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letters from near and far, rwanda

Cannonballing into Another Life

August 16, 2018 • By

I’ve been back for two days, and I haven’t had any epiphanies about the significance of How I Spent My Summer Vacation. I had hoped to think more about the trip on the 37-hour return journey home, but I watched Isle of Dogs, Early Man, and slept. I had hoped to think about how to condense the trip into a pithy sentence, so when people ask, “How was it?” I would have refined insight into 60 days abroad, but before I knew it, I was at a wedding surrounded by friends asking, “How was it?” and I stammered out a not-so-thoughtful response.

It feels like I cannonballed into another life. Rather than dipping my toes one at a time into the waters of a different industry, city, culture, or family, I flopped bellyfirst into helping develop a tour company in East Africa during the day, while falling into the routines of two families in the evenings.

I look through the photos. Here we all are together. Last-minute photos from the car full of guys escorting me to the airport. Matching kitenge-accented blazers in the lounge. Peeling bananas to make banana beer. A smiling happy family photo from the back seat of a Land Cruiser.

I wake up to video calls at 5 in the morning. They forget about the time difference; they just want to talk, to show me the office or the outfit they’re wearing.

“When are you coming back?

I set out for Rwanda with openness and without a checklist. Sometimes when I travel I give myself a list of books to read, or things to see, or places to run. Before this trip, I imagined a daily schedule that would include baking in the morning and marketing in the afternoon, but that went by the wayside when I realized how I might actually be helpful for the hotel and their new project, versus my own self-centered ideals of what I wanted to get out of my summer. With all that, it is difficult to quantify the time I spent there because there is no real baseline, but is it really that important to? Do I need to know the distance for every run I’ve been on, or is it okay to leave the running watch at home once in a while?

What I set out for — to live in another city, to play around with languages, to work with interesting and interested people — I got to do, and even though the specifics are different than I imagined, that I was able to be in those environments at all is something I am grateful for, appreciative of, and I’m realizing that hanging onto the feelings of gratitude and appreciation, rather than forcing some personal excavation in search of some vague deeper truth might just be the best approach.

“When are you coming

Back”

Since I’ve been back, I’ve run and run errands, hiked and hung out. The rhythms I escaped by living in a different city waited for me to come back; it is easy to fall back into the slipstream of regular life. Dinners are arranged for the weeks and weekends to come. I walked to get my car from the parking garage at work, and grabbed an ice cream cone on the way, paying more for it than I paid for most dinners over the last two months. People smiled at me as I walked with my ice cream cone. My car’s battery died, and I called AAA and within 20 minutes a technician had arrived and everything was back to normal.

Everything is back to normal. Ice cream and car batteries and dinners and parking garages and abundant data plans and paved roads and neighborhood horses.

“U told him u coming next year in june?”

I spent the summer launching a tour company instead of a television show. In Rwanda, it’s a six-day workweek. When you live at the hotel you work at, there isn’t much to keep it from becoming a seven-day workweek. Still, the work was enjoyable, and the people even more so. But as much as I try to keep professional distances between the people I work with and the people I spend time with (a philosophy I’ve been challenging more of late…) outside of work, the closeness bred fondness.

To get to know people in their homes creates an intimacy. Over the course of dinner parties, road trips, and weekends away, I became a babysitter and a sous chef and a friend and a confidant. So when she wrote her letter of resignation on my last day, it was personal. Why should I be included in this process? What right do I have to be brought along the highs and lows of an expat working abroad, living and raising a family abroad, with the painful isolation and lack of understanding this life entails? And yet, whether for lack of better company or some actual redeeming quality, she entrusted me with the weight of it all.

I’m not much of an advice-giver, because I believe people already know what they want to do. I’ve made a mistake or ten over the past year, and I’m happy enough to describe them, but I’m reluctant to make any claims to wisdom from what I’ve gone through. But I will listen, and I did.

Fast friendships are common while traveling. We bond together over a long walk home from the market. We talk about our relationships over Ethiopian food. We gather together and run away for the weekend and see gorillas, and then don’t see each other again. We send emojis on WhatsApp over days and weeks to check-in. But to reach something deeper than that is rare, and it is not a bond I will soon forget.

“I hope so..U will get busy in ur life n will forget us”

I compartmentalize a lot in my life, from projects and relationships to friends old and new. Slowly, I’m beginning to see the beauty of continuity and throughlines, of friendships far, wide, shallow and deep, but it is a process, and with work, and family, and a person, and interests here, I will get busy, but so will she, and so will they. We’ll do what we can, through video calls and WhatsApp emojis, to stay in touch, but I recognize I have a hard enough time with friendships here in the city I live in to make lofty promises about keeping up friendships a world apart.

I don’t yet know if I will go back, whether in March or June or at all. The country is compelling and tricky and growing, but the world is big. The people I met are altogether decent. For now, I know that I am grateful and appreciative of this summer, I am hopeful for where it could lead, and I won’t forget.


letters from near and far, rwanda

Seeing gorillas in Musanze

July 28, 2018 • By

I was tired, and I didn’t want to go.

The day after 12 hours of driving through a safari park filled with hippo sightings, cooped up kids and potholes that stressed the axles of the Landcruiser Prado and the core for those lucky enough to be sitting in the middle seat left my body complaining. So when I heard we need to take one of the infamously cramped minibuses for our weekend away hiking up a volcano, the ones which set off from the infamously crowded bus stations in Kigali, the one which two friends saw and bailed on because of the amount of people and the grabbing hands and the tense air, I hesitated. Did I have the energy to sprint to the bus station and figure out the bus and sit cramped for another three hours? I was tired, and really, why not take the weekend off?

Then she said she and her boyfriend and their friend were already at the bus station and the bus left in twenty minutes. I was wrapping up a conversation with the owner, the person responsible for allowing me this summer, and now I had a decision. To bus, or not to bus? To go, or not to go?

I threw underwear and my camera in my backpack, tied my running shoes together, grabbed a moto taxi to Nyabugogo, and went off. In eight minutes, I arrived. I wasn’t hassled at all. I walked from one end of the bus park to the other before receiving a message that the original bus was too late and we had another and I had to be there quick. With a minute to spare, I found her and we boarded a bus with seven rows, each row with four seated across, and sat down in the very back. Then we were off.

It took a sprint to pack and jump on the taxi and find the bus. It was a push. But the warnings I had from everyone about motos and the bus park and the bus seemed to me to be exaggerations. Or single experiences extrapolated to warnings. Like so many things, your experience may vary.

Around winding corners, we headed up into the hills.

— 

“You’re ready to see gorillas?”

The four of us exchanged looks. We were ready to hike up to the crater lake of a volcano. We hoped to be lucky enough to see gorillas on our hike up, as some other hikers had said we might, but we knew we hadn’t paid for the permit, and even if we saw the gorillas, our time would be limited. Regardless, we wanted to try our luck, knowing it was certainly cheaper to go for a hike than pay the $1500 for the permit.

“We’re seeing a family that has 12 gorillas.”

Later, she’d amend that to 13, because of a newborn gorilla, just three days old.

There was some mistake. We got lucky. The closer we got, we kept seeing signs that pointed toward our original hike, and we didn’t think we’d possibly keep this going… but we got lucky. But like most lucky situations, you have to put yourself into a position to be lucky. Saying fuck it and jumping on the back of the moto taxi, because… Why not?

— 

The trail got steep, but it still had trail-like qualities. Others had passed that way before, on their way up to another volcano. Then, we stopped. Our guide put on an extra pair of pants. The guard started slicing through the brush with his machete. Then our guide asked if we had gloves. Not only did I not have gloves, but no pants. I wasn’t prepared for the wild nettles, thorns and terrain. I was wearing basketball shorts and long dress socks.

She looked me up and down and said, “you’ll survive.”

And off we went, not giving a second thought to the trail we’d come here on because the uneven mountainside with its many interesting ways to inflict pain (stinging and stabbing and slipping) kept us focused on each footstep in front of us.

Part of the adventure is the not knowing. How are we actually going to make it up this dense thicket of plants and vines that don’t want us there? How many times could my shirt snag on thorns before tearing? Would we even find gorillas?

Then after an hour and a half of fighting through brush and brambles, thorn and fallen trees, we took a break. We ate our sad tomato and cheese and white bread sandwiches. We shared one of the three waters we’d brought on our hike. As we caught our breath, we were told to leave our backpacks because the gorillas were just ahead.

— 

There they were. Not quite gorillas in the mist (thought the volcano across the way, the one we should’ve been hiking up, remained shrouded, so we were mist-adjacent), but gorillas snacking, gorillas napping, gorillas playing and tumbling and roughhousing. Gorillas watching us as we watched the gorillas.

How do we value the experience? Seeing the 5th biggest silverback of the 380 mountain gorillas? A newborn? The bloodying hike up? The absolute fortune to be in this situation to begin with? How do we get to a moment like this from a day that started another way, and for a weekend that almost fell apart?

Soon, our hour was up, and we said goodbye and began our trek down.

— 

The scent of smoldering piles of eucalyptus (used to make charcoal) greets us as we exit the national park and head back through farmland and villages, past crops and kids and houses. The rain starts, the sky’s palette muted. The road back is rocky, the Landcruiser scrambles our insides, and we smile.

 — 

On the bus back to Kigali the next morning, I sit apart from our group. The lady to my right has fallen asleep, but not before offering me a bite of her bus stop corn-on-the-cob. I listen to podcasts in Spanish, but the details of the weekend stay with me. We woke up each morning to the warbling of the guest house’s resident turkey. The guest house, while far from perfect with its occasional water and power and internet outages, afforded us moments we loved. We were greeted by and took part in a dance performance. We had dinners underneath the commanding silhouette of a volcano as a dozen locals ate lamb stew, drank Ugandan gin, and shared with each other stories and what they’re grateful for, allowing us to be there, to share in a fire that alternated between a comforting roar and an eye-burning billowing smoke cloud.

 — 

I have a trip in a few days, the following week, and one more before work begins. Even as planning for those continues, and even as goodbyes begin to outnumber greetings and introductions, the current trip keeps finding ways to absorb and overwhelm, sneaking in like light leaks in a film camera focused too far down the road, making indelible impressions on these last days here.


letters from near and far, rwanda

Dinner in Kigali

July 18, 2018 • By
Warming up.

For the first dinner party here, I killed a rooster.

This was the first time I’d killed an animal. I have tried on many different eating ideologies over the years, and whether or not to eat animals, which animals, and with what frequency to eat them are the usual variables. In the relative obscurity of a big city, it’s easy enough to have these ideas without much struggle. You can buy the best produce. You can shun mass production. Any qualms you have about the treatment of the animal that was killed to be eaten can be assuaged with the amount of grass they had to walk and snack on. When that distance from the animal evaporated, I had to face up to my inconsistencies.

To me, eating meat should be thoughtful, not automatic. If possible, it should happen in groups (at dinner parties!), with an appreciation toward its preparation. But as my foot kept the rooster pinned to the ground, and I angled it so its throat would be over the floor drain at the back of the restaurant, I realized I hadn’t tested my beliefs before. To be serious about cooking means an understanding and an acceptance of what I’m cooking. Meat ends up an ingredient, but before that, it’s a live animal, and that’s worth considering. To be squeamish or unwilling to take part in its preparation, but to somehow be unfazed with cooking it is an inconsistency I wasn’t okay with, so, through squawks and its final resistance, I killed a rooster and helped to prepare it for our dinner party.

Prepping for a dinner party in a restaurant during lunch service with an executive chef is a world away from rooting through a farmers market and coming home to quietly panic in the heat and solitude of my one bedroom apartment. Still, the end result is the same: making food for people to share together. We still arrange the table. We still play with napkin designs. Now, there are kids eating earlier, adults eating later, and the evening is capped with a dance and gymnastics performance. Still, the process is joyful, and what a dinner that first dinner was, with seven courses and many types of spices and sauces all imagined by the chef over a few hour period. I shouldn’t compare my own fledgling efforts with cooking and hosting to his, since he has 18 years of professional experience, but I found myself wondering at the timing of it all, how to conjure up flavors over high heat, make spur-of-the-moment adjustments, and keep an overall command of the dinner in mind.

Onion prep.

Preparing for the second dinner was more hands-on, and less idyllic. The second time we were in the kitchen together found him exerting his power over my inexperience. I was in his kitchen. I fetched the onions, and peeled them, under his mocking gaze. I stirred and scraped the sauces in the pots, the back of my hands sweating in a way I hadn’t felt since going to a dance with my girlfriend in 7th grade. He tested me, ordering me to take out three chili peppers — or was it four? — from the creole sauce. There had been four, but he only put in three. Pay attention, he said. I had. But there was plenty else to scrutinize. Everything was fair game. It’s easy to play cook at home away from it all. It’s not better, but it is easier, but I wasn’t tempted to hide.

Amongst more experienced people, my efforts invite ridicule. I don’t peel onions as fast as a trained kitchen staff does (and rarely have occasion to peel 20 onions for my weeknight meals). I still have fundamentals of taste and technique to learn, even as I try to reach upward toward competency, but I won’t learn from the memoirs of chefs past. I’ll learn from the sweaty palms and shaking hands and near-misses. The alternative? Doing what I’ve done. I want to get better, each day. I don’t know if progress has to mean pain, but there is a correlation.

For good measure, his wife takes equal pleasure in deriding me for my French efforts, calling it “special” and “Belgian” — shorthand for an unpleasant (at best) accent, and refusing to offer constructive criticism. Her daughter wore a shirt with “Samedi” written on it, and she was surprised I knew the days of the week. She grew up in a country with French as one of two official languages, and prefers it to English for its elegance. That my ugly duckling first steps aren’t graceful is no surprise. That she’s amused is fine. Progress doesn’t have to mean pain, but with learning languages, embarrassing missteps are necessary.

Setting up.

Both husband and wife play in arenas where they’re comfortable. I am finding confidence in growth.

I came here with an idea of how this summer would go, and it was based on things I am good at. In my first few days, I wrote a sample schedule of how an ideal day would go, and dreamed up the perfect balance between baking and video production. Along the way, though, new projects came up, new needs to address, new products to introduce, and I became less interested in the self-serving plan of what I wanted to get out of this summer, and more interested in what (if any!) value I could bring to a team, what holes I could fill, what efforts I could set in motion. Now, we’re developing tours and helping with the launch and marketing of a tour company. We travel around the city, meeting indigenous potters, banana farmers, rising artists, established designers, and women’s cooperatives. We visit suburbs and villages. With thoughts toward a half day’s worth of entertainment value and points of historical interest, driving routes and snack stops, we shape the experiences to make this city more accessible. It is creative, and new.

I’m halfway through this summer adventure, and part of the way to understanding what it’s all been about. So far, it is less about carrying over the creative momentum from last year’s book. It’s more about being in this situation, seeing unfamiliar tasks to completion, staying in conversations with developers or non-profit founders or students or front desk agents or former Obama appointees, and not fighting that dinners always last two hours.

It’s also about eating a lot of goat.