip to me, thank you.  This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Gorilla time!!!

We woke up early – really early – to eat breakfast at 6 so that we would be ready for our 6:30 am pickup time.  It turns out that Sandra is a morning person, whereas I am definitely not, so she spent breakfast chatting with the guy who runs the guest house where we were staying (Onesmus), and I spent it grunting into a cup of coffee whenever they asked me a direct question.  It takes me a little while to get going in the morning :)

Rama picked us up at 6:30, and we drove out to the Volcanic National Park, where we would be hiking.  The park is home to 18 different gorilla families.  10 of those are acclimated to tourists and are visited daily by a group of no more than 8 people (plus staff).  The other 8 families are reserved for researchers to observe.  Before we could get going, first we had to get the administrative stuff out of the way.  While Rama went to meet with the park rangers, who would be assigning groups to the different gorilla families, we stayed behind and watched some local dancers.

We had heard from people at the hostel in Kigali that the Susa family is the best one to get because that was the family that Dian Fossey lived with, and some of the gorillas there were babies when she was living with them.  We ask Rama to request the Susa family for us, but if we can’t get them (they’re the most requested family for obvious reasons) then to prioritize assigning us to a large family with a wide range of ages included.  While we are waiting for the assignments to be handed out, we sit in a covered pavilion and are entertained by Rwandans who perform a series of traditional dances for us, complete with accompanying drums.  The show and the cold mountain air combine to finally wake me up, so after a few minutes there I am ready to go see some gorillas!  I start to form a plan for stealing one of the babies if we’re lucky enough to see one.  I decide I will name it TikiTwo and will bring it with me to Cape Town to fill in for the original Tiki.  Sandra looks at me like I’m crazy but laughs when I tell her my plan.  Apparently she thinks I’m joking.

Rama comes back to us with a frown on his face, which has us worried.  He tells us that we were assigned to the Amohoro family.   Sandra had heard that this was a “boring” family because the dominant silverback is so relaxed.  In fact, the family is named for his chill demeanor – Amahoro means “peace” in the local language.  Rama assures us that it actually is a good family to visit because it is big – with 19 members – and that there are a wide range of ages.  Plus Sandra had only heard that through the grapevine, so we decide to take Rama’s word for it and start to get excited about our hike.

Now that the assignments have been announced, we meet up with the rest of our 8-person group and our guide for the day – Eugene – for a briefing.  Our group has 2 older German ladies in their late 60’s, plus a South African family of 4, with ages ranging from mid-40’s to 18.  Eugene tells us about the Amohoro family and explains the process from here on out.  The gorillas are monitored all day every day, but are left alone at night to sleep.  The people who monitor them are called “trackers” (cool name, right?), and it’s their job to locate the family every morning and stay with them until sundown.  Because it is still early, Eugene tells us that the trackers haven’t yet found the gorillas today, but the trackers are out there looking for them, starting from where they left the gorillas last night.  He assures us that 99% of the time they are able to find them, and so we set off in what we think is their general direction.  First, we have to drive another 40 minutes along dirt roads to the place where the hike begins, which is basically in a small village near the edge of the Volcanic National Park.  The guides distribute walking sticks for everyone.  I find this kind of touristy since the terrain doesn’t look all that bad from where I’m standing, but Rama tells me I should take one anyway because “there’s mud in the jungle.”  Um, ok.  I take a stick and we head off.
The first segment of the hike was just from the parking spot to the edge of the park.  We are hiking through gigantic fields of wild daisies, followed by fields of wheat and sorghum, framed by the volcanoes in the distance.  It’s a pleasant enough hike, though the trail is rocky and I find myself wishing I had brought my proper hiking shoes rather than just my cross-trainers.  Oh well. 

Daisies everywhere!

Finally we reach the edge of the park, which is delineated by a large rock wall that runs along the entire perimeter.  On the other side of the wall is a large ditch, and both are in place to prevent the animals from leaving the safety of the park.  Apparently gorillas have no natural predators, but humans have a bad habit of poaching them and trying to sell their babies to private zoos.  When we get to the wall, we meet up with one of the trackers – a man who apparently worked directly with Dian Fossey while she was living here.  He is accompanied by two soldiers carrying rifles.  Eugene explains to us that these men are here for our protection against any animal attacks.  Apparently there are wild buffalo in the park who are not used to being around humans, and they have horns which can do some damage. 

Unless the scarecrow takes care of them first

We climb over the wall, cross the ditch on some bamboo poles, and are in the jungle.  Or is it a rainforest?  Sandra and I admit we don’t know the difference between the two.   The trail we are taking is pretty narrow and would be difficult to spot if we hadn’t climbed over the wall at exactly the right spot.  Eugene has instructed us to walk in a single file line and keep noise to a minimum to increase our chances of seeing other wildlife on the hike.  Apparently the trackers have located the Amahoro family, and they are about a 1-2 hour hike ahead of us, depending on our pace and how many breaks we have to take.  The day started out chilly, but we’ve already been hiking for close to an hour, and so I’m warmed up enough to shed my outermost layer. 

The hike begins simply enough, with dense brush on either side but relatively flat ground.  That terrain quickly disappears, replaced by pits of mud.  The jungle is so thick on either side of us that we can’t deviate from the trail, so we are forced to tiptoe around the muddy parts, hoping to not take a wrong step and suffer the icky consequences.  At this point, I remind myself to thank Rama for telling me to take the walking stick – it’s indispensable on this hike.  In parts where the mud is particularly impassable, I can use the walking stick as a third leg to balance myself as I try to shuffle on the outer edges of the trail, which tended to be less muddy but also very small and difficult to navigate.  In some parts of the trail, the only way to get through was to hop from slippery rock to slippery rock, and there the pole came in handy as well to keep me from slipping and getting a mouthful of African mud. 

Mmmmm tasty mud

We continue on in this fashion, hopping and shuffling our way around the muddy parts.  Keep in mind that this is all done at an altitude of ~2,500m and is entirely uphill.  Some parts are VERY steep and slippery, and the porters who are accompanying us have to help us up the hills because otherwise we would have found ourselves involuntarily going down a muddy version of a slip-and-slide.  The porters had nice rubber boots on that allowed them to slosh right through the muddy parts, and they seemed to know the trail very well so that they knew when we would need assistance and when we wouldn’t. 

Another thing about the jungle was that it is full of evil plants that inflict pain.  The path was lined with different types of stinger plants, just waiting for me to brush up against them so they could give me a rash.  Given my clearly graceful disposition in the jungle (bah!), I may or may not have tottered into a few of these bushes, resulting in my hands, arms and legs being decorated with a patchwork of itchy redness and hives.  I’m starting to itch again just thinking about it.

Try not to touch ANYTHING

And then, it happened.  We were about halfway up the volcano (did I mention the slope we are climbing is a volcano?) when I took one wrong step, and slipped into the mud.  Thankfully I didn’t fall completely, but both of my shoes were completely submerged in the ankle-deep mud.  I pull them out, and try hard to keep them on my feet as they make a weird slurpy sucking noise.  I’m able to pull my feet out without losing either shoe, but my feet and the bottom of my pants are absolutely covered in mud, and my shoes are filled with mud and water.  It was not a pleasant feeling.  I suppose it did have a silver lining – I no longer have to be as careful about avoiding the muddy parts.  Yes of course I will continue to avoid them as much as possible, since they posed a serious risk of sucking my shoes into the depths of the earth, but I didn’t care as much if I got dirty. 

About 2 hours after we entered the park, the trackers stop us and tell us that we are close to the gorillas.  We leave behind all of our gear except our cameras (including the walking sticks – yikes) and shuffle the last 50 meters to get to the family.  The family is hanging out in a very dense area of the jungle.  There are no trails there, so in order to make room for us, the trackers would use their machetes to bend down the taller plants so that we could stand on them.  However, if a gorilla decided to move from its position, sometimes it would walk toward us and we would have nowhere to go!  We moved around as much as we could to give them space, but a few times I was mere inches away from these creatures.
At first we could only see a couple gorillas’ heads poking out through the jungle.  Even though we could barely see them, our entire group got incredibly excited.  They’re here – in their natural habitat!  It’s so much different than seeing them in a zoo. This is where they’re meant to be, after all.  Plus apparently the gorillas you see in zoos are always lowland gorillas, who are a different species, because mountain gorillas can’t survive in captivity.
The first gorilla we saw in his entirety was the boss of the entire family – an enormous silverback, who has a local name that I can’t remember so I’ll call him Big Daddy.  He is an older gentleman – about 40 years old into his approximate 45 year lifespan.  He is the alpha of the group and the father of most of the family.  He greeted us first by ignoring us and walking toward an adult female, who we soon realized had a small baby with her.  Once he got close to her, he faced her, crouched on his haunches and beat his chest several times!  The guide assured us that this wasn’t an act of aggression on his part because he wasn’t facing us while he was doing it.  Instead it was more of a welcome.  The chest beating within the gorilla community has many meanings depending on context. 

All he wants is to be understood...and females with whom to procreate.

By comparison to the silverback, the female was small (though still a big animal).  The baby was probably 6 months old and tiny.  He kept climbing all over his mom, trying to get her to play with him.  His mom didn’t seem impressed, so she started walking away to go climb a tree, with him clinging to her back.  She moves surprisingly well for being such a big creature. 

Mom, mom - look at that!  Those gorillas have alopecia!

We spent the next hour moving from gorilla to gorilla, observing them and taking about a billion pictures.  It was fascinating to see the obvious differences in their personalities.  Some were only interested in eating.

Nom nom nom

Another was super lazy and chilled out with his belly bulging on a pile of leaves.

Letting it all hang out

Some were playful and joking around with each other.

Tee hee

A few were curious about us and would make sustained eye contact.
What are you lookin' at?

We ran into another mother and baby – this one was 3 months old and SO FREAKING CUTE.  As soon as I saw him, I knew he was TikiTwo.  His hair stood straight up on his head.  He kept doing somersaults and other acrobatics and making noises that I can only describe as giggling.  I can’t even describe how adorable he was.  


His mom was more engaged than the other mom with her baby – she was playing with him and swinging him around as he rolled around.  Occasionally she would cradle him just like I cradle Cooper and tenderly look at him while he stared at the weird hairless strangers who were nearby. Sadly, I realized pretty quickly that there was no way I could take TikiTwo home with me without Big Daddy ripping me to shreds.  I suppose he’s better off with his mom anyway, though I’m pretty sure I would make an amazing gorilla mom.  Then again, I wouldn’t want to make Tiki jealous, so it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t adopt him.

Stop, mom!  That tickles!

One thing I learned is that a silverback gorilla isn’t a specific type of gorilla but rather it means a fully developed adult male (12 years old and up).  A family can have multiple silverbacks, but only one of them will be the alpha male.  Most of the other silverbacks in a family will be the sons of the alpha male, so they are able to peacefully coexist.  If a silverback is bothered by the fact that he’s not allowed to mate with any of the lady gorillas, then he can go off and start his own group.  Or sometimes he will have affairs with the women behind Big Daddy’s back (!).  Once Big Daddy finds out, he will punish the other male by biting him, but he won’t do any serious damage.  It’s basically your typical family drama – only jungle style.  Apparently inbreeding isn’t really an issue because once a female reaches adulthood, she will switch to another family.  Families will occasionally run into each other in the wild. Sometimes a fight ensues, resulting in women being “stolen.”  Other times they go voluntarily so that they can breed with gorillas outside their bloodline.  Some families are related to each other (e.g. if a male separates to go start his own family), so they will meet and just hang out like extended relatives do. 

Eating, lounging, and passive aggressive chatting - just like most American Thanksgivings!

Our hour with the gorillas went by very quickly.  I understand that they have to restrict the time we have with them because it’s important for the gorillas to be able to live their lives normally without humans bothering them, but at the same time I wish we could have stayed for longer! 

The walk down the volcano was exponentially easier and faster than the climb up.  The sunshine had even dried up a lot of the mud (although that didn’t stop me from putting my foot in it multiple times again).  By the end of the hike, I decided that these shoes were a write-off. I’m sure Onesmus can find someone who would want them, so I feel ok leaving them behind.  I left the jungle bitten, bruised, and dirty, but so happy that I made the trip.  I wish I could go again tomorrow!

We got back to the car around 1:30 pm and drove back to the entry to the park, where Eugene wrote out some official certificates of completion for our gorilla trek.  In all honesty, it seemed like an excuse to get us to hang out for 10 minutes where they had a bunch of shops selling handicrafts.  Nothing really caught my eye though.

After driving back into town, we stopped at the tour company’s main office because there was a misunderstanding with our itinerary.  Sandra and I had been under the impression that we had booked a trek to go see the golden monkeys tomorrow, but Rama told us that his boss didn’t have that listed on our itinerary.  We go to the office and meet with Ann – the manager with whom we booked the trek.  The meeting did not go well.  After looking up the email chain, we saw that in our confirmation email to Ann, we had agreed to the stated price if it included the gorilla trek and the golden monkey trek.  However, Ann (or her employees) didn’t see the golden monkey part of our confirmation, and so they said “ok” even though the price didn’t actually include the golden monkeys.  After we had paid, they sent us an updated itinerary which didn’t include the golden monkeys, but neither Sandra nor I read the itinerary in all that much detail, so we didn’t notice until we arrived that it was not part of the plan.  It was purely a misunderstanding, but from Sandra’s and my perspective, it was their mistake because we had paid the fee in good faith, expecting that we were getting more than what they were actually providing.  If we had known the golden monkeys weren’t included, we would have gone with another company that would have been cheaper.  Anyway, during this meeting we find out that Ann’s team had messed up the dates of our itinerary as well, and they had accidentally bought a gorilla permit to the national park for the wrong date of our trip.  So they had already lost $750 on our trip, which made her hesitant to lose even more money by giving us the golden monkey tour for free (although it is much less expensive – only a $50 park entrance fee).  It was clear that if her team hadn’t already made an expensive mistake with us that she would have cared a lot less.  Instead, she sat there and tried to debate with us whose fault it was, saying that we should have read the final itinerary more carefully and told her about the issues with it.  We responded by saying that we had already paid, and while it was unfortunate we hadn’t caught the mistakes, it wasn’t our responsibility to QA the itinerary.  We made it clear to her that we’ve been very happy with our experience so far, and it would be a shame for this issue to ruin our positive experience with her company.  She still wasn’t willing to compromise, so we left the office with her telling us that she would “talk to someone and get back to us.”  Oh well.

We had the rest of the day free to do whatever we wanted, and I came up with what I thought was a great idea – let’s go to Uganda!  The Ugandan border is only 25 km away, and apparently the tourist activities in this part of Uganda are basically the same things as in Rwanda, so I can’t imagine myself planning a separate trip just to come to Uganda.  Plus I wanted to add another country to my list!  In order to fully count it, I have to actually *do* something there – I can’t cross the border for 5 minutes and say I’ve been to Uganda.  Sandra had already been there before, but she was up for anything, and Rama said he would drive us as long as we covered the gas expenses (because it wasn’t included in our itinerary – something we are all very sensitive to now).  We decided we would go across the border for a late lunch, and off we go! 

The drive itself is uneventful, but the border crossing turned out to be a pain in the neck.  Rama had told us that our visa for Rwanda should be valid for Uganda as well, so we didn’t expect to have much of an issue.  He had to deal with a bit more red tape to get the car across the border, and apparently the guards wouldn’t let us ride in the car to cross the border anyway, so he drops us on the Rwandan side and tells us to walk across the border and he will pick us up at the immigration office on the other side.  We get to the other side and go through a series of ridiculous border procedures. 

Only some of the ridiculousness was voluntary

First we show our passport to a soldier with an automatic weapon sitting by the side of the road.  Then we get to a small building and have to go into one office, where a Rwandan immigration official sits and gives us our exit stamps (with a heavy dose of flirting – inviting himself to dinner with us in Uganda).  Then we go into another office and get our Ugandan entry stamps.  The issue is that Rama’s information was wrong – our visa is not valid for Uganda as well, so we have to pay a $50 fee to get into the country.  Ugh – this dinner is turning out to be more expensive than we anticipated.  Oh well, we’re already here so we might as well pay it.  Sandra almost flirted her way out of paying the fee (or at least it seemed like the guy was wavering), but in the end we both had to pay it.  Afterward, we waited outside the office for Rama to come – he was taking a while on the Rwandan side because the paperwork for the car was a bit cumbersome.   We waited for about a half hour before he showed up, and then we accompanied him into the Ugandan office for him to complete the corollary paperwork there.  He asked us to come into the office with him because apparently the office workers are lazy and will make you wait for a long time for no reason, but if white people are there then they seem to be much more diligent.  Unfortunately, our presence there also meant that the office thought they could extract more money out of us.  They tried to tell Rama that because he was driving us, his car qualifies as a “touring vehicle” (e.g. something similar to a safari jeep), and so he would have to pay a $75 fee.  Thankfully Rama is able to talk his way out of that one – particularly because we only plan to stay for an hour or two – so we get through without having to pay any additional fees.

While the terrain is basically the same, it was immediately obvious that we were in a different country as soon as we crossed the border.  In Rwanda, all of the buildings are made out of local red brick, but in Uganda, all of the buildings we passed were made with wood!  It’s kind of weird, considering that I would expect the raw materials used to produce Rwandan bricks are available here in Uganda as well, but Rama explained that Uganda is much poorer of a country and so they can’t afford to use brick in as many buildings.  One benefit of Uganda being much poorer is that the prices here are much lower – so much so that Rwandan people will take day trips to Uganda to go shopping for basic necessities.  In fact, during our time waiting for Rama at the border we saw lots of people walking by with piles of clothing – even mattresses carried on their heads – bringing them from Uganda to Rwanda. Once in Uganda, we saw stores with piles of mattresses on the street, waiting for Rwandan and Congolese buyers to come get them.  Weird, right?

Bed bugs come free with purchase!

In addition to finding a place to eat (which is quickly becoming an early dinner rather than a late lunch), I also would like to find a handicrafts shop where I can buy a magnet.  I’ve been collecting magnets from all of my travels since 2008 or so, and pride myself a little bit on the eclectic collection of places represented on my fridge.  Magnets are small, cheap, and easy to transport – unlike lots of other handicrafts.  Unfortunately, the border town where we are looking is not exactly filled with touristy places.  We stop into a handful of different stores advertising handicrafts, but none of them have magnets.  Instead they have woodcrafts, woven baskets, and things like that.  After the fourth store or so, I’m sick of looking and decide that I will instead just make my own magnet. We agree that Sandra and I will order local beverages at dinner and I will save the bottle caps and make a magnet out of them later.  Problem solved.

Next we have to find somewhere to eat.  The guy at the immigration office gave us a recommendation to go eat at the “Tourland Hotel” restaurant.  Based on the name, we don’t think that this place is going to offer us authentic Ugandan food.  Rama confirms that it’s a very touristy place where white people go to eat, but they have things like hamburgers and other sandwiches.  No thank you.

Note: for official use only

Instead we ask Rama to take us to a local place for dinner.  He selects one that certainly looks local – it’s basically a small room with a few plastic tables and chairs, and one table outside on a patio.  As with the restaurant on Twin Lakes, there is no menu – instead the waitress just tells us what they have to offer and we say yes or no.  Our  only option for dinner is goat stew with some rice and mashed plantains on the side.  Sure, why not.  We sit outside at the table and chat with Rama – who is an awesome guy – talking about Uganda and the differences between it and Rwanda. 

Five star Ugandan dining

The food – when it finally comes – is absolutely delicious.  The rice and plantains are boiled without oil, so they don’t have much flavor, but instead we spoon the rich and flavorful stew onto them and eat them together.  Delicious!  Unfortunately the restaurant doesn’t serve any local beers, so instead I get a Fanta, and Rama gets a Coke, and I’m happy to see that the bottle caps say “made in Uganda” on them.  Score!  When we go to pay the bill, it costs about $7 in total – for 3 people.

We finish our dinner and decide that we’d like to make a stop to buy a gift for Onesmus, since he is from Uganda.  We want to buy him something that he can’t get in Rwanda, so we go to a local bar and buy him a bottle of local banana wine to take back with us.  We’re not actually sure if he drinks alcohol or not, so we also buy him a locally bottled “energy tea” – whatever that is.  The banana wine sounds interesting, and Sandra and I would like to try it, so we decide to stay at the bar for a little bit and each have our own.  I’m using the word “bar” here very liberally – it was basically a hole in the wall shop that sold beer out of a fridge.  There was a bar-like structure that the fridge rested behind, and some drunk guys standing next to it, so I guess it counts as a bar, but not what most westerners would think of when they heard the word “bar.”  Since the place is tiny, we step outside to enjoy our drinks, and someone pulls up a plastic table and some plastic chairs for us.

Banana wine makes us giggle

Right as we step outside, we notice a young child (probably 4 or 5 years old) who is near the doorway next to his mom.  He sees Sandra and me, and a look of terror comes over his face.  He starts screaming and crying and trying to hide behind his mom.  It turns out that he had never seen a white person before!  Even more, he was from a small village, and in the villages sometimes children are taught that white people are all cannibals, and will eat you if given the chance.  Poor kid – he was scared out of his wits at us because he thought we were going to eat him!  His mom thought it was hilarious, as did everyone else standing on the side of the road observing the interaction, so we were able to laugh it off pretty quickly. 
Another thing that’s different about Uganda is that there are a lot more people on the streets, just sitting around.  We walked past a group of moto taxi drivers, who yelled out something to Rama in the local language that made him say something back in a very curt and scolding tone.  Sandra and I didn’t need to use much of our imaginations to guess what they had said to him, and what his response was.  I suppose this crowd doesn’t see a local man like Rama walking around with two white girls very often.

Another random sight outside of the bar was a turkey!  He was just wandering around, pecking at stuff on the ground and gobbling as only turkeys can do.  Rama explained to us that turkey is a prized meat here, but the only way you can get it is by serving it at home – either by raising it yourself and then butchering it or buying it at a specialty meat place.  It’s too expensive to be served in restaurants or sold in regular stores. 

After we finished our drinks, it was time to get back to the border because the immigration office closes at 7:30 every night.  We didn’t want to get stuck in Uganda!  The border crossing was similarly frustrating as coming over.  We had to buy a new Rwandan visa, and the petty bureaucrats who staff the desk there seemed to take pleasure in making us wait longer than would be reasonable.  Regardless of their mind games, I’m really happy I made it to Uganda – the experience was a lot of fun!


Friday, 16 January 2015

Cheeky monkeys and chilled milk

Today we left the hostel and started our adventure to northern Rwanda to see the reason we came to this country in the first place – the mountain gorillas!  Our driver/tour guide picks us up from the hotel bright and early in a nice SUV.  He introduces himself as Rama, and seems to be a nice enough fellow.  We ask him what the itinerary is for the day, and he tells us that we’re going to drive straight up to Musanze - the second largest city in Rwanda, located in the northern-most province, where we will be staying for the next 2 nights.  We ask him if he could accommodate a couple requests along the way, most notably asking him if he could take us to a milk bar.

Yes, you read that right, a milk bar.  Apparently that’s a thing here.  He isn’t familiar with the term, so we look up the local name for it, and he chuckles and tells us we can go find some milk.  I’m not actually that much of a milk drinker, but I’m really curious – what are these milk bars and what types of people visit them?  I have to find out.  He says he doesn’t know of any places in Kigali off the top of his head, but there’s one on the drive, so we agree to stop there.

The drive is similarly beautiful to what we saw yesterday – rolling hills, plenty of fields planted with various crops, and lots of people in vibrant colors going about their daily lives.  We roll down the windows, and Rama puts on some Rwandan hip hop music, and we all enjoy the drive.  As we climb higher and higher into the hills, I’m disappointed to see that a fog has descended, so we can’t enjoy what must be stunning views.  Oh well.  We stop at a lookout and take a photo anyway.

You can kind of see how pretty it was - right?

Sandra and I have been noticing for a couple days now just how clean of a country Rwanda is.  In other African countries, it’s extremely common to see piles of trash everywhere, but everything here is pristine.  We even see people in vests weeding the side of the highway as we drive.  We ask Rama about it, and he tells us that the government has instituted a policy of mandatory community service for every household.  On the fourth Saturday of every month, everyone in the country takes a few hours and cleans up the country.  They pick up trash, garden, and otherwise tidy things up.  What a great idea!  And even better – it actually works!  Peer pressure from neighbors and/or the government means that people actually show up to do this.  Apparently the fact that Rwandan people are generally rule-abiders helps as well. 

If I lived here, I'd want to keep it pretty as well

About a half hour outside the city, Rama spots a monkey by the side of the road and pulls over so I can take a photo.  When we get out, we see that it is not one monkey but at least 15 – a family of them who are hanging out in the grass and trees by the side of the highway.

Why hello there

A few villagers carrying baskets of bananas (on their heads of course) stop to look at the monkeys with us.  The issue was that whenever I tried to get close enough to get a good photo, the monkeys would run away, scared.  Rama came up with a great solution to the problem – he bought a bunch of small bananas from the women standing next to us and started throwing the bananas at the monkeys.  They went nuts!  One in particular was a greedy little pig, so he kept inching closer and closer to be able to intercept the bananas that Rama was throwing to the other monkeys.  

Mine?  Mine?  Mine?

I was able to get some great shots of these guys.   They put on a good show for us: sometimes chasing each other to get the bananas, other times standing on two legs like a person to eat the banana they had claimed as a prize.
Awww he thinks he's people!

And the fat one kept stealing the bananas from the rest of them.  We stayed and watched them for about 10 minutes until we ran out of bananas, and then they lost interest in us and started moving more into the woods.

The Banana Grabber!  (Arrested Development, anyone?)

One thing about Rwanda that’s worthy of comment is the foliage here.  It’s an extremely diverse range of plants, and Sandra keeps exclaiming that sometimes it could be mistaken for Australia (where she’s from).  This is largely due to the great number of eucalyptus trees, which are growing everywhere.  Apparently some Australian missionaries imported this species to Rwanda about a 100 years ago to help combat problems of erosion, and the trees took root and spread like wildfire (haha I think I’m funny).  It’s true that certain patches of the landscape here could easily be located in Queensland.  But at the same time, there are also patches of acacia trees, bamboo shoots, and banana trees.  It’s an eclectic mix, but lush and beautiful at the same time.

Our next stop is in a small village.  Everywhere throughout the village are signs giving praise and accolades to a man named Sine Gerard.  Rama explains that Mr. Gerard is a local businessman, who came from very humble beginnings and has risen to be one of the richest men in Rwanda.  He has used his wealth and success to invigorate the economy of the village where he grew up, and so now everyone is employed at his factories and stores.  He started out as a restaurant owner (making donuts), so many of his products seem to revolve around food, but apparently he has expanded into other industries as well.  It is here that we stop in a restaurant for a glass of milk.  There are photos of Mr. Gerard on the wall there, showing him receiving some kind of international award for community service.  He is obviously beloved by the entire village.  The restaurant is nice – white tablecloths and everything.  Since it’s 10 in the morning, the waiter thinks it’s pretty hilarious that we came in to order some milk, but he obliges anyway.  He goes into the kitchen and comes back with two glass mugs and a yellow plastic bottle that somewhat resembles a gas can back in the US.  From the large bottle, he pours a white liquid into a mug.  It resembles milk, but seems to be much thicker than the milk that I’m used to drinking.  Seeing how generous the pour is (and frankly uncertain of what exactly we will be consuming), Sandra and I tell him that we’ll just share one glass.  The milk turns out to taste like an unflavored lassi drink, or perhaps a very thin Greek yoghurt.  It’s tart and full of milkfat, and it turns out that I actually like it.  I could imagine myself turning this into a fruit smoothie for breakfast or something.  Sandra and I decide that it could use a little sweetening, so the waiter brings us some local honey, which tempers the tanginess and makes it easier to drink (whereas before we could only sip it).  I’m so glad I randomly read a blog entry about milk bars!  This restaurant clearly isn’t a milk bar – it serves food instead of purely dairy products – but otherwise I never would have gotten to taste this delicious Rwandan milk!

Does a body good

We wander downstairs toward the car and are enticed by the smell of an open barbeque.  Around the corner are a few kiosks where cooks are grilling beef brochettes, corn on the cob, and potatoes appear to have been seasoned and baked and/or grilled.  It smells DELICIOUS, but neither of us are hungry.  Sandra gets a grilled corn because she simply can’t resist, and I get a sambusa, remembering how delicious the one yesterday was.  It turns out to be a good thing that we had a little snack because we wouldn’t end up getting lunch until late in the afternoon.

Hot potato!

We continue with the drive until we get to Musanze, but continue driving because apparently we have lunch plans somewhere.  We turn off the highway and onto a bumpy dirty road, headed toward destination unknown.  Finally we stop at a lake, and get out of the car to admire the view.  Rama explains to us that this is actually one of two lakes, which are side by side.  One of the lakes is natural, and the other has been created by a hydro-dam, which supplies electricity to the entire province.  

Twin Lakes sounds like Twin you think I'll run into David Lynch?

The dam is made evident by the HUGE exposed pipe, which carries water from the natural lake to the other.  Apparently they’re called Twin Lakes because of the symbiotic relationship between them.  We snap a couple photos, careful not to photograph the area where the soldiers are patrolling the dam (because I don’t want to get shot today).  

My pipe is bigger than your pipe...

Rama points out the restaurant where we will be having lunch – it is a set of circular copper roofs located across the lake from us, and looks absolutely lovely.  We then drive around the shore to the dam itself, which apparently is where we will be embarking onto a boat, which will take us across the lake.  

Like Washington crossing the Delware...except not at all

The boat is basically a large motorized canoe and reminds me of the boat I took down the Amazon in Ecuador last year on my Random Walk.  It takes about 15 minutes to get across to the other shore, where we are greeted by the staff of the restaurant, clad in crisp white button down shirts and black ties.  It turns out to be both a restaurant and a hotel, and is absolutely beautiful as a venue.  There are manicured gardens surrounding the restaurant patio, but the best view of all is of the lake.  We have a panoramic view of the lake, the jungle, and the volcanic mountains in the distance.  Sadly it was still a cloudy day, so we didn’t get the full view of the volcanoes, but what we saw was stunning enough to satisfy me

Because without visible volcanoes, the view was basically terrible

We were the only people at the restaurant as far as I could tell.  As is common in Rwanda sometimes, there was no menu, but instead they just told us what they had to offer and we either agreed or disagreed.  In this case, they could offer us goat brochettes (kebabs), rice, sautéed greens, salad, and fries.  We tell them that it sounds delicious, and settle in to enjoy the view while we wait for our meal.  In true Rwandan fashion, the meal takes about an hour to prepare, but we couldn’t have been in a more beautiful place to wait.  I was a little nervous about eating goat – I don’t think I’ve ever had it before – but it turns out I enjoyed it!  It wouldn’t be my first choice of meat because it’s pretty fatty, but it’s full of flavor and tastes kind of similar to beef. 

After the boat ride back to the other shore, we get back into the car and drive to the hotel.  The rest of the afternoon is unplanned, since we have to be up early tomorrow morning.  I had some ambitious plans to blog when I got back, but as soon as I settled into my room, I passed out and took a much needed nap.  I really hadn’t slept well either night at the hostel, so clearly I needed it.  I slept from about 5 pm to 10 pm, and woke up cursing myself for letting myself sleep so long.  Oh well – gorillas first thing in the morning!