A few final thoughts from home…

We’ve been home for a couple of days now and are finally getting over the effects of jet lag… although Marie still has a wicked head cold and we’ve both been feeling like we got run over by a very large truck… but given the number of people hacking and coughing on our flights home, it’s no surprise one of us got sick… in fact I’m actually a little shocked we didn’t bring home the plague or something. Marie was actually the energizer bunny on Saturday, doing most of our laundry, getting groceries and taking Bear for a walk while I basically slept the whole day (definitely the worst I’ve ever felt after a trip). But the tables have turned now and she’s dragging her feet around a little while I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and raring to go… at 3AM…

We’re also a little surprised we made it home at all considering the Air Canada flight attendant on our flight home had a) no idea what city we were taking off from, b) no idea what city we were flying to, c) what aircraft we were flying in or d) how long our flight time would be… If preflight announcements are supposed to reassure passengers, hers was a complete disaster. And to continue the bash Air Canada theme, why did it not come as any surprise that we could fly more than 20,000km on multiple flights with Ethiopian Airlines with no difficulties at all and that Ethiopian Airlines was capable of shepherding our bags through the chaos of Addis Ababa airport but Air Canada couldn’t make sure that all our bags made it from Toronto to Vancouver… I know that bashing Air Canada is almost a national pastime in Canada but it’s hard not to bash them when you see what other airlines – including those in Air Canada’s service levels – are offering. Ethiopian Airlines provided hot meals, blankets, headphones and pillows on every flight and even managed to keep our luggage on the same flights as us… The same cannot be said of Air Canada…

Okay… enough complaining… let’s talk about some positives…

First, a huge shoutout to our friends Karen and Michael who met us at the ferry and gave us a ride home at the end of our trip… and thoughtfully brought homemade soup and a bag of groceries to tide us over in case we weren’t feeling up to cooking (we definitely weren’t). And to our neighbours Philip and Marya who provided a warm welcome home and a delicious blueberry-apple pie! And to our dog/house sitter Ricardo who kept Bear well-exercised and who seems to have thoroughly detailed Marie’s car while we were away… her tires have never been so shiny! and who kept the house absolutely  immaculate. Often times, the best part of traveling is being reminded of what you have back home and this trip was no exception. Marie and I are truly blessed to have the life we have…

Next, Insight Global Education and Craig in particular deserve all kinds of praise and gratitude for making this trip happen and making it happen as seamlessly as it did. Our accommodation choices were excellent (sure some didn’t have hot water at times and the power went out at some but that’s Africa and certainly wasn’t Insight’s responsibility… and to be honest it added to the overall feel of the trip). No one got sick from what we ate or drank. We ended up in the places we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be there. We saw lions! And we were provided with valuable insight and knowledge about the places and things we were seeing… In short, Craig was a fantastic tour guide and handled the logistics with aplomb… I have never had less to do on a trip and Patrick was a fount of knowledge about Uganda and Rwanda and was just plain awesome. Insight runs a great student travel program and I’m already starting to think about the next trip we’ll run with them! Fuji? Ecuador? Costa Rica? Maybe their new Balkans or Southeast Asia destinations?

Finally, East Africa… or at least Uganda and Rwanda. One of the purposes of Insight’s programming is to change people’s (especially students’) perceptions of East Africa. In particular to shift people away from the constant negative images of Africa as violent, poverty-ridden, starving and to be able to see Africa in a different light…  Well that certainly happened for us.

There are aspects of Uganda and Rwanda that are not wholly positive. There is poverty. There is a heavy security presence and there are a lot of machine guns in the hands of police, soldiers and security guards all over the place. There is corruption. The traffic is stifling in places and you need to keep your wits about you in markets and in crowded areas. Driving is downright dangerous in and out of the cities. Rwanda and Uganda do not have democratically elected governments nor do their citizens enjoy universal human rights that we in the West take for granted. You don’t want to drink the water. Or swim in most of the lakes. Sometimes the power goes out. And there’s not always hot water. And you are well-advised to make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date and that you take your anti-malarials.

But there is corruption in many countries that are popular tourist destinations. Heavy security is the new reality for most cities throughout Europe. Traffic and driving are a nightmare in many countries (been to Vancouver lately…). Keeping your wits about you in markets and crowded spaces is a necessity everywhere you travel to unless you like losing your stuff or getting scammed. And poverty is not confined to Africa (again, been to Vancouver lately…).

On the plus side, we found the people in Uganda and Rwanda to be genuinely friendly and welcoming. The prices are pretty awesome for food and shopping and accommodation. Beer costs about a dollar. Sodas cost less than that. Bottled water is readily available everywhere you go. Getting a SIM card for your phone will take you less than 20 minutes and data plans are cheap, cheap, cheap. WiFi is spotty but you’ll find decent cell coverage almost everywhere. We were not swarmed by mosquitoes (I did not get bit once and did not use bug repellent for the last 5 days of the trip but some of the kids definitely got a few bites despite using high concentration DEET bug repellents). Most rooms will have fans. Those that don’t will be hot but that just means your freshly washed clothes will dry faster. Marie thought the mattresses were a bit hard but she’s a bit of a wimp when it comes to that… The food isn’t super amazing (matoke is a bit of an acquired taste and the meat tends to be a bit tough) but it’s cheap and plentiful and you can get every type of cuisine imaginable… Service tends to be a bit slow and sometimes you don’t always get what you ordered but that’s part of the charm. And when you get out of the cities and into the countryside, the scenery is pretty spectacular. And they have lions. And zebras. And elephants…

Basically, traveling to Uganda and Rwanda was not all that different than traveling to Thailand or Cambodia or Turkey or Morocco… Lots of positives and a few things you need to watch out for. And that was the point of the trip to a large extent. To show the students – and Marie and I – that Africa is not really all that different than many of the places people travel to. Yes, you’ll want to hire a car and driver. Yes, it will be hot and dusty and noisy and chaotic in places… and serene and beautiful in others…

I guess the most telling fact of all is that we’re already thinking of going back to East Africa… Caitlin says Zanzibar is absolutely beautiful and her pictures certainly confirm that. Doing a gorilla trek has been on Marie’s bucket list for as long as I’ve known her and apparently the Serengeti safari experience is out of this world…

Addis Ababa to Toronto to Vancouver to Victoria

We had plenty of time in Addis to catch our breath after barely making our flight from Kigali… or so we thought. Just as we were heading for the security line, a huge line of people materialized which wouldn’t have been a big deal if a) two of our travellers weren’t pulled for “random” pull your entire bag apart security searches and b) the airline didn’t change the gate assignment mid-process stranding half of our travellers on one side of a now closed door and the other at the security screening table. It all worked out fine and the Ethiopian Airlines staff were as accommodating and helpful as they could be under the circumstances but it did make for a much hairier boarding experience than we’d been expecting. And the plane was almost an hour late taking off as a result of the ensuing chaos (we thought we were going to be near the last to board but that did not turn out to be the case at all as many more people got caught up in even more chaos than us…). Leaving an hour late was cause for some concern as we only have 90 minutes to catch our connecting flight in Toronto and we need to clear customs and security because of the way Pearson handles connecting flights… but we’d worry about that 15 hours later… for now, we just needed to get through another insanely long plane ride. It actually turned out to be not that bad. Ethiopian’s food is never going to win any awards but they sure kept it coming and they were around frequently to water us… Their cabin attendants were friendly and helpful and all in all, the flight passed as pleasantly as one could hope for. Except for the turbulence for the first hour and half which had Marie checking for barf bags big time. Thankfully she was able to get some sleep and let the gravol kick in and when she woke, felt much better for the remainder of the ride. Unlike our flight from Toronto to Addis which was a straight 13 hour shot, this flight was broken up by a one hour stop in Dublin after 7.5 hours of flight time so they could change the crew and refuel. Then we were back in the air for another 6.5 hours to Toronto… Both of the flight times ended up being shorter than anticipated which meant we landed in Toronto with the full 90 minutes to get our connecting flight despite leaving Addis an hour later than planned… we were split on this format versus the longer straight shot – some of us preferred the longer single flight while others preferred the two shorter flights even if we weren’t able to get off the plane in Dublin…

We landed in Toronto and arrived at the terminal at exactly 8:25 as scheduled (pretty impressive when you consider we’d flown for almost 15 hours) and were able to get off the plane fairly quickly… only to be held up briefly by the new document check Border Services seems to be doing quite often right in the gangway… when you have a 787 Dreamliner (one of the larger planes out there) unloading a full complement of passengers and have 2 agents checking passports you’re going to create a bottleneck… thankfully it didn’t hold us up for long and we were soon making our way to customs. We caught a huge break here as there was absolutely no lineup… something we’ve never seen before at Pearson and we all breezed through despite most of us declaring plant products (coffee), wood products (masks, drums and other souvenirs) and whatnot… they didn’t seem too concerned. After customs we made our way to baggage claim to pick up our checked bags (something we have only ever had to do at Pearson). We were delayed a bit here as Marie and Noah’s bags must have been first to be loaded on the plane in Addis because they were pretty close to the last ones off in Toronto… from there we made our way back through customs (where none of us were selected for further inspection) and then we said goodbye to Noah who lives in Toronto and was able to head home to his bed while the rest of prepared for another 5 hour flight. After Customs 2.0 you go to Customs 3.0 where you are either sent for more screening and inspection (none of us were selected thankfully) or you’re sent to a conveyor belt to load your checked bags back into the system… I’m sure there’s a good reason for it all and that it keeps us safe or something, but it’s never really made much sense every time we’ve had to do it…

After dropping our bags off, we headed for security (because Pearson puts the exit from the airport in too close proximity to the passageway to the connecting customs bag drop) where my camera caused them a bit of grief because it was kind of big – their words – and where I was told that I should take it out of my bag next time… despite the fact that my camera has been through over 50 security screenings in the exact same bag in at least 20 different airports and not once has anyone ever said it needs to be taken out of the bag. Marie’s pack also caused them some grief because she had forgotten to take the small can of ginger ale the airline gave her when she wasn’t feeling too hot out of her bag… Thankfully the extra scrutiny and swabbing and whatnot didn’t hold us up too long and we were soon making our way to the gate (which was, of course, different than the one printed on 5 of our 6 boarding passes…). Once at the gate, we had maybe 6 minutes to buy some snacks for the flight (because Air Canada doesn’t provide meals on domestic flights unless you’re willing to part with an arm or leg… which seems doubly chintzy when you consider that Ethiopian provides a full hot meal even on 2 hour flights) and to fill out water bottles with blessedly cold tap water and send a couple of short “we’re alive and made our flight” messages to various people and then it was final boarding call time so we hustled our butts onto the plane.

We’re now just over 2 hours into our flight which means we’ve got another 3 hours of flying, a bus ride to the ferry, a 1.5 hour ferry ride and a half hour drive into Victoria before we’ll be stepping through our door. That’s a full 36 hours since we left our guesthouse in Kigali on Thursday… if you’ve never done one of these epic flying adventures where you have no idea what day or time it is and your body doesn’t know whether it should be eating breakfast or dinner have you really travelled. I can’t help imagining what it must have been like before Airlines starting flying to Africa regularly and before the advent of passenger jets that can cruise at 40,000 feet doing almost 900 km per hour. As hard as this trip is on the mind and body, there was a time not so long ago when flying to and from Africa was a literal test of one’s spirit so we won’t complain too much…

 

 

Kigali to Addis Ababa

We slept in until 8:30 this morning as our itinerary for the day is not super full. Breakfast this morning was Spanish omelettes with chicken sausages (straight up wieners) with toast and some fruits (passion fruit, tomato fruit, bananas and mango). Again, it was quite tasty but not very filling (which would come back to haunt us later…).

After breakfast, we piled into the van along with Jerome (one of the guesthouse staffers) whose family owned a local craft shop. He promised us the very best prices and that the quality of goods would be better… I don’t think the girls cared where he took us as long as he came along for the ride… His shop did have a selection of good quality items and everyone seemed happy with their bargaining outcomes. The girls were definitely not happy that Jerome was not going to be staying with us for the morning… After Jerome’s, we headed to a much larger and much more chaotic market. Marie and I were in heaven and did some hard bargaining to pick up some souvenirs for ourselves and for people back home. Then we headed to a local bookstore and coffee shop for a drink and to browse their selection of books on Africa… they had an excellent selection of books on foreign aid in Africa and on genocide in general but their prices were a bit on the high side. Their drinks were delicious but a bit pricey.

After the bookstore we hightailed it back to the guesthouse to pack our purchases and finish packing our bags and then it was time to head to the airport (a short drive away as Kigali’s airport is right in the centre of the city – at least until construction of their new airport is completed). On arrival, we had to exit the vehicle and walk through security screening just to get on the property. While we were walking through, the van was put through a car wash style chemical and X-ray screening of its own. Then we piled back into the van for the short drive to departures where we said goodbye to Patrick and then headed into the airport. Unfortunately, Craig was not able to join us because his flight was 2 hours later than ours and they wouldn’t let him enter the airport with us… so we said our goodbyes to Craig and headed through security and on to the Ethiopian Airlines counter to check in and drop our checked bags. Marie and I had woken up a 4am yesterday to go online and reserve seats for all of us and to check in. We were able to select seats but were not able to complete the check in process for some reason and had to do it when we arrived at the airport. It took almost an hour for us to check in due to computer and printer issues but eventually we were all checked in and ready to head for passport control. Where we also had to wait… And then through security again. By the time we got through to our gate, it was 4:05 and our flight was boarding. Which coupled with a complete lack of water and/or food at the gate meant we were all a bit concerned as to whether they would be feeding us on this flight or not.

Our takeoff was delayed by about 40 minutes while the pilots waited for documentation from the company (at least that’s what the pilot said) but we are cruising along comfortably at the moment and have – thankfully – been well fed and watered so all is well. We should be landing at Addis Ababa in about an hour and will have about a 2 hour layover before boarding our insanely long flight from Addis to Dublin with a scheduled 50 minute equipment stop there where we probably won’t deplane and then on to Dublin. In all, Marie and the kids have said that we’re scheduled to spend about 16 hours on the plane but with time changes and whatnot, I haven’t done the math to confirm this… whatever the end time, it will be a long, long time to be on a plane. And when we land, assuming we’re on time, we have only 90 minutes to make our connecting flight from Toronto to Vancouver… with having to clear customs in Toronto, it is a crap shoot at this point whether we’ll make it or not but that’s out of our hands at this point… whatever happens, we know that Noah will be sleeping in his own bed before we make it home as he will be leaving us in Toronto.

I will try to post this blog post and yesterday’s while we’re waiting in Addis. After that we will be out of touch until we land in Vancouver as I doubt we’ll have time to do anything in Toronto other than dash for our flight… unless we miss it of course, in which case, I’ll have plenty of time to comment in Air Canada’s service…

Kigali

Our last full day of travelling – and our only full day in Kigali – started with a breakfast of crepes, toast and Spanish omelettes. It was all very tasty but not spectacularly filling (not a bad thing maybe given that we’re all drinking so much soda on this trip that we’re risking diabetes).

Our first stop this day was the Genocide Memorial… and like everything else in Kigali, not at all what I expected. It is one of the most professional and polished museum experiences we’ve had (and Caitlin and Marie will attest that we’ve seen a lot of museums). It’s also incredibly moving… You start with a short video about the genocide and then move into a series of exhibits chronicling the genocide from its colonial origins through the horrors of the genocide and to the international and local responses to the genocide and efforts at reconciliation. It’s very, very well done. They have done an admirable job of keeping the information quite neutral… the current government is dominated by Tutsis – and it would have been easy, and somewhat expected perhaps, for them to have portrayed the Hutus in a much more negative light… but that doesn’t happen. But the colonial powers prior to independence in 1962 and the western world during the genocide definitely do not come out looking very good at all. And nor should they… it’s all pretty abominable. After following the timeline of the genocide, there is another short video to close the story and then other exhibits – including a particular tragic children’s room that documents the deaths of a number of children. Outside there are the mass graves of 259,000 victims of the genocide who have been buried on site and a memorial wall of their names. It is a somber and moving experience to think of what people went through during the genocide and the memorial serves to highlight even more how far Kigali has come since then. It is a remarkable transformation.

After the memorial we made our way into the countryside about an hour outside of Kigali to see the Nyamata memorial – a church where nearly 10,000 people sought refuge during the genocide and were instead systematically slaughtered (only 7 people survived the attack). Unfortunately, the policy for the site had changed and instead of being able to explore it with Steven – who grew up in the area and survived by hiding in nearby swamps, we were forced to wait almost 45 minutes for the official tour guide to finish her break. The memorial is much less polished than the one in Kigali but still effective as they have preserved the clothes of the victims and have interred the victims in mass burials where the coffins – some of which are open – are filled with random bones of the victims and stacked in underground vaults.

After the church we made our way back into Kigali where we grabbed lunch at a local version of Chipotle (a burrito bar popular in Vancouver and other places) – it was delicious and much less expensive than the previous day’s meal. After lunch we drove a short distance to a memorial to the 10 Belgian UN peacekeepers who were assassinated by government forces during the genocide. As both Nick and Noah’s fathers had served in Rwanda during and after the genocide, this memorial was particular powerful for them. Considering the tragic fate of the 10 young men who held out for hours with only 2 sidearms between them against over 100 heavily armed soldiers was quite sobering for all of us.

After the peacekeepers’ memorial we made our way to the Hotel des Milles Collines made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda and now a luxury Kigali hotel (as it was then). There is a small monument to the hotel staff members who were killed during the genocide but otherwise there is nothing to mark the events that took place on the site in 1994. We grabbed seats near their quite luxurious pool and debriefed the day’s events and talked about the trip while enjoying their quite posh facilities…

After the hotel we made our way back to our guesthouse where dinner (spinach soup to start, pork chops, potatoes, veggies and fruit salad) was waiting for us. After dinner we scattered as some tuned into the Croatia-England World Cup game while others went to grab showers or pack for tomorrow’s flights home. The general sense of our travellers was that we would have liked more time in Kigali…

Tomorrow, we’re heading to a market in the morning and will then head to the airport for the first of our flights home. It’s a bit of a mixed bag at this point with some people looking forward to heading back home and others wishing we had much more time. What is not in question is that everyone has enjoyed the trip immensely and have learned so much about Africa.

Bunyonyi to Kigali

We had a bit of a leisurely start to the day as we are just making the drive from Lake Bunyonyi to Kigali, Rwanda today. This morning’s breakfast consisted of the same sausages and beans we’d had yesterday along with small Spanish omelettes and a small assortment of cereals and fruit along with tea, coffee and juice. The juice -papaya we think – was not a hit… in fact the most commonly used adjectives were disgusting and terrible…

After breakfast, everyone returned to their rooms to finish packing – and removing any and all plastic bags from our luggage as Rwanda has a complete, nationwide ban on them. We’ve heard conflicting reports about ziplock bags being acceptable so they had to go too… Once the bags were packed and everyone was squared away, it was time to load up the van and pile in. Thankfully, Patrick (our driver) was feeling much better after a couple of days of malaria treatment and IV fluids.

The drive from Bunyonyi to the border passed pretty uneventfully… the van was pretty quiet this morning as everyone was a bit tired despite the later wake up time… must have been due to all the exercise we got the day before! The border is about 60km from Bunyonyi and we were there in no time. The most noteworthy part of the drive was seeing the many polling stations and people lined up to vote in the first local council elections held in Uganda in almost 20 years. Patrick explained that these local councils actually have quite a bit of influence on people’s lives as they appoint officials who control a lot of documentation (drivers licences, etc) and other local administrative stuff… The government of Uganda had declared the day a public holiday so people could vote and they seemed to be taking full advantage of the opportunity.

Once at the border we had to exit the van and leave everything but our passports, wallets and yellow fever cards on board. We left the van parked on the side of the road in “no mans land” (the 600 or so metre stretch of road between the Ugandan and a Rwandan borders that belongs to neither and is home to a couple money transfers and exchanges, a “restaurant” and assorted customs brokers, etc. And a whole bunch of trucks, vans, etc.). While Patrick started the paperwork, etc. to bring the van across, we headed into the Ugandan immigration building to get our exit stamps… We had no problems here and were soon walking through no mans land (there’s no sidewalk or pedestrian paths – you just walk up the dusty road) and made our way past the Ugandan checkpoint where we sort of waved our passports at the armed officers and continued to the Rwandan side of things.

We approached the Rwandan immigration and emigration building and handed our passports to the smiling (sort of…) officials who asked the usual questions before stamping our passports with our entry visas (we already technically had visas as we had purchased East Africa tourist visas on arrival at Entebbe but they still need to be stamped with a valid entry stamp). After that we waited while Craig negotiated with a money exchange to convert our Ugandan shillings into Rwandan francs… satisfied with the rate, we all exchanged our currency (140,000 shillings converted to about 31,000 francs – about $37US) and settled in to wait for Patrick who was still navigating his side of things with the van. Eventually, Patrick and our stuff arrived and the next steps started. This involved Patrick moving back and forth between customs, immigration and police getting various documents stamped… he has clearly done this before as he dodged and weaved through the various lines like a pro. Eventually we were told to unload the packs from the van for a customs inspection… The customs inspector was very thorough, going through the packs pretty intently… especially when her search of the first pack turned up a couple of wooden spoons wrapped in – gasp – a plastic bag…. she was not super amused but understood that the spoons had been wrapped that way for transport and would be going home and that the plastic wouldn’t end up in Rwanda… but she made sure the rest of the packs were clean… Patrick managed to convince her that it wasn’t necessary to make us unload the packs tied to the roof racks and we were soon on our way… to the next checkpoint about 200metres further along. Here we passed all our passports to a Rwandan officer who took a cursory look at one or two of our passports and waved us through… in all the process took just over an hour – the fastest time Patrick or Craig could remember.

On the Rwandan side, the most noticeable change was the blessed absence of speed bumps, humps and mountains… and the relative absence of litter (due in part to a once a month mandatory cleanup that all citizens are expected to participate in). The terrain also changes rapidly once you’re in Rwanda – quickly becoming quite mountainous and very scenic. We passed a whole lot of tea fields… Kigali is about 80km from the border and with the mountainous terrain takes about 90 minutes or so to drive. Eventually, we entered Kigali and soon became snarled in construction related traffic tie-ups (not quite full traffic jams but close). We made our way (somewhat slowly) to a pretty upscale part of town heading for a restaurant (Shokola) Patrick and Craig had been to with previous groups. It was pretty similar to what you’d find in Vancouver or Victoria… aside from the fact they were out of a number of items we tried to order (something we’ve seen happen pretty often). And their wifi didn’t work. On the way to the restaurant, we were all struck by how clean and orderly Kigali is… an impression that only deepens the more you drive through the city. It is very, very different than Kampala (more on that in a bit).

After lunch we made our way to our guesthouse (MuBwiza Courts) where we were warmly greeted and shown to our various rooms. The girls were particularly pleased with their 10 bed room and huge patio. We dropped Marie and the kids off at the guesthouse while Craig, Patrick and I went back into town to get SIM cards and to exchange US dollars for francs. We ended up at a fairly upscale mall in an upscale part of town – so upscale that we were stopped in traffic for a while when the president of Rwanda’s convoy brought everything to a standstill as he made his way home. Getting SIM cards is infinitely more efficient in Rwanda and Uganda than in Canada and considerably cheaper.

Once we’d gotten our SIMS and cash, we headed back to the guesthouse for a delicious dinner of beef stew, fried chicken, rice, peas and carrots and French fries… while we ate, we were joined by Steven – friend of Craig’s and a genocide survivor who spoke with us about forgiveness and about life in Rwanda post-genocide. After dinner a few stayed up to watch World Cup while the rest headed off to bed.

Not many pictures for this post as there is no photography at the border and I didn’t really take many pictures today. I will finish with a comment about Kigali and the reforms under the current president Kagame… It is impossible to reconcile the modern, organized, affluent city we see today with the reality 24 years ago. There are traffic police on almost every corner – they are smartly uniformed, fit and very professional looking. There are stop signs, street signs and traffic signals (they even count down the time remaining for the red and green lights. There are lanes painted on the streets and people stay in them (sort of). It’s busy but organized and purposeful… and 24 years ago, Kigali was ground zero for one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century… Much of the success of modern day Kigali can be attributed directly to President Kagame… who is not a democratically elected leader and who has suppressed dissent and critical journalism quite ruthlessly and who has orchestrated changes to the constitution to allow him to remain in power longer. Which should outrage everyone… but it works. In many ways he may be the quintessential embodiment of the benevolent dictator whose vision and ability to implement that vision are essential for Rwanda to move beyond its incredibly difficult past… As we’ve noted many times, it is very hard to argue with the success of his approach when you see Kigali… And see it you really should… it will change every preconceived notion of Africa – and Rwanda in particular – that you might have.

QENP to Lake Bunyonyi

This will be a fairly short post as my cell connection is poor this morning and wifi is even worse and we’re rolling out in about 10minutes… It may also be the last post for a couple of days as we leave Uganda today and my data plan won’t work in Rwanda so we’re at the mercy of our guest house’s wifi connection. Hopefully we can find a good wifi connection so that we can check in for our flights and pick decent seats for the long flight home…

We left QENP on Sunday morning and made the couple of hours drive to Lake Bunyonyi where we have been since. The trip here was pretty uneventful although it was clear that our driver – Patrick – was really not feeling well (turns out he had malaria). The scenery as we approached Bunyonyi was quite spectacular – mountainous and very green with lots of terraced farms and forested areas. Other than that, it was a very similar drive to the others – hot, dusty and bumpy. Every single town in Uganda (at least the ones we have driven through) uses speed bumps, speed humps and speed mountains to slow traffic through the towns… depending on the speed we meet them at the kids in the back either lose fillings, bounce off their seats or get launched into low earth orbits.. sometimes it’s all three at once…

Once at Bunyonyi, we have been enjoying a kind of summer camp atmosphere and have gone for a short hike, swam in the lake (perhaps the only one in Uganda where you can swim without fear of bilharzia or other creepy crawlies. We’ve also paddled dugout canoes (some of us even managed to go in a straight line for a while) and lounged around. It’s been very relaxing and a nice change of pace from the heat and dust of the previous destinations… it actually gets cold enough in the evenings that we’ve all been pulling sweaters and hoodies on at night. It’s hard to believe that we’re in the same country when you compare this place (which wouldn’t be out of place in BC in terms of scenery, etc.) to Kampala… none of us had this in mind when we pictured Africa or Uganda.

Today we’re off to Rwanda and the last leg of our trip which will be much more emotionally charged as we delve into the genocide and subsequent attempts at reconciliation and rebuilding…

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Today is safari day so we’re all up at the ungodly hour of 5:15am to be ready for breakfast at 6am. There are not many smiles at this hour of the day especially as it was very hot in the rooms last night. But we’re optimistic we’ll see animals. Our driver – Patrick – was feeling very poorly when we arrived yesterday so he arranged for a new driver for today’s drive. After a somewhat less than amazing breakfast (nothing wrong with it, just smallish portions and not amazing food) we piled back into the van for a full day of safari adventure. Our van has been transformed for safari with a pop up roof to allow passengers to stand and view the wildlife. It also makes for a nice natural air conditioning system!

We had a couple of quick stops to make before the game drive began in earnest. We’re not sure what they were for… some arcane bureaucratic exercise no doubt. From there we headed out onto the savanna in search of lions and elephants and hippos… it turns out safari game drives are sort of like trolling for salmon… you drive around a 2000 square kilometre park hoping to see creatures that are designed to be hard to see… we saw an elephant off in the distance but were assured we’d see lots so didn’t go closer (we should have) and we saw many types of deer and buffalo and birds… we saw a few of the deer like animals locking horns and learned that the losers have to leave the herd. We also learned that when buffalo get old, they leave the herd and form “loser” herds – sort of like retirement herds… Marie felt sorry for them for the rest of the trip… after a couple of hours of bouncing and bumping around, we saw a cluster of vans and Land Cruisers off in the distance and made our way over… Lions had been spotted… but no one really knew where… we all just kind of stared around in all directions looking for lions until a large female stood up about 30 feet in front of all the vehicles and started to amble away… the crowd erupted in a frenzy of camera clicks and excited whispers… and then a large male stood up and started to follow the female… the lions clearly couldn’t have cared less about the crowd of humans and vehicles metres away from them as they just did their lion thing and completely ignored us… I offered to sacrifice one of the students for a better show but apparently there are rules against feeding the lions…

After the lions we drove around a bit more but it was kind of anticlimactic after seeing lions… eventually we made our way to a salt lake and a series of small craft stalls… we spent some money buying souvenirs and then piled back into the van to make our way to our lunch destination – a fancy resort… a very, very fancy resort… we had planned to swim before or after lunch but what we’d heard would be 10,000 shillings (about 3 dollars) turned out to be 20USD (76,000 shillings) so none of us took advantage of their glistening, inviting pool… but lunch was delicious! And we were definitely impressed with the property and its commanding view of QENP.

After lunch we piled back into the van (a little reluctantly if I’m being honest as the resort was pretty darn comfortable) for the short trip down to the channel for the boat portion of our safari. We piled aboard and promptly took up most of the best seats and waited for the trip to start. We were all pretty excited because we could see a couple of elephants just across the channel and knew we’d be getting a close up view of them… As has been the case for most of Uganda, we did not leave on time (due mostly to a dead battery for the outboards). But eventually we were pulling away from the jetty and heading across the channel. Kazinga Channel is a 40 kilometre stretch of water that connects Edward and George Lakes and is home to hundreds of hippos, thousands of birds and provides an up close look at some of the larger mammals that head for the water each day… Over the course of our 2.5 hour “cruise” we saw African elephants, hippos, buffalo, Nile crocodiles, deer type things (I forget their proper names), fishermen and a bazillion birds… so, so many birds… In all, it was a relaxing and pleasant way to see the animals… and so much cooler (as in temperature) than sweating and bouncing around in the van trying to find a few hundred animals in thousands of square kilometres of bush.

After the boat cruise we headed back to Simba to wash off the road dust, clean up and grab dinner. There may have been a few naps as well. And the drinks were cold this time! Part way through dinner, the power shut off again so we were able to enjoy dinner by candlelight. In all, a long but thoroughly enjoyable day.

Masaka to Queen Elizabeth National Park

We drove… A long way… It was very hot… We saw some stuff… The drinks were not cold when we arrived at Queen… we were not amused…

It was a long drive. Nothing much stands out about the drive until we stopped for lunch at a rest stop just before Mbarara. It was pretty posh (gift shop, small museum, landscaped grounds). The food was decent but took a long time (not unusual for Uganda we’re finding) and was on the pricier side. After lunch we headed for a sandal shop in Mbarara where Marie, Craig and I each purchased a pair of very good quality leather sandals for $7CDN. Apparently sandals are not cool with the young’uns any more…

After Mbarara we made a pitstop along the way to see zebras (which you can’t see in Queen Elizabeth National Park). We saw cows too… with huge horns… which led the kids to christen every single one of them – in fact every single cow-like animal with horns we have seen on this trip – Ferdinand after the animated movie that was showing on the plane trip from Toronto to Addis. It has become less cute as time goes on…

After zebras we drove. And drove. And drove. There were baboons at some point I think… we had to make sure the windows were closed because they are bad baboons and might try to come into the van and take our stuff… but at least they do not call cows Ferdinand….

We made a quick stop at a little viewpoint overlooking the Great Rift Valley (where QENP) is located. It was quite spectacular. From there we entered the park proper and had to make a couple of stops to register for our game drive the next day and take care of various administrative tasks before bumping and bouncing our way to our home for the next two nights – Simba Safari Lodge. It was quite rustic. We had to order our dinner as soon as we arrived – our choices were a bit limited but a rubber tire would have appealed at this point… after ordering and signing for our rooms, we dumped out stuff… into the 9th level of Hades… apparently it has not rained in a QENP for a couple of weeks… I’m not sure they would have noticed because it would have immediately turned to steam in the heat… hot as it was outside, it was substantially hotter inside our room… the wall mounted fan tried valiantly to cool the room but it was fighting a losing battle.

As Marie and I were dropping our bags in our room, we heard a commotion coming from the girls’ room next door… geckos… on the walls… they were not amused. At all. Especially when the porters basically laughed and left them to deal with them… I was pressed into service but there is little you can do about geckos beside scare them into a crevice… which I did with a duo tang… I expect the geckos came back…

Eventually we got everything squared away and headed down for dinner. It was not any cooler in the dining area and as I mentioned, the drinks were not very cold. There may have been tears… from me… but I guess we had to forgive them as they had not had power for most of the day… During dinner we were momentarily distracted by a spider the size of a small kitten (okay it was actually not that big but given the reaction it elicited, I figured it must have been a kitten-sized spider). Noah solved the problem by kicking it out into the night like a soccer ball… After dinner we all headed for our saunas… I mean our rooms… and called it a night. It had been a long day of driving and we had to get up very early the next morning.

Masaka

I’ve fallen a bit behind on posts due to spotty internet connections and long days so I’m going to roll the two days we spent in Masaka into a single post.

Our first day in Masaka started with a nice buffet style breakfast with cereals, scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes with tea and coffee (very good coffee!). After breakfast we headed to AfriPads – a local social enterprise making reusable sanitary pads. Many girls in Africa are not able to go to school for 3-4 days each month because they lack access to feminine hygiene products and for other families, the cost of pads takes quite a bite out of family incomes each month. AfriPads was started by a Canadian couple in 2010 and has grown to become the largest commercial supplier of reusable sanitary pads in Africa. Their current operation includes a large factory where women stitch together the pads, sew on the labels and package them for sale. The women (and any men who work for the company) are paid substantially more than the average daily wage and enjoy generous benefits and good working conditions (including 4 weeks holidays, maternity leave and pension). The factory was well lit and very clean and employee safety seemed to be a focus for them with a full slate of first aid attendants and safety messages. A couple of blocks away they have another smaller facility where men were cutting the fabric templates. The whole operation is highly professional and they produce a very high quality product that has enabled tens of thousands of girls to attend school regularly while employing more than 120 people in Masaka. The success of AfriPads as a business speaks to the success of social enterprises where organizations sell viable products and services instead of relying on donations to provide assistance.

After our tour of AfriPads, we piled into the van and headed to Kitengeesa to see where AfriPads was started back in 2010. We never made it to that spot but we did get a personal tour of the brand new factory AfriPads is building to put all of their manufacturing processes under one roof. The whole facility will cost about $1,000,000 and will provide room to grow as the company continues to expand. They’re also building a daycare and breastfeeding area into the construction and using natural light and ventilation to make working conditions as agreeable as possible.

After our tour of the new factory site, we headed over to the Kitengeesa Community Library – started by Dan Ahisimbwe (who also plays a huge role in Tekera Resource Centre which we are also visiting while we are in Masaka) and Kate Perry (not that Kate Perry) to support literacy and education in Kitengeesa. From there we made our way back to Masaka to have lunch then back to the hotel to swim and get refreshed before heading to a small expo (basically a traveling fair/market) in Masaka. It was not that spectacular… although the kids did get up on stage to dance and enjoyed meeting some of the local school kids who were quite fascinated by the muzungus. And there was a camel… a sad pathetic looking camel… but a camel… then it was off for dinner and back to the hotel for an early night…

Our next day in Masaka started with a 45 minute drive to Tekera – site of a village and a resource centre where we spent the day. The road was being graded and was in better shape than we’d been led to expect but was still bumpy and very dusty… On arrival at Tekera we were introduced to Maureen who manages the centre and who introduced us to the centre and explained the work they were doing with the piggery (we weren’t able to go in for fear of transmitting swine flu to their pigs) that is their ticket to future sustainability. They currently have 67 pigs and are hoping to expand to more than 400 in the near future. They can sell a mature pig for about 150CDN and being able to sell decent numbers of pigs each year will help to cover the costs of the entire centre… after the piggery we were shown the vocational classroom and one of the dorms and learned about the school routine (8am to 4pm usually but 5am to 10pm when they are preparing for national exams) our students had trouble wrapping their head around the idea that anyone would go to school at 5am!!! After that we were treated to tea and snacks in the outdoor staff room (Lambrick Park teachers take note!). The boiled bananas were not a particular favourite… they had the texture and consistency of a boiled potato and a mildly gag-inducing overripe banana flavour that sort of grew on you but not really enough to enjoy it… but the tea was delicious (local Ugandan black tea) and the sweet potatoes were filling.

After a snack we trekked into the backforty of the property to spread some mulch around banana trees and then headed back to the garden plot to transplant tomato seedlings (hundreds of them) then headed back to the staff room for lunch with the staff. Lunch was a carb lovers dream – a delicious offering of fresh pineapple (grown on site), beans, rice, sweet potatoes and gnut sauce – all cooked over an open wood stove in the facility’s rustic kitchen. We all needed a nap afterwards… but instead we were hustled off to the classrooms to observe a lesson. I ended up visiting a P7 class (basically Grade 7) and because the students were independently working on assignments and projects, I had a great chat with Steven and Isaac, the teachers. The students ended up visiting a variety of primary classrooms and watched teachers doing their thing in a variety of lessons…. No one will ever complain about their classrooms again… but the teachers and the students clearly loved what they were doing and I was blown away by the work ethic of the students I observed. I was a bit nonplussed by the clapping, hugging, head bowing, kiss blowing welcome the class gave me though… but chatting with Steven I was struck by how much teachers the world over have in common… we worry about how our classes seem to other teachers, we’re insanely proud of their accomplishments and genuinely want the best for their futures… Steven and Isaac were in their early twenties – Steven having become a teacher when he was 18… they were stunned that I had been teaching for almost 30 years…

After our lesson time was up, we observed a variety of song and dance routines that the students were practicing for an upcoming performance… the circumcision dance was a crowd favourite… then it was sports time… up first was a tug-of-war between us and the staff of Tekera. We smoked them! Then it was our girls against the female staffers. We dominated them again. But the Tekera students erupted in celebration when their male teachers beat our guys (they may have stacked their side with a few more than the 5 we had after it appeared they were in trouble)… After tug-of-war, it was volleyball time and while we weren’t really all that good, Bethany’s excellent serving and some lucky bounces saw us prevail 17-15 in extra time. Up next was football… we didn’t have enough players to field a team so they provided some ringers for us… thankfully… or we would have been completely and utterly destroyed. Our team consisted of some of our students who could actually play football, some of their students and staff who can really play football, and those like Marie and I who last played football when they used round rocks as soccer balls and dinosaurs roamed the earth… as it was, some superb goal-tending from yours truly (okay, if we’re being honest, pure dumb luck) kept us in it after a late push by Tekera and the game finished 2-2… so onto penalty shots… one of our ringers thankfully took over goalkeeping from me and promptly let in all 5 shots he faced… our team was unfortunately not able to score in penalties and the school erupted as the locals defeated the muzungus… a great time was had by all…

After sports it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to Masaka to clean up for dinner. Instead of dinner at a restaurant tonight, we were invited to a community dinner at Dan’s house to say goodbye to a group of interns from Douglas College in Vancouver. It was sort of like a high school dance with cliques sitting on different sides of the gym… only with ear-splitting music blaring from speakers set up on the lawn. For some reason, Ugandans love their music speaker-crushingly loud… the food was pretty good though and it was interesting to get a look at a different side of the NGO/volunteer world… and it was really cute to watch Dan’s young son Jude playing video games on the kids’ phones… but after a long day in the heat at Tekera, our group was fading fast by 9pm so we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep because the next day we were driving 6-7 hours to Queen Elizabeth National Park…

Our time in Masaka has been very enjoyable. The experience at Tekera- especially the classroom portion – really resonated with our travellers who saw first hand how much education is valued and how much need can exist in a small community such as Tekera which depends on the resource centre for medical services, education and other services. Similarly, the visits to AfriPads showed how the social enterprise model of aid can provide good paying jobs while meeting community needs… in all it’s been an informative couple of days and ones that will leave a lasting impression on all of us…

And now a few words from our travellers…

This trip has been great so far, visiting the empowering women and men at SawaWorld and AfriPads. To see people who do the things that they love and feel passionate about, but it has a great message and effect. A tip for someone wanted to travel to Africa is never underestimate the happiness of all of the people here, come with an open mind. A note, no matter how hard you try you will get dirty so bring extra shirts! There is definitely something about Africa that pulls me in. I don’t know if it’s the food, the people, the culture or the environment but I never want to leave. Everyday my fellow travellers and I play a game, see how many people will wave back at you. 9 times out of 10 you will get a wave, a smile and if your lucky maybe even I wink! The people here are so excepting of everyone , they will wave back to me with the biggest smile on their faces and it jus warms my heart. Our day at Tekera, a small village in Masaka that has it own sustainable and income and boarding school was one of my favourite days, the kids there were all so interested in us and got a little shy when we would say hello or give them a little wave. Yet as soon as the sports started our team vs a team from their school, they all gathered and laughed and cheered and it’s almost like we had been there for more then just the day. Now we did win the tug of war and the volleyball, but when it comes to soccer they definitely dominated us. We looked like fools out on the field, the only reason we didn’t loose so bad is because they were kind enough to lend us some players. Now, the sustainability of this place is powerful, they have pigs that they sell to make a profit, to feed the kids. They have a banana plantation and lots of vegetable plots full of vegetables that they not only eat but also sell. These are just some more of the reasons I love it here.

The thrill of the entire trip has been amazing. Seeing how Africa has empowered their women and young women has been so inspiring to see first hand. They are truly dedicated to showing and helping the people realize their self worth, and what they’re capable of doing. The music, the dancing, the culture in general is so vibrant and it’s incredible to see. The choreography of every dance is so unique, every movement has their own meaning. You drive by a group of school children, and they smile, wave, and yell “Mizungu” at you, meaning “white person” in their language. Their sly and timid smiles and giggles brightens your day a lot. You ask the kids how old they are, while holding up five fingers, and they just rest their palm against yours, grasping your hand with their tiny hands. They are all so innocent, so unaware of all the bad in the world. It’s beautiful. The elders stare at you with a blank expression, almost like they’re studying you, your skin colour, and your behaviour, the same way white people have been doing to them for many years. Africa holds it’s own kind of beauty, a beauty you won’t find anywhere else except for on this land.

First and foremost, I have not gotten burnt yet. So all in all, so far it has been a success. Although, of course there has been a lot of ups and downs (I hope the roads get fixed one of these days), I could not ask for a better group to explore this phenomenal country with. The sights are breathtaking, seeing the sun rise and set each day gives calms me, accompanied by all the odd noises whether it be chanting, the sounds of crickets, or the birds in the distance. Speaking of birds, the storks are unbelievably ugly. Apparently, they are vile creatures that even other scavengers will not eat, can you imagine being brought to your family by something so hard to look at?? They are also HUGE, why must they be so big? Anyway, this country has blown my mind. I can honestly say I would choose East Africa over going to Europe any day. I feel like I’m changing each day and it warms my heart to see myself growing, but obviously not in height. With all joking aside, after we visited Tekera and saw the children playing, in class, and looking at us with amazement and a touch of fear, I felt sorry. Sorry for how the media depicts these beautiful children in North America. They may not be what we consider to be “well off”, but they are happy and content. They appreciate their education and know it is a privilege that not many are fortunate to have. I have noticed that they have a passion for everything they do. I was fortunate to sit in on a P1 class (grade 1) where the kids were all relatively focused even though they are so young. They all participated with excitement I have never seen before, those memories are something I will cherish.

The reason I traveled to Africa was so that I could see it through my own eyes. I wanted to see how they really live and what they do to battle their everyday challenges and I feel like I’ve fallen in love. Apart from the awful road this country is stunningly beautiful. The people here are so nice and always want to know where you came from. People here take nothing for granted especially education. The roads are filled with bodas and people trying to sell you something. The food here is on another level. Except for the boiled banana I’ve loved everything else. The children here are always so happy and I’ve never seen 10 year olds so happy to go to school. Especially when you here at their schools start at 5:00 am and go to 10:00 pm. My favourite part about this trip is when we went to Tekera. I was in the p4 or grade four class and we were learning about mosquitoes. The children were smiling the whole time and they seemed to be extra amazed by me. After, the lesson about the mosquitoes we went outside to watch the Students and the teachers sing and dance which was heart warming. We then started the sports activities and tug of world was first. We did three rounds and the first one was us vs the teachers which we easily won. Next was the girls vs girl and we won that one too. Finally it was the boys only round and we were feeling confident that we could easily win but both teams were very even. We started to pull ahead but the other team added 3 extra people and we eventually had to let go. Our second sport activity was volleyball which wasn’t that close. We beat the teachers by 10 so we stopped it early and moved on to soccer. The school had its own soccer team so we refuted some of the locals. We started off bad the Tekera team scored right away so hopes were not high. We held them off till halftime and we felt like we could score a couple of goals. Halfway into the second half I won a penalty and Özil score for our team. After the kick off Özil got the ball and ran down the pitch through 4 defenders and scored. We were feeling good about our chances of wining but I gotta the last minute of play the Tekera team scored and we went to penalty’s. sadly we lost in penalty’s because the wind was very strong and I missed my penalty but it was and fun game. All and all I’m enjoying Uganda and I wish for that more people can experience this wonderful because I’m glade that I did.

This is my first time to the continent of Africa and so far it has exceeded my expectations. When we first landed in Entebbe, I was surprised to see that so many people live in the countryside. This was a pretty stark contrast to rural Ontario, where everything is very very far apart, which is what I am used to. Once we had arrived in Kampala, what I saw was not what I had expected. A city that extends seemingly endlessly, rising over hills and descending into valleys. It is quite a beautiful place. What also exceeded my expectations was the amount of individuals and companies that are very optimistic about the future of Africa, which is also a stark contrast of what Africa is depicted in Western media. Organizations such as Sawa World, AfriPads, and many other NGOs’ work tirelessly for the betterment of the people in need. We also visited two holy sites to the Bahia and Muslim faith, the Bahia temple and the Qaddafi mosque. From both sites we had very good views of the surrounding areas. From Kampala we travelled to a town called Masaka which is a 3 hour drive south from Kampala. In Masaka we visited AfriPads, an NGO which makes reusable and affordable feminine hygiene products and the Tekera boarding school. Both where a very interesting look into what the lives of workers and schoolchildren are like in rural Uganda. From Masaka we will head to Queen Elizabeth park, lake Bunyoni and Kigali in Rwanda. The trip so far has been very interesting and I hope each place we visited is the same if not more fun.