Posts

You Gotta Uganda!

With the gorillas still hanging in the trees clinging to the steep volcanoes behind me, I made my way to the Uganda border. It’s this last stretch of 100km that hasn’t seen interntational support funds — for the road at least. The road from Kigali to Katuna in Uganda ranks up there with one of the worst pot-holed roads of the journey. But the scenery? Stunning. Riding through a valley with traditional villages, rondavel homes and terraced and sculpted fields of rice, corn, tea and coffee.

The scenery continued and got better after making yet another border crossing into the Republic of Uganda. Unlike Rwanda where a VISA was granted with no fee, Rwanda took me for fifty bucks. Plus about twenty bucks for road taxes. So feeling $70 lighter I made my way to the peaceful hamlet of Lake Bunyoni passing through the small town of Kabale which is surrounded by a number of small lakes where terraced hills tumble steep to the water and small camps, lodges and bungalows dot the shores and hills. I chose Lake Bunyonyi about 10km outside of town up and down steep roads.

IMG_7646_2.jpg

The lush green and misty cloud covered hills made exiting Rwanda and entering Uganda a cool and atmospheric feeling.

IMG_5121.jpg

It’s hard to take time alone on just about any road in Africa.

IMG_7677.jpg

IMG_7667_2.jpg IMG_7668_2.jpg

No helmet but with a delivery to make. Not sure I’d take the job!

IMG_7673_2.jpg

The aid flows into Rwanda and Uganda. Convoys of trucks carrying full-size containers proudly exhibited the UN moniker.

Stopping in town to take advantage of the Standard Bank ATM machine, as usual I was nearly accosted by vendors selling newspapers, cellular pre-paid “top-up” cards, fruit and more. But it was two young girls that really ushered my Ugandan indoctrination. Both carrying woven bamboo baskets atop their heads and about 10 years old, we chatted briefly roadside by the ATM. IMG_7683.jpg

Welcome to Uganda!

IMG_7690_3.jpg

Future lawyer and president here in Uganda.

“Where you from,” the less shy girl with her head neatly shaved and shining with small beads of sweat so delicately innocent in the late afternoon sun. “Where are you going?” Before I could answer the shy girl asked if I w \as hungry, pointing to her tangerines. They told me that they learned English in school and then the forward girl offered, “I want to be a lawyer.”

“And I want to be president,” the shy girl with an extra bout of confidence piped.

For perhaps first time in my journey through Latin America, Brazil and Africa have I sensed a desire to exceed and be someone in such young people. Often I’ve hypothesized one major problem with many impoverished people from cultures different than my own is the lack of perceived opportunity by its citizens. You’re raised by a goat hereder, you will be a goat herder and you will rear goat herders — a perceived preordained existence with no other future. Yet in the US and other westernized cultures we are instilled with the concept of fulfilling our potential and dreaming to be something. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s in our psyche but absent in those of many other cultures. Yet on this dusty Ugandan street these two girls capture my heart and share their dreams with me. And it’s not a ploy to sell tangerines. But I couldn’t resist. I bought some fruit from each and shared it with an elderly woman walking down the street and with the boy selling newspapers who guided me to the turn off to Lake Bunyonyi.

IMG_7697_2.jpg

The road to Bunyoni hugs the mountainside, is badly rutted and now in the rainy season always a bit dicey. But it didn’t rain until the morning I left and therefore I avoided any otentially muddy pitfall.

IMG_7692_2.jpg

Pictures just can’t capture the magic of one of Uganda’s most magical lakes in a region studden with dozens.

IMG_7691.jpg

At the Bunyonyi Overland Camp I met Tom from Canada who’d been on a group trip with about 20 bicyclists gearing to complete the Cairo to Cape Town overland journey. With the trip booked and underway when the crises in Kenya kicked in, the itinerary and route changed whereby offering the riders a two-week hiatus before reconvening in Dar es Salaam. Tom and another rider opted to go to Uganda and Rwanda while others went straight to Tanzania. After seeing my photos of my Rwanda mountain gorilla experience, Tom was making plans to head to Volcano National Park. An F650GS owner himself, he confided that later in the year he and a buddy are planning a motorcycle journey to Baja in Mexico. Perhaps I’ll see him passing through after I return to Southern California later this year.

The Lucky One?

Happy that my friend Mr. Bashi set me up in modest but nice room convenient and in proximity to the wireless access point, Gorillas Hotel in Kigali is the first in many weeks that offers free wireless internet for its guests. Eager to update my blog while catch up on email I was happy to hear that my guardian angel, Martha from Malawi, made contact with Peter in Lilongwe and my Moleskine book and blue dry-bag are one step closer to me. Meanwhile, Martha made a police report and armed with the serial number of my phone served search warrants with the two major mobile cellular carriers in Malawi in hopes they can track down who has my missing phone. It’s a longshot, but worth a try. I guess.

IMG_5045.jpg

Gohanda. Just another perspective.

IMG_7641_2.jpg

Keep your eye in the grass.

IMG_7642.jpg

Rwanda. Rwanda. Rwanda.

Long shots. Have you ever given up on something? Just tossed it as a learning experience, barely worth the effort exerted? Ever say to yourself or a friend, don’t bother, I’ve tried that before and it won’t work? Or just say something like forget it, “kiss it goodbye, you’re in Africa. You’ll never get it back.” People close to me know about my infectious and sometimes annoying optimism. For the most part, with me the glass is always more than half full. Good things happen. There’s good in humanity and life is good. And it’s about how much you put into it. If you invest into something, you should reap returns. As an associate and friend of mine used to love to say “garbage in; garbage out”. So put something good in and…?

Well I get a lot of garbage – junk – e-mail. And it’s annoying. Since I was wondering around Ngorogoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti sleeping in a tent and hanging with my friends Simon and Big Ben, I hadn’t checked email for nearly a week. My inbox loaded with SPAM, I started deleting. And deleted more. And more. Just about to hit delete, for some reason the subject of an odd email stopped me.

Subject: Your tyre

From: michael.scholz@xxxxxxx.de
Subject: Your tyre
Date: March 2, 2008 8:07:26 PM GMT+03:00
To: allan karl

In American English we spell those rubber things we put on cars, trucks and motorcycles “tires”. So this email at first appeared like junk/spam but I clicked it open and in the second time in a few weeks I had to pull my jaw off the keyboard of my MacBook Pro laptop computer:

Hi Allan,
I believe you lost a spare tyre between Lusaka and Chipata. It has been found near Mpanshya Mission, about 60 km west of Luangwa bridge, and it is kept safe here.
Kindly advise what we should do with it.
Regards,
Michael Scholz

On January 29, 2008, on the road from Lusaka to Chipata in Zambia a spare tire I carried flew off my bike when cheap South African bungy cords broke. I traced more than 30km over two hours hoping to find the tire on or beside the road. But bush-grass taller than me permeated the landscape and steep embankments ran down to streams, rivers and minor gorges. I was sure the tire took a huge bounce and disappeared into the bush. Though I tried my best, not willing to give up – yet.

I stopped a half-dozen people along the way asking – hoping – that someone saw it. I gave my Zambian cellphone number to a few people. The promised to call if it turned up. A guy on a bicycle told me he knew the people who cut the grass on the roadside and promised to call. A couple students said they didn’t see anything but promised to call if something turned up.

Dejected and spent, I spent my last night in Zambia at the Hill View Lodge in Chipata. Nobody called me. The next day I lost my phone with my important black book. I hoped February would start better than January ended.

Now the black book is on its way back to me and my tire is in safe-keeping in Zambia. And who said that once you lose something in Africa, you’ll never get it back? Be positive my friends. Be positive!

I’ve made contact with Ray Wilson, the legendary KTM dealer from Lusaka who will retrieve the tire for me and find a way to get it to me in Northern Africa.

Gorillas In The Mist of Rwandan Volcanoes

IMG_4929_2.jpg

Without accommodation but armed with a permit to see the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, I took my time riding the 150km toward Volcanos National Park. Following signs for a lodge I soon found myself 30km away from the park and down a narrow muddy dirt track heading to a gorgeous lake. But I was too far given that I’d have to be at the park at the rack of dawn the next day. So I decided that this lodge would never see the likes of me and I tired to turn around. My rear tire slipped on a muddy track and I slid down the track’s embankment and into a ditch with my front tire still on the track. I was in wheelie position, except that both wheels were on the ground. Nearly 90 degrees and pointed upward a crowd grew around me and my ditch. I couldn’t break the language barrier in trying to get some assistance out of this ditch. One man with one hand on my bike and another outstretched in front of me said “money, money”. I was red with frustration already and now this guy in behaving rather uncharacteristically for an African, wasn’t going to help me unless he got money. Well my Northern Rwanda villager, you may have the cleanest country but the attitudinal absence of altruistic action is stunningly disappointing. I was going to give a “tip” to whoever helped me out anyway. But the insistence or commitment of money before helping this Mzungu just angered me.

As my rear wheel spun desperately for traction, three men heaved Doc up and over the embankment, I was free in less than a minute. I handed out bills to the three men but then ten more hands were thrust over the windscreen of my bike, “give me money, give me money.” I rolled the throttle and got the hell out of there.

The Mountain Gorillas are perhaps the most human like of all the primates competing in intelligence with perhaps the Gelada Baboons of Ethiopia, are likely the most endangered species on the planet. Found only in the near-equatorial volcanic mountains spanning the borders of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. Estimates put this gorilla population at about 300-400. As such they are also one of the most protected species.

So a chance to see these gorillas in their natural mountain setting is not only a rare and rewarding opportunity, it’s also difficult and expensive. Though it’s possible to see the gorillas from the Congo side, political instability, war and questionable conservation makes this proposition less appealing. From Bwindi National Park in Uganda is another option, though movement and migration of the gorillas today means that the chances of seeing them in action are greater from Rwanda — though this can change daily. I chose Rwanda simply because I was there and the excellent staff at the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN) in Kigali were gratefully accommodating and genuinely interested in my journey, mission and adventure.

IMG_7592_2.jpg

Making sunrise to get to the gorillas in the mist of the mighty Rwandan, Ugandan and Congo volcanoes.

What makes seeing the gorillas such a rare chance is the fact that only fifty-six people per day are allowed into the park. These gorillas congregate, live, work and play in family units, much like humans. Rwanda ORTPN carefully tracks seven family groups. Visitors in the park are put into groups of up to eight and each group of eight visits only one group of gorillas. Even more, once the gorillas have been tracked there is a one-hour time limit you may spend with the gorillas in their natural habitat. Everyone with a permit gathers at the park’s headquarters at 6:45am. Groups are assigned one or two guides who take the groups through a 1-3 hours track into Volcanoes National Park. Each group is assigned two armed guards, one treks fifty-100 meters ahead and the other behind. They are their to protect the tour group from chance attacks by elephants or buffalo.

With sleep still in my eyes, I quipped, “Don’t tell me about Buffalo,” to Francoîs our guide who has spent 26 years in the park and with the gorillas and who worked as a porter and assistant to Dian Fossy, the controversial conservationist who was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the film “Gorillas In The Mist”. The passionate Ms. Fossy brought international attention to the region and these amazing primates but sadly was brutally killed by gorilla poachers years ago.

“You like buffalo?” asked Francoîs. “Maybe we’ll find today!”

“No Francoîs, it seems buffalo like me,” I explained while relating my near death experience with two buffalo on the rim of the Ngorogoro crater in Tanzania.

Along with Francoîs and Fidele our second guide, our intimate and groggy early morning group consisted of only five: California women, Kristin and Sue, Gunther, whose couldn’t keep his camera from “flashing” (strict orders for no camera flash around these gorillas) and his Rwandan paramour, Linda. For the first thirty minutes we trekked through small villages, across potato plantations until we came to the park’s boundaries and a four-foot wall our guides called the “buffalo wall”. From their the terrain was muddier, the foliage thicker and the air intoxicatingly moist.

Stepping over ferns and bamboo past eucalyptus, banana and palm trees our goal was to connect with a group of four men who set off on foot earlier in the morning to track our designated group’s position in the park. Equipped with radios our guides were in contact with the trackers as we climbed the easy ascent of the precipitous volcano in search of the Sabyinyo group of gorillas.

Explaining the moving patterns and the dietary intake of the gorillas, Francois often seemed to cross the line between human and gorilla. Pulling three different types of leaves from plants along the trail he held them up and called the mixture, “beer for gorillas.”

“If the Silverback eats one bunch, it’s like one beer,” he explained. “But after 8 or 9 of these, our Silverback gets louder,” Francoîs sprang up and down on his feet with his face stuffed with leaves making grunting and guttural sounds. “Silverbacks like this very much.”

Wondering weather he had breakfast, Francoîs demonstrated the edible nature of many of the volcanoes natural plants while offering our group a nibble, should we like. The bark of the eucalyptus tree was rather tasty, and when I asked about water, he explained that the gorillas don’t drink water due to the moisture contained in the leaves of the plants in this rain forest. He then stuffed a handful of leaves in his mouth making animated and loud crunching sounds until water drooled down his chin.

“You see, plenty of water in these plants.”

After about forty-five minutes of hiking through muddy trails and wet thicket Fidele pointed out another plant that we should avoid. Slightly thorny, the tall green stalk might not hurt too much at first, the the stinging and burning affect lasts for about fifteen minutes then dissipates. Unfortunately they can pierce the light microfiber of my Ex-Officio convertible plants and I found myself scratching and itching the stinging annoyance for the next twenty minutes. Oh well.

IMG_4946_2.jpg

IMG_5057_2.jpg

What are you thinking about?

IMG_4953_2.jpg

IMG_5041_2.jpg

At more than 240kg, this big daddy is the king, the Silverback of our group – Gohanda.

IMG_4959_2.jpg

At one point the armed guard and Fidele headed in one direction while Francoîs took the machete from his hip and started blazing a trail in the opposite direction. He’d heard from the trackers and within ten minutes we were in thick foliage of bamboo, palm, fern and eucalyptus with a tiny clearing. That’s when we heard the rustling. And then black shiny fur of a female gorillas poked out of the leaves and looked down at us, then continued to chomp on leaves. She was gorgeous. Stunningly clear eyes with her nose pushed up, she seemed to smile. You know, each gorilla’s nose pattern is different and this is how they are identified by the trackers and park personnel – much like fingerprints – no two gorillas have the same nose pattern.

Continuing to wield his machete, Francoîs hacked away at foliage to give us a better look. If there’s one female there’s a Silverback and the rest of the family, he assured us. And soon we spotted another female and two young teenagers. But still no sign of the big daddy. The Silverback, a male of more than 12 years is called such cause of the color of the fur changes to a silver gray after maturation. He grows to more than 200 kilograms (440lbs) and can be more than eight feet tall when standing. Making grunting sounds, Francoîs explained that he understands the language of the gorillas. I joke once again that perhaps he’s spent too much time with the hairy primates. Shortly after we spotted him he came running at us at amazing speed that if under attack we would have been tackled immediately. But the big 240kg Silverback, named Gohonda by the Rwandans, beat on his chest, made some grunting sounds that surely made Francoîs jealous and then went back to a new spot for more of his breakfast.

Upon seeing the Gohonda charge, Kristen fell back and doing so grabbed one of the spiny thorny plants giving her palm quite the stinging effect for the next 20 minutes. Ouch. The Rwandan girl lost her breath while I just gaped and gazed. “He’s just telling us who’s boss,” Francoîs explained. There was no question in the minds of anyone who saw this episode. The best part? The Silverback repeated this incident about 15 minutes later. It’s good to be boss.

IMG_4976_2.jpg

IMG_4966_2.jpg

IMG_5075_2.jpg

IMG_5083_2.jpg

At one point after our hour time limit expired, our exit path was blocked by one of the females. Francoîs alternated his grunting and in about 45 seconds she got up and walked away. He wasn’t lying. We were stunned and in awe, he can communicate with these amazing creatures. Earlier we perhaps broached our 5 meter limit and were getting a bit close to the animals while they carried on eating trees, with the massive Silverback took a branch as thick as my leg and broke it off the tree with one hand. He proceeded to strip the brach of the smaller bite sized branches and leaves and eat them. The youngsters of the family, in the presence of the big daddy Silverback seemed to do anything to get their dad’s attention from doing somersaults on the jungle floor to hopping up and down and beating on their chests.

I can’t bring words to this screen that dutifully describe the feeling of spending an hour with these gorillas, save that if I had the opportunity I’d do it again and again. There’s a magic and a sense of wonder that permeates the jungle watching them. Plus, the guides, the trackers and the staff at the Gorillas Nest Lodge, where I ultimately spent two nights, were all first-class and contributed to an experience that will stick with me a lifetime.

IMG_5113.jpg

Two of my fellow Gorilla trekkers this early morning in the potato fields – Kristen (l) and Sue – coincidentally are from LA area in California. (note the armed guard in the background)

IMG_7629_2.jpg

The locals and staff of the Gorilla’s Nest helped me pack my things and sort out some minor issues re-instilled my faith in African hospitality and kindness before I hopped on Doc and made my way back to Kigali.

In Africa? It Doesn’t Get Any Cleaner Than This.

With neatly terraced hillsides, rolling mountains with tropical vegetation Rwanda looks like the Africa I’ve come to know and love. Hard working people in the fields, bicycles, hand and donkey carts move goods from source to market to home and colorfully clad women using their heads to carry vegetables, bananas, water, firewood, grass and just about everything else. It’s piciture book Africa in Action. Sometimes I pull over and stop just to watch and listen. Though my serenity quickly gives way to mayhem as the kids, ladies and locals appear by my side. Now the role is reversed. I’m the show. They just sit, watch and stare.

IMG_7631_2.jpg

IMG_7637.jpg

Can I blame them? I’m in awe of their surroundings, lifestyle and movements. They of me, I guess, too. An alien on a spaceship landed and stopped on their turf. Do they dare touch? Talk? Tread closer?

“Boo!” I sometimes softlly shout at the waist high members of my audience. They quickly scurry down the hillside or behind the legs of the grownup members of the standing room only crowd.

I’m on stage. But I don’t feel that way. My performance? I just be myself. I ask questions, hoping there’s an English-speaker in the crowd. Conversations start and evolve. Other timres, I simply narrate. Providing a minute-by-minute or step-by-step monologue of what I’m doing; always sure to identify any of my worldly goods that I might be using: helmet, gloves, earplugs, keys, camera — you get the idea. Sometimes this generates laughter. Othertimes, it’s a parrot-like response as the locals under their breaths nearly lost in the ambient atmosphere repeat my phrases. I say, “these are my gloves,” and I hear “my gloves.” It’s cute. It’s funny. More than any, it’s traveling though Africa on a motorcycle taking time to mingle with the locals.

It seems to me that the locals have an interest in their country that goes beyond political, economic or any other national pride that residents of most nations exhibit. No. Rwandan people seem to care. Either that, or they’ve been seriously oppressed, brainwashed and are motivated by some form of dictatorial fear. But I don’t think so. You see, Rwanda is the cleanest country I’ve visited in some time. What’s more, it hit me wihtin an hour of crossing the border. For me, my curiosity peaked. Why is Rwanda so clean? Determined to learn, I was amazed at what I learned.

The Rwanda I discovered?

Wonderfully green and clean.

IMG_4911.jpg

IMG_7588_2.jpg

Heading toward the volcanos – lush green rain-forested mountains of power! The dry bush and savannah of Tanzania is now a distant memory.

IMG_4920_2.jpg

IMG_4924_2.jpg

Notice you don’t see any roadside trash in these pictures!

Sometime in the last two years the Rwandan governement banned plastic shopping bags. At the airport, visitors with duty-free or other goods brough in from abroad are advised and directed to deposit them in designated trash bags prior to leaving the airport. Caught outside the airport with one of these bags is in violation of Rwandan law.

Brilliant! Though I failed to mention in early blogs while travling through South Africa and Namibia, one South African company, though hasn’t gone far enough, has started charging for shopping bags. At any of the Pik N’ Pay supermarkets in Southern Africa the checkout clerk will ask you if you want a bag. If so, she rings it up. Though at a modest cost of 10 or 20 cents, I saw this as a great step toward elimnating those annoying pieces of plastic that seem to get caught in the wind and end up everywhere: “blocking out the scenery and breaking my mind.” I’ve always held to the truth that when it comes to responsibility and behaviour modification, money is the perfect motivator. Spam and useless e-mail would be eliminated if we had to pay for each time we hit the send button. If we have to pay for plastic bags, perhaps less people would buy them and there would be an incentive to reuse the bags or even better, use sacks of natural fibers — and use them again and again. Plastic and glass bottles should all carry a deposit fee. This discourages the brainless throwing of them out the windows of busses, trucks and cars.

Whether luck or wisdom, Rwandans recognize how nasty bags can trash a beautiful scene. And they’ve done something about it. Even better, the last Saturday of the month is a community clean up day. From 8am until noon, local communities clean up their homes, their streets, alleys and shopping areas of any and all trash. It’s community action and partnerhsip. All to keep Rwanda clean. And it’s working. I only hope that other countries take and interest and act similarly.

I entered Rwanda from the southeast. Now I’m venturing Northwest to the Volcanos National Park where I hope to catch a glimpse of the infamous and perhaps most-endangered species in the world: the mountain gorillas. And my journey to their habitat only reinforces the clean, if not pristine, environment that Rwanda seems to have worked hard to create.

Kudos to Rwanda and its citizens!

Indian Food and Genocide: An Unlikely Mix?

He was very formal, personal and service oriented if not a slightly meek. When he brought me a bottle of the local beer in a 330ml bottle, I admitted my surprise. Most beer in Africa is served in 500- 1.0L bottles. Rarely does one find what we are accustomed to in the US: the equivalent to a 12oz can or bottle, except in a tourist-oriented hotel, restaurant or other service establishment. When I asked for the larger bottle, he said they couldn’t get them. I begged to differ and suggested if there was a problem finding the larger bottles, I’d be happy to offer my assistance in talking with the distributor so that they could better service future customers with the more customary bottle. Of course, the reason the up-market Indian restaurant in the Rwandan capital only sold small bottles was simply to increase per table sales and revenue. Overhearing our conversation, one of the Indian owners of the eatery joined my waiter table side. I repeated my offer to help discuss the situation with the beer distributor all in an effort to increase customer service at the restaurant. He promised he’d look into it.

Sure he will.

Continuing to be friendly while learning more about Rwanda and its people, my waiter, Emmanuel slowly opened up. Learning of my journey he was awestruck.

“You’re a very strong man, Mr. Allan,” he said. Often my African friends describe me as strong when learning about the journey and my time on the road, alone. But there’s a translation difference, I think. The word strong connotes certain strength physically, but also can mean emotionally or even spiritually. We can have strong beliefs, strength in our conviction, be strong willed among others. Perhaps Emmanuel meant any of these things, or perhaps a better translation is “brave”. I don’t know.

“How you can do such thing means you must be very strong,” he continued. “I could never do such things. I would be afraid.”

He admitted that jobs were difficult to find in Rwanda and while he liked the restaurant job and was thankful of the Indian owners who gave him the opportunity, he would like to do more and earn more money. Though he liked serving in this restaurant because of the diverse clientele.

At about 27 years old, he was about 14 years old during the brutal genocide that left nearly 1,000,000 Rwandans dead in about 100 days in 1994. Less than two years earlier, foreseeing the pending doom in Rwanda, his parents, both Tutsi’s sent Emmanuel and his younger brother to a refugee camp in Uganda with a promise to reunite with their children in a few months. A few months went by. The UN eventually moved them to Tanzania. Then less than years later he was delivered the news: both his parents were killed.

“No, Emmanuel,” I consoled and confided, “you are the strong one here.” Uncharacteristically tongue tied and lost for words I knew my journey and adventure, though taxing, could never be compared to living through what many Rwandans did. “I don’t know, Emmanuel. But I’m sorry. I can’t imagine living through the pain and loss you and your brother have. My journey is nothing compared what you went through and go through every day.” My heart bled over the Indian goat stew with marsala and other spices and the wonderful garlic nan. “You have much more strength to be able to get up and face very new day. To learn was you have done and to be able to still have dreams and hopes. You, Emmanuel, are the strong person at this table.”

Though no genocide is short of atrocities and horror, I find the Rwandan killings more brutal. While planned and incited by extremists in the military, the killings were done by everyone — not just military or the organizers. No. The killings were performed by the hands of co-workers, brothers, husbands, kids, employees and next-door neighbors. People were hacked with machetes, bludgeoned with picks, chopped up by axes. Infants were swung by one foot and slammed against bedroom walls until they stopped breathing. Limbs were chopped off and backs stabbed and then the victims left to bleed and suffer to death. Teenaged girls and young children were raped, then stabbed and tossed into latrines left to die among human waste.

And this happened just over a decade ago. In today’s modern society.

Thirteen years later and they’re still finding bodies. The actual number of deaths may never be known.

Emmanuel’s father and mother were bound together in rope their home and then doused with gasoline while the killers locked and barricaded their house shut,. The outside of the house was lit afire. They sat in terror as the flames inched closer to their bodies until minutes or hours, who knows, later they were engulfed in flames and burned to death.

“A few years ago I got real sick,” Emmanuel confided. “I woke up one night and felt so hot, like I was burning.” He spent two days at the hospital but still has nightmares of his parents burning.

About three years ago, at the tenth anniversary of the brutal genocide, a memorial was built on a hillside over looking Kigali. And on this hillside are mass graves of more the 250,000 Rwandans. The site serves as a reminder of the savage and barbaric killings and how it happened. Genocide is a sad part of human history. And while there are patterns, one would reason that with all we’ve learned from Hitler, Pol Pot, the Hereros (another African massacre from German hands in Namibia) Serbia and more that racial cleansing would have relegated to the history books. But here the truth, disgust, horror and skeletons or the Rwanda Genocide are on display. A special exhibit shows photographs of children, their age and how they were killed. It’s mind numbing if not sick.

Though not “technically” a different ethnic group, it was the Europeans who before the turn of the century divided the Rwandan people into two groups – Tutsis and Hutus. Those whose families owned ten or more cows were identified and given I.D. cards as Tutsi’s, while those with less than ten cows were Hutus. The majority of the people were Hutus. And after gaining independence Belgium, the segregation continued. And it got out of hand. Over time the discrimination, alienation and fear of the minority festered in the psyche of the Hutus. Starting slowly, but by the 1990’s the military systematically enlisted more than 92% Hutu. Government was barely more diversified. The Tutsis were left out.

Perhaps the sad part of the story is how the Western world sat back and watched the genocide. The UN refused to offer more aid in terms of troops or supplies to the opposition. And in many ways, the young EU refused to acknowledge what was happening. Though slightly “Hollywood”, the recent movie “Hotel Rwanda” provides a superficial overview of the days of the genocide and the lame Western response.

I came to Rwanda to see for myself. And today I see a new Rwanda. But history will not be forgotten. And ideally not repeated.

IMG_7573_2.jpg

Looking down from the gardens at the Rwanda Genocide Memorial at just one of six mass graves where more than 250,000 Rwandans killed during the genocide are buried on this hillside.

IMG_4891_2.jpg

IMG_4889_2-tm.jpg

The identities of all those killed and bodies uncovered or the actual death toll may never be known. But a wall at the Memorial lists a fraction of the names of those known to have been killed. It’s mind boggling.

Today as I wander the streets of Rwanda’s capital it’s impossible for me to look into the faces of the people and wonder if they are Tutsi or Hutu. And if Hutu, how many people, friends did they kill. Those Hutus who were moderate, married to a Tutsi, sympathized with Tutsis or showed disdain or opposition to the ethnic cleansing were killed too. Many people I spoke to left the country going to Uganda, Zaire (now Congo) and Tanzania. “What could I do?” was the most typical response.

Dealing with the past is something that both the western world and the Rwandans are still contending with. Western guilt is evident in the amount of aid, which seems disproportionate given the size of the country compared to other African nations I’ve traveled. Massive western style high-rise buildings and industrial/business parks are under constructed in Kigali, new home construction in the countryside is overwhelming and a steady stream of UN supply trucks weave through the network of new — and largely pothole free — roads. Yes. This is the new Rwanda.

But where’s the justice? A War Crimes Tribunal held in Arusha has been going on for years. Sadly, the number of convictions processed by the tribunal amounts to no more than two digits – a fraction of the actual killers who brutally massacred one million or more innocent women, children and men. Yet more than 40,000 have been accused and imprisoned. And bringing them to trial has been a testy process. So where the Arusha courts have failed, Rwanda is trying something different — something uniquely African. On hilltops and under trees around the country villagers hold court. The bold experiment is called gacaca – or, justice in the grass. Gacaca is an age old African method of settling disputes. Judges, known as the upright ones, are elected in each village. To date more than 250,000 gacaca judges from university professors to illiterate peasants, have been sworn in. The whole process if very informal and none of the judges are lawyers. Village residents gather and sit under trees, while families of those killed in the massacre listen to the accused, some who confess ask for forgiveness while detailing the horror that led to the deaths. Anyone may air accusations against the accused or anyone in the village. It’s something I wanted to see and experience for myself. But my time in Rwanda didn’t coincide with a gacaca I could find.

So I continue moving on through this journey of adventure and discovery. Riding by the barely six-month old shiny fortress that serves as the US Embassy, I’m proud to be an American and doing what we can to contribute to better living conditions for these people, but sad that we were blind to the atrocities of their past.

How To Get Out of Tanzania and Into Rwanda

The votes were tallied and the verdict was delivered — from the taxi driver, bus boy, ex-pat mining executive from Australia, the bus driver and the prostitute at the bar of the Talapia. It was unanimous. To get to Rwanda if not going by ferry boat, then the road to Shinyanga then Kahama to Ngara and Resumo would be safest. But the ferry sounded like a good option. Why not float along the infamous lake? I’d get a chance to experience Lake Victoria from its water — the second largest lake in the world, and I could travel during the night thereby not losing a riding day. The ferry would land in Tanzania in Bukoba and then a short dirt road to the border of Rwanda from there a good paved road would roll me into Kigali. Sounded perfect. I decided to go with the ferry. So when the eager porter I sent to to fetch the tickets returned he wore a sad look on his face.

“The ferry doesn’t leave on Mondays,” he confessed he should have known this before embarking on the goose chase. “Only Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

I was stuck. I didn’t want to wait another day for the silly ferry ride. But it was already midday, and even if I left immediately, I’d never make it to the border prior to nightfall. Sure, I could stopover in Kahama or Shinyanga, but there’s not much there. My better option would be to take another night aboard the African Queen and shoot for a daybreak start in order to cover the 800 kilometers to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in a single day. There was one section of road I was warned about. “Be sure to check with the police check-points before traveling through the forest,” Collins warned. “There’ve been bad people there who put things in the road to stop you so they can rob you,” he continued. “They’ve robbed entire busses.” It’s more than 100 miles of no man’s land between Kahama and the Rwanda border. Accoring to my map there’s one town. Though there are always smaller settlements that don’t make the map, the question is how friendly are they.

The sun rose just before 7AM, I was on the road by 7:15. The first 20km I was sailing. Then the road deteriorated into a mine field of potholes. This lasted for more than 100km so by 9:20 when I refueled in Shinyanga, I’d traveled only 100 miles in just over two hours. Calculating the remaining distances and then the time for a border crossing, I wondered if I’d lose the bet. The staff at the hotel told me I’d be hard pressed to make Kigali before nightfall. They suggested getting accomodation at Kahama or closer to the border at Ngara. Self-doubt started weighting heavily on my mind. If the roads were like this to the border, they’re right. Plus there’s the question of the road through the forest — was it safe to ride alone? Would I need an armed escort. It was too early to tell.

IMG_7527_2.jpg

The first 100km outside of Mwanza made for a early morning game of dodge the potholes and mud patches. Difficult to get any good speed. But I was aiming to make Kigali, Rwanda by sunset anyway.

Enquiring to the turn off for the road to Kahama, the armed motorcycle police at the petrol station offered to escort me through town. Flanked by two 125cc Chinese police motorcycles, one riding two-up, I was slowly paraded through town to the turn off to Kahama. For the first hour riding across the plains from Shinyanga, I cruised by a number of massive baobab trees. Of course, I was treated to the now common site of rolled over carnage of haul trucks. But along this road, it was a massive petrol tanker ruck. And sitting around dozens of 10 and 20 liter plastic containers, a group of men were siphoning the remaining petrol out of the tanker into the containers. I wondered how long they’d been at it. And how many containers in how much time would they be finished?

IMG_7531_2.jpg

I had an armed police escort out of town.

IMG_7535_2.jpg

The road got much better. Less traffic than I’ve seen in a while. Most people walk, ride bikes or push carts. Not so many donkeys. That’s a good thing!

IMG_7536_2.jpg

IMG_7542_2.jpg

IMG_7548_2.jpg

As I approached Kahama the landscape changed to a field of massive boulder sized rock croppings. Thatched hut settlements clustered around the big rocks. At the next police checkpoint, I hit the kill switch on the engine and chatted with the officers.

“No problem,” they both said nodding their heads while peering curiously at my GPS. “What’s that?”

“No problem with mzungu alone on a piki-piki,” I asked again. The taller officer with the madly crooked teeth put his finger on the screen of the GPS unit rubbing some dust off.

“No it’s safe now for sometime. You no have problem. Yes, before months ago many problems. But now road good for going.”

Something about the broken enligsh coming from grown men in offical pure white police uniforms didn’t real set well with me. But I wasn’t about to turn back. But I almost got stuck here at this unlikely police post in northern Tanzania: once again I left the 50w PIAA lights burning while I asked the questions burning in my mind. When it came time to leave, my battery didn’t have enough juice to turn over the massive piston. So in Tanzania communal self-reliant fashion. the two police officers dropped their clipboards and push started me along my way.

Two hours later I was rolling through the wooded highlands where I spotted dozens of dirt tracks leading into the thick woodlands. I imagined people could appear and disappear with ease. But all I saw were a couple kids tending to goats and a woman carrying a jug of water atop her head. But for about twenty miles there was no sign of any town, services or huts with roofs of any kind. It was no man’s land. But soon the forest thinned and I found myself at another police check point. Then a mandatory weight station for haul trucks. This could possibly be the 500th or 1000th weight station I’ve passed on my journey. Not sure what I was thinking given that I had a serious deadline with wagers on the line, but I pulled in and rode the bike on the massive scale, while the giggly and plump uniforned TANROADS official punched buttons and gave me the official weight: 300 kilos on the nose. Wow.

IMG_7554_2.jpg IMG_7552_2.jpg

It was time to actually stop and weigh Doc. Though she admitted she didn’t zero the scale before I rode on…?

IMG_7556_2.jpg

Welcome To Rwanda.
At 2:20pm I arrived at the border at Rusomo where I cancelled my carnet, stamped my passport and bought 10 liters of black market petrol with the help of the border guard. Later he took the WorldRider sticker I’d given him and adhered it to the swinging border gate. You gotta love Africa. On the other side of the river the border crossing went just as smooth. So by 3:45 I was riding through Rwanda.

It seemed like I was in another world. Gone were the plains, the bush, the Acacia and the baobab. Beautiful and gentle rolling hills and pristine tarmac twisted up, over and through lush green tropics where banana, tobacco and rice fields — all neatly nestled into the hillsides. Small villages with neatly painted or naturally colored homes. School children walking along the streets all sporting similar plastic footwear, most in the same blue and yellow colors. I saw no signs of garbage nor incomplete construction projects with massive piles of sand, rock and rebar that I’ve seen in virtually every country in Africa. Something was different here in Rwanda. True, I now was driving on the “right” side of the road. Stopping to chat with the villagers I also found myself in another world. If they spoke a language other than their native tongue, it was French. Even the police officer riding the F650GS didn’t speak English. And he refused to let me take a photograph of his bike.

IMG_7558_3.jpg

Rwanda’s glorious hills in the background. Goodbye Tanzania, I will be back!

Yes. Rwanda was clean and seemingly civilized and organized. A country where people actually planted greenery and flowers in a landscaped fashion along the homes. Towns had good signage and clean greenbelts. Stopping in a small village as I enjoy doing, no body spoke English. Even Swahili was foreign. They spoke French. And now I’ve got to ride on the right side of the road? Wait a minute! Where am I? This isn’t Africa. Is it?

IMG_7559_2.jpg

Riding into Kigali I had the same feeling. Though the city, built on a series of hills, was dreadfully confusing. After riding in circles I found the tourist information office. But it was closed. Thankfully, an employee, Frank Murangwa, took a liking to this dusty and weathered motorcyclist and made a few recommendations for accomodation, loaded me with Rwanda tourist information and directed me along my way. But it was a local FedEx employee, Ben Bahizi, on a Honda motorcycle who made my entrance into Rwanda simple, efficient and safe. Taking interest in my bike, my mission and my journey, he guided me to the hotels until I came upon Gorillas Hotel and the friendly and accomodating Mr. Bashi who went well out of his way to ensure my bike was safe and secure for the evening. I was checked in by 8pm.

IMG_7565_2.jpg
Lush green. I passed banana and coffee plantations. Rice fields. The bush of Tanzania seems so distant. Well! I rode nearly 800km today.

IMG_7570_2.jpg

Wait? Where am I? BMW for the cops? Is that a spankin’ new Mercedes? Is this Africa? Yeah. You’re in Rwanda now, WorldRider!

IMG_7571_2.jpg

Rwanda Police Officers want to take Doc for a spin. They’ve got the qualifications. Afterall they’re riding 650’s and 1150’s.

I made it: 790km and border crossing in about ten hours.