Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Day 9/10: The End

I have been meaning to write this wrap-up post for our trip for a few days... not sure why (or what happens differently,) but some days I can pump out a ton of words in no time and others... well... I can get hung up editing my first sentence for a half-hour.

At any rate, Sunday dawned in Kigali and after an hour or two of hard-core packing (I was bringing home some Rwandan beer for Dan and needed to make sure it was well-cushioned!) we ate breakfast. We had been served eggs for breakfast every single morning of the trip, and for the few among us (ok, it's Kathy and I) who aren't fans of eggs, it was really no biggie-- we simply opted for toast with jam and lots of coffee or what they call milk-tea (delicious chai tea with milk and sugar.) The kids (who at home eat cereal or oatmeal 90% of the time) were thrilled to have eggs.... but by day 9 were a little over them. I told Shami they were used to eating cereal and peanut butter sandwiches every day, so this had been an adjustment for them. He told me he had those "cheap staples" at his place, and had I said so sooner, he would have brought some over. Who knew! (And whoever thought the kids would ever prefer cereal to eggs...)

After breakfast, we headed to Shami and Emily's church, Christian Life Assembly. It is an English-speaking church and felt much like my home church, PCC, although with a Rwandan flair. It was an amazing feeling... here we are, in Kigali, Rwanda, surrounded by mostly African nationals... and singing out together, "Christ alone, cornerstone. Weak made strong in the Savior's love, through the storm, he is Lord, Lord of all." Love it! And, I thought, who knows, six hours later, my friends back home might be singing the same song. How cool!

After church we went to visit Emily's Rwandese mom, Mama Nyanja. Like many older Rwandese, she has a storied history, having lived through the genocide. She lost her children (thought they were dead) and was reunited with them years later. Yet to see and meet her, you would never know she had lived through such crazy circumstances. She was probably the most outgoingly joyful person I have ever met, constantly "yelling" at Emily in Kinyarwanda and laughing, hugging all of us multiple times (although at one point she had Kathy wrapped in an extended embrace, and called to Emily over her shoulder, "I know this is your sister! I can tell!" Emily laughingly pointed out that, no, I was actually the sister and Kathy is a cousin. Well Mama dropped Kathy like a hotcake and scuttled over to give me the long, joyful hug experience.) We were only able to visit with her for a few minutes and we had to head for the airport. Before we left, Mama gave us a half dozen bananas to take with us "for the road."

We made it to the airport with no trouble, unloaded our luggage and headed inside. Thus began the long and painful process of saying goodbyes... I could feel the tears welling up inside as the kids all hugged Emily and Shami goodbye. I told hugged Shami and (tearfully) told him thank you for taking such good care of my sister. Then I hugged Emily... and lost it. :( I hate goodbyes. And it's not that she isn't exactly where she is supposed to be, or that I worry about her all that much... it's just that... it's so far! And she's all alone over there so far from family... I guess it all just piled up on me and I was a mess. I finally pulled it together, and we went inside to tackle ticketing.

(taken just before we said goodbye)

Once we finally got the airlines to only check our luggage through to DC and not Philly (see Day 1 for that ridiculous saga) we went upstairs. The kids were hungry, so we all went to the coffee shop to get samosas for the plane.Well. Apparently our plane was scheduled to leave earlier than expected (of course we couldn't get out of the country without more plane drama!!!) because we were paged over the intercom to pass through security for immediate departure. Our samosas were in the oven and we had already paid for them, so Kathy and I waited for them while Alezah took the kids through security. They couldn't board the plane, however, because I had all the passports. When Kathy and I finally had the food (and had chugged a final Coke!) we got in line, and soon after, an airline official irritatedly asked us to come to the front of the line, ostensibly so the plane could leave on time. (We had checked the departure time earlier that morning and were WELL ahead of schedule. Who knows...) So Kathy and I start wiggling our way to the front of the line, only to be elbowed and to have our carry-ons shoved aside by some more assertive male passengers. I gave the official the "YOU see what's going on! What do you want ME to do about it?!" look. We made it through, amidst much bumping and jostling, and then... we had to throw away the bottled water I had JUST purchased at the coffee stand!!

Finally, we met Alezah and the kids at the gate, rushed onto the plane... and found out we were seated in 3 different groups. At this point, I was like like... whatever. Let's just sit down and we will figure it out later. We pass out the samosas, the plane takes off, and we land shortly thereafter in Entebbe. At this point, about 100 older Ugandan muslim men and women board (looks like they are headed to a conference as they are all wearing lanyard name tags.) I am sitting with Livi next to me and Will directly behind me. As all these people slooowwwly board, Will starts having issues. He wants to sit next to me. I am sympathetic, but realistic: I can do nothing to help this situation right now, kiddo, you just gotta wait. Well about 10 minutes later, a Ugandan woman taps me on the shoulder and loudly and clearly states, "Excuse me. Ma'am? Your child is crying." I turn around to Will in tears. AHHHHH!!! And keep in mind I am not even sitting with Hallie and Tristan; I have no clue how they are faring. I get Will calmed down... and we make it to Addis. One more flight! As we leave Entebbe, the sun is setting.

We sit around Addis for a couple hours and then board about 10:15pm local time. We are flying at night this time, so I am hopeful for a smooth night ahead. After a couple hours, the kids zonk out (as do we all!) ... but around 2am we awaken to the cabin lights coming on... and the plane descending. Apparently on the return flight from Addis to DC there are strong headwinds, so they stop in Rome to refuel. Rome, as in ITALY. If it had not been 2am, I would have been much madder that, on my first time in Italy, I did not even get to deplane. Thankfully the kids slept through the pitstop, and an hour or so later, we were winging our way westward again. The kids slept about 8 hours (amazing!!!) and I think we adults fared about as well. The sun chased us across the Atlantic and finally caught us, just as we landed at Dulles.

(sunrise out the plane window)

We collected our luggage and after waiting in a tortuously long line (seriously, Olivia had about HAD IT by this point...) we made it through customs and... we were home free! We stopped at Starbucks (obvi) and headed back up to Philly, where I dropped off Kathy and Alezah (who was flying home to Ohio the next day.) Then I drove (the longest) 2 hours home by myself, with 4 tired, jet-lagged, cranky, excited-to-see-daddy, stir-crazy kids. We finally made it at about 3pm local time on Monday.

I was exhausted. My memories of that afternoon/evening are very hazy... I remember sitting at the counter and Dan telling me not to fall asleep! And I remember wanting him to come stand by me so I could just lean against him... (not to sleep, I swear!) haha. I think I made it to 6:30 that evening before I went and laid down on our bed "just to rest"... and woke up 12 hours later! Over the next few days we all transitioned out of jetlag and back to normal. The trip was over.

I want to publicly thank Kathy and Alezah for all their help on the trip... if they had not been with me, I could not have done what we did! I hope we get to travel again someday together. Also thanks to Dan for supporting me continuing on the trip, and to Emily and Shami for being the most gracious, fun hosts ever. And thanks to the Lord for keeping us all safe and (mostly!) healthy and bringing us home again in one piece!


As I have thought back to our time in Rwanda over the past few weeks, there is so much I didn't tell here. So many memories, so much laughter, so much we saw and did and learned... too much to tell in a smattering of blog posts.

On our way to the water filtration project, we had passed a small school in a village called (something like) Shining Stars Academy. While I don't remember the exact name of the school, the tagline on the sign was "Choose to shine bright." I loved that. Isn't it true -- that shining is a choice we can make? I love that kids in a Rwandan village are being taught they can go big places and be big people... and that they can choose to shine bright. I hope that all of us, not matter what we do or where we call home, will choose to shine bright, every day. Let's remember the kids in a sunny village in a faraway land... and honor them by choosing to shine bright. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Day 8

Our day started rather lazily (except for Shami, who was in the lobby of the guest house by 7:30!) due to it being the day for mandatory 8am-12pm nation-wide community service projects. (The last Saturday of every month is community service day, and you cannot drive anywhere or leave your home except for community service. They take it very seriously.) Shami beat the deadline and so was able to hang with us for the morning. We mostly uploaded pics to Instagram (the guest house was the only place we had internet that week), watched European premier league soccer game reruns, and talked. The kids made up strange games and entertained themselves.

At noon we went to a craft cooperative (I'd promised the kids all week that I'd let them get a souvenir before we left the country) and spent some time "shopping". It was a fun experience... Em had just changed a bunch of money for me that morning and the guy was short on big bills, so I had a literal brick of 500 franc bills in my backpack. It was slightly awkward when I had to pay my bill of 24,000 francs in 500 franc bills. I've never handled such a quantity of currency in my life! And to make matters, I accidentally ripped one of the ladies off (paid her for one item instead of two) and as we began to leave, she (embarrassedly) told Shami what happened... and I had to dig into the brick in my backpack again and start counting... 5, 10, 15, 20.... and on and on and ON. GAH! Poor lady. Stupid americans. (For those of you thrown off by all the zeroes, this would be like paying for a $24 bill in 50-cent pieces. Yep. That was me!)

After this, we went to lunch at a hotel up in the hills that overlook Kigali. It was great. I got a Coke for the 2nd or 3rd time that week (I never drink soda at home but for some reason drinking Coke overseas just tastes amazing. Kathy claims this is because here they use actual real sugar in soda, instead of corn syrup and crap like they do in the US... anyway...) Shami had told us that there was a surprise for us after lunch. Of course this drove the kids NUTS ... they couldn't handle it. (They hatttttte not knowing what a surprise is going to be.) Finally we finished lunch and made our way to a grassy area outside the hotel. We sat and waited... not even knowing what we were waiting for... when out came a troupe of traditional drummers from Burundi! They were SO impressive. They started by carrying and beating on these enormous heavy wooden drums on their heads, then set them down and incorporated dance and singing/chanting into their routine. It was really cool and the kids loved it too. Toward the end they had each of us come up and join in... and of course, Tristan, who is the only one in our group who actually likes drumming in real life... is too embarrassed or shy or SOMETHING and won't go up!

We spent the afternoon resting and playing and going for a walk... Emily's roommate Stella came over, and it was fun to get to know her.  That night, we decided that the previous night's pizza experience had been so amazing that we needed a repeat session... so we had take-out pizza on the guest house balcony overlooking the city. It was our last night in the country and as the night wore on, I started feeling awfully melancholy. It had been such a fun week, and it was so SO good to see my fab sister doing well... happy and fulfilled and grounded... but still. Rwanda is still a long way away. I was sad to be leaving her and sad that our much-anticipated, much-savored journey was about to be coming to a close. In Rwanda, "goodbye" signifies a long-term thing, whereas if you are just saying "bye for now" you use the phrase, "See you!" So I mentally geared up to say "See you!" to Emily and Shami and everything that had grown familiar to over the past week... because... we will be back, right? Yes, we have to... I need to have a US -to- Africa travel experience that will prove to me that I can actually travel with children internationally without incident. (But really... what fun would that be to read about on a blog?!)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Day 7

We were all pretty beat from our long day traveling home from Uganda, so we slept in (at least we tried to) and relaxed a little. Alezah made an amazingly fast recovery (thanks Cipro!) and woke up feeling nearly back to her normal cheery self. We all (still!) wonder exactly what it was that hit her... Mysterious. We all ate the same food at the same places and I bit my cuticles more than anybody (ie: if it was germs, I should have gotten them...) Who knows!

Before lunch, we headed out to a village where World Relief has a water filtration project going. Basically how it works is... there are volunteers who fill these big containers with layers of different sizes of rock, gravel and sand. There is one filter for every 4 village families, and because the water is pushed through the filter by gravity (meaning it is very slow), the families filter water around the clock.

Anyway, it was very interesting to see the process, and the volunteers were super excited to see us, and greeted us with songs and dances.

After we left, we went to a restaurant called "Africa Bite"; it's a buffet restaurant that serves traditional Rwandan food, which includes things like rice, beans in sauce, peanut sauce (not like Thai though), mashed green bananas (these taste more like mashed potatoes), a sort of thick white cornmeal cake, veggies in broth, fried pieces of chicken and fish, etc. Nothing too spicy or exotic, (thankfully!) but still mostly out of the norm for my very american children. The first time we'd come to this restaurant early in the trip, the kids had politely turned down most of what they saw in the buffet line, and stuck with what was somewhat familiar (they ended up eating carrot sticks and a little rice.) This time (it's amazing what being hungry will do!) they all chowed down heartily as if they were being served pizza with mac n cheese. Remarkable.

After lunch we went to see Emily's office and then to an after-school education program for kids. We sat with the kids on mats on the grass as they talked about healthy habits and good hygiene and played games, sang songs and did a short bible lesson.

Side note: Going into the trip, I thought Olivia would be really excited to be around lots of "brown people" (as she calls them) on this trip. She knows she was born in Ethiopia ("where everyone is brown!") and although it's been awhile, she definitely went through a stage of wanting to be "tan" like us and not "brown" like she is. One of the big things I pumped up for her about this trip (and let's face it-- when you're 3, there's not a whole lot to pump up) was that she was going to be seeing so many beautiful brown people JUST LIKE HER! Well. Not so fast. She was not at all impressed by the cute village kids (wanted nothing to do with them) wouldn't smile or be friendly to any of the adults who loved her on sight, and barely would wave hi to people when I'd ask her to. I have no idea why -- my best guess is that she was just overwhelmed and out of her comfort zone and reacted by turning anti-social. Which if you know her, is just crazy. But it was a little awkward for me-- here I am trying to be all friendly and nice to these kind people, and I have this brown American child with a snotty attitude hanging around my neck!!  Great, just really great!

We went out for pizza that night, (sans Shami who had a work dinner to attend,) and we all fell on it like seriously starved people. I guess even though I thought we were all doing great at being culturally sensitive and eating like the locals (and honestly enjoying it!)... there's really nothing like familiar food... especially when it's pizza. It started raining at one point... I have this great mental snapshot from that night of us girls eating this amazing margherita pizza, drinking red wine, talking and laughing... the kids chattering and playing about, and the rain drumming on the tin roof while a cool breeze drifted through the open room. Really lovely. After awhile, Olivia started to get that crazy over-tired look in her eye and I knew we needed to bail STAT. We headed back to the guest house -- another late night on the balcony; another day gone and another day closer to leaving! Sigh.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Day 6

We got up early-ish, ate breakfast and set out for Kigali (hoping for a less-than-10-hour drive on the return trip... but not expecting much success.)

The trip was uneventful. I again rode with Shami, and played the role of the awkward family member asking the annoying questions about him and the girl he is interested in (who happens to be my sister...) Anyway, he (thankfully) passed all my "tests" with flying colors and we had an enjoyable ride to Mbarara. This was where, of course, we planned to stop for lunch (samosas)... and Emily and Shami (the locals) wanted essentials like peanut butter and cereal. (Due to the exchange rate, stuff like this is much cheaper to buy in Uganda than Rwanda.)

Ok wait... I need to back up. At breakfast, Alezah had showed up looking like her usual perky self. Five minutes later she was bee-lining it back to her bedroom where she lay with the fan blasting her in the face (I'd been in charge of fan placement, and thought somehow this would help her feel better faster.) She looked awful -- pale and sweaty -- and I knew she was going down for the count. However, I'd totally randomly been at the home of a veterinarian friend just the night before we left on the trip, and his wife had given me some amoxicillin and Cipro to take with us "just in case". She'd even written "idiot's guide" directions on the bottles: "If you have XXX take XXX. If you have ZZZ take XYZ." Very helpful, as it turns out, for Alezah, who looked to be on death's doorstep, although she valiantly tried to convince us she would be fine... She started on a double dose of Cipro, and we all hoped for the best. Driving was fine as long as the wind was blowing and we were moving... when we stopped in town for gas, she tanked quickly again and I thought for sure she was going to pass out. I told Shami, " Alezah's going to be sick, we need to go NOW!" Thankfully Shami realized the gravity of the situation because we took off out of that gas station like a shot... leaving the woman who had been about to wash our back windshield dazed and confused I am sure!

By the time we got to lunch, Alezah had rallied quite nicely, and she wandered the aisles of Nakumatt with us looking for snacks to buy for the ride and (most importantly) additional bars of Cadbury chocolate. (Which is where we found Kathy... talking to herself about which bars she should get... hazelnut? mint crisp? Yes!!!) Emily went to change money for our purchases.... and Alezah started going downhill again. No one had a coin for her to use the bathrooms, so after trying to hold up as long as possible, she went upstairs anyway, hoping the bathroom attendant would have pity on her and let her in, while the rest of us waited downstairs with our stuff for Emily. Em showed up with the money, and then she went to look for Alezah. To hear Emily tell it, she says, "I rounded the corner to the bathroom, and... there was Alezah, stretched out on the bathroom floor." Apparently Alezah knew she wouldn't make it standing up any longer (and she couldn't leave the bathroom without paying) so she did what any sane (*cough* marble-floor-loving *cough*) person would do: she totally owned it, and made herself at home lying on the cool Nakumatt bathroom floor in the middle of Mbarara, Uganda. Awesome.

Eventually we got back on the road, and as we reached Kabale, Shami got flagged over to the side of the road by a police patrol. (Emily pulled over too, but decided in the interest of time she should keep going, so I handed over all the passports for her passengers to Kathy.) Shami was accused by a short and stocky, white-uniformed Ugandan police officer of speeding. Shami got out of the car and started (conversationally) arguing with the guy that there was no way he could have been going as fast as the cop's (ancient, broken) radar gun said he was going. The guy argued back: "How do you know! Do you watch your speedometer the whole time you're driving? That's impossible!" Then he told Shami he just wanted a 20,000 shilling bribe. Shami refused, and the cop kept telling him, "You are making this so difficult! You are costing me lost revenue!" (As buses full of happy passengers go flying by)... and this kicker, "You are with white people! They will give you money!" Then he tries to show Shami that his gun was working by pointing it at another car and it comes on, reading 72, the same speed we had been pulled over for. Uh-huh. Sure.

Shami continued to hold his ground, so the guy, very annoyed, wrote him a ticket for 200,000 shillings.  (Shami told us later that he doesn't believe in bribery -- if he had given him the bribe, he would be perpetuating their habits of taking money illegally and he would rather pay the ticket and have it be out in the open. If enough people stand up against bribery, they will learn that it isn't a sustainable or just means of income.)

We turn around (it is me, Alezah, Shami and Will in our car) and go back to the police station in Kabale to pay the ticket. However, the police station is out of power, so the ticket can't be paid. Shami tries the internet cafe up the street with no luck. So we go (with an officer) a few miles away to a bank where there is power, pay the ticket, go back to the station, drop off the officer, then finally head back to the police checkpoint with our receipt. When Shami gives it to the cop, he gives him back his license, and says (by way of justification) while waving a stack of licenses as us, "See! I pulled over a lot more people than just you! Even a guy from Burundi!" "Let me see that," says Shami, and the guy hands over the Burundian man's license. Shami looks at it and announces, "This is fake. He won't be coming back for it." and gives it back to the cop. We drive off laughing, leaving the irritated cop examining the license and trying his best to look official. (Fake licenses are super common among the middle/upper classes; that way when you get pulled over, you can hand over your fake license and drive off scot-free.)

We call Emily, who has made a smooth border crossing with Kathy and the younger three kids, and is already back at our guest house in Kigali. We are at least 2 hours behind them. We make it to the border crossing just ahead of a giant busload of people. I take the 3 americano passports up to get stamped while Will chills and Alezah tries not to be sick. We drive off, weaving our way between huge trucks and lines of people, but at the final police/passport checkpoint, the guy notices that Will's passport has not been stamped for entrance to Rwanda. Shami runs it back to customs, darts to the front of the gigantic line, gets the stamp and dashes back to our car and the waiting officer. A fairly hilarious conversation ensues:

Guy: "Where is your passport?"
Shami: "I don't need a passport. You are holding my national ID. I'm Rwandese."
Guy: "Oh." Then, "Can you have everyone get out of the car?"
Shami: "They don't need to get out. They're Americans."
Guy: "They need to get out."
Shami: "They don't need to get out. They have entry visas."
Guy: "Europeans have to get out! What, do you think Americans are more powerful than Europeans?!"
Shami: (confused) "Uhh, no. It's not about who is more powerful. It's about the law." ???

Guy hands back the passports and waves us off.

What in the world.... can you even imagine if I had tried driving this trip on my own!? Good night.

We finally made in back to Kigali around nighfall and after a quick dinner, put the kids (and Alezah) to bed and had another lovely evening of sitting out on the balcony overlooking Kigali, drinking wine and eating chocolate, and talking. (I really think I need to start this evening tradition in my life here in the US.)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Day 5

My notes from today read: "Got up at 5:30 for the Safari. Lost a tire on the way, finally got there and saw lions and a leopard. Came home, visited the very high end Mweya Resort across the street from our hostel and then went on a boat ride up the Kazinga Channel in Lake Richard. Home for dinner and early bed for kids. Adults stayed up late drinking wine, eating chocolate and talking."

Ahem. Allow me to elaborate/ correct myself on a few things. (For starters, the lake was Lake Edward. Not Richard. There was also a Lake George in the park. I think the whole british king theme threw me off. Anyway...)

We got up at 5:30 (waking the kids was a blast...) and met our driver and guide by our safari-van. They were having trouble getting one of the sliding doors to close properly, which (of course) our giddy group of tired adults turned into a joke: "Great timing! On a safari with lions all around and the door won't close! No big deal..." We started driving the bumpy roads to where we were going to see the animals. At least once or twice we had to stop because the door would jar open and the guys would jump out and try to smoothly take care of it... as if it was really no big deal... doors pop open all the time, right? We continued on...

And THEN... we pulled a u-turn, and started driving back. We asked what was going on and apparently... our spare tire had fallen off! After driving awhile (we are all tired and it is dusky and cool out... I lose track of time...) we turn around again; I guess no luck finding the tire. When we are almost back to our original location, the guys spot the tire in the roadside weeds. They retrieve it, and no joke, it has a huge, gaping, shredded hole in the rubber. "This is the tire we turned back for?!" Shami (jokingly but not really) shrieks (at us) and we all laugh. Apparently it was the rim they wanted to go back for anyway. 

For your reference, I found this little gem:  
Uganda Marasa Properties Map

You can see Queen Elizabeth N.P. in the lower left corner. You can also see Mbarara (home of the amazing Nakumatt/ samosa experience and if you follow the "red line" down to the bottom of the map, you can see Kabale (this is important on Day 6, when we drive back to Kigali) and the border crossing into Rwanda.

So we finally get over to the park, where we are all dying hoping we will see some animals. The kids start to get excited and we snap a zillion pictures of the first herd of gazelles we see. (Later we realize they are literally everywhere... like prairie dogs in the west... or something.) But it's exciting, and we are all having a blast. 

Suddenly we slow down and .... yes... there are LIONS. Bonafide, in the wild, real (dangerous if your door falls off) lions. 

Shami and Kathy have come prepared (as one might expect when going on a safari in Africa) with sweet big DSLR cameras/ lenses and you can hear their shutter snaps flying. Alezah and I whip out our snazzy iPhones and try to look cool while snapping away... but fail. (Big black cameras for the win.)

After the lion pride lazily saunters off across the savannah, we head onward to look for more wildlife. We stop at some local villages' craft/souvenir huts, and Shami gets one of them to sell him some chapati (flatbread), hot off her oven behind the huts. After the kids maul him (ok, so we all did) he went back and got more. Food>souvenirs. Obvi.

We leave, and although we have seen 7 lions, our spirits start to droop a bit. We are tired, the bumpy roads are well, bumpy, and the kids start crabbing a bit... our American-ness begins to shine through... Suddenly the driver stops by a tree, and what do we see curled up and sleeping like a baby in the tree? A leopard. Kathy (resident big cat expert) explains to us all the difference between a leopard and a jaguar... we are all enthralled and a bit in awe. The driver tells us the month before,  he had a honeymooning couple give him $500 to show them a leopard, but they never saw one the whole week. He was convinced one of us had to have been born on Christmas, because we had seen so many lions and a leopard in one morning! 

Happily we headed back to the hostel. We ate and walked around the very VERY nice safari lodge across the street, the Mweya Safari Lodge. Located on a peninsula in the middle of the lake, the views were truly outstanding and the Lodge was unbelievably nice. That afternoon we went on a boat ride up the Kazinga Channel in the lake and saw 2 elephants, lots and lots of hippos, Cape buffalo, birds and crocodiles. 

It was truly an unparalleled experience! And the kids did so well (overall) coping with being tired and out of a familiar environment for so many days. 

And as I said earlier, since we were all tired, we ate an early dinner and I put the kids to bed early (super easy-- thanks early nightfall!) Afterward, we 5 shared a bottle of red wine Shami had brought with us, and some Cadbury chocolate the girls had fortuitously thought to buy at the Nakumatt in Mbarara. We talked late into the night about gender roles and societies and customs and raising kids and cultures and... it was a fantastic evening. After awhile Shami went to bed, but we 4 girls stayed up, talking weddings and boyfriends and engagements and how you KNOW when you know he's the one... 

We finally returned to our own rooms and crawled under our mosquito nets in the early hours of the morning. It had been a wonderful day.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Day 4

This was the day we planned to drive 6-ish hours to Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda to go on our safari. We were up early, ate breakfast and hit the road. Shortly after you leave Kigali, which is developed and modern, you get into what people think of when they traditionally think of Africa: villages, rice paddies, red dirt roads. Really beautiful.

After a few hours on the road, we got to the border. The crossing is fairly simple, but time-consuming: you have to fill out exit forms for Rwanda, cross the border on "no man's land" on foot, get your passports checked halfway, and then fill out entry forms on the other side for Uganda. Emily and Shami also had to purchase car insurance for Uganda and SIM cards for their phones. This all went relatively smoothly. Funny story: when we were crossing the border on foot and stopped to show our passports, the customs guy pointed at Olivia and said, "She's our daughter." I didn't understand what he meant and he clarified, "SHE IS OUR DAUGHTER!" It clicked and I smiled and nodded... yes, she is Ethiopian and I guess continental birthright is a good enough to claim! We didn't hit the border crossing when a bus was there which was a blessing; trying to get through customs with a couple hundred other bus passengers can add a couple hours to your trip.

The difference between the excellent roads in Rwanda and the realllllly bad roads in Uganda was astonishing. For much of the way, it was a one lane road, the sides of the former two-lane highway having been eaten up with potholes from the sides till there was only one car-width left in the middle. As I mentioned before, with Emily and Shami's killer driving skills, this made for some interesting times. As I was driving with Shami, I tried to focus on getting to know him better and learning more about Rwanda and his background... and less on the trucks barreling down the hill in front of me... in my lane.

We stopped in a town called Mbarara for lunch, though I sat in the car with a couple sleeping kids. Everyone came back beaming: they had bought delicious samosas filled with spiced ground beef and veggies... and muffins! No better road trip food! Kathy and Alezah were particularly in love with the samosas, and made vows to stop at that exact Nakumatt on the way home to get more. I'm pretty sure they claimed it was the best food they'd ever had, ever. (This kinda sounds like the lead-in for a "You know you might be traveling in a developing country when..." joke, right? But true.)

It rained for a good part of our trip, and you can imagine how traveling on bad roads turns into a nightmare when the rain turns everything to mud. I say this because our 6 hour trip ended up turning into a 10 hour trip... and at the end, when we finally descended down into the flat plain of the national park, the kids had been occupying themselves by playing "hide and seek" between the back seat and the back of the small SUV. (I think that says a lot about all our state of minds at the time.)

In truth, I didn't really mind the drive. I love seeing countries from the ground, and it was a beautiful drive. (This was taken from the car as we drove through Uganda.)

We arrived at our hostel after dark (because we were so close to the equator here, there are exactly 12 hours of dark and daylight, every day, all year round.) We ordered some food to share and the kids started playing out the yard... until we were informed that they shouldn't really play in the yard after dark: there are lions around here. Oops. Right. Forgot about that.

Early to bed... we head out on the safari at 5:30 tomorrow morning!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Day 3

Life thankfully slowed down a little after we arrived in Kigali... but don't worry, there are plenty more adventures ahead.

Emily and Shami drove us to our guest house. And holy cow, people, my sister drives like a BOSS. Think of driving in Haiti at 3 times the speed (or maybe LA?!) and imagine my sister, down-shifting, darting in and out of traffic, on and off roads, off the shoulder, back on the road, around buses and construction trucks... all while holding a pleasant conversation. Kathy and I compared notes later and decided after three "OH MY GOSH I think I'm going to DIE" moments, you pretty much just adjust.

So we got dinner and crashed that night. It felt so good to just lie in a prone position (though maybe not as good as that soft marble had been...).

The next day we were up and at 'em, headed to the local grocery chain Nakumatt (you will see this becoming a theme) to get Rwandan coffee and tea. The locals drink "milk tea" which is basically homemade chai tea with milk. Cadbury chocolate is also very commonly sold, which, us being American girls, was basically impossible to resist. We also went to a fabric seller at the market and I bought fabric. (Emily's friend is a tailor and she made bags for my girls and a skirt and dress for me.)

Emily took the kids back to the guest house and Shami took Kathy, Alezah and I to the national genocide memorial. It was very eye-opening and... tragic. Ninety days, 1 million people dead. So much senseless insane killing. All this behind-the-scenes information that never made our news... western countries taking sides and "playing chess" with this small country. It's hard to believe, when you are in Kigali, that it's literally been only 19 years since the genocide. In such a short time, the country has made huge strides forward. Their parliament has the highest percentage of females in the world. There is no more Tutsi or Hutu, there is simply Rwandese. The capital is clean and safe and you can sense the people are trying hard to move forward as a country, to put their awful, bloody past behind them. Of course there is and always will be fires to put out, but overall, it was highly impressive to see how far they, as an independent nation and people, have come.

We fell asleep that night to the sound of rain drumming on the roof, and I wrote,  "There is not much sweeter than the sound of rain in Rwanda."

-- to be continued

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Day 2

I'm guessing you were duly impressed by last entry's airline shenanigans, as were Kathy, Alezah and I. Not to worry... it gets even better from here!

Our flight from DC to Addis (we found out when they announced it over the PA system) was to be 12 hours and 50 minutes. Somehow in all our rush, none of the three of us had actually confirmed the flight length, and were all making an "educated guess" of 8-10 hours. Nope. Thirteen hours it is, and with leaving DC at 10:15am, that's a good solid full day of 4 kids awake on a plane.

The flight itself was actually pretty uneventful. I passed around lollipops and when the first meal came out (my kids' first ever airline meal) the boys in particular were extremely excited. In fact one of them loudly declared this to be the best airplane ride ever in his entire life. There were a few minor teary melt-downs (after 11 hours I was feeling pretty stir-crazy myself) but thanks to a few dozen movies and bathroom breaks, all in all we made it just fine. We arrived in Addis around 6am local time, prepared for a few hours' layover before our flight to Entebbe/ Kigali.

We exited security to the main waiting area. Hallie had just fallen asleep on the plane, and fell asleep again as soon as she sat down. About a half hour later we were called to go through security again, and made it to another waiting area where Kathy and Will joined Hallie in sleep. After more than an hour of waiting in the stuffy room, we decided to poke around a bit.... we found the main hallway to be much cooler than the waiting area and set up camp there. Alezah, using a backpack for a pillow, declared as she laid on the floor fully outstretched (for the first time in 24 hours), "This is the most comfortable floor I have ever laid on." I started laughing and she clarified, "I mean, I know it's marble, but... it's like a soft marble."

We waited awhile longer, and we were finally called for boarding. We got up and got the kids moving, happy because we were sure that our long and exhausting trip and our travel troubles were nearly behind us. Once again.... not so fast, savvy travelers. 

Although our flight uneventfully boarded and lifted off, we hit some fairly intense turbulence shortly thereafter. I'm focused on keeping the kids thinking this is all fun and games, when out of the corner of my eye I see a center ceiling compartment pop partially open. This is not where the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling (and you assist the child beside you after securing your own mask) but rather what is possibly an electrical panel... we can see some small aluminum tanks and some wires/hoses inside the partially open compartment. I assume the latch jiggled loose during the turbulence... and that it's no big deal. Not so the Egyptian woman seated just behind the panel... she thinks (we later find out) it's a bomb or a gas leak... and immediately passes out. Her posse of travelers jump to their feet and start yelling in Arabic. They are pointing to their noses and claiming they smell a gas leak. The flight attendants start yelling at people to sit down (no one listens) and momentarily, the plane starts banking sharply. People are fanning the still-out-cold lady and emphatically pantomiming to each other, pointing at the ceiling, and insisting something is drastically wrong. Five minutes later I notice we are preparing to land... and that the terrain looks awfully familiar... yes, we are back in Addis. Apparently the pilot heard the ruckus and decided to turn back. Alrighty then.

Once on the ground, the lady begins to stir, and a doctor who happened to be on board comes back to check her out. When the pilot shows up to check out the ceiling panel/ angry passenger situation, the Egyptians mob him and start yelling and gesturing about the stupid popped-open ceiling panel. They demand we get a new plane, that they will not fly on this one. The pilot acquiesces, and we all troop out of the plane and back into the terminal. When the airline staff announces free lunch for us all at the "restaurant" (really a small snack bar), the entire 200-person flight leaves en masse, leaving our group of 7 alone in the boarding area. One of the last to leave, a yellow-and-black striped shirted man tries to convince our weary party to join the happy eaters ("Just trust me! Do you trust me? DO YOU TRUST ME?") and once Kathy makes it clear that, no, we don't trust you; sorry, strange and random guy, we want to stay here and sleep, he leaves in a huff. Exhaustion takes over and we all crash out soundly on the now-empty benches, floors and chairs for an hour or two. Finally, finally we get wind that our plane will be departing soon. (When I go check, I am told we will leave "Whenever everyone gets back from lunch," and I am sorely tempted to go yell at everyone to get their tails in gear RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE!!!) 

We eventually head back outside to re-board, and the plane looks oddly familiar. We hush the kids who are commenting such, as we do not wish to incite another riot. The plane takes off... we hit turbulence and ... yep, you guessed it: the compartment jostles open again. This time the flight attendants are on it, and keep everyone calm. The previously ill lady begins fanning herself and lies down. I tell the flight attendants with great conviction and confidence that I have absolutely seen this happen before in the States and there is nothing wrong with the plane. It is simply a loose latch on the compartment. They seem dumbfounded and tell me they have never seen this happen before. I reassure them it's very common (ok, so maybe a slight exaggeration)... and they seem to take heart. The Egyptians start waving their hands and pointing to their noses again but they are told everything is fine, and miraculously everyone stays (mostly) calm. After we clear the rough patch, several of the men get out of their seats, go to the back of the plane and help themselves to the beverage cart. They laugh and joke and high five each other while standing and lounging about, as if they own the place. One cocky middle-aged guy squeezes Olivia's face and loudly kisses her cheek -- after which I move her to the window seat. We uneventfully descend into Entebbe and everyone cheers, with the guy in front me saluting and calling out "allah akbar!"  

We sit on the ground in Entebbe for awhile and then leave for Kigali. When we finally spot Emily and Shami's beaming faces outside of customs, a load is lifted off all our shoulders and we heave a huge collective sigh of relief. We. actually. made. it. (!!!) Let our (actual) adventures begin. 

-- to be continued

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Day 1

Dan and I made plans about a year ago to go to Kigali, Rwanda, home of my sister, the fabulous Emily Haas and her amazing boyfriend Shami. About two weeks before we left, Dan was informed he had training for work in Pittsburgh and had to bail on the trip. We (crazy) 7 decided to go on alone.

My sister Emily works for World Relief, has lived in Kigali for 2.5 years and is completely fluent in Kinyarwanda, the local language. Shami is the marketing director at a bank and is a really great guy.  I admire them both greatly!

Our journey to get to Rwanda was EPICALLY crazy. Take it from someone who has traveled a fair bit... it pretty much doesn't get any crazier than this. Hang on to your seats. ;)

Our traveling team of me, 4 kids, cousin Kathy, and friend Alezah were scheduled to fly via United from Philly to DC, and then via Ethiopian to Addis Ababa (capital of Ethiopia) and then after a stop in Entebbe, Uganda, on to Kigali, Rwanda.


We spend the night at a hotel by the airport... get up at 3:45, leave at 4 on the shuttle, planning to make it through airport security and to our gate in plenty of time for our departure at 6:05. HA. HA. HA. Not so fast, savvy travelers. Upon attempted check in at the United counter, I noticed the very brusque and unsympathetic worker doing some sort of mental math. Then she makes a phone call. Then she counts on her fingers. At which point she announces I will not be allowed to go on the trip. She says Rwanda requires a passport to be valid for 6 months after entry (i.e.: until March 22, 2014) and mine expires on.... March 19, 2014. Yep. THREE DAYS short of six months. Keep in mind, it's 4:30 am, and I am completely bewildered and baffled and on the verge of tears. What..... just what in the world to do? Unhelpful airline agent begins giving highly helpful advice such as, "Well, they can all go on without you!" (no, thank you, those are my four kids...) or "You can try calling the emergency passport hotline... however they are not open on weekends." (and this is 4:30 on a SATURDAY morning....)

After a few minutes the agent leaves, and I ask another agent if she is coming back. She is not. We are on our own. I have been texting Dan and Emily (who is at a road rally in a village; don't ask...) -- Em is convinced we can get on the flight. We will be receiving 3-month visas upon entering the country, and she swears up and down that Rwanda will not care about the 3-day lapse. After pulling myself together and talking with Kathy and Alezah, we decide to catch a cab to the train station in downtown Philly and try to catch a train to DC, hopefully with enough time to make our flight.

After we arrive at the station, we realize the train goes to center-city DC, and Dulles airport is a good 30-40 minutes outside the city... annnnd the train will not even arrive in time for us to get to the airport. Desperate, I call Ethiopian airlines and tell them we will likely be missing our flight to Addis, and ask if there is there any way we can reschedule for the same flight the next day. Yes, sure is, the lady tells me, for an upgrade fee of $2200 per person. Well. There goes that idea. (Keep in mind, this entire time the kids are asking a milllllllion questions. Why aren't we going? What are we doing? Are we going to miss our flight? Why are we at the train station? What is going on? I can't even think how to explain the situation to them and am really trying to brainstorm ideas so we can just GO.... and am getting more and more stressed by the second.)

I start feeling sick so I head to the restroom... where (although I've eaten nothing) I promptly throw up. I am so stressed I can't even think of what I should be thinking.... everything is just crashing in around me. All our plans! All our hopes! Emily! AAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!

I come out of the bathroom and have plopped down on the wooden bench when I hear Kathy saying that she and Alezah think we should drive to DC, that we have a chance at making our flight if we drive straight there. It's worth a shot... so we grab the kids and our luggage and catch a cab back to the airport hotel where my van is parked. We throw everything in and hit the road for DC. I drive 80-90 the whole way, hoping and praying we won't get pulled over/ we don't hit traffic/ we actually get on the plane. The kids and Alezah fall asleep and Kathy and I mindlessly talk about colleges and old friends, anything to keep our minds off the very real possibility that we won't make the flight and we will be driving back home this same exact route shortly.

When we left Philly, we thought if we could make the drive in 2 hours, we would have an hour and a half-ish to park, check in, get through security, and board. (Not great, especially considering the "requirement" of arriving 3 hours before an international flight.) So. Flight leaves at 10:15. At about ten till 9 we roll in. We haul the kids and luggage out of the car, and rush heedlessly into the airport. Kathy takes off to park the car, and Alezah and I round the corner inside.... to a longggg line of Ethiopians, waiting in the check in line. I am panicked and sweating. Kids resume asking questions. I am praying and hoping that all these people are not here for the flight after ours. Hoping against hope, I ask the guy in front of me what flight he is on. "No problem," he cheerfully says! "All these people are waiting in line for your flight! You will absolutely make it." For the first time in hours, I catch a glimpse of hope. Kathy shows up, we wait another 10 minutes in line, and when I finally hand the stack of 7 passports over to the Ethiopian agent, she issues my 14 boarding passes, checks our bags, and waves us off toward security. Not a WORD about my stupid passport expiration. Thanks a lot, United lady. GRRR. We make it onto the plane, and I am texting Emily and Dan in sheer relief. We made it. We are on our way to Rwanda! This is too good to be true.

-- to be continued

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Home and tired...

So... our little 7-man African travel contingent made its way out of Dulles airport Monday morning... maybe around 8am. After driving to Philly and dropping off my two erstwhile adult traveling companions, I managed the 2-hour trek home... just me and the kids. Yeah, that was a little rough, especially coming off 24 hours of travel.

I came home, unpacked, started laundry, and fell asleep at 6pm for a solid 11 hour night. Yesterday was slightly better; I made it to 7:30 before Olivia and I fell asleep together for the night.

Tonight my goal is to make it 8:00. I think I can, I think I can... 

I have notes from my trip that I thought I would turn into a blog series... over the next week or so. If and when I can scrape together the time. All in all it was a GREAT trip and I am SO glad we went. Seeing Emily on her home turf was basically the highlight of my year. I am so stinking proud of her and the life she has made and is making for herself in Rwanda! She's amazing.