Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Hash Express

The past two weeks have been full of both work and fun. I finished the last of my site visits in the field and have moved on to the analytical stage of my project. My colleagues here have been very helpful.

On the 5th of July I was supposed to visit the genocide museum here in Kigali with some friends, but due to the declared public holiday, it was closed. We ended up heading to a bustling market in a part of the city called Remera. The name of the market is Kimironko if I'm not mistaken. To me, replacing a trip to the museum with one to the market serves as a metaphor for the optimism that is Rwanda's new calling card. This is not to say that the lessons of the genocide should be forgotten, or that everything here is a-ok, but that trends are positive. The market was arranged as a covered central area, divided into two sections: produce and textiles. The central area was ringed by a number of shops selling everything from meat to cell phones to a comprehensive DVD set of Bruce Willis' work. I picked up some carrots and giant avocados for a dinner with a UTEP professor that evening. Mimicking Bugs Bunny, I munched one of the carrots for quality control right there in the market, much to the amusement of my friends as well as the vendors.

The dinner that night was at a lodge called One Love, owned by a Rwandan who is married to a Japanese lady. In addition to being a lodge, One Love's mission is to produce prostheses for those who cannot afford them at traditional outlets. Dr. Sarah Ryan, a communications professor at UTEP, was a wonderful host and it was attended by Americans, an Australian, Rwandans, and people who would be hard to classify as being from any one country. Like the quote painted on a wall at the Kimironko market, "every meal is a story."

Wednesday of that week was another dinner at One Love, this time with Dr. Ryan's student group in attendance. It was fun to be the semi-seasoned person listening to descriptions of other people's first day in Rwanda, although a month doesn't get you anywhere close to actually knowing a place, nor would a couple years.

Last Sunday I found an Anglican church to be somewhat drier than the Pentecostal one I went to previously. One pastor did give us a ride into town though, which was a plus. It's always exciting to meet someone with a car who is happy to give you a ride somewhere.

Later that afternoon I met my friend Amir, an investment banker turned photojournalist, to see a couple art studios in the neighborhood behind my apartment. One of the studios runs a program that teaches kids dancing - there are two age groups, one from 5-15 and another from 15-25. Some of the kids have had the chance to go to international exhibitions. After watching a set of dances, we chatted with the artists and I was reluctant to leave my conversation chair, a carved wooden one with a sleep-inducing reclined angle. That night I helped my USAID friends prepare a pancake dinner, which was phenomenal. Thai coconut pancakes I believe, with regular syrup, a pineapple-mango-macadamia sauce, plain crushed macadamia nuts, sliced bananas, and nutella as toppings. I had never had nutella before - always wary of it, and now I know what I was missing.

Thanks to a suggestion from someone back in the US, I followed a couple links and found the contact info for Hash House Harriers here in Rwanda. For those of you who don't know, this is an amazing running/social club, started by some British officers in Malaysia in 1938. It's not for the faint of heart or the humorless. I found the contact info last Friday and immediately called. Got through to "Crazy Horse" (oh yes - after you have completed a certain number of hashes and led your own, you get a hash name) who offered to pick me up from one of the main shopping centers downtown on Saturday afternoon. I got weird looks from people as I waited in my sleeveless shirt and stubborn farmer's tan (I haven't done any swimming to take care of this), but adventure beckoned. Crowding into the backseat of a red hatchback, I was introduced to an American lady, a young Indian named Joshi, and Crazy Horse. We picked up two more, making it really crowded, but the mood was happy.

My first hash was organized by "Rambo," our hare for the week. The hare's job is to set up the trail. His rules were expressed on the course through piles of shredded toilet paper. One meant you were on the right track, and accordingly, you were to shout "On On" as you passed the marker. Two piles indicated a checkpoint, where the trail split, and you had to find the real one. This included trips down false trails, sometimes as far as 100m. These served to slow down the runners so that walkers could close the gap, keeping the group closer together. Three piles meant you were dumb and had reached the dead end of a wrong trail. Four piles equaled success and that you should rendezvous at the bar next to where we parked, where the back section was reserved for us. The Kigali Hash has good representation by both Rwandans and expats, and there were about 20-25 people yesterday.

I did well at the start, and it was the type of running I love - over mixed terrain, dirt that's easy on my knees, and glorious views of the surrounding hills and the marshlands below with a river winding through them. We were wrapping around a massive forested hill. I was near what I think was the front, although people were scattered all over the place, with Rambo running back and forth blowing his whistle, supposedly "guiding" people, though after getting to know him I am not so sure. Near the top of the ridge, the trail got really confusing, and I ended up picking the wrong direction with a Dutchman, who had been hashing for years, and I think should have known better. Either way, we ended up reaching the trail we had started on, and so we kind of backtracked towards where we thought people might be coming down the hill from, but seeing nobody, we headed back. Eventually we ran into some other lost stragglers, then the front-runners, who called us cheaters. We playfully lied that we had passed them, and raced back to the end point at the bar. Once there, it was discovered that only 6 or 7 people had followed the proper trail, which involved going through a swamp at one point, so it was easy to pick out the true hashers, both by sight and by smell. Of course, nothing but compliments for Rambo's trail. Overall a great group of people, and I wish I had looked for them earlier in my stay.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Road Trip

Watch out for those sugar daddies.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Akagera National Park

First flat, first hippos, first neck pillow as helmet. Dancing with giraffes.

Yesterday I Went to Heaven

…..Sadly “Heaven” was a rather posh cafĂ© full of white people watching a football match projected on a large screen, which made it a little dull. Despite this, an incredible brownie with chocolate sauce and good company made up for it.

Happy Independence Day to everyone back home! – coincidentally, last Thursday was Rwanda’s Independence Day (from the Belgians), and the 4th is Liberation Day (when the genocide ended). Yesterday I volunteered at the American embassy’s Independence Day weekend community event, ostensibly helping with kids’ games. However, when I arrived at my station, light hilarity ensued. From the plastic-tipped darts which were unable to penetrate high quality American balloons to odd-tasting cheap balloons from Thailand with odd projections like cow udders and kitty faces on them (the darts were still ineffective), this activity seemed destined to fail. It was a good way to make friends though.

After giving up on the balloons, with the blessing and agreement of the person supervising us, my first American friends in Kigali and myself headed over to the buffet line, dreaming of the taste of summer. A huge decision faced each of us, since only a hamburger or a hot dog was allowed, not both. I went with hamburger, although in retrospect this was probably not the right choice since neither cheese nor green chile were on hand, and burgers can be found in Kigali, but hot dogs are another story. All the same, there were Heinz ketchup packets, which I had been betting on - having deliberately avoided purchasing Heinz at the store to make it all the better when I finally had some. I admit that I slipped a few into my pocket as a stock for the future. Potato salad was also on the menu. By the way, I’m not the only one who has a slight food fixation. One common topic of conversation was the meal each of us had planned for ourselves when we returned to the States, although all of us, including me, admitted becoming partial to the local cuisine to some extent.

It was awesome to be surrounded my tons of young energetic people, every one of them with a cool story and smiling enthusiasm. For me, it helped to put my time in Rwanda in context, and made me more fully appreciate the time away from and with other Americans.

I ended up going with a small group of friends to an Indian restaurant, where we were joined by probably 4 other groups to total around 17 people. Some of the people in each group had just met each other, and all of the groups were just meeting each other, and it made for an entertaining dinner. About half of the people were beautiful Peace Corps women who were tearing into the most food they had seen in probably a month, generously paid for my one of my newfound friends, who was seriously impressed with the PC personalities and efforts. The restaurant was ridiculously nice, and the food was delicious. In typical style for Indian dining, our table ordered probably a dozen things off of the extensive menu, as well as baskets of nan. My friend who orchestrated the whole dinner secretly arranged with the staff to inflict the whole birthday ceremony on one of the girls whose day was coming up. Towards the end of the entrees, the lights went out, initially making people believe it was a power outage, but then outrageous birthday music began squealing through the restaurant’s speakers, and a chain of wait staff danced out with celebration paraphernalia. The entire restaurant stared at the hapless girl, who gamely danced and wore her birthday hat while we all clapped and sang happy birthday 7 different ways. After blowing out the candles on her fruit and ice cream platter, she sadly announced that she was allergic to pineapple. Seated next to her, I got her to at least take a spoonful of ice cream that wasn’t touching any pineapple slices, before commandeering the platter myself and passing it around the table.

After this wonderful dinner was when we ambled over to Heaven.

This morning I spent the 4th on safari in Akagera National Park on the eastern border of Rwanda. At least a decent game park, I saw hippos for the first time, and documented strange interactions between a couple friends and a family of giraffes. Also experienced my first tire flat in Africa on the way to the park. When we asked our driver how many tires he had changed, he said too many to count. Afterwards, we had lunch on the edge of a lake at the Jambo “Beach” restaurant and boat tour area. Something about the majestic scenery inspired plans for opening restaurants, dowry discussions, and small-time piracy.

I honestly don’t know how to stop telling stories were food is mentioned.