Wednesday, June 29, 2011

road trip summer

So it's almost July, which is really exciting. Like, check-something-off-your-life-"to do"-list exciting. And not the little list that you keep adding to and checking things off just to feel like you make progress in your life. Like, The List. Because this is the summer of the cross-country roadtrip.


Monterey, CA -> Gainesville, FL

Anyways, get excited. I am. The last roadtrip I took was through Montenegro, in a Fiat Panda. The stuff of legends. An epic journey through canyons, by lakes, and near cliffs, with harrowing passages, detours for waterfalls and the unexpected reality that you can park however you want and drive wherever you want in Montenegro. No, really.

And yes, a Fiat Panda (technically an automatic, but not even close) can scale a mountain to get to a campsite.

And navigate sheer drops (the road was narrower than it looks, honest!).

If we have half the adventures of Montenegro, this cross-country trip will make for some excellent blogging! So, like me, get excited. And if not excited for the roadtrip, then at least look forward to my next post. I'll write more about Montenegro, and explain why we chose to go there (hint: James Bond).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Rwanda at a Glance

“To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know.”

For most people, thoughts of Rwanda are limited to disturbing images and facts from its violent history. Having spent 27 months living, learning and exploring this tiny East African country's every corner and what feels like all of its thousands of peaks and valleys, thoughts of Rwanda conjure up a much more complicated image: achingly beautiful scenery and punishing poverty; laughing children and suspicious stares; humbling setbacks and heart bursting joys.

As cliché as it sounds, a large piece of me will always feel connected and grateful to Rwanda for all its beauties, challenges and teachings. If you ever find yourself in the neighborhood or just in need of some off the beaten track adventure, give Rwanda a chance.

Musanze/Ruhengeri and Visiting the Mountain Gorillas

Rwanda's primary attraction is the rare opportunity to go on a trek into Virunga National Park and visit mountain gorillas. The gorillas are constantly tracked and protected by a number of agencies and organizations, including ORTPN and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which also helps local populations through improved health care opportunities and community development activities. For me, this experience was magical. After meeting at the base of the park in Kinigi, we were put into groups of 8 and joined by a local guide. Then we went on a bone rattling ride to the outskirts of the park before hiking for about two hours through lush forest.

Keeping completely silent, our guide and trackers signaled that they had spotted the gorillas, and we then hacked our way off the trail and up into the brush, where we saw...

We got to stay with the gorillas for about an hour, during which time the three year olds tried to play with us, the silverbacks grunted, the baby and mama clung to each other, and everyone displayed the art of creating human facial expressions and thistle eating. All in all this was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had!

Getting Around:
- It is actually pretty easy to get around Rwanda. Although few people outside of Kigali speak English, you can book bus tickets to any of the major tourist destinations at the bus terminals right by Nakumatt in Kigali City Center. It's a country about half the size of Scotland, so unless you're going to be heading into the bush for one reason or another, nothing should take you more than 5 hours.

You can take a large, comfy, and probably speeding bus very easily to the following:
  • Kigali -- Musanze: 2 hours
  • Kigali -- Butare: 2.25 hours
  • Kigali -- Gisenyi: 3 hours
  • Kigali -- Kibuye: 3.5 hours
  • Kigali -- Nyungwe: Take bus going to Cyangugu, tell driver you're getting off at Gisakura, takes between 4 and 5 hours

A beautiful spot on Northern Lake Kivu, this is a favorite for ex-pats crossing the border on holiday from Goma, DRC. Not much to do but sit back and read a book on the beach. The town isn't much to write home about, but there is a quirky and locally famous restaurant I love called "Ibyi'wacu," which literally translates to "From the home." Food is cooked without oil and salt, but still manages to stick to traditional Rwandan cuisine, largely goat, maize, beans and starches.

Nyungwe National Park
I think Nyungwe is the most beautiful spot in Rwanda, which is really saying something since I find the whole country breathtakingly lovely. You can stay at Gisakura Guest House, a cozy place with great food right outside the park, and from there you can bus or take a private driver into the park in the morning to go on a number of forest hikes--all a little intense but with massive payoffs in views. I have been on the waterfall and a half day hike in the forest, but there are also butterfly tours, chimpanzee trekking and all day killer hikes, so you could really spend several days in this massive park. This region is also home to Rwanda's famous tea fields, so don't leave without significant tea field wanderings, a tour around Gisakura Tea Factory and a trip to the decadent Nyungwe Forest Lodge for a green tea cocktail. If you're feeling adventurous, take a trip down to Rwanda's remote Cyangugu area, where the views won't disappoint but the accommodation options probably will. Monkeys, emerald green hills, tea factories, hiking and complete serenity, what more could one ask for?

My favorite spot to relax in Rwanda. Also on Lake Kivu, my favorite budget spot to stay is at Home St. Jean--clean and very relaxed guest house with an unbeatable view. Other, pricier options are the Bethanie Guest House and the Moriah Hill Resort. There are lots of beautiful walks around the lake, and renting a boat or kayak is a fantastic way to explore the area.

Although Musanze is mostly just a stop off point for people heading to the gorillas, it is my favorite town in Rwanda. The food market is fantastic, the people are friendly and the hiking options around the area are endless. My favorite hike is up Mt. Kabuye, a sizeable mountain just outside of Gakenke that has summit views of what feels like all of Rwanda. Musanze also has some fun night spots--the Silverback, a mostly all local dance club that never ceases to entertain, Woodley Bar, also a local favorite, and Volcano restaurant, a fantastic pizza place geared toward tourists and priced accordingly. No matter what your guidebook says, Musanze is worth spending a few days to enjoy being surrounded by volcanoes and get a better feel for Rwanda.

Final Tidbits:
- Before you head to Rwanda, book your gorilla permits through the ORTPN office. They are $500 each for Americans and $250 for foreign residents of Rwanda. It seems really pricey but it is worth every penny.
- Rwandans are very prompt, very clean, and very formal, so this isn't a travel destination for the sloppy backpacker types. There are many aspects of the culture that don't gel with the rest of East Africa's laid back vibe, but it is also the most safe travel destination in the region. When you're there, especially in more rural areas, you're expected to have your knees covered and your shoes shined. :)
- You will need to arrange for your own transportation to get to the Virunga National Park, whether it be from Musanze or Kigali. You can book a private driver, which can run about $125/day, or ask around in Musanze hotels if there are other tourists who are looking to share a driver and save some money.
- Don't be afraid to state your preferences when you get to the ORTPN office in Kinigi. For example, we requested a good sized hike and a large group of gorillas with babies, and that's what we got. :)
- My favorite place to stay is La Palme Hotel, both because I love the staff and the soup. For a more budget but extremely hospitable place, try Muhabura, Musanze's oldest hotel. Their brochettes are the best in the country.