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Monday, January 1, 2018

Help me, Rwanda. Help Help me, Rwanda....

Tuesday November 21st

Uganda Rwanda Frontier

After nearly a week in Uganda we’re about to cross over into Rwanda.  Rwanda is a small country attached to the bottom of Uganda.  If people have ever heard of Rwanda it’s because of the genocide that occurred there in 1994 when between half a million and one million Tutsi were killed by the Hutu majority government. It inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda.

At the border we have to exit the vehicle and cross over the frontier on foot.   As soon as I’m out of the car I’m approached by a very large man in a red hoodie and loud saddle shoes who wants to know if I want to exchange my money.    I have about 150,000 Ugandan shillings (about $50.00US) that will be worthless as soon as we cross the border into Rwanda.  I agree and he says he’ll meet me on “the other side” with my cash.  I tell him I’ll give him the money “on the other side.”  He disappears into the crowd as we’re hustled into a one room shack on the Uganda side to have our documents checked.   After our passports are glanced at we’re given a handwritten slip of paper and told to walk across the border and present it to the official on the other side.

Upon walking across the frontier we’re confronted with an identical one room government building where our passports are again examined by an identical Rwandan official who stamps it and hands it back.  

I look around to find my money guy and finally spot him slinking across the border.  He’s changed from his red hoodie into a blue one. 
“How come you changed your hoodie?” I ask as he counts out  my shillings.
“It’s a disguise. You can’t be too careful,” he replies. “The government is watching.”
I figure his disguise is really clever – given that he’s about seven feet tall and the only person on this side of Africa with garish saddle shoes.   I take my Rwandan francs and head back to the road to find Peter and the vehicle.

Rwandan Highway - can you believe it??

The first thing I notice is while the roads on the Ugandan side are unpaved, the roads on the Rwandan side are paved.   The next thing I notice is people drive on the right side of the road here – not on the left like the rest of the East African countries.  But the thing that strikes me the most is how CLEAN it is.  In Uganda trash and plastic litter the sides of the road.  Not so here in Rwanda. 

I mention my observation to Peter, our Ugandan guide.  Peter somewhat defensively points out they can do this because there is no corruption in Rwanda.  Unlike Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania every penny designated for a public works project actually ends up in the project.  Not so in Uganda where community theft seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

I’m told this is a byproduct of the way the Rwandan government operates.  Technically it’s a democracy; but a democracy with only one party – sort of like China where there is no opposition  - so things get done quickly.   Rwanda has not only adopted the Chinese one party system; but also seems to have adopted the Chinese as well.  They’re in Rwanda in a big way helping industrialize the country – which explains the nice new roads. There are literally thousands of people working on finishing the highway – mostly on culverts and hillside reinforcement.  It reminds me a bit of the Great Wall of China which isn’t surprising – given the Chinese are building it.  Although most of the highway construction is completed, work continues –– mostly by hand.  I passed groups of men who were standing on rickety scaffolding like a human totem pole passing rocks one to the other up the hillside. 
Richmond BC Bilingual signs
We stop in Cyanika, a town that harkens back to its colonial roots – except that there’s no sign of French anywhere.  Originally Rwanda (Rwanda-Urundi) was a Belgium colony with French as the official language.  But now there is virtually no French signage – anywhere!  All the signage is in English.   Peter explains the price for Rwanda joining the East African economic co-operation zone was to drop French – which they did in a flash in 2008.  My guess is you’ll see Chinese signs before you’ll see the re-emergence of French ones.  Sort of like British Columbia.

During lunch I have my first inkling that in some ways Rwanda is a bizarro version of Uganda.  While the roads are paved and the streets clean, they don’t seem to have the hospitality thing down quite right.  First of all they do everything S-L-O-W-L-Y.  Very S-L-O-W-L-Y!   Lunch takes over an hour.  I notice there are no napkins on the table – so I ask for some.  After much consultation the waiter returns twenty minutes later with a covered platter – like he is presenting a special dish.  He lifts the top of the platter with a flourish to display a platter of…. Napkins.  
$1000 a night/ per person Virunga Lodge 
Rwanda may not have democracy worked out, but they have the capitalism thing worked out in a big way.  Besides charging the highest fee for gorilla permits, they also have some of the most expensive lodges I’ve encountered. One lodge, Virunga Lodge, charges a stunning $1000 per night.  Oh did I mention that’s per PERSON! 

Of course we won’t be staying there.  We proceed on to our lodge, Gorilla Mountain View Lodge, in Bwindi Volcanoes National Park.  It’s not quite as opulent as Virunga Lodge but I feel more comfortable here.  As usual they give me the farthest cottage from the main lodge.  It  is called  the “cuckoo” cottage.  Do you think they’re trying to tell me something? 

my room at Gorilla View Mountain Lodge
As we are high in the mountains all the cottages are equipped with fireplaces and at night a guy comes and lights a cozy fire.   I have one disconcerting moment when I return from dinner and get into my bed.  As I slide under the covers I feel something warm and fuzzy at my feet.  It’s a good thing I am a fair distance from the lodge or my scream might be heard by others and I’d have a replay of the embarrassing “Albino Leach Incident” that occurred on one of my previous trips to Africa.   It turns out to be a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel that they slipped into the bed when they pulled back the covers for the evening.

Our stay there is unfortunately marred by a theft incident.  Debbie and Rick’s cottage was broken into while we were eating dinner.  Debbie’s camera bag and Rick’s knapsack were stolen. 

Wednesday November 22nd

We are greeted with good news when we arrive at the main lodge for breakfast.  Debbie’s camera bag and Rick’s backpack have been found.  Unfortunately Debbie’s camera and other items are missing and Rick’s expensive sunglasses are also gone.  Luckily their passports and other documents were left behind. 

The hotel management immediately offers to reimburse Rick and Debbie for their losses.  While most people might have taken advantage of the unconditional offer, Debbie and Rick show their true Canadian colours – they apologize profusely for being robbed and downplay the value of what was stolen.
“It was an old Pentax camera,” offers Debbie.
“I never liked those ray ban glasses,” chimes in Rick.

We have a choice to either go on another gorilla tracking adventure or go on a trek to view the rare golden monkeys.  As we have already seen gorillas a few days earlier and Rwanda had recently raised the cost of a gorilla permit from $750 to $1500.00 we all opt to view the golden monkeys. 
Greeting "new Canadians"

We arrive at the orientation center early, which is fortuitous, as we encounter a large group of Rwandan children who have been selected to accompany us on our trek.  I have about 50 Canada 150 (celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday) face tattoos and Canada pins in my backpack and this seems like an ideal time to give them out to the kids.

Jeff's Kids
I have them line up and hand out a tattoo and pin to each of them.  What I don’t notice is Sue Ellen gathering the kids up and having them pose in a group photo with her and taking all the credit for the pins and tattoos.  I put a stop to it by telling her I plan to send a picture of her with the Canadian pins to a Texas newspaper claiming she is not really a Texan – put a closet Canadian!   She got out of the picture – fast.

During the orientation our guide singles me out as an example of a person properly dressed for a monkey trek.  He particularly likes my bush hat which he says will come in handy for the “golden showers.” (Not the type President Trump supposedly enjoyed in Russia, but the fact that the golden monkey like to urinate from the trees).  There is a suddenly pick up in the sale of hats at the gift shop.

The trek in to see the monkeys is relatively easy compared to the previous treks. The terrain is less hilly and the bamboo jungle is relatively easy to walk through.  It only takes us about half an hour to find the troop.  It’s a large troop - about 150 in all - so there are lots of monkeys for all to photograph.
Later that afternoon I’m awaken from my afternoon nap by the sound of singing and dancing. I emerge to find a large group of local students performing outside my cottage. For the longest time I am the only spectator of the spirited performance.  

Last dinner in Rwanda
That evening we have our last dinner together as Debbie, Rick and Sue Ellen will be leaving in the morning – heading to Kigali for their flights home.  I’ll continue on with Penny and Peter for another three days.

Next: On to Lake Kivu and bizzaro Rwandan Cuisine

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