she said (Rwanda): LIVIN' THE AZIZI LIFE

Once the puke situation was under control, all 6 of us piled into a 5 person car (it wouldn't be Africa without at least one extra person) and headed out into the sticks to the village to the women's cooperative we would be visiting for the day.

Part of the program includes having a translator which was good because none of the ladies in the cooperative spoke any English, though throughout the course of the day, we were also left to wonder exactly how much English our translator spoke as well because there were definitely some head-scratching moments!

As soon as we arrived about 20 Rwandan women met us on the road and welcomed us with hugs and introduced themselves and led us down to our host house in the village. I kid you not, we literally walked through the mud-brick walls into a little courtyard with several mud-brick rooms inside including the kitchen, a sitting room and two stalls for the resident cow and the pig. It couldn't have been more "textbook" re: what I had imagined.

We all sat together in a dimly lit room in this village mud-brick hut and did formal introductions where we told our story, about our children, marital status etc. One thing that everyone openly shared was their age and I must say, it is impossible to guess a Rwandan woman's age! I was pretty well wrong 100% of the time and by whopping differences. Like I would have guessed certain people were in their 20s/ early 30s when actually they were 50 and vice versa. Truly, truly mind blowing! At this point they dressed us (well me I guess) into the traditional Rwandan work clothes and we were on our way to "be" Rwandan for a day.

We all migrated into the courtyard to peel cassava, a starchy potato-like food that is more dense, wash it and drop it in the boiling pot in the kitchen.

After this we joined the ladies to trek down the hill with big, yellow, plastic jugs to collect water from the local government-built well (which they would later boil before drinking as we were informed). As if we didn't look like super-tourists enough, they absolutely insisted that we each take a walking stick so we wouldn't slip down this hill, oh man.

We passed several villagers carrying water up the hill and finally arrived at the well which was surrounded by crowds of kids as well as a handful of adult villagers who looked on at us with curiosity.

The ladies encouraged Bridger to go fill one of the jugs with water so off he went, into the middle of the kids who actually just had no idea what to make of him so just stared silently watching his every move haha. Until he all dramatically dropped his broken sunglasses on the ground and picked them up again to which he was rewarded with several timid smiles but a continued avoidance of direct eye contact and any verbal interaction much for boisterous African children!

Since Bridger was really interested in "construction", part of our day was spent with the ladies showing us how they build stuff around these parts. So we were told that we would be helping them build an outdoor stall/shelter for the pig because "the last one was not built well and it fell over". Haha I couldn't help thinking that it was probably because it was made by another of these Azizi Life visits, by useless people who knew not a thing about construction, exactly like what we were about to do. Anyways, through the next hour, I think we were both shocked by just how "low tech" things are done around here. The first steps, we had to use a hoe to churn up some dirt which to be honest, looked like a completely futile effort because the ground was like dirt cement but nonetheless, the ladies started cracking the hoe away slowly working away at the seemingly impossible dirt. And then Bridger wanted to give it a go. But on, like the second hack, he literally blew the head right off the hoe! Luckily the ladies humored him, saying something like "sometimes when strong people use it, this happens" and then proceeded to nonchalantly bash the head back on with a rock. Moving on. The next step was dumping a bunch of the water we had just "fetched" onto the churned up dirt and then actually, getting into the middle and stepping on it much like you would to crush grapes for wine, while slowly continuing to add more water to mash everything together. We were up to our knees in mud. That's true, you have to create mud "by foot" around here.

This took forever and really this was only a very small amount of mud! Half an hour later and we finally had enough mud to start so the ladies brought over a wooden rectangle mold which we would now pick up handfuls of mud and slap into the mold being very careful to pick out any rocks and sticks which would cause the eventual brick to break apart more easily. Once the mold was full of mud, we compacted it in there super tight and dumped it out and left it to dry in the sun. Half an hour later and we had like 3 big, wet blocks made. And the pig's house takes like 75 bricks so I can only imagine how much a house would need.

Luckily the ladies had some other bricks already prepared because the wet ones would need 4 full days to dry in the sun before they would be ready to build with. And then, using the residual mud from the dirt pile as mortar, we began piling the bricks up to create walls using a string stretched out act as a guideline to keep the stacking level. And let me freaking tell you how heavy those bricks were...for the love, I could barely lift them! Shocking.

It was all a total mystery how such construction could ever withstand even one week between rain (would they not just get soggy and sink into a heap of mud again?!), wind or even just gravity itself, though we were assured that when you put an overhang over top, they will not get wet and no problems. Though with earthquakes so recently on the mind I couldn't help but understand how in even mild earthquake in these countries, why most unfortunately come with casualties out in the villages when these brick homes held together my mud mortar come tumbling down.

After we finished building the home for the pig, we returned to the home of the people and I'm not even joking, while we were out the cow had a baby! So there mama and baby were, bodily fluids and umbilical cords everywhere, right in the middle of this Rwandan home! The calf was literally still wet and mama was licking it all up (that's a little bit totally disgusting) and we actually watched it stand up (this alone was a total effort) and try to take it's very first wobbly steps before collapsing and then giving it another go. This, we were informed by our Rwandan counterparts, meant that we bring good luck!

Also in the entertainment department, there was this little kiddo of one of the ladies wandering about who was just this little giggly show-off and every part adorable. Except when we first saw said kiddo, it showed up in a little boy's jumpsuit so we assumed he was a boy. But then later in the day it showed up in a little pink dress. Soooo with the short hair and lack of distinguishing features of all kids here, to this day we are entirely unsure whether darling child was a boy or a girl haha. There was also another little baby around who the SLP in me had noted earlier in the day because it seemed to be hacking a lot and otherwise having difficulty while mom was trying to feed it, going into these weird postures/weird tone. Not gonna stick my nose in, especially if not absolutely sure something is up, but somehow throughout the day it happened to come up that I worked with kids with disabilities and later the facilitator of the program showed up and said to me rather vaguely, "what do you think of this baby?". Turns out the "baby" is actually 1.5 years old. It can't sit, it can't talk and they told me "it has a disability". And my experience has told me that when families identify that a child has a disability, it usually means it is severe because more often than not, especially in this part of the world, people either do not see a problem OR they do not admit a problem given the stigma associated. A few questions later and basically it is clear that there is absolutely no support for children with disabilities around here. In stark contrast to Uganda which seems rather progressive in this area, yielding several initiatives in support of children with disabilities, a quick google search re: disability/autism/special education services in Rwanda, sadly, came up with literally nothing, country wide. So for the record if any of my disability loving friends is interested in a relocation and a big project, I think Rwanda could use you!

After staring at the calf in total mesmerization for awhile, it was time to go into the hut and eat our communal lunch of boiled cassava and beans with avocado which was actually quite tasty, a good thing because it would have been really awkward to decline to more win for being (almost) totally "food flexible" while traveling. The cassava and beans were cool and luckily for me, avocado was on the "maybe a possibility one day" list of fruits so could also get that down alright without gagging too much!

After our fill, we went back out into the courtyard and were each assigned a "mentor" who would teach us the process of making jewelry and other products which is the income generating activity of this women's cooperative. They showed us how they used a knife to strip the leafy part away from a particular tree leaf leaving only the thick fibers left which they would then dye different colors, dry and then turn into a variety of masterpieces to sell in tourist handicraft stores.

We each got to choose whether we make a bracelet or earrings and for the next hour we tried our hand at making traditional Rwandan jewelry, me with my mentor on one side and the cow munching away at my fibers on the other side of me. Id say it took me about 30 minutes before I could get the groove to figure out exactly what I'm doing and by the time I was finished I had blisters on my fingers! Bridger chose earrings and after taking a few pictures to prove he did something, quickly retired passing over his earrings to be completed the super speedy professional. I don't think my lady was too impressed with me haha...

As our last activity together we went back in the hut where the ladies sang us traditional Rwandan songs while dancing together and with us around the room!

And then came the question we want to sing a song for them? Oh my god my introvert tendencies screamed with everything inside me how much I do not!! But how can we not?! I just about died of gratitude when Bridger released me of any obligation when he took to the stage and started singing a traditional Newfoundland song with all the enthusiasm in the world as the ladies danced and clapped and cheered along. Gosh I love this man! After our musical mayhem the president of the cooperative stepped forward and gave this epic speech basically thanking us for coming and then we were asked if we wanted to also say something to the ladies. Oh my gosh, my introverted soul is going to wither away and die!!! Thinking of something to say on the spot AND performing it to people...this is my nightmare!!! Once again, thank goodness Bridger takes the lead and says some brilliant stuff about being our best day in Africa and closest we've felt to the people of Rwanda and other really lovely stuff. Between singing, making speeches and just general chit-chat with people throughout the day on our behalf, did I say I looooooove this human?!?! I can rely so much on him to just come through when the limits of my comfort boundaries are just totally tapped! Yet, I still felt like I should say something so without even having the slightest idea what it would be I just opened my mouth and something came out...and then within less than 10 seconds, I started crying because I do stuff like that and once again, Bridger rescued me telling them something about how I always wanted to visit Africa etc. etc. For as much as the day was slightly awkward as all homestay-like experiences are, it was all very moving and lovely and by the time the day was over and the women had walked us back to our car and send us on our way with goodbye's and hugs, we were feeling pretty filled.

As much as it was one of our favorite days in Rwanda, of course it was a little bit contrived and there was an element in awkwardness in it, being essentially a paying customer in someone's home. But that being said, it is the only way to truly get immersed in even a snippet in African life as a tourist so the opportunity is pretty well priceless in learning about other people's way of life across the world. If there was one thing, ok two, that stood out it was this: These people work SO hard every day. Life is a series of chores and nothing is as easy as flushing the toilet, turning on the tap or throwing something in the microwave. Literally everything is tedious, involving so many steps and ridiculously slow processes. And these people are SO resourceful...every little thing in their environment can be used for something, it's incredible. Two, in spite of this, these people are so warm and gregarious in both their interactions with us and with each other. They had a beautiful sense of play and laughter that pervaded even the most monotonous of activities which was so inspiring. These are the moments and messages that are SO important to experience and take home from traveling and hopefully things that you can maintain long after you make it home.

We spent the night in the Azizi Life dorm room trying to make our onwards, and final plan together into Tanzania. Too bad, surprise, the power was out which meant the wifi was out all night. All night! So we couldn't even look at flights let alone book flights. So the next morning we still had no plan...and still no power. So we had the security guard go buy us airtime for my Rwandan SIM so we could at least buy a 3G data plan and use that Internet to figure out our onwards plan. For the record, onward plans while traveling have been the total pain of my existence on the road!

In the end we decided to go back to Kigali for a few more days before flying to Zanzibar. Before we left, we went shopping in the beautiful little gift shop full of locally made handicrafts and were on our way back to the bus stop. Except we had no idea where the bus stop was so the house security guard literally walked us the entire way there, like 15 minutes. So there we were, three walking down the dirt road under the blaring sun, one who spoke Kinyarwanda and French and a handful of English and Kiswahili and two who, lamely, spoke English only. And somehow we got by by pretty well just throwing out any random French words we knew as he laughed uproariously acknowledging our efforts. Along the way we passed a something like 7 year old boy who, upon seeing us, immediately put out his hand to shake our hands and said, rather formally, "good morning!". Our lovely escort walked us all the way to the bus stop, bought tickets for us and got us on the bus despite a big commotion about where we would put our bags. As we were standing at the bus stop, as usual, the only white people around, this little girl about 5 years old put out her hand to initiate a high five with us and then after, without a word, she immediately came in for a hug! Instead of eyeing us with suspicion or indifference or anything of the sort, the adults at the bus stop all smiled warmly at us, totally out of our zone, hanging out and interacting with their kids. It was all so lovely and only the type of thing that happens in places where the presence of foreigners is in it's infancy. Our bus finally got underway and I was sitting beside this young kid of maybe about 10 years traveling all by himself with a paper bag as luggage, shoes/a coat on his lap and I wondered where he could be going all by himself with all his possessions. And then this little darling started to sing along with the bus music which was Kinyarwandan rap music and it was, for lack of a better word, adorable! In the end, even though it lacked any big attractions or events and was basically a whole lot of nothing, I must say that that entire 2 hours was such a jewel of a moment during our Rwandan/African travels and a perfect example of how half the joy in traveling in this part of the world is enjoying these little moments of totally normal activities and moments with people. So fulfilling and also a perfect example of the rewards of traveling in this kind of low budget, backpacking way that we are.

The hostel we stayed at in Kigali was actually part of a recreation complex that a bar/restaurant, a ping pong table, swimming pool, trampoline and also boasted "Kigali's only bowling alley". So we walked out of our room and went bowling for a few hours. And I kid you not, the pins in this bowling alley were quite literally re-set manually, by hand, by real live pin boys who ran back and forth between all the lanes for hours resetting pins. Unreal! Being rather naturally talented at anything he tries, Bridger cleaned up in bowling where I spent, the usual, 5 frames achieving 0 points, not moving one point up in my score of the whopping 20 I had miraculously managed to achieve before this epic losing streak. Haha well until my very last frame where I blew out a strike, just so, much like gambling perhaps, I wouldn't give up on my bowling ways for the rest of my life.

We met some interesting characters at this hotel as well. One night it was the super drunk, a little annoying British backpackers, one of which was missing several teeth because, and I quote, "We were drunk walking home in Fort Portal and I fell into a hole"...quite literally, an open manhole in the street. Ouch. We also met a ridiculously annoying, massive group of Peace Corp volunteers celebrating the end of their training together and eventual disbursement to the various corners of Rwanda for their projects. I don't know if it was because they were American, Peace Corp or just super drunk but they were so irritating and we tolerated their excessive chatter for as long as we could before excusing ourselves. This is so shitty to say but we just couldn't be bothered with young people traveling and honestly prefer to chat with the older couple or solo traveler who tends to be at the far more interesting end of conversation and life experience. How times change huh?

Remember how I mentioned about Kigali being so lovely, yet scratch a bit below the surface and it's still Africa. Nowhere was this more evident than the water problem in Kigali. Likely literally, water in the entire city shuts off on an all too regular basis. Amanda and James said their hostel had no water for like 4 days in Kigali. Which doesn't seem like a big deal until you realize that no water = no flushing toilets. And no flushing toilets with a bunch of people using the same shared non flushing toilets = 4 days of bodily excrement sitting in the toilet for the foreseeable future. We also experienced water outages about 50% of the time on this visit to Kigali. Luckily we had our own private room so at least we had our own toilet but still not an ideal situation for a couple nonetheless. Also luckily they prepare for such episodes by having a giant basin full of water in the corner of the washroom which you can use to dump in the toilet to manually flush it, though far less efficiently and thoroughly. On one such "no water" hour (it could go on an off multiple times in a day!) I had a major, rather loose elimination episode and just as I was finishing up and realizing, boom, water is off, Bridger yells, "hurry up, I have to pee!". Great! Why now Bridger, why now? Oh right, because you pee 3000 times a day so it's not just now, it's every minute of every day but I digress. I did the best I could given the situation of loose poo, dump bucket flush and time pressure which, to be honest, wasn't so great. And then, I walked out with the instructions not to look and Bridger walked in, further cementing our ever-growing-closer-in-all-the-wrong-ways union.

In another episode of "no water", Bridger had to shower the days heat and sweat off, a feat made more difficult with no running water. The hotel manager gave him a kettle to boil water from the big bucket of water so he could have a hot shower. Too bad the kettle plug in was different than every outlet in the room rendering it completely and utterly useless.

God we're so spoiled but Africa changes that! It never gets less initially disappointing to encounter situations such as this with water, power, whatever, though you get better at not being as invested in it, becoming almost apathetically neutral after awhile haha.

Somewhere along the line we had booked a flight direct from Kigali to Zanzibar. Though more expensive than a flight to Tanzania's capital city Dar Es Salaam, we figured with only two weeks left for Bridger (tear!), we would just do the easiest thing. Our flight left at night at 11:30 pm and we spent the last day, a Sunday, at the pool and trying to play ping pong except that as soon as we started, those lovely, well dressed kids emerged from everywhere to ask if they could play too! Not wanting to be rude and not share, I gave away my paddle and Bridger, bless him, played so patiently with an endless string of some of the worst little ping pong players you could ever imagine. This continued as me, a handful of kids and a Rwandan dad with his baby watched on. Every now and then the kids would get bored and I would be swapped in again but the Rwandan dad and baby never left so eventually I offered him my paddle to play. I never could have guessed how the next hour of this would go down....because turns out guy is actually really serious about and quite good at ping pong because "he used to play in secondary school". And for the love, he didn't feel bad about not sharing because the two of them played an intensely competitive game for a straight hour until they were both dripping in sweat! It was seriously intense as much as ping pong can be; both of them kept a wide stance, lunging both ways, 4 million paddle orientations used.

I can tell this man is just, for lack of a better expression, "tickled pink" to be playing, especially as his wife now joins myself and the 6 Rwandan kids whose heads endlessly flipped back and forth following the ball, watching this, no doubt, total novel ping pong competition between Rwanda's elite and the white boy. Eventually the game that I didn't think would ever end, actually ended and we chatted with the couple for awhile and they introduced us to all of their kids, one a little baby who stared at my nose hoop with jaw dropped open until he started pointing and asking some sort of question about me to his mom in Kinyarwanda! And then we exchanged email addresses so we could send them some pictures and a few days later the lady wrote to say something like "thanks again for playing with my husband" and "he was so happy after the game"! Weirdly, the whole episode gave me such a level of admiration for Bridger whose level of social intuitiveness as well as his patience and gentleness with people is a bit awe-inspiring to me.

On Sunday, this recreation club was so packed, and rather like a gathering place of Kigali's elite. Middle-upper class, well dressed Rwandan parents and equally well dressed kids were everywhere and the parking lot was entirely full of brand new Land Cruisers and Mercedes. It was a bit surreal! Also interesting was how many foreign expats and inter-racial families were there as well. Usually what you end up seeing across the world is foreign guys with local women so it was so awesome to see was that here there were equal couples with a foreign woman/Rwandan man and a foreign man/Rwandan woman, straight up love unions that went both ways, I love it! Just a recreation club full of happy little, perfect families. And somewhere through that Sunday afternoon at the rec club in Kigali, Bridger and I decided that, ok fine, we should move to Kigali as expats because man, this lovely community could be ours!

For our last dinner in Kigali we went out to this expat restaurant (that said they took credit card), an had truly real and delicious pasta over a sunsetting view across the hills of Kigali. This really is an exceptionally stunning city.

The bill came and even though there was visa signs everywhere, in classic Kigali fashion, we were informed that the Visa machine wasn't working so we needed to pay in cash. Whatever, I thought, not ideal but we have the cash. Well, Bridger, I've noticed now that the countdown is on to him going home, and he has been getting increasingly more "checked out" and irritated and short tempered about little things that normally would roll off his back easily. So in a fine showing of that, now several drinks in, he becomes all obstinate and decides that the Visa machine is actually working but they don't want us to use it so we should just say "we don't have cash but it's not our problem" and watch how fast the Visa machine starts working again. Obstinate and confrontational. So forget everything I said and thought just one hour prior about him being all lovely and patient and awe-inspiring and stuff, now I hate this human and we spend the next several hours counting down to our flight in an epic battle of rather serious proportions.

The taxi shows up to take us to the airport as scheduled at 11:30 pm. We go outside to meet him and just as we're getting in, the driver realizes he has a totally flat tire. Of course he does! It wouldn't be Africa if his tire wasn't flat just at the moment we have to get to the airport. So he tells us to hold tight while he starts ripping out the jacks and spares and changes away in the middle of that dark recreation centre courtyard in the Kigali night.

We were headed into Tanzania, as usual, on a one way ticket in, no immigration required proof of onward travel out of the country. And once again we were just crossing our fingers that we wouldn't be asked. So with feigned confidence we walk up to the Ethiopian Airlines counter and smack our documents down on the table in front of the agent who, much to our happiness, does not make any mention of showing proof of onward ticket. Little did we know at this point that perhaps the failure to ask for the technically required documentation was an early indication of Ethiopian Airlines lack of interest in technicalities as a whole.

And so began, with two weeks left to go in our trip together, the worst travel day yet.