Le Pays des Mille Collines is how Rwandans refer to their own country, and it’s an apt description. There are eleven hills in the capitol city of Kigali alone.
And as you leave the city behind, that hilliness only continues.
Rwanda is also mostly a very green country, due to a healthy rainy season, and that leads to a veritable bounty, but those hills can either help or hinder when it’s time to get to market.
Of course, it’s not all green hills.
And it’s not all domesticated animals, either.
Sometimes the animals can be a bit difficult to see, especially in the long grass.
Do you see him there? Let’s take a closer look.
You see him now, yes? One must remain vigilant! Of course, when he finally stands up, it’s a bit easier.
At the end of the day, back in camp, it’s time to stop worrying about the lions and just enjoy the scenery.
Meanwhile, other parts of Rwanda are higher, steeper…
… wetter, and definitively more lush with rainforest growth.
But this is what you must tackle if you want to meet this fellow.
Thank you for coming along with me on my recent trip to Rwanda. My wife and I traveled there at the end of December 2019 and beginning of January 2020, and while in-country, besides the city of Kigali, we visited two of four big national parks, Akagera (where the savanna wildlife photos are from) and Volcanoes (where we met a family of six (out of twelve) gorillas). Akagera is in the eastern part of the country, bordering Tanzania, while Volcanoes is in the Virunga Massif highlands in the northwest, bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
All photos used in this post are either my own or used with permission from Carole Bianquis, copyright 2019, with all rights reserved. However, please feel free to reblog or share the post and the photos, as long as you include attribution and a link back to this original.
I know you’ve been missing me — well, I don’t know that you have, actually — but I have a good excuse. I’ve been traveling for the holidays, and staying almost entirely offline the entire time. Where did I go?
My wife has a large extended family living in Kigali, so we spent 25 hours flying to spend a couple weeks with them. While there, we had the opportunity to tour the country a little bit, and when I’ve had a chance to sort out the many photos I took, I’ll post a few of the best ones here for you to enjoy.
And then I’ll get back to Silence, I promise.
How did you spend your holidays? What are your hopes for the new year?
Well, 3.7° to be more precise. No, not the temperature (not by an order of magnitude!). The latitude. 259 miles south of the equator. 340′ above sea level.
Hot. Humid. Muggy.
There are no direct flights from North America into Iquitos, so first one makes one’s way to Lima, the capitol of Peru. Even that is not a straight shot from Seattle, so instead I flew to Chicago, which felt sort of like going the wrong way, and from there to Toronto, which really felt like going the wrong way, where I met up with Dale in the airport before catching the long leg down the east coast, across the Caribbean, and into South American airspace. We arrived in Lima in the middle of the night and made our way to the airport hotel, where I had my first taste of the classic Peruvian pisco sour.
I could grow to really like this drink, I thought.
In the bar of the hotel we met up with Kate and Steve, Canadians who would be paddling in the race, and subjects of Dale’s documentary. With their arrival, I had a second taste, and the four of us kept the barman busy until it was time for the Canadians to catch their flight to Iquitos. I think they found this preferable to trying to nap on the floor of the airport.
Wait, what race? What documentary? And what are we doing in Peru, again? Hmm, rather than explain it all over, go back one blog post for the introduction to this story and how I found myself, on practically no notice, dropping everything to jet off to the jungle.
Meanwhile, Dale and I stayed in Lima an extra few hours. I was scheduled to appear as a speaker on a professional webcast that morning, and the hotel WiFi in Lima was going to be far more reliable than anything we’d likely find in Iquitos. That proved true, the webcast went well (“Greetings from Peru!”), and as soon as it was over we rushed back into the airport for our own flight.
Where we waited. And waited. Then we waited some more, as our flight was delayed, then delayed some more. To make things worse, the stated destination over the gate kept changing. Sometimes it said Iquitos. Then it would say Tarapoto. We were pretty sure the plane was going to both cities, we just weren’t sure in which order.
“¿Es este el vuelo a Iquitos?” asked an older gentleman of us as we stood in line to board. Is this the flight to Iquitos? Even the locals were confused!
“Sí… Yo creo que,” replied Dale. Yes… I think. Ah well, they accepted our boarding passes, so surely it was the right plane.
By this time it was already evening, and as Tarapoto lies between Lima and Iquitos, we assumed we’d be landing there first. It was pitch black outside, so no landmarks could be seen to assure us. To my regret, I never was able to catch sight of the famous Andean Cordillera when we passed over. It was only as we started to descend, and we began to see rivers and tributaries reflecting the starlight, that we knew we were well and truly over the Amazon basin. We began to see the lights of river barges as we flew lower and lower, and then we touched down on a short runway between the bright city and the dark jungle.
Heat. Humidity. Flying insects. Unenclosed airport (though not as glamorous as Kona, perhaps). I could grow to enjoy this place.
Bags collected (pelican case, photography gear), the haggle for a moto-taxi ride into town began.
“No, no, veinte.”
We moved on. 20 soles (about US$6) was too much for the ride, though we knew we were unlikely to get it down to 10. The second driver we spoke to said ok to 15, and off we went for a night ride through the streets of the city.
The streets of Iquitos are busy, crowded, with everyone seeming to go wherever they felt was best for them, and as such they are difficult to navigate in a regular car (though people do). So, they are crowded with motos, or moto-taxis, the same as tuk-tuks found in southeast Asia. Essentially these are the front half of a motorcycle and the back half of a rickshaw, able to carry three passengers in addition to the driver, and they dominate the city. Almost all of them are for hire, operating on a cash basis, so it is essential to carry plenty of coins in order to have correct change. Residents and visitors alike get around by moto-taxi, and as long as you negotiate your fare before getting in, the drivers will honor it without hassle when you arrive at your destination. Indeed, a good moto driver can make or break your search for just the right place in Iquitos when you need a certain part for the construction of a raft, but we’ll come to that later.
Motos are not clean machines, contributing greatly to the smoke filling the streets, nor are they quiet. From about 6am until Midnight, the sound of moto engines can be heard all over the city. On a hot night, however, riding in the back of one can be just the thing, a breeze in your face and hair, to make you feel that little bit less sticky.
It’s about a half-hour ride from the airport into the heart of the city, to our lodgings at the Green Track Hostel. We arrived to a dark street, and a barred and gated doorway. We rang the bell.
Moments later, the door opened, light flooded out, and there stood Kate! We were in the right place.
“Where’ve you guys been? We were expecting you hours ago!”
If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been having adventures!
A few months ago I found myself in rather urgent need of a high-resolution portrait photo. How urgent? Well, a professional organization related to my day job wanted to give me an award, and they wanted to show my face on a huge banner at their annual conferences, in three cities on three continents, no less, and the first conference would be in a matter of a few weeks. Could I send along something of at least 300×300 dpi resolution, 30″ square, and by the way, tomorrow would be good?
If you do the math, you’ll quickly realize they were looking for a serious professional shot, not something I could whip out on my iPhone. I needed to bring in the big guns, and fast.
I gave my good friend Dale a call… well, ok, a text, really… and, what luck! He was actually in town and available. Dale is a semi-pro photographer, a reviewer and editor at one of the most prestigious online photography review magazines, and a freelance documentary filmmaker on the side.
“Sure,” texted Dale, “I can do that for you. But, I have a favor to ask. Do you remember that log raft race I won twelve years ago on the Amazon River? I’m going back to make a documentary about the race, and my usual assistant just canceled on me. It’s really a two-person job, so you’d seriously be helping me out if you could come with me to Peru.”
Peru? Cool! I thought, imagining this would be months in the planning. “That sounds like a great trip. When are you planning to go?”
“In a week.”
“A week?” I’m pretty sure disbelief would have colored my voice, if this whole conversation were not happening by text message.
“Yep. I know it’s last-minute, but I’ve already invested a lot into this trip, and losing my assistant has put me in a bind.”
One thing you should probably know about Dale is that we met as students in a climbing course. We had scaled peaks together. We had camped overnight in an emergency snow trench together. We had literally held each other’s lives in the balance on belay during rock climbs. I knew that Dale had spent a couple years backpacking around South America, and that he was fluent in Spanish. I knew he had spent three days paddling a log raft on the Amazon while he was there. So I knew that he knew what we’d be getting into with this trip.
What’s more, Dale knew that I had wintered in Antarctica back in the day. He knew that I had trekked the Himalaya and navigated the alleyways of Kathmandu. So he knew that I’d likely be fine for a little escapade in the Amazon jungle, and that the streets of a tropical Peruvian city were unlikely to faze me. He wasn’t asking an unknown to cover his back on this adventure.
“Give me ten minutes,” I replied. “I need to talk to my wife. And my boss.”
Fortunately for me, both my wife and my boss are adventure-minded in their own ways. Despite the short notice, the only issue my boss raised was that he’d prefer to be the one to go. Sorry, boss; this one was mine.
Ten minutes later I committed to travel to Peru in a week’s time, and then I called my doctor’s travel clinic to arrange for vaccinations.
Fortunately, much of what I needed in the way of vaccinations I already had from my time in Nepal, although a few had expired and required renewal (typhoid, tetanus, etc). I would need anti-malarial pills. And… ah, I would need a yellow fever shot. That was new.
The administrator for the travel clinic told me that it would be a week and a half before I could get on the schedule to see the travel nurse.
“I don’t have a week and a half,” I said. “I’m going to Peru in one week.”
“Oh. Where in Peru?”
Ten minutes later the travel nurse called me back directly.
“You’re going to the Amazon!”
“You need a yellow fever shot.”
“Almost no one has it in stock right now. It’s in short supply all over the country. We’re ordering in an alternative from France, but it’ll take me ten days to get it here.”
My heart started to sink. I weighed the idea of just going without, but there are some complications with this particular nasty little bug. It’s rare to catch it, but if you do, there’s a scarily high fatality rate, and by all accounts it’s not a pleasant way to go (not that many ways are all that pleasant). And, because of its lethality, many countries require visitors to show documentary proof of having had the shot, depending on where they arrive from. Coming from the US, it seemed unlikely that Peru would require me to show the classic yellow vaccination card, but it seemed entirely possible the US would ask to see it upon my return.
And if not the US, well, a week after getting back I would be jetting off to Spain. Remember, the professional conference for which I needed the headshot photo that started all this? Yeah, that would be in Barcelona, and I was going. I had no idea whether Spanish authorities might see that Peruvian stamp in my passport and then say, “Tarjeta amarilla, señor?” It would be a shame to be turned away from the conference at which I would be winning this award.
“It’s ok, though. There’s a pharmacy in Sand Point that has yellow fever vaccine in stock, and they take walk-ins. Call this number.”
All was not lost! Hastily I wrote down the number, thanked the nurse profusely, and then gave it a call. I was able to make an appointment for the next day, and there I was able to stock up on everything the savvy traveler might require: anti-malarials, antibiotics, anti-diarrheals… pretty much anti-everything. And a course of typhoid pills, a tetanus booster, a flu shot while I was at it, and the all-important yellow fever shot, the most expensive vaccine of the bunch.
One week later I boarded a plane with no luggage besides a backpack, everything I would need for two weeks of equatorial living. I left the sweater at home.
Oh, and Dale snapped a great portrait.
Stay tuned for the next part of my Amazon adventure.