africa week 7, part 1: rwanda
we said goodbye to moshi today. we had a very sad goodbye with miho. not just because it was sad to say goodbye, but also because the way we said goodbye was horrible. we brought miho with us to the airport so we could have more time and maybe have lunch. we were going to check in our luggage first. but we didn’t know that once you go in (passengers only), the only way to get out is on an airplane. so we were basically stuck. we asked the security person if he would let us out “to pay the taxi driver”. he only let one of us out. so I got to say a very disappointing goodbye, but Stephanie had to say it in a text message.
off to rwanda.
our flight to Nairobi, the hub, was 40 minutes. the flight to Kigali, Rwanda was an hour and 10 minutes. it even included a light meal. we’ve been very blessed with flights this entire trip. all the planes have been very clean and this one even included a small meal for a very short flight. try finding that in the US.
we booked our hotel a few days ago based on reviews on tripadvisor.com. it was rated the #1 hotel in Kigali. usually that means the most luxurious, but not this one. it was a cheap motel. there were a small amount of reviews as well, but they all rated it the best. what interested me was that every single one of the reviews mentioned the manager John. they were spot on. this guy was the best hotel manager I’ve ever had. you’d be lucky to find a 5 star hotel manager this good. he went out of his way to help us in every situation. but the most important part was helping us with our mountain gorilla trekking.
the next morning, John took us to the Rwanda development board who regulates the gorilla trekking. they limit the number of visits to 32 people a day, and break them into groups so a family of gorillas won’t be too bothered by us stupid tourists. and they also make it very expensive. it’s $500 for 1 hour of viewing IF you find the gorillas at all. this is high season too. John says it’s usually booked solid from June to September. occaisionally, there are cancellations, and John took us to the development board to see if we could get lucky. we waited for about an hour and a half for a less than welcoming staff. but we got lucky and found 2 golden tickets. we were set. except we had to arrange how to get there, 2 and a half hours away, and how to be there before 7am the next day.
we were offerred a taxi ride for $150 each way, not including hotel. Enter John. he told us we could take a bus for about $5 each, round trip. he even hooked us up with a hotel within walking distance to the gatel for $60, and it was even the VIP room. we started the day with nothing. a few hours later, we got impossible permits and were at a hotel within a stone’s throw from the gate.
the big day. we were up early and at the gate with a few minutes to spare. we waited to join one of the groups and were hoping to get a group that wanted to take one of the easier trails seeing as how neither of us are very experienced mountain climbers.
we were the last to be grouped. we were put into a medium difficulty group of 6 British women. no pressure.
we had to drive to the entrance, a rocky 30 minute drive. we got halfway into the car when the driver asked why we were using his car. it was hired specifically for the 6 British women. apparently we were supposed to supply our own transportation. he said we needed to hire a car ourselves but that everybody had left. it was supposed to be $80, and we were already a little late. he said he would squeeze us in for $40. whatever dude. you’re not going to ruin this for me. here’s your stupid money.
we arrived at the entrance, which was just the foot of the mountain where there was a village. they gave us bamboo walking sticks. never had a walking stick before. we climbed up the mountain through the villagers’ farms. it was an upwards climb for an hour. walking sticks are very helpful. i never thought about it. they let you extend your arm down to the ground like a third leg. our guide was very patient with us amateurs. he didn’t even break a sweat, nor did the armed guards. not tranquilizer guns. they weren’t there to protect us from angry gorillas. they looked more like army soldiers. they were there in case of poachers. but it felt cool like we were being escorted by armed guards.
the hour-long climb was just to get to the entrance of the forest. from there, the gorilla trackers were going to tell us where the gorillas were and therefor how much higher our climb was going to be. “good news”, our guide said. only half an hour more. he briefed us on the etiquette and safety precautions for the viewing. but the main rule was to stay 7 meters away. at the park gate, they had a display measuring how far 7 meters was. gorillas are very fast, so 7 meters is a safe distance, but still pretty close.
I was getting really excited. the rest of the climb was through a pretty forest. eventually we met up with the trackers. the guide stopped us and told us to leave our things and take only our cameras and batteries. just up the hill beyond our site were gorillas. we walked quietly. the guide pointed to some shrubbery. if you looked closely, you could see some fur moving in the distance. the guide and trackers started gently ripping through forestry. like a curtain at a theater, they revealed a family of very large gorillas about 5 meters away. they were so close that my camera could zoom in and see their fur as if it were up close.
two of them were playfully wrestling, and two older ones were just lying behind them. a tracker came in from the side removing more forest. I signed to him if I could go where he was standing to get a different angle. he said yes and I started over to him. but the guide told me I should stay where the group was. later one of the wrestlers ran off to the right swooping by where I wanted to stand a few minutes ago.
after 40 minutes of watching, our guide asked if we would like to see the silverback. silverbacks are the oldest, and strongest. they are the leaders. the decision-makers. the protectors. they call them silverbacks because their hair grows silvery on their backs when they get older. quite the distinguishing mark.
we started towards the direction of the runaway wrestler. just a few yards down. we saw a couple more gorillas. they were not 7 meters away. they were not 5 meters away. if i held my hand out and it did the same, we would be more than close enough for a hearty handshake. the guide told us to keep going around them. so we did, still in awe of how close we were. and then, BAM. the most beautiful massive animal I’ve ever seen was just a few feet away. the silverback. just 2 steps closer and I could touch it. I didn’t even need to zoom on my camera to see the details of its fur. zooming in at this distance would be like looking through a microscope.
the look on his face was so royal yet so natural. he stood on his back 2 feet and his fists, looking at us through the corners of his eyes as if he were posing for national geographic. He didn’t care that we were there. he eventually just plopped down and relaxed.
when I was on safari the first time, I was a little stressed because I wanted to capture it on film, but I really didn’t want to miss out on just observing with just my eyes and appreciate it. I think I did an ok job balancing the 2. this year was a little better because Stephanie was here. and it just so happened that her camera wasn’t cooperating. so I let her do most of the documenting while I just watched for most of it. for the gorillas, I did the majority of the documenting, but i sure didn’t mind letting her take over. even when I was filming, though, I kept looking back and forth between my camera display and my eyes. there’s just no comparison. for stuff like this, cameras are good for saving for later, but there’s absolutely no substitute for standing that close to something that beautiful.
the next 15 minutes felt like an eternity within 30 seconds. I didn’t want it to end. but I think the guides limit the time to keep from irritating the gorillas. part of me felt guilty. I felt like the paparazzi. these animals were gracious hosts even if they didn’t know it.
it was time to go. nobody wanted to. we all could’ve stayed there all day. but there’s only so much money can buy. just as everybody was leaving the area, the silverback sat up just in front of me and looked straight at me. I was so regretful that my first instinct was to grab my camera and start filming. I didn’t catch him sitting up, but I did catch him scratch his neck. but I really wish I just let it roll or not have bothered with it at all. it was a really cool moment. he laid back down. I started to catch up with the group, but I didn’t stop filming. i passed the 2 gorillas that we saw first that were so close, and they started looking at me too. not sure if my walking-through-the-forest hand-eye coordination is very good, but i didn’t stop recording.
today we went to the genocide museum. but we had a little obstacle on our way. Rwanda is known as the land of thousands of hills. it really is. the whole country is like San francisco. and it’s really dusty and pebbly which can make it a little slippery for walking. stephanie slipped and fell on her wrist. we think it was just sprained.
the genocide museum was really good. embarrassingly, i’m not sure i would have known there was a genocide here unless i had seen “hotel rwanda”. genocide was a term coined after the holocaust. and you would think that after the holocaust, there wouldn’t be any more genocide. but there have been. a lot. and recent too.
the most interesting part of the genocide museum was the perspective it put on where we were. the rwanda genocide had been going on for a long time, and as recent as 16 years ago. we were in a city walking among survivors. to people in my generation, the holocaust is just something that existed in history books. our hotel manager was only about 10 years old when his family escaped from the genocide. and now here he is managing a hotel in a seemingly peaceful city. i was complaining about pimples and algebra homework when hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered, raped, and tortured on sight, and i had no earthly idea.
we got back to our hotel, had dinner, and looked for hotels at our next destination. we had a long day of travelling ahead of us starting at 1am the next morning. tomorrow, victoria falls.