Day 32 – The Last Day

On our last day I woke up early, my body used to getting up for early tours and flights. I watched the sun rise up over the hills outside and went upstairs to buy some water and ask what time we needed to check out.

I was completely distracted from my errands, however, when I turned a corner into the lobby and there was Mama Yves, standing by the check in desk. She yelled and gave me a huge hug and stroked my hair and spoke in rapid, excited Kinyarwanda. The woman at reception laughed and said, “She says she missed you!”

Mama grabbed my hand and led me to the kitchen, where she’s working now that she’s not at the house, and started doling out a huge plate of breakfast and I laughed and asked her to wait for a moment and then ran downstairs to gather the others. There was another happy reunion and then we all sat down to a delicious breakfast of ginger tea, fruit salad, toast, and crepes.

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After breakfast we moto-ed to the house and picked up the bags we’d left there and gave Issa a few more hugs. Then we went back to the hostel to pack up our stuff and move it into a storage room for the rest of the day.

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I broke off from the group and hopped on a moto to N.’s, as he’d asked me a few days ago if I’d be able to stop by. My driver took me a bumpy route to Gikondo, where N. met me on the side of the road and helped guide me through the maze of streets to his compound. I’d met one of his roommates on our last day in Kigali, but he told me that the other one wanted to meet me too and that he’d promised I’d come by.

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I’m still amazed by how friendly and welcoming everybody in Rwanda is. N.’s first roommate, who I’d met before, gave me a huge hug and called out, “Muzungu!” when I arrived.

The other roommate shook my hand and ushered me inside. Him, N., and I sat on the floor and listened to music and looked at photos and joked around until, at about 11:30 a.m., I told N. that we’d better head back to the hostel to meet the others.

He stopped me, “Is it okay if we’re late?” He asked.

I felt myself furrow my brow. I wanted to be back in time to see J.P. and Julius, who were swinging by to say hi on their lunch breaks. “Well how late? You need to get ready? You don’t need to dress up for J.P.,” I joked.

“No, you must stay for dinner!” He insisted.

It turned out his roommates had teamed up to cook lunch and that I was a guest for the meal. I stopped teasing and started trying to express my gratitude.

N. set up a table mat on the ground and wiped it clean, and then his roommate brought in an impressive array of dishes: rice, a beef and tomato stew, beans, and ugali, a sort of dough made from cassava flour and water. I commented that it smelled good and for some reason everybody thought that was a very funny thing for me to say. Then we sat cross-legged on the floor and dipped into the steaming meal.

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Before I left, N. took my camera around the compound and took photos of his roommates and neighbours, and of me with his roommates and neighbours, and then got his roommates and neighbours to take photos of him and me. Then we loaded them onto his computer to immortalize the morning.

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N. and I moto-ed to the hostel and made it there just as J.P. was climbing out of his car. We sat on the porch of the hostel and talked with him until he had to run back to work for the afternoon. Then Julius came and we decided to go to a nearby burrito restaurant for lunch.

N. and Cedric, a friend who works as a manager at a Kigali TV station, met us there and we all sat around and ate our wraps, tomato juice dripping down our wrists. N. and I shared one, since it was technically our second lunch. I snapped a photo of the happy family, everybody smiling except A., whose mouth was full of rice and guacamole.

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Julius, D., and Cedric had to leave after lunch, and so the six of us remaining wandered slowly back to the hostel to sit around and hang out until our flight time. A. stopped at a little open air bar on the side of the road and challenged a man there to a game of pool and we all sat around and acted as his adoring cheerleaders. He won 2/3 games.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the hostel, chatting and waiting for our departure time. At 5:30 we transited to the airport and, after a round of hugs and promises to see each other again, us four Canadians disappeared into the airport. As we sat at the gate in Kigali, waiting to board our flight to Brussels via Nairobi, I asked Noah if he was sad. Sad to leave Kigali, he said, but now that we were officially on our way, he also felt like it was okay to start getting excited for home. I agreed.

It’s been about 20 hours of travel now and we still have another five to go, but it feels as though we’re in the final stretch. Since I started writing we’ve officially made it across the Atlantic, so if we had to make an emergency landing right now, we’d end up in the Martimes. There is something comforting about knowing that, 2,677 metres down from where we are now, there is Canadian soil.

Sitting here, in the in-between of flight, all I can think is how incredibly lucky I am to leave one beautiful place and head towards another; and for all the people who said “Goodbye” in Kigali, and the ones who greet me in Ottawa and say “Welcome home.”

Photo by Chelsea Giesel

Photo by Chelsea Giesel

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Day 31: Kigali homecoming

By the time we landed in Kigali Monday night it was dark out and we were two hours behind schedule. We went through customs, found our bags, and lugged them out into the dark air. Outside the airport was the usual pack of drivers and loved ones, waiting to pick people up and drive them into the city. We trudged by wordlessly, eager to find a cab and get to our hostel.

In Tanzania, I learned to ignore the various tour operators, hotel advertisers, and taxi drivers that swarm you at entrance points to the city, so when a man called out to us, “Hey guys!” I decided not to turn around. But then I heard Kirsten and Chelsea screaming behind me.

I swung around as they broke into overjoyed laughter. There, dwarfed beneath cast-aside bags and bear hugs, were N. and A. I yelled and ran to join in the reunion frenzy.

N. and A. told us they’d been waiting for three hours, since 5 p.m. As we gathered our stuff and headed to find a taxi for all of us, I tilted my head up to the Kigali stars and laughed, not because anything was funny, just because there was too much excess happiness inside and I needed to let some out into the cool night air.

We arrived at the hostel together, a giddy tangle of young people. Noah, Chelsea, Kirsten and I checked in and got keys and then all six of us went down to our room. I fished out some Rwandan Francs that I’d been saving in my money purse and Noah went for a beer and Fanta run and we all found spots on the floor and bunk beds and talked and looked at photos from Tanzania and everything felt comfortable and easy and rose tinted.

At about midnight, our bottles drained, we decided on a late-night excursion to the house that had been our home for the course. It really speaks to how amazingly safe Kigali is that even after midnight we felt no hesitation going for a 40 minute walk. In all the cities we visited in Tanzania (and in some parts of Ottawa, for that matter) we never would have done that.

The air was beautiful and cool outside and the stars were bright. We walked down the Meridian, past the Umubano Hotel and to the sign for the Adventist Dentist (Noah and I laughed. It’s tradition.). Then we turned down a quieter cobblestone street and strolled past some NGO headquarters, across a street, and to our old driveway.

We knocked on the gate, even though it was late, just in case Issa, our old security guard was around. A new guard opened the door, and just as I began to apologize and back up, embarrassed, A. stepped up and started charming the new guard in Kinyarwanda, and then disappeared onto the other side of the gate.

He returned a few minutes later with a sleepy Issa, who looked surprised and delighted. We all exchanged big hugs and promised to come back the next day to pick up some items we’d left there.

When we left the compound, the new guard locked the gate behind us, a clattering reminder that we’d only belonged there temporarily.

But we weren’t quite ready to leave, so we sat on the cement driveway and talked a little about life and searched the sky for the orange glow of Mars. I felt a combination of nostalgia and peace, a quiet acceptance of the way time constantly moves forward.

As Noah put it, it felt like rereading a book that had once been a childhood favourite.

N. and A. hopped on motos home from there and after a group hug, Noah, Chelsea, Kirsten and I walked back to the hostel. The beds were comfortable and I fell instantly asleep.

Day 30 and 31: Flying out of Tanzania

I’m writing from 39,000 feet in the air. Our plane is travelling 568 miles per hour and we are 1,994 miles from Brussels, and 1,483 miles from Montreal. Further from Kigali, closer to Ottawa.

Yesterday Noah and I spoke about how planes are like twilight zones. You leave the earth’s surface and suddenly you’re stranded between what happened and what will happen. You have to pause before fully ending one reality and landing in another. That’s where I am right now, somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean, half of my heart in Rwanda, half nestled in my Ottawa apartment, waiting for the rest of my body to arrive.

We’ve been on many planes in the last couple of days. On Sunday we took an early bus from Babati to Moshi, near Kilimanjaro. I watched the sun rise over green mountains and an errant herd of zebras, grazing beside the highway just outside of Tarangire Park. The sky was cloudy in Moshi, so, despite our proximity, we couldn’t see Kilimanjaro’s famous peak.

We had nowhere to go in Moshi, so we took a vote and decided to head to the airport early. We spent most of our day curled up on the plastic chairs there, using the free wifi, and, in my case, reading Noah’s copy of Breakfast of Champions cover to cover.

In the evening, we flew back to Dar es Salaam.

The next morning we returned to the Dar airport and boarded a flight to Nairobi. We had a four hour layover in Nairobi, which turned into five hours after our original flight was cancelled and we were rescheduled. By the time we boarded our flight to Kigali, via Bujumbura, we were exhausted and ready to return to the city that was home for a month.

Tanzania had one more gift before we officially said goodbye, though. After our plane took off from Nairobi and turned towards Bujumbura, the man in front of me leaned his chair back, nodded out the window and whispered “Can you see Kili?”

There was Africa’s most famous mountain, rising into the blue sky, the only piece of earth visible above the cloud cover. “Wow,” I exhaled. “That’s amazing.”

Day 29: Kolo ancient rock paintings

This morning we had breakfast at 7 a.m., then piled into another four by four. Joas’s eighth son, Dr. Christian, was our driver for the day. He told us that he hadn’t taken a tour group to the paintings in a couple of years, since he’d been busy working at the local hospital.

We drove out of town for what Joas had said would be ten kilometres, but felt much further. Then the road came to an end and we began to drive down a bone-rattling, car-frame shaking, tire-puncturing dirt road. When we stopped, a couple hours later, in the town of Kolo, our ears were ringing.

In Kolo, we registered to go see the rock paintings, which are government property, and picked up a government guide. Then we turned out of the village and onto yet another road, this one even rockier than the last. In the absence of seatbelts, we gripped the bottoms of our seats.

Eventually we pulled to a stop at the end of the road and took a short walk uphill to the rock painting sites, Kolo B1, B2, and B3. Each of the sites consist of large rocks overhanging patches of dirt that used to house our human ancestors, some ten thousand years ago.

The paintings show giraffes, elephants, leopards, and people, all drawn in red ochre. Some have faded with time, but others are amazingly vibrant considering the fact that they’ve been around twice as long as the pyramids.

It was an almost spiritual experience, peering at the artwork and trying to imagine our earliest ancestors living under those rocks.

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We had a picnic lunch at the bottom of the hill, agreeing that the paintings had been the perfect way to end our days of touring. Tomorrow we travel back to Dar, then we’re flying to Kigali the day after tomorrow, and then on to Canada.

I feel tired in that quiet, satisfied way. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the chance to see these amazing places, and I feel as though I’ve seen everything I set out to see this trip. But I’m also feeling grateful for the fact that I’m headed home soon.

It’ll be a slow journey back, with pit stops in now-familiar cities, but I’m happy that’s the direction in which we’re moving.

Days 26-28: Arusha/Tarangire/Ngorongoro

I’m writing at the end of three days of adventure. I feel dusty, tired, amazed, and ready to begin our journey towards home tomorrow. It feels as though we’ve lived out multiple lifetimes since the last time I wrote. We’ve seen and done so many things.

On Wednesday we left the sticky heat of Zanzibar and travelled to Arusha, in the north of the country. It was a full day of travel: a blissfully air conditioned boat ride to Dar, lunch in the city, and then a flight to Kilimanjaro, where we were picked up by our hostel owner and driven to Arusha.

We stayed the night in a funny little hostel, a house, really, only $11 for a meals and a bunk bed under low-hanging mosquito netting. We arrived after dark so I didn’t get much of a feel for Arusha, but a sign in the entrance to the hostel told visitors not to walk around the city at night. The temperature there was much cooler and the people and culture were less Arabic and Muslim and more Christian.

The next morning we ate breakfast and sat in the living room until a honking outside the compound gate signalled our departure time. We walked outside and found a huge four by four in the driveway. We piled into the vehicle and rollicked around the town, visiting an ATM, making our final tour payments, and buying water and snacks.

Then we were off, headed for Tarangire National Park: home to many, many elephants.

Again, the scenery in northern Tanzania struck us as completely different from Zanzibar, Dar, or anywhere in Rwanda. The diversity even within one country makes North American generalizations about “Africa” seem ridiculous.

On our way to Tarangire we admired huge fields of maize, stretching out to the base of blue-tinged mountains in the distance. Masaai men and women, in their checked shawls and rubber-tire-sandals, herded their cattle with long sticks. We saw homes of brick and mud and straw roofs, as well as huge, western-style buildings with white walls and red roofs.

Tarangire did not disappoint. The park was spotted with wide Baobao trees, some thousands of years old, their bottom halves stripped and worn by elephants looking for something to rub their hides against. We spotted multiple herds of mother and baby elephants, and some massive grey males travelling solo, their wrinkled skin sagging around their eyes.

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We spent about four hours in the park in total and spotted giraffes, zebra, buffalo, impalas, warthogs, jackals, multiple bird species, the backside of a lion, and a cheetah, in addition to the elephants. We had a picnic lunch in the park, shielding our food from thieving monkeys.

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We “camped” out at Haven Nature Lodge. The quotation marks are necessary because there was running water, flush toilets, and cots set up in our tents. Our cook, Moses, made us leek soup, rice, and meat stew for dinner. After dinner a local group performed some traditional dancing for all the tourists, and then we slunk into bed and called it an early night.

We were up for 6 a.m. breakfast the next morning, beating the Tanzanian sun by about half an hour. Then it was back into our safari vehicle for the drive to Ngorongoro crater. Ngorongoro was once a massive mountain, possibly bigger than Kilimanjaro, but a volcanic explosion caused it to collapse into a caldera. Today, the crater cradles a huge variety of wildlife, lakes, swamps, and grasslands, all ringed by mountainous walls of rock and trees.

The rim of the crater was cloudy as we approached and it was difficult to tell exactly what was down below, but Benny assured us that, on the crater floor, it would be clear.

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Sure enough, as we began to descend the inner wall, we broke through the clouds and found ourselves viewing one of the most amazing landscapes I’ve ever seen: brown grasses dotted with the dark silhouettes of wildebeest and buffalo, a shimmering silver lake tinged pink by countless flamingos, and the green ridges of the crater’s walls, rising up into the clouds.

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We spent the day driving around the crater, getting amazingly close to a variety of animals, many that we hadn’t seen the day before. Safari guides and goers use the “big five” checklist. It’s a list of animals that hunters originally coined when referring to the most valuable species of animals in the region: elephants, rhinos, hippos, leopards, and lions.

We saw elephants in Tarangire, and hippos and lions up close in Ngorogo. We also spotted a rhino from the distance, and the backside of a fleeing leopard. Four and a half, said Benny. Pretty good for a two day excursion.

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From Ngorogoro, Benny drove us to a bus stop, and we piled out of the car and ran to catch a bus to the small town of Babati, the base from which we would leave for our rock painting tour. The bus was completely full and we spent about half an hour standing in the aisle, almost falling over from the weight of our bags, before some seats freed up. In total, it was about an hour and a half to Babati.

We exited the bus and asked a shop owner for directions to Kahembe’s Guest House, owned by the same man who organized our rock painting tour. He told us to walk three minutes down the road behind the bus station and that we’d see it.

The guest house is a funny, run down place. It falsely advertises hot showers. It does not advertise cleanliness. At least they didn’t lie about that.

Joas Kahembe, the guest house owner and tour operator came to greet us and scold me for not calling ahead of time to warn him about what time we’d be arriving.

We paid him our remaining fees and he chatted our ears off about his eight children and philosophy about the need for “cultural tourism” to prove that there are people here in Tanzania, not just animals. He’s a funny, leathery man, confident enough in his life philosophy to espouse it to Canadian strangers, but also kind of charming in his self-assurance.

Joas took us to a small restaurant for dinner and we paid about $7.50 (in total, not each) for heaping plates of rice, beef stew, bitter steamed green vegetables, and beans. By the time we finished eating it was dark out. We walked back to the guest house and Joas advised us not to “tempt people” here by going outside with electronics, bags, or large sums of cash after dark.

Heeding his advice, I opted to stay in for the night. I was feeling a little homesick, a sign that the trip must be coming to its natural end, so I pulled on my pyjamas and huddled in my dingy little bed and tried very hard to fall asleep, knowing that the morning light would help illuminate this beautiful place and get me excited for a few more days of travel.

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Day 25: Beach/Ochu+Abdul

Another day in Zanzibar paradise.

We slept in this morning and then Kirsten and I went to Mtoni Marine beach, a swath of white sand just off from a resort. We lay around for three hours, napping in the sun and cooling off by wading into the water.

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Then it was back to the hostel where I napped and skyped home. We returned to the market for dinner and feasted on shawarma and pineapple Fanta.

Our new friends, Ochu and Abdul joined us for shisha and ice cream and taught us bits and pieces of Swahili: “Give me five” is “Nipe Tano” and “It’s all cool” is “Kila kitu poa poa.”

Because our English names are too difficult to say, Ochu dubbed Kirsten “Malkia,” or, “queen,” and they called me “Malaika,” or, “angel.”

At one point a young girl, Lila, came to join us. She was sweet and smiley but quiet, her head covered in a black scarf. It was her 17th birthday.

We played a game around the table in which one person covers their eyes and somebody from the table taps them. Then the person with their eyes covered has to guess who tapped them. Sort of like Seven Up.

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Eventually Kirsten, Chelsea and I decided to head back home to our hostel. It’s our last night here but we need to get to bed early, as we have an early boat ride back to Dar in the morning. Then on to Arusha for our safari!

Day 24: Exploring Stone Town

Noah found an online guide to Stone Town last night. It had ten tips for tourists. Today, we completed number 7: Get Lost.

Before heading out we had a big breakfast on the rooftop—mango and durian, eggs, chapatti, sausage and doughnuts. Zanzibari food is delicious. It’s one of those places that has the perfect combination of factors for culinary delights: a tropical climate that produces spices and exotic fruits, and an island location that’s been influenced by a variety of cultures.

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After breakfast we grabbed our cameras and a gigantic bottle of water and headed out into the sticky heat. Like Venice or Havana, Stone Town is a tangle of crumbling beauty. The streets are narrow and the buildings crowded. The city is known for its array of ornate wooden doors, carved into spiralling flower patterns.

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We wandered into the tourist market and haggled for souvenirs from cunning craftsmen. The most interesting store was an antique shop, filled with dusty books in Arabic, old gin bottles dating back to British colonial rule, little metal Ganesh statues, and ornate glass lamps.

From the craft market we wound through the fabric market and into the fish market which is part of the Darajani Bazaar. The Bazaar is over a hundred years old but remains lively and colourful. Vendors called out to us, trying to sell us fruit and vegetables.

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Kirsten and I stopped at a spice stall and bought chai masala and Zanzibar tandoori mixes. Zanzibar is famous for its spices and was once a major hub in the spice trade. Even now, a guide told us later in the day, much of the economy relies on the sale of cloves.

We took a tour of the palace museum, where the Sultan of Zanzibar used to live. The building is huge and white with beautiful big verandas and original ebony furniture, hand carved in India and China. The architecture, our guide explained, had Arabic-style arches but is laid out in a very Indian style.

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There is a room in the palace dedicated to Princess Salme, the daughter of a sultan. She fell in love with and married a German man, and was subsequently disowned by her family, so she moved to Germany and changed her name to Emily. Salme/Emily wrote her memoirs, calling them, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar. It is the first known book written by an Arab woman.

By the time we exited the palace the sun had emerged and it was too hot to keep walking. We returned to the hostel, where I took a cold shower and nap. I also managed to Skype home for the first time since leaving. It was strange to see my little apartment in Ottawa. As much as I’m loving the adventure, seeing home made me feel happy that I’ll be back there in nine days.

We set out again when the sun was lower in the sky.

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We’ve been adopted by two local boys, Ochu and Abdul, who always seem to be hanging around the seawall, diving into the water and chatting up tourists. They’re both students in Dar es Salaam, they say, but they’re on their summer breaks for now and are visiting their parents. Abdul works part time as a vendor at the nightly food market.

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Tonight, Ochu and Abdul led us to a spot on the seawall where boys were diving into the water and Noah took a turn at it. The crowd went wild at the sight of the white boy joining the native islanders in diving into the water. Chelsea, Kirsten and I sat to the side and watched. At one point I said, “Don’t you just feel like Noah is our little wild-child son?” They laughed and agreed.

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We had dinner at the night market, visiting the different stalls and tasting skewers of fish, shrimp, scallops and chicken with garlic naan and vegetarian samosas. We bought one of everything and shared our plates. My favourite was the shawarma, dripping with garlic sauce and tucked into small wraps. For dessert we had a sweet Zanzibar Pizza—basically a chapatti stuffed with Nutella, banana, and freshly shaved coconut.

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After dinner we waddled back down the seawall and Noah, Ochu and Abdul took turns diving into the water again. Eventually Noah returned to us, soggy and breathless, and we strolled back down the main street and to our hostel.

Now it’s about 10:20 p.m. and we’re relaxing on the rooftop. The air is finally a pleasant temperature. Somewhere in the streets below there is yelling, a drum beat, and a stray cat howling into the night. Stray cats are everywhere here, especially at night, mangy and skinny and eager to nibble up leftovers from night market customers.

Tomorrow we are going to search for a beach to photograph and swim at. This island living is pretty easy to get used to.

Day 23: Goodbye Kigali, hello Stone Town

I’m writing on a rooftop in Stone Town, Tanzania.

It’s been a whirlwind past couple of days. Kirsten, Noah, Chelsea and I bid Kigali a tearful goodbye just over 24 hours ago and now we’re writing from a completely different world.

Stone Town is one of the most interesting and beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s located on the island of Zanzibar, in the Indian Ocean. The old part of town, where we are staying, is an amazing mix up of cultures. It used to be a popular trading post for slaves and spices and now there is still a heavy Islamic and Arabian influence, but also African, Indian, and Thai.

Many of the buildings are crumbling pieces of history. There are white sand beaches and palm trees. It’s hot and humid and colourful.

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It was a long journey to get here. We flew out of Kigali at about 5:30 p.m. yesterday, barely making our flight after a mix-up at the airport. By the time we got into Dar es Salaam it was after midnight and dark out. We drove into the city, unsettled by the flat landscape and moisture in the air. Already, we could tell that we were far from Kigali.

We stayed in a two bedroom suite on the tenth floor of a little hotel, enjoying the hot showers and wifi before collapsing into bed. This morning we rose early enough to enjoy some complimentary breakfast. There was delicious chai masala, tasting of India. Another sign of how, only one country over from Kigali, life is different here.

We left the hotel and headed for the ferry terminal, feeling funny walking amidst the tall buildings and towards the ocean. The ferry terminal was buzzing with activity: women in brightly coloured headscarves and men swarming us, trying to sell tickets. Noah was designated as the ticket purchaser, and he disappeared into a small office to take care of everything while us girls waited outside.

From there, we were escorted through security by two friendly men who grabbed our bags and kept repeating “haukuna matata.” We pushed our way through the crowd and security. On the boat, we were escorted to the top floor and took a seat at the very back of the boat.

While we waited to leave the breeze was pleasant, but once we slipped out of the port, the boat turned around and the front part of the ship blocked the wind. The temperature shot up. About an hour into the trip, I felt nauseous. Noah, being the gentleman he is, went in search of water.

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I curled into a ball on the floor and closed my eyes and took deep breaths. I thought of how unspeakably miserable it would have been to make the same journey as a slave, on their way to be sold in the Arabic slave trade, and counted my blessings that my own discomfort was mild and temporary.

I woke up to Noah and Kirsten’s excited voices as we began to pull into port. From the boat we could see dozens of smaller wooden fishing vessels, a white sand beach, palm trees, and pastel buildings topped with minarets.

We disembarked and wandered, trying to find our hostel. Eventually, a man led us there, insisting that he just wanted to guide us for free and welcome us to the island. The Princess Salme hostel is in a pretty pale building. We have a small, clean room with two sets of bunk beds. There are only two other people staying here.

After working out payments with the front desk, we wandered down the main strip of road, just as the sun began to lower in the sky. The seawall was alive with people on their evening strolls and young boys running, jumping off the stone walls and flipping into the ocean. Vendors were beginning to set up their stalls in the Forodhani Gardens, where there is a nightly food market. We browsed the tables, laden with skewers of octopus tentacles and prawns, and decided to come back for dinner there tomorrow.

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Tonight, we had dinner at Mercury’s, a restaurant named after Zanzibar-native Freddy Mercury. I had an amazing seafood coconut curry and virgin pina colada. All of us agreed that this is one of the most amazing places we’ve ever been, but that we also missed our Kigali family.

After dinner we walked back to the seawall and sat at an outdoor table and shared a packet of shisha. We talked about life and travel through the haze of apple flavoured smoke. Kirsten and Chelsea sipped on sugar cane juice flavoured with lemon and ginger. Families, young people, tourists, and locals poured down the boardwalk, nibbling on treats from the night market.

Now we’re back at the hostel, relaxing before bedtime. Tomorrow our plan is to wander the town in the daylight and on Tuesday we’ll head to the beach. It still feels unreal that we’re here. I’ve never been any place like this, and I’m feeling the culture shock here much more than I did in Kigali. It’s good though. I’m feeling a sense of wonder at this exotic place, and a curiosity that’s making me excited to get up tomorrow morning and explore further.

Day 22: visiting N.’s home/closing ceremony

It was past 2 a.m. by the time I climbed up to my bunk last night. Despite this, I lay awake for a while, thinking, trying to soak in The Last Night. It’s difficult to leave a place and group of people when you’re not sure when (and if) you’ll be reunited again. And Rwanda is a truly amazing place with truly amazing people.

N. called me yesterday and asked if I’d like to meet up with him at his home and see his neighbourhood before the graduation party. I agreed, curious and honoured to be given such an intimate glance into his life.

Instead of telling me where to direct the moto, N. asked me to hand my cell phone over to the driver and they exchanged rapid Kinyarwanda with each other. I hopped on the bike and the driver buzzed to the Gikondo neighbourhood of the city. Then he turned off the main road, onto a bumpy dirt one. The streets narrowed and the people increased.

Eventually we pulled up to a corner where N. was standing and waiting with a plastic bag with two cold lemon Fantas. He walked me up to his housing compound, through a gate with two chickens perched on top of it.

The compound is large enough to host about 12 people, N. told me, including a couple of families. When we walked in the door I was greeted by a boy who shook my hand, one of N’s roommates, a woman cooking in the communal cooking space, and a baby sitting in a saucer. They were all friendly, but a little shy, giggling as I shook their hands.

Noel led me to his section of the building and said, “They are surprised to see a white.”

“Not too many visitors here look like me?” I asked.

“You’re the first.”

He pulled aside a curtain and led me into an entrance way. Behind another curtained door was the bedroom. The walls were teal cement and lit by a bare bulb in each room. The space was small, the entire bedroom filled by a couple of mattresses, but everything was clean and impeccably organized. A large stereo system was hooked up to N.’s laptop, playing French and American songs. A toddler kept peeking his head inside, then giggling and disappearing again whenever I made eye contact.

I gave N. some photos I’d printed for him a few days ago and he went and grabbed an album of old photos from a suitcase in his room. We sat and sipped Fanta and I flipped through faded family photos and N. told me about his life, his childhood, and the three girls in his life who have told him they love him.

I’d thought that I already knew him well, but over the course of the afternoon, I learned so much more about the quiet boy with whom I’ve become such good friends.

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At about 4 p.m. we hurried out and hailed a couple motos to take us back to the house. The lawn was arranged with 40 white chairs and Allan had purchased flowers to decorate the porch. A table was converted to a bar, its plastic frame practically bowing under the weight of all the bottles. A. had designated himself as the DJ for the night, and was sitting beside the speakers and scrolling on a laptop.

As the sun set we gathered on the lawn and Allan presented us with certificates and we all thanked everybody profusely. The rest of the evening had dancing and conversations and many hugs. There were some tears, but for the most part, I was composed.

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It’s not that I wasn’t sad to be leaving and it’s not that I won’t miss these people. In a way, I felt bad, as if everybody else was feeling the evening more than I was. But I think the truth was that I was just feeling it differently, not less.

At one point I found myself sitting on the lawn with another Canadian student. He was crying. I put an arm around him and he said, “I just hate goodbyes. I hate losing experiences and people.”

“But we haven’t lost them,” I said. “We’ve been lucky enough to gain them.”

And that’s really how I felt last night and feel this morning. I have a flight out this afternoon, and while I’ll miss this place, I also feel this immense sense of gratitude for what I’ve gained. And I have a feeling that, for many of the friendships I’ve formed this trip, last night wasn’t “goodbye” in a permanent sense.

It’s been a beautiful experience.

Days 20-21: quiet Kigali days/phantom AFRI-3100 limbs

It’s our second to last morning as a group and we’re all lounging around the living room, trying to catch up on some course work before breakfast.

It’s been a quiet past two days. Most of the group members were scattered around the country on various organized tours, but I opted to stay in Kigali to enjoy the city a few more days, run some errands, and save some money.

I printed photos, visited an internet café, and met with D., N., and A. I had breakfast alone yesterday, which felt bizarre and quiet, and I wrote my final paper for the course as I ate.

I also hung out lots with Eleanor, the only other person who stuck around Kigali.

Eleanor is the member of our class with the most life experience. She’s been all around the world and has children and children-in-law and even grandchildren.

Yesterday I accompanied her to an elementary school to deliver some books she’d brought from Canada to donate. It was a big, beautiful school with manicured gardens and bright classrooms with huge windows.

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We also had tea with Eleanor’s friend, Y. Y. is the perfect example of how unbelievably kind the people we’ve met here are.

At the beginning of the trip, Eleanor was out on a walk alone, fell, and broke her arm. Y. was walking along the street and stopped to help. After one person called an ambulance and another ran and found Allan, Y. went with Eleanor and Allan to the hospital to translate and help. Ever since she’s been taking Eleanor for regular check ups and stopping by to say hi.

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In the evening, after tea at Bourbon, Eleanor and I went for dinner at a place called Heaven. Eleanor had read a book about the restaurant before coming to Rwanda. We both had Nile perch and non-alcoholic cocktails and a lovely conversation about the world.

We arrived home just as the final members of the class were piling out of their tour vehicle. With all fifteen of us there, the house was brought back to life.

Tomorrow night is our final night here and our course-graduation party. We’re all feeling a mixture of excitement and nostalgia.

The idea of more breakfasts alone at my table in Ottawa seems very strange. I don’t think I’ll adjust immediately to leaving the group. I’ll feel them missing for a while: phantom-AFRI-3100-limbs.