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This past weekend, Mary, Caitlin, and I ventured to the shore of Lake Kivu to visit Gisenyi, a resort town on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Map of Rwanda with Gisenyi in the west

A popular weekend getaway for both Rwandans and expats, Gisenyi has been referred to as the “Martha’s Vineyard of Rwanda,” a title that I found curious until I witnessed some of its breathtaking shoreline views and sprawling luxury hotels.

We arrived on Friday night so that we could maximize our weekend time for exploring Gisenyi and its surroundings. It was quite an eventful weekend and, thanks to the weather and other exciting adventures, featured much less basking on a beach than I had expected. We started Saturday morning with a delicious breakfast at our hostel.

Onion omelette for $.84 and thermos of coffee for $1.18...I could get used to this.

Then we set off to the neighboring town of Kabari/Mugongo to visit the Imbabazi Orphanage, started by an American named Roz Carr after the genocide. The orphanage was a bit farther from the bus stop than we expected (7 km sounds shorter in the guide book than on foot). As we trekked along the road, we made lots of friends and amassed a herd of curious kids.

Caitlin and Mary surrounded by our herd

We also saw some breathtaking views of Lake Kivu, farmland, mountains, and volcanoes.

One of the mountains in the background is a volcano

Upon arriving at the orphanage, we were brought by one of the guards to the main office, where a young American woman on staff greeted us. She gave us a tour of the 100-acre orphanage, which also sustains itself by working as a flower farm serving Kigali.

Some of the flower beds, à la English Garden

On the way back from the orphanage, we decided to give our feet a rest and catch some bicycle taxis. I was shocked to find out at the end of the 30-minute, 7-km bike ride that my driver, who was drenched in sweat and had visibly struggled to get my American body up the hills, only asked for 200 francs, about $.34. In comparison, one of those touristy fifteen-minute bike rides around New York city usually costs something like $15.

Once we arrived back at the hostel, we got our swimsuits and sunscreen on, only to be drenched by a sudden torrential rainstorm on our way to the beach. We retreated to our hostel bar, where we had a drink and ended up meeting a reporter who had just returned from Goma, in the DRC. He shared some shocking and horrific stories about accounts of rape and marauding militias he had encountered. In sum, he told us “The time I spent in the Congo was the worst two weeks of my life.” To hear that and to know that Goma is about 3 miles from Gisenyi created an eerie sense of calm. It’s unsettling and morbidly ironic to know that right across the border from the beautiful vacation town of Gisenyi is a city ravaged by war and overflowing with internally displaced people.

The next day, we met up with a Rwandan friend of a friend who lives in Gisenyi and took us on a walk around the shoreline. Intrigued about the fact that we were literally one mile from the DRC, we went on a little walk and saw the border checkpoint (I’m sure much to my mother’s displeasure). It was surprisingly mundane looking, with lots of security guards, a passport and immigration station, a Porsche driving through the checkpoint from Congo, families with suitcases crossing over in both directions, and trucks carrying goods stopping to be checked. We also saw a few U.N. trucks heading into Rwanda, presumably for some R&R on the beach. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed at the border checkpoint – my friend showing us around said he had been arrested last year for taking a picture (he was detained for 7 hours but in the end the police just made him delete his picture and then let him go). We did get a picture with a nearby sign down the road.

Decisions, decisions.

The luxury hotel in the background is in the Congo

After getting our fill of excitement in for the day, we walked along the road that leads to the beach and finally saw why Gisenyi is called the “Martha’s Vineyard of Rwanda.” Peeking into the grounds of the Stipp Hotel, right on the water, we saw a tropical wonderland awaiting lucky visitors:

Outdoor restaurant at the Stipp Hotel

Our walk took us along the beach and finally to the Lake Kivu Serena Hotel, one of the nicest 5-star hotels in the country with branches in both Kigali and Gisenyi. Here’s an image I found online of the Gisenyi Serena by night:

We ended our adventure sipping a drink on the Serena lawn, overlooking the beach and Lake Kivu, before heading to catch our 3-hour bus back to Kigali. The bus ride ended up being one of the most entertaining 3 hours of my life, thanks to Deo, an eccentric and talkative professor-diplomat-philosopher sitting next to us. A native Rwandan who had spent much of his life in the Congo, Deo had a contagious enthusiasm for classical Greek mythology and referred to me as Helen of Troy throughout the ride. Our conversation spanned across Greek mythology, Congolese history, Rwandan diplomacy, French and English philology, development, the Ice Age, and everything in between. Upon hearing about my background and interests in diplomacy and peace and conflict studies, Deo invited me to come with him to teach at the university in Goma, DRC, an offer that I politely declined.

I have a feeling I’ll be back in Gisenyi soon – there’s a lot left to explore, like visiting the Bralirwa Rwandan beer brewery, indulging in the the nearby hot springs that are said to have curative powers, and maybe even lying on the beach to soak up some sun.

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A Day in the Life

My day usually starts around 7:30, or earlier if my neighbors decide to play their radio particularly loud. First thing after waking up, I step outside to fill up my shower bucket with water and heat up a kettle to mix in and warm it up.

Behind my house (the little house is where our guardien lives)

Around 8 or 8:30 Caitlin and I head out for the half-hour walk to work. If we’re too hungry to walk to the grocery store near the office, we stop by Alimentation Beautiful, our neighborhood grocery store.

Caitlin excited for her morning yogurt

Then we set off on the walk from Nyamirambo to town, always lively with people greeting us, cars and motos whizzing by at alarming speeds, and the varied sights, sounds, and smells of morning.

Me walking in Nyamirambo

On the days that we don’t stop for breakfast at Alimentation Beautiful, I go to the BCK (Boucherie et Charcuterie de Kigali) in town for a fresh whole grain roll (150 franc = .25) and vanilla yogurt (350 franc = .60).

Caitlin buying her breakfast at the BCK

I arrive at work between 8:30 and 9:00.

At Generation Rwanda (with our office manager, Becca, stepping out)

I usually spend the mornings working at my desk.

Sylvia, the career development officer, and me in our office

The women in my office have a tendency to wear eerily-similar, matching, or corresponding outfits at least once a week.

Mary and me in corresponding earthy tones (note the shoes)

Around 12 I head to lunch with my coworkers. Since my first week, we’ve gone exploring and we’ve managed to expand our lunch options to a rotation of three delicious buffets.

Enjoying our colorful heaping plates at Ma Colline

After lunch, I teach English classes twice a week. In class we work on pronunciation, listen to speeches and music in English, have discussions on topics like leadership, gender, Rwandan culture, etc., prepare for future debates, and discuss movies.

Me leading a discussion on The Secret Life of Bees

I leave work between 5:30 and 7. After work I often stop by a shop near our house to buy things like bread, toilet paper, drinks, dish soap, etc…all very reasonable and squeezed into a very small space.

Me with Jackie, our friendly neighboring shopkeeper

One essential part of my day that I unfortunately haven’t yet captured in photos is stopping by the neighborhood chapati/brochette/tea stand. Stay posted for a photo at some point…

Lastly, although this wasn’t a typical day in the life, here’s a snapshot of my birthday party this past Tuesday night. It was quite festive, with over 25 people, lots of dancing, singing, Primus (Rwandan beer), cake, presents, and general merriment.

Me and friends celebrating my 22nd

That should give all of you an even better idea of what it is I do every day!

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11,000 words…

At this moment I’m sitting curled up on a sofa drinking a warm pot of ginger tea in Shokola, an exquisite cafe/restaurant in Kigali that feels like a spacious but cozy Bedouin tent. Illuminated by flickering lanterns and filled with the aroma of incense, Shokola is definitely the place to be right now – during one of the recent torrential downpours that mark the beginning of the rainy season. One of the hottest (and priciest) spots in town, Shokola also has free higher-speed wireless. So I’m finally able to upload some pictures! Since a picture is worth a thousand words…

Our living room. Lots of natural light = score.

One side of my palatial room

The other side of my room, the closest thing I have to a closet

Where the bucket shower magic happens

Tim and Generation Rwanda students celebrating at his surprise farewell party last Friday

Cyusa, the adorable and superhuman 3-year-old breakdancer

Some friendly Nyamirambo neighbors and me

Mary, Caitlin, and me having a scenic lunch in Kibuye

View from our hotel in Kibuye of Lake Kivu during a rainstorm (no wonder some call Kibuye the Switzerland of Rwanda)

Inside the memorial church in Kibuye where 11,400 Tutsis were slaughtered during the genocide

The nighttime view of Kigali hills twinkling behind my house

Those should give you a pretty good idea of what my life here is like! We just found out earlier today that tomorrow was declared a national holiday because Muslims saw the moon, signifying Eid, the end of Ramadan. I’m not sure what I’ll do with a sudden extra day to myself – perhaps look for a good running route or have Caitlin cut my hair…the possibilities are endless. I’m going to go see if Skype works here, so stay posted. And L’Shanah Tova!

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