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…