It’s Tuesday 20-August, and my last full day in Rwanda.
I know everyone says this, but my time here simply flew by.
~Visiting the Urumuri Pottery cooperative, founded by women, and having a dozen women spontaneously break into song and dance to greet us. (visit them on Facebook here.)
~Taking a morning boat ride to Napoleon Island out on Lake Kivu, near Kibuye. (Named for its distinctive shape – from a distance, it looks like his famous hat).
~Seeing the seething masses of fruit bats in the trees on Napoleon, and then climbing (in flip-flops!) to the top of the island. Then looking down and seeing a cow placidly grazing on the mountain below us! Apparently the cows will swim out there with their herders.
~Hanging out with Claudine, Claver, the boys, and Jean-Marie on our second night in Kibuye, and watching Claudine demonstrate how to eat ibisheke, raw sugarcane. If you are a badass like Claudine, you peel the outer bark off with your teeth, then tear a long strip of the fiber off, and chew on it.
If you’re Martha, you try this for exactly one second, then shamefacedly hand it back to Claudine, who peels the bark off with a knife and hands it back to you. You chew on the fibers until all the sugarcane juice is gone, then spit the fiber out.
My brain has no frame of reference for the particular flavor of sugarcane, and thus told me it tastes like watermelon. It’s very good.
~Also having Phocus drive into town that same night and obtain isambaza, the tiny fish that are caught from Lake Kivu, cooked and eaten whole. They were hard to find as the government had officially ended the fishing season, a decision they make regularly to help maintain the fish stock.
They taste like sardines. They would be excellent with mustard.
~Then laying on the grass and showing Kevin and Chris the SkyView app on my phone, pointing out Saturn, Jupiter, and the scorpion tail moving through Antares.
~Arriving to Ruhengeri, and heading up to the foothills of Volcanoes National Park, which encompasses five of the eight volcanos of the Virunga Mountains, weaving across the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC. You can climb to the summits of Karisimbi (4507m) and Bisoke (3711m) from the Rwandan side of the borders, which you can be absolutely assured I will do in the future.
~Visiting the Gorilla Guardians Village (formerly Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village), and learning more about traditional Rwandan culture. This gentleman played the inanga and the iningiri and sang for us, and it was beautiful.
~After being in the van all day driving from Kivu, most of us decided to walk down the road for about 30 minutes or so from the Cultural Village, just to stretch our legs, and then have Phocus pick us up. We immediately attracted an enormous crowd of school-age children, and they walked with us for a long way. They hung on every word Claudine said, both in English and Kinyarwanda, and she talked to them about the importance of getting an education, how proud they should be to be women, and how not to look only for a man to take care of them. It was a feminist wonder.
~Then Claudine spotted ibigori, ears of corn roasted over an open coal stove, being sold by a roadside vendor for 100rwf each – approximately ten cents. She and I each bought one. It’s much different than corn grown in America, very dense and chewy, almost hard, and it tastes like popcorn. Here’s us trying to look…..well, honestly, I have no idea what we were thinking, other than that the corn was really good.
And finally, Saturday, 17-August.
Volcanoes National Park. SO. MANY. MZUNGU.
~It was honestly a little bit of a shock seeing so many white people suddenly in one place. I had grown quite used to being stared at, long and hard, by children and villagers alike, but here we were, back in a tourist-intensive place. But check-in for park tours is at 0700, and the place got crowded fast by white people from around the world, all dressed in brand-name outdoors gear, zip-off convertible pants, hiking boots, and designer sunglasses. My goodness, we are ridiculous sometimes (and please be very sure I am including myself in that remark).
~Almost all of us headed out to the Golden Monkeys, one of the many large families of this species that live in the bamboo forests on the lower elevations of the mountains. Emmanuel, our guide, was a dedicated Park Ranger who loved his job. As we hiked along the edges of farm fields, he chatted about the wildlife that lives in the park, the trees, the gorillas, the elephants, the wild dogs, the water buffalo. At the edge of the park boundary, we picked up a Park Tracker, who carried an extremely large gun with him. Said Emmanuel, “You may love the wild animals here, but be assured they do not love you back.” (They fire the gun at the ground or into the air if the group accidentally crosses a grumpy buffalo and pisses it off. But there hasn’t been a tourist injured at the park by wildlife in decades)
~Then we crossed into the bamboo, and Emmanuel said, “Welcome to my office.” We walked for ten more minutes through the sky-high bamboo, then quietly put our bags down and walked into a sunny, grassy grove, and were surrounded by dozens of monkeys.
Playing, eating, scratching, napping.
They weren’t interested in us at all, but neither were they scared of us. They ran and chased each other between us, up the tress, bouncing off the bamboo. There were two babies who were intensely play-fighting with each other, and we nicknamed them “Kevin and Chris.” (after Claver and Claudine’s sons.)
They were beautiful and charming and funny and it was a privilege to see them.
~Shannon was the only member of our group to go see the mountain gorillas. Reservations for treks to the see the gorillas need to be made months in advance, and within the past several years the cost to see them has increased from $500 to $750, and then again recently to $1500. $1500 to hike for a few hours straight up a mountain, and spend an hour with the gorillas.
In hindsight, I wish I had gone with her.
Per Shannon it was a significant physical task to climb up that mountain – for the last section of the 90-minute hike they were literally bushwhacking through stinging nettles and deep undergrowth to visit the gorilla family assigned to them. But when they came upon them, the Ranger knelt down, and spoke to the gorillas. They are so well-studied and well-loved by the rangers that they understand some of the language (grunts and growls and hoots), as well as gorilla body language.
Each Ranger is assigned to a specific family in the mountains. Shannon’s ranger had been working with, studying and protecting his assigned family for more than a decade. He knew the name of every member of the family, their personalities. He loved them, and would protect them at all costs.
In the past, when poaching was rampant, poachers would try to steal gorilla babies to sell them to wealthy foreigners. (We are such assholes.) But the family is so close that the poachers would have to shoot and kill half a dozen adult gorillas to get the baby away from them, because the family would never stop trying to get the baby back.
As Shannon described it, her ranger said, “Now, if a poacher were to come and try to steal a baby? He’d have to kill all of us, too.” And he pointed to a dozen Park Rangers and Trackers, all heavily armed, and they all nodded.
I had initially been hesitant to see the gorillas. I was admittedly deterred by the cost, but I also felt that I didn’t need to tromp on into a gorillas daily life, to gawk at them and take pictures as they ate and napped. I pretty much felt that I would be OK leaving the gorillas to just be gorillas.
But, after learning more about the incredible success of Rwanda’s conservation efforts (they worked with the poachers, and managed to turn them into conservationists – some of the Park Rangers now actually were poachers in the past, trying to feed their families and survive in the jungle), and learning about how a significant portion of the cost is given to the families farming the land on the edges of the park boundary (thereby including them in conservation and economic development initiatives), I wish I had gone.
There are rumors that the price will increase yet again, with some rumors hinting that it may double to $3K. But beyond and above a dollar figure, even though the number of gorillas is slowly increasing, they are still critically endangered. Their existence on this planet is maintained by a tenuous and fragile thread.
And I wish I had taken this chance to see them and say hello – and hope deeply, desperately, that it would also never be goodbye.