Thursday, September 17, 2009
Warning, this blog is epic.
“Oh my gosh, this is the nicest place I've ever stayed!” Jana and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, then quickly swung back around to see if the incredible sight before us was really true. There it was, the balcony overlooking ebulliently flowering trees sloping down to the deep blue water tinged gold by the setting sun. Welcome to the Deluxe Geodome of Boonyoni Amagara Hostel on Itambira Island, Lake Bunyoni, southern Uganda. It's proof of how long I've been in Cameroon and traveling African style that it took me about 2 hours to realize that despite the en suite outdoor shower (water questionably solar heated) and pit latrine, with stunning views over the lake, these accommodations would probably still not quite have prompted the “nicest place I've ever stayed” comment from most of you reading this, or from myself a year ago. But after nearly one year in the Sahel semi-desert region of north Cameroon the abundant lakes and lushly forested hills and towering volcanoes that form the border lands between northern Rwanda, southwestern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo combined with decently paved roads and Cadbury chocolate to create the closest thing to paradise I think I'll see for a while.
Our two day stay on Itambira Island came after almost a week of traveling in northern Rwanda, beginning in the capital city of Kigali and continuing to Gisenyi, a town on Lake Kivu bordering Goma, DRC before crossing the border at Cyanika into southern Uganda. The city of Kigali has undergone such rapid growth that the map in our (2006) Lonely Planet could barely even serve as a starting point for finding our way around (the fact that we had it upside down for the first day may also have contributed). Luckily with English, French, Jana's knowledge of the local KinyaRwandan language and some strong legs we managed to navigate the city center area pretty well and found some great places for eating and drinking (including a local beans and chapati breakfast that cost about $0.50). Thanks to strict prohibitions on littering and a country-wide ban on plastic bags, Kigali is by far the cleanest city I have visited in Africa (and maybe America too!) It's also home to hundreds of international NGOs, so our novelty as “muzungus” (white people) was pretty limited. Combine all this with the full-size Nakumatt supermarket featuring (at least, for me these are features) assorted European chocolate bars, cheese and ice cream (all things in short supply nearly anywhere in Cameroon) and Kigali comes out seeming like a city that wouldn't be out of place in a much more developed country. The triumph of this city is highlighted from the gardens of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, set on a hill outside the city center. As visitors move outside from the museum building, with its history of the conflict and tribute to its victims and heroes, and begin to descend to the mass grave and memorial gardens, the skyline of downtown Kigali is clearly visible across the hills, suggesting the progress towards a future that has been made from such a chilling past. To be honest, I found the memorial itself to be fairly infuriating in that it seemed a quintessentially Western way of writing and remembering the history of the genocide, with little to offer the citizens of the country who continue to exist in the aftermath. But maybe it is meant primarily for us (it certainly feels targeted that way), the Western tourists first and foremost, to offer a venue for reflection on our complicity in this atrocity and provide some measure of absolution of guilt afterward. I don't necessarily know how I would have remembered or memorialized the genocide differently, only that this attempt felt contrived and hollow. That being said, coming from a Western perspective I sensed the history of the genocide in every area of the country I visited. At the Memorial, we learned that the Catholic Mission where we were staying had sheltered thousands of Tutsis during the genocide, and that the St. Famille Church we passed each day on our walk in to town had been the site of a massacre of other Tutsis hiding there who were betrayed by a pastor of the Church. On the road from Kigali to Gisenyi, the word genocide must have appeared on at least 10 signposts for various turnoffs, though what was being said about the genocide was unclear as the signs were in KinyaRwandan. The other overwhelming feeling I got from the country though truly was one of a drive for progress. All along the roadways between Kigali, Rhuhengeri and Gisenyi (over 3 hours of travel) we saw men and women tenaciously farming the hillsides (which sometimes sprung from the earth at 70° gradients!), but also digging in trenches that ran along either side of the road the entire way. The push towards development of the infrastructure of the country is impossible to miss. Hopefully in developing that infrastructure and building Rwanda's future, some measure of peace is being made with the tumultuous past.
Entering Uganda from Rwanda was a simple matter of paying a $50 visa fee and visiting about 3 different officials for the appropriate documentation. From the border we headed for Kisoro, the town nearest the village where my friend Mark is serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. The same beautiful, green rolling hills continue throughout the area, set against the dramatic backdrop (on a clear day at least) of the Virunga volcanoes. Kisoro is the launching point for the Gorilla treks which make the area renowned; it's the region that inspired the book Gorillas in the Mist, about the life and work of primatologist Dian Fossey. After a night's rest in Kisoro Jana and I crammed ourselves into a matatu, or bush taxi, and began the sweaty but breathtaking ride to Kabale, the town that would launch us to Lake Bunyoni and the Amagara Island hostel. The distance as the crow flies between Kisoro and Kabale is 30 km, but with a route almost completely defined by hillside switchbacks the trip took the better part of 4 hours. A quick taxi ride (this time a personal taxi with a driver who helped us get caught up on all our American celebrity gossip) landed us on the shores of Lake Bunyoni, where we'd heard there was free transport to the island... which there was, sure enough, in the form of a hollowed-out eucalytpus tree trunk, powered by (alternately) Jana or I and our trusty guide Bright. The ride took nearly an hour, but the stunning views of the other islands and the lake made the time seem to fly, at least whenever I wasn't holding an oar. Upon arriving on the island, we checked in to our fabulous geodome, and spent the next two days enjoying the sun, the water, the stars, the stories and company of fellow travelers and the hostel restaurant, which was definitely designed to cater to the tastes of Western travelers (veggie wraps, quesadillas, french toast, oh my!) When the time came to leave, we decided to jump in with 4 other guests and pay the motorboat to take us back to the mainland. It was nice to get that perspective on the trip too, though it got us back to reality just a bit too fast. Reality this time took the form of a 90 minute wait to fill a shared taxi back to Kisoro. The day was so clear and beautiful though that once again the views of the volcanoes and the countryside made the time pass easily. One of the men in the front seat (there were two in addition to the driver, plus 4 of us in the back of this Toyota Corolla) was wearing an Eto'o (Cameroon's most famous football player) jersey, and I tried 3 times to bond with him over that fact, but because of the language differences probably only succeeded in convincing him that muzungus are crazy. We spent the next two nights in Kisoro with Craig from Scotland, the local VSO volunteer, shooting pool, eating beans and matoke (a type of banana) and learning the dance moves to Kwatcha Kwatcha, a Ugandan pop-hit. This also gave my friend Declan time to perfect his distillation of some really cheap vodka (hint, it comes in plastic packets kind of like sweet and sour sauce at a Chinese restaurant) using cooking charcoal and coffee filters. We also climbed one of the hills that surround the town to get some perspective on Kisoro and the incredible countryside that surrounds it, before heading to yet another lake, the name of which I have forgotten, where we got to swim in full, amazing view of the volcanoes (and allegedly surrounded by pythons), much to the entertainment of the villagers living on the hill nearby. After stocking up on veggies, avocados and passion fruit (and being so distracted by some pineapples that I stepped into the street and collided with a bicyclist), we headed over the hills to Mark's village, where we enjoyed more time together beside another lake (keep in mind the I get excited when the seasonal rivers around my village have puddles in them), watched Declan create a bike-powered cell phone charger, visited the health center and met several of Mark's friends and co-workers. A highlight for me was definitely the milkman's visits each night with still-warm milk which we then boiled (got to avoid the tuberculosis) and enjoyed under the crystal clear night sky. To see another Peace Corps post in a different country was really interesting, as so many things differ between our assignments, not least of which is the temperature (and environment)! In Uganda, health care is provided free of charge by the government, and HIV/AIDS is a prominent issue for the country, and one around which much dialogue is focused, whereas in Cameroon health services are user-paid and, at least in the north, HIV/AIDS has been heard of, but not something people would generally admit to having or about which the majority of people are educated, beyond the sometimes meaningless mantra of “abstinence, fidelity, condoms”.
All too soon I found myself back across the border, down to Kigali and flying above the clouds through a breathtaking lightning storm over the Central African Republic, on my way home to Cameroon. And in many ways coming back really did feel like coming home – to where people understood my French, I knew the value of things and I could name more than one major city. Nothing could have been a more appropriate welcome than preparing to board my flight back to Douala from Nairobi, a flight that could not have been more than 1/3 full but for which, nonetheless, the opening of the gate prompted what could best be likened to a one-way rugby scrum as all 25 people boarding this huge 747 attempted to get through the 6 foot wide doorway at once. One year in, On est toujours ensemble.
By the way, more pictures are here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2219734&id=1601126&l=74b71cf043