Our time in Rwanda wasn't all dominated by genocide tourism. It was, however, almost entirely dominated by Kigali. In a weird turn of events we kind of loved Kigali making it one of only like 3 large cities on this trip that we actually liked. Somehow we loitered around the city for something like 12 days. Even though the city didn't really have any large scale attractions or anything, we enjoyed just puttering around it. Being a rather new city (in it's current form anyways), there were no shortage of brand new malls, some quite literally skyscrapers, and seriously checking these out across countries across the world is always a really fun thing to do! It always made me laugh to check out Ugandan/Rwandan malls because even though they are touted as "new and expansive" and they can even look like such from the outside, often once you're inside you're pretty well greeted by the standard outdoor market set up that is commonplace across this region, only inside. Kigali's "brand new" mall was no exception. Two exceptional things though...one, remember good old Bata shoes circa 90's? Yep, Bata shoes is very much alive and well in East Africa it seems being the primary shoe dealer across any of these malls.
Two, many malls contained our new favorite store Nakumatt. Nakumatt is a huge Kenyan supermarket chain and basically a one stop shop for everything you might need, kind of like a Walmart. And in the land of small hole in the wall shops specializing in one specific thing, this is a huge deal. Between buying random things at Nakumatt and eating their unbelievably delicious and cheap beef samosas all day long, I'd say we almost lived in this grocery store. One one such Nakumatt occasion, we were quite literally smacked in the face with the most blatant example of a general trend I've noticed about Americans as I've traveled across the world. And that is, not always but with a higher propensity than the general public it seems, when an American sees another white person without hearing them speak, they show a tendency to make an assumption that that person is also American. They might say to you "where in America are you from?" or "Are you from the States?" I think this is something that a Canadian would never do. I have my theories on this and other kinds of American propensities that I'll likely grace you with later, but I don't really think it's because they're being rude or arrogant. Anyways, in a particularly illustrative example, one day when Bridger and I were shoping in Nakummat this girl literally saw us from about 15 meters away and came swiftly and directly towards us and I kid you not, her introductory words were, "You guys are American!". Yes that's right, not even suggesting a question about our origin but actually just definitively telling us that we are. It was truly bizarre! Of course we corrected her and chatted for a bit and she really was a nice girl if not slightly socially awkward, but just such an interesting, bizarro interaction.
Kigali, being an upscale city, also had it's fair share of midrange cafes and coffee shops where midrange waiters would provide midrange service and Kigali's elite would whittle away their days together. Not gonna lie, we (ok maybe just me as it was my favorite "runaway to" spot when Bridger and I were having one of our epic battles) spent many days also whittling away our days here, being incredibly in awe of how much customer service is not dead in Africa like it is at home unless you go to very upscale places. On one such occasion, I ordered a meal with no tomatoes and it came with tomatoes anyways. So I casually picked them off as I've become very accustomed to across my life as a fruit-hating individual. When my waiter walked by and saw this, no word of a lie, the look of horror on his face was such that he honestly looked like he saw a ghost and he apologized profusely. It was all I could do not to laugh at how much of a perceived transgression he had made by the look of him! I assured him there was no problems and continued chowing down.
Anyways, while consistently surrounded by classy eateries and skyscrapers and just as you are starting to forget that you are still in a developing country, the world has a way of kicking you swiftly in the balls. Today's episode was 'the lovely coffee shop doesn't have it's own bathroom so you use the one in the mall parkade'. Fair warning, this is a toileting story (in my mind, one on the rather mild end of the spectrum but that's just me), pursue at your own peril. So I left said lovely coffee shop and paid as usual to use the shared bathroom. Though decent enough with a flush toilet, it was dimly lit which would turn out to be to my detriment. Also to my detriment was the delicious milky drink I just had which had worked it's way promptly through my guts bypassing everything else in there with a resounding 'let me out first!' for lack of a better description. After a brief moment of contemplating whether in fact I would comply with my guts demands, upon a quick visual inspection the toilet seemed to be looking alright with no obvious defects. So I put my purse on the floor in the very corner of the stall and dropped a poo. I felt much better until I found out that that seemingly functional toilet was in fact, not so functional and didn't flush. Well, what's a girl to do so I shrugged and resigned myself to letting my poop remain in the toilet as I picked up my purse and swiftly ran away. Then I realized that I obviously put my purse down in unknown bathroom liquid because it was soaking wet. Now I can handle a lot of stuff but this was just too much! I was beyond disgusted but it was all I could do to send good vibes into the universe that it was just flooded clean toilet water and not some rando's urine. I felt itchy all day and immediately scrubbed it down with soap and water as soon as I got home. But ultimately, it's my only purse so I must continue on.
We also use capital cities and the typically better wifi and amenities to do "travel chores" like research stuff, get/exchange/figure out who owes who money, shop for items like batteries, whatever. And oh my gosh, in Kigali, did we ever find internet cafes powerful enough to open the blog editor (in related news, it seems like half this trip has just been a mind-numbingly endless and frustrating quest to find computers that open the blog editor...never again will I attempt a blog without packing around my own computer, though not to say that wifi would be good enough anywhere to open it on my computer anyways). Love Kigali! After two hours and only two power outages where all computers turned off leaving me to wait for power to go back on, reboot the computer and then reboot the blog editor, a process that took usually about 15 minutes each time, I had two posts done! In Africa, this is an epic success ;) Ultimately experiences like this are part of why I am consistently 6 months behind in updates! In another internet cafe day, Bridger was working away while I ran to Nakumatt to grab some samosas and then paid my bathroom entrance fee and had a pee before laving the mall back to Bridger. And in true me form, I stuffed my face with those delicious samosas before even making it back to the internet cafe. So naturally 5 minutes later there was another major poo episode coming on so I had to run back to the mall and embarrassingly look the guy, who I needed pay to use the bathroom again in a 5 minute window, in the eye knowing that he probably knew that there was a poo situation going on with this muzungu.
Several days we just wandered around downtown Kigali for no reason at all, long since having dropped our super Africa paranoia of just cruising around on our own. Or sometimes we cruised around with a reason, like finding the local craft market which evidently doesn't exist anymore. One thing we noticed about Kigali that was different than Uganda and that we couldn't explain the reason for, was that there was much more of a "hustle" in Kigali. Everywhere we went there were people trying to sell us something (like maps of Kigali...everywhere! why?! Who makes a random street purchase of a map?! Theres not that many tourists and I assume Rwandans aren't buying these maps?! Nevertheless, every day, on every corner, the map men!), people asking for money or the good old run after us and "hey, welcome, how are you, where are you from?!" which we've come to instantly recognize as someone who wants something from us. Because you know, here's the thing across all countries I've ever been to in the world, even ones where people are super friendly, and I think I've spoken to this before...it is just not culturally normal for people to actively and directly pursue interaction with total strangers for the purposes of friendly conversation no matter how innocuous the conversation seems to begin. People just don't do this. They interact with perfect strangers over shared context, proximity or simple and transient requests for information which usually start with "excuse me..." or "sorry to interrupt", things that exude 'I apologize for violating this cultural norm not to talk to you random stranger' and not "hello, how are you, where are you from?" blah blah blah because I want to get to know you. So I'm telling you, if someone approaches you this way, there is self interest involved even if they take their sweet ass time getting to the point like this one guy in Rwanda and to an even more extreme and utterly patronizing extreme of the "friendly" guy in Zanzibar which I'll tell you about later. Perhaps we've become cynical but honestly, you have to develop a bit of a thicker skin around this kind of thing because as a tourist abroad without an evolved if not slightly awful (it hurts me every time still) perspective and strategies, you could easily spend 50% of your time caught up in these interactions. This is fine and lovely if you're just wandering about but can be slightly irritating if you need to get somewhere. Anyways, on one such occasion of the latter, as we were walking totally minding our own business, a guy did the classic 'let's be friends' intro and then tells us he's a tour guide. And here's the thing...in Africa, everyone is a tour guide. As usual, we go at stuff pretty independently so we're not much in need of a tour guide so as always we remain warm and friendly but we do our usual polite exit strategy of "Ok let me just take your number and we'll call you if we need anything". Except then this guy starts going on about how he has HIV and takes so many pills every day (enter horrible crushing guilt feeling that never completely goes away) and after settling the tour guide issue, we're not entirely sure what intentions are going on now because guy honestly now just seems like he wants to talk to us, and we are stuck. These are the situations I still struggle with, when we've politely terminated our interaction yet somehow it has continued and now somehow these polite Canadians are going to have to, ack, try to terminate this interaction for the second time, something infinitely more awkward and yucky feeling than the first time because cross-culturally, I think everyone can feel when the pendulum swings towards 'I just need to get away from you' and we don't want to hurt people's feelings. We finally extricate ourselves from this situation and are immediately, not 20 meters onwards, descended on by another guy. Incidentally this time we learned another successful escape strategy when I abruptly stopped in front of Bridger who snapped at me about why I stopped so I snapped back at him something fierce and said guy immediately goes "sorry sister!" and disappeared haha. So if people think they've interrupted you in the middle of a domestic dispute, they go quickly! Enter, future intentional fake fights ;)
We also went back to Hotel Milles Collines a few times only because, being a fancy hotel, they basically offered everything that we like, like playing tennis. Haha after we rented the racquets and paid, the well dressed staff guy came and actually escorted us personally down to the tennis courts...and then wanted to try haha. So he and Bridger played tennis for awhile while I watched. Haha we must be really approachable or otherwise there must be something about us that just welcomes this type of thing because it happens all the time! It was actually adorable because even though he was just terrible at tennis, the staffer was just in his glory to be giving it a go! But almost as fast as he was on the court he was off the court again back to work and I was tagged back in, if nothing else but to be a human target for Bridger to practice his serving skills.
All the better I guess because I wasn't playing too long when I accidentally launched the ball right over the court fence and into god knows what because Briger spent probably like 30 minutes trying to find this ball in the grounds and the parking lot but it had vanished, leaving us to quake with fear about what a tennis ball would cost at a $300+/night ritzy hotel. Honestly I can't even remember how this story ends because I didn't write it down. I can't even remember if we (ok Bridger, I gave up looking after about 2 minutes while Bridger crawled through narrow cracks between bushes and fences pursuing the ball) found the ball or we didn't find the ball haha. How anti-climactic, sorry.
We also had a pool day there and while pooling, also used the fancy hotel awesome wifi to upload quite literally 600 pictures that we'd never had good enough wifi to upload in Uganda (seriously Ugandan wifi for the most part, is hands down, the worst). And we learned a very valuable travel lesson that day...fancy hotels have the best wifi aaaaand they also usually let non-guest come to use their amenities for a fee--so just use their restaurant or their pool which is usually like a couple bucks and upload away instead of beating your head against a wall fighting budget accommodation wifi.
We also had a big old poolside fight here because as per usual, Bridger was just hanging out enjoying his sweet self completely oblivious to the fact that there was lots of things he could be doing to help me, while I did all the legwork uploading pics and figuring out our next steps.
How many times could I have killed him over the exact same thing this trip?! So basically our time at the Mille Collines was a perfect representation of our travel life and relationship as a whole: pool, tennis, upload, fight, begin again.
On one particular evening leaving the Mille Collines we intended to take a moto home because it was dark, but then we changed our minds and decided we'd just take a taxi instead. So we asked the front staff guy if we could get a taxi and he said yes and told us to wait in front of the hotel. Which we did. So here we are, two dirty backpackers, sitting there expecting like a normal little white car with a sign that says "taxi" on the top like all the millions of taxis around Kigali but what shows up (and we are stupid not to have foreseen this)? Ya, that's right, a slick black Mercedes with black tinted windows, leather seats and a driver in suit. Shit. We felt like idiots not taking it because that would be like admitting that we're so stupid that we thought a normal taxi was gonna show up at a ritzy hotel. And here we are hanging out at this fancy hotel pretending like we're all like, staying here or something, and then what, we cant afford the black Mercedes with black tinted windows, leather seats and a driver in a suit? But goodness knows we could probably throw a rock at our hotel from where we were right now we're that close so we're not gonna pay like the 10 USD initially quoted so what is one to do when sitting between a rock and a hard place. Haha you barter, that's what. So yes, here in the parking lot of one of the most expensive hotels in Kigali we knocked the suited taxi driver of the black Mercedes with black tinted windows and leather seats down to 6USD. Which was still the most expensive "taxi" ride we've ever taken for the literally 1 minute drive down the road to our budget hotel but hey, lessons about fancy hotels learned! Haha I can only imagine what Mercedes guy was thinking as he dropped us at this dingy, cheap little place.
Then there was this one unforgettable night in Kigali... Our parents, please skip this section!
So we woke at 3:30 am to what I can only describe poorly as our hotel making this roaring sound. Except only it was more rumbling than roaring almost like a really huge truck had rolled by. And then Bridger commented something like "what is shaking us?" paying verbal testament to his mindset that there was in fact, a tangible third party creating this situation. Meanwhile in my head I'm immediately like, "holy fuck this is an earthquake" but couldn't bring myself to say it out loud as if formally speaking it would make it more true. By this point we're both on our feet looking at each other in disbelief, establishing verbally that "yes, holy fuck this IS in fact an earthquake and what the hell is our next move?". And while we were processing this whole thing standing in kind of like paralysis mode having made no concrete action plan one way or the other, it stopped, leaving us standing in the middle of the room with hearts beating more wildly than they probably ever have in our lives wondering what the hell just happened. So basically and stupidly, it took the entire earthquake to even register that yes, we actually just experienced the first earthquake of our lives. Of course it all sounds very slow motion and it felt that way but really it all happened over probably a few seconds. Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit, now what?!! Oh my gosh, we live in Alberta, we don't know anything about earthquakes...we're totally earthquake virgins if you will. How do earthquakes work? If there is one does that mean that likely there will be more or is it over? How long of a period do we have to stay vigilant for before you can be certain that another is not coming? When can I safely go back to bed? Can I ever safely go back to bed? Do earthquakes work like, one warning one comes and then a super powerful one comes after?! In developed countries you are never supposed to get out of the building because more injuries happen that way than if you just followed recommended protocol of crouching under a heavy piece of furniture. But this is because our buildings are built to code to not collapse. So is it safer to just stay put even though we don't even have any study furniture in this room we can crawl under or are we supposed to run outside? And this is Rwanda where I'm quite certain building codes are not so rigorous. Oh my God what is our next step here if anything?! All we knew for certain was that we were just in an earthquake and it's over now. And I knew that I had to go pee so that would be my first step.
No sooner did I pull up my underwear when, I kid you not, the whole place went up in shakes again. Oh my god! We need to get the fuck out of here, like yesterday! So by this point Bridger has blown through the door and is running full tilt through the long-ass corridor. Me, well I sleep in my underwear and bra so I'm frantically tearing apart my bag and putting on any clothes I can find. Ya that's right people, he left me! He actually bolted and left me! Though in his defense he did think that I was right behind him. So I'm running while pulling my pants up while I'm, and I'll never understand what kind of sick reasoning was at play here, closing and locking our hotel room door! Why?! I honestly can't tell you how this happened. So I join him booking it through the long corridor, down the stairwell and out the building where I meet him. Too bad the "out" is inside an 8 foot wide space between two tall concrete buildings...not exactly the place you want to be in an earthquake. So we go onto the street along with two other Rwandans from the hotel. Two other groups of people are already on the street outside their buildings reinforcing that we did the right thing to leave if other people left too. We tried to ask the Rwandans what was going on and does this sort of thing happen regularly here? What we desperately wanted them to tell us was that this is all very routine in Kigali and it's no problem, don't worry. Though they did not speak English, from what we could gather from gestures and facial expressions was that no, this is not normal and it's freaking them out as much as its freaking us out! Oh wow, good. One thing was for sure, Bridger and I were not going back into that building until every last one of those people on the street had gone in. So we sat there on the dark Kigali street from 3:30 am to 4:30 freezing our butts off and being eaten alive by mosquitos until every last person went back inside. Now I can tell you that once you experience an earthquake, especially in the immediate aftermath, you don't look at buildings the same way. No you don't, you look at them thinking about what your action plan/escape route will be in the case of future earthquakes. So from 3:30-4:30 am we sat on the street looking up at our building discussing what would be our action plan should another one happen. We could run out like we did but by virtue of where our room is positioned, that takes time. We could stay inside our room but there was nothing to crawl under. We discussed going to the balcony and just jumping down. But there were several problems with that because it is only supported by pillars and doesn't seem the most structurally sound place to be on the collapse front. Also it was high enough up that you're probably gonna hurt yourself so at what point do you actually jump? Like you have to be pretty certain the building is going to crumble in order to risk jumping and breaking your leg or something. What if it was a situation like this where everything was fine but you jumped and now you have a broken leg for nothing? Bridger, ever the problem solver, looks at our hotel/room carefully from the street and comes up with a very specific action plan to remedy this jumping situation...he decides exactly where you crawl over the rail, where you can put each foot to get close enough to a truck parked below that you could jump on to saving yourself the long drop. That's all fine except I reminded him that the entire world is shaking so I'm not sure that exact foot positioning is in the cards. So ultimately we decided that what we did was probably the best plan, except for maybe the leaving your girlfriend in the dust part. That we could adjust a little bit.
So we get back to our room and not 15 minutes after we crawl back in bed we hear this outside: "ay yai yai yai" followed by "HUH!". Basically scary noises when in Africa! So with trepidation we look out the window and it is a group of about 20 Rwandans jogging and huffing down the street at dawn. I assume it was some sort of an athletic team or something but it sure didn't do much to calm our already frayed nerves! It took hours for my heart to stop beating madly and get back into a normal rhythm. Even though I wondered how I would ever fall asleep again for the rest of my life, eventually we did fall back asleep. In the morning I did a little research and I guess a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck in DRC which is what we felt in Kigali. If there was any hope in my mind about this being a routine part of life in Rwanda, it was quickly crushed by the stats as well as the "civilian reports" on one website that was all in various versions of "wow that was scary" and "that was big". It seems all of Kigali was awake and on edge about it. I guess some people actually felt three quakes even. Ah! Based on the website, looks like most earthquakes in this area originate in the DRC but only happen once every several years, though this one was the biggest recorded to date. Woah.
Moving on from earthquakes, the thing about Rwanda is that it is a tiny country and the big things that tourists come to do are gorilla tracking and safari, both of which we already did in Uganda. So to be honest, after reading and reading, we were having a bit of trouble trying to find some other stuff to do in Rwanda outside of Kigali. At one point, we had finally settled on going to a cool little hostel in the mountains that offered a bunch of little local experiences until I started to run into countless allegations around the owner of said property being totally fraudulent and exploiting people and pocketing dollars for himself. Unfortunately corruption like this in these countries is a sad truth and part of life and there is not much we can do about it as tourists except choose not to put our dollars into questionable organizations (as I spoke about in Bwindi). We were also going to go into a village to stay in a community hostel supporting the local orphanage until, when I tried to call to book it, was informed that as of January 2015, the government of Rwanda had passed legislation that permanently disbanded all orphanages in the country. I have learned quite a bit bout this across our travels and definitely this is a tough issue across the developing world. After the genocide rendered so many children orphans across Rwanda, orphanages started popping up everywhere to care for these vulnerable children. However, ultimately it's been 20 years since the genocide and the government is now saying that these children have grown and the push for future generations of children is away from "institutionalized care" and towards community care by a relative or other community member. I first came across such arguments in Cambodia where "voluntourism" and "orphanage tourism" has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. And I must admit, there are really solid arguments surrounding this debate and I have been inclined to question the validity of orphanages and institutionalized care as of late. Ultimately, orphanages and other forms of large scale institutionalized care have been abandoned in the developed world for a long time now in favor of more communal living arrangements which, as far as child development goes, have been shown to be in the child's best interest. Which begs the question, if institutionalized care is not in the child's best interests in the developed world, why should it continue to be the standard in the developing world? Furthermore, at home we would never allow any random person off the street in to have direct access to vulnerable children, yet this seems to be common practice across the developing world in their various "voluntourism" endeavors. Why?! Moving on, the problem in these situations is that the socio-economic context is very different in the developing world in such a way that most families do not have enough money to take care of their own immediate family members let alone take on another orphaned child. So ultimately, though the government's position and advocacy against institutionalized care in Rwanda is an admirable goal, it may be a premature one as "the children have all been sent back into crushing poverty" as I was bitterly informed by the obviously jaded French owner of this formerly self-sustaining orphanage operation. And, sadly, that is life in these parts of the world, folks. Regardless, though involuntarily, once again we would not be contributing to this project either.
We ultimately decided to head to western Rwanda to visit a big lake called Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu, we would learn, is actually one of the most potentially dangerous lakes in the world because of the high quantities of CO2 and methane dissolved in the lake. There are two other such lakes in Cameroon where some environmental event, likely an earthquake, triggered the release of the gas suffocating over 1000 people in the nearby vicinity in the 80's. Kivu, given it's expansive size as well as the millions of people living on it's shorelines, will effectively have what is described as "catastrophic impact" if the same event happens here as in Cameroon, a fact made more unsettling given it's proximity to a highly active volcano. In Cameroon scientists have designed tube-like pumps in the middle of the lake to effectively siphon out the gas in a controlled way, however, because Kivu is so much larger, such a project here is expected to cost several million dollars. Though a disaster of epic proportions has not occurred here to date, there are several reported incidences where dead fish are found floating at the surface and even instances where humans have been killed, presumably when a rogue area of gas bubbled to the surface. Nonetheless, Lake Kivu is Rwanda's resort, lakeside destination and people continue to flock here, obviously not concerned that the danger is imminent. We did the same.