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. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

My new job is now official!

As the follow-up post to my job announcement post, I am now free to announce which parish I will be working at.  I will be the youth director at St. Timothy's in Maple Lake, MN, and the middle school religion teacher at the parish's school.  Here is the website if you care to look it up: http://churchofsttimothy.org/index.php?q=node/1

Maple Lake is a rural community of about 2000 people approximately one hour northwest of Minneapolis.  As my brother pointed out, it has all the staples of a MN small town: bowling alley, pizza place, pub, coffee house, and church.  The closest grocery stores, Walmart, and Target are 8 miles away in Buffalo.  I once lived in a rural community in Texas so I'm not new to the experience.  I think this time it will be more sustainable to life because the closest Catholic church is in town, not 20 minutes away like it was in Texas.

I have heard from other priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis that St. Timothy's is a great parish and I believe it from what I have read on the website and from speaking with Fr. Meyer, the pastor, and the school's principal.  One thing that I am very excited about is that the parish has an adoration chapel that is open 24/7.  Any parish that can guarantee adorers 24/7 must be solid in the faith.  Plus, all that time praying in the church helps the parish to stay on the path of truth and life. 

Here is the official announcement from Fr. Meyer.

Hello all,

I hope you’re having a great Father’s Day weekend.  I wanted to write to tell you that we have hired a new youth director and middle school religion teacher.  Before making that announcement, though, I want to thank Jacob Nelson once again for all of his great work with the youth these past few years and his work with RCIA.  I know he will be deeply missed as he leaves us at the end of June.  He has done a great job, has grown the youth group, developed the Core Team, instilled a strong sense of the faith in our children, and done many things for our parish.

At the same time, I’m excited to announce that we have hired someone to pick up where he left off and continue leading our youth in their faith and expanding the youth group in new ways.  Please join me in welcoming Heather Quinlan to our staff at Saint Timothy’s.  Heather is currently serving in Rwanda as a teacher and campus minister with Fidesco.  She has a Master’s Degree in Evangelization and Catechesis with the Augustine Institute, has experience in youth ministry at Saint Stephen’s in Minneapolis, has designed and facilitated retreats at a Catholic Camp and in the parish, has delivered many talks on a variety of topics related to the faith, and much more.  Heather is also a part of the Emmanuel Community, a community of the faithful whose three pillars are adoration, compassion, and evangelization.  It is a growing movement here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, which began in Paris, France in 1972.  Due to her teaching commitment in Rwanda and her travel, Heather won’t be able to join us at Saint Timothy’s until August, but we look forward to welcoming her soon, and she looks forward to meeting everyone as well.  I know she will be a great addition to our staff and our parish and school.  Please join me in welcoming Heather, and let me know if you have any questions.  Again, Happy Father’s Day to all of you.  God bless.

Posted June 15, 2014 at http://sainttimothys.wordpress.com/2014/06/15/staff-announcement/

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How to Carry a Baby Like a Rwandan

After months of seeing babies carried on the backs of their mothers or other women, I finally got my chance to carry a baby Rwandan-style for more than 2 minutes.  All you need is a big enough blanket or towel and voila, you have a baby carrier!  It might help prevent or cure hip dysplasia too, based on what the treatment brace looks like and the experience of a young baby out here who potentially had it and then didn't after months of being carried like this.

STEP 1 - Get the baby to ride piggy-back with his or her arms down.  The arms can be free, but trapping them in the blanket avoids hair pulling.

STEP 2 -Wrap the blanket or towel around the baby, making sure to roll the top of the blanket first to create extra support for the baby's head and neck.  Get someone to turn the baby's head to the side before pinning it with the blanket.
Proceed to tuck in the top corners of the blanket across the woman's chest to hold the upper part of the baby in place.  It needs to be tight.  Otherwise the baby will feel like he or she is falling away from you, which is distressing.

STEP 3 - Hike the lower portion of the blanket under the baby's butt and legs and pull him or her upwards.  This motion is like hiking up one's heavy backpacking pack before attaching the hip belt. 
You can choose to keep the baby's feet outside of the blanket or you can keep them inside.  Most women have the baby's feet outside of the blanket.

STEP 4 - Proceed to twist the lower corners of the blanket around each other once or twice before tucking the ends under the blanket.  This also needs to be tight. 
I found that I couldn't breathe in deeply with this method of carrying a baby because of how tight the blanket has to be to keep the baby from sliding down.  I also happened to put my lower knot right at the point of my solar plexus, which was uncomfortable.  With more experimentation, I hope I can find a more comfortable place to put the knot and the edges of the blanket.

 STEP 5 - Enjoy hands-free baby carrying that allows you to do things in front of you without worrying about the baby getting hurt or being in the way.  I could have played a guitar, cooked, or carried something without squishing the baby.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I have a job when I return to the States!

I have two pieces of great news to share with you.  First, Fidesco has bought me my plane ticket home so I will arrive in California the evening of July 28th.  Second, last week I was offered the youth minister and middle school religion teacher positions at a parish in MN (I've edited this post to keep some of the work details hidden because my new assignment hasn't been announced to the parish yet.)

One of your questions might be, "Why Minnesota?", especially when I am a California  girl.  Well, that's an easy question to answer.  I like the sense of community and the down-home country values of the Midwest.  It's also where my spiritual family, the Emmanuel Community, and a lot of good friends are.  To be close to the brothers and sisters of the EC, especially the Minnesota ones who are so close to my heart, is important enough to me that I will gladly live in the frozen tundra of MN.  Will I complain when I walk outside and it's 20 below?  Oh yes, but I will be so happy to have a weekly faithsharing group and a monthly community weekend as part of my faith life.

Another question might be, "What will you do as the youth minister?"  A lot of hanging out!  That sounds like I'm joking, but I'm not.  One thing I really appreciate about the youth minister position is that it is very people-oriented.  There is a weekly hang out time, retreats, a summer faith camp, a high school core team, and other things to direct.

Another question might be, "How many hours do I have to teach?"  I will teach 5 hours a week.  I have a friend in MN who teaches middle school religion (you know who you are) and she loves it.  Every day she gets to pass the truth onto young people and help them grow in their faith.  I remember listening to her stories and thinking, "Wow, maybe I should reconsider being a teacher."  Well, now I have the opportunity to try my hand at teaching religion in the States.  I must confess that I am nervous about the responsibility of teaching ~40-45 students four days a week and all that entails, but I'm sure I will love it once I get over the nervousness.

One thing that really strikes me about the opportunities awaiting me in MN is how God used this year to prepare me for them.  Before Rwanda, the only classroom teaching experience I had was at The Pines Catholic Camp in Texas and that was not the same as teaching in a school.  5th graders would arrive for four days, our team would teach environmental classes, and then the students would leave.  We didn't have to deal with bad behavior for long or give assignments and grades.  But now, by the time I return home, I will have a year of classroom teaching under my belt.  I've had some experience trying to motivate disinterested or sleepy students to pay attention, to manage student behavior, and to discover which activities engage the students in the process of learning.  I think I still have a lot to learn because a Rwandan classroom is not the same as an American one, but I am not as much of a neophyte as I would have been in the same position last year.

My time at the ENDPK has also given me one more year's experience working with teenagers and answering their difficult questions.  A cool story of hanging out with the students comes from last Friday.  I finished teaching the last period of the day, but the students and I were rained in; if we left the classroom, we'd get drenched.  One of the students said, "Don't go outside.  Stay with us," so I did.  I walked over to one of the students who was practicing traditional dance moves and started to copy her.  She delighted in showing me different moves to practice and the whole class watched with enjoyment and often laughter.  She then asked me to show the students some American moves.  Hmm, what to teach?  I ended up showing them some disco moves while singing "Staying Alive," the basic salsa step (I know it's not American, but they asked for it), and the waltz (also asked for).  It was hilarious to watch the students pair up with each other and practice a basic waltz box step.  An example of the type of questions I get asked sometimes is this one from a class about marriage and religious life, "If a priest stands in the person of Christ and marries the Church, and a sister stands in the person of the Church and marries Christ, why don't a priest and sister marry each other since one represents Christ and the other represents the Church?"  Good question!  These are just two examples of my work in Rwanda and how it has better prepared me for my work next year.

Lastly, I wanted to leave you with one of my favorite passages from Scripture.  It is one that I have turned to hundreds of times in my life when the future is uncertain.  I turned to it when I was submitting my resume and cover letters to job openings the past two months.  I turned to it when I worried that I would be too far from my friends in the Twin Cities.  I turned to it when I was intimidated and stressed by the number of teaching hours (originally there were more) and the anticipated workload of a new teacher.  And I'm sure I'll turn to it again many more hundreds of times before I end this life.  I hope it brings you the same comfort it brings me.

He said to [his] disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? As for you, do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not worry anymore. All the nations of the world seek for these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these other things will be given you besides. Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. - Lk 12:22-32

Monday, June 2, 2014

Back to the Orphanage and the Beginning of the Going-Away Parties

This past weekend I stole away from Butare after classes on Saturday morning and headed to Kigali for a short, 30 hour visit.  I had a few objectives: visit the Missionaries of Charity orphanage that I hadn't been to since New Year's Day, go shopping at a market that has great prices on Rwandan handcrafts, and see the French Fidesco volunteers and a Coloradan woman, Megan.  I succeeded in accomplishing all three objectives and still managed to fit in a free jazz/blues concert at the Goethe Institute (a German organization) and a late-night dinner of Mexican food at Meze Fresh.  Yum!

The highlight, for sure, was visiting the orphanage after five months.  When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, there happened to be a going-away party for three of the sisters who will move to other convents so all of the babies, children, handicapped adults, and sisters were gathered outside in the lower level for the party.  It was really nice to see all the children together because the older girls (6+) entertained and looked after the younger kids so the children weren't bored.   I saw little Jessica, the girl I wrote about in my first mission report and on the blog, and said hi to her, but she was so busy dancing and looking at a history textbook with an older girl that she didn't need attention from me.  So instead, I got to hold a baby for most of the party and when she was taken from me, I sat down on the curb and played with a few other children.  One touching encounter was with Katy, a seven year old, who was sitting a few seats away from me.  I noticed she was sucking her thumb and not interacting with anyone so I touched her to get her attention and smiled at her.  She smiled back and then moved from her perch to sit next to me on the curb.  I put my arm around her and she grabbed it and held my hand.  Eventually she rested her head on my knee and I stroked her hair.  When it was time for me to leave, she held my hand the whole way to the gate.  Katy is a good example of how not only young children, like Pisuri and Jessica, need affection but also older ones.  

A few weeks back the young adult members of the Emmanuel Community and a few members of the university prayer group asked if they could throw a going-away party at Rita's and my house.  Even though I still had more than two months left in my contract and Rita, three, they wanted to have the party now because a lot of the young adults are students who would go home for the summer (one interesting cultural note is that the party was at our house, but it was thrown by others.  Culturally it is acceptable to ask others if one can come to your house for dinner, a party, etc.  It puts the asked person on the spot, but it's nice to be the one asking).  We said yes so 25-30 people showed up at our house on a Tuesday night.  They brought crates of Fanta and beer, peanuts, and a huge speaker.  I put out the guacamole and brownies we had made and, voila, we had a party!  We sang and danced to Rwandan praise songs, then transitioned to Emmanuel praise songs, which was followed by eating and more dancing.  It was a holy house party!  And like most house parties, it kept our neighbors, the sisters and the family on the grounds, from sleeping.  Oops.
Dancing Rwandan-style to praise songs
Left to right: me, Onesphore, Jean d'Amour, Rita, Didace