Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Done

…and told my mom about in advance.

I am happy to report that I have safely returned from my adventurous weekend in the Congo, hiking and sleeping on top of an active volcano. Andd…that’s about all I have to say about that.

Unfortunately, the hike and the camping were disappointingly uneventful: we 5 muzungus (me, Alex, German Girl, French Guy #1 and French Guy #2 – we actually forgot French Guy #1’s name, and then it turned out to be Pierre, of course) hiked up with our 4 porters, 6 armed guards, and guide. We packed all the necessities needed to celebrate spending the night on top of an active volcano: goat cheese, brie, wine, champagne, and a disposable camera.

Pause: All these things are available in Congo, apparently the land of the plenty. Rwanda, despite being obsessively proud of its milk (the story goes that President Kagame and his wife met over sharing a glass of milk) and goats, cannot produce more than one type of cheese. (I’m so over you, gouda.) And it certainly cannot import anything. Congo, on the other hand, despite not having a functional government had Presidente brie in its supermarket. And Mini-Wheats. And Prego spaghetti sauce. And Sauza tequila for $12 (bought it). And Axe body spray. …yet, walking through the grocery store, I had the sense of being in post-WWI Germany (potentially associated with the fact that I had just finished “reading” Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants) – the shelves were empty. I mean, where there were groceries, they were amazing and unheard of right across the border in Rwanda, but they also just didn’t have so many basic groceries. No bread for example. We asked for it. There was just no bread that day. They were out and weren’t getting more. Throughout the store, an amazing selection of cheeses and salamis and frozen pizzas would be on display next to a completely empty refrigerator…I guess no milk either. It was a creepy display of how the country has imported products readily available, but almost nothing local.

2nd Pause: Yup, didn’t trust myself enough to bring the digital camera so I only have disposable shots of the volcano. Thankfully, Pierre sent some…enjoy!

Yes -- that is molten boiling lava behind me. I'm so nervous about falling off the cliff as this picture is being taken that I just can't smile properly.

Molten boiling lava.

How many Congolese does it take to get 5 muzungus up a volcano? (Answer: more than pictured here.)
Perhaps the safest thing about the weekend was that I was able to avoid going on any moto rides in Congo.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It was inevitable…

First, the obligatory apologies and excuses since my last update: apparently all those times that I was complaining about the rainy season, it was actually the dry season. I know this because it is now, definitely, (hopefully,) the rainy season. During the dry season, it rained every day for about an hour. It now pours every day for hours on end. Usually starting around 4:30pm, which coincidentally tends to coincide with when I usually scamper the 50 feet from the office to the house for an afternoon snack. And then, without fail, as I stretch the minutes of my snack break…for however long is needed…the skies open up, the laundry on the line is soaked, and I am confined to the house until the next morning. Although this has proven to be a sneaky (potentially incredibly obvious) way to end my work day early (did I just say that? NO! I mean…to spend my last half hour every day working from the comfort of my room of course) does tend to leave me without a computer for the rest of the evening, as I’m not willing to brave even 50 feet in Forrest Gump rains just to write a measly update for you (or even to be able to watch a TV show for myself…lots of reading recently). After a few weeks of this, I’ve smartened up and now I just work from the dry comfort of the house all day long. You’re welcome.

Second, the admission of the slightly inevitable event: last weekend I threw sense to the wind and hopped across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo (note how it’s dropped its previous antecedent) to enjoy a night partying and the post-apocalyptic charm of the city of Goma. I know, I know. I’m an idiot.

In truth, every time I heard a story about how unbelievably ridiculous the Congo is (starting with the mass rapes right outside the UN headquarters, ending with the line “we’ve had 13 park rangers killed in the last month”), only part of me properly reacted in horror. The other part went into ADVENTURE!!! overdrive. Let’s be serious, this blog would not be called “Adventures in Rwanda” if I was one to shy away from the incredible adventure of the Congo; the simple fact that I chose to live in rural Rwanda for a year suggests that I am the sort of person who would be inclined to an adventure in the Congo; potentially, I am turned on by danger.

My rationale for this evening of mayhem (honestly/disappointingly, it was fairly calm…but we did go to “Mirror Bar” where every surface is covered in mirrors) was because this upcoming weekend I was planning on doing something much more stupid: camp on the rim of a live volcano in the Congo. By comparison, a night out in Goma felt like a good stepping block.

Oh…and I just wanted to be able to say that I did it.

Some observations:

1. Goma was once described to me as having “post-apocalyptic charm”…this couldn’t be more accurate. Imagine London circa 1945: all the infrastructure is there as evidence of a has-been country, yet the city appears bombed out. I would have preferred dirt roads to the paved-50-years-ago-pot-holed-back-to-dirt-making-the-strips-of-tarmac-the-most-dangerous-part-because-they-launch-you-5-feet-every-time-you-hit-it. (I chose to say 5 feet there so it doesn’t look like I’m exaggerating.) And, somehow I missed this part of town, but apparently nothing has been done to the section of town that was covered by volcanic lava a few years ago: people just moved into the second floor of their houses and have been living their ever since.

2. I missed laws. Especially ones requiring moto drivers to provide helmets (and to be certified – this is the case in Rwanda). Perhaps the nearest-to-death experience that I’ve had so far was on a moto in Goma. Probably top 3 were my 3 different moto rides there. (On the note of laws, hotel signs advertised “Security” before other amenities like “Electricity.”)

3. After going through immigration, there was this long road full of UN trucks and armored cars. Assuming that this was because we were still at the border and that another check point was coming up, I kept my passport out. Apparently not. It meant we were in the Congo, where tourist shops sell replicas of UN cars made out of trash and where more than half the cars I saw were UN.

4. The largest bill in Congolese currency is equivalent to 50 cents. Which would be sweet, if that suggested what prices were like. In fact, shit was pretty expensive: our dinky hotel room was 65 USD (potentially because they received good reviews for being secure). As a result, they eagerly accept US dolla dolla bills…so that they don’t have to count out 130 ripped/torn/shredded bills for one hotel room. Which would be fine, if they kept their currency pegged to the US dollar…which they (obviously) don’t. The Economist in me just could not imagine the nightmare of a society where all prices are in one currency, all bills are in another currency, and where the two are not interchangeable at the same rate. Ah!!!!!!!!!!

5. My mom asked me if I had any pictures. I might be idiot enough to go to the Congo, but not to take a camera with me…or to take it out!!

I go back from more in about 24 hours…wish me luck/life!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy International Women’s Day!

(Bet chya didn’t know it was…) In its never-ending effort to appear rich, developed, and equal, Rwanda recognizes International Women’s Day as an official holiday. And then, perhaps after realizing that real developed countries do not feel a similar need to cover up the fact that 39% of men surveyed in the country admit to using physical violence against a female partner, it reversed this decision at 6am on the morning of the no longer holiday. But since we at CCHIPs had already declared it a holiday (and because our Project Director and Project Manager are both female), we got a day off from work!

(Please note: this is the second holiday we’ve had in the three weeks since I’ve been back at work. I will certainly miss the Rwandan holiday culture.)

In celebration, we had the boys make us breakfast this morning.

Then, Jared, Alex and I went for a hike around two of the lakes in the region. I had attempted this hike earlier this fall, using local buses to guide the way. This time around, we decided to use a car. It went much better. Rwanda’s beauty continues to astound me, especially when I get to see it all from an isolated trail, surrounded by energetic and friendly children. Enjoy:

Unsure why this flipped when I uploaded it. It looks a lot less impressive from this angle, but that big ass mountain/volcano in the background is the one I attempted to hike two weekends ago.
Oh hey...your hut has a better view than anything I'll ever be able to afford.

Yeah, Rwanda's real pretty.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Second Rwandan Wedding

I am highly suspicious/skeptical/scared of most all things Rwandan;
from some reason, the country as a whole just doesn't have my full
trust that every person is not actively trying to rip me off or trick
me into marriage. This fear was exacerbated after reading "The Blue
Sweater" where the author was told that it was traditional in Tanzania
to have sex with a man after writing his name in the sand -- after she
was asked to write her moto driver's name in the sand. As an
embodiment of this fear, I often qualify acceptances to invitations
(say, to dinner) with a "only if by doing so, he won't assume that I
am consenting to marriage." (Yes, I wrote that sentence properly…I
often make my plans through others.)
Needless to say, wedding invitations heighten this fear. I mean, given
my knowledge of Kinyrwanda, how am I to guarantee that it's not a
wedding for me?
Sure enough, the day before Jeanne d'Arc's dauther's wedding, we three
girls were informed that we would be "in" the ceremony…and then not
given much more detail. Jeanne d'Arc's son was sent over to the CCHIPs
house with traditional outfits for all of us. While the opportunity to
wear a beautiful Rwandan dress was very exciting, mine curiously did
not match the other two's. This was potentially Jeanne d'Arc's
acknowledgement that a blue dress would bring out the blue in my eyes
– or it was a way of tricking me into wearing a wedding dress, while
providing the other two girls with simple hostess dresses. I was
unsure, and frightened.
I was calmed when I arrived and was given a "Service" nametag to wear
– so I wasn't the bride! (Of note, others were given "Security" and
"Protocol" nametags. As a humorous cultural language translation, it
appeared that "Protocol" guests were what we'd call ushers.) And then,
in classic Rwandan behavior, to "help us navigate the party," each of
us Americans was promptly paired with a similarly aged, single Rwandan
of the opposite sex. I was lucky: my match spoke English, was a nurse
at a health center, and was actually raised at the orphanage that I
visited last weekend!
My job was to serve drinks to the groom's family. I've since heard
that this is a huge honor; at the time it kind of seemed like free
labor. The benefits of this job were that I didn't actually have much
to do and, when all the guests felt bad about the muzungu girl serving
them (and after I lost my bottle opener), they just started serving
So, I was at ease to enjoy most of the ceremony, which started with
the traditional "bartering of cow" – the number of cows that the
groom's family will give to the bride's family for the marriage.
(Although cows were traditionally used, now money is given. I'm a huge
fan of reverse dowries.) Apparently, in the bartering, the groom's
family will play down the groom's interest, or pretend that the bride
has been a dishonest woman – to decrease her "worth" – while the
bride's family will boast about the woman's accomplishments, to
increase her "worth" – all in a very joking manner. This is all
apparently very entertaining, if you know Kinyrwanda well – as in, if
you know Kinyrwanda better than Consolate. (The families actually hire
professionals to do this bartering.)
As Consolate was whispering very simplified translations into my ear,
which included conversations about how well the theoretical were cared
for, Celestin suddenly whipped around and stared at the two of us. "Oh
that's us!" Consolate exclaimed.
"Umm…what do you mean?"
"Step forward! Step forward" Celestin pushed.
I timidly followed Consolate's step to the front of the group. We were
apparently being offered as replacements for the bride. I clutched
BOTTLED UP INTO ONE! Not only was I being offered up as a bride at a
Rwandan wedding, but I was at a wedding and hadn't yet had a sip of
beer, and it looked like they might run out of food before I got
served. So many fears!
"CONSO…WHAT DO I DO!?!" I hissed.
I knew that the whole bartering thing was mostly just for show: a fun
custom that is done more for entertainment than for serious…but I was
more than a little worried that all decorum would be thrown out the
window when it was suddenly a muzungu girl and access to a Green Card
that were up for bidding.
"I don't know. Just smile." Consolate was not helpful. She also
appeared to be very comfortable being offered for marriage.
As we stood, a cadre of cameramen, including a videographer, appeared
in front of us, flashing away. (Paparazzi much?) For all y'all's
benefit, I will try to get my hands at least on one of the pictures…I
can only imagine how awkward and frightened I look.
The two men continued arguing and pointing at us. The guests continued
I tried to catch Jeanne d'Arc's eye to let her know that I did not
consent to marriage. Not today. Not to her daughter's fiancé.
And then, finally, miraculously, Consolate whispered to me, "they are
saying that we are too young. The groom does not want somebody so
"So…what do we do?"
But before Consolate had a chance to answer, I was being grabbed and
pulled back to the safe insignificance of the large group of servers.
I happily picked up my bottle-opener, very content to serve if it
ensured that I made it through another day in Rwanda without becoming
a bride.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rwanda Overheards

Most of the time my interactions with Rwandans consist of something
along the lines of: "Good morning teacher, give me
job/money/shoes/watch/[fill in the blank]." But every once in a while,
I come across one that knows English pretty well, which obviously just
lends itself to some fabulous entertainment, especially for somebody
missing the Mirror's Overheards column (cough*cough*suggestion to
editors of 2010 Class Newsletter). ...
~20 Year Old Male: Excuse me, mother, mother, I have no parents…will
you be my mother?
Eli: Mother!?! WHAT!? How old do you think I am?
~20 Year Old Male: Ehh…30?
Eli: Haha…no…I'm 22.
~20 Year Old Male: Ah well, will you be my girlfriend?
(Later in this conversation he made a reference to a 27 year old girl
living in Musanze calling her "the very young one.")
Male: Are you married?
Eli: No. Are you married?
Male: No. Do you have a boyfriend?
Eli: No. Do you have a girlfriend?
Male: No. This is because I am poor. One day I will be very rich and
then many girls will love me.
(I then tried to explain to him why he did not want to marry a girl
that only loved him for his money. His confusion seemed to be about
why he would marry only one girl once he was rich.)
Lyndsey (looking at 2 twin dogs): How do you tell them apart?
Boy: Well this one is the female because she is fat and this one is
the male because he is skinny.
Male: Are you married?
Eli: No. I am only 22.
Male: So you will be married in 2 years.
Eli: When did I say that?
Male: Well you must marry by 24. Otherwise you cannot marry at all.
Phone conversation (with unknown number):
Eli: Hello?
Male: Hello…this is Robert, I am calling to greet you.
Eli: Okay.
Male: Okay. Well I hope you are safe. Good bye.
Eli: Good bye.
(Followed by 7 calls from same number over 2 day period; all ignored.)
From a particularly aware Rwandan: "A muzungu is somebody who keeps time."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How to Make a Friend in Rwanda

…if the potential friend is a Rwandan male…
Step 1: Exist.
…if the potential friend is an American female…
Step 1: Find her…mostly likely at 'The Lounge.'
Step 2: Exchange NGO information and determine the mutual benefit of
your exchange.
Step 3: Exchange phone numbers. (If you ever want to call me, mine is
+250-78-246-8532. Fun fact that my (technologically inept) mother
recently learned: you actually have to dial the '+' part of the
number, otherwise everything else just doesn't work, no matter how
many times you try.)
Step 4: Show up at her house. No worries…given Steps 1-3, you're
already friends, so this is okay.
…so it's really not too hard either way.

In this case, I met my new friend at 'The Lounge'…not surprising given
that me and every other white girl in Musanze goes there about 4
nights a week, so there's a guaranteed overlap in there somewhere. In
this particular story, I met Devin at The Lounge while my mom was
visiting (we went there twice in the 24 hours that I was in Musanze –
I swear, even when I'm living in NYC next year, I'm going to crave
this pizza) – Devin works at an orphanage and I work at health
centers. The mutual benefit of our interaction was that my mom's
dedication to Selamta in Ethiopia means that she is interested in
visiting/touring orphanages in other developing countries…and then
Devin was interested in how I could help her get vaccines for her
children. Obviously, this was good enough to exchange phone numbers.
My mom and I did end up going to the orphanage 2 days later, but Devin
wasn't there. We got a tour from the one other American that lives
there. The tour was nice, but was overly concentrated on the
gardens…which were absolutely gorgeous…but I was a little disappointed
at the lack of interaction with the children.
…so I jumped at the 'opportunity' a week later when Lyndsey mentioned that she
was going to go up to the orphanage.
It wasn't so much an opportunity as her asking for a ride, but I
offered before she even got around to the asking, because I was hoping
to actually be able to hang out with the kids this time.
(Even as I'm writing this, I'm starting to question my own sanity. It
looks like 7 months in Africa, with no interactions with children has
made me think of them as more tolerable, and potentially cute.)
Not really knowing Lyndsey's plans, I jumped in the driver's seat for
the 45 minute drive on smooth paved road, followed by the 30 minute
drive through glorified ditches. When we got to the orphanage, it
appeared that Lyndsey had planned an all-girls' slumber party. She'd
packed a change of clothes and a bottle of wine…and there were 3 other
girls there. (Okay, so we gave one of them a ride too, but I figured
that she was also just coming up for a tour.)
Devin (who I would not have recognized had she not been coming out of
a house that I knew was hers and only hers) and I hugged, asked how
the other was doing, and generally acted like we were old friends
meeting up.

So that's the first story…the second story is just about this
orphanage, which is AMAZING. There's a book about it, called Land of a
Thousand Hills, which I tried to read. But I accidentally bought the
book called A Thousand Hills and read that one instead…I kept on
wondering when the part about the orphanage would come up, and then I
finished it. A Thousand Hills, though, was actually a pretty good book
that gave me a great understanding of recent Rwandan history and
values. So, I recommended it to Lyndsey for background reading before
coming. She picked up the correct book, and passed the recommendation
on to Jared, who bought Land of a Thousand Hills. My lesson from all
of this is that one day, when I write my own book, I should name it
something very similar to a very popular one, and just let my sales
run wild from there.
Land of a Thousand Hills is about Rosalie Carr, the longest ex-pat
resident in Rwanda's history. "Roz" started her African adventures
when she married a British explorer in the 50s, they bought a
pyrethrum plantation 20 kilometers north of Ruhengeri, divorced her
husband, and bought his share of the plantation. She then became good
ole pals with Dian Fossey (she's pretty famous in the gorilla world)
and many diplomats (such was life in Africa in the 50s and 60s). She
was forced to evacuate a few days into the genocide and returned in a
cargo plane a few months later, where she rescued groups of orphaned
children and set up a home for them in the barn of the pyrethrum
plantation. Over the years, she continued to rescue children whose
parents died in refugee camps or during other various (not officially
recognized) insurgencies…eventually building actual housing for an
orphanage of about 100 children.
And I got to spend the night in her house.
Which essentially looks like an English cottage, and gardens,
transplanted to Africa. I actually thought I was in the Secret Garden
(remember that movie?) when I first saw it with my mom…and was not
disappointed when my friendship with Devin allowed me to enter the
house. It was so classically little old lady homey and cozy that I
wanted to curl up and never leave. We had tea at 4pm in mismatched
china teacups. (Devin poured the water from the electric boiler into a
china tea kettle.) And we used silver silverware (hehe) to eat dinner.
I slept on a bed of (name of random/potentially extinct or endangered
African mammal) fur. When Molly opened up a random book, a picture of
the man who discovered mountain gorillas, standing next to the first
gorilla he ever discovered, fluttered out of the book and fell to the
floor (and almost into the fire --- eek!), behind that was a picture
of 2 (apparently very famous) National Geographic photographers,
standing outside that very house, with the easily recognizable garden
in the background. On the walls, were pictures of Roz with the pope,
Dian Fossey, and Romeo Dallaire's replacement (given that I didn't
know his name, I would never expect you to – but you should know
Dallaire, Google him if you don't). I essentially stumbled upon the
opportunity to sleep in a museum, and was constantly torn between
wanting to touch everything, and not wanting to touch anything.

…And yet again, this was an experience/weekend that just would not
have been possible in the US.