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Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

I just returned from a week in Nairobi, Kenya, where I met up with some other Princeton-in-Africa Fellows for a mini-retreat and also spent time with one of my favorite people in the world, Rachel Brown. Rachel is the founder and director of Sisi ni Amani, an innovative, inspiring, and important SMS peace-mapping initiative in Nairobi.

First of all, for those of you who are as uninformed as I was, Nairobi is a SERIOUS city with essentially all the services, attractions, and amenities you can find in the capital city of a developed country (in addition to the typical slums and poorer areas you would find in most cities). It has shopping malls, high rise luxury apartments, gourmet restaurants, an impressive skyline, and tons of skyscrapers like this one:

An office building in downtown Nairobi

The week was full of exciting adventures, ranging from kissing giraffes to accompanying Rachel into some of Nairobi’s slums for meetings with community peace groups to having a serendipitous reunion with another one of my favorite people in the world. I’ll let the pictures do the recounting…

Theresa, Allie, Tony, me, and Chris at our delightful hostel, The Wildebeest

There are a total of around 25 Princeton-in-Africa Fellows posted on yearlong fellowships around the continent, some of whose blogs I have linked to in my sidebar. If you’re curious, check out the blogs of the Fellows whom I met up with in Nairobi: Theresa at the Mpala Wildlife Research Center in Kenya, Allie at the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia, Tony at the Lutheran World Federation in Burundi, and Chris at Nyambani Village in Kenya.

Our first excursion was to an elephant orphanage just outside of Nairobi.

Baby elephant so young it doesn't have any tusks

We weren’t able to touch them but we got pretty close and saw them being fed milk, taking baths, and lounging around in the water.

Allie, me, and elephants

Next, we visited a giraffe park, where we could admire them from up close and feed them little pellets.

Explanation: the giraffe's ear was tickling my head

Then I got to kiss a giraffe! (Read: hold a pellet of food in between my lips to entice the giraffe to lick my mouth.) Who knew that giraffe’s tongues are 18-25 inches long?

Not the most enjoyable kiss I've ever had, but definitely the sloppiest

In keeping with the theme of exotic animals, we had dinner at one of Nairobi’s tourism institutions, a restaurant/carnival/shrine to meat called Carnivore. Each table is given a white flag and until one “surrenders” the flag onto the table, servers continue circulating with a variety of meats, some more delectable than others and some purely for shock value. Recent laws prevent eating bush meat like our four-legged friends above, but you can find a few exotic offerings on the menu below.

The menu

Upon tasting ox balls (yes, testicles), it took all of my willpower to not regurgitate all over the table. However, the camel was surprisingly moist and delicious and the crocodile wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It tasted like fish and had the texture of chicken.

Meat cooking station, modeled after hell

The flag claiming possession of my carcasses

The next day, after we had all sufficiently digested, the group of Fellows headed to the Maasai Market to pick up some trinkets and souvenirs.

An impressively persuasive vendor who sold me two necklaces

Then we went to the Village Market, a gourmet outdoor mall/food court that felt like we were in L.A. Did you know Nairobi had places like this? I didn’t.

In between bites of Italian gelato, I had a bit of culture shock

Visiting Kenya wouldn’t be complete without a trip to…a water park(?)! Though a bit disconcerting because of Kenya’s current drought, next to the Village Market there was an impressive water park where we spent 2 hours reliving our childhoods.

I forgot how much fun water parks are

After the reunion weekend was over, I spent a few days with Rachel to learn more about Sisi ni Amani’s work. We traveled to a few of the areas in and around Nairobi where Sisi ni Amani has partner organizations and it was exciting to see firsthand what Sisi ni Amani does.

Strategizing with a community group in Korogocho

Essentially, Sisi ni Amani “strengthens and maximizes the work of Kenyan peace leaders through enhancing communication, coordination, and conflict preparedness.” It is currently setting up an online platform through which existing community peace groups can use SMS technology (cell phone texts) to spread awareness about peace events and civic education. The ultimate goal is to avoid a repeat of the 2007 election violence in the upcoming 2012 elections. Sisi ni Amani’s work is extremely important and I urge any of you interested to find out more or make a pledge to donate. Even $10 would go a long way, enabling local peace groups to update 800 vulnerable individuals about upcoming peace events or educate them about their civic rights via text message. Please e-mail me at helaina@helaina.com if you are interested in supporting Sisi ni Amani’s work.

Another unbelievably cool thing I did was visit a hot glass factory with Rachel. Called Kitengela and founded by Germans, this place is a cross between Alice in Wonderland, a glass factory, a museum, and a series of bungalows – all tucked away in rolling fields just outside of Nairobi. At Kitengela, “Everything is unique and nothing is wasted.”

Welcome

They take glass like this and turn it into...

Vases like these

And trinkets like these (Rachel not included)

Lastly, I had an unexpected reunion with Charlotte Bourdillon, another one of my best friends from Tufts. She happened to be passing through Nairobi for about 12 hours on her way to rural Kenya to work at the Kakenya Center for Excellence as a Fellow with the Advocacy Project. As always, it was incredible catching up with her and sharing our life updates of the past few months.

Charlotte in all her glory!

After such a whirlwind, it’s nice to be back in Kigali and settling back into my routine here. Weekend nziza!

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I’m currently sitting at the kitchen table at my mother’s cozy house in New York, where I’m spending the holidays on a two-week interlude from my life in Rwanda. Being home with readily available hot water, lightning-fast internet, my little sister Julia, and lots of cheeses has been wonderful. But I had to go through 49 hours of traveling hell to get here. The saga began Friday the 17th, when I arrived at the Kigali airport and was told that all connections onward from Amsterdam were cancelled because of imminent snow storms sweeping Europe.

After weighing the pros and cons of different flight options, I decided to take my chances and get on the original flight to Amsterdam. I accepted the fact that upon arrival in Amsterdam I would be “considered a local passenger with a destination of Amsterdam,” but I planned that I would fight my way onto the next flight to JFK. To make a long story short, my plane arrived late into Amsterdam on Saturday, the airport was a WAR ZONE, I missed the original connection, I spent three hours waiting in wrong lines, I missed a second flight that a kind KLM agent helped book for me, and I ended up sleeping in the airport so that I wouldn’t miss a Sunday morning flight.

There were three redeeming parts of the trip:

1. Watching Eat, Pray, Love and Inception in between passing out on the flights.

2. Discovering that the Amsterdam airport has shower facilities after going through security. The glorious hot water made up for the fact that there was no towel, shampoo, conditioner, or soap. (I devised a way to fill my deodorant cap with hand soap and then used paper towels for drying. It wasn’t glamorous but it got 2 days of airport/airplane dirt off of me.)

3. Venturing into Amsterdam during what became a 24-hour layover. Tired of feeling like Tom Hanks in The Terminal, I put on 5 layers of clothing and caught a 15-minute train to Amsterdam’s Central Station. After strolling through adorable but freezing alleyways and canal streets for a bit, I decided I deserved a nice dinner and was beckoned by an inviting corner restaurant called The New Dorrius. Described as “Inspired Fresh Dutch Cuisine,” the restaurant offered an array of exotic, mouthwatering, and definitely inspiring dishes. I settled on a glass of Shiraz and the monthly menu, a three-course meal featuring a salad with grilled scallops and saffron dressing; back of hare with pepper sauce, stewed pear, red cabbage, and almond potatoes; and a tartlet of chestnut pudding with caramel nuts sauce. Needless to say, it was the best part of my trip home.

It’s nice to be spending some time at home with my friends and family, but I’m already missing all my Rwandan friends and the perfect temperate climate. (In my opinion, if it’s going to be so cold and dreary over here it should really just snow already. Fingers crossed for a white Christmas tomorrow.)

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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A weekend in the big city

About 15 hours ago, you would have found me on an overnight bus somewhere between Kampala and Kigali, curled up under a towel and praying that the bus’s centripetal force would keep it from giving out on one of the many precarious twists and turns in the potholed-road.

Rewind: I spent this past weekend in Kampala, Uganda, with Mary and Caitlin, visiting my friend Meg and seeing the city. After a 5:45 am departure on Friday morning, we arrived in Kampala around 2 pm a bit discombobulated and without any phone credit or Ugandan shillings. We eventually made our way to Meg’s and settled in for the weekend, which proved to be a perfect combination of fun exploring, sightseeing, catching up with friends in Kampala, and relaxing. The weekend’s highlights included going to movie showings at the Kampala Film Festival, browsing through beautiful East African crafts shops, riding on lots of boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis), eating delicious pineapple and Rolexes (the oddly named but scrumptious chapati-omelette roll-up invented at Kampala’s Makerere University), going out to the expat bar Bubbles Oleary’s, and watching at least 5 episodes of 30 Rock.

This weekend was my first time back in Kampala since summer 2008, when I spent five weeks interning for Educate!, an organization that equips secondary school students around Uganda with socially responsible leadership skills. It was surreal to be back, partly because I didn’t recognize a lot of the city because I had actually never explored it in full two years ago. Over the weekend, I got to catch up with my friend Eric, the director of Educate!, at New York Kitchen, a lively establishment offering fairly authentic bagels, pizza, and even red velvet cupcakes (don’t worry, Jbebble – they were good but nothing like your little drops of heaven).

Being in Kampala made me feel like I was a country girl back in “the big city.” It reminded me of how small, calm, clean, manageable, orderly, quiet, safe, but less exciting Kigali is in comparison. Kampala is a serious bustling metropolis and has the real city gritty feel and pushiness that Kigali lacks. If Kampala is the NYC of East Africa, I’d say Kigali is the Boston; it has a small town feel, a few tall buildings, and its fair share of one-way streets.

Some of the most interesting/nerve-wracking/exciting/treacherous parts of the trip were the two 8-hour bus rides between the cities. Passing through the border, located about an hour out from Kigali, was a serious ordeal: we all had to get out of the bus and walk the mile across the border through no-man’s land. Both times we were greeted with swarms of money changers brandishing fists of Rwandan francs and Ugandan shillings at exorbitant rates. We successfully powered through, Red Rover style. While crossing back into Rwanda around 4 am, we spent half an hour waiting outside the bus while customs officials searched fastidiously for luggage that could be smuggling in illegal goods or plastic bags. Yes, that’s right – it is illegal to have any plastic bags inside Rwanda, for what I believe to be both environmental and aesthetic reasons. Another interesting part of the return trip was that one of the lights at the front of the bus caught fire and for the rest of the trip there was a pungent smell of burning wires. Needless to say I didn’t get the best night’s sleep.

It’s nice to be back on land and back in my small town. I guess it takes going away for a little while to realize that I feel quite at home here in Kigali.

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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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From NY to Ny…

After 25 hours of transit, here I am in Kigali – the vibrant neighborhood of Nyamirambo to be exact. As several locals that I met today pointed out to me, I’ve traveled from one NY to another Ny, so I should feel especially at home. And I definitely feel most welcome here. Since noon today, I’ve met about twenty of my neighbors, local shopkeepers, and other curious and friendly Nyamirambo residents. As someone who thrives in the presence of new people and stimulating environments, I can already tell I’m going to like it here. And, as I expected, the real language of day-to-day interaction isn’t French or English; it’s Kinyarwanda. After picking up a few colorful phrases here and there, I’m definitely up to the challenge.

The voyage from the U.S. was quite enjoyable, despite being protracted over a series of exotic stopovers/layovers (NY to DC to Rome to Addis Ababa to Kigali). I think it had something to do with the surprisingly delicious food that Ethiopian Airlines generously provided at least once every four hours. (How did they already know my feeding schedule??) And by some miraculous stroke of luck or divine intervention, my two huge bags were waiting for me at the Kigali baggage claim. After passing through customs hassle-free, I found Michelle and Tim, two of the Generation Rwanda staff, waiting to greet me with a big sign with my name on it. That’s always a nice feeling.

Driving away from the airport, my first impression of Kigali was a sense of calm and order, particularly when I compared the nicely paved road we were driving on to roads I saw in neighboring Kampala, Uganda two summers ago. At the same time, I gleaned a sense of commotion and progress that attests to Rwanda’s reputation as a quickly growing economy. For example, construction workers were rebuilding the median on a bustling street after several months of enlarging the street to reduce congestion.

The Generation Rwanda staff house, where I’m living, is really quite nice and livable. Set back from the road behind a gate, its high points include nicely tiled floors, a spacious common room with comfy couches and chairs, and a wide selection of hot pink sheets and duvets to make beds with. Its not-so-high points include an extremely slow modem connection, the occasional mouse, and a temporary shortage of running water. After choosing which room I wanted and unpacking a towel, I took a refreshing bucket shower (that’s actually not sarcastic – with bucket showers you can take your time, you have complete control over water pressure, and you can easily make the water warmer by adding some boiled water to the mix!). Then I unpacked all of my worldly belongings and started decorating the room, which has a very nice energy and lots of natural light (and hot pink).

To top the day off, Tim took me out on the town to show me more of Nyamirambo, which really comes to life once the sun sets – another reason why I know I’m going to fit in well here. Tim took me to his favorite dinner stand, where we picked up some chapati and goat brochettes (grilled goat meat and onions on skewers) and then brought them to his bar of choice, the Bar L’Etoile d’Or. There, we serendipitously ran into some of the university students in the Generation Rwanda program. Small city indeed. As we sat outside sipping some ridiculously cheap Primus beer (700 francs = $1.23 for a VERY large bottle), the guava tree above us kept dropping its ripe harvest onto our table. Luckily I have a hard head and a fair amount of cushioning (though of course not as much as the legendary JuFro Stein). Looking out across one of Kigali’s valleys, taking in the vista of the glittering hillside of an illuminated residential district, I was filled with a sense of calm energy and curiosity to explore and understand as much of this country as I can over the next year.

As it’s after 2 am for me, I should try to nip this jet lag in the bud and count sheep until I fall asleep. If that doesn’t work I could also count the threads in the mosquito net that’s draped over my bed like a royal canopy of sorts. I don’t start work at the Generation Rwanda office until Friday, so tomorrow will be another day of exploration and adventure around town. After a good night’s rest and mosquito-free dreams, I’ll be revitalized and ready for whatever tomorrow holds in store.

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