Conservation Camp, Kisoro

31/8/15 – 4/9/15

“Let us not stop here, let us bring our ideas home to take root.”

~Booker, Ugandan Camp Counselor

I’m on a late bus headed back to Kisoro on the darkened tarmac road winding through the hills of the “African Alps”. It’s been one of those very memorable weeks of Peace Corps life where you feel like you’re in another world or life. I spent this camp working as the photographer and chef for the Peace Corps Conservation Camp. The camp was held in Kisoro, Uganda which is heralded as the “African Alps” due to the large amount of hills and volcanoes of the rift valley. During this week, 41 Ugandan youth from 6 local secondary schools spent a week at Seseme Girls Secondary School learning how about African conservationists, waste management, tree planting, basket weaving, permagarden construction, beehive construction, eco-tourism, and a city-street cleanup.

Planting Trees

Planting Trees

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Kisoro Town Trash Pickup

Basket Weaving

Basket Weaving

During this camp, I had the opportunity to take photos using one of the newer Canon DSLR cameras and editing the photos on Adobe Lightroom  as the campers went to sessions. This week felt very surreal, because of the beautifully cold Kisoro setting. The Peace Corps counselors stayed at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s house and the nearby guesthouse. Throughout the week the campers would attend sessions, do practicals, and create action plans as I took photos, then by 4pm I would leave camp early in order to prepare dinner. I think that we had the best camp food of my Peace Corps service: meat, g-nut sauces, and vegetables for lunch and sushi, stir-fries, pastas, burgers, soups, and pizzas for dinner at the Peace Corps Volunteer’s house.

Conservation Camp Group Photos

Conservation Camp Group Photos

As with all camps, it got more stressful and tiring as the week continued. But it also got more inspiring. Two times during the week we took field trips to Mgahinga Lodge near the base of Mgahinga National Park, the smallest national park in Uganda at the base of Mts. Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo. It felt really epic photographing the youth planting tree saplings along the village roads behind Mgahinga Lodge leading up to the overlooking Mt. Muhabura. I felt epic armed with such a nice camera in such a photogenic setting.

Most of the time, I’m profusely sweating in Uganda. However, in Kisoro it would  get so cold at night that I would actually shiver on the couches in the living room of the PCV’s house. Then during the day if I closed my eyes and felt the golden sun setting on my face coupled with the cool wind from the mountains, I could imagine that I was back in Maryland or Boston during the start of a new school year as the leaves were changing color. As camp ended, I started to think about the upcoming COS Conference for my cohort. It’s so crazy to me to think that this adventure is coming to its final stages. Before long, it will have been my two year anniversary in country, and I will be preparing to fly to Europe.

Conservation Camp Reflection

Conservation Camp Reflection

I find it very comforting to know that I have practically no regrets in my Peace Corps service. It just feels like every weekend, there is some sort of adventure or project happening that makes me feel like what I am living is the life that I am supposed to be living right now. This past week, this service, and this life has been a blur up to this point, and I am beyond incredulous to have made it this far. Two years ago I was planting trees as a landscaper in Maryland, now I am planting trees and ideas here and watching them grow before me.

“I know where you stand, silent in the trees, and that’s where I am silent in the trees. Why won’t you speak where I happen to be? Silent, in the trees, standing cowardly.”

~Trees, Twenty-One Pilots

Pre-Conservation Camp, Kisoro

24/8/15 – 29/8/15

I am inundated with emotions right now. I just finished editing together my group’s COS (Close of Service) slideshow which showcases photos and videos from almost two years ago when we first met each other in Philadelphia for staging on November 11th, 2013. I am clean, comfortable, and resting here in Bruce’s apartment in Kisoro as we gear up for Conservation Camp. The past few days, I have felt like I have been playing house; Rachel and I have been cooking ridiculous meals in a kitchen with a faux-marble countertop, doing daily errands, and lounging on couches in a living room.

Bunagana - Uganda DRC Border

Bunagana – Uganda DRC Border

We endured a harrowing night bus ride which included blasting dancehall music from 8pm – 5:30am inside the darkened bus, babies crying, and chilly wind blasting through the windows. We got into Kisoro while it was still dark and Jax, Bruce’s counterpart, picked us up and brought us to Bruce’s house. Over the course of several days we prepared for the coming weeks. Rachel prepped the shirts, water bottles, certificates, and plans for Conservation Camp events while I worked on the COS slideshow video for our COS Conference next week.

Hill WalkingDuring the day, I would ride Bruce’s bicycle around Kisoro town. As the warm sun hit my skin and the wind rustled through my sweater I felt as if I was back home in the United States. I would just bicycle a few minutes to pick up cauliflower, onions, green beans, butter, milk, cheese, and other cooking ingredients. At one point, Jax brought us to this hill purportedly where Churchill dubbed Kisoro the African Alps. We called it Churchill’s Hill, but the locals called it Munari Hill off the dirt road from Kamugoyi Village in Kanaba District. We also hiked up the gorgeous hill behind Golden Monkey Guesthouse where one can see Mt. Muhabura and Lake Mutanda. This time however, we continued walking up a nearby, steeper hill and made our way down a ridge bounded with trees and steep slopes on either side. It honestly felt like a new adventure.

This past week has been so much of a blur, and I can’t believe that we are about to start Conservation Camp. During this camp, local Ugandan youth will learn about sustainable methods to start conservation projects in their community as well as learn life-skills and leadership methods. There will be 10 counselors: 5 Ugandan and 5 Peace Corps Volunteers. My role during this camp is to capture moments through both photographs and video, as well as cook dinner for the PCV’s during camp. The menu consists of sushi, stir-fry, pastas, pizza, sautéed veggies, and cabbage slaws.

Winding Kisoro Roads

Winding Kisoro Roads

The Adventure

7/3/15 – 26/3/15

I have finally found some time to sit down and write a blog post about my experiences during the month of March. This month marks a turning point for me, because I truly feel that everything that I am headed towards the end of my Peace Corps service. In a little over 8 months I will be flying away from Uganda and gonging out at the Peace Corps office. This blog post, will be devoted to the adventure of Alex Bansleben and Marvin Roxas who journeyed to the far western and southwestern regions of Uganda in order to destroy the One Ring of Mt. Nyiragongo.

Saturday 7th – Sunday 8th

I arrived in Kampala in order to participate in a meeting of the Geography Club of Uganda. We Geo Club Dinnerstayed at the New City Annex and purchased the ingredients to make a huge three-course dinner at the house of the Director of Programming and Training. The meeting involved discussing the issues regarding LGBTI issues in Peace Corps Uganda both as a support system and how allies could lend their own support to other PCV’s. At some point, I raised a concern regarding what the response should be if another Peace Corps Volunteer stated that he or she did not support LGBTI PCV’s. This sparked a healthy discussion where PCV’s and allies bounced around ideas regarding how one should respond to the person in question. Some people said that everyone was entitled their own opinions, while others stated that they would debate that person. However, it was unanimously agreed upon that the person who did not support Geo PCV’s should not be attacked, especially since he or she is voicing an opinion and should also not feel victimized.

The three-course dinner consisted of:

  • Lettuce Salad and Pumpkin Soup
  • Tomato and Basil Pasta, Black and Tan Pasta, Alfredo Pasta, and Pasta Salad
  • Lemon Squares topped with Mint, Gooseberries, and Kiwi Slices

After dinner, I received a call from my friend Alex who had gotten on an overnight bus from Nairobi to Kampala. That night a lot of us went out to the clubs and we got back to the Annex around 5am.

Monday 9th – Thursday 12th

Four hours later, Alex arrived in Kampala. Fortunately, Alex took the Modern Coast bus which dropped him off right in front of the Annex. I ran out to meet him and he dropped his bags off at the Annex.

We headed to Prunes for brunch and catching up. Honestly, I hadn’t had a lengthy conversation with Alex for over 4 years and I didn’t know what our common interests were. I shared with him the basics about how Peace Corps Uganda worked and about my work here, and he shared with me his work as a consultant at Accenture. This would turn out to be a theme throughout the duration of our adventure in Uganda and Rwanda. Every now and then we would share something with the other that helped explain how our personalities and experiences since high school drastically changed us.

We napped a bit back at the Annex, and then headed down towards the taxi park area so that Alex could buy some kitenge from the vendors and get them made by my favorite tailor. Alex bought some kitenge, which is Congolese fabric, from some Congolese vendors with whom he spoke French. We then brought the fabric to my favorite tailor who agreed to make them into button down dress shirts and regular t-shirts. We continued towards the Gaddafi Mosque, which was closed since it was past 6pm, so we hurried to grab a small dinner at the Acacia Mall area with other PCV’s. It was at this point that Alex was introduced to the bluntness and openness of PCV’s that night. The conversation revolved around vibrators that female PCV’s brought or had surreptitiously sent to them. I explained to Alex that PCV’s chiefly talked about three topics: poop, sex, and other Peace Corps Volunteers.

Alex and Village ChildrenThe next morning I brought Alex with me to the Peace Corps office because I had a PCVL meeting concerning the site development process. The procedure was being personalized for the older education PCV’s in-country in order to make it more personalized and give PCV’s a voice in sharing why they would like a future PCV to continue the work that they had started at their sites. The meeting ends in the late afternoon, after which Alex and I take a private hire down to the taxi park and then take a taxi back to Wobulenzi where we purchase produce from the local market. We make it back to my village where all of the village children immediately run up to him to stroke his leg hair and hold his hands.

As we prepare for dinner, Alex takes out some of the gifts that he brought: a Kindle, incense, acne facial scrub, books for the students, and some money that would go towards a needed project. We chill that night with the incense and some fennel steak dinner.

Journal Entry:

“It’s interesting hearing the different perspectives that Alex has and brings here from the US. Like some offhand comments or responses about how he “gets it”. Or it’s the weirdness of being around someone whom I still have to explain everything to rather than the silent solidarity of knowing the life that we live here, like other PCV’s…”

The next day we get up and prepare for a day of teaching and local exploration. We start off withAlex Teaching teaching a division lesson to Year 1 students. Afterwards, we gather them outside to hold an HIV/AIDS session with them where we explained the biology behind HIV/AIDS, exposed the myths, and demonstrated the fast rate of HIV transmission through unprotected sex. Afterwards, I brought Alex to the nearby hill where I can get internet access, and then to the Kabaka’s Palace. We grabbed a rolex from a chappati guy in Bamunanika and then walked to another hill that overlooked the majority of the sub-county. As the sun set and I chilled up there with Alex, I found it hard to believe that I was embarking on this journey with an old friend whom I haven’t hung out with for almost half a decade.

On Thursday we sleep-in, pack up, and head back to Kampala and stay at the Fat Cat Backpackers. We check out Acacia mall and I show Alex the Definition store and Nakumatt. We meet up with PCV Wayne Wong who shares how some other PCV’s whom he met at a Malaria Conference in Senegal remember me from the weekend spent in Kigali, Rwanda last August during the Guma Guma event. Funnily enough, later that night we meet an NGO guy who went to University of Maryland College Park and now works in Gulu. I still find it crazy how regardless of where we go in the world, we will somehow meet someone with whom we have had shared experiences.

Friday 13th – Saturday 14th

We spent the day walking to the Gaddafi Mosque, which was very grand to say the least. I found it Gaddafi Mosquehard to believe that there was this gigantic, public mosque whose carpets came from Morocco, mahogany handrails from the Congo, and funding from the benevolent to many African countries but his own, Gaddafi. Apparently, so many African countries other than Libya are huge fans of Gaddafi because of the money that he so generously shared with them in order to build things such as this mosque, which is also the 2nd biggest mosque in Africa. After climbing the tower with a  spiral staircase and walking barefoot on the plush Moroccan carpets, we met up with PCV Ravi Sahai and walked towards the Kasubi Tombs of the Kabaka.

This UNESCO World Heritage site is the location of the past four Kabaka’s tombs as well as his tradition grass-thatched round house. Unfortunately, the main house was destroyed in a fire five years ago, and the perpetrator has still not been apprehended. The tour guide shared with us the history of the past four Kabaka’s. We heard stories about the many wives of the Kabaka, how one of them was assassinated by Idi Amin’s agents, the dissolution of the tribes of Uganda, and the eventual reinstatement of the tribes under the current Kabaka with the collaboration of Museveni.

Kisubi TombsWe passed by the other ceremonial straw houses that housed actual families. Each house had a modern-day fire extinguisher attached near the front entrance. However, one of the most intriguing parts of the tour was a mud hut that was over 100 years old. I mean the tin roof was repurposed from scraps that the British colonizers discarded, and the mud was packed and repacked through the years. After arguing with the receptionist in both Luganda and Runyoro we were able to receive the price of an East African Resident, while Alex had to pay the full fee.

We took several taxi rides back to Acacia Mall and bought some whiskey to pregame for the night. That night, we pre-gamed at Fat Cat and then danced at both Iguana and Cayenne until around 6am. I had planned to go out to the clubs in Kampala this Friday since it was the COS (Close of Service) conference of the PCV’s in the CHED (Community Health, Economic Development) cohort that would be leaving Uganda within the next three months. By the time I got back to the hostel, a random Pakistani man was sleeping in my bed so I just crashed on the bed/couch in the common room. There were a few funny stories from that night, but the most memorable was when we were entering Cayenne and the bouncers stopped one of the guys in our group from entering since the dress code stipulated that all men wear long trousers and he was wearing shorts.

Conversation:

Us: “Okay how much do you want us to bribe you to let him in?”

Bouncers: “We don’t accept bribes.”

Us: “Okay, can we talk to your manager please?”

Bouncers: “The manager will not want to talk with you or accept your bribe. This is why Uganda is not a great country; because of corruption and bribery.”

Us: *sarcasm* “Oh yes, we definitely agree that by not letting in a man with short trousers is making Uganda a worse country”

Us: *one of the girls and the guy in shorts switches pants so that the guy is wearing the girl’s capris and the girl is wearing his cargo shorts* “We’re ready!”

Bouncers: “Okay, you can enter now.”

A few hours later in the morning, I wake up in the common room couch and am probably still drunk. I eat the breakfast provided by Fat Cat and pack up my things in preparation for the journey to Fort Portal. Wayne Wong decides to tag along for a few days. We go to the Barclays in order to withdraw some money that we then converted into $US in preparation for our eventual sojourn into Rwanda. We take a taxi from the taxi park to Fort Portal. I kept pointing out to the equally as hungover Alex the places where Ravi, Godfrey, and I biked during our bike journey.

Jenna's Pit LatrineWe met up with PCV Jenna Marcotte at Sweet Aromas bakery, which had changed spots from the last time I was at Fort Portal during Camp Kuseka. Now it was located near the Kasese Road. It was here that we bought the One Ring at the local Indian Store. The goal was that Alex would eventually destroy it in the fiery pits of Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC during his trek later that week. In the meantime, we shared a dinner together of the best pizza in country at the Duchess restaurant.

I can still remember feeling the cool, slightly damp air of the night breezing through the open windows of the private hire as we headed towards Jenna’s site at Kazingo. In the middle of the journey, Jenna pointed out the fire on one of the nearby foothills of the Rwenzori’s that signified the beginning of farmers clearing the brush for farming since rainy season was soon approaching. Jenna’s house was one of the most comfortable houses that I have ever stayed in as a PCV. Even though there wasn’t any running water or electricity, I felt like I was at home. The best part was that the house got very cold at night.

Sunday 15th – Tuesday 17th

We left the Rwenzori foothills of Kazingo and went back to Fort Portal. Wayne Wong and Alex wentNyakasharu Setting Up the Tent to reserve a taxi headed towards Mbarara while I rushed to the market to purchase some produce for our stay at Dave the Cave Nyakasharu Eco Lodge. The lodge was located about 3 hours south of Fort Portal a little bit after passing Kasese and Kyambura. We arrived at the eco lodge and were welcomed by handful of other PCV’s who agreed to come here to preemptively celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and hang out with me and Alex. We were located near a crater lakes, and the place was called Dave the Cave because the Ugandan owner is named Dave and the eco lodge overlooked a crater lake and a small cave.

Alex, Wayne Wong, and I set up our tent and hung out with the other PCV’s. What struck me the most from this place was how organic everything felt. I mean I’ve been to other eco lodges and other ecotourism sites in Uganda, but the energy and passion that Dave had was infectious. As I was cooking tomato sauce in his kitchen, he urged me to pick some fresh basil, oregano, parsley, and rosemary from the nearby demonstration garden. Later in the day, as the golden sun set behind traditional dancers and drummers, PCV Hannah Long and I walked down the dirt road that skirted the eco lodge and led to Dave’s garden.

I couldn’t believe how vast and expansive his garden was. We walked through the garden and Rosemary in Gardenpicked fresh: rosemary, coriander, parsley, oregano, arugula, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spinach, thyme, sage, turnips, beets, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, husk tomatoes, leeks, celery, gooseberries, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, cucumbers, okra, and various other vegetables and leafy greens that I hadn’t seen in over 16 months. Dave stated that he wanted to inspire other Ugandans to utilize the rich soil and grow a variety of plants and produce to both consume and sell at the markets.

When we returned to the eco lodge, we chilled by the nearby bonfire and ate fried local fish from the crater lakes. That night, the temperature dropped to the low 50’s, and I was freezing in the tent even though I was bundled up in several layers worth of clothing. In the morning, we hitched a ride with a truck driving Ugandan who was headed past Kalinzu Forest where Alex, Wayne Wong, and I paid 50,000/= to go chimp trekking. We had woken up before the sunrise, and by the time we got to the forest, the air still felt damp and cool from the night’s chill.

Chimp TrekkingI took in a deep breath, because the air smelled so earthy and fresh. One of the chimp trekking guides led us deeper into the thick forest. About 45 minutes into the journey, we came across an adult chimpanzee at the end of the road. As we approached him, he scampered away and we continued to trek him. About 30 minutes later, the guides stopped in a small clearing and pointed out several chimpanzees swinging from the branches of the nearby trees. We saw a mother and her chimp swinging from branch to branch. We even heard the distinctive roar/cry of the chimpanzees as they swung from the boughs of the overhanging tree branches.

At some point, the guide suggested that we head back to the base. On the way back, we departed the forest clearing and entered into the rolling green fields of a Majani Tea Plantation. It’s sites and days like this that still astound me; seeing the countless tea plants that stretch far into the distance as Ugandan field workers snip the fresh tea leaves into their baskets. We then took a Tea Plantationvery crowded private hire sedan to Mbarara and then onto our next stop at the Bishop Stuart PTC where PCV Stephen Elliott hosted us. The stipulation was that we could stay if we tossed the Frisbee at the nearby field, climbed his water tower, and drank beers with him. Naturally, we agreed that this was well worth the price of lodging for the night. If the night at the eco lodge felt like winter and the morning in the forest felt like spring, then the afternoon at Bishop Stuart PTC felt like the end of a solid summer’s day. The sun was shedding its golden rays down the suburban-like streets of the tutors’ housing. And a warm breeze wafted by us as we sat on Stephen’s cement porch.

We bid farewell to Wayne Wong on the morning of the 17th. Alex and I took a taxi on the Mbarara-Kabale road headed towards Kabale and he took a taxi headed back towards Kampala. It was at this point that Alex started to notice the different landscapes of the southwest. He continuously Kabale Elephant Manstated that this was such a beautiful ride, and I told him that it would only get better. I helped Alex print his visa papers for his eventual hike in the DRC, and then we bought straw elephants from the elephant man in front of the Indian grocery store. Let me explain this a little bit more, within the space of less than 100 feet on the main road of Kabale there is an Indian store and usually this old man in a wheelchair with a hand crank that he uses to roll his wheels. Whenever he sees non-Ugandans pass into the Indian shop he would yell “ELEPHANTS!” and plunge his hand into a black cavera and display handmade, straw elephant figurines to sell. I had heard stories about this man, and Alex and I bought two elephants from him.

Conversation with Elephant Man:

Elephant Man: *sees us* “ELEPHANTS!”

Me: “How much?”

Elephant Man: “10,000!!!!”

Me: “No, 5,000!”

Elephant Man: “Yes!” *He then displays the straw elephants from his black cavera where he stores them*

Indian Man: *Talking to Ugandan store workers in very Indian accent* “You bring for me fifteen eggs!”

We took a pit stop at PCV Carl Mulhausen’s house at the Kabale NTC where we also met up with PCV Paul Benz. Carl shared his own experiences climbing Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC several decades ago when he was a PCV during the reign of Idi Amin. He recalled that his experience climbing that volcano and hearing the perpetual roar of the lava inside the crater would be one of the most amazing and memorable experiences of his life. I got excited for Alex, and was definitely jealous that I wouldn’t be able to join him on his journey to destroy the One Ring.

By this point it was the late afternoon, so Alex and I quickly found a taxi headed towards Kisoro that took about 2 hours to fill. However, it was worth it because we saw the sun bursting forth from the clouds that surrounded the Virunga volcanoes of Kisoro. Even though I had seen this view before, it still felt very epic to witness the winding road with hairpin turns and steep drops that led to sloped farmlands, elevated lakes, and towering hills and mountains. If I thought that this was gorgeous, I couldn’t imagine what Alex must have felt witnessing these views for the first time in his life. By the time the sun had hit the horizon, our taxi arrived in Kisoro and we met up with PCV Bruce Haase at the Coffee Pot. We had burgers and turned in for an early night.

Kisoro SunsetIf there was one thing that I was beginning to learn from Alex’s visit, it was that he reminded how amazing my life was here in Uganda. At one point he told me that my life here was not normal. I guess that after 16 months I forget that what I do on a weekly basis here is not normal, at least by American standards. Hearing about the sites that I was used to seeing on a semi-regular basis reminded me of how much I loved my life here. It took having a part of home come to visit me in order to remind me of how life-changing my Peace Corps experience is. It’s very easy to get used to the ups and downs of day-to-day life here and to forget that living in such a unique environment with the opportunity to see both great and terrible things is not the norm. As Ugandans would about us, we are used.

Saturday 18th – Monday 20th

Alex and I woke up early in order to see the sunrise at the hill with the gorgeous view of Mt. Alex and Lake MutandaSebinnyo and Lake Mutanda. We filmed a few scenes of us with the One Ring. Once again, I felt weird about Alex visiting these sacred places of my Peace Corps service. Whenever the various stages of my worlds collide, I can’t help but notice just how different all of me and my friends have become. We took our photos and met Bruce at Traveller’s for their 10,000/= breakfast, which includes bacon and cheese. We quickly packed up back at Bruce’s house, and made our way to the border at Cyanika.

Alex had to pay a $30 visa fee ever since they mandated that persons with American passports must pay a fee to acquire a visa at the border with Rwanda. Fortunately, Bruce and I sweet-talked Virunga Mist Beerthe right people at the border office and explained to them that we were East African residents, so they gave us the Interstate Pass which allowed us to travel to and from Rwanda for free. From Kyanika, the taxi driver drove us on the other side of the road to the transit town of Musanze. We chilled here at the French/Italian bakery and restaurant called La Paillotte with their amazing Boulette (meat balls), baguettes, and Virunga Mist beer. Honestly, that beer was one of the best that I’ve had during my Peace Corps service. It’s a darker beer, but not as dark or as filling as a stout and still refreshing enough with the taste of oats and barley.

Lake Kivu PierWe took the afternoon taxi to Gisenyi where we stayed at the Discover Gisenyi Hostel near the shores of Lake Kivu. While the town seemed very local and small, the lakeside felt very serene. I could have thought that I was on vacation in a small, European beachside town or Riviera. From the manicured lawns of our European beach chalet, we could see Rwandans doing flips off of a stone pier into the clear waters of Lake Kivu and then walking back onto the sandy shore. That night, we have dinner at a local restaurant, with food that resembles Ugandan food but tastes a bit more flavorful. Also thanks to the Belgian colonizers, the Rwandans know how to bake bread in many of the towns as opposed to Ugandans who mainly adopted tea time from the Brits.

Journal Entry:

“It’s interesting at this point in the journey, because I feel like we’re past the awkward stage of meeting and hanging out since high school, but I feel that we have vastly different personalities and interests and ways of approaching situations. I think it also has to do with the trouble of understanding how life is here in the Peace Corps.

But now on our coaster ride to Gisenyi from Musanze, I feel giddy. I’m excited with the prospect of new adventure and experiences.”

As the sun set, we could see the far off Mt. Nyiragongo in the DRC shrouded in clouds like Mt. Doom itself.

Thursday 19th – Friday 20th

During these two days I chilled at the lakeside chalet hostel and chilled by the lake. I even took a dip into the clear waters because the staff assured me that there was no schistosomiasis in the water. In the meantime, Alex took a boda from the chalet 1.6km northwards to the DRC border. As I chilled safe in Rwanda, he prepared for his sojourn to the mountain of doom in the DRC, and here is his story:

Alex’s Story:

“My heart was pounding as I approached the border called La Grande Barriere.. I mean all the stories on any international news site would tell you about the problems regarding rebels and disorganized governance in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both Anthony Bourdain’s No Entering GomaReservations and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness painted a very bleak portrait of this center of Africa. I’m sure that not many people would ever do what I am doing right now. When got to the border, I had my bag searched and a nurse checked my WHO card to ensure that I had received all of the required vaccinations. I then had to hand over my passport to the border officials along with a visa confirmation explaining that I had registered for a visa a month earlier online through the Virunga Trekking website. In total I had paid $250 for the park permit and trekking, $105 for the visa into the DRC, and about $23 for transport to the Kibati Patrol Post from the border crossing.

As I waited for the officials to process my visa, I met some other travelers who would join me on my hike up Nyiragongo. Even though I had spent my summers in French Switzerland, I was glad that my other companions also spoke French. After the officials stamped a visa into my passport, I boarded the Virunga Treks jeep and they took me and my new companions through Goma town towards Kibati Patrol Post. It was such a new experience to see this forbidden part of the world. As an American with two passports, US and Italian, I always believed that travelling anywhere in the world was an easy task. However, it always gave me a rush to know that I was treading on land that few people would ever have the opportunity or will to traverse.

Blackened GomaThe developed part of Goma town looked nice compared to most other towns in Uganda. However, once we passed into the neighborhoods, the color scheme of the entire environment changed. Instead of the brown of dust and dirt, the villages surrounding Goma were all black. Fences of black and dark red volcanic rocks were built by enterprising villagers, and the houses and huts looked like log cabins that wouldn’t have looked out of place in northern United States. Some of the houses had the traditional tin roofs while others had brick shingles. Even the cloudy sky cast a shadow on an already gloomy-looking town. But what struck me the most from this journey was the reaction of the people.

In Uganda, people were always friendly and willing to wave at you if you waved at them. In Rwanda, it required a bit more effort to get them to wave back at you. However here, some of the villagers would just stare at us, throw stones at us, give us the finger, or ask for money. Only a select few of them greeted us when we said hello in French or Swahili. Every few minutes our jeep would pass by a United Nations vehicle with blue helmets riding with their rifles. Apparently, the nearest rebel group was only 11km away from Goma. We also kept passing by what looked like an elongated, wooden bicycle that the villagers used to transport jerrycans of water, livestock, and sacks of food.

We approached the Kibati Patrol Post and consolidated our supplies for the trek. Some of my Congolese Guardscompanions hired porters for $12, but I decided to carry my own backpack up and down the mountain. Our Congolese guides and armed guards explained to us that we would be reaching an elevation of about 3400m and that the trek would take about 4-6 hours including rest stops at designated intervals. There were also 12 hidden, armed guards stationed at various points along the path who would protect and alert us if any rebels got too close.

The trek up was definitely miserable at points, but the harder it got the more worth I placed into this experience. We first started on a path that led straight into the heart of the Virunga Park forest. It steadily climbed upwards at a slight, muddy gradient until it gave way to broken up Rain on Volcanic Rocksvolcanic rocks that sloped at a steeper gradient. About two hours in, we left the forest behind and were clambering up steep volcanic rocks the size of baseballs and stretches of slick volcanic outcroppings as the rain started to pour. I felt miserable going up, because I knew that both my body and my backpack with my sleeping bag was getting wet.

About 4 hours into the journey, our guides stopped us and told us to look at a small fissure in the ground overgrown with trees and plants. He explained that in 2002 the lava from the volcano welled up here and then overflowed down this face of the volcano where it pooled in a small crater and then reached Goma town and eventually Lake Kivu. That explained all the black volcanic rocks and black dirt in Goma Village. As I turned around to look at Goma, I couldn’t believe how high up I was. I could see a green, football pitch-sized crater below me and Goma Village in the far off distance as if it was a small lego town.

At this point, we were approaching the clouds. We passed through another stretch of steep forest View above the Cloudspaths, and then made our way to the last stretch of clearing, which consisted of small volcanic crags that acted as stepping stones. The path ceased at this point, and each one of us chose his or her own path up the last 100m of the climb. During this stretch of 30 minutes, the clouds parted from the blustery winds and the clear skies greeted our final ascent. Behind us lay what looked like the Savannah and the lonely towns of Goma and Gisenyi hugging the eastern side of Lake Kivu.

The guides told us that we were to choose a small cabin built near the crater of the volcano where Sulfur Cloud Sunsetwe could place our things and sleep when night came. The cabins were literally just planks of wood nailed together to keep rain and wind out, and inside each cabin was a heavy-duty tent designed as an extra layer of protection against the harsher elements of wind and mist. Outside, everything was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set behind clouds of both water and sulfur. Everywhere I turned was a gorgeous and breath-taking view. It feels hard explaining how amazing it felt to be up there at what felt like the end of the world. As I approached the crater, I could see a reddish glow beyond the emanating sulfur clouds. I will never forget that perpetual rumbling of the lava in the crater that reminded me of an ocean wave that was forever crashing down on the surf.

When the clouds cleared, we could look down into the crater where we saw these sheer cliff dropsMt. Nyiragongo Lava Lake that led to a lower level of the crater, which led to another lower level of the crater, which finally led to the lake of lava itself. Even though we were far away from the lava, we could still feel a remnant of radiating heat from the lava. As night came, the lava lake became much easier to see. All I could do for hours was gaze at the lava and listen to the never-ending rumble and roar of lava explosions. The pool of lava was forever changing with the solidified rocks on the surface of the lake forming and re-forming into different shapes. At some points the surface looked like a fractured mirror, spider-web, penises, or even the Eye of Sauron himself. At some point in the night, I took out a bottle of white wine which was chilling in the winter-like air. I shared the bottle with my new companions, and as the clouds whipped around us we listened to Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, and Howard Shore’s Breaking of the Fellowship.

Sulfur SunriseYou know, I felt alright with my life up there. I really believe that I was on a true adventure of a lifetime that I would never forget. That time spent on the volcano felt almost spiritual. Something had changed within me and I knew that when I descended from this mountain that I would never be the same again. The night got darker and deeper, and I retired to my cabin where my sleeping bag kept me warm throughout the night. Funnily enough, all I could think about was how delicious the burrito Marvin told me about at Meze Fresh in Kigali would taste.

I set my alarm for 5am since the guards told me that the sunrise would be at 5:40am. As I rose, I heard my other companions join me to witness the sunrise. Even though I felt miserable, slightly hungover, and cold I was happy to witness a new sunrise on Mt. Nyiragongo. Behind me, I could see Goma illuminated by the fires of a thousand villagers and the intermittent lightning of a far-off storm cloud. And in that moment, I made my decision to destroy evil for good and I threw the One Ring into the fire chasm from whence it came (even though I technically bought the ring in the Indian Store in Fort Portal with Marvin and Jenna’s help). The sun rose and as the clouds whipped around our feet they covered the lake of lava and I bid farewell to such a beautiful view.

The trek down was uneventful in that it rain the entire way down and we were all soaking wet, muddy, and ready for our next meal and warm shower. We made it to the Patrol Post within 3 hours since we didn’t stop for a rest, and the jeeps took us back through Goma. On the way back, I bought a Simba beer from a local shop, because I wanted to know what it would taste like. I re-entered Rwanda without much trouble, and met up with Marvin and Bruce back at the hostel.”

When Alex told me his story, I was beyond jealous and knew that before I left for the United States that I would do this trek. In the meantime, it felt nice to relax by the lake and chill with Bruce. We ate a local lunch at the bus park, and then took a bus to Kigali. One of Alex’s companions joined us on the coaster back to Kigali. Her name is Josie and she shared her story with us: She wanted to visit Rwanda ever since she was 14 and had volunteered with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd of Quebec where she had worked in Haiti, Madagascar, and then in Rwanda as a peanut butter factory worker rabbit farmer, and then as a teacher. She shared her knowledge of Ikinyarwanda with us and explained why most of the towns had two names. For example, Gisenyi was also called Rubavu because after the genocide the government wanted to rename all of the towns so that they could put the past behind them. As a result, many of the towns in Rwanda other than Kigali have two names.

We picked up a wheel of local Emmentaler-like cheese at Muhoko trading center, and continued on our coaster ride to the semi-developed city of Kigali. We had booked dorm beds at the Mamba Clubhouse in Kimihurura neighborhood near Papyrus Club. We ate a well-deserved burrito with nachos at Meze Fresh, chilled with some Rwandan PCV’s, and passed out in warm dorm beds after an even warmer shower.

Saturday 21st – Wednesday 26th

Honestly, after Alex’s adventure on Mt. Nyiragongo I felt that nothing could top that experience forRz Manna Bakery the duration of our trip. As Alex went to visit the Genocide Memorial Museum, Bruce and I hung out at different cafes in Kigali. We started at Rz Manna where we could eat authentic baked goods ranging from cinnamon buns to croissants and jelly doughnuts and waffles. Bruce and I then continued to the MTN House where we swapped stories over a French press of Lake Kivu coffee at Bourbon Café on the third floor. I felt so relaxed hanging out here with a good friend over some good coffee after an already-packed adventure.

We met up with Alex at Hotel des Milles Collines, and got dinner at a French restaurant called L’Epicurean near our hostel. The fact that I had the pleasure of eating Chicken Cordon Bleu is something that I will not forget for as long as I live in the village.

Early in the morning, Alex, Bruce, and I arose and got our shit together to reach Uganda by the early morning. We arrived back in Kisoro by 10am where we bid farewell to Bruce. Arriving this early gave Alex and I more than enough time to reach Kabale by noon and then arrive at the Byoona Amagara docks. Instead of paying for a motorboat, we decided to just paddle a canoe to the island for free. Chilling at Lake Bunyonyi was perfect, because it was just so quiet and relaxing after almost two weeks of constant traveling. I pretty much just napped on the docks, napped in the café area, and in my cozy bed.

We spent Monday night in Kabale town at PCV Amanda Throckmorton’s house. Alex and I broughtLeaving Bunyonyi over a kilo of live crayfish along with the remnant of Muhoko, Rwanda cheese in order to make a black and tan crayfish mac ‘n cheese. That was a good night to talk about experiences, because Amanda asked Alex about his adventure up Mt. Nyiragongo, which started a conversation about the adventures that we have in our 20’s that define a large part of who we become. She shared her own experiences and adventures in India and Myanmar that helped define a part of who she is today. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we were discussing this over a full box of wine each.

Tuesday was literally one of the worst travel days in-country. It took 12 hours to get from Kabale to Masaka after waiting for over 4 hours in total and then squeezing in 24 passengers in a 16 person taxi and then forcing everyone to get off into another one in the middle of the road leading to Masaka. By the time we reached  Wandegeya PTC where PCV Eric Chu hosted us, it was already 9pm and we were exhausted from sitting in a crowded taxi all-day. This was the last homely house of the adventure before I had to say goodbye to Alex. Out of all the PCV houses in Uganda, Eric’s house felt the most comfortable with the cool air, fully-stocked kitchen, and clean sheets on a guest mattress.

Wednesday was our last day together. We celebrated it by picking up Alex’s shirts from the tailor and purchasing more rolls of kitenge for him to bring home. We then stopped by the 1000 Cups café where Alex bought coffee to take home with him, and then we registered for his last night in Uganda at Fat Cat Backpackers. We had hoped that it would be the Wine and Cheese night at the Bistro, but instead we just got three gin and tonics during happy hour and then bought a 1.5L bottle of wine, hummus platter, and various cheeses, meats, and bread from the Nakumatt deli to have our own wine and cheese night on the rooftop of Fat Cat.

Under the influence of our last night together, Alex and I swapped pictures and reminisced about our journey that took us through different climates, time zones, and seasons. At some point, the Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer called and informed us that a terrorist attack might occur at a muzungu-heavy area in Kampala according to the US Embassy. As a fitting end to any adventure, it was raining at 6am Thursday morning when the private hire picked Alex at Fat Cat and drove him to the airport. And this adventure came to a close.

Journal Entry:

“How can I go back to “regular” life after these experiences? It’s just so many thoughts and memories that have shaped who I’ve become today. I don’t know whether to cry or not concerning all of the feelings and adventures that I’ve gone through in these pat two weeks and how they remind me of the stages of my life that brought me this far. Even though I wasn’t there, I feel that the roar of Nyiragongo will resonate within me for the rest of my life.”

Another Goodbye

8/11/14

I travelled back to Kampala on Wednesday because I was invited to sell some PSN (Peer Support Network) t-shirts at the US Embassy Christmas Africa Acacia Tree DesignBazaar. The bazaar started on Thursday morning so I wanted to be sure that I was in Kampala the day before in order to ensure that all the t-shirts were ready to be sold. This involved picking up 33 shirts from the screen printer near the taxi parks as well as coordinating for the sack of the other shirts to be picked up from the most recent group’s IST (In-Service Training). PSN has gotten better at bringing t-shirts to trainings so that PCV’s can purchase them.

Dinner that night was very eventful. I hung out on the rooftop of the Annex with Steve and Rachel as we ate sandwiches that we made from separate ingredients purchased at Nakumatt. The bread was a baguette from the bakery packed with lettuce, tomatoes, gouda cheese, bbq ham, pili pili peppers, and thousand island dressing mixed with Old Bay. On the side we had some chili and lemon chips paired with a plain yogurt dipping sauce. We hung out in the cool Kampala wind with a few stars peeking at us beyond the city smog and light pollution as the Of Monsters and Men album played on my portable speakers.

The next day, Rachel and I arrived at the US Embassy and set up our respective tables underneath a large U-shaped tarpaulin among two dozen other tables. The rest of the vendors showed up around 11am with wares of Brood bread, local produce, citronella oil, meatballs, milk, screen printed art, eggless cookies, candles made by ex-prisoners, Congolese masks, passionfruit juice concentrate, hummus, cream cheese, coffee, and of course anything that you could think of that is made out of kitenge. I swear that if I combined all of the kitenge vendors together at this bazaar then I would be able to get anything out of kitenge: shoes, blankets, baby bibs, hats, quilts, pillows, dresses, pants, shirts, head bands, wine bottle coozies, and even more.

I made a killing at this bazaar and sold a few of the older shirts and a lot of the newer design of Africa with an acacia tree growing inside of it. Throughout the day a lot of embassy workers, who were also RPCV’s from other countries, stopped by the table to chat for a while. The bazaar eventually wrapped up and I was dropped off at Kisementi to share a few farewell drinks with Jim from Kisoro. We got some of the double shot gin and tonics at the Bistro happy hour (Monday – Thursday, 4pm – 7pm). It felt really weird knowing that this would be the last time that I would see him in Uganda. I guess that all the PCV’s who are about to leave will have that effect on me because I have only ever known Uganda with them in it.

Jim FarewellOf course we got to share some good jokes over some good drinks (with ice in them!) and then we bid Jim farewell. I walked back to the Annex with some other PCV’s and checked into a room for the night. Somehow, the idea of travelling back to site after drinking didn’t sound that appealing. We got dinner at SawaSawa near the Annex and ordered the nicest looking Ugandan food. It was very well-presented. As we were eating our dinner, this older Ugandan woman approaches us and asks us where we’re from.

Instinctively, we all attempt to avoid a conversation with her and reply that we were all from Minnesota. She explained that she was living off her pension in Uganda and that she had lived in England for the past few decades. Her late husband was the brother of the King in Hoima, which made her a princess by marriage. Furthermore, she was the Executive Assistant for the Peace Corps in Kenya a while back, but left when her husband was killed. She explained that she was so happy to meet us Peace Corps Volunteers and that we should call her Auntie Jane. Then before we knew it, she left us to our meal.

I quickly travelled back to site on Friday because I had to make it to the Luteete PTC dedication ceremony for the Year 2 students. It was a sort of graduation ceremony for them at the church. The funny thing about ceremonies is that the collective speeches after the mass are about 3x longer than the mass itself. At around 3pm we departed the church for a lunch with sodas, chicken, beef, and g-nut sauce. It struck me that I had been living at site for 9 months, which doesn’t seem that long at all to me right now. I had known this community for almost a whole year, and this would be the last time that I would see many of these students. It was another goodbye mixed in with other feelings.

One of my regrets this past year is that I focused a lot of my efforts and energies into teaching the Year 1 students instead of the Year 2 students. As a result, I didn’t really feel that much of an emotional connection with the Year 2 students as I bid farewell to the. Instead I felt sad that I would be saying goodbye to the Year 1 students until I met them again after the new year.

I also noticed another muzungu here, which was very weird for me to see. After approaching him I discovered that his name is Cameron and thatLuteete Church Inside he was part of New Hope Ministries located in Kasana since 1987. It’s one of the oldest Christian organizations still in existence in Uganda after the Luweero Triangle War.

He attended the ceremony because a few of the PTC students were sponsored by some of the families in the New Hope community. At first I was taken aback by his overtly Christian nature since I had not interacted with other muzungus like that since I left the United States. I told him that the next time I was in Luweero I would stop by the community to say hi and learn a bit more about them before I make any judgments.

It’s actually very interesting to notice how my views concerning missionaries have changed since my time in the Peace Corps. I definitely believe that there are some that do good, especially in the developing world. But I also think that they can be detrimental in some cases. In Uganda the overtly Christian atmosphere (especially concerning the Christian Fundamentalists) has led to local religions being seen as taboo and old-fashioned. Ugandans who go to some of the older local religious shrines still in existence have to do it secretly so that their churches will not find out that they still pay homage to this part of their culture. There is no separation of church and state; even official meetings with government officials usually start with a prayer.

It sways the masses into fervors concerning issues such as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. I can’t even walk through the Taxi Park area without hearing a Ugandan giving a sermon and thumping his or her Bible. Then there is the whole issue of communities depending on the contributions of missionaries in order to survive. This in turn creates a culture of dependency on temporary aid that fosters even more blind belief in whatever faith is trumpeted by the donors.

I’m not against the idea of missionaries, Christian Service trips, or relief volunteer agencies. All I’m saying is that there are just so many factors involved in mission trips and volunteer programs that I can’t judge someone or a group on first impressions. Similar to the Peace Corps’ model of living and learning through immersion, I too will attempt to get to know people like Cameron and his group before just labeling them as “just another missionary group.”

The 50th Anniversary in Kisoro

6/10/14 – 12/10/14

It was one of those weeks away from site where a lot of things happened, but it felt like no time at all. This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps’ presence in Uganda. Technically the Peace Corps has been in Uganda for less than 50 years because it left during Idi Amin’s reign in the 1970’s and then again in the 1990’s. I guess that the 50 years represent the time that has passed since Peace Corps started having volunteers in Uganda back in 1964. Four celebrations were scheduled for this event: Gulu in the north, Kisoro in the southwest, Tororo in the east, and Kampala in the center. I was invited to the celebration in Kisoro, which was also the one that I wanted to go to since I had helped out Virunga Engineering Works in the past and wanted to go see the sites back there again.

6/10/14 – Monday

I woke up at the New City Annex and was picked up by a PC vehicle that brought me to the Peace Corps HQ. I then boarded one of the 16-seat coasters headed to Kisoro. Honestly, travelling in Uganda isn’t too bad if you have your own private driver who doesn’t stop to pick up livestock or cram 2x the legal number of passengers into the vehicle. In the vehicle were a lot of the Ugandan Peace Corps staff, a fellow PCV Julia, and the literacy coordinator Audrey. We made good time and passed through Mbarara and stopped at the Fuelex station in Ntungamo to get some lunch.

I ran into a takisi filled with other PCV’s who were also headed to Kisoro, and had decided to get a takisi together in Fort Portal. Before I knew it, we were passing through Kabale town and headed through the hilly mountain pass that connected Kabale to Kisoro. It still never ceases to amaze me; the setting sun beyond the winding hills and the hairpin turns. I opened the window to get some fresh air. I felt the cool wind breeze by my face almost as if it was an autumn wind. As the sun passed beyond the rim of the hills and the terraced farmland grew dark, we arrived in Kisoro. I got off the coaster and headed to the Golden Monkey guesthouse where I checked in.

I was instantly greeted by PCV’s from my cohort and those from other cohorts whom I was close with.  We all got dinner at the Golden Monkey, which consisted of pizzas, crayfish chowders, stews, curries, and quesadillas. I suppose that the large influx of tourism due to hiking the volcanoes, gorilla trekking, chimp trekking, batwa pygmy cultural experiences (whatever that means), and beautiful trails has led to the creation of guesthouses, restaurants, and groceries that cater to the particular tastes of the muzungu.

It was a long day of travel for everyone, so we all chilled in our own rooms and slept early in preparation for the official celebration tomorrow.

7/10/14 – Tuesday

I woke up early and got my favorite Kisoro breakfast at Traveller’s, which has this breakfast deal where you can get unlimited coffee, tea, cereal, US Ambassador's Speechmilk and your choice of an omelette, pancake, or French toast for only 10,000/=. Honestly that’s a steal right there. I just realized that as a Peace Corps Volunteer one of the aspects of any situation that I talk about is the food of a particular locale. I hung out there in the brisk autumn morning, while I wore my new kitenge hoodie from Peace by Piece. I then hurried back to Golden Monkey in order to prepare for the 50th Anniversary Celebration that was going to take place at Tourist’s Inn. Peace Corps had very recently informed me that I was the Master of Ceremonies and would be giving the introductory speech to kickoff the event. They told me that all I had to include was when Peace Corps was founded, Peace Corps’ story over the past 50 years, background of the southwest region of Uganda, the sustainability of volunteers’ projects, to showcase specific volunteer projects, thank the hosts, and then introduce the US Ambassador and honored guests. Of course there was no stress involved, especially since I was forced to write the speech in less than 1 hour. This is what I produced and then presented at the celebration:

“Welcome Ambassador Scott DeLisi, his wife, Country Director Loucine Hayes, PCV’s, PCV staff, counterparts, supervisors, and our hosts Virunga Engineering Works to the 50th Anniversary Celebration in Kisoro, Uganda.

In the immortal words of the rapper 2Chainz, “I’m different.” We’re all different and it’s the differences among us that make us stronger and allow us to find creative solutions to problems.

Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by the US President John F. Kennedy with 3 core goals in mind:

  1. To provide a service to the host country
  2. To promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served
  3. To promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

Right now we are celebrating this 50th Anniversary in Kisoro, Uganda. Kisoro is 8km from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is also home to the Virunga Volcanoes, and the endangered Mountain Gorillas. There are currently 53 Peace Corps Volunteers in the southwest region of Uganda. They speak Runyoro, Rutoro, Runyankore, Rukiga, and Rufumbira and work in the health, economic development, education, and agribusiness sectors.

So we’ve come together right here in the southwestto celebrate half a century of triumphs. There have been some hiccups along the way, such as when Peace Corps had to leave during the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s. But we always came back.

We tend to focus and showcase our own great victories and successes, and they are important and inspiring. But as a fellow PCV, I’ve since come to realize that it’s the little victories everyday that count:

  • getting my PTC students to read and add
  • lighting my sigiri coals without suffocating from smoke
  • not being squeezed by livestock and large Ugandan women in the takisis
  • getting neighbors to understand me
  • and most importantly, having a normal bowel movement

Open Space BoothsIt’s in finding that balance and change of cultures, worlds, and mentalities that allow us to communicate with one another.

Thus we get to our tagline “50 Years of Friendship”. But friendship, unlike most roads in Uganda, is a 2-way street. It’s the push and pull of a bike loaded with matooke, a give and take of shillings for produce at the local market, an up and down pump at the borehole, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and the sharing of cultures from both ourselves and our Ugandan brothers and sisters.

It is friendship that allows us to fuse western fashion with tradition kitenge fabrics, solidarity that inspires us to empower youth through leadership camps, and kinship that moves us together in the struggle to share our stories.

We tell people all the time that if you give a man some food he will eat for a day. If you plant a tree for him, then he will eat for a lifetime. But if you teach him how to plant trees, he will eat for generations.

So with the boldness of explorers, the resourcefulness of innovators, and the faith of martyrs we trek forward… like Gorillas in the Mist.

I think that P-Square and Akon put it the best in their immortal words, “Chop my money… chop my money… ‘cause I don’t care…” Because more important than leaving a legacy behind is letting people know that there are people in this world who still care.

All protocol observed.”

Needless to say, I was a bit stressed since I didn’t have that much time to rehearse it and there were some important people in the audience. However, people seemed to like the speech and a few PCV’s even told me that it was ballsy of me to say what I said. The ceremony itself was short and sweet. It featured a traditional song and dance, a speech by the US Ambassador, and then a speech by the LC5 chairman of Kisoro. Then there was lunch, an open space booth for PCV projects, and a dance party. I myself bought some ground Omwani coffee from the Kyambura Women’s Coffee Cooperative that apparently was named the “Best Cup of Coffee in Uganda”.

After some dancing, I left to go back to Golden Monkey where I met Max, the supervisor for Virunga Engineering Works. Max is equal parts crazy,Jackson and Bruce hip, intelligent, free, and giving. He has been living in Africa for the past 8 years and now lives at the Golden Monkey. He is an engineer by trade and Virunga Engineering Works is his brainchild. He had conceptualized and came up with the design and implementation of the cookstoves by utilizing the local volcanic rocks that acted as effective heat insulators. The unique thing about Max is that he is white and also the supervisor of the two PCV’s in Kisoro, Jim and Bruce. The counterpart and field project manager, Jackson, is Ugandan and works as a foil to Max. Jackson is more level-headed and better at getting things done after Max comes up with the idea. Jackson has previously lived in Sweden and would be considered a very modern Ugandan with more technological knowledge than the average Peace Corps Volunteer.

So Max and a group of about 6 PCV’s made our way up a nearby hill down a road off of Golden Monkey. We walked along a grassy trail that sloped upwards past stone quarries and sloping farmland. When we got to the top of the hill-ridge we entered a small forest that gave way to a grassy knoll between two large hills. To our left we could see the Virunga Volcanoes and to our right we could see Lake Mutanda. I still feel as if that grassy hill is one of my favorite places in all of Uganda. I find myself hard-pressed to even think of another place that is as natural, local, and cool as that place.

We continued our way down a gently-sloping dirt path that snaked its way down the other side of the hills towards Lake Mutanda. I felt that I passed through several ecosystems on this 2+ hour trek. At first we walked on a dirt road through winding down the side of a large hill that led to villages in the middle of a jungle that in turn led to typical Ugandan villages surrounded by what looked like vineyards.  I turned around at some point and asked one of my companions, “Are we in Napa Valley right now?”

Path to Lake Mutanda

Path to Lake Mutanda

Lake Mutanda Dock

Lake Mutanda Dock

When we arrived at Lake Mutanda we set up our stuff at the dock and then plunged in for a refreshing swim. The water felt so cool and good after such a long hike. Even though all PCV’s are warned about the dangers of Schistosomiasis from swimming in freshwater bodies in Uganda, most of us still do it. I guess that it’s the “live while we’re young” attitude, because if we don’t swim in the lake now then we may regret it later in life. Then again, I may also regret getting Schisto in about 40 years when the snails enter my spinal cord and cause damage to my nervous system.

After swimming, Virunga Engineering Works sent a truck to drive us back to Rafiki Guesthouse and the official dance party. There was some good Rainbow Roadbarbecued food here, enough ketchup for me since I love ketchup, and enough gin to get drunk. My fondest memories from the night involve being told that I usually have this glass box around myself that I use to hide my real self from people, seeing PCV’s who were celebrating their birthdays getting iced*, and dancing to Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. You know that moment when you all know and love a certain song and you’re drunk enough that you’ll just dance all out to it? Well that was our group of PCV’s in the courtyard of Rafiki as we jumped and danced to the beat of Miley Cyrus. It felt pretty epic, and was a fitting end to such an epic day of celebrations.

We then went back to our respective guest houses, chilled for a bit, and then went to bed.

8/10/14 – Wednesday

Today was much more low-key than the day before. I got breakfast at Traveller’s and then joined a group of PCV’s to do some morning yoga on the top of the hill between the volcanoes and the lake. It felt epic going through the Vinyasa with our certified PCV Yogi, Amanda. The reflection of the day was “I am fearless and immovable.” And on the edge of the hill overlooking the villages and lake below I felt very content. If I was feeling out of balance a month ago, then I felt very in-balance during this week. Life felt good.

Yoga on the HillWe finished our yoga as the rain started to fall. In the early afternoon, trucks came to pick us up for a barbecue on the shores of Lake Mutanda. There was this wall-less building with tables and a thatched roof where we hung out and ate some aged Gouda cheese and stroop waffles from Amsterdam that PCV Elmy brought back with her from her recent vacation. At one point we were all asked to walk up to this landing that overlooked the lake for a surprise. When we walk up there, Jim and Bruce reveal a washbasin filled with Smirnoff Ice. We were all iced! About 30+ PCV’s all knelt down on one knee in unison to chug our bottles. Once again, another epic moment that also showcases how PCV’s tend to recycle the trends of the past 5 years.

I wandered around the shores of the lake and shared some stories with some of the newer PCV’s. I even got to hear some new stories from some of the PCV’s from my own cohort, including this hilarious one involving Las Vegas, day-drinking, a pool, and being called your friend’s aunt because she drunkenly yelled “Aunt Mandy” as she was being dragged out of the pool by medics.

I stopped with some other PCV’s at Tourists, because I heard that there was a sauna there. I got to then sweat off my toxins in both a dry and a steamy sauna, which still blows my mind whenever I see them in Uganda. I felt so relaxed, especially with the eucalyptus leaves draped over the heaters in both rooms.

If yesterday was the party and adventure day, then today was the chill and relaxing day.

9/10/14 – Thursday

I started today once again at Traveller’s for breakfast with a bacon and cheese pancake which was an improvement from the breakfast that I had there yesterday. We then headed back to Golden Monkey Guesthouse. There was some discussion about travelling to see the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Eventually the group split up with some people going back to Lake Mutanda and another group wandering around Kisoro town. I was a part of this latter group and walked eastwards towards the market area of Kisoro, after realizing that my laptop wouldn’t register any charge. My new laptop doesn’t hold charge for any substantial amount of time, and even though it was plugged in it wouldn’t register that it was plugged in. I was pissed off because this would be the second laptop that broke with me in-country. I just decided to clear my mind and explore Kisoro for a bit.

I stopped by a Beekeeping Cooperative, the produce stands, and finally found what I was looking for: these tote bags made out of multi-colored strands of woven plastic that a lot of the local women use to transport produce to and from the markets. The woven blue, red, white, black, yellow, and green strands stand out in contrast with the natural environment and typical brown-woven baskets.

I returned back to the Coffee Pot and got the amazing bacon wrap with lettuce salad. It tasted incredible; with a sweet vinaigrette dressing and huge chunks of crispy bacon in a fresh tortilla. I was impressed at how delicious the whole meal was. I mean it was as if I was eating a wrap at a local café back in the United States. Back at the Golden Monkey I was still upset due to my broken laptop. Fortunately, I was able to consult supervisor Max who was able to offer his bedroom (that also doubled as an engineering workroom) in order to troubleshoot my laptop. Max suggested that I remove and then re-insert the battery of my laptop, so I did it and it worked. I felt so relieved that I could use my laptop again, because I was imagining that I would need to go without one again for an extended period of time. The rest of the afternoon was spent doing some much-needed napping.

When the group got back from the lake, we coordinated dinner at Jim’s house. We picked up the ingredients to make a Bolognese sauce for pasta. Then we arrived at his house which has two stories and is gorgeous. It was nicer than most college apartments that I’ve seen with a marble countertop, couches, and spacious rooms. We quickly prepared the Bolognese sauce using my favorite recipe that I saw during an Anne Burrell Food Network show. We also had a dessert of beer bread that we baked on top of the sigiri using a portable Coleman Oven. I felt like I was back in college as we just hung out in different areas of the apartment.

VirungaSome people were playing a game called Salad Bowl where each participant had to write down 5 different words on separate pieces of paper and then place them in a bowl in the middle of the table. The participants were split into two teams and during one’s turn he or she had to pick a piece of paper out of the hat and describe it to her team in order to get them to guess it. If successful, the player gets to pick up another piece of paper from the hat and continue until the 1 minute of allotted time is up. The number of correct guesses by the player’s team is the same number of points that that team gets for that turn. The teams each take turns allowing a representative to go and describe as many words as he or she can for the 1 minute of time. After all the words are used up from the bowl, they are placed back inside and the teams start the whole game again, this time with the player only being allowed to say one word to describe the word on the piece of paper. The third round involves charades.

It was a fitting end and night to being in Kisoro. It was a lot of good friends and people all gathered together in a communal atmosphere just to hang out and feel somehow normal. Even now I can’t believe that I’ve been here since Monday. Kisoro feels very different than the other regions of Uganda that I have visited. It’s much cooler here due to the higher elevation, and the background of the town itself is comprised of towering mountains, hills, and volcanoes shrouded in both mists and clouds. Another interesting thing that I noticed was that a lot of the locals here kept saying, “Give me money!” almost as if it was a greeting. I surmised that since there were a lot of muzungus who passed through here that they were used to be given handouts more-so than the locals in a lot of our own villages.

I don’t know if I can even put into words just how epic it felt to feel the breeze blowing through my entire being as I gazed upon Mount Muhuvura and Lake Mutanda again. Or if I could ever capture that feeling of adventure as I trekked on the winding pathways from the hill through terraced farms and dirt roads that stretched to the banks of the lake.

10/10/14 – Friday

Today was the travel day. I was hitching a ride with Bruce, Jackson, and some Virunga Engineering Works staff members to install two stoves at Ravi’s site in Butiiti in Kyenjojo. The ride there was an adventure in itself

Journal Entry:

Transporting the Virunga Cookstoves“the feeling of cool wind as I was perched on the metal frame of the truck bed, mist, clouds, fresh airs, and breezes”

I sat in the back of a truck bed and would stand up, supported by a welded metal frame that encompassed the entirety of the bed. This allowed me to get some amazing shots of the winding roads from Kisoro to Kabale. We continued past Kabale to Ntungamo where we shot northwards through stone quarries into Busheny and into Kasese where we drove through the outskirts of Queen Elizabeth National Park. We stopped in Fort Portal for dinner at the Duchess, which is said to have the best pizza in Uganda. I would have to agree with this statement. As we left Fort Portal going east, we passed by tea plantations which were covered by a sprawling fog made eerie by the pale moonlight. I remember closing my eyes and inhaling the smell of cool, earthy pine for just a split second and imagine that I was back in New England on one of my autumn bike adventures. Eventually we arrived at St. Augustine’s Butiiti PTC and passed out from more than 12 hours of travel time.

11/10/14 – Saturday

This was the working day. Bruce, Ravi, and the VEW staff mobilized the PTC principal and cooking staff to begin the process of installing the new Installing the Cookstovesstoves. The problem was that the new stoves were supposed to be placed where the old cement stoves were. So the local carpenter came by and doled out sledgehammers and pickaxes for us to break away the old cement/brick stoves. The stoves were installed in the cooking area and the staff started instructing the cooking staff the most effective way to cut and store the firewood in order to maximize the usage of the new cookstoves. I made sure to document the installation as best as I could and even made a promotional video.

The PTC provided a vehicle for us to go to Fort Portal to buy some groceries for dinner. I got the food necessary to make Filipino Adobo and a simple Pancit for dinner. I had never really done anything in Fort Portal other than eat at the Duchess. It’s a beautiful town that has an almost American downtown layout of the shops. I filmed Ravi saying a few lines in Rutoro for my Oh the Places You’ll Go project. We headed back to the PTC as it got dark, and made some dinner. The noodles for the Pancit didn’t turn out the way I wanted them, but the flavor was still there and even the Ugandan VEW staff enjoyed it.

12/10/14 – Sunday

They say Sunday is a day of rest, but for me it’s usually a day of travelling. I left Butiiti in the morning and in Mukunyu, caught a takisi headed for Kampala. I slept for most of the ride and was eager to return home. Since I was coming from the west, I got off at the bypass outside Kampala and boarded a connecting takisi headed to Bwaise where I found a takisi going to Wobulenzi. This method was much more convenient, faster, and cheaper than first getting dropped off at the Taxi Park and then finding a takisi headed all the way to Wobulenzi.

I got back to Wobulenzi, did my normal market shopping, and then biked back to Luteete. I got back and unloaded all of my bags at home. Surprisingly, the electricity was on early today and I turned my laptop on. Instead of marathoning tv shows on my external hard drive, I decided to walk and talk with my neighbors. One of the girls asked me if I knew how to split firewood. I responded that I didn’t and she proceeded to show me how. I was laughably bad; bad enough that I gained an audience of village children who were pointing at my mistakes and joking about my bad form.

I too thought that it was hilarious. It wasn’t lost on me that I give them such a hard time when they have trouble understanding technology or dealing with something foreign to them that I deserved being mocked for what is considered a basic skill here. I was really bad. It got to the point where I completely missed the log at one point. Fortunately, my neighbor Godfrey showed me the correct way to hold and swing the axe. After a few swings I was able to split the log with a moderate amount of effort. It felt so good to cut wood, since I had never really done it before.

Luteete Sunset Maybe it’s something to do with being a guy, but I feel like splitting wood is a fun chore. I get some instant gratification from swinging the axe at a hunk of dead tree, and chop it into smaller pieces that the womenfolk can use to cook. I’m kidding of course about that last part, but still it was very gratifying to cut wood the old-fashioned way. I thanked my neighbors and informed them that they should let me know the next time they will cut firewood.

Before I knew it the week was already over. I had travelled hundreds of kilometers, cooked many dishes, and interacted with a multitude of people in a variety of situations and locations. It gets to the point where I feel that I live more in a week here than I could ever hope to live in a month back in the United States. I’m actually struggling to find a way to poignantly end this blog post, but I believe that in this case it’s almost impossible to succinctly summarize what I experienced in the past week. Once again there are no words that can capture these experiences. Simply put, the adventure continues.

Another Chance

Another Chance

9/7/14

 

I honestly think that this month of August has been a blur. I almost feel as if my friends and family members wouldn’t believe it if I shared it. A lot of things happened all at the same time to the point where I just want to sleep for a few weeks and just rest without doing anything just so that I could process what has happened in the past three weeks. I think it’s that leaving site for long periods of time takes a toll on you that you can’t even begin to fathom until you’ve been away from it for so long. Right now I’m in Entebbe slightly hungover and out of it. I think that it’s been a mixture of travelling for so long in the throngs of madding crowds, public transportation in general, night buses, the arctic tundra that is the southwest region, not being able to cook for myself, getting a sinus infection, spending a night with a PCV’s cat (which I’m allergic to), not having a usable laptop since mine broke during a coffee camp, drinking and celebrating with PCV’s in different regions especially with a recently engaged PCV couple, attending an all PCV Uganda conference, geeking out on mefloquine, and just not understanding life or what I stand for at the moment. So this blog post will a sort of catharsis for me in order to get my chaotic thoughts down in word form in order to process my turbulent emotions.

 

Coffee Camp, Kasese August 18 – 23

I was originally asked by some Peace Corps staff members to help out with filming a promotional video for a Coffee Camp that would be held in Kasese to the far west of Uganda. The main goal of Coffee Camp was to empower the local youth in the Kasese region to utilize coffee as a financial means to develop themselves and attain their goals. I was driven in a Peace Corps vehicle from Kampala to Kasese. I travelled along with the Peace Corps Uganda Country Director, Loucine, and one of the other PCV’s, Jim from Kisoro, who had recently gotten engaged during one of the Peace Corps camps last week. We passed through Fort Portal and stopped to drink some coffee and eat some of the best pizza that I’ve eaten in country at the Duchess restaurant.

We continued on our way to the Kasese district which was absolutely gorgeous. As we transitioned from the central regions to the west the landscape changed from farms of matooke to open fields and the rolling foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. Our final destination was Sarah Castagnola’s site in the Kyarumba village deeper in the depths of the Rwenzori foothills. We turned off of the main Kampala-Fort Portal road and instantaneously the tarmac gave way to a potholed dirt road. Before we knew it we were winding our way down a single-lane dirt road that wound its way through the verdant hillsides of Kasese. Everywhere I looked there were looming hills infinitely undulating into the horizon. There were hairpin turns at almost every single point, and our driver had to honk the horn before turning so that incoming boda bodas and cars would know to slow down in order to avoid a collision.

DSC_0003

Kasese Paved Road

Stone Riverbad Road

Stone Riverbad Road

As we drove deeper into the inroads of the foothills the dirt road disappeared completely and became a dry riverbed of stones. A lot of the pathways in this region resulted from the always-evolving pathways of the streams in this area. The pathways always change due to farming, erosion, rainy season, and various other development factors in the region. So the ride into Kyarumba was bumpy, and after about 45 minutes of driving through winding roads and riverbed stones we met up with Sarah Castagnola at the Mutanywana Secondary School where the Coffee Camp was taking place.

I couldn’t believe my luck in being able to attend this gorgeous and unique camp dedicated to empowering youth in this region through the medium of coffee. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon to see 12 year olds blackout drunk on the village streets at night or 13 year old girls carrying their babies to school. It is because of this reason that Sarah along with the the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative decided to put on this camp. Unlike most Peace Corps camps such as BUILD and GLOW, the Kasese Coffee Camp was primarily Ugandan-run by the employees of the Bukonzo Joint Coffee Cooperative. The desire to empower the local youth in this region was so great that Bukonzo Joint provided 50% of the camp funding as opposed to the minimal amount of 25% needed for a Peace Corps grant to be approved.

Kyarumba

Kyarumba

This camp also taught the local youth entrepreneurial skills critical to running a business (not necessarily agricultural in nature), smartly dealing with finances, developing leadership skills, and seeing coffee as a gift. It felt good to see the Ugandans in this area really invested in their youth. This camp was all for them, and my job was to film videos documenting what the camp was about and the experiences of the students, staff members, and camp facilitators.

There wasn’t a single angle where the view wasn’t amazing and awe-inspiring. Even wild Arabica coffee plants were growing on the pathways to the pit latrines. In the background of the school I could see mountains towering in the distance with clouds peeking behind their shadows, and even the school campus has gigantic boulders shaping the natural shape of the school campus. As per usual, there was a tea break between every major meal; however, locally roasted and brewed coffee was served in lieu of tea. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of drinking the rich flavor of the coffee that was served during each coffee break along with seeing the gorgeous view of the surrounding environment.

Wild Coffee Plant

Wild Coffee Plant

I was also able to see the entirety of the coffee value chain from “crop to cup”. We saw how the coffee saplings were planted in nurseries, transferred to coffee farms, had their red coffee berries picked, sorted by grade at one of the many washing stations, fermented, hulled, dried, and then either locally roasted and sold or shipped to high-end coffee shops and distributors. As an economic development PCV, Sarah explained to us some of the challenges of working with the small Bukonzo Joint Cooperative. For example, some of the larger coffee companies do bait-and-switch tactics in order to get coffee farmers to quickly produce low grade coffee for seemingly larger amounts of money than Bukonzo Joint can pay; however, in the end the farmers end up losing out on a sustainable opportunity to make money for themselves in the long run as well as being duped into producing sub-standard coffee for less money than they were promised.

Coffee Nursery

Coffee Nursery

Sorting Coffee Cherries

Sorting Coffee Cherries

Of course, no Peace Corps camp is complete without sessions concerning HIV/AIDS, financial management, and in this instance, creative ways to use coffee other than for drinking (soaps, candles, exfoliating face masks). Another reason why local Ugandans ran this camp was that most of the youth only spoke the local language of Kasese, Lukonzo, and the English that they did know was very limited. This led to very funny misunderstandings such as most of the campers assuming that I actually had HIV/AIDS during a skit where I pretended to be someone who had it.

We also brought the campers to Queen Elizabeth National Park which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though many of the youth lived within one hour of this tourist park, most of them never even knew that this existed or that eco-tourism is another form of employment. We woke up before the crack of dawn and drove from Kyarumba to the park where a small herd of elephants blocked our path on the dirt road and baboons stole packed bananas from our hands. We took a ferry ride on Lake Albert and it felt like some sort of surreal safari as Wilder beasts chilled in the water by the banks and hippopotamuses swam next to the ferry. The main purpose of the ride was to demonstrate that many people saw Kasese as this beautiful region filled with a multitude of wildlife, flora, and fauna that visitors would pay to see and explore if given the chance and opportunity.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Queen Elizabeth National Park

When the youth were asked what coffee meant to them, they responded with varying answers ranging from money, wealth, opportunity, and normalcy. This community was able to transform coffee into electricity and bridges, stemming from the proceeds that the community made selling coffee in the past few years. Coffee literally becomes a lifeblood of the Bakonza people. It is the smell of the good earth upon which they live on and on which they hope to thrive on. When one of the campers was talking with our PC Country Director and asked what coffee smelled like to him, he answered, “It smells like life.”

So Coffee Camp was amazing and gorgeous, but of course like life I had some ups and downs. I ended up having my laptop break during the middle of the camp and got another surprise bout of Giardia on the last day. I don’t know how either of those mishaps occurred, but I know that they both sucked. My laptop refuses to turn on once I turn on the power button even though I have it plugged in and the lights shows that it’s charging. That was a lost cause that devastated me especially since I am utilized as a media guy in Peace Corps. Fortunately, I always keep spare Tinidazole in my camera bag which I took after consulting with PCMO who told me that I may possibly have a somehow drug-resistant form of Giardia since it keeps popping up every 2 months or so.

We were driven back to Kampala in a Peace Corps vehicle which was so nice compared to any other form of public transportation that I could have taken. I check into the Annex in Kampala and reconvene with some other PCV’s who had just finished the Girl Tech Camp in Shimoni Core PTC. A lot of PCV’s were preemptively congregating in Kampala since the next few days were the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference. Since I had taken Giardia medicine earlier that morning, I couldn’t eat dairy or drink alcohol for the next 24 hours. A bunch of the PCV’s wanted to go out, and I obliged although I went without drinking. At some point in the night, we ended up at this club called Iguana near Acacia Mall that was playing EDM and dubstep which was super dope. We get back to our beds at 6am and sleep.

 

All Volunteer Conference, Lweza, August 24 – 28

I wake up from my very restful nap and get ready for All Volunteer Conference. As the merchandise guy for Peer Support Network, I was in charge of bringing over 200 t-shirts to the Lweza Training and Conference Center from Kampala. It was a shit show of a day, since the guy who makes and screen prints the t-shirts gave me the wrong orders and missed out on providing me with the correct t-shirt sizes. We remedied the problem, and I carried the t-shirts in a taped plastic bag on my head like a village woman through the main streets of Kampala until I found a car that would drive me to the training center. There was air conditioning in the car, which was a big deal.

I was just so ecstatic and exhausted to hang out with all the volunteers. Technically the conference would have started on the 25th, but PCV’s working on different committees and projects were given special permission to arrive a day earlier.

On the morning of the 25th PCV’s started to trickle in. There was a 50th Anniversary meeting concerning the logistics behind the Peace Corps Uganda 50th Anniversary Celebrations that would be occurring throughout the country in order to commemorate how long Peace Corps has been in Uganda. There will be regional events showcasing the great work that PCV’s do as well as the “50 Years of Friendship” between PCV’s and Ugandans. The day was also hectic with film crews running around filming local language tongue twisters, setting up planning areas for PSN, and just general coordinating.

That night was a great night, because over 150+ of us PCV’s were gathered in the large conference hall as the Peace Corps Uganda All Volunteer Conference Bonfirelaunch ceremony began. It was SNL themed with skits making fun of not knowing if it was, is, or will be rainy season, sharing shoutouts to the successes of the different cohorts and groups, singing the legendary and taboo song “Three Guys on a Boda”, and explaining the format of the All Volunteer Conference. The interesting thing about this conference is that unlike other PC workshops, this conference is primarily PCV-run. The concept that had successfully worked last year was open space, and it was being brought to this conference too. The idea of open space is that PCV’s can lead whatever session they want at a certain, designated time during the week so that there are several sessions all going on at the same time in different areas throughout the training center that other PCV’s could attend if they so desired. The sessions ranged from discussing revisions to the boda boda policy, hair braiding, new camp ideas, creative facilitation, incorporating sing-alongs in primary school, swing dancing, video project ideas, Ugandan travel guides, and so much more.

What I loved about this conference was the potential to do as much or as little as you wanted depending on your current demeanor and mood. After the launch ceremony, a giant bonfire was lit and the PCV’s started to mingle. My extroverted self loved seeing the mingling of the different groups and cohorts. I remember sharing some heart-to-heart conversations with some other PCV’s about being happy knowing that we’re living the life that we wanted to live and making our service count. There’s something just so Peace Corps about bonfires and hearing someone play a Sublime song on a guitar as another PCV smokes out of his homemade corn-cob pipe as shots of whiskey are passed around.

All Vol VolleyballThe next day was stressful. I attended a PSN group meeting, did some yoga, sold shirts for PSN during lunchtime, participated in the fiasco that was the 50th Anniversary Group Picture and rap song (yes, rap song), leading a session on the local language “Oh the Places You’ll Go” video project, filming scenes and interviews for a safety and security bystander intervention video, playing volleyball, and stressing out that night in frustration over not being able to use a Macbook that keeps crashing with the FinalCut Pro X video editing software. I was just so stressed by the end of the day because I knew that I had so many things on my plate and so many other things that I wanted to do and no laptop to accomplish any of them. All I just wanted to do was finish editing the video and play some Age of Empires II with my friends while I still had the chance to play with them. However, as one of my best PCV friends reminded me “This too shall pass, and tomorrow you’ll feel better.”

The next morning was just one of those mornings when I just didn’t want to wake up. If I could have slept for a few more days I would have done so. However, I rallied myself together to face the day and things did get better. I finished editing the video and discovered that another PCV had an extra laptop that I could buy off of him at a decent price. The day was busy as usual, and before I knew it night had come and it was time for Peace Corps Prom. Most of the PCV’s bought or had a “prom outfit” made for this night. We all danced the night away and ended up continuing the party at Bubbles Express down the road. Honestly, this night was such a reversal from the previous night. It was almost as if everything that had gone wrong or felt wrong from the day before had reversed to become such an amazing day and night. Peace Corps Prom ended on a very high note and I got back to bed around 5am, which incidentally was also around the same time my Lweza dorm mate got back.

 

Rwanda Trip, Kampala to Kigali, August 28 –  31

It almost seemed that it was one adventure after another. Everyone is trying to leave Lweza as soon as possible, especially me since I was planning to go to Rwanda for a two-day vacation that night. I was slated to go with three other PCV’s, Rachel B, Rachel C, and Steve. The funny thing was that we were so busy with All Volunteer Conference activities that we didn’t really plan for Rwanda. So we started by asking people in the conference center parking lot how to get to Rwanda. After about an hour of asking questions and with the input of 6 different PCV’s we pieced together that we needed to take one of the bigger night bus companies such as GaaGaa Bus Company, buy a 40,000/= each ticket for a bus that leaves Kampala at 6pm, and then arrive at the GaaGaa bus park near City Center in Kampala by 5:30pm.

Somehow all four of us get on the bus despite the torrential downpour and exhaustion post All Volunteer Conference, and make our way to Kigali, Rwanda. The GaaGaa night bus was so nice because there was actually room to move my legs and there weren’t any livestock on the bus. We reach the Uganda-Rwanda border around 2am and it’s frigid outside. We try to check in through the border control, and are told that we’ve been living illegally in the country. So from the get-go we’re almost arrested/deported until we explain to the border control manager that we actually have legitimate visas in our Peace Corps passports that allow us to live in Uganda.

Once we pass through, we are surrounded by random men who try to get us to exchange our dollars into Rwandan francs. From what we were told from our GaaGaa Busfellow PCV’s earlier that day, it’s much better to exchange the dollars into francs at the border because you get a better exchange rate rather than finding a place in Kigali. One of the guys attempts to give us a bad exchange rate, but is then beaten away by this chubby Ugandan man in camouflage gear who was wielding a stick. I called him stick guy. So I then told all of the exchange rate guys to line up and one-by-one tell me their exchange rates. I then asked stick guy to verify who was the most trustworthy exchanger, and we exchanged our dollars into francs right then and there (we did $1 = 690 Rwandan Francs).

We continue on the buses to Kigali where we continue to sleep inside the bus until 7am. We then make our way to the Discover Hostel which actually feels like a legitimate European hostel. What struck me the most about Kigali was how clean and put-together it was. It almost seemed like it was this small, European town with roads devoid of any potholes and boda boda drivers who wore helmets and actually stopped for streetlights and traffic.

Meze FreshBy this point it’s already the 29th so we check into the hostel, get our bearings, shower, and eat a delicious breakfast of Rwandan coffee and French croissants at La Brioche Café. We finish eating and then instantly make our way to Meze Fresh, which is exactly like a Chipotle. Oh my God it was amazing and worth the entire trip over to Rwanda. I had pulled pork with cheese, salsas, lettuce, and more sauces than my taste buds could handle along with a corona and lime. I literally could not believe what I was eating.

After lunch, we made our way to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial Museum showcasing the history of the Tutsi genocide by the Hutus. The museum was extremely well-done, and really set the historical and emotional stage behind how and why the genocide occurred. It also didn’t shy away from the horrible details behind the genocide. The most emotionally charged part of the exhibit was called L’Avenir Perdu (The Lost Future) which was showed large pictures of smiling children with plaques detailing their names, ages, favorite food, favorite pastime, last words, and the exact way they were killed.

Journal Entry:

“I didn’t expect the emotional response that I would get from this exhibit. So many of them remind me of the children whom I teach in my villages and schools. I literally started to tear up as I entered this exhibit.”

Quote from the Museum:Kigali Memorial Gardens

“Genocide is likely to occur again

Learning about it is the first step to understanding it.

Understanding I is imperative to respond to it.

Responding to it is essential to save lives.

Otherwise ‘Never Again’ will remain ‘Again and Again…’”

I was a wreck within seconds of entering this part of the museum.

I would see these beautiful smiling faces of toddlers who reminded me of beautiful children in my village in Luteete.

Example:

Name: Sarah

Age: 7

Favorite Food: Passionfruit and Chips

Favorite Past-time: Playing with grandmother

Last Words: “Will we be okay?”

Method of Death: Hacked apart by machete

I’ve never been hit so hard by an exhibit or museum like this before. And it was interesting noting the difference in atmosphere in Rwanda now as opposed to two decades ago. From what I heard and read about it almost seems as if there is a lot of things hidden under the surface in Rwanda. I honestly don’t know any specifics, but it just felt weird knowing that there are still many people living in Rwanda who are living in the midst of others who committed a genocide against their people.

After we finished going through the museum, we needed some time to decompress so we headed to Hotel des Milles Collines which was the famous hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. We chilled by the pool area and drank some good Rwandan beer, Primus and Mutzig. We also realized that we had been incorrectly saying thank you in Kinyarwanda. Instead of saying morikoze (thank you), we had been saying irakonje, which means cold. This explained some of the weird looks that we were getting from the men and women whom we encountered in Kigali.

The rest of our stay in Kigali involved dancing at the Sundowner Bar/Club, eating three more times at Meze Fresh, drinking more amazing coffee at BourbonHotel des Milles Collines Café, checking out Kimironco Craft Market, talking with the locals about the disappearance of the French language in Rwanda, realizing that it’s alright to say the word gay in Rwanda but not so much Tutsi or Hutu, seeing the Peace Corps Rwanda HQ, meeting up with other Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers at Guma Guma (think Rwanda’s American Idol) in Amahoro National Stadium, having someone drunkenly sleepwalk into the hostel room filled with UN workers and sleep in one of their beds, being told by one of the Peace Corps Rwanda Volunteers that you are not welcome there, and experiencing a hookup experience straight from a sitcom where said person couldn’t get back to the hostel until later because it was the last Sunday of the month which meant that everything (including the streets) were closed and shut down until 12pm for cleaning day, Umuganda.

Henceforth this is why the poloroid picture of our Rwandan group at Guma Guma is titled “The Night of Broken Friendships”. Other than some of the misunderstandings, it was very interesting getting to meet our Peace Corps Rwanda brethren. A lot of them told us that Kigali was very boring and that they saw Kampala as being much more lively and full of culture. On the other hand, we expressed to them how excited we were to eat burritos and walk in a city where we didn’t have to continuously look at our feet the whole time to avoid potholes. To be fair, there is a lot more to do in Uganda simply because it’s a bigger country and due to the rich diversity in landscape, activities, and never knowing what’s going to happen.

Guma Guma: The Night of Broken Friendships

Guma Guma: The Night of Broken Friendships

Kisoro and Virunga, Kisoro, August 31 – September 2

The Rwanda group parted ways the morning of the 31st, with Rachel B and I heading back to Uganda to Kisoro. We took a coaster from the Kigali bus park to Musanze/Ruhengeri. The ride there was absolutely glorious as we passed through forested mountain passes and fields of traditional farm vegetables whose leaves were undulating in the wind. Musanze reminded me of this small, grid town with infrastructure a little bit better than Uganda’s. We ate at this French Café called La Pallotte which had amazing meatballs and croissants. We then took a takisi to Cyanika where we crossed back over the border into Uganda without much effort at all. Then we took a private hire to Rafiki Guest House in Kisoro where we met with the PCV Jim whom I hung out with in Kasese for Coffee Camp. He was also the PCV who had recently gotten engaged at the last Peace Corps Camp in Mbale.

Honestly, it just felt so good to be back in Uganda with PCV’s who unconditionally loved us and would take care of us. I was so happy to cook in his guest house room and eat some cauliflower and rice with a curried, peanut soy sauce. I also got to use the internet which was absolutely fantastic for me since I had been internet free for quite some time due to my broken laptop.

We stopped by Kisoro because I was helping Jim out with the basics of filming a promotional video for his organization, Virunga Engineering Works, which Kisoro Hillprimarily creates and supplies fuel efficient cookstoves for schools throughout Uganda. Virunga is named after one of the volcanoes that is a defining feature of Kisoro’s skyline. The PCV’s who are in Kisoro now are Jim who is about to COS and Bruce who just started his Peace Corps service. The coolest part about their region is that they are said to have the most beautiful site in all of Peace Corps Uganda. After having breakfast at one of the tourist lodges in the area, we worked on some footage of the Virunga workshop and cookstoves and some interviews with Bruce and his Ugandan counterpart. I thought that Kisoro was a beautiful town, but I was blown away by the majesty of the natural land formations when I climbed the small Nyamirima Hill which gave me the million shilling view of Lake Mutanda to one side of the horizon and the Virunga volcano shrouded in clouds to the other side of the horizon. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes as the wind whipped around me.

It was weird knowing that this was just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and that some people would never be able to appreciate the beauty of this area or see it. It was fitting that Jim worked as a professional photographer before he did Peace Corps and that he was placed in the most beautiful site in Uganda. We then had cheeseburgers for lunch at the artsy Mucha restaurant run by a Hungarian lady, and then filmed a few market day scenes of the women carrying their home-woven baskets atop their heads before heading back to make a Tikka Masala dinner complete with whiskey.

In the midst of all this, one of my old middle school teachers, Miss Goode, friend requested me on Facebook. Miss Goode taught me 6th and 7th grade science and mathematics at Sacred Heart School of Glyndon. Out of all the teachers in my life, I can honestly say that she was one of those teachers who had made the biggest impact. She made me fall in love with math and science and know that I could not only excel in those subjects but also apply them in a way that kept me wanting to learn more. I had been emailing her on her Yahoo email account for quite some time because almost everyone had lost contact with her, but still remembered her.

In her message she told me how my email last year emotionally resounded in her and helped reinforce the notion that her college degree and teaching was not a waste of time. She shared that while she had inspired us all the way back then, it was now we who are inspiring her now as she reads and sees our accomplishments and adventures in fields far away from Glyndon, Maryland.

Journal Entry:

“What an adventure it’s been, I don’t even understand it. So many faces and emotions that it’s ridiculous to even understand what’s going on. But today wasBunyonyi Boat a particularly glorious day.”

On the morning of the 2nd Jim and Bruce’s organization drove us through the mountain pass roads connecting Kisoro and Kabale. Once again we experienced hairpin turns in the pouring rain, and made our way to Kabale where we picked up two other PCV’s, Amanda and Matt. We were dropped off by the pier of Lake Bunyonyi because we wanted to get some footage of the Lake Bunyonyi Secondary School where a Virunga Engineering Works cookstoves was installed a few months ago. The school was located on the largest island on Lake Bunyonyi and used to be the site of a PCV who had recently ET’d (early terminated).

It felt weird being back in Kabale so soon after I had just chilled there right before Coffee Camp. But it was nice to be there in the presence of good company and friends. Instead of taking the night bus back to Kampala that night, Rachel B and I stayed with Amanda and Matt at Amanda’s apartment in Kabale with their cat. We made burgers and drank red wine, which coupled with my ongoing sinus infection and cat allergies made me swell and clog up worse than most plumbing problems in Uganda.

Back Home, Luteete, September 3-5

I finally had the chance to breathe again in the cool Kabale air on the morning of September 3rd. It was a rough bus ride back to Kampala simply because I was still swollen from hanging out with red wine and a non-hypo-allergenic cat. I just had a headache, was tired, and just ready to get back to my site. I get to Kampala, eat a quick lunch at Brood, leave my laptop with an Indian man who is good with repairing electronics near a Shoprite on Entebbe Road, and then finally made it back to my site.

It felt so good to get back to site; I felt like I’d been away for so long. I just didn’t feel normal not being back at my house and cooking for myself. I spent all day of the 4th lesson planning, weeding my courtyard, buying market produce, doing laundry, and just playing with the village children. I was just so content and felt as if I was truly back at home and normal.

Before I knew it, I was already leaving site in order to get to Entebbe for the Central Welcome Weekend. To be honest, I never realized how busy I could actually be in the Peace Corps. I never imagined that I would ever be utilized for media work, especially since I consider myself just an amateur. It’s been a crazy adventure thus far, and even as I typed this entire blog post in one of the dorm rooms here at Backpacker’s Entebbe I still feel a bit off. It’s a mixture of stress, exhaustion, a hangover, and general anxiety from being separated from my site for an extended period of time. I felt so out of it earlier today, the 6th, and felt almost as if there was this immense weight of life, tasks, and stresses to accomplish. There was actually a point today when I felt that I couldn’t feel happy, but I still knew deep down inside of me that this too would pass.

And in the large scheme of things I mainly came to this event in order to support the new PCV’s who came to this event. I wanted them to feel welcomed and know that there are the older PCV’s who care and to know that in all things the cycle continues from one PCV to another.

From these experiences in this blog post, I think that what I took from my experiences was that everyone deserves another chance.