Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Finding Love in Rwanda, Continued.

            It has been one year since I wrote about Francois d’Assisi, the little boy I live with, and almost two years since we first met. It has been another year of piggyback rides, tending our growing garden, singing songs in English, French, and Kinyarwanda, doing our secret handshake, evening walks around the soccer field in front of our house, making popcorn over our wood burning stove and baking banana bread, playing Candyland, and reading a battered copy of Goodnight Moon before going to sleep at night.

Even though I am happy at the thought of returning to America and seeing so many family and friends I’ve missed dearly these past two years, I can’t stop myself from crying when I think about D’Assisi, even now, as I type this on my computer. I will miss a lot of people in my community, but I will miss D’Assisi the most.

I will miss the way he runs toward me with excitement when I come home from work. I will miss his little self in his little school uniform. I will miss both his playfulness and his caring nature that’s far deeper than his five years.

A few weeks ago, both of us were sick at the same time. After a sleepless night spent vomiting, he knocked on my door and asked if I slept well. I said no, and asked how he slept. He admitted he didn’t sleep well either, then took my hand and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll get better together.”  It was a remarkable gesture, not only because of his obvious compassion, but because as an HIV positive kid, he gets sicker more often and more seriously than I do.

One of the nuns, D’Assisi, and I visited the grove of banana trees where he was abandoned as an infant. D’Assisi wanted to play hide and seek among the trees, and he’d stand behind trees, giggling and calling my name. I walked slowly around the banana trees, and tried to imagine what his parents must have been going through five years ago that led them to abandon their newborn son. Maybe D’Assisi had brothers and sisters, but another baby was more than his parents could manage. Perhaps his mother was a young single HIV+ woman, forced to drop out of school when her headmaster found out she was pregnant, rejected by her family, and judged by the stereotypes and double-standards of her community, a story that’s all too common in my village. I wondered if his mother is still alive, somewhere. Then D’Assisi tugged on my hand, pulling me back to the shady grove. And I felt nothing, I thought about nothing, except gratitude for his life and for the joy he has brought so many people.

I want so many things for him. I want him to go to good schools. I want to be able to pay for him to have surgery on his legs so that he can finally walk normally. I want more time with him. I wish I could be in two places at once. I wish I didn’t have to let go, even for a little while. I want him to be mine. But more than that, I want what’s best for him. What is most unbearable to me is the uncertainty of all of it. I will always remember D’Assisi, and I will always love him. But will I be only a distant memory to him?

Friends and family, of course, have tried to be helpful in dealing with what is obviously a difficult and complex situation. There are lots of kids you can adopt in this world. You’ll move on and forget about him. Or, more hurtfully, he’ll move on and forget about you. Don’t limit your own potential just for him. It’s too complicated to try to adopt an orphan/HIV positive/African/etc. etc. child. You could just give money to support him! You don’t have the money to take care of him. You’re not ready to be a parent. He’s in a good situation now with the nuns, and you shouldn’t remove him from that. You don’t really know what you want, or what you’re getting into. Don’t get too emotionally involved; it will be easier to cut ties later.

Some of these are valid points that deserve a hefty amount of consideration on my part. Some of them have been incredibly painful to hear.

I know that there is a possibility that I may live to see him become far sicker than he currently is and perhaps even die, with all of the emotional baggage that this entails.

I know that the nuns can’t take care of him forever, and that in a few years they will look for a family to adopt him.

I’m well aware that I’m 24 years old and three years out of college.

I don’t want any kid. I’m not looking to save the world via adoption, to become the next Angelina Jolie. I have met thousands of kids, and many of them in a similar situation to D’Assisi here in Rwanda. There is an orphanage a forty-minute walk from my house, where there are more than two hundred amazing kids. But I don’t want any kid. I only want one, and I have never met a kid like D’Assisi. 

I also don’t want to just give money. That’s not, and will never be, enough for me. Of course, I want to be able to provide for him. But I want time with him more than anything. I want there to be more than the 120 or so days that I have left with him.

I understand it is difficult to be a parent in general, exceedingly so when single, and when adopting an HIV+ orphan from another culture (albeit one that I have lived in for two years). I realize that adopting a child is not like adopting a pet. D’Assisi is part of a culture. He has emotions and intelligence. He has ties to this place.

I also realize that as of right now, it’s illegal for foreigners to adopt Rwandan children. Without gaining Rwandan citizenship (which requires 5 years of residency), or without Rwanda changing its adoption laws, this is all just a pie in the sky. I recognize that in a few years, he may have strong opinions of his own, and they may not agree with mine, and I have to respect that.

So the next four months, I will be soaking up every hug, every piggyback ride, every reading of Goodnight Moon. I will be trying to hang on, while trying to let go. In the back of my mind, I know that I may not be able to come back to Rwanda for at least a few years, with graduate school looming on the horizon for me.

And for the next few years, I will have to live in this incredible uncertainty, wondering if I will ever be together again with the kid I love so much. Perhaps this is all there is. Maybe our story ends here.

I hope and pray that it doesn’t.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Zanzibar, you had me at Hujambo.

I have a secret to tell you all: I have a Zanzibar addiction. I fell in love last New Years, when I ate the delicious food, was entranced by its beautiful architecture, relaxed on white sands, and swam in its turquoise water. I drank the Zanzibar Kool-Aid, and there’s no going back.

When my sister Beth decided to come to Africa this year, I couldn’t resist the allures of Zanzibar any longer.

I’ve gotten to step one, realizing I have an addiction, but really have no desire to quit. Especially when THIS is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Rwanda:

            Zanzibar is a majority-Muslim island off the coast of Tanzania, in the Indian ocean. Well, actually two islands: Unguja, the main island, and Pemba, further north. Most tourists only visit Unguja, and I’m no exception. The word Tanzania is actually a combination of Tanganyika (the mainland) and Zanzibar. Cool, huh?

            Beth and I flew from Mwanza, on Lake Victoria, to Dar es Salaam on the coast on a new cheap airline called Fastjet. We said goodbye to our Swedish friends, Emmy and Josephine, and then met up with my friend Kristen at the Dar es Salaam ferry. Kristen flew over from New York for the week, and it was amazing to see her! We took the ferry over to Stonetown, and after checking into our hotel, we began to explore Stonetown, its windy streets, beautiful and sometimes crumbling buildings.

            In some ways, it was strange to be back exactly a year to the day I was in Zanzibar last year. I felt like a different person. Last year, I had eight months of service under my belt, and I was anxious about returning. This year, I’d finished twenty months in Rwanda, and 2014, which once felt impossibly far away, was the year I’d complete my Peace Corps service. I contemplated this as Kristen, Beth, and I roamed the winding, maze-like alleyways of Stonetown, taking pictures, visiting the bustling markets, dodging bikes with cheerful bells coming around sharp corners, and stopping in for smoothies, ice creams, and fresh coconut juice to beat Stonetown’s heat.

            In between our smoothie-sampling walking tour, Kristen, Beth, and I stumbled across a little open-air restaurant selling what seemed to be a soup with large chunks floating in it. Though it was probably 90 degrees out and the soup was not particularly appetizing-looking, locals crowded onto the benches, happily slurping from plastic bowls. Though the place was a bit of a sanitation nightmare, with dirty floors and a couple cats hanging around, my curiosity got the better of me and I ordered a bowl of the soup, called Urojo (also referred to as Zanzibari Mix). It was the best thing I’d tasted in Zanzibar. Make that the best thing I’d tasted in Africa. Bold but undistinguishable flavors confused and delighted my tastebuds. The soup was slightly sweet, tangy, salty, and spicy all at once. The cook added several ingredients, including little dumplings, crunchy cassava sticks, a hard-boiled egg, and chili sauce to the broth, almost like pho. The broth is reportedly made from mango juice, lemon, and turmeric. I am truly desperate for a recipe.

            The next morning, Kristen, Beth, and I got a taxi to Nungwi, in the north. It was New Years’ Eve Day, and our excitement was palpable. I think our driver, Bonge, must be a DJ on the side, and he blasted the latest hits from our car the whole time.

            Once we arrived in Nungwi, the first order of business was a swim in the crystal blue waters. Even though I’m from Nebraska, possibly the most land-bound state in the USA, I adore the ocean. We met some friendly Tanzania Peace Corps Volunteers, and compared and contrasted life in our countries.

            After a pizza dinner and some drinks, we showered and got ready for the big New Years party at Kendwa Rocks, about a 40-minute walk on the beach from our hotel. By the time we arrived, it was about 11:00, and the party was in full swing, with several hundred people on the beaches and dance floor. They had fireworks at midnight, and Kristen and I finally got back to our hotel after 6 am.

            The next few days were blissfully relaxing. My friend Andrew and his girlfriend Maria joined us, and our days were filled with working on our tans (well, sunburns), swimming in the Indian ocean, eating our fill of seafood, snorkeling at Mnemba atoll, and taking a sunset cruise on a traditional wooden dhow boat.

the whole group
            After five days at the beach, we spent a couple days exploring Stonetown again, and eating a bowl (or five) of the Urujo soup. I could not. get. enough. Our PC Tanzania friend (actually, his site is on the other Zanzibar island, Pemba. Rwanda is awesome and everything, but I’m SO JEALOUS) Son showed us an awesome spot called Six Degrees South. It was pretty fancy, but they had amazing cocktails, and we spent our happy hour trying them and watching the beautiful sunset. All too quickly, Kristen had to get on a plane back to New York. It was so wonderful to catch up, and I was so glad she made the long trip over! 

            On my last full day in Zanzibar, Son, Beth, and I took a spice tour. Zanzibar is known for its spices, and used to be part of the global spice trade. We took a van without about 10 other people to a spice farm. Our tour guide pointed out various spices, including peppercorns, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, turmeric, and nutmeg. We sampled the spices right from the plant, which was a really fascinating experience. If only these spices would make it over to Rwanda…

             We enjoyed a lunch of curry, spiced palau rice, and chapatti while sitting on big mats, and then visiting some former slave caves and a secluded beach, which was unfortunately riddled with sea urchins. Several members of our spice tour group, including our friend Son, ended up with sea urchin spines in various parts of their body.

            After the spice tour, we headed back to Six Degrees South for a last happy hour together, and then headed to Dreamers Island, a floating houseboat owned by some Rastafarians docked in the harbor. Dreamers Island had a bar and restaurant, a DJ stall, rooms for a couple of the owners to sleep, and a little “swimming pool."

            The next morning, it was time to say goodbye to Beth and Son, who were staying a couple more days. At the airport, I had one last adventure: the plane I’d booked at the last minute from Stonetown to Dar es Salaam, was the tiniest puddle-jumper I’d ever seen.

The plane had a single propeller, and the passenger area fit six people. Total. Including pilot and copilot. It was smaller than the inside of a car. I nervously joked with the British pilot about whether there would be beverage services on our half-hour flight, trying to calm my nerves. He laughed, and then asked us four passengers to fasten on our seatbelts. The other passengers, all Tanzanian, seemed relaxed as we turned on the engine and sped down the runway. Two fell asleep.

I kind of wanted to scream, except that it probably would have caused the pilot to crash the plane. So I bit my tongue, tried not to lose my breakfast, and just watched as Zanzibar faded away into the distance. Crystal blue waters thousands of feet below filled the windows of our little plane, and I tried hard to avoid my mental habit of imagining worst-case scenarios (“Psycho Peace Corps Volunteer Screams During Plane Ride, Pilot Crashes Into Lovely Reef Below, No Survivors”).

 Thirty minutes later, we were in Dar es Salaam, a couple hours after that, I was back in Mwanza on Lake Victoria, and about sixteen hours and a bus breakdown in the middle of nowhere after that, I was back in Rwanda.

Until next time, Zanzibar!

Trip Details
In Stonetown, we stayed at Pyramid Hotel. Beautiful, good location, and affordable ($60 for a double, $90 for a triple; with AC and breakfast).

In Nungwi we stayed at the Paradise Beach Bungalows. The rooms were very simple but clean, and the ocean was at our doorstep. $60 for a double room or $35 for a single.

Also, consider taking a plane from Zanzibar to Dar, and vice versa, if you can swing it. The ferry is $35, and you can get a plane ticket for $59. But you'll have to pay for a cab to the harbor to get the ferry, and wait in traffic, and it ends up being about pretty even. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Sisters on a Serengeti Safari

Good morning, Serengeti! 
The morning after Christmas, Beth and I woke up at 4:30 am to start our long day of traveling to Tanzania. After our seven hour bus ride to Kigali, we paused for lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant with a couple friends before continuing on to the Rusumo, at the Tanzania/Rwanda border, another four hours on a bus. It was already dark by the time we arrived in Rusumo, and though I’d visited a year earlier to see Rusumo Falls with my friend Megan, there was a lot of new construction going on and I didn’t recognize a thing. Luckily, a helpful Rwandan man who worked in Rusumo offered to show us a place to stay.
Rusumo Falls, at the Tanzania/Rwanda border
We arrived at a nondescript bar down a dark road close to the border, which also seemed to have rooms to stay in. I went into their tiny reception office, where bugs were swarming the single bare lightbulb in the room. When I asked about prices, the receptionist asked if I wanted a room by the hour or for the whole night (the mark of a truly classy place!).
At 3,000 francs per night (about $5), the price was certainly right, and since we didn’t know of any other place to stay, we agreed to stay. Our room was bare except for a bed and mosquito net. Beth and I were both dying for a shower after a long day on buses, but there was no running water in the entire place, and our dreams were quickly dashed. After getting a dinner of omelettes at another nearby bar with excruciatingly slow service, we turned in for the night, trying to take the “ignorance is bliss” route when it came to the cleanliness of the bed linens.
The next morning we were up bright and early to try to beat the lines and buses that clog the border immigration offices. By 7 am, we had gone through the Rwandan side of immigration, and were headed over the pounding waters of Rusumo Falls to the Tanzania side. I mentally congratulated myself on beating the rush as we crossed over into Tanzania with little hassle, until we arrived on the Tanzania side to find that no buses were leaving for Kahama, our destination, for another three hours. Fantastic.

View from my seat on a long, hot bus ride
We waited around, had some tea and chapatti, and then finally we were on our way to Kahama. We transferred buses in Kahama and finally arrived in Mwanza on Lake Victoria at about 8 pm that night, after about 13 hours of travel by bus, where we met up with our Swedish friends, Emmy and Josephine.

The following day, Josephine and I were up at 4:30 am to wait for our guide and driver from Serengeti Expeditions, but due to a miscommunication, we didn’t meet up with them until about 6:30 am. After paying and filling out our paperwork, we were on our way to the Serengeti, about two and half hours drive from Mwanza.

The four of us girls had our own safari vehicle with a pop up roof, so you could stand up with your head out the top. The Serengeti was unbelievable. Even if you see zero animals, the scenery itself is stunning. There are rolling hills, flat grasslands that stretch for miles, and acacia trees dotting the landscape.

Over the next two days, we were lucky enough to see crocodiles, hippos, giraffes, zebras, antelope, gazelles, lions, cheetahs, water buffalo, hyenas, a leopard, warthogs, baboons, and elephants. I had to pinch myself several times during the trip to make sure it was all real.

That night, we arrived at Nyani campsite in the middle of the Serengeti. With the help of our guide and driver, we set up our two tents amidst about a hundred others. There was nothing between us, the vast plains of the Serengeti, and all of the animals. Which was both exciting and slightly terrifying at the same time. Things slid towards the “terrifying” end of the scale later that night, when a girl started screaming around 2 am. It wasn’t just one scream, but several loud, blood-curdling, high-pitched screams. Other people at the camp site called out in different languages, “What’s happening?!” “What’s going on?!”

 Eventually the screaming stopped, but I had no idea what had just happened, and my mind raced towards worst-case scenarios. The camp is probably being attacked by lions. Or maybe hyenas, don’t they hunt at night? I somehow fell back to sleep, and the next morning we found that a girl on anti-malaria medications was simply having nightmares. 

            Beth, Josephine, Emmy, and I woke before sunrise the next day to head out on a game drive. Just a few minutes outside of our camp, we came across a herd of elephants. We stopped the car, and then watched the sun rise over the Serengeti. It was just like the Lion King. In fact, if I ever go to the Serengeti again, someone please remind me to bring the Lion King soundtrack. Pictures can’t do it justice.

            After another full day of game drives and seeing an incredible amount of animals, we headed back to Mwanza with Toto’s Africa blasting (really, the only other appropriate song besides the Lion King soundtrack in these circumstances).

Emmy, Josephine, and I headed to a swanky lakeside hotel, Hotel Tilapia, just a few blocks away from the budget place we were staying, for dinner. We had a delicious meal while watching a lightning storm over Lake Victoria, and then turned in for the night since our plane to Zanzibar was the next morning.

Trip Details
It is possible to go from Kigali to Mwanza, on Lake Victoria, in about 16 hours of travelling by bus. It’s about 3-4 hours from Kigali to Rusumo (the Tanzania/Rwanda border), and about an hour to cross and do immigration stuff. You can take Select or Matunda bus services from Nyabugogo bus park in Kigali (3,000 francs). There’s an hour time change (you lose an hour going to Tanzania) at the border.

There are buses waiting on the Tanzania side to take you to Kahama, about 5 hours away. We took Select Express (a smaller Coaster bus), for 12,000 TSH or 5,500 RWF. At Kahama, you change buses to a big bus to Mwanza. From Kahama to Mwanza it’s about five hours as well. It was 10,000 shillings.

In Mwanza, we stayed at Lake Hotel, close to Lake Victoria and Hotel Tilapia. It was definitely a budget place, but it was safe and definitely a step up from the “rent by the hour” place we stayed the night before. 20,000 TSH ($13) for a double room per night. Check out Hotel Tilapia, just a fifteen minute walk away, for some amazing food and views.

In Kahama, on the way back, I stayed at the New Mongo Hotel, a four story building just a block or two from the bus station. At 35,000 TSH a night it was pretty fancy for me, but very secure and had nice rooms and hot water. +255 282 710 351 and +255 782311679.

We went with Serengeti Expedition, based in Mwanza, for our trip (I had simply emailed about 40 safari companies, and they were the cheapest). It was fairly no-frills, but considering that we paid about $300 per person for 2 days one night in the Serengeti and other companies were quoting $1000, I felt it was a good deal for the money. Our guide was knowledgeable and we saw all of the animals except rhinos. My only complaints were that they had promised us that meals were $10 inside the park, and for some meals they wanted $15 or $20. Our guide seemed almost unsure of what to do for dinner once we arrived at the campsite (other tour groups had their own chef with them). And later in the second day, we had car trouble, and our guide and driver had no phone minutes. It turned out to be okay (we ate lunch while they had our car fixed), but it cut short our second day, and we didn’t get to see the south part of the Serengeti. So if you’re looking for a budget way to see the Serengeti, it was good, but if you have more money than a Peace Corps Volunteer, you might want to look into other tour companies.