Rwanda Day 2: Nyungwe

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The whole country is picturesque valleys like this.

After sitting in the car for a bit writing down all my thoughts to process them, I drove to Nyungwe. Nyungwe National Park is gorgeous. Most of Rwanda is cultivated. I kept stopped today before the memorial to take pictures of valleys, and they’re all amazing with these patches of farm and different terraces. But then you get to Nyungwe and it is just forest so it is very different (except for the national parks, Rwanda is almost entirely under cultivation). Plus I kept gaining altitude as I went west (or at least the hills are taller and so I guess the valleys deeper) and on top of a lot of the hills the clouds were touching them and seeming to rise from the forest itself. I kept wanting to take pictures but I was trying to get to Uwinka Reception Center before 1300 to make the Canopy Walk on time. It’s a pretty and fun slash scary drive because of all the curves and hills. Later on I passed a truck that had crashed right into the wall of the hill because it didn’t turn fast enough. Better than barreling over the side. The driver was cooking some food as I passed so he’s okay.

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Nyungwe.

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Jean D’Amour

I arrived at the visitor’s center there and arranged to go on the canopy walk tour. It’s overpriced frankly at $60, but I also arranged to see chimpanzees the next day for $90, and what I am telling myself is that chimps is actually a bargain at $150. Anyways. My guide was Jean D’Amour and he was very nice. I was alone; it isn’t exactly tourist high season here. We went down the trail and he told me some stuff about plants and things. He showed me a plant people use as toilet paper because it is soft, and a vine that is taking over the park because only elephant and buffalo eat it and both are extinct in the park. Plus a medicinal tree. Neat. But trouble was brewing. First he ran into a guide that told him the bridge was broken. But, he said, a Canadian was fixing it. Then we ran into said Canadian. He said he was off to get tools and it would be 1-2 hours. Jean suggested we just wait at the bridge. We kept going and then ran into more Canadians. One was named Ian and was very friendly. He told me about cool bridges like this one in Vancouver, and that he had installed a zipline going from the Foxwoods Casino in CT to the Foxwoods Museum, and also that the museum wasn’t doing so hot and only got 50,000 visitors a year despite the casino getting 1,000,000, and the zipline was a ploy to get more. He also said that the bridge cost $800,000 to build and the park gets $500,000/year from it, which is like 8000 something Non-Resident Foreigners. But he also highly doubted the 1-2 hour time estimate to fix it. So Jean made some phone calls and arranged for me to see the bridge the next day, provided it was fixed.

Canopy Walk

Sex appeal.

But we went to the bridge anyways because I could go to the first platform (there are actually two platforms and three bridges, with the big center bridge between the two platforms out of commission) and check it out. It was in fact pretty neat. Jean insisted on a like, full on photo shoot so I have 20 pictures of me on and around the bridge.

After the bridge I had a nice little lunch at the place. I was heading out and the receptionist guy asked for a lift to Gisikoro and I was happy to oblige. That was pretty neat because he answered some questions in the car. Along the road in the forest there is an army guy stationed every few hundred meters. I figured they were for poachers but he said they were also there because the forest is on the border with Burundi and there is fighting there. So that’s kinda scary? We saw a monkey along the way, and he told me that the name of the swamp in Kinyarwanda means “Swallows Elephants” because back when there were forest elephants in the park I guess they would get stuck in the swamp.

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The tea process.

I dropped him in Gisikoro and then went to the Gisikoro Tea Factory for a tour. That was very informative! It cost $10 and I was again alone so I had what I think was the foreman leading me around. The tour was of the processing facility. We went to the loading dock where the tea leaves are delivered from the fields. They are first tested for the proper ratio of good and bad leaves. “Good leaves” are the new tea leaf shoots, so the end of the branch plus one or two leaves. They require 65% of the incoming leaves to be “good” leaves. The other 35% are the “bad” leaves, which are any leaves other than the apical portion. Once they verify the ratio, they go on “withering” beds, which are large beds with screens on the bottom through which warm air is blown. This happens for 12 hours and the leaves lose 30% of their mass from water evaporation. After that they are loaded into bags and onto a hoist system, and then taken to a chopper. They are chopped very finely using first a regular looking cutter and then like shredder wheels. These wheels go so fast they make steam come out of the leaves. The smell in this portion of the process is a lot like fresh cut grass.

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Tour guide and fermentation beds.

So the leaves come out into very fine chunks and then go onto these conveyors that use paddles (and speed I assume) to control the heat and there the leaves ferment. They go from green to brown in this step. What makes black tea black is fermentation; green tea is just dried with no fermentation. After fermentation the leaves are dried using a steam drier. Then they are sorted and graded. Apparently tea bag tea is lower quality and contains stems. He showed me a tray with different grades of tea and you could really see the difference. It was pretty neat. We went out back to check out the machine shop which was very nice and used to maintain equipment like the cutting rollers. We also saw the wood-fired boilers that provide the drying steam. They are very large and there were dudes tossing in logs. They made sure I got some good pics. The boilers were made in England and have been operating since 1974.

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Tea grades.

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ATTENTION TO BURN. I always brake for boilers.

After that I set off and found a lodge. That involved me driving some places I shouldn’t have, and I very nearly got stuck in a bad spot of road where the necessary wheels of the car were not on the ground. At the lodge I ran into some people that knew a friend of mine, and some other people that climbed Nyiragongo the day after I did, which goes to show that Rwanda is I guess a small country. I spent some time reflecting on how one day could involve seeing genocide victims and then hiking through the most stunning natural beauty of Rwanda, and finish with a tour of a tea factory. Africa is a great deal more complex than most people give it credit for.

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Tea fields.

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Rwanda Day 2: Murambi Genocide Memorial

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Murambi Genocide Memorial. They ask visitors not to take pictures at the site.

Reading this week:

  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

My first major observation on my second full day in Rwanda was that if you don’t like passion fruit, you should just leave. They serve it for breakfast and dessert and all the time. After my passionate breakfast, it was some errands and souvenir shopping. I stopped by a Huye coffee to buy some souvenir coffee for friends, and as happened often to me in Africa there was a dude “sneakily” taking selfies where I just so happened to be in the background. After I said to him “you could just ask, you know” (I did a whole photoshoot with two dudes while I was at Great Zimbabwe because they asked) he sheepishly put away his phone and walked off.

The major destination for the day was the Murambi Genocide Memorial. I got a little turned around, but eventually came across it. I had the place to myself, tourist-wise. I could have parked closer but I didn’t know that and it felt more appropriate to walk up to the memorial. The memorial, which was going to be a technical school, is perched on top of a picturesque mountain surrounded by other picturesque mountains and farms. It’s really stunningly beautiful and the grounds and so peaceful and serene. I walked in the front door and the lady working there gave a short explanation and I was off into the exhibits.

The first part is an explanation of the history of the genocide. It’s really well done though a little abrupt (I feel like they skip some details), but then again they do it in three languages so every time you add anything you add triple. The biggest thing I learned I think was about the participation of the French. The French troops were supporting the government which was initiating the genocide. At Murambi specifically they repeatedly gang raped the girls there and played volleyball pretty much on top of a mass grave. They fought to repel the RPF, who are credited with ending the genocide. At the end of these exhibits there are two “burial chambers” where bodies were supposed to be on display. I knew they had bodies at Murambi and so I steeled myself but when you go into the rooms the chambers are empty. So I was somewhat relieved, frankly. That was the end of this part and for the next part the lady took you around the outside.

Outside, they have an uncovered (and empty) mass grave to give you a sense of the scale of the killing (as numbers go, approximately 50,000 people were murdered, which makes it 5% of the total victims of the genocide). Then you go back into the former dormitories. In the first few rooms they have clothing that was removed from some of the bodies and used for identification by the families. She took me to the location of the former volleyball court and where the French had installed rockets to repel the RPF.

Then she took me to the bodies. I thought I had “gotten out of” seeing the bodies, but before you know it she is showing you the rooms. It was not what I expected. I kinda figured they would be behind glass or something because I had glimpsed glass cases through some windows. But you turn the corner and you are just in the room with the bodies, with nothing between you and them. You can smell them. Some of the people still have hair and some still have clothes. They are laid out on platforms and are skeletal. On some the skin has broken and ribs are exposed. There are adults and children and babies. I went into all the rooms in the first block because I felt I had to. There were maybe 20 people per room. I think there were four or five rooms. After those rooms were the rooms I had seen with the glass cases. In the first two rooms the cases were filled with just femurs, sorted by age and sex. “Female over 30,” “Male under 30.” I tried counting but couldn’t. I think each case represented something like 30 people. Then the next few rooms had skulls, neatly laid out in rows and again sorted by age and sex. Some of the skulls were smashed or had whole chunks missing. Somehow to me the femurs were more impactful than the skulls because skulls are people but femurs are just kind of the anonymous tolling of death.

In that block I think there were the remains of 200 or so people, which is such a tiny fragment. There were two more blocks but I couldn’t bring myself to go look. The last stop was the mass grave where the people were re-interred. She said that there were 50,000 people in it. It’s just a white tiled platform on the top with flowers laid on it, but it’s where 50,000 people are. And then with that tour is over and you are walking down the driveway of the memorial looking at those picturesque mountains again.

Rwanda Day 1

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The Rock of Kamegeri. I don’t know why I made this expression.

The rest of my COS trip I spent driving around Rwanda and looking at stuff. To drive around Rwanda I of course rented a car. This was fantastically simple. I called up this car rental agency and 30 minutes later they showed up to my hotel with a car. They didn’t even look at my driver’s license or anything. We drove together to an ATM so I could get cash to pay them, and then they left on a motorcycle taxi. So there I was in the middle of an African city in charge of a car when I hadn’t driven in 27 months. I can happily report that I never crashed and only got pulled over once. I did several times find myself driving on the left side of the road instead of the right, but thankfully there was no one else around.

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Some lumps of clay that will be pottery someday. I took this picture just to justify my trip to this pottery place.

My first destination was the Rock of Kamegeri. I stopped in town first to get some lunch. Due to my lack of French I only got fries and a salad, but it was pretty good and I went off for the rock. I blew past it at first because it didn’t have the promised sign, but went back, took a picture, and I was on my way to Gatagara Pottery. My usual shtick when left to my own devices on vacation is to look at as much stuff as possible, and in Rwanda I was going hard and fast. Gatagara is supposed to feature local artisans you can see at work. When I arrived no one was there, but the guard at the next door hospital called a dude for me. No one was potting that day, and the dude just opened up the gift shop for me. I bought a bowl and a cup (they both look pretty cool) mostly out of guilt for dragging the guy out there, but it was only about $6.

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Outside of the King’s Palace.

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The roof of the palace. The place was fantastically sturdy for being grass.

After that I was bound for the King’s Palace Museum. I went to three of Rwanda’s eight national museums that day. The King’s Palace Museum was pretty amazing. So the king (and according to the guy at the Ethnographic Museum, most Rwandans) lived in a giant hut made of grass. It’s woven like a giant basket and seems pretty darn sturdy no matter what the three little pigs taught me. It was amazing just to see the structure. We also met the small herd of royal cows with gigantic horns. The cows are just decorative though; they don’t eat them, and bury the cows when they die. They also had the “palace” built for the king by the Germans (It’s a rather nice and airy house) which was neat.

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Royal cows.

Then I was off to the nearby Museum of Rwesero, which is housed in the new palace the King was having built after a tour of Europe and seeing the other king’s digs (he died before it was finished). The museum used to be the art museum, but is now kinda nothing, and housed on the ground floor some iron smelting products (kinda neat actually) and upstairs an exhibit on fashion, but that was only bad pictures. I didn’t spend long, though I admired the banisters made out of spears. After this it was off to Huye.

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The Rwandans were big into spears, the king especially so. I asked the lady working there and she confirmed the spears were original to the new palace and thus at the King’s own behest. I liked his decorating style.

I arrived at Huye at about 1630 and wavered as to go to the Ethnographic Museum, since it closed at 1800. I decided to go and it was enough time. I got a guided tour by an extremely knowledgeable tour guide who was able to answer some random esoteric questions I had about the artifacts. There’s nothing too crazy in the museum (by which I mean I’m not new to the concept of a winnowing basket) but it is very nicely done and has a lot of stuff and like I said the tour guide was excellent and I was alone in the museum. The tour took an hour and I poked around by myself for a few more minutes and then head out. A whirlwind first full day of my actual Rwanda vacation.

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Displays from the Ethnographic Museum.

Nyiragongo Part 2

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Goma and Lake Kivu from the top of Mt. Nyiragongo.

In our last installment, I had climbed a volcano only to look at fog.

But then! We were sitting in the kitchen and I was looking out the window when suddenly I got a glimpse of Lake Kivu! It was clearing up! So we rushed out and the other two guys got their gear ready to take some pictures. It was so stunning to see the whole vista of Lake Kivu from thousands of meters up, and to see the city of Goma spread out along its shores with its million inhabitants. But by the time we could get a really good view the fog came again. But then the crater was clearing up! We could see the lava! So we ran over to get a better view of the lava but then it got foggy again. But then the lake cleared up again! It switched back and forth a few times and we kept bouncing back and forth before the fog really socked in again.

By that point we settled into dinner. Dinner was phenomenal. The chef announced each course which I thought was downright grand for being on top of a volcano. It started with soup they had hauled all the way from the bottom and heated, and dinner was rice, vegetables, and a delicious grilled porkchop. Highly recommend hiring a chef. Also thankfully after dinner the fog cleared again for a bit giving us a good long look at Lake Kivu. After hanging out for a bit we all went to bed exhausted.

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I noted on Facebook it was “like a lamp I used to have,” but then my mom helpfully pointed out we still had my lava lamp.

Around midnight they woke us up to get a view of the lava lake. The fog had cleared enough to give us a really good view. Right as we got up there to the crater I bothered to look up and you could also see the stars. Because of the other clouds though it was like we were alone in the world except for the stars and the volcano. It was a really powerful sight. I took some pictures and video but mostly I just stood there staring at the lava. You could hear it, even all the way up on the rim, and it’s amazing to watch it bubble and smoke and steam. I thought it was kinda like a pot on a brazier where the heat isn’t totally even and so the pot doesn’t all boil in the same spot. It’s so amazing.

The next morning started pretty early. When I first woke up it was entirely quiet and calm, and I just sat in my sleeping bag for a while listening to the volcano and the wind. I got up, packed, and then stepped out of my hut. Right when I stepped out of my hut it was phenomenal. At that moment the clouds at my level cleared and I could look out over the landscape and a layer of relatively low, patchy clouds added depth to the whole vista. Breakfast was an amazing omelet (I asked, jokingly, if when they needed to start the fire they just dashed down to the lava lake to grab some lava, but our chef just said “no, it would be too hard.”).

We stepped off at 0700 and again the fog was dense, which again I was in favor of because the first part of the hike, all steep rock face, had me scared shitless. The nice part about the descent is that it gets easier as you go along, and the day kept getting nicer as we lost altitude. The way down was relatively uneventful, as we passed the rest points quickly and when we finally dropped below the cloud layer the sun came out and it was a very pleasant hike. We made it down in a tad over 3 hours. We checked back in, loaded up the land cruiser, and head for the border. The border crossing went fairly smooth, though paying for another Rwanda visa is more complicated than I thought it should be. I took a bus back to Kigali despite the taxi driver that took me to the bus stop offering to drive me to Kigali for $100, then $80, and then $50. The bus is only $4 though and it leaves on a schedule, which utterly amazed me.

When I sat down to write my journal for the day I was in a rather nice hotel in Kigali and I could barely believe I had woken up on a volcano that morning. Soon though all my muscles were desperately sore and I passed out almost directly after I had some dinner. Seeing the volcano and getting to experience the beauty of the DRC and Virunga National Park had never really been on my list until I just happened to see it in an Instagram post (on National Geographic’s feed) so it was so serendipitous that I got to do it. I’m going to be looking for any excuse to go back.

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The crew (minus my French friend who was taking the photo).