It was a treat to stay at our lovely and high standard accommodation of La Rose Blanche Hotel, where we enjoyed our first internet connectivity since we departed on the 19th of December. Having been offline for that long, I was nervous to check my email, messages, bank accounts – by this point, I don’t want to be reminded about anything that has to do with home.
I am here, being present, and not futurizing/worrying.
Luckily, upon checking, everything seemed to be in order and I happily uploaded some blog posts!
The hotel even boasted air conditioning where you could actually SET the temperature you wanted to achieve in the room, as opposed to the a/c simply progressively making the room colder and colder and colder until you wake up with ice on your nipples and get up grumbling to turn the damn thing off. Yay! Plus, there were hot showers, separate beds, BBC World news, a good restaurant, AND Wifi!!! It was too good to be true and I was super grateful!
Wood Carving artist in Korhogo
The shopping day actually turned out much better than I expected it to. We first saw demonstration from an artist who painted woven cloth with symbols and characters from Cote D’Ivoire’s folklore – and these pieces, somewhat like Batik, are designed to be hung up as artwork. I bought a few tiny, colorful designs with the intent to frame them for my house.
We then went to a mask making/wood carving center where more Ivorian Coast MEN were making art (women cannot make art in this particular tribe and I couldn’t get an intelligible let alone compelling explanation as to why the vagina quells all artistic endeavors) out of various soft woods (ha! Get it?) and then drove further out of the city to a village where the men make beads out of clay and then hand paint them with naturally produced dyes. I did buy several necklace/earring sets here as they were vibrant and unique.
Men making beads from clay in Korhogo
After our shopping cardio, we thankfully found a lovely pizza joint and indulged our cheese-deprived bellies with some deliciousness before heading back to the hotel for personal time. I spent the evening blogging and then ordered a chocolate crepe with Jackie as we were still so full from lunch that ordering a full meal just didn’t make any sense.
Friday the 5th was going to be taking us to Yamassoukro or “Yakro” as its affectionately called – the official capital of Cote D’Ivoire. This was also a very long, hot day on the truck but it was enormously helped by the fact that Sinead had agreed to let some of us “rebels” who wanted music play a selection of road trip songs from Spotify in the back of the bus. It was a lot of fun and many passengers joined in and sang along to some great covers that spanned a few decades. Gotta love Spotify.
Masks for sale in Korhogo
We stopped for lunch in Boukare and enjoyed our first red meat of the trip in the form of a Schwarma – a pita wrapped around steak and veggies. It was delicious! Food was definitely a highlight in Cote D’Ivoire. We even got ice cream to go for the truck as we pressed on, only stopping briefly to watch a set of rural workers weaving cloth in the forest. It is fascinating to watch as these men (yep, again) spun and ran their weaving machines manually at such a pace that it was hard to actually discern the precise nature of what made it work. It was intoxicating and confounding to watch.
Best thing I’ve seen on a bike yet…sewing machines! For on-the-go mending entrepreneurs!!
We arrived at our accommodation in Yakro relatively late and after a quick meal of salad, I happily chilled with another passenger watching half of the movie “Blood Diamond” in the lovely air conditioning. It was quite an experience re-watching that film, 12 years after it was first released, and AFTER having been to Freetown now in person. Disturbing scenes capturing the civil conflict of Sierra Leone in 1998 reminded me of the horrific stories Charlie told me about the RUF chopping off people’s hands when they took over the city, occupying it for 3 terrifying months.
Even though I don’t believe the movie was made in Sierra Leone, they did a great job capturing its essence and vibe I think.
In the morning, we would be visiting the Basilica – the largest church in the whole world which was estimated to have cost a whopping 3-700 Million Dollars to build.
January 1, 2018 turned into the best transit day I’d had yet on the truck. We had been warned that it would be excruciatingly slow going due to the fact that the road from Nzekore to the border with Cote D’Ivoire had taken almost ten hours the last time the truck had made the journey. Lucky for us – the dirt road had been worked on somewhat and although not tarmac’ed yet, we made amazingly good time allowing us to cross the border a day ahead of schedule. Since this was a very rural border crossing, we were able to use the “Roof seats” on the truck. They are amazing and sitting up there on the top of the truck gives you an incredible vantage point as well as the sense, sometimes, that you’re riding a literal rollercoaster.
We journeyed through a hauntingly beautiful bamboo forest, and through some really lush tropical forests, interspersed with lively villages where the children and adults inevitably came running out to wave at the truck and us sitting on its roof!
Beautiful Bamboo Forest as we left Guinea
Getting a bit too close to the local flora
We kept on driving after the formalities of the border were fulfilled (a humorous moment was when Sinead was told that all the passengers who had listed their occupations on their entry forms as “retired” had to list their actual former occupations, and we all had a good laugh shouting out absurd careers for each individual. “Wayne? Exotic dancer! Andreas? Oh oh! Beautician! Graham? MI6!!”…
You get the idea.
That night we bush camped close to a village that Sinead had arranged for us to have a tour of in the morning. The villagers had recently had to move each and every home, being promised 200,000 CFA’s (about $400 USD) per person if they moved to allow for the Chinese construction of the new highway which engulfed their former village. It was sad to learn that so far, the villagers had not received any payment, and whether it was the Chinese construction company or the government that owed them the money was unclear.
Another night, another bush camp with village spectators!
The tour of the village was well worth it and it was a great use of some of the time we had gained by not being stuck getting to Cote D’Ivoire in the first place. We headed to Man (I know…what a strange name for a city, even in a country where they speak French!) and our cook group did some shopping and we all were feigning with excitement at finding a grocery store that had such variety of the foods and goods that had been absent in Guinea.
Crossing a treacherous wooden bridge…all passengers had to get off the truck while it was maneuvered across
Cote D’Ivoire has turned out to be a gastronomical delight and the meals I’ve had there were the best of the trip (so far!) The supermarket even had fresh brie cheese and red wine for sale – and since I was going to be cooking that night for the group – I couldn’t help but buy a small wedge which I promptly ate on the bus as we continued on in the direction of Korhogo.
Before lunch we stopped at the waterfalls outside of man and took a swim. Well, I should say a few of the ladies chose to take a swim and the men stayed dry and watched. I was not about to pass up an opportunity to get the dust and grime off of my body…some people are just far more comfortable being dirty and smelling bad on this trip than me.
At the waterfall in Man
After our swim we made a potato salad in a field next to a school and ate in the basking hot sunshine. As we headed out of town, I had a scary and shocking moment befall.
Sitting in the front row of the truck on the left side, I rolled the window all the way down as the truck got up to full speed to enjoy as stiff a breeze as possible due to the humidity and heat. Since there was no oncoming traffic and we had barely even seen another vehicle these past 24 hours – I luxuriated in the cool sensation of the wind by sticking my left arm fully out of the window and “rode the air” with my hand letting it refresh me.
Then, almost immediately after I pulled my arm back into the truck, a bus overtook us, hurtling at breakneck speed from out of nowhere. It was going so fast and so close to the truck that it actually smacked the left hand side mirror to where it snapped back and had to be manually pulled back – luckily it didn’t break.
I was stunned and just turned my head to look at Jack sitting on my right and she said “Oh, My God! I’m so glad you pulled your arm in when you did!”
Truck with the open window seat at the front being demo’ed by Jack!
For the next few hours, I was rattled just considering what might have happened should I have waited a few more seconds before retracting my beloved and vital appendage. Thoughts of exactly how my arm would have broken, or whether it would have been swiped cleanly off leaving me to bleed out to my inevitable death were hard to put out of my head.
In any case, I was very lucky and I have avoided that seat on the truck ever since. Miller, a passenger who had started the trip in Senegal came to me later and said that was the first time he could recall the truck being overtaken like that since the very start of the trip…so he understood my not giving a vehicle coming from behind on the opposite side of the road any weighty consideration.
Thankfully the rest of the drive passed without event and we arrived at our second Bush Camp location which was, for once, not within hearable distance of a village – and so we were able to make dinner without onlookers.
I shared my red wine with my cook team while we worked away – I was also very excited to make custard from scratch and serve it hot for dessert with chopped bananas. I used to make custard at home as a child, and while it isn’t very popular as a dessert in the States – It really is one of my favorites! It turned out extremely well – smooth, no lumps, and just the right thickness.
I think with the Brie, wine and heaps of custard, I had really overdone things and once I’d finished dessert, I immediately abandoned my washing up, running into the tall grass in search of some private place where I might empty out the contents of my belly.
Which I did. Another three times. From both ends. Oy vey! And being sick, throwing up and having diarrhea is bad enough in a hotel room – but it is additionally challenging in the bush with no running water. I went to my tent early and laid there, awake, much of the night waiting for further rumblings to attend to.
The kind of crazy-overloaded vehicles we see everyday on the roads
Luckily I felt fine by the morning and we had a long long and quite uneventful day driving all the way to the north to Korhogo – close to the border with Burkina Fasso. Uneventful except for the fact that we got stopped at police checkpoints four times and once had to report to the local police station where Sinead was interrogated about our group’s “Purpose” for being in Cote D’Ivoire. Apparently the road we were journeying on is frequently used to move drugs.
This journey eventually brought us to Korhogo – an important art/textile/handicraft center in Cote D’Ivoire and many of the passengers were very excited to go shopping.
On the morning of the 29th, I woke up groggy and tired from a very fitful and restless sleep. That day we had some more heavy miles to cover before reaching the town of Gueckedou – only made famous as being the site of patient zero during the Ebola outbreak of 2015 when a young boy got bitten by a bat and came down with the virus. Additionally, we were staying at the Hotel Fatou Rose which was set up as the logistics central point for dealing with the crisis in the town. Our guides told us that the hotel used to have a swimming pool, but during the Ebola outbreak, scared and ailing victims hurled themselves into the pool seeking relief from their burning symptoms and the pool had since been covered in concrete.
Fatou Rose Hotel in Guedeckou with the newly covered pool
Unfortunately, I found myself coming down with a nasty cold, probably hastened by my very cold night two nights before. After checking in, I gladly took a bucket shower and crawled into bed. With my symptoms worsening, I decided to spare my roommate the prospect of sharing her bed with me while I was hacking and sniveling and chose to upgrade to my own room for another $20 USD. After the hotel in Faranah, this place was a palace, but I still had a hard time getting the staff to give me the basic necessities that one simply takes for granted as being included with a hotel room for the night:
A top sheet (it is very rare in West Africa for a bed to have a sheet underneath the top blanket/cover)
A bucket of water (most hotels in Guinea don’t have running water)
A bin for rubbish and toilet paper since the toilet didn’t flush
A different fan because the first fan I was provided didn’t have a power cord that fit any of the power outlets in the room
A key that can be removed from the lock (yup, you read that right)
It has since become habit to check for all of these items when one arrives in a hotel room in West Africa. And if you’re lucky enough to have air conditioning, it is additionally important to check for whether there is a temperature setting, or whether the only recourse when you are awoken by arctic frigid conditions in the middle of the night – because it just keeps spitting out progressively colder air like a refrigerator – is to yank out the plug.
A work of art, despite not working
That evening, a wedding reception was held in the hotel’s grounds and a particularly beautiful woman dressed in an exquisitely beaded gown walked into the bar area. Another passenger and I introduced ourselves and complimented her on her dress before my friend asked if she might take her photo. Her girlfriend seemed non-plussed and ran off and got the attention of a man who promptly walked over and informed us that he was this woman’s husband. “Ok…”, I thought, “What does that have to do with anything?” He then proceeded to explain with a great deal of agitation that if we wanted to take a photo of his wife, we would need to ask his permission. This is the kind of behavior you read about happening in remote muslim-practicing areas of the world, but it is another thing entirely to come into direct contact with it in such a way. I chose to say nothing and remove myself from the situation, in case the wife was “blamed” for attracting attention, but my friend chose to give the man a piece of her mind. While he didn’t speak English, her tone left him in no doubt as to the injustice and disrespect she believed him to be showing.
After a brief dinner, I passed out around 8pm feeling quite sorry for myself, but grateful at least that my experience at the Fatou Rose Hotel wasn’t of life threatening Ebola-like symptoms but just a common cold.
Old signs like this one educating people about Ebola prevention are everywhere in Guinea
The following morning, still sick, we headed out after cook group shopping toward Nzerekore where we would be spending two nights, and ring in the New Year! We had a lovely stop en-route hiking to a 100-year old Vine bridge that we each got to cross across a river. Despite being ill, it was so nice to be off the truck and getting some fresh air and exercise. The countryside was jungle-like and beautiful albeit very hot and sweaty.
Beautiful Guinean Landscape
Guinea is definitely the most economically impoverished countries we visit on this itinerary. In some places, we were able to purchase a small local bottle of beer for about $0.60. The currency, like in Sierra Leone, only afforded really small value notes – at 20,000 Guinean Francs, the largest note only carried $2.10 in purchasing power. Compare this to Cote D’Ivoire (where I am writing this entry from) where the Central African Franc, guaranteed by France, has its largest note as $10,000 which is worth just over $18 USD. That’s almost ten times the purchasing power of the largest note in Guinea. What ends up happening is very interesting in psychological terms. It is similar to the original transformation all westerners go through when they first arrive in West Africa and begin converting prices from their home currency to the local one. While haggling, you inadvertently sometimes are arguing over pennies rather than dollars. As soon as you arrive in Cote D’Ivoire, it becomes much easier to spend larger amount of cash, and prices are roughly 2.5 times what they were in Guinea.
Typical Guinean village with round huts
In Sierra Leone and Guinea – sometimes to pay for a larger item, such as a hotel room, one had to count out multiples of 10-30 notes to pay for something because there were no larger worth notes. In Cote D’Ivoire, the problem is reversed – Notes signify more money, but getting change for small items is next to impossible.
It’s an interesting issue to have juxtaposed as we progress through each country.
In Nzerekore, I opted to upgrade to my own room so I could really focus on progressing to a full recovery – and it turned out that I got a lovely two-room suite to myself. We had some drama among the ladies of the group due to who our leader paired up each of us with each night – and it certainly was something I could have done without and was quite stressful.
New Year’s Day traditional practice of demanding money for getting through a village by the “devil himself”
I really needed a few restorative days and while many left to go on a hike the next day, I chose to sleep in, write some of my blog, and get lots of rest and fluids before our New Year’s Eve party. Sinead had made fajitas, and a pineapple rum punch. It was lovely and there was dancing and some celebrating to be had. Tried as I could to stay up till midnight, I ended up retiring around 10:30pm hacking away and still needing more sleep.
On Boxing Day we were scheduled to drive west back to the main road between Freetown and Makeni and then head north-east toward Kabala, staying in a local guesthouse there. Unfortunately, the truck started making some very strange noises on the road and we pulled over several times for Sinead and Mike to get under it and assess what was going on. It seemed that it had to do with the drive shaft and some loose ball bearings (I know nothing of truck mechanics, so I apologize if this makes little sense!)
We got to Makeni and were told to take a really long lunch while they found a garage to determine what repairs, if any, were necessary. A few of us went to the Club restaurant where proceeds for our meal went to benefit the street children of Sierra Leone project. As typical, the meal took two hours to arrive at which point we had to down it in 15 minutes flat and then bee-line it back to the truck. As it turned out, the truck needed to stay to be worked on and so Sinead was going to try and arrange accommodation for the 22 of us in Makeni for the night. This turned into a rather logistical nightmare with taxis back to the truck then taxis to a hotel where she’d been told there were double beds but they were only single. Then she had to go in another taxi by herself and find another suitable hotel and then bundle us all over there. By the time we arrived, we were hot, dusty, tired and ready for a shower.
The hotel was quite nice and afforded good views over the city of Makeni. This region of West Africa suffers from what is known as the Hamattan winds in the dry season which brings dust and sand from the Sahara and sweeps it all across this region. As such, it is quite hard on the respiratory and immune systems, not to mention it mixes not so well with cities already congested with carbon smog to create the most toxic combination of air.
After a refreshing shower, we took a meal in the hotel restaurant and had a great belly laugh listening to Kelly improvising spoken subtitles for a hilarious Nigerian soap opera that was on TV. I laughed till I cried.
The following morning we were told that the issue with the truck was not so serious that we couldn’t continue onward with our journey, but we wouldn’t be able to use four-wheel drive, and the truck would need to undergo extensive repairs, probably once we got to Accra. So, for now, it was “on the road again”!
Many of the days in the early part of this overland itinerary are spent on the truck for long distances, and this was no exception. We passed the time creating nerdy travel quizzes with each other (which is way fun when you have this many well-traveled/seasoned overlanders in one truck) such as “Name the 9 countries in the world that only contain 4 letters in the name, and “Name all the countries that don’t have enclosed letters of A, B, D, O, P, Q, R, in their name.” I think we pissed off some of the other passengers when the 3 Americans started quizzing each other on the states and their capitols. And so we went back to being quiet again and trying to stay in our seats as the truck bumped along across the rough roads.
This evening was another bush camp, and again, we managed to attract some local observers who wanted to watch us cooking our dinner and setting up our campsite with western efficiency. After dinner and whisky around the fire, I made my way back to my tent and ended up shivering all night as the temperature fell way below what I was expecting/what I was told was normal for this region and time of year. I had bought a special light sleeping bag that’s only rated to 55f and by 4am I had put on four more layers of clothing including putting my feet/legs into my light down jacket and zipping my hood up over my head. Even then it was brisk. To add to the weather – we were all awoken around 1am by what sounded like the Islamic Call to Prayer – but turned out to be a funeral for the village chief nearby. It was so loud, was broadcast from some very hefty speaker and went on for at least two hours. Very bizarre to hear this in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.
The next morning, still wearing my long sleeved shirt, fleece and long pants, we boarded the truck and drove on to our first border crossing into Guinea. Guinea has to be one of the poorest countries I’ve ever visited. We drove past village after village where several hundred families live in small communal roundhouses with one well or water pump providing fresh drinking water for the community. By nightfall, you see the smoke coming from wood burning/charcoal fires as families prepare their evening meals and people walk around in the dark or carrying battery operated torches. No streetlights, no power outlets, no running water, no tv – none of the day to day things we take for granted having within arms’ reach in our lives. It really boggles the mind how so many of the world’s people live like this and seem so happy. Having said that, if one is born into a community like this, then this would be the only reality you would ever know and it would therefore be much easier to accept and assimilate.
The border crossing was in an extremely remote section of the country and the border was literally a single rope strung across the ground between two flagpoles – there was even someone’s washing hanging out to dry on one side of the “barrier”. Though we were able to check out of Sierra Leone, our leader had to check-in at a police station on the other side and took one passenger with her since he’d had issues obtaining his visa in advance and was going to try to gain entry via a transit visa. Luckily, he was successful, but in Sinead’s words “there was no other option. It had to work and that’s all there was to it”. She really is a super smart and competent young woman and I greatly admire her capabilities and her can-do no-nonsense attitude.
Once into Guinea, the roads were so bad it was impossible to read or nap or do anything besides hang on for dear life as our bodies were jolted from side to side and up and down. The further back in the truck one sits, the worse the being thrown around action is. It can be quite funny, especially when an unexpected pothole is struck suddenly and you go flying.
Soon enough we arrived in Faranah – not exactly a tourist hub of a town, many residents had never seen tourists before and once again we enjoyed a continuing celebrity status as we drove in. Our guide warned us about the hotel and told us to keep our expectations very low as it was of not a high standard. Not a high standard? This hotel has got to be one of the worst I’ve ever stayed in – it more closely resembled a years-long ago abandoned crack den. Our room was filthy, had no running water, not even a bucket of water to wash in, no mosquito netting or screens on the windows, no fan, no electricity before 7pm (though this was pretty standard in Guinea and Sierra Leone) and the mattress was a thin layer of foam across old wooden planks. One of the guests also found a hand sized spider in her room. The staff tried to assist as best they could to the grunts and complaints from our group as everyone tried to wrap their heads around the conditions – fetching us buckets of water and answering our questions about power/fans/netting etc…most of which were answered in the extreme negative.
After doing some much needed handwashing, and a cold bucket shower, some of us walked the dusty road into town, passing by a strangely papered statue of an life sized elephant along the way. Getting to the market, we watched and observed the frenetic selling over pots of boiling vegetables, zooming motorcycles, trash and the sounds of hundreds of people bartering and going about their evening. I asked a local (in French, as Guinea was a former French colony) if she could recommend a good restaurant and she informed me that I would need to go to Konakry for that. Konakry is the capital of Guinea and was about a five hour drive from Faranah. Luckily, we found a nice street stall where a young mother, with a small baby strapped to her back, served us a very tasty and fresh meal of boiled potatoes, onions, tomatoes, eggs and mayonnaise. It was surprisingly good. While the others headed back to our drug den of a motel, Mike – the other American on the trip who happens to also be only a month younger than me – and I decided to walk a little more around town and make our way back a little more slowly. It was a hot sticky night when everything clinged to your body and just dodging traffic and people gets to be quite tiring. On our way home we were stopped, not once, not twice, but three times for photos with locals who wanted to pose with us. It is so funny having people come running up to you and asking if they can take their picture with you just because you’re white and/or foreign. One guy also insisted on planning a kiss on my cheek for his selfie.
Me and the mob of kids in Faranah
Just when we were getting close to our Ritz-Carlton accommodation, an entire soccer team of kids came screaming and running up to us to have their photos taken. Here are the results of that “mob” encounter!
That night we all sat under the outdoor rotunda drinking beers and telling stories until quite late because no one wanted to go to their room. A few people decided to stake their tents there rather than risk the unhygienic conditions of the beds. I thought It was all quite funny and decided to embrace the experience, taking a valium before crawling into my self-contained sleeping sheet and trying desperately to fall asleep despite the hot, still night air.
Tiwai Island is home to the densest population of primates in the world. Red-tailed/black and white colobus monkeys, chimpanzees, and spider monkeys abound. I was looking forward to a respite from the traffic heavy city to a totally natural environment that we had to get to by boat.
The drive, as is the case with any overland travel in Africa, was arduous. For those of you unfamiliar with overland truck travel – we travel in a 4×4 overland truck that can accommodate up to 24 passengers and crew. Everything we need to camp in the bush is on the truck: tents, stoves, utensils, gas, water jerry-cans, a fridge, plus we collect firewood as we go. The passengers are divided up into group for truck jobs such as sweeping out the truck at the end of a long drive day; and we have cook groups made up of 4 persons who rotate to prepare meals on the road for the rest of the group. Cook groups plan and organize shopping in local markets for gathering supplies for dinners, breakfasts and lunch; though sometimes we don’t get included meals which we would then purchase locally at restaurants – when we can find them. West Africa, especially Guinea and rural Sierra Leone – see very few tourists. Many villagers and especially children have never seen white people before. As such, we are often greeted with the kind of enthusiasm that is reserved for celebrities. Everyone waves at the truck – sometimes a local woman will start dancing with excitement and start shrieking with euphoria and spontaneous eruptions of applause are not uncommon. It leaves one feeling both honored to be visiting such a remote location as well as providing a sense of privilege due to the lack of melanin in our skin that is quite uncomfortable to say the least.
Villagers greeting the truck
About half of the nights on the trip are spent camping in tents, and the other half is spent in local guesthouses/hotels which have ranged in quality from very basic to downright worse than camping. In Guinea, for example, all of the hotels carry a double bed only – and since we all agreed to “share” – the women and the men are assigned a roommate and one is “forced” to make do sharing a bed or choosing the floor if that is too unsavory an experience. This requirement has set off a number of problems within the group and tensions have surfaced resulting from fractions between certain members of the group not liking other members enough to sit next to them for a 10 hour long, hot, dusty truck journey – let alone a shared bed at night without so much as a fan for comfort.
Having said that, vast majority just accept it or choose to upgrade to their own room.
Building a fire at a Bush Camp on Christmas Day
Roads in this part of the world are notoriously bad and the further back in the truck one sits, the more one feels the impact – quite literally – of the bumps and potholes encountered along the way. On bad road days, one really can’t nap or read a book – and so many hours are spent watching the countryside rolling by or engaging your fellow passengers in conversation. Sometimes, conflicting desires between silent contemplation and conversation come to a head and a compromise is reluctantly found. It can be quite a tiring and physically brutal way to travel.
I knew full well about these drawbacks – but the adventure and allure of traveling somewhere that other travelers rarely go was too appealing. And so…off we headed to Tiwai Island.
We arrived a little late on schedule with the sun having already set. Armed with just our daypacks for 2 nights, we boarded small power boats and set off from a jetty to the jungle island of Tiwai. It was one of those moments when traveling where you can’t believe you’re in the middle of nowhere with the stars bright above you and nothing but nature and zero electricity awaiting you. Crossing the mighty river you feel a bit like an ancient explorer and its very romantic.
On arrival, we set up tents under structured platforms and then enjoyed a very late dinner of bony fish and coconut flavored rice. We would be enjoying a full day of structured activities and so I headed to bed at a reasonable hour.
Campground on Tiwai Island
Despite the oppressive heat of the day, I was glad for my 55 degree Fahrenheit rated sleeping bag and woken up in the night with a sense of chill in the air, I gladly crawled into my bag. The inevitable “need to pee in the night” got me up around 3am and I walked to the bathrooms by headlamp listening to the sounds of the animals around me and my snoring fellow passengers.
The following morning was Christmas Eve and we gathered at 6:45am for a nature walk. After about an hour of not seeing anything but hearing the crying calls of hornbills and monkeys, we finally saw a group of red colobus monkey effortlessly jumping from branch to branch in the canopy overhead. We saw the white crested hornbill in its impressive display of winged flight and took some pictures of the giant trees that I’d only ever seen before in Cambodia, enmeshed with the temples at Angkor Wat.
After breakfast and some free time, four of us took a boat back to the mainland to enjoy a village tour which turned out to be fascinating. Our guide explained that the 300-person village was primarily Muslim, but that they drank alcohol and were planning to celebrate Christmas. We saw their school, vegetable gardens, how they grew rice and processed it, their beds with mattresses filled with grasses and dried leaves, the community water pump, as well as meeting and greeting with many adults and even greater masses of children who constantly harangued us for attention and photos – shrieking with excitement when we showed them the taken pictures on the camera screen.
Family with infant on Village Tour
Excited village children
While waiting for a canoe to take us back to the island – we had a good laugh when our guide excused himself to “make a call” for the boat to come. He walked to the edge of the river and literally made a loud patterned cry, cupping his hands around his mouth. We had all assumed he was going to call someone on his cellphone but we were mistaken!
Later that afternoon, during my favorite time of day – the “magic hour” – we went out on four person canoes to explore downriver. There wasn’t much to see in terms of wildlife, but the atmosphere and cool breeze from the boat was definitely worth the $10 it cost for the two hour trip.
Canoe ride on Tiwai
Definitely one of the strangest places I’ve spent Christmas Eve – we gathered around the fire after dinner and sang Christmas carols and told stories about our personal Christmas traditions. It was a fun evening – the highlight of which was listening to our 68-year old Spanish passenger Carme tell hilarious inebriated stories from her childhood when Spain was still under rule by Franco, lying to get a visa to enter the United States and refusing to serve a racist customer at her first job as a waitress in LA. She has quite the personality and is easily the most loved member of the group.
Our Canadian tour leader, Sinead, came and announced that the villagers had invited us to spend Christmas morning and lunch with them. It was an offer we could hardly refuse, despite concerns I had about any awkwardness that might result from two very different sets of people coming together to celebrate a common holiday which has widely differing expectations in terms of how it is recognized.
Children fascinated with my hair on Christmas Day
My fears turned out to be largely unsubstantiated and it was a delightful, if exhausting morning. We were literally besieged with snotty nosed children all clamoring over the women in our group…some of us got groped, had our hair pulled and ten children grasping at our fingers looking to hold our hand as we headed off to the area designated for the party.
I found myself rather attached to a little girl who didn’t offer a single word and seemed to be very picked on by the other kids. She seemed sad and in need of some affection so I sat with her for some time giving her some needed hugs. At least she smiled when I did this. Music was played and beer brought out – and those passengers who still felt rhythm in their feet got up and danced in the jungle with the villagers, united in the common celebration that Christmas still is – even if presents and holly, and mistletoe are absent.
Little girl on Village Tour
Quite exhausted but with filled hearts, we boarded the truck after finishing a delicious lunch of fried beignets and freshly cooked (and slaughtered in our honor) chicken. We had a long drive in the direction of Makeni to complete – and since we were delayed in our journey, the plan was to find a new, good spot to bush camp for the night.
These plans made sense until you took into account that most open countryside is dense forest and/or tall grassland – not ideal for pitching tents to accommodate 22. And we had our own Christmas dinner shopped for and to prepare for.
Jack taking pics of village kids
Late in the day, we pulled off the main highway at a number of promising looking locations that proved unsuitable upon further examination. Being told there were several villages with flat ground up ahead on a dirt road, we took a 20 minute detour only to find a village all out and dressed to the nines celebrating Christmas in the open air of their local soccer field. The entire crowd of at least a hundred came running up to the truck and started whooping and hollering in excitement at seeing us. It became quite apparent that if we asked to “borrow” their soccer field for the night, we would be besieged with people utterly adamant in their curiosity to not give us a moment of peace.
So we pressed on as the sun began to set.
Kids playing on Christmas Day – Mike photobombs too…
After another ten minutes or so we came across a different villages’ soccer field with only a few individuals roaming around. Their shocked faces turned to bemusement, suspicion and incredulity as our fearless leader asked if we might be able to pitch our tents in their field. Trying to explain tents to Sierra Leoneans was rather difficult and we were asked several times what our “purpose” there was? That we were just driving through West Africa on our way to Ghana did not seem at all plausible to these villagers, but they acquiesced and invited us to use their soccer field.
Little by little, as we poured out of the truck and began pitching our tents and preparing our evening meal, the villagers came out in growing numbers to witness the spectacle that was us. Rarely have I felt so self-conscious, but by the time we served up the pit-roasted chicken and grilled stuffing to each other but a crowd of at least 50 were simply standing in awe of us and I got the strongest sense of what it felt like to be a chimp at the zoo. The villagers didn’t grow bored and just kept watching us for what felt like hours as we moved on to dessert and whisky. Of course we wanted to share our meal with them – but had we done so – we might have set off a mob with people all grabbing for food. There wasn’t enough to feed both groups anyways, so we ate, as best we could under the ever so watchful eyes of our new neighbors.
Making Christmas Dinner with a crowd of onlookers
In setting up my tent that night I also got a little surprise of my own when I found two hapless lizards whom I had accidentally prematurely murdered when I rolled them up into my tent on Tiwai that morning. Luckily for me, one of the Peters on the group was kind enough to extract and dispose of the poor things for me while I grimaced in disgust from a distance.
And so, Christmas was had and enjoyed by all in a most unforgettable and strange way. My second Christmas in Africa in three years.
On the morning of the 20th we left for the 90 minute drive to the stunning beach at River No. 2, stopping en-route in one of the most frenetic markets I’ve ever experienced in Africa in a town called Waterloo. In spaces where people are so closely packed that you have to squeeze your physical way through…mini vans arrive blasting their horns causing the already tightly packed crowds to jam ever more tightly together in the space created only on each side of the vehicle. It was madness and I quickly made my way back to the truck after my only needed purchase of toothpaste.
Outdoor showers and bungalows on the beach
Stunning landscape and mountains jutting from the sea in Sierra Leone
The beach at River No. 2 was absolutely stunning. It was clean and mostly trash-free with a string of bungalows lining the length of the beach where several of us also chose to pitch tents. The next 3 days was spent in a blissful non-routine of sleeping in, having a very leisurely omelet breakfast (the leisure brought on by the length of time it takes to make food as much as our own sense of relaxation) swimming in the turquoise warm waters, chatting with new friends over beers, and dinners of grilled shrimp. It was rather magical and a great way to begin a 48 day overland truck voyage.
Even Charlie joined us for some fun in the sun and rather reluctantly allowed the four of us ladies to convince him to actually go into the ocean. Like many Africans, Charlie didn’t know how to swim and had spent most of his adult life living within a few minutes’ drive of this gorgeous beach without so much as setting a toe in it. I was so proud of him (and us!!) for getting him to enjoy the water so much after much encouragement, that within a few hours he was jumping and body surfing the waves like a pro.
Charlie gets in the ocean with the ladies: Roni, Jack, and Kelly
First he was afraid, now he was jumping in the waves!
The Christmas holiday in Sierra Leone brings with it a party season and every Thursday-Saturday night, giant beach based parties are planned with loud music, dancing and partying.
On our second night on the tranquil beach, we were caught off guard seeing vans and people arriving to assemble a giant stage with even bigger speakers literally within a few feet of our accommodations. In earnest requests with the manager, all 22 of us had the laborious task of moving to the south end of the beach so that we wouldn’t have to face brain-blasting music until 4am for the subsequent two nights. We all wondered: why on earth wouldn’t management have simply informed us of the planned party when we checked in the day before? As with many things in this part of the world – it appears that such matters do not occur to staff in the service industry because the tasks of the current day are all that consume their thoughts.
Stray dogs on the beach
In any case, I was sad when it was time to leave River No. 2 and head to the wildlife hotspot on Tiwai Island – a mere 10 hours’ drive away.
Slums of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Mass graves were dug here during the 2015 Ebola outbreak.
My flights went without incident and despite being very tired indeed – I landed in Freetown on a hot and humid Sunday night. Having sat next to a very friendly native Sierra Leonean, I felt confident that I would have some help navigating immigration and transport on arrival despite being exhausted. We exited the aircraft and that familiar blast of heat hit me full on and I breathed in the heady scents of Africa once more. The airport was as expected – long lines and packed to the gills with people shouting for their bags. The airport in Freetown is rather curious in that it was built on an island – a ferry or water taxi ride away from the mainland. Having gotten my bags onto the shuttle that would take me to the water taxi, I was already full of joy and contentment to see that the waiting area was a bar looking out across the palm-fringed ocean and I immediately ordered a beer to “hurry up and wait”.
TIA. This is Africa.
I started chatting with a Finnish Unicef worker who was visiting Sierra Leone to help set up a clinic in the rural north, and another American who was here visiting family. The latter later claimed to be the niece of the president of the country – and I still have absolutely no idea if she was crazy or if this was really true. She did, in fact, text me the next day on What’s App to meet up for dinner and drinks – but after showing up drunk and with her cousin who seemed very coked out – only stayed to chat for about ten minutes before excusing herself to tend to “family matters”. Very bizarre.
The water taxi was a hot 30-minute ride which included a viewing of “Britain’s got Talent”. On arrival at the terminal on the other side, I carefully followed the Dragoman directions to my guest house – the “Raza” and walked the 500 feet in the dark dragging my bags in what has now become the standard crazy, loud and insane oncoming traffic, sweating profusely.
I was so happy when I saw the sign for the hotel and having checked in, discovered a basic but acceptably clean room with air conditioning where I could finally unwind.
My jet lag was reasonably bad for the next few days. The next morning, I was awoken by the sound of the Dragoman tour truck pulling up and the passengers arriving from the trip I was initially supposed to be on from Senegal. I came out and greeted several of the sweaty, exhausted, dust-covered people and made introductions. Meeting the guide, I was told that they would be arranging a trip to the Chimpanzee Sanctuary that afternoon and to meet in reception at 3pm. I was happy to have a plan for my first full day in Sierra Leone – especially since the first few days in a foreign continent are always an adjustment.
Sierra Leone had a different plan in mind for me. I went for a walk after eating my very late breakfast to get accustomed to the surroundings and hopefully to find Lumley beach – the characteristic stretch of white sand that is lined with bars and restaurants in this vibrant capital city. I immediately “remembered” what Africa can and has since been like on this trip (I am writing this post from Guinea on Day 12 of the trip) – hot, dusty, noisy, with people everywhere greeting you, trying to sell things to you, traffic everywhere and people busily going about their days in close proximity to each other, carrying babies on their back and large buckets of grain and banana on their heads.
Crazy Freetown traffic
The beach had beautiful white sand and was lined with palm trees. The potential for tourism in Sierra Leone could immediately be felt, but unfortunately, it is still not fully realized because there is trash everywhere (that and many anti-tourism policies such as no “visa on arrival”). Cans, bottles, plastic bags, odd sandals, plastic and metallic discarded objects were strewn up and down the beach creating a safety as well as an aesthetic hazard. It is truly one of the more lamentable facts about West Africans thus far – over and over again you see people just dropping trash on the ground and large piles of trash are seen on streets and intersections and in streams and rivers everywhere. A total reversal of this behavior is necessary if the country is ever to rise up and develop its economy through tourism.
Then again, I mustn’t forget that it wasn’t that long ago that discarding trash was the status quo back in the States too. It take education for such a national shift of mindset.
I got back to Raza by 10 to 3 and discovered that the group had left in a taxi 5 minutes earlier. I felt a wave of disappointment and tried to communicate with the front desk to try and ascertain how much another taxi would cost me if I was to go on my own.
At that moment, another passenger called Kelly, from Australia, came out and asked if she might use the taxi that the front desk had called for me to haggle with over a price to drive me to the sanctuary. She informed me that she was planning on going to Tacugama the next day and that she was on her way to the Guinean Embassy to pick up her emergency one-day visa. I asked if I might join her and we hopped in and set off.
Free health clinic in Aberdeen
The traffic insanity that is cities in West Africa took on a new color from the vantage of a car. Nobody paid attention to traffic signs/signals and Kelly kept trying to help our driver understand where she wanted to go and that since she’d already been to the Guinean Embassy three times in the last twenty-four hours, attempted to direct him in English. The people of Freetown speak Krio – which is a form of pigeon English. “Yu Nor Dey Pay No Money” translates to “You don’t have to pay any money” – just so you get the idea.
Finally getting to the “embassy” which actually is a non-descript ran-down white shack/building with an office that is bare except for a bench for sitting/waiting, a fan, and a desk with a computer on it and official looking papers – we ended up chatting in French with one of the “guards” while waiting for Kelly’s passport to be ready. After about two hours in the heat, Kelly got her visa and we headed back to Aberdeen and Lumley beach in search of a cold beer to celebrate.
Me, Kelly and Charlie
We found a lovely air-conditioned bar called “Eddie’s” and ordered two local “Star” beers while listening to the Game of Thrones soundtrack being played alongside a screening of La La Land on a giant screen on the back wall. So strange! Outside, waiting to use the bathroom, I was greeted by a very friendly guy who introduced himself as Charlie. I immediately noticed that he spoke English with an American accent and found that he had worked for the DOD in Houston and Iraq for several five-month long contracts and as such, he had spent enough time around other American soldiers and contract workers for his English to sound like he came from the States. We chatted for a few minutes and since he was finishing up with work, I invited him to join Kelly and I for a drink.
Kelly, Charlie and I happily passed a solid hour in conversation and I was immediately transported back to the reasons why I love traveling solo so much – connecting with others is so easy, spontaneous, and organic. Charlie talked to us about what life is like in Freetown, about the civil war and what it was like to live there two years ago during the Ebola outbreak. He explained how scary it was, seeing the specially colored “vans” that would inevitably be transporting dead bodies to a safe burial location. He told us about the strange social impact not touching anyone or anything while in public had on the people. As always, hearing about such events from the perspective of a local was vastly more impactful than hearing about it through the media in the US.
Stray dogs in Freetown’s trash
We invited our new friend to dinner next door where the Dragoman group were congregated to have their “goodbye” dinner. The food in Sierra Leone was surprisingly good and flavorful, even spicy. I ordered grilled snapper with rice and salad. Fish and chicken with rice or chips is the basic options we have chosen between most nights here, and while the fish is often full of bones – it has been a big contrast to the often bland foods of East Africa.
After dinner, Kelly took a cab home with the group but since I was on US time – Charlie and I opted to head down the road in search of ice cream and real espresso coffee. It appeared to me that Freetown as a microcosm of Sierra Leonean society had the typical mix of a tiny minority of upper class social climbers with lots of disposable income and then the very poor who live in slums or very basic housing. The bars and cafes of Lumley beach definitely catered to the former group because I found myself in a neighborhood that could increasingly be mistaken for a beach town in Marseille.
Signs from the Ebola crisis of 2015 – this one on a trash can
I told Charlie that Kelly and I were planning to visit the Chimp sanctuary the next day and he proposed that he join us. I was happy to have made a local friend so quickly.
The next morning, we had our orientation meeting for the start of the official next leg of the Dragoman trip. Most unusually, the entire group of 20 passengers and 2 crew were traveling solo and were single, aged between 35 and 75, and were very evenly mixed between genders – 10 female and 12 male. It was immediately obvious that I wasn’t going to feel unusual or left out – this was a group of very well-traveled independent-minded “misfits” – and that has proven to be very true. I have been very grateful for the eclectic and interesting mix of characters and culture that the group consists of and it is in the starkest of contrasts to my first overland trip of 2015.
We spent the rest of the morning sharing taxis to visit the famous city center “Cottonwood Tree” and the National Museum. On the way we passed many many slum settlements simply jam packed with people and an equal presence of trash. Everywhere, children ran around with dirty snot-ridden faces in tattered clothes, barefoot and being dragged by a parent. People washed themselves and their clothes in filthy pools of water strewn with garbage. As always, it was a wake-up call to the privilege we each have to live as we do in the West.
Quote on Female Circumcision – which affects 80% of women in Sierra Leone
The museum was good if a bit out of date, but the exhibits addressing the history of slavery and juxtaposing it to the many modern forms of slavery was very worthwhile. There were also exhibits addressing the issue of Female Genital Mutilation in Sierra Leone – a very common practice that results in over 80% of women having no external genitalia whatsoever. While it is a normal practice in their culture, I still can’t help but feel revulsion for the disgusting patriarchal madness that condones such a hideous crime against the body of a woman. Moreover, the number of people in favor of continuing this violent crime against females is staggering and difficult for a foreigner to comprehend, let alone be tolerant of.
At 3pm, while four of us were haggling to arrange a taxi to go to the sanctuary – Charlie showed up in his Mercedes SUV and offered to drive us there and back himself! It was a bit of a tight squeeze, but we were ever so grateful and ended up having the most raucous and laughter-filled afternoon and evening together. A truly magical day that I will not soon forget.
On the way there, Charlie pointed out an area that suffered a horrendous landslide back in September and literally buried thousands of unsuspecting residents in their homes alive as an entire mountainside gave way after months of torrential rains.
Chimps at the Tacugama Sanctuary
The sanctuary itself helps to rehabilitate chimps who’ve been illegally taken as pets in the hopes that they can be re-released back into the wild. It is set in a thankfully cool setting in the highlands surrounding Freetown and we had a lovely time observing the chimps – especially the sub adults who linked arms with their best friends while walking around their large enclosure.
Dinner on Lumley Beach (I’m using my steripen in case you’re wondering what that light is!)
We experienced horrendous rush hour traffic on the return and sat at a near standstill for over two hours. Nauseous, hot and very hungry – we were super grateful to find a bbq stand directly on Lumley beach where we ordered chicken with fried rice and cold beer at the best table in the place – a wooden table and chairs literally only ten feet away from where the water was lapping away at the sand.
A thoroughly enjoyable day was had by all.
The following day we followed our bliss for three nights on the beaches of the Sierra Leonean Peninsula.
A distinct and undeniable pattern has emerged in my life. A job loss precipitates a period of long term solo travel. This is an embarrassing thing to admit – but I have been fired or forced to resign 4 times in the last 3 and a ½ years. After each kick to the gut, I have booked a trip abroad for one to six months. I admire people who can jump right back into the job search after losing their job. For me, a job loss, especially one that is a result of a firing for personal/painful reasons and not poor job performance is too hard to come back from without a chance to hit a reset button. Searching for a job requires you to be truly “on” in regards to self-promotion and self-marketing. At a time when personal confidence has been severely tested and the inevitable self-doubt regarding whether I should continue in an industry that keeps spitting me out like sour milk rises to the surface, a job search is very unappealing. Then, well-intentioned friends shower you with the advice to take this opportunity to do some reticent soul-searching to discover a way to make a living fulfilling myself on a deeper ‘soul’ level; or how this is simply an opportunity disguised in tragedy – the inevitable and unavoidable assurances that “as one door closes another one opens.”
As true as these well-wishes might be, the only thing that ever really helps me move forward after such a traumatic event is going away for a while. Call it escaping one’s problems, refusing to face reality, shirking responsibility, or being fiscally irresponsible – it’s the only thing that has ever worked for me in the past.
This job joss was particularly harsh because I really loved my job and the company I was working for. After nearly 12 years as a financial advisor/planner – I had finally found a firm whose values were aligned with my own. Unfortunately for me, I misjudged the value alignment between me and the CEO of the firm. The firing could not have come as a bigger surprise, totally out of left field and only four days following a positive performance review.
I was left feeling totally shattered.
Me at my former office
There’s nothing worse than finding yourself unemployed right before the start of the holiday season in Seattle, when the weather is so grey it looks like late evening at 10 o’ clock in the morning. I found myself going through a grieving process, in shock and disbelief over what had happened and in a state of growing anxiety about what the future might hold.
It was in this rather unstable frame of mind that I set about booking my next big trip. West Africa was high on my list as the next big “adventure” and lucky for me- the only tour company that offers overland trips in West Africa had their once-a-year trip leaving at the end of November.
As exciting as it sounded, I was also suffering from the typical pre-booking anxious ‘glued to my couch’ syndrome that has also resulted in me booking and canceling flights in a repeating cycle in past years. Adding to this issue was the fact that unlike East Africa, 5 of the countries on the Dragoman itinerary required visas be obtained in advance and it started looking like I wasn’t going to be able to obtain all of the necessary documents by the time of my intended departure. The trip was starting in Senegal, and being a dual citizen, forced to use a visa agency that could only obtains visas in DC for US passports, I tried to convince the tour company that I could fly there on my British Passport since the first 3 countries permitted visas obtained on arrival for British subjects. What harm could there be in getting my US passport fed-exed to our guest house in Guinea-Bissau? Being told it was simply too much of a risk in that the passport might not show up and I’d be left stranded/unable to continue the journey – I was forced to book only part of the tour that started in Freetown, Sierra Leone and took in the countries of Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin.
Landing in Freetown, Sierra Leone
I booked everything on a self-imposed whim and found myself crying hysterically on the drive home after sending off my passport for the $1,000+ visa process. What had I done? Was I emotionally/mentally stable enough to handle the rigors of overland travel in such an undeveloped-for-tourism area of the world for two months? What if I experienced a repeat of my last overland experience where I didn’t connect with anyone on the truck and it was filled with 18-year-old party/sex/alcohol driven lads from pretentious private schools in the UK?
I found myself full of trepidation and regret that interchanged with excitement and fear on an endless loop.
Faced with spending Thanksgiving in the States, I made plans with one of my best friends and former “flame” who’s sister was visiting that week from out of the country. Little did I know at the time that the 3 night/4 day excursion to Olympic National Park would turn into a nightmare. Heading out to stay on the peninsula at a friend’s place to avoid the Thanksgiving day lines at the ferry – an innocent dinner conversation turned into a huge fight that continued to escalate into the night. In the morning, both of my so-called “friends” refused to follow through with our plans to stay at a lodge a few hours’ away. In tears, I told them I would call another friend to see if he might join me that evening since I was damned if I was going to spend the holiday alone – especially one that is characterized by family, love, good times, and gratitude.
When I emerged from the bathroom after making my tearful phone call – they had both left and ensured that they were non-contactable by blocking me on any and all forms of cellular communication.
I spent the holiday alone and in tears.
I’m not sure if I have ever felt that emotionally devastated in my life. I’d now lost my job and my so-called best friend.
I was in such poor state I immediately flew down to Palm Springs to visit my dear friend Craig and hopefully get my mind off the previous weeks’ events. I was so grateful to have someone to talk to, laugh with, and get up to no good with. Despite my best efforts, the pain and struggle continued and I knew it was going to take being somewhere so foreign that it felt like Pluto to really help me process, heal and move on from the past months’ trauma.
Visiting Craig in Palm Springs
The last few days spent in a frenzy of last minute arrangements for house-sitting, packing and buying essentials – I finally headed to the airport for my 3-leg journey to the capital of Sierra Leone: Freetown.
There was no going back now: with a heavy but hopeful heart – I got on the plane.
Our tour only included two and a half days in Rwanda, but it was enough time to convince me that it is my favorite country that I’ve visited in this continent. Rwanda was surprising and refreshing in many different ways. From how it’s people have miraculously healed from the horrific genocide they experienced in 1994 to become the happiest and friendliest of people I’d encountered on the trip, to the stunning mountainous scenery, to the biodiversity, to the top-notch, impressive infrastructure that the government has substantially invested in – all this created my impression of Rwanda as the jewel of Africa.
Of course, most tourists’ impressions of the country when they arrive are the same as mine were. I feared what had happened here only 21 short years ago. I had seen “Hotel Rwanda” and remembered hearing about the atrocities committed here on the news when I was 18 years old living in England. That type of ethnic hatred couldn’t possibly have been removed from the national psyche to any measurable extent in such a short period of time? Surely there would still be palpable tension between people? Surely people wouldn’t be that friendly?
Well, the people I met were incredibly genuine, kind, smiling and caring. I felt nothing but love, hospitality and a warm welcome.
The capital, Kigali
On arrival at the border, I will never forget seeing signs offering $5,000,000 for information that would lead to the capture and arrest of certain Rwandan citizens who are being sought for inciting the genocide and who have since fled the country and are believed to be residing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our first stop on our entering the capital, Kigali, was the Genocide Memorial Museum. It was a sobering three hour visit – but I have to say that overall, it is one of the best museums I have ever visited. The displays were vivid, clear, and easy to follow. The most impressive detail, however, was the second floor of the memorial where they had dedicated “rooms” to each of the mass genocides of human history – and compared each to what happened in Rwanda. I found this to be one of the more fascinating and educational components to the museum.
Partial list of those laid to rest here in the mass graves
I won’t go into the entire history of the genocide, nor will I recite too much of what I learned. I will, however, tell you that I discovered I was sorely misinformed prior to my visit, and I had a lot of false assumptions about why the genocide happened in the first place.
What I didn’t realize, for example, was that the ethnic and physical distinctions between the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa people of Rwanda were largely created and propagandized by the Belgian Colonial powers. They introduced an ID card in 1933 that differentiated people based on these “classifications” but in reality, a Tutsi simply meant a person who herded cattle, and a Hutu was a farmer. These groups lived in harmony for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.
This quote is from Wikipedia and you can read more here:
“Belgian social scientists declared that the Tutsis, who wielded political control in Rwanda, must be descendants of the Hamites, who shared a purported closer blood line to Europeans. The Belgians concluded that the Tutsis and Hutus composed two fundamentally different ethno-racial groups. Thus, the Belgians viewed the Tutsis as more civilized, superior, but most importantly, more European than the Hutus. This perspective justified placing societal control in the hands of the Tutsis at the expense of the Hutus. Moreover, this Belgian affirmation of the Hamitic theory provided a conceptual foundation for Tutsis and Hutus to start identifying themselves as different ethnic groups. The Belgians established a comprehensive race theory that was to dictate Rwandan society until independence: Tutsi racial superiority and Hutu oppression. The institutionalization of Tutsi and Hutu ethnic divergence was accomplished through administrative, political economic, and educational means.”
Many years later, after colonial powers had left, a Hutu majority took control of the government in the country. This division that was created by the Belgians became a systematic belief system that was propagandized through radio and print – all Hutu people were systematically encouraged to oust, bully, ignore, not employ and generally terrorize Tutsi citizens until they felt compelled to leave the country.
Of course, this culminated in an all-out mass genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus on April 6 of 1994. An estimated 2 million Rwandans were slaughtered.
Incidentally, I remember walking through the museum and kept wondering why 1994 seemed so significant to me. And then it hit me. I had just spent a month in South Africa and I realized that Nelson Mandela became the first freely elected president of South Africa on the 27th of April that same year. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around something so positive occurring simultaneously as something so heinous on the same continent.
The reality of what happened here was extremely disturbing. I have included a few photos here of some of the more alarming facts I read that truly put the international community to shame for standing by and doing nothing when they had had adequate warning this was going to happen. A few things that stand out to me:
Most killings were vicious and carried out by machetes. People were forced to rape and kill their own family members and neighbors.
The number of troops that were sent to Rwanda to remove foreign nationals to safety would have been adequate to prevent the genocide – had they been allowed to stay.
There was simply not enough capacity in the justice system for every crime committed to be prosecuted by a court system in the years following the genocide. So, a community based “Truth and reconciliation” program was created that allowed neighbors, friends, strangers to face a local sentence if they were honest enough to admit to having killed someone. Often that sentence was simply labor that would be offered to the offended party, such as a wife who’s husband was murdered by her neighbor. The neighbor, upon admitting guilt, would be “sentenced” to help support the woman and her children for a number of years in order to be “forgiven”.
Two cyclists “hitching” a ride as we drive out of Kigali into the mountains
The number of dead is purely an estimate as no accurate record of who died in the years following the genocide nor how many died in refugee camps of bordering countries has been kept
There are startling similarities between the ethnic cleansing propaganda used by Hitler and those used by the Hutu army.
After a very sobering visit, it was refreshing to leave Kigali and head up into the hills towards a mountainous region of the country close to the border with the DRC. We stayed at Fatima guest house in Ruhengeri, a small town near Lake Kivu. The following day I joined two of the other passengers on what turned out to be a delightful and quite personal tour of Lake Kivu and the town of Gisenyi.
Me and our delightful guide, Didier
Our guide’s name was Didier and he was incredibly personable, funny, and professional. His English was also outstanding and his enthusiasm for his country and all the region had to offer was infectious. We headed out of Ruhengeri early in the morning and drove to Gisenyi where our first stop was a lookout over the city that sits on the shores of Lake Kivu. We also visited the local and international border crossings with the DRC and got to observe the crazy foot traffic of local artisans trading everything from cabbages to dresses with their less-governed neighbor.
I was reminded of Lake Como in northern Italy – this place was stunning. The beach on the lake was fringed with beautiful palm-like trees, the water was clean and turquoise and there was lots of infrastructure to suggest this was the premier vacation destination for wealthy Africans. I could easily have stayed for several weeks.
Another shot of Lake Kivu
We visited “Honeymoon Island” which is self-explanatory and very romantic, a gushing hot spring where a group of village children descended upon Didier who obliged them all (and us!) with chunks of natural sugar cane to suck on. We had a delicious lunch and a locally brewed Rwandan beer and it was all so lovely that when Didier decided to tell us his experience of living through the genocide – we were all taken quite aback at his authenticity and apparent ease at relating such graphic details.
Didier told us that his father, a Tutsi, was murdered, his mother, a Hutu, and sister fled (and he presumed killed) He said his life had been very much in extreme danger because he represented one of the most hated groups of persons during the genocide – a child of a mixed marriage. Somehow, against the odds, at the age of seven, Didier lived a life on the street, scrounging for what food he could find and sleeping wherever he felt safe…for years. Eventually, a kind family took him in and he went to school and ate one meal of beans once per day for many years. He says that it was often really hard for him to concentrate on his studies because he was so hungry, but that he was determined to get a good job one day.
Eating Sugar cane
Ten years after the genocide, when he was 17, the UN performed a census of the refugee camps in the Congo and he found out that his mother and sister were alive! They had an emotional reunion in Kigali and now see each other regularly. There was not a dry eye at the table as he recited this happy conclusion to his story.
Didier assured us that the national identity, of being Rwandan, was very real now and that he was happy. He loved his work in tourism, he was close with his mom and sister, but he also asked, with a great beaming smile, how he could possibly not be happy when he knew each morning now that “I will eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner???!!!”
On the beach of Lake Kivu
There are no words for how it felt to be in the presence of someone telling you such a vivid and personal story. This was no longer an exhibit at the museum. This was a small child, who survived against the odds through unimaginable horrors.
After lunch, we decided to visit one of the nice hotels on the lake and go for a swim. It was so beautiful and relaxing in the water, and after we all treated ourselves to a nice cocktail and shared more stories.
Man off to sell cabbages loaded onto his bike on the DRC border
Later that evening, Didier was kind enough to invite us out to hear some live local music. None of my group wanted to go, but I was game – so I hopped onto a boda boda (motorcycle transport) and met up with him to grab some beers. We had a memorable evening sharing more stories, and then ended up at a karaoke club where I ran into an American from Seattle! Small world, eh? Apparently the karaoke is what Didier had meant by “local music” – and despite having only half a voice because of my horrible cough – I roused the crowd by belting out some Bonnie Tyler and Beyonce. It was a very fun evening and put the perfect happy ending onto my memorable few days here in Rwanda.
After my emotional day in Kampala we had a long drive to the town of Kabale located near the Rwandan border and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where we were going to trek deep into the jungle in search of the mountain gorillas.
I have been slightly obsessed with gorillas ever since childhood when I first saw “Gorillas in the Mist” with one of my hero actresses Sigourney Weaver, as the passionate conservationist Dian Fossey. She spent the majority of her life in this part of the world documenting the Gorilla’s behavior and was instrumental in creating the national parks and the facilities therein that would give them at least some chance of survival.
One of the unfortunate ramifications of the creation of these national parks was that the Batwa Pygmies, an ethnic tribe who had resided in these forests for hundreds of years, were forced to leave their homes and their lifestyles with nowhere else to go. I need to do some further reading on this topic as I’m unsure to what degree these people could be blamed for the poaching and subsequent diminishing numbers of gorillas in these mountains. Having said that, fewer than 800 are now recorded to be living in these thankfully protected areas (the gorillas that is, not the Pygmies!)
Heading into Bwindi
That isn’t to say that visiting the gorillas is absent of any ethical considerations. It’s more of a catch-22 situation. We visited the Ugandan park in May when the permits are discounted by 40%, but typically it costs about $700 USD for a day permit to visit these creatures. Without this revenue, the parks wouldn’t be able to hire the kind of manpower that it takes to protect these magnificent animals from poachers. On the other hand, selling these permits means that each of the family groups’ of gorillas gets visited by eight people + guides per day – which has lead to the gorillas being completely habituated. On top of that, I do believe that my visit to the group of gorillas we saw absolutely did cause them stress. Not that it was just our presence – but the guides were extremely aggressive in pursuing the members of the group, often hacking at vegetation with machetes to allow our group better viewing and photo opportunities.
So, as I recall this amazing experience, it is with mixed feelings of both awe at having seen them in the wild, together with regret that they can’t be kept safe from both poachers and from being hassled by daily visits.
Still coughing from my cold, I was a little worried about the arduous day of hiking in the heat and humidity that was before me. I kept my inhaler with me and managed to keep the cough under control most of the day. We were picked up around 5am from our campsite in Kabale and driven into Bwindi where we had an initial orientation and were then split up into two groups of 8 (together with some non-Oasis travelers.) We headed out up a rather steep trail and I felt myself echoing the steps of Dian Fossey as we began to penetrate the impentetrable forests of Bwindi.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
The views were extraordinary with thick blankets of fog covering the lush green slopes. The sweat was already pouring off of us by 10am and the temperature beginning to soar. It was a little over 3 hours into the trek when we were informed that a group of approximately 11 adults and a few babies had been spotted.
Me and a Gorilla in the background
Our group in the early morning mist
The next hour was filled with incredible moments. From the very first glimpse of the silverback sitting and chewing grass not more than 15 feet from where I stood, to then being charged, twice, when he sensed our group had overstepped his privacy threshold. At one point, a mother gorilla with a few months’ old baby clinging to her back rushed out of the bush and practically ran into the middle of where we were standing. I couldn’t believe how close these creatures were to us.
The highlight for me, however, was observing the group as they ascended and later descended from the high treetops. I managed to capture a lot of the action on a video sequence that I will happily share with you here.
On our return to the jeep, the heavens opened and we experienced a downpour which was accompanied by thunder and lightning. It really added to the memorable nature of the day for me, such an atmospheric element to our descent. When we got back to Kabale, the other group hadn’t returned yet, so we set about making dinner as they were obviously going to be very hungry and tired by the time they got back. A little before they arrived, however, our drive, Pete, informed us that one of our group members, Greg, had tragically died of a suspected heart attack only an hour into their trek.
That evening and the next few days were very hard for us, and there was a lot of emotion shared – the group grew closer together for support. It was such an unexpected and shocking turn of events. Later in the trip, I was very moved when we learned that his family had requested that half of Greg’s ashes be taken to Cape Town and released in the ocean so that he could “finish the journey he had started”.
I will never forget him.
The day after our emotional sojourn to see the Gorillas, we traveled as a group to Lake Bunyoni to spend a day with a Pygmy village. This village was funded and created by a group of Ugandans who wanted to help a select group of displaced individuals who’d lost their home and their land when they were ousted from the national park system in 1994.
It was a rather strange day for me. While I really enjoyed the scenery of the lake and the surrounding countryside, and watching the amazing performances put on by the people and their children, it all felt a little bit like a “Human Safari” to me. I kept asking the group leader about what the community’s long-term plans were? Were they going to be able to secure land that they could farm for their sustenance? How were they going to survive?
Well, it turns out that they were entirely dependent upon charity and the proceeds from tours such as the one we were on. That made me slightly uncomfortable. Our leader explained that the schools that they had built would serve to provide the offspring of the people an education, so that hopefully, the kids would be able to graduate and go off and get work and then help support their families in turn. I found that to be a little optimistic, but I didn’t want to judge at the same time.
Pygmy father and his baby
Th entire time I was there, I couldn’t help but think one thought – how BAD do things have to really get before people stop reproducing so much?!!! I know, I know: in Africa, one’s “success” in life is very often measured by the size of one’s family…and yet – I couldn’t help but wonder – WHY? when you have little food, and your family is hungry, and the babies you already have are malnourised, AND your women are so malnourished that they can’t produce enough milk for those babies, AND you have no means of supporting yourselves….WHY not practice birth control? At least…the withdrawal method? (if there are no condoms available) These were the reactions that I couldn’t help having.
I wanted to provide condoms for these people, not food.
Does that make me a bad, judgmental person? What do you think?
I hope you enjoy the video I took of the children dancing for us. There is one fact that cannot be denied: these people have the most incredible innate rhythm and sense of music. It warms my heart!