Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The End

The end has come and gone.  Last night I arrived in southern California after thirty hours of travel, six movies, two plane meals and lots of snacks, and a brief visit with my cousin, Michelle, and her kids at the Seattle airport.  The first thing I did once I arrived after thanking God for safe travel?  Get an Orea milkshake from Jack-in-the-Box and a cheeseburger, animal-style, from In-n-Out Burger.  Yum!

So far I don't feel very different.  It feels like I'm home for a normal visit, except for the fact that there are lots of details to take care of that aren't normally there, like find a cell phone and health insurance plan, research used cars in Minnesota, and find housing for three weeks from now in Minnesota.  Yeah, no big deal.

I was able to do all sorts of cool things and had to do one big uncool thing in the weeks before I left.  After the camping trip, Rita and I traveled to Kigali for a wedding of a man who volunteers with the Brazilian congregation.  That meant we spent a lot of time hanging out with each other and with the Brazilians.

Once we got back home, I was surprised by the news that I was responsible for giving the final exam to eight of my nine classes because my partner teacher was out after giving birth.  This was a shocker to me because I hadn't given final exams in the previous two terms and when I learned of the news, it was already halfway through final exams and only two weeks before I would leave Rwanda.  Well, that definitely changed my plans of how I would spend my last two weeks.  I had hoped to spend a lot of time hanging out with the students once their exams finished (they have a gap week where they are at school waiting for their grades), but instead my roommate and I spent hours and hours, days and days, grading almost 300 exams.  It was insane and my grades were turned in two days late, but we finally finished them and I could have a day or two to hang out with the students.

Two unexpected opportunities for hanging out came about when one of the Senior 2 students, Lisa, said that the headmistress gave her permission to visit us in our house.  This surprised me because our house is normally off-limits, but we were happy to have Lisa over.  We played cards and then we went into the kitchen and I taught her how to make the dough for pie crust (we would be having quiche later that night).  You should have heard her as she urged me to wait for her return before proceeding with the next steps since she had to leave for a school assembly.  I had to continue making the quiche without her, but she later joined us and the family of the local EC coordinator for dinner.

The other opportunity was another cooking experience.  Now that Rita and I knew the students were allowed to visit us, we invited two of our other favorites, Laurette and Gerardine, to bake peanut butter cookies and a sweet potato pie with us.  It was a new experience for them in many ways: American measurements, peanut butter tasting, and cooking in our kitchen.  Cooking with the students was something I had hoped to do in Rwanda and once I saw how the school was structured, I didn't think it would be possible.  I'm happy it happened right at the end.

Last Thursday was Rita's birthday, which provided lots of opportunities for fun.  We went to the Brazilian daycare for my last time.  The kids sang Happy Birthday to Rita and then swarmed both of us.  They were so used to having an umuzungu of their own when the Americans were in town that they seemed to be needier for us than ever.  Today I was looking at some pictures of the daycare from when the Americans were in town and just looking at photos of the kids warms my heart.  Fr. Dave said someone told him that "Rwanda is the land of a thousand smiles because it is the land of a thousand tears."  That person was playing off the motto of the country, which is "Land of a Thousand Hills."  I don't know if there are more smiles because of the tears of the past, but there sure are a lot of smiles, especially from the beautiful Rwandan children.  After the daycare, we went to the Benedictine monastery with the Brazilians for a picnic, volleyball, and Uno and then went to the student Mass where I could say goodbye afterwards.  At night we went over to the novices, who threw a birthday for Rita and going-away for me party.  I was so touched when they presented gifts for us, which included personalized baskets with lids for each of us and a large, round banana leaf nature scene that was also personalized.

Saying goodbye to the novices was the only time I cried while saying goodbye.  I had so much fun with the novices every Monday night and they really came to mean a lot to me.  They always made me laugh and it was great to see them progress in their English skills.

My last full day in Butare consisted of saying goodbye to the students as they loaded onto buses to go home for a few weeks of vacation, lunch with Rita and two colleagues, and dinner with a few guys from the Emmanuel Community.  I got to teach them how to make pancakes.

My last weekend in Kigali was spent in Kigali.  I spent a few hours at the Missionaries of Charity orphanage, giving some love to Jessica (who you might remember from my visits in December) and another little girl who wanted to climb all over me.  At one point I had one on my back and another in front.  At night Rita and I celebrated my last night in town by going to Zen, an outdoor Asian fusion restaurant with a very posh atmosphere, something definitely not found in Butare.  Sunday, Rita and I joined an EC family for lunch.  Francois-Xavior, Yvonne Solange, and their kids are a great family.  The parents escaped out of Rwanda during the genocide and their first son was born in Belgium.  They proceeded to have four more sons and from what I can tell, they are all very respectful, attentive to each other, and faithful.  I asked the family what their secret was and while there wasn't one obvious answer, they make time to be together as a family and they bless each other by drawing a cross on each others forehead when they say goodbye.  I like that tradition; maybe I'll introduce it when I have my own family.

Well, that's all for now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Nyungwe rainforest
If you know me even decently well, you know that I really enjoy hiking and camping.  They are some of my favorite hobbies.  In fact, when people ask me what I am looking forward to about going back home, one of my answers is having a car to get around more easily and I specifically think about driving to trailheads.  Oh yes, even though there is a lot of natural beauty around me in Rwanda, which I appreciate, I miss going on long hikes and camping in the wilderness.

Well, last week Rita and I satisfied my hunger for exertion and sleeping in the wilderness by visiting the Banda Community in Nyungwe National Park.  Last Wednesday we rode a bus for two hours from Butare to the Uwinka Overlook Interpretation Center in the park.  There we met our volunteer guide, Ignace, who is studying wildlife management.  We put on our backpacks and walked for three hours through the rainforest and the buffer pine forest, down into the valley, and then into the village.  Ignace pointed out different plants and told us their Latin names, which Rita and I were pretty terrible at remembering. 

Pine buffer forest
One thing that was so cool about the hike is that to hike with a guide on a national park trail costs at least $40/person and lasts 4-5 hours.  Because we were visiting the village, we got to walk through the park to the village and back (almost 6 hours of hiking), and spend a night camping, for only $10/person!  It was a great deal (those of you who know me really well know I love a bargain) and it was totally worth more than we paid.

Anyway, after walking through the forests and the Banda village, we arrived at the campground.  It was picturesque.  We were in a valley surrounded by cultivated and natural hills.  Our REI tent (my favorite store!) was set up on a grassy plot surrounded by low bushes to create a little barrier between the other plots, which didn't have tents because we were the only visitors that night. There was a bathroom building that was a step up from a Porta Potty and a little one room cabin that served as the restaurant. 

Our guide took care of all the communication with the kitchen staff and all we had to do was make ourselves comfortable playing cards and rehydrating as we waited for dinner to be ready.  Eventually all the dishes were on the table and Rita and I helped ourselves to the Rwandan staples: rice, French fries, beans, pasta, and stew meat.  We were hungry after the hike so it was great to have a big plate of carbs to fill up our bellies and replenish whatever we used on the hike and would need for the hike out the next day.

Then came the experience that I hadn't had in about a year: sleeping in a tent.  I don't find sleeping in a tent to be the most comfortable thing in the world, but there is just something about sleeping close to nature that I love.  This time was definitely a first because only one twin-sized foam mattress could fit in the REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent so Rita and I shared it (in our separate sleeping bags).  Sleeping in a tent is even less restful when you have two people on a twin mattress, but it was still great.

The next morning we were treated to warm water for sponge baths, a filling breakfast, and a quick visit to a local stream.  Oh, and I can't forget to mention all the little boys who took great interest in Rita and me.  It made me laugh to watch them as they peered through the vegetative fence bordering the campground and even climbed a tree to get a better look at us.  Eventually they left us and Rita, Ignace, and I headed out of the valley to the main road where we would catch a bus back to Butare. 
A visitor to the Umuzungu Zoo!
It was a great trip and I highly recommend it to any visitors or residents of Rwanda.  Here is where you can get more information:
FB: "Banda Community at Nyungwe National Park"
Phone: Ignace, +250 785 369 704; Jules Cesar, +250 788 629 410; Illdephense, +250 788 436 763

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

And then there were 19 extra Americans in Rwanda

My normal rhythm of life was thrown out the window June 26th when 1 priest and students from CO State (16), CU Boulder (1), and Catholic University of America (1) arrived in Butare for a week of service.  From then until the group's departure yesterday afternoon, life was a whirlwind of activity, sometimes stressful but full of so many good fruits, as I helped the group get from work site to work site, town to city to national park.  Here are some of the many activities they participated in and the people they served.

In Butare, there were three main services.  During the weekday mornings the whole group went to the Brazilian daycare/nursery school where my roommate and I like to volunteer.  I had been worried that the guys in the group would find the caretaking boring or that the whole group would overwhelm the site.  Neither were the case.  Each student quickly found a favorite child who would cling to him or her all morning so the students were so happy to return to the daycare to see their special child.  They were also very affected by the life situations of the children.  I knew they are poor, but I didn't realize how bad their home lives are.  Some kids live in places that "are not fit for dogs" (the words of one of the sisters) and don't have beds.  Some kids are the result of prostitution and one of those children has HIV.  These stories were challenging for the group to hear because it made their work seem futile.  Yes, they could love the children for 3-4 hours a day for a few days while they were here, but they can't change their life situations.  I know from Pisuri that that is a hard pill to swallow.

This little guy took Fr. Dave's glasses
The second service was spending time at two centers for orphaned and street kids, one for girls and one for boys.  I had heard that such centers existed in Butare, but I couldn't find them until I was preparing for the CSU group's arrival.  I went hunting in the general direction that was pointed out to me and asked a few questions and all of a sudden I discovered these centers for abandoned kids.  One thing I noticed when visiting the girls center is how affectionate the girls were.  They didn't know me and yet these 9-11 year olds were giving me hugs in the course of my first exploratory visit.  I think each center was visited two times by members of the CSU group.  The group came with a lot of soccer donations so some of that was given to the boys' center.  At the boys center the volunteers played soccer and at the girls center they made bracelets and practiced dances.

The third main service was manual labor in the fields. The group wanted to get some physical work in while they were in Butare so they cleared and cultivated a field owned by the Brazilian congregation.  That field will help the Brazilians to have more food for their community, which frees up more money to spend on feeding the daycare children.   Their second project was to clear as much of a plot of land that will be used by an Emmanuel Community family for a future house site as possible.

In addition to the three main projects, there were a lot of one-day projects and varied night events.  The night of the arrival they joined my students for the weekly school Mass.  The choir sang English songs and I felt like a proud parent watching her kids use what she taught them.  The group was invited over to the house of the Brazilian community to watch the Chile vs. Brazil World Cup game and then to celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul with food and dancing.  The next morning the group joined the community at their convent for Mass and adoration.  Four women from the group spent a morning painting pictures on the trim of a nursery school building.  Almost all of the women (one was sick) came to my school to put on a mini-retreat for the students.  After an initial song with gestures and a testimony of faith presented to the whole group, the students were divided into groups of 20-30 so they could each have an American girl to lead them in conversation and testimonies for the remainder of the hour.  It was so satisfying to see the students eager to continue talking with the volunteers and to hear the American women say how much they loved sharing with the students.  They went to the home of the local coordinator of the Emmanuel Community for a dinner and dance party.  We showed the Rwandans how to swing dance and the Rwandans taught us how to dance Rwandan-style.  Lastly, the group led a night of prayer and evangelization at the Catholic cathedral.  If you are in the Emmanuel Community, "Mercy Night" is enough to tell you what it was.  For those of you who aren't in the EC, let me paint a picture of that beautiful night.  The Eucharistic Lord was displayed in a monstrance (a gold-plated holder on a stand) on the altar.  The lights were off in the church.  Taper candles held in paper bags by sand formed the shape of a cross in front of the altar on the ground.  Enough candles were lit to illuminate the cross, but others were unlit so the people we met on the streets could come in and light one as a sign of their prayer.  Half of the group stayed inside the church to pray and the other half went out in pairs with paper lanterns to invite passersby to come into the church to pray, to light a candle, to pick a paper with a scripture passage on it, to pray with someone, or to go to confession.  The night lasted for 2 hours and many people came into the church to pray.  It helps that Rwanda is such a pedestrian country.  A few highlights were: one man who was very stressed about life so he prayed for more than an hour and felt so peaceful and relaxed after his prayer time; and three people who didn't have time to enter the church, but when I let them pick a scripture passage and they read it, their faces broke into big smiles and they thanked us for the words they had received.
A large group of white pilgrims is a passing attraction

All of those events happened in six days.  Whoo!  It was a sprint, but my work with the group wasn't finished yet.  We went from a sprint to a long walk, 18 miles to Kibeho to be exact.  On July 2, I guided the group on their pilgrimage from Butare to Kibeho.  I've made the walk two times before, once in November with the visiting American, Paul, and once in March with the university prayer group, but this was the first time I walked in more-or-less in silence and it was great.  I had so much time to pray and to reflect on what I lived in Rwanda and to prepare for what I am about to live in Minnesota.  We spent 3 1/2 days in Kibeho.  There wasn't much of a schedule for the time, which was so nice for the group after two heavily planned weeks (they spent a week in Kigali before they reached me in Butare).  The bulk of the retreat fell on Fr. Dave's shoulders because he led people in prayers for spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical healing, which took about an hour per person.

The plains are so brown right now
because it's the dry season
The first view of the elephant from across the water
After Kibeho the group caught two buses, one back to Butare and then one from here to Kigali, on July 5.  We went to bed relatively early because we had a 5 am bus pick-up to go to Akagera National Park.  The group was so lucky with what we saw.  At one point we were watched an elephant about 1/4 around a lake from us.  When the elephant disappeared out of sight, we loaded back into the bus to try to see it again near the road.  Well, we definitely saw it!  As we were driving on the dirt road, we saw the elephant only 30-40 feet away from us, facing the road.  His ears were spread wide and our guide told the driver to put some distance between us and the elephant quickly.  If we had stayed right in front of the elephant in our big bus, there is a chance he could have charged us to show his dominance.  Needless to say, we drove past the elephant and stopped where we could still have a good, but safer, view of him.  It was the closest and the longest I've seen an elephant in the wild.  We also saw hippos out of the water again and some giraffes, but not as close as my first trip to Akagera.  One interesting perspective was seeing how dry the great plain in the north was.  Normally there are many, many animals grazing in the green grass, but the animals were as abundant this time because the plain was so dry.  As you can see in the pictures, a lot of the grasses are brown and dried up.  The dryness made for a lot more dust flying into the bus and coating our skin with dirt.
The view from where we stopped the bus
Left to right: Kevin, Ryan, Laura, Fr. Dave, Tod, Jenn, Jordan, Alexa, Joe, Ben, Colin, Kaylin, Alana, Alec, Emily, Jade, Andy, Kasey, Angie, me

Yesterday was the group's last day in Kigali so they took advantage of the free day to go souvenir shopping.  They also got to see the boys from the Emmanuel Center in Kigali play soccer decked out in the jerseys, shorts, shin guards, cleats, and goalie gloves that the group had brought them.  They looked so cute and proud.  They were ready for the World Cup of Kigali.

I took advantage of the day to go to the dentist to get some sensitivity checked out and to hang out with the Kigali Fidesco guys.  Some people made me afraid the dentist would be dangerous to go to here because of poor sanitation, but I thought it was very Western looking with new instruments for my visit.  My one complaint is that the cleaning was a bit painful.  The dentist was more firm in his use of the instruments than they are in the States.  With Jeremie and Timothee we went out for an evening of bowling at the Mamba Club.  That is an experience, partially because the lane sloped slightly to the right and because there is a man who sets up and clears the pins by hand.  Due to the sloping lane, I probably had my worst score ever, somewhere in the 60s.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Visiting the Crown Jewel of Rwandan Tourism

Village children at the start of the Bisoke hike
In February I traveled to the volcanic region of Rwanda to climb Mt. Bisoke, a dormant volcano that has a crater lake at the top.  Rita and I were felled during that trip by food poisoning so we resolved to make a second trip to the region, which we did this past weekend.
Mt. Bisoke obscured by clouds.  Irish potatoes are growing in the foreground.
We traveled with Doug and Caron, a married American couple who live in Butare.  Caron and Rita decided to not attempt Bisoke so Doug and I got up early on Friday morning to be at the park headquarters by 7 am to meet our group and guide.  Here are some stats on Mt. Bisoke: only 9 km (5.6 mi) round-trip, 3900 ft of vertical gain, four hours up and three hours down, and in our case, lots and lots of mud.  It is supposed to be the dry season, which would make for a strenuous but pleasant hike, but since it rained the day before we arrived, this description from the Bradt guidebook is more accurate: "Far more demanding is the day hike to the 3,711 m peak of Mount Visoke, which is topped by a beautiful crater lake.  Departing from a car park at an altitude of around 2,500 m, the footpath up the mountain leads after one hour to a clearing that was used as a resting point by Dian Fossey en route to Karisoke.  From here, it takes another 2-3 hours to get to the peak, passing through lobelia and hagenia woodland, and following a path that is steep and muddy at the best of times, and outright treacherous after rain - you'll be sinking to your knees in the bog with almost every step, and do much of the descent sliding along on your butt."  Mud, mud, mud.  My shoes camouflaged with the soil after the hike, as you can see in one of the pictures.  It was one of those hikes that you are proud you did it in such terrible conditions, but you would never volunteer to do it again in such conditions.  We didn't sink in to our knees, but the mud often went right to the top of the shoe and only a quick pull out kept the mud from entering into it.  Sometimes a quick pull out almost resulted in the loss of the shoe in the mud.  It was crazy!  Luckily we were given bamboo hiking poles at the beginning of the hike and there was a porter, Emmanuel, who held onto one or two of the four of us tourists to keep us from falling on our butts every minute.  I still managed to fall on my butt two times in the first seven minutes of descent.
Check out the steepness of the trail and the mud
"Welcomes you to Bisoke Crater Lake.  Swimming is not allowed"

A group two days later had such bad weather that they couldn't see the lake
Where do the shoes end and the mud begin?
The land as the base of the volcanoes is so beautiful. 
Here are black volcanic soil mounds ready for planting.
It's a good thing Doug and I survived the Bisoke hike in one piece because our group had a reservation to track gorillas the next day.  The highland mountain gorillas are the crown jewel of Rwandan tourism.  As a visitor pointed out, lots of African countries have savannahs for safaris, but only Uganda, the DR of Congo, and Rwanda have wild highland gorillas.  It really is something else to see a wild gorilla in its natural habitat without a zoo barrier separating us from it, and let me tell you, many people (1/3 of whom are Americans) are willing to pay a lot of money for the experience.  A non-resident foreigner pays $750 for the opportunity to trek through the jungle and spend one hour with a gorilla family and in the dry season, the permits are always sold out.  Wow, how the money flows in!

Since foreign residents don't have to pay nearly as much, Rita, Doug, Caron, and I took advantage of living in Rwanda to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Once again we gathered at the Volcanoes National Park headquarters at 7 am to check in and to enjoy the traditional dance show that is performed every morning for the visitors.  Then all the tourists were separated into groups of 8, the maximum number to visit each gorilla family, and my group of four was joined to four other Americans, a dad and son and a mom and son.  We loaded into our Land Cruisers and drove for 20 minutes along very rough, rocky, and rutted roads to the trek starting point.  Along with our group of 8, we had one guide, three soldiers with guns, and one porter.  We later joined up with three trackers who were following the gorillas since the early morning in order to tell our guide where to take us.

The hike was beautiful and so different than the vegetation on Bisoke.  We started by walking through fields and villages.  Once we climbed over the stone buffalo wall (built to keep the park's buffaloes from leaving the park and eating farmers' potatoes), we were in a bamboo forest.  It was raining by that point and the bamboo didn't do much to stop the rain from reaching us.  It promised to be a wet and cold day and that is what we got.  Thank goodness for synthetic hiking clothes.  Once we left the bamboo forest and ascended into the jungle, we were surrounded by leafy plants and plants that smelled like lantanas when broken. 

Our guide and one tracker used machetes to cut away plants covering the trail and later they used their machetes a lot to cut a new trail for us to follow.  That is how it is on a gorilla hike.  We hiked up to a certain point on a more-or-less established trail, but then the trackers told our guide that the silverback (the dominant male) was moving down to the creek bed so we had to backtrack and head down into the ravine to meet him.  Down the established trail we went, but then, at some point, we left the established trail and started slipping and sliding along the side of a mountain and then down the mountain to the creek bed.  I thought that part was pretty cool; it made the hike more of an adventure.  Once in the creek bed, we left our poles and backpacks (no food or drinks near the gorillas) in the care of the soldiers and hiked up the bed to where the silverback was enjoying a mid-morning leafy snack.

Watching Mr. Lucky from the creek bed. 
He is to the left, out of the shot.
You can't even imagine what it's like to glance over a rock above you and see a 500 lbs silverback gorilla sitting there with his back to you.  He was huge, just like King Kong.  We walked around to his side and watched him chomping away on leaves.  The guide and the main tracker often made rumbling gorilla noises to appease him and keep him calm.  More than once, Mr. Lucky, as the silverback is called, hooted and then stood up to beat his chest.  Contrary to popular opinion, gorillas beat their chests with their open palms, not their fists.  The guide told us that is his way of calling his family (5 females and their babies) to come to his location.  He would beat; the females wouldn't come.  He'd move to a new place, eat, beat, and the females still wouldn't come.  Eventually he made his way back up the hill we had slid down and back up the trail we had come down so we followed him back up the hill and back up the trail.  He sat down and made himself comfortable, no longer eating, and seemed to be frustrated with these females of his who wouldn't listen to his call. 

Once he settled down, we were able to get pretty close to Mr. Lucky, only 10-15 feet way from him.  It was amazing. I could see his huge potbelly and his face.  He would cross his arms and scratch his triceps.  He just sat there and waited for the females to come to him and eventually they did come.
Mr. Lucky
Mr. Lucky
First there was a juvenile gorilla.  He put on quite a show for us, rolling around and thumping a tree with his feet.  Soon the twin two year olds showed up and a few big females.  A mom carrying the youngest baby in the park, a 1 1/2 month old, appeared very briefly holding her baby to her chest, but she moved on very quickly.  Two scary moments occurred when the silverback decided to move from his post by walking right towards the narrow trail our group was standing on.  We quickly scattered to move out of his way and he passed right by us.  Later one of the females did the same, choosing to walk right through where we were standing.  Rita even got bumped out of the way by one of the gorillas.  It sure is frightening to see a 300-500 lbs wild gorilla moving with speed and certitude in your direction, but what a cool experience too.  One humorous moment was when one of the babies, either one or two years old, walked right in front of some of us and started playing around on a rock.  It was like he was showing off for us.  Doug and I were only a few feet away from him (the park rule is to keep back 21 feet) because there wasn't any place for us to move back to.
One of the females
After at least 45 minutes tracking Mr. Lucky and at least 30 minutes with the family, we had to leave the gorillas to their normal life.  We walked back down the established trail and through the bamboo forest to the park boundaries.  We climbed back over the buffalo wall and walked through the fields and the villages.  Village children called out "Hello" to us and waved.  That is one thing I noticed going to the gorillas and to Bisoke.  So many more children waved at us and called out greetings than in any other part of Rwanda.  I guess the tourists are part of their daily entertainment, but seeing them was part of my daily enjoyment too.  Rwandan kids are so beautiful, affectionate, loving, etc, so it made my days to wave at them from the car or from the trail.  Man, how I will miss Rwandan children!  To show my appreciation for them, when we reached the cars, I pulled some candies out of my pack and gave them to the kids who were following us, including these three.