We arrived at the Kigali Airport in the middle of the night, after spending hours traveling from our homes in Arizona. As we were walking through the airport, I thought how strange it was that construction was going on over our heads, with sparks raining down on us from the welder’s torches. Once again, I marveled at how different other countries were from what I knew.
Exhausted, we finally made it out of the airport, only to discover our guide was nowhere in sight. Being in the minority, two females, with our very white skin standing out, we both felt very uncomfortable. It gave us perspective as to how people of color must feel on a very regular basis. Apparently, we had arrived a day before the guide expected us!!! Finally, our guide arrived and we were taken to the Kigali Serena Hotel. It was just perfect and exactly what we needed after our long journey. Once inside the room, I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
We toured Kigali, going inside the Hotel Rwanda that the film was named after, about the genocide that had occurred twenty years before. It was hard for me to imagine how this country erupted into such hatred of each other, until we toured the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This museum not only documented the origins and effects of this tragedy, but is also the resting place of over 250,000 Rwandans who were killed during the rampage. It also held displays of other genocides including the Jewish, Armenian, and Cambodian Holocausts.
To learn how the classification of the three tribes by the French priests resulted in intentional hatred and jealousy over jobs handed out by the new government, was shocking. The museum is very well done, and still today when I look back on our visit it makes me sad. However, I was happy to see how the country has memorialized it and moved on. Their national song is now “We are Rwandans,” virtually uniting the three tribes Hutus, Tutsis and Twa, into one nation. In Rwanda today you are not allowed to ask someone about their origins from which tribe.
We left Kigali and drove through the countryside to get to the Volcanoes National Park where our gorilla trekking would take place. Along the road I was amazed to see people sweeping the road with branch brooms, and little children as young as maybe two-years-old standing in the concrete gutters right next to the road without any adults around. They loved to see a car pass by and their smiles lit up their faces. Our guide told us that an average family earned the equivalent of $225 per year and existed on sustenance farming. There was no running water or electricity in several of the villages we passed.
During our extended stay in the country, I observed a man and woman walking down a rocky dirt road in their Sunday finest. She had on high heels and a mid-calf length dress. He had on a suit and hat. We saw them going to church, and after one of our hikes, we saw them on their way home. It was several miles in each direction. On our way back from another trek, as we were walking through the tiny village toward where the car was parked, there was several people chanting a song and running towards us in a group. As they got closer, we could see they were carrying what appeared to be a wooden telephone pole. Our guide explained that the President promised to bring electricity to everyone in the country. What we were seeing was this village getting the first of the poles needed to string the electrical wires. Imagine, 2014 and no electricity or running water. The village was not only excited to be getting electricity but we were also told it was the last installation in Rwanda and when complete the entire country would have electricity.
The Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge was luxurious and peaceful. First, we participated in a lecture about the upcoming trek to see the gorillas and how we were expected to act if confronted by one of them. Look down, no eye contact and don’t move! Do not act remotely aggressive. We were issued gators to go over our boots to protect against bugs going up our pants legs. Uggg….. At 9,000 feet elevation, it was cold and misty. Most of Rwanda is mountainous, so you are constantly walking uphill or down. They also get over 200 inches of rain a year, and to say the jungle is dense is an understatement. For the thousandth time I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I was not nearly as fit as Laura, and worried I would not be able to keep up. Especially after we had a small hike that day to see the Golden Monkeys. I barely made that hike, and seeing the gorillas would likely be much more difficult.
After a fitful night of sleep, the day had finally arrived to meet the gorillas. The sun was shining, a rarity we were to discover, and our guide was reassuring that I would be just fine on this trek. He took us to the entrance of the Volcanoes National Park where we would be placed into groups of trekkers and gorilla families would be assigned. We were in a group of eight, and assigned the Umubano Group, which consisted of several females, and baby gorillas, as well as the Silverback leader of the group. The silverback head of this family is named Charles.
On our way we encountered groups of children whose smiles lit up their faces from ear to ear. They looked happy and healthy, and they were certainly interested in seeing if we had anything to give to them such as candy. We were told not to give them anything, but just having their photos taken was great for both of us. As we walked further, a unit from the military passed by. Our guide informed us they were there to protect the gorillas from poachers, as well as a group that had been actively crossing the border from the Congo into this area. Rwanda has hired hundreds of ex poachers to now guard the gorillas. They are paid a salary, have homes versus having to hunt and trade the gorillas for meat, potatoes and vegetables etc. The ex-poachers now work as educators, tour guides, weavers, and protectors of the mountain gorilla population in Rwanda. What a great solution.
Along the way we saw several small cultivated fields of potatoes, with women tending them. The women were the wives of the ex-poachers. We were told that the monkeys liked to dig up the potatoes and the women were constantly trying to protect their crop. They planted extra assuming the monkeys would want a share.
We walked for about 45 minutes on relatively level ground, and I felt good. They had warned us that the trek could be hours long through some dense jungle, but that is not what we had experienced so far. All of the sudden, the guides told us to stop and take off our backpacks, have drinks and wait a few minutes. The scouts had found our group of gorillas and we would be able to visit them shortly. We were told we would have one hour to see them, and reminded again what we could and could not do.
We needed to leave everything but our cameras at that point and proceeded to walk through a field and up a slight incline towards the jungle. There was a grassy area up ahead with some tall Eucalyptus trees. As we neared, we all were so excited to see at least four adult females lying or sitting on the ground and a couple of teenagers, along with younger gorillas playing. One of them was stripping the bark off the tree and dipping his finger into, then eating the sap under the bark. We were told it is sweet and the babies loved it. I cannot describe the feeling of being so close to these beautiful beasts. Their coats gleamed in the sun. Their eyes were soulful. Their ways were so gentle. Or so we believed. The Silverback leader Charles stayed far away from us in a tree. But he watched us closely. The guides had rifles and said if we found ourselves between a baby and its mother, we could be attacked. Needless to say, we were all aware of where the babies were running around playing and tried to stay away from them.
At one point, one of the teenage gorillas came running down the hill very close to where I was standing. I was told to crouch down and not look at him. He barreled past me and dropped down into the jungle. That was the only time I felt threatened on the trip.
Another time we saw one teenage gorilla intentionally bumping into another gorilla. Looked exactly like young brothers playing with each other.
For the grand finale, one of the babies fell down a hill. It sounded just like a baby crying. All of the gorillas looked up and immediately ran within inches of us to go look down the hill and rescue the baby. It was so very human.
When our hour ended, we returned to our hotel and celebrated a wonderful day.
Laura uses the saying “conquer your fears.” This was definitely one of my conquer your fears moments. I had spent so much time worrying about whether I could make the trip and realized that not only did I manage the hike and everything else just perfectly but I loved it.
What an experience. I have been privileged to see so many wonderful things when I travel, but I must say this trip was one of my very favorites.