Over my last holiday I went on a few mini-vacations around Rwanda. The main ‘attraction’ during my travels was Akagera National Park, in the east of Rwanda. This is the only game park in Rwanda, and while it isn’t entirely on par with a Serengeti safari, I had a really swell time in the park. I was with a sizable group of American Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) from my group: 19 PCVs total. We slept out in the park the evening we arrived. Now, our journey out to the park was nothing short of comical and undisputedly Rwandan. We piled into a taxi “bus” that barely made it out there, arrived hours later than initially planned, and ate snacks for dinner by a bonfire. There were large canvas tents set up for us at the camping local, and we were the only visitors at the park. The only ones in that area at least. We were all woken up by monstrous noises throughout the night: hippos milling about. Fun fact, hippos walk around the banks of rivers and lakes during the night. They are also potentially quite dangerous. I’m sure that we were in extremely close vicinity of hippos that night (judging by the sounds we heard) but since it was dark, we weren’t able to see them. We did see little hippo heads sticking out of the water in the lakes the next day, but seeing their little ears flapping on the surface of the water really doesn’t give us an accurate picture of how big these animals are.
After a night filled with light partying by a huge bonfire (which was built by the park rangers to ensure that we would be safe from curious jungle animals) and little sleep due to loud, nosy hippos, we had an early wake up call. Right as dawn was breaking, it began to rain. We anticipated this. To an extent. We were camping during the rainy season after all. What we didn’t really anticipate was how lousy canvas tents would be at offering dry shelter. It took nearly no time for the tents to be soaked through. Luckily there was a large, concrete picnic gazebo between our tents and the lake, so we sought refuge there and prepared PB&J sandwiches for breakfast.
A few hours later (again, later than we anticipated) we were met by our drivers, and distributed ourselves (and our bags) among 3 safari vehicles. Two of these vehicles were your typical safari Land Rovers, and the last vehicle was a little safari taxi-bus. Guess which vehicle did NOT get stuck in the mud over the course of our day driving through the park? Yep, the little engine that could. I was fortunate enough to snag a seat in one of the Land Rovers, but after comparing accounts with some of the other PCVs, the little engine was a fine ride as well.
So we drove around the park for hours, the sky finally cleared up, and we got some amazing pictures. Being Peace Corps Volunteers, we are meant to live like the locals. I think the official jargon is something like “live within the same means as the people in your community.” Integration is a MAIN goal of Peace Corps, so many times PCVs don’t do the traditional sort of tourist attractions. That’s because we find ways to do them better. We still had to pay a pretty penny for this excursion, but it was much less than it could have been. A prime example of how we may be a bit different than your average tourist: The car that I was in had a nice driver. Young, spoke good English, was nice to all of us.... and it was his first time in this particular section of the park. About halfway through the day, we came across a particularly bad portion of the “road.” Now, keep in mind that we are driving around through a national park. The “roads” are mud tracks through grass and trees, winding between lakes and hills. AND we were there during the rainy season. Our car got stuck. Something about being the third out of three cars traversing suspect patches of knee-deep mud with less than perfect tires leads to increasing changes of getting stuck in said mud. So we got stuck. Not once, not twice, but THREE times. Finally, on the third time, all of us volunteers got out to help push the car out of the mud. We got covered in dark mud, but we all ended up with smiles on our faces. And we continued. No problem. I know that I didn’t want our driver to feel bad or flustered because this was clearly not his fault, and it’s difficult enough to drive through the park for hours on end. Some of my fellow volunteers and I were talking about the various ways something like that could have been handled. I could just imagine that some folks would sit in the car and pout and yell at the driver and be generally unpleasant. And I was quite glad and proud that my colleagues and I were able to be cool.
By the time we were driving out of the park, we were all about to fall asleep in the car. We drove down the road (back on the paved road, amidst civilization again) for about an hour to a nearby town. I had a lovely, sleepy ride. Looked out of the window and took in the sight of eastern Rwanda. It’s incredible that such a small country (keep in mind that Rwanda is the size of Maryland) can have such a diverse landscape. There are volcanoes and huge mountains in the north, large lakes in the west, and gradual, rolling hills in the east. And parts of the east almost look like the subtle, rolling hills of northern Florida (or southern Ga).
Some of my favorite times in this country have been during car rides. Especially when I’m lucky enough to be riding in a car (or bus or taxi) during the magic afternoon hours. You know the ones I’m referring to. When the light is perfect and you feel like it’s ONLY possible to see beauty. The hills get lit up. The fields of crops begin to glow. The sky appears clear and calm. It’s my favorite time of day. And when I’m never the one doing the driving, I get to sit back, relax, stare out the window and soak in the beauty.