Heather’s Trip Report – Rwanda (Part 2)

Old Mar 27th, 2007, 05:46 PM
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Heather’s Trip Report – Rwanda (Part 2)

Kili to Kigali Travel Woes
I was supposed to fly direct from Kilimanjaro to Kigali at 4:00 p.m. on Monday, March 19. I had purchased the ticket in person at the Rwandair Express office in Arusha the week before. (I tried to book the ticket from the States before my trip but was never able to find anyone who could do it.) So on the morning of my flight I decided to call to confirm the flight was on-time – I had read you should always do that and thank goodness I did. The man who answered cheerfully told me sorry, there would be no flight today! Operational problems!

After a moment of panic I calmed down, reminding myself that this is Africa and things don’t always go as planned. As long as I could get to Rwanda the following day, all would be right in the world. I hired a cab to take me from the Karama Lodge to the Rwandair office.

The Rwandair office in Arusha is actually a tiny travel agency called Missionary Spirit Travel. The woman I dealt with (can’t remember her name at the moment) sits in a tiny office with a crucifix on the wall – she could be a nun. Anyway, I handed her my now-worthless ticket and she said she thought she could book me on a flight through Nairobi the next day. Ugh, that was exactly what I was trying to avoid by booking through Rwandair Express. But the direct flight from Kili to Kigali is only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so my only chance to get to Rwanda on Tuesday was through Nairobi. Unfortunately the computers were down so she wasn’t able to book my ticket right then. I cabbed it back to the lodge and eventually had to come BACK to the office a few hours later to get my new ticket.

So, another night in the Karama Lodge, which was relaxing but a bit boring. I spent most of the day dealing with plane ticket madness so didn’t really have time to schedule additional activities. Just hung around and rested up for my early morning flight.

I flew out at 8:30 the next morning on Precision Air and spent eight (yes, you heard correctly) hours in Kenyatta Airport. I guess I could have gone somewhere but my nerves were frayed at that point and I was afraid to try. I eventually took refuge in the Kenya Airways transit lounge (5th floor), which is mercifully air-conditioned. My Rwandair flight took off an hour late and made a quick (and unexpected) stop in Burundi to pick up more passengers, but I eventually arrived in Kigali at 9:00 p.m. – a 12-hour journey to go about 300 miles (at least that’s what someone told me) as the crow flies!

Rwanda
I was now in Rwanda for three nights and two days. The first day would be spent working in my foundation’s office in Kigali and visiting our sites (I had planned on two days of work but oh well) and the second day would be my gorilla trek – the finale of my trip to Africa.

I stayed at the Novotel in the administrative district. The location is great –very close to the airport. The rooms are non-descript, clean and comfortable but basically like a Ramada. The best thing about the Novotel is the outdoor restaurant and pool. I never used the pool but it was lovely to look at. The restaurant was attractive and relaxing with very good buffets for every meal. The French pastries are delicious – there’s a small patisserie right in the lobby of the hotel. I started to look forward to them at every meal. The worst thing about the Novotel was the weird plague of giant brown moths – I didn’t see them anywhere else in Rwanda but they were everywhere in and around the Novotel! Only a slight nuisance though. Also a great view of the surrounding hills from the little balcony by the elevators.

I’ll skip straight to the gorillas now. I’d booked my one-day tour with Kiboko Safaris – they were recommended in the Bradt Guide and their price was right. There was a miscommunication regarding the time – I thought my guide was coming at 3:30 a.m. (!!) but it turns out he came at 4:30. I wish I had known so I could get the extra hour of sleep, plus I sat in the dark lobby of the Novotel in a total panic for 45 minutes – I was convinced there had been a date or location mix-up and I would never make it to see the gorillas. But Paulie, my guide, showed up at 4:30 on the dot and off we went.

Paulie was a great guy. He didn’t speak a ton of English and my French is quite rusty but we got along fine. I mentioned that I wanted to practice my French and he took it seriously – we spoke French the whole day! We made it to the ORTPN headquarters in a little over two hours. I didn’t say anything to Paulie about which gorilla group I wanted to see – I actually didn’t care, as long as I saw some gorillas! But Paulie had decided on the ride up that he thought I should see the Susa Group and he set it up for me. Fortunately the Susas were only about a two-hour walk into the park that day so it was doable. Before I knew it were back in the car for the hour-long drive up to the Susa drop-off point. There were seven of us and we took off with Eugene, our guide, in the lead. Eugene was a very nice but quiet guy.

I’m 32 years old and in pretty good shape. The walk up was hard, just as I’d read, but not unbearable. The hardest part was ducking down under the fallen bamboo and picking my way over the vines, etc. I was actually the first person to fall down but nothing serious. There were some people who had trouble with the altitude though (we got almost to 10,000 feet), and the older man walking in front of me (who had just climbed Mt. Kili!) got really tired and dehydrated and almost looked like he wouldn’t make it. The stinging nettles were definitely there – they stung me right through my pants and gloves! A small price to pay for what we saw though.

The gorillas were amazing!! Definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life. We probably saw 20 gorillas total, including the lead silverback. I was entranced by him – I stood staring and completely forgot that I had left on the video recorder of my camera and was filming the weeds at my feet. He looked like a huge man in a gorilla suit. The young gorillas were rolling around us and playing the whole time and another big blackback lounged around and slept about three feet from me. I couldn’t figure out where to look and just stood there with a dumb smile on my face. I really enjoyed watching the trackers who spend every day with the gorillas. The guy who was nearest to me obviously loved his job and seemed to get a lot of satisfaction from watching how much fun we were having.

After the hour was up, Eugene told us that in seven years of work, this was one of the top two or three gorilla visits he’s had. Maybe he says that to everyone but I have no reason not to believe him! We made it down the mountain much faster – maybe just over an hour – and I was back at the Novotel by 5:00, exhausted but exhilariated.

Well, this report had turned out much longer than planned. I think I’ve covered all the highlights. My flight back home the next day was long but uneventful, no cancellations!

Please let me know if I’ve missed anything you’d like to hear about.
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Old Mar 27th, 2007, 06:09 PM
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Heather, I admire your gumption in undertaking a "working vacation" like this. It sounds like you kept a great attitude and had a trip to remember. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
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Old Mar 27th, 2007, 06:28 PM
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Sorry about the Rwanda flight but glad it did not upset your plans too much.

Your French and your legs got a workout on the way to the gorillas. I bet you were told the truth about the visit being in the top 3. After visiting the Susa group and being entranced I asked the guide if my visit was typical or exceptional and he stated it was always like that. Same thing after the golden monkeys. I was told it was typical. I don't think they are programmed to say your visit was special.

I remember way back when you mentioned a 3:30 am pickup. That made me think you were the first of several people to be picked up so that you could leave Kigali at 4:30. Turns out it was a goofup. I hope you were not worrying the whole hour you were waiting.

Such an outstanding visit made all your canceled or delayed flights and early wakeup worthwhile.
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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 05:16 AM
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Thanks for the kind words! Despite the challenges this trip was the greatest experience of my life.

Hopefully I'll be able to go back and see for myself if my gorilla visit was as exceptional as Eugene says. I'm sure every trek is unbelievable -- seeing just one or two gorillas in that environment would have blown my mind. It pains me that my husband couldn't be there with me to see the gorillas - I hope we can return to Tanzania and Rwanda together some day.
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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 05:53 AM
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Little travel snafu's just make the trip more memorable, right? (I missed my first gorilla trek due to a cancelled flight from the States so I know what you went through.) But it is horrible to waste a day in an airport, especially in Africa!

Great trip report and I concur with your observations - the gorillas were amazing and the coolest thing I've ever done. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Cindy
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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 07:02 AM
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Thanks for your report on Rwanda (I also enjoyed your Tanzania report...I read about the walk on the pedaids website, too).

Would you mind me asking what the price was for the 1 day gorilla trek? I know the permit price would have been $375...but the question is often asked on this board about how much the car hire/transport from/to PNV costs.

Thanks
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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 07:07 AM
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Sure. I paid US$575 for the day, including the permit. I was told that hiring my own driver to and from PNV from Kigali would probably cost about $200, so this price seemed reasonable to me.
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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 07:27 AM
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Great report and I'm glad it all worked out for you to finally see the gorillas. 10,000ft sounds pretty high!
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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 08:28 AM
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<i>Fortunately the Susas were only about a two-hour walk into the park that day so it was doable.</i>

I guess it is all relative. When I hear someone say it took 2 hours of hiking to get to the gorillas. I don't think about how &quot;fortunate&quot; they were .

It took about 30 - 40 minutes for me to reach the Amaharos and about 20 to reach the Sabinyos.

I was fortunate because I wasn't feeling that great those days.

grommet19,

I would love to hear more of your thoughts on Rwanda, Kigali and about your work.

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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 09:19 AM
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Hi Waynehazle,

Eugene told me he once trekked 7 hours each way to see the Susa Group! So I considered myself lucky

Unfortunately I only had two days in Rwanda - I wish it had been more! I didn't even have time to visit the genocide memorial. What I saw of Kigali was interesting though - it felt very different from the part of Tanzania I visited. There was more poverty and of course everyone is packed in together more closely.

I did spend one morning visiting a health clinic outside Kigali and I've written an account of it for my foundation's website. The link is long so I don't want to type it in here, but I've pasted the text below. If you want to see the story with photos, you can also go to www dot pedaids dot org and clink on &quot;Notes From the Field.&quot; My story is the first link on that page.

Thanks for your interest! See text below.


My Glimpse of a Rwandan Health Clinic

After spending a week in Tanzania on AIDS Walk Africa, I was excited to be in a new country — Rwanda. My day began early on March 22. I had arrived in Kigali, the capital, the night before after an arduous journey – my direct flight was cancelled and I spent an entire day in the Nairobi airport awaiting my connection. But the travel snafus didn’t dim my excitement. This was my first trip to Africa and as the main writer/editor for the Foundation’s Web site, it was an invaluable opportunity to witness the work that I write about every day.

At 7:30 a.m., I went to my hotel lobby and met Rwanda Country Director Nancy Fitch, Senior Technical Adviser Jeroen van’t Pad Bosch, and Foundation physician Dr. Valentin Nkuba. We climbed into a Land Cruiser and took off on the 45-minute journey to the Nzige Health Center.

We soon left the pavement and began climbing a rutted dirt road – it was easy to see why Rwanda is nicknamed “the land of 1,000 hills.” Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa – every inch of land, even on the steepest slopes, is covered by houses or farming plots. Passing cars are rare in this region, and small children waved to us as we drove by. Finally we reached the health center, a modest cluster of buildings at the crest of a hill.

Gaspar, the “titulaire” of the clinic, met us outside. A titulaire is a trained nurse responsible for all the operations at the clinic, from stocking supplies and prescriptions to administering patient care. Jeroen said Gaspar is one of the best titulaires in Rwanda. As we greeted Gaspar, I smiled at a young girl, maybe four years old, sitting on a bench outside the clinic. She glanced at her mother for permission and shyly came over to shake my hand. I whispered “Bonjour” and she smiled.

We spent a couple of hours at the clinic, examining every room and listening to explanations from Gaspar about its operations. I missed a lot of what was said – my French is rusty to say the least – but the facility spoke for itself. The prescriptions and medical records were stacked neatly on their shelves. Every room was spotless despite chipped floors and peeling paint. The beds in the patient wards had crisp, clean mattresses and sheets. I loved the maternity ward, where several mothers nestled with babies in their beds. This well-run clinic made the most of every available resource.

The clinic’s lab, where patients’ blood is tested for HIV and other conditions, is the pride and joy of the facility. We walked in as a little boy was being tested for malaria. The building looks brand-new (it was recently renovated with Foundation funds) and all the equipment is shiny. The lab technicians proudly demonstrated how each machine works. Jeroen and Nancy, both physicians, eagerly took it all in – neither one had visited the Nzige clinic since the new lab had been finalized and equipped a few weeks ago.

On the wall of the lab were instructions for mandatory “opt-out” HIV testing, called “PIT” (provider-initiated testing). That means the clinic’s policy is to test all patients for HIV unless they explicitly refuse it. This may seem like a simple concept, but it is actually quite revolutionary. I also found out that 20 percent of the patients receiving HIV treatment at the clinic are children – an impressive number as it is very difficult to reach HIV-positive children in Africa with treatment.

Toward the end of the visit, we observed the private consultation rooms where patients were being counseled on HIV issues. I was moved by a young woman talking with Dr. Valentine about an allergic reaction to her HIV treatment. She was thin and had a small baby with her; the baby was about six weeks old but looked like a newborn. I was reminded that even the best health care in Africa can’t cure HIV.

It was soon time to leave. We took the clinic’s computer with us – they have just one computer for financial record-keeping (there is no internet access), but it was broken. Jeroen offered to take the computer back to the Foundation’s office in Kigali to see if our IT person could fix it. We said “Au revoir” to Gaspar and headed down the mountain.

My visit to Nzige put the Foundation’s work into perspective. I read about our programs all the time, but visiting a clinic myself helped me understand the enormity of the challenge we face in Africa. “Notes From the Field” has taken on a new meaning now that I’ve had the chance to write my own.
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Old Mar 28th, 2007, 10:23 AM
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Sundowner,

I had seen your comment earlier about missing a gorilla visit, but I did not know why. How frustrating to have a canceled flight. Probably due to the bad weather. But at least you had some good visits to the gorillas.
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Old Mar 29th, 2007, 07:17 AM
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Heather, I just read your piece<i>Notes From the Field</i>. It sounds like you truly did have an amazing, meaningful experience. I enjoyed the reading and the pictures.
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Old Mar 29th, 2007, 10:09 AM
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Thanks nevermind, glad you enjoyed it! It was an amazing experience.
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