Monday, April 26, 2010

Yeah, I Went There

Now that I’m back, I thought I’d tell you all a little secret, in public. This is actually a test to see if my family really does read this blog, because the story to come they do not know. I went into the Democratic Republic of the Congo – oh yes, that big scary neighbor of Rwanda. Clearly I did not want to tell you all this while I was there, because it’s one of the more…interesting choices I’ve made in life. But, what’s done is done. Funny thing is it was literally the first trip I did while in Rwanda – wasted no time pushing the boundaries. And here’s what happened:

I met some friends, who were pretty much strangers, but isn’t that the best about traveling?! It’s so not weird to go away for a weekend with random people! Anyway. So I went up to Gisenyi, which is on the border of Goma, DRC. We decided to cross into the scaryland Sunday morning, early – 6am early. Yowza. The crew was comprised of 4 Americans, 1 Brit, 1 Romanian and 1 Ethiopian.

We woke up at 6am in our group house. Group houses are like hostels, and if you think they're bad in Europe, just imagine one in Africa. After walking 20 minutes to the border, we arrived at the DRC. Getting out of Rwanda was easy enough. We filled out forms, got our passports stamped, then arrived in the middle area between Rwanda and the DRC. After passing a wave of white aid vans and aid planes flying overhead, we walked up to the border line. Luckily our Romanian spoke French, the DRC language, so he explained how we were coming into Goma for the day. One by one the border guard took our passports, and he began to write down all of our information. It's $35 US to cross over. So my new friend handed the guard $140 for the 4 Americans to cross. Of course, being Americans, problems arose. The $100 bill was from 2003, so the guard would not accept it – he wanted something from 2006 or later. So we waited. After some chatter that I didn't understand, he accepted it. Then he begin to write us each a visa - which looks like a honorable mention certificate you get at a 4th grade science fair. Unfortunately, they ran out of paper - because why would a border crossing stock itself with paper- which meant another 1/2 hour of waiting. In the meantime, numerous individuals came up to us asking for our passports -- expecting us to hand over our coveted US passports – as if. After getting papers which we never later used, I realized I didn't have my yellow fever card that I distinctly gave to the border guard. So I walked around the corner to some harry potter closet, where I found a man with my yellow fever card. Ridiculousness later, I got it back. I say ridiculousness because I don’t speak French and I can only assume the conversation was ridiculous.

So into the DR Congo we went. And we were greeted with trash and filth. Now, Rwanda is the cleanest East African country, so I had grown accustomed a certain lifestyle of trashless streets. But the DRC is a mess. Not that you didn't know that, but literally it looks like a trash dump. Garbage everywhere.

We garnered plenty of attention as we walked to the middle of town, usually kids walking next to us - people yelling muzungu (white person), which as you know, happens in Rwanda as well. After walking for 1.5 hrs or so, we decided to find a restaurant. We eventually found a cafe - and by cafe I mean a shack that would fit all 7 of us where men sat drinking beer at 10am. We were served stale rolls and stale swiss cheese, which we eagerly ate. Meanwhile, we made friends with the men. They told us (told the Romanian who told us) that not far was a village that 8 years ago used to be covered in 3 meters of lava. Basically a volcano erupted, went through the ground, and up from the ground in this village, completely destroying everything there. Naturally, we decided to go. Now we couldn't walk, which wasn't a problem since whenever we stopped a motorcycle gang would surround us asking for a ride. In Rwanda, the motos are clearly labeled and give you a helmet (again, I was accustomed to a certain lifestyle). In the Congo, no helmet and you're driving with some guy off the street. So I climbed onto the back of what could only be a 13 year old, and he drove us to this lava-covered village. It was my first time on a moto, so naturally I back cuddled my child driver. Riding a moto in the DRC is like a continuous game of chicken - you can drive in any "lane", on the "sidewalk" and I half expected to Fast and Furiously make my way under the UN vans.

So as we veered off the main road, I again thought the about the interesting choice I was making. 15 minutes and a nice cuddle session later, we arrived in a "village". Our motorcycle gang waited as we looked around and pretty much nothing, as it was mostly rocks (formerly lava) and some rebuilt buildings. Some townsman told us the story, which had to be translated. We caught the attention of 25-30 children, who all came running out to simply stare at the white people, mouths open, some being so brave to touch our questionably tainted skin. It was actually sort of interesting to see.

I found my 10 year old, got back on the bike and begin the trek back to the border. I was more comfortable this time, so I decided to hold onto the back handle of the bike, rather than continue to sweat on the driver. In the end, it was probably one of the sketchiest things I've ever done. But, I obviously don’t regret it because it was amazing. And again, what’s done is done – I’ll stand by my phone now for hysterical calls from my family.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Airport Experience aka “The Tar Story”

As of late I’ve been rocking some skinny jeans with a big tar stain on them. Nora, why don’t you wear other jeans? Reader, why don’t you come over to my house and unpack, because for now, I’m still rotating Rwanda clothes. Anyway, people sometimes ask about the stain or else I point it out and insist on telling this story. I do warn listeners that it’s a longer story, but I may, or may not, have sat down each girl at work explained the story, causing some of them to hear it about three times. And this, my devoted readers, is the tar story:

Rwanda apparently had a hard time saying goodbye, and I have had a really hard time not being in Rwanda (minus the mosquito net, because seriously that is the most GD annoying thing ever). So when I first got to Kigali they ripped up my road. Three months later, they finally paved it – welcome to Africa time. Naturally, they were paving outside of my street, making it really hard for my boss to pick me up to take me to the airport. I therefore had to carry my two heavy suitcases, backpack and purse up my dirt road and down the main road that was being paved. Now when I say “I” did this, what I clearly mean is two of my male roommates. I haven’t been hitting a Kigali gym or anything (but I have in the US FYI). So over the wet tar we went and into the car I got. Of course, there are no construction zones (one time one of those big scoopers almost knocked me over…like really…of all people? You can’t see me?). Anyway. So you can walk on the wet tar. So I finally get to the airport, and I’m a bit panicky because I get nervous when I travel. That did not bode well for anyone.

I walk in and read a sign: one carry on for Brussels Airlines. Excuse me? I have to lift my own suitcases through security (and that I really did do myself) before waiting in some sort of line that has the suitcase rule. Well. Did I move through quietly? Obviously not. Ummmmmm I know that I’m allowed to bring two suitcases. Blank stare. Well, when I came here three months ago it was two suitcases, so I’m not paying for an extra one – sassing my way through this check. Ok, great, well I have nothing to do with that – sassing the wrong person. Up to the person who was about to get sassed I went, putting my two suitcases up to be weighed. One was under and one was over. Grand. So then I had to do the old switcheroo in public, to even them out. I did it though – and the guy at the desk even congratulated me! But before I got too excited I looked down at my arms and legs and wondered, what the hell is that? I was covered in tar. Tar all over my jeans and all over my exposed arms. I tried to rub it away, but tar is sticky and does not go away and it sort of spreads when you anger it. Omg I have tar all over my arms and jeans – from the suitcases from my road. Get me to a bathroom.

After successfully getting my suitcases checked for free. I ran up the stairs (walked quickly) aiming to stop at the next available bathroom. Ugh. Customs. Really? Fine, filled out the form that I’ve filled out a million times and went to the next available guy. And that is a convo in itself.

Customs Guy (CG): Nora Elizabeth, that is a very pretty name

Me: Thanks (In my head: tar tar tar tar)

CG: Where did you stay in Rwanda?

Me: With friends (It’s EVERYWHERE)

CG: I wish I had met you when you were in Rwanda

Me: [Awkward smile] (You don’t see there is tar ALL over me?!?!)

CG: I could have showed you all around Rwanda. When are you coming back?

Me: Ohh one day maybe (SERIOUSLY?!?!?!)

CG: The day after tomorrow?

Me: What? No maybe one day (Really? The day after tomorrow I wouldn’t even be HOME. Do the math…rookie)

CG: Ok well let me know.

Me: BYE. (What?! Ok focus – BATHROOM!)

That really happened. Then I went through another security checkpoint and ran into the bathroom. It was there I realized tar doesn’t wash off either, and of course there were no paper towels, so I used toilet paper to try to rub it away. I left with red marks up and down my arms, and just assuming no one will ever notice the jeans – they’re dark. I then waited at what I hoped, and assumed, was my gate. I opened my bag and realized…uhh I never took out my computer. That really saved time for me at least, but what? Ok. Anyway. I got on the plane, watched almost all of It’s Complicated, but passed out right at the end, never finding out if it really remains complicated or if things get less complicated or is life always complicated? I’m starting to think yes.

I then wrote this in the Brussels Airport, after having spent literally more money there than I did in one month in Kigali. Why? Because I could finally use a credit card (cash ONLY in Rwanda), so I splurged on Starbucks and water. No really, it was $10 for a water and juice. Ridic. I had 6 hours there. Did you know if you’re a transfer you have to go through weird security – the guy asks you questions about your bags and whatnot. Everyone in front of me had no electronics, but I had to explain I’m carrying a laptop, camera, iPod and two cell phones. Hello American.

And then! I got “randomly” selected to be screened, which meant literally, literally taking all of my belongings out of my carry ons and then putting them back in. Well, jokes on them – it was packed, and I did not help them reload it. Hello American.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

End of a Journey

So yesterday/today are my last moments in Rwanda. Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1994 genocide, so it turned out to be a pretty somber day. I had heard about a ‘Walk to Remember’ walk talking place in Kigali and 4 other East Africa countries to take a stand against genocide and remember those lives taken by it. I asked if muzungus could partake, not wanting to step on any toes and obviously having no idea how to approach a day like this, and that was welcomed. A last minute change had the walk starting at Parliament – a last minute change that I luckily knew about, because for what happened next I am forever grateful.

I stood 5 feet from President Paul Kagame. Let that sink in. Ok. Well, for those of you who don’t know, Kagame led the revolution against the genocide in 1994. It is because of him Rwanda functions so well. It is because of him that Rwanda is a little safe amazingly growing bubble in the middle of Africa (um. I mean it borders the DRC…so come on). Kagame is an international hero. Clearly I support him – but not everything – we can get into that later. But do I support everything Obama does? Yes, ok bad example. But I just really really like Kagame. And I was in front when he spoke, so I could have reached out and touched him. It was incredible! Absolutely amazing (minus the fact that the speech was in Kinyarwanda so I had no idea what he said – but someone translated it later). I feel like it was just meant to be.

Not that I’m ready to leave. I feel such an overwhelming sadness to have to leave Rwanda. It’s such a different feeling than leaving Australia back. It’s an all-consuming painful hurt thinking about never seeing my students or Mutessi again. I truly hope I can come back one day, and I will do everything I can to make that happen. But, until that day, I will never ever forget my experience here. I will never fully be able to understand Rwanda – none of us will. But I feel like I have a sense of the amazing culture, prospering city and incredible people.

I’ve realized there is no way I will stop traveling. I’m only young for so long, so when opportunities like this happen (aka when I make them happen) I have to do it!! I’m taking advantage of being 23 and able to pick up and go. Once I have my millions of adopted children that will be a bit tricky. Anyone thinking of doing field work: JUST GO! I had so many barriers I put up – being scared (#1), grad school, not having friends (a valid concern), but thinking about not having done this?! For what? A couple nights out in DC? Not that I didn’t miss all my family and friends, but they will be there when I get back. Nothing can compare to the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard and everything I’ve experienced.

I’m just so glad I did it. I have such a better understanding of the world after this. I also have such a better understanding of what and who is important in life. Most importantly, thank you to my incredibly supportive family! I know it was tough and you were worried, but your support got me through all of this. And to my friends who stood by me – thank you! Your emails and anecdotes really made me laugh and remember what I’m happy to come back to. So for now, Goodbye Rwanda!

PS – There will be more blog posts – so look out all you readers; I could probably call all 8 of you and tell you the stories, but I will not waste this blog!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Leaving Rwanda

I leave in two days. Crazy. Three months just flew by! I feel overwhelmingly sad to leave, especially after my goodbye party. I’ve made a little lists of what I can’t wait to be away from and things that I’ll always miss. Enjoy!

1. The mosquito net. Why? No clue, but every single night when I have to tuck it into my bed I am ready to high tail it out of Rwanda. Maybe it’s the tucking, maybe it’s the fact that I still get mosquitoes in the net, I don’t know, but I hate it.

2. Seriously the emotions. I’ve met these incredible people that deserve so much, and I know so many people who deserve nothing they have, and it’s just not fair. It’s hard seeing amazing students who have had to go through hell, and think about everything I’ve been given so easily. I feel bad about how fortunate I’ve been, but I try to use that to do some good here. It’s up and down ALL THE TIME. Some nights I would just cry, and I can’t control it. I’ve kept it out of the blog to not be a totally public downer looking for attention – because let’s face it: I’m in quite possibly the last place on earth where anyone should feel sorry for me.

3. The bugs/ants/geckos/cockroaches etc. No need to explain this one. I’m writing this in my “safe zone” with tissues up my nose because I’m still sick (classy). Adding to this one is power outages (as I’m sitting in the dark) and water outages.

But with the bad, comes so much good:

1. People: this includes students, coworkers, friends, and the babies. I’ve met some incredible people here, and many of them I will never see again. And this isn’t one of those times well maybe you will – no, I won’t. I feel like I haven’t even made a dent here, but at least I know I’m leaving some incredible people behind that can keep digging away.

2. Traveling: Whoa. I looooove going to a different country every weekend. I went to all of Rwanda’s borders. All. Well except Tanzania. Seeing different things, experiencing a different culture is amazing. Rwanda is probably the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.

3. Probably the most important is I don’t feel lost here. I just don’t get that overwhelming ahh what am I doing with my life feeling. I know I’m only 23 and I have so much time blah blah, but I do feel like that in DC quite often (how American am I with that?), but not here. It’s an overwhelming feeling that I know I have time to sort out, but that can’t control it.

Those are just some of the things I will not miss/miss. It’s a very conflicting feeling to be honest. I’m so incredibly excited to see my family and friends, but I’m just not quite ready to go. Tomorrow is the Genocide Memorial Day, so leaving after that I’m sure will not be fun. Yeah, I’m pretty down if you can’t tell.

Monday, April 5, 2010

My Goodbye Party

Some of my students decided to throw me a goodbye party Saturday night, and honestly it was probably one of the best nights of my life. As soon I walked in there was music and dancing, and then a delicious meal cooked for everyone. And then, of course, DANCE PARTY.

I can’t even explain how good my students are at dancing. And no type of dance escaped us – traditional dancing (which I obviously had to learn), salsa…at one point I was doing a waltz, even slow dancing which was pretty much a 4 minute hug – a hug I desperately needed for what was to come next.

At the end of the night, all 8 guys got up to wish me goodbye. Each one said a speech about how thankful they were for me to come, how they consider me part of their family and how they’ll be thinking of me when I go. So many compliments (including I’m the best dancer and have a beautiful voice…seriously) later, I left feeling like an absolute 10 (real world 10, not DC 10/Real World 7). It’s like all those ridiculous compliments my mom gives me, but brought to life by people who aren’t related to me.

And now, I really don’t want to go. I just feel like I have the most amazing students, and even though they’ll all go so far, I want to stay to witness it and help them along. I have never met any more driven, hardworking, just generally great people in my life. And even though I was only here for 3 months, they made me feel like I actually made an impact.

So DC welcome home…good luck. You’d seriously have to bring a parade to the airport to top that – with Obama. Or at the very least Bo.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The American Emerges

Have you heard of Africa time? It’s this concept of time that really has no meaning. We had our house painted: 4 days meant 6. Waiting at a restaurant: 20 minutes means an hour. And so on and so on. I should slow down, stop and enjoy the pace before heading back to the 8am means 7:45am world. And so far, I really have. I’ve been oh so patient. More patient than any of you know. Meals take forever, lines don’t really mean anything because people cut and other people don’t yell and scream. I’ve been really good. Until yesterday…

I had to go to the Brussels Airlines office to confirm my flight – since they messed it up and whatever. Anyway. I get really nervous and stressed when it come to this stuff, which did not bode well for anyone. It was also my last full day of work (other than next Thursday – the day I leave), so I had much to do. Then I realized, Friday (today) is Good Friday (right?) and next week is the Memorial Week, so what if everything is closed?! So I raced home, grabbed my passport and went to the Brussels Airlines office. I walked in, sweating profusely, hoping that this would be a short visit. There was what seemed to be a line, which was Rwandans sitting on the couch talking to each other, and the three BA reps all were talking to people. Upon closer observation, the BA reps were pretty much talking to each other, and it was a group of friends hanging out on the couches. Annoying. So what did I do?

I went America ALL OVER THAT ROOM.

It started with a simple sigh. But that escalated. I put my hands on my hips, started tapping my foot, and paced in and out of the room. And even that escalated. I started walking over to the computers to do what? I don’t know it’s in Kinyarwanda, but I was making a point, huffing the entire time. I was the complete obnoxious American that we all can be. Completely acceptable – if not expected - back in the states, but sort of rude here. Finally, someone motioned for me to sit down, even brushing off the seat before I sat down, no doubt saying “Wow, let the princess sit down” in Kinyarwanda.

But you know what America, YOU MADE ME THIS WAY. You did this. I don’t want to be this way, but I can’t help it. You make me walk through the rain, while Rwandans wait for it to stop inside. You make me sprint through the streets, getting even more sweaty and gross, instead of walking at a leisurely pace. You make me ignore friendly Rwandans that say hi to me on the street, thinking it’s weird to say hi to people. I might be generalizing here: I’m that city, fast-paced, liberal (oh Nora you like Obama? Shocking, I know) American. While I want to help people, I have that little voice saying make it to the top in the back of my head. You’re all thinking it, my fellow Americans. It’s just when I think of people that actually live that way I shudder and remember do what you enjoy. Wow it sounds like I have actual voices in my head…I don’t..?

Happy Easter and see you in a week!