Friday, June 16, 2006

Middle Europe in June

I'm sitting in the kitchen of my hostel in Prague which is decorated with communist-era furniture and photographs, not remnants of a past era but purposly placed as an artistic statement. Today I took the day off after weeks of wondering around lost in narrow cobblestone alleyways, over medieval bridges, through lavishly decorated castles and, less majestically, by countless stands of touristy "plastic crap" as my Dad would call it. I've been in E. Europe for nearly a month now and have enjoyed the history and culture and art while at the same time have been repelled by the commercalization and tourist-trap aspects present in every town. Watching a golf cart full of fat white lazy tourists pass a buggy drawn by two massive horses over a cobblestone street is at the same time bewildering and depressing.

My first stop in Poland was Warsaw where I arrived by
plane from Kenya. In Warsaw I saw my first opera (I expect
Nora to take me to much better ones when I get back to San Francisco!), went shopping at real department stores for the first time in months and enjoyed my first European streets, including the one with the blue building on the left. Warsaw is incredible because it was completely leveled during WWII and has been rebuilt from scratch so successfully that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was able to view many monuments to WWII (Holocaust isn't a term they use in Poland very often) and used Warsaw as my base for visiting the beautiful memorial at Treblinka, which consists of thousands of rocks jutting from the ground like gravestones. While in Warsaw I also saw the Pope, which is always exciting. Yeah, see that golf cart, that's him!!

From Warsaw I took a train south to Lublin from where I visited the Majdanek Concentration Camp and enjoyed a less crowded and off the beaten trail Polish city. This is where I visited my first castle, the best aspect of which was the Chapel of Holy Trinity which is decorated with polychrome Russo-Byzantine frescoes painted in 1418 (thank you lonely planet). Sorry no pictures allowed. From Lublin I traveled to Krakow, the "gem of Poland." There was a dragon festival on and so it was convincingly like the scene in Shrek 2 when Shrek goes to meet Fiona's parents in their fairytale castle, complete with stands of pretzels, stuffed dragons and plastic toy swords and knights who would rather have 5 zlotys than your heart. I had a surreal moment (one of many) after an early morning jog when I found myself at the foot of the red brick walls of the most beautiful castle. I've had lots of moments where I sort of get overwhelmed and teary eyed and can't believe that I'm actually here seeing and experiencing all these amazing things. On a more somber note I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, a true testament to the organization and efficiency of the Nazi party. It was strange to see the actual piles and piles of victims' hair, shoes, bags and glasses that are such popular images of the Holocaust. Same thing with the barbed wire on the fence stretching around the vast concentration camp. Right when I reached the stone memorial, the last stop for visitors at the very furthest point of Birkenau it began to hail. I had only a raincoat and was soaked and cold as I left on bus from the infamous gate where prisoners were seperated upon arrival into groups that were to live and those that were to be sent to the gas chambers.

From Krakow I rook a bus down south to do some hiking in the snow capped alp-like Tatras. It was truly one of the most beautiful locations I have ever been in. As I lay in a grassy field on a hill and looked up at the jagged white moutains on all sides and ate a swiss chocolate bar I began to cry from the beauty of it all. Looking through the dark and overgrown forest I could imagine being inspired to write about wolves eating grandmas or getting lost with my brother and coming upon the house of an evil witch. After three days of hiking nearly six hours a day I injured my knee and knew that it was time to move on. I came to Prague from Krakow by overnight train. There were wild red poppies growing on the side of the tracks. In the middle of the night we arrived at the Czech border and a border patrol officer politely knocked on our door and asked to see our passports. After he had glanced quickly through them he said thank you and wished us a safe journey. I was shocked. What, no attempts at extracting a bribe? No luggage searches for smuggled drugs? No standing in lines for an hour and paying $50 for an intricately decorated visa? No children begging or men trying to change money at horrible rates? Where am I?!!!!

I arrived in Prague and found my hostel and have been here for nearly a week now. It is definately my favorite place I've been in this area of the world. It's a busy city mixing culture, art and a complicated history and politics so beautifully that it's almost overwhelming. I've been to more churches since arriving here than I have in my entire life combined. They are truly inspired works of art both outside and in with stone carvings, detailed stain glass, bright mosaics, and ancient frescoes depicting various scenes from the bible. I've also been enjoying museums, art galleries, and just walking around and stumbling upon strange buildings and statues. I've had the pleasure of seeing the dancing building, a work of architect Frank Ghery and various statues by the Czech artist David Cerny. Some of his stuff is very bizarre but it is all politically inspired and controversial, which I love. I also enjoyed visiting the Mucha Museum and seeing originals of all those turn of the century replicated theatre and cigarette posters gracing the walls of countless dorm rooms and cafes around the world.
Tomorrow I am visiting a church made of bones an hour away from Prague by train and the next day the Terezin Concentration Camp, the "reason" for my being here. From here I will travel to Munich, Germany my base for visiting Dachau.
Alright, well this is long enough!! I've been taking a ton of photos because it is so much easier to join the masses and walk around with a camera. I hope you enjoy.

A chapel in the Old Town of Prague

A stained glass window in the chapel at the castle in Prague

One of those great Cerny statues. You can text messages to the statue and it will pee out your message. The rest of the time it spells out famous czech literary quotes.

Cerny again. That's a t.v. tower and those are giant bronze babies. It was pretty bewildering because I didn't know what it was until I got back to the hostel and asked about it.

The dancing building by Frank Ghery.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I just arrived in Warsaw after traveling for three weeks in Tanzania and a couple of days in Kenya. It has been a nice vacation, though I have to admit that I was ready for a change of scenery. And man have I had one! But, I'm skipping ahead.
Tanzania is an amazing country. Diverse is the best description - there are diverse cultures ranging from the very traditional Maasai in the north to the Arab and African Swahili on the coast. It was so amazing to walk around and see Maasai men and women in their traditional red checkered robes and beaded jewelry, their earlobes stretched and hair died red. One day I went with friends to the Maasai market where Maasai gather from all around the northern country to sell and buy cattle, sheep, goats and cloths. After being stared at and hastled (I was spanked by a 7 ft tall Maasai man!! Not many people can say they've experienced that.) and almost sold for a herd of cows, I was ready to move from the cattle selling area to the more peaceful area where women were selling cloth and other items. That's where I met this older woman who allowed me to take her picture for a fee. When I showed her the photo on my camera screen you should have seen her face! I'm not sure if she'd ever seen a photo of herself. It would be fun to travel with a polaroid.
The market was in Arusha where the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) takes place. I had the opportunity to sit in one a trial for an hour and to browse their library, which contains some interesting books on genocide all over the world. I would have liked to spend several days doing research there, but I had booked a two day safari. The safari was very nice, we saw lots of animals and just driving through the beautiful thriving wet season savannah was a treat. The green tall grasses make it difficult to see animals, but provide the landscape with a life that makes up for it. Every few kilometers a huge boabab tree stands gnarled and wide, stripped of bark by hungry elephants during the dry season. What incredible trees. If I were to live in a tree, I would choose a boabab.
After my safari I took a bus to Dar Es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania. It rests on the coast and has been a central trading area for thousands of years. Even the Ancient Greeks traded goods and slaves with the Arab settlers there. Tanzania has a very rich history. Our oldest ancestors walked its plains. The interior of the country area, with people coming from northern Africa and mixing with local tribes. The Maasai themselves descended from Sudan. They were (are) cattle herders, wondering to find the best grasses for their valuable cows. On the coast Arabs were the first colonialists followed by the Portuguese and then later, the Germans and after WWI, the English. After spending a day in Dar I took a ferry to Zanzibar Island. Stone Town quite a different manner than the coastal developed in, the older part of Zanzibar city embodies the rich coastal history of colonialism, trade, and intercultural mixing. The streets are narrow and jagged and made of stone. Ancient buildings lay crumbled next to colonial structures reflecting influences from various European architectural styles. I spent two days lost within this stone town before heading to the equally impressive northern coast, where I spent a few days lounging on the beach, snorkeling and eating freshly caught seafood.
From Zanzibar I returned back to Dar and worked my way up the coast to a small sleepy town called Tanga where I visited a cave and then up to Mombasa in Kenya. There I spent a day, got ripped off. After nine months I fell for a stupid money trading skit, and watched as two men walked away with my money. I can't believe I fell for it. Oh well, guess I'm back on my toes now. From there I went to Nairobi where I spent a couple of days relaxing and then flew to Warsaw arriving yesterday. I'm going through minor culture shock with the development, the white people everywhere, the weather. I am looking forward to continueing my research here, on my fourth continent this year.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

24 April 2006

Yesterday my friends Hilary and Felix and I visited the mountain gorillas of Volcano National Park. It was a truly amazing experience to see gorillas in their natural habitat. To watch them eat and clean each other, to hear their grunts of communication, to stand and sit five feet away from them. We arrived the night before, stayed in a town nearby and began our trek at 7 in the morning. It took us around 2 hours (we were very lucky) to find the gorillas. The troup we visited has 14 members: two silverbacks, numerous females and two young babies. They spend their days foraging for food, playing with each other, fighting off potential gorilla intruders, and patiently allowing human visitors to photograph them for an hour each day. I was amazed at how willing they were to allow us to join their group, even for such a short time. In the guidebook it says that visitors are required to stay atleast 7 meters from the gorillas, but we were often much closer than that. At one point we edged around one of the silverbacks resting on his, well, back and we were only feet away. One sweep of his giant paw and we would have been right there on our backs beside him. The mama gorillas looked like little pots, fat with forest bamboo and other plants. The young gorillas were so prescious and once they warmed up to us they seemed to like to show off, climbing bamboo stalks and twirling in circles. Of course, our hour flew by and soon we had to leave the gorillas to themselves. As we left a loner silverback sauntered towards the other gorillas. Our guide told us that he has been trying to join the troup but has been met with violent protestation from the other two silverbacks. I guess it was a good time to leave, wouldn't want to get caught inbetween two of those giant angry hairy beasts. Below are some photos of the gorillas and the area. Enjoy, I know I did.

The patchworked and mist puddled landscape outside of Volcano National Park in the north of Rwanda

My friend Hilary (another Watson fellow!) and I getting ready to enter the forest to track the gorillas.

Our first glimpse of the gorillas was breath taking, to see such large animals so close.

The big daddy silverback. He eats around 30 kilos of plants a day and can way up to 200 kilos, that about three times the average man. Cool huh.

Here's one of the young babies and her mom.

Me and Felix and Hilary and one of the mother gorillas. The four of us are around the same age so you know, we chilled.

Oh, these humans are exhausting!

These two were so cute. The silverback is in the background keeping watch over all of us.

Really really exhausting.

I couldn't bring myself to turn my back on the big guy (his face is as long as my arm!) not even for a photo.

No, that's not another baby on the way. That's a bamboo belly.

When we left the park, these guys were waiting to greet us and ask for empty water bottles. Well, I've been downloading for hours now, so I have to go. Can't wait to show you the rest of the pictures when I get back!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

April 2006

It’s only fair to share some of the more positive aspects of Rwanda. There are many. My Rwandan friend, Andrews is the director of Gacaca courts in a district near Kigali and invited me to visit him and attend a Gacaca meeting a couple of weeks ago. Nyamata is only 22 kilometers away but it takes one and a half hours over a violently rutted dirt road to get there. That isn’t including the time it takes waiting to fill the old worn mini bus till it is busting at the seems with sweating people. When the last person is jammed into the bus like the final crayon in a full box, we set out through Kigali to the south. The drive is through typical awe inspiring Rwandan countryside - large hairy hills, tiered green crops of coffee, sugar cane, bananas, and tea. Squat brown mud houses (just like at home!) with roofs of rusted corrugated tin and skewed wooden doors pepper the hills. Clouds gather in the sky above preparing for the heavy rains that now happen every day. People walk on the sides of the roads. Boys herd cows with horns so massive they would dash the confidence of any longhorn in Texas. They have to tilt there heads sideways to graze in between the banana trees. Young girls herd goats that eat the grass on the sides of the road. Women and children walk carrying yellow jugs to fill with water. Women wearing brightly colored cloth wraps and head scarves carry water, backpacks, and bundles of plants on their heads. They strap babies to their backs and carry bright rainbow umbrellas to protect them from the sun and rain. The men stop and greet each other shaking hands with the left hand touching the right arm, a show of respect.
I had been in Nyamata several times, but was still shy and incredibly self conscious at all the stares that I received as I waited for Andrews to arrive on his motorbike. I think he enjoys my company only slightly more than he enjoys riding around with a muzungu (gringo) on the back of his moto. We arrived at the Gacaca court an hour late and waited another hour for it to begin. A group of people sat beneath a large tree on the damp grass, but when I tried to join them they insisted that I have a chair. Gacaca literally means justice on the grass. It is a form of justice introduced in Rwanda to aid in prosecuting the large number of genocide perpetrators. The idea is that community members give testimony and help to decide whether a suspect is guilty or not and what his/her punishment should be. If you want to know more there are many books and scholarly articles on the subject and I strongly suggest you read one of them. On the day I was there they were not doing trials, but were electing new community judges. It was an interesting process by which three people were nominated against their will and were voted for by those present standing in line behind the one that they wanted to be a judge the most. The longest line won. How’s that for democracy.
I’ve had so many amazing opportunities to witness things that I have only read about. Gacaca courts, memorial ceremonies, processes of gathering and disseminating information surrounding genocide. I’ve met and interviewed the top people who work to preserve memory in both Cambodia and Rwanda. Just a few days ago I interviewed the Minister of Culture here and my appointment followed a meeting between the Minister and the President of Rwanda! I would ask a question and the Minister would reply, “I was just discussing this with the President an hour ago and . . .” That was pretty cool and the interview went well so I felt really good afterwards. I have learnt so much about politics and the great power behind networking. Rwanda is all about networking. When I discuss my project with someone they usually suggest someone else that I should talk to. You could map the entire NGO and researcher community here and come out with a complicated web of connections and potential sources of information.
Speaking of networking I recently ran into a fellow Watson fellow here in Rwanda and she and I attended one of the memorial ceremonies together. Next week we are going to see the mountain gorillas (Dad, I’ll take lots of pictures!!) together. She is doing a project on coffee cooperatives so we talk about that quite a bit as well (a nice break from genocide). In two weeks I will be saying murabeho to Rwanda and heading off to Kenya through Uganda. I am looking forward to exploring parts of Kenya and to taking a short vacation from my project before I leave for Poland to visit some concentration camps there. I love you all and hope that life is good.

April 2006

This week is genocide commemoration week in Rwanda and I have been attending genocide memorial ceremonies and mass burials nearly every day. They are still finding and burying thousands of people’s remains in April of every year. Last night I attended a ceremony at a site in Kigali called Kicukiro. There is a new movie that just came out called “Shooting Dogs” and much of the movie is based on the events that occurred at a technical school in Kicukiro where UN peacekeeping forces were based and thousands of Tutsis sought shelter during the first days of the genocide. Below is a survivor testimony that was given at the service last night. We marched from the school to the massacre site as the sun set and nearly full moon rose and the service went all night. There were songs and poems and testimonies and speeches. Women in the crowd would have traumatic reactions, screaming and shaking and fainting. As you read below you will understand why. Never forget is what they say. What memories people have to live with.

“Once the killing began we left our house and knowing that the UNAMIR forces were based at ETO we went there believing that they would protect us from the massacre. We weren’t the only ones who had the idea. When we arrived we were met by thousands of others and the numbers continued to increase each day. We arrived on the 7th of April and stayed at the school for four days. Interahamwe and government soldiers waived and shot guns outside the gates of the school. They had surrounded us on all sides, but we knew we were safe because the UN was there. They had guns too and kept them pointed at the armed mob outside. On our 3rd day at the school a rumor spread that UN reinforcements were on their way and we felt hope. On the 4th day, the 11th of April, our hopes were dashed. The general of the UN peace keepers stood before us and said that they had orders to leave and that they could not take any Rwandans with them. At first we could not understand and people yelled at him and begged and pointed to the dangerous men outside. We knew then that we must organize so we met together and chose representatives who would go to the general and plead for our lives. The general only shook his head and said that he must follow orders. That afternoon white UN trucks began to arrive and take away the soldiers. We laid in front of their trucks and they fired into the air to scare us away. They had guns and trucks and men and they left. We had nothing. As soon as they were gone the Interahamwe and government soldiers entered the school and marched us down towards the stadium where we knew that many Tutsis were hiding and thought that we would be allowed to go there too. When we reached the intersection of the road to the stadium they turned us around and we walked back up the road, past the school and continued to walk for about 45 minutes. Some of us thought that they were keeping us alive for a reason and that we would not be killed. Others walked solemnly, sure that death waited at the top of the hill. We were brought to Nyanza, a trash pile at the top of the hill and told to sit down. Immediately the shooting began. I heard a gun shot and fell to the ground and laid still. Bodies fell on top of me as those who sat by me were killed. Once the shooting stopped men came through with machetes to kill those who had not died. They used machetes and clubs to rape the women (literally translated as using machetes and clubs in the private parts of women). I was so far beneath the bodies that they did not see me. I laid there for three nights, not daring to fall asleep for fear that I would move and a soldier would see me and kill me. A woman I knew who had given birth to a child only eleven days earlier and had walked with the child strapped to her back had been hacked to death, but the child had lived. For the three days I listened to the child cry and choke until it was at last silent like the rest of us. At one point a crazy man from the village came and took a young girls body. A few hours later he brought her back dragging her by one leg. I do not know what he did with the young girl during those hours. I survived this and now I have to live with these memories. It was Rwandans that killed other Rwandans, but the international community is responsible too. If they had not left it would not have happened. That is all I can say.”

The other day I went to a burial and the sheer number of coffins they buried, each containing the remains of 10-20 people was truly bewildering. Seeing them all laid out in rows covered with purple and white cloths brought home the sheer number of people that were killed here. I’ve spoken with several scholars who say that it was well over a million people and I can believe it. What I can’t believe or understand is why. I know that is what everyone says, but even after talking with so many people about it and watching the videos and listening to the tapes and reading the books I still can’t make sense out of it. I understand the often very different historical reasons given by academics and politicians but the act itself and the brutal way in which murders were carried out is still incomprehensible to me. And I am an outsider. It must be truly impossible to understand when it is your own former friends, neighbors, and even relatives that murdered and raped your family members with machetes and clubs. Sometimes I think that it would be better for some people to forget and they are not given that opportunity here. During this week the radio plays survivors songs one after the other and the t.v. plays documentaries that show the aftermath of the genocide, bloated bodies floating down the river and children in hospitals with gashes on their heads skull deep. The newspaper prints pictures of skulls and bodies piled on the ground. There are genocide remembrance banners everywhere and survival testimonies such as the one above are given at ceremonies which are held in every district. People wear purple scarves if they have lost relatives or friends in the genocide.

Of course for my project I look at the political reasons behind this incredibly public period of remembrance and the role of memorials in this remembrance and I will share more of that with you at a later time. Politics aside, I’m just trying to learn and understand more about one of the darkest four months imaginable and one that I only studied for the first time three years ago. If you have time now, visit this site and click on the link for the “not on my watch” video. It’s pretty upsetting, but hey, it happened.

March 2006

I’m eating a hamburger and chips as I write this, as if it will stop the aching feeling that rests in my stomach and chest and deep behind my eyes. I just watched an hour’s worth of footage of bodies being carried and dumped into mass graves by SS soldiers recorded by British troops three days after Allied forces arrived in Germany. With no hint of compassion on their faces the men with their death badges roughly carry and drag lifeless bodies thin as skeletons from where they died of starvation to mass graves. This footage is so vivid and graphic that the British government would not allow it to be shown until 1986. I guess that reconstruction was more important than showing an “atrocity film.” Today I sat and watched the documentary at the Kigali Memorial Centre with a group of Rwandan survivors. As the bodies were dropped into the mass graves, falling like puppets without strings onto other bodies below, there were gasps and mutterings from some of the Rwandans who lord knows have seen or experienced scenes just as horrifying.
In Rwandan culture, the way that the dead are treated is a very sensitive issue. In a ceremony known as Ikiriyo, the relatives of a recently deceased person travel to that person’s house and spend the night mourning their loss. The deceased’s body is meticulously prepared for burial and buried as soon as possible to allow the spirit to reach heaven. During my research in Rwanda the need for giving genocide victims a dignified burial has arisen again and again. At one memorial in Nyamata authorities are in the process of removing the remains of two thousand victims from a mausoleum where they had been piled messily on shelves and were decomposing. The bodies had been removed from the Nyamata church where Tutsis had sought shelter during the genocide and were slaughtered ruthlessly. The church has been made into a memorial. There are piles of victims’ clothing and holes in the ceiling from the shrapnel of grenades thrown into the church by Interahamwe forces. When I visited, a group of young men were in the process of bringing canvas tarps full of remains back into the church. They would emerge from the mausoleum with their bulging canvases struggling with the heavy load as they carried them from the back of the church to the doors at the front. A sickeningly sweet smell followed them as they passed by. It was hard to imagine what it would be like to have lived through a genocide and to then have to transport the bodies of those who did not. The bones of victims will be returned to the mausoleum after it is finished while what remains of flesh and the dirt that was once flesh will be buried nearby.
At another church where Tutsis were killed about 5km from Nyamata the remains have been left on the floor of the church along with other items such as combs, books, and purses. I was allowed to step carefully from one wobbly pew to the next over these remains. Against one wall were several bags full of bones and skulls that I was informed had been placed their by survivors who were “trying to tidy up.” Once again the image of survivors sifting through the bones of their lost relatives and neighbors effected me strongly. At another memorial in Murambi the remains of victims have been preserved by survivors using lime salt. Here the bodies are laid out across wooden platforms in what were to become classrooms of a technical school before the genocide. The bodies are bleached white by the lime and sunken and flattened by years of laying there frozen in the position in which they died. A child holds his mother’s finger. A woman clutches her rosary to her lips. A man covers his head. There are machete cuts across skulls where bits of hair still cling. But the most disturbing thing is the smell. Upon entering a room and before your brain can register what you’re seeing the smell hits you, staggeringly putrid. It has stayed with me since I visited nearly three weeks ago. Every once in a while I will get a hint of the smell from my own body and become nauseas and light headed. The bodies in the video today, starved as they were and pale from the cold of winter reminded me of the preserved bodies at Murambi.
I’ve lost my ability to not cry. All through my research in Cambodia I was able to keep an appropriate emotional distance. Somehow in the last month and a half I have lost that separation. I am destroyed after every visit to a memorial. I cry a lot, even on days when I am only doing interviews or background research. I just don’t know what to do with the images I’ve seen, except I suppose to share them with others and hope that I will be able to help in some way to keep such things on the consciousness of people who might not think of them otherwise. I do still believe that memorials are a positive thing and contribute to important discussions about genocide that might not exist otherwise. I met with a man named Andrews, the district director of Gacaca courts (a local justice system specifically created for perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, meaning literally “justice on the grass) in Nyamata whose wife is a guide at the memorial there. He was living in exile in Kenya during the genocide and returned to Rwanda in late 1994, but his now wife was in Nyamata and watched as her mother and sister were raped and murdered. Andrews told me that they have been trying to “forget what happened.” How difficult it must be for them to forget the genocide if one of them is in charge of justice for perpetrators and the other keeps watch over the remains of victims. I think that what he was trying to say is that they are working to move on from what happened and to not let it control their lives now. Maybe for some that is only possible with a close look at and acknowledgement of the horrible things that happened.

February 2006

Well, here I am. Finally arrived in Rwanda four days ago. I am feeling really good about being back in Africa again. It really hit me when I arrived at the Nairobi Airport for a short layover before I left for Kigali. First off we had to walk from our plane over about 500 meters of tarmac to get to the “gate.” It was pitch black out and there were no lights to guide the way, only the line of passengers winding around small aircrafts and still airport trolleys. When I walked into the stale terminal Bob Marley’s soothing voice provided the perfect soundtrack. The tiles were old and stained, the railings made of wood polished by who knows how many travelers’ hands. There was a thin cloud of cigarette smoke hanging in the air and I laughed to myself thinking that in California you have to stand like ten meters from a building to smoke and about those little glass cages they have for smokers in airports in the States. Ben Harper’s Sensual Feelings began to play and was followed by slow jazz. Perfect.
Kigali’s airport was just as simple, but newer and cleaner. On the landing strip there were more military helicopters than passenger carriers and I remembered all that I have read about Rwanda having the strongest military in all of central Africa - a result of the monetary and military donations made by western governments after the genocide. In Rwanda’s situation, “better late than never” doesn’t quite do it, but that seems to be the popular motif of western governments, aid organizations, and businesses here. The place is crawling with western established organizations and there is an embassy on nearly every street corner. It’s similar to Cambodia but somehow seems more serious and the organizations seem to be more efficient and, well, better organized.
Anyhow, the day after I arrived I found an apartment in a very nice area of Kigali (two blocks from President Kagame’s residence and near the now famous Hotel des Mille Collines), which is owned by a previous general of the RPF, the army that invaded Rwanda and both contributed to the start of and ended the genocide. It has an awesome view of the hills of Kigali. It is beautifully green and there are tropical flowers that are nearly as colorful and strange as those in Cambodia. And the birds are amazing! I have no idea what they are, but they come in the most brilliant blues and greens and have split tales and there are some that look like hawks that must be very common because they are everywhere. It is so quiet compared to the busy streets of Southeast Asia and I love waking to the songs of birds rather than the honks of motorbikes. And the people have seemed so helpful and kind. I was told by my landlord that “Americans are VIPs in Rwanda” and it seems to be strangely true. As soon as someone hears my accent they jump to give me directions or to talk a bit about what I am doing here. It’s surprising to me, especially after the mess that Clinton and his administration made of the genocide, but I guess maybe that “better late than never” may have redeemed us as a nation in some Rwandans’ eyes.
Don’t let me fool you though, I have only begun to start appreciating these things the last day or so. My first three days in Kigali were some of the most difficult I have ever had. After leaving Cambodia, Nora met me in Thailand and we had the most amazing vacation together hiking through bamboo forests in the jungle, visiting old fallen temples, and then swimming in the clear luke warm waters of an island off the Southern Adamand coast. That is till Nora got a nasty bug of some sort and a fever of a 102.7 and we were rushed through a truly scary hospital and practically laughed back onto the sand when we suggested that she might have malaria. She spent the next two days in bed sweating out her bug, which thankfully was not malaria but a bad stomach infection. Then we headed back to the mainland and spent a morning visiting a beach and riding our rented motorbike through the rock faced and tree topped mountains around Krabi. It was a wonderful morning, but our day was fated to end in tragedy. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but it sure seemed horrible as we clipped the back of a Thai kids motorbike after he cut stupidly in front of us and were spilled out on the pavement like sacks of potatoes. Thankfully neither of us was seriously injured and the kid seemed to be untouched. Between Nora and I we probably lost enough skin to cover an entire leg, but it was almost worth it to experience the friendliness and helpfulness of all the Thai people who had seen the accident and helped us arrange a policeman and to take care of all the other details. I guess you could say it was an authentic Thai experience.
However, I arrived in Kigali with an ankle the size, color, and consistency of the skin of a rotten dragon fruit (big, red, and scabby), the result of a nasty infection. I could barely walk and felt ill and tired and so I went to the hospital straight from the airport. The Kigali hospital made the one we had visited in Thailand look like the set of ER. There was blood all over the floor and the instruments were laying out in the open with no packages and who knows if they had been cleaned at all. There were maybe a hundred people, mostly women with wailing babies waiting in the covered dirt courtyard “lobby.” Luckily the guy from the hotel I was staying at, Eric, helped me work my way back and forth between three buildings and maybe four nurses, filling out forms and being referred back to where they had just sent us away, in the typical African fashion. I was reminded of registering for classes in South Africa. I have spent the last several days in a lot of pain and barely able to walk, yet have had to in order to get food and find a place to live. And then there’s the fact that everyone speaks French or Kinyarwandan and I have got some major studying up to do in that area so it has been difficult communicating. On top of that I am missing my best friend dearly and having to learn to be absolutely alone once again. I had a good night’s sleep for the first time last night and my ankle is back to it’s regular mango size and has begun to re-grow some skin. I awoke this morning in a really good mood and read till lunch when I went to an expensive place nearby and had traditional goat soup. It was delicious despite the few strands of goat hair I found stubbornly clinging to various pieces of meat. After that I sat and read the newspaper, which was full of articles praising the government for this or that. This theme was interrupted only by a short section called “Leisure,” a page and a half with two articles: “Eminem remarries ex-wife Kimberly,” and “Colin Farell sex tape hits net.” As I sit here at my new laptop and drink my Rwandan tea with Rwandan honey I am relieved that I can do the same thing tomorrow and the next because it is Sunday and then Vote Day (the day before yesterday was Hero’s day and I am looking forward to Revolution Day, Independence Day, General’s Day, Soldier’s Day, Reconciliation Day, Democracy Day, etc. etc.)
I miss you all and promise to write individual e-mails when it is not a public holiday and I don’t leave a trail of ooze behind me all the way to the internet place. Ew gross. Sorry.