Back in February I surprised Nellie on her birthday by telling her I’d planned and booked a trip to Rwanda in the fall. It’s one of the few countries where you can safely hike to see gorillas, which is something she’d always wanted to do.
Leading up to the trip I kept getting surprised looks and comments like, “Really?” whenever I said we were visiting Rwanda. Most North Americans don’t know much about it; most Canadians only know about it in the context of the 1994 genocide, especially given Romeo Dallaire‘s key role in that tragedy. I knew that since 1994 Rwanda had been one of the most stable central African countries, but not much else. I felt bad for not knowing a lot about a whole country other than a genocide 22 years ago. Until we arrived I didn’t realize how prominently 1994 still figures in the country’s psyche.
Anyway, the getting there. Three main gateway cities get you into Kigali from Toronto: Brussels, Amsterdam, and Istanbul. Since I planned a few days’ stopover in this city on the way home, that ruled out Brussels — it was kind of boring last time and isn’t high on our list to revisit. Istanbul was first on my list, but for obvious reasons (which have only been amplified since) I avoided Turkey. That left Amsterdam; hardly a bad choice since it’s among our favourite cities worldwide. KLM‘s business class was pretty reasonably priced too, so I booked it, sprung the surprise, and waited almost six months.
KLM flies out of Pearson’s terminal 3, which was a bit of a gong show the day we left, but business class + a Nexus pass helped tamp down a bit of the crazy. After a few minutes in the sad little lounge we settled into the cushy plane seats. I re-watched The Big Short and Silence Of The Lambs while we took off and ate, and then managed to get a few hours of sleep before being woken up for breakfast. I listened to Mogwai‘s Atomic soundtrack as we descended out of the clouds, swept in over the North Sea and settled in to the Dutch countryside.
When you have a few hours to kill, Schipol airport (and the KLM lounge therein) is a pretty good place to do it. We chilled, charged everything, ate tiny donuts, and deployed headphones to drown out the weird conversations and snoring around us. Eventually we wandered down and got onto our next plane, a decidedly less modern model, but still entirely capable of getting us to Kigali and playing a few movies. Bad movies, as it turned out: Batman v. Superman fucking sucked, and Money Monster was a mess. Luckily I watched the new Star Wars to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
It was so dark when we arrived in Kigali we couldn’t see much of the city. There was some confusion in the Visa line, but we got through, picked up our bags, and met our driver Gilbert who’d be with us for the next five days. As Gilbert drove us to our hotel, the Kigali Serena, we couldn’t get over how many people were out and about. Every street was covered in hundreds, thousands, of pedestrians. We wondered whether there was some street festival on, or if this was just a busy Thursday night. Eventually we arrived at the Serena, checked in, ordered some room service, and died. We couldn’t really tell how pretty the hotel was until the next morning.
We had breakfast and met Gilbert, who would drive us north to the mountains. Driving out of the city the traffic was, predictably, chaotic — cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, all mingling and merging and honking and swirling like murmurations of starlings. The streets were still lively too…men carrying bags and furniture, ladies balancing huge parcels on their heads, men and women in suits climbing hills to their offices, etc. So it wasn’t just a Thursday night thing: there are never not people walking on the streets here, and in huge masses.
As we drove out of the city we immediately starting climbing hills, and steep ones at that. Here, in the country, we confirmed something we first noticed in Kigali itself: there’s no garbage. Anywhere. No junk on the side of the road, no trash in the road itself, no plastic bags floating around (Rwanda’s banned them), and there are even workers sweeping dirt out of gutters and road medians. It’s crazy. It makes Toronto look messy.
We saw another trend continuing as well: people on the roads. For the entire 3-hour drive north the roads were packed with people walking somewhere: women carrying baskets with babies slung across their backs, boys pushing bikes loaded down with water or sugar cane or sacks of something, men carrying tools or boxes. Everywhere. All the time. Every few feet, more or less.
Halfway into our journey we stopped at a place called Nyirangarama where bus after safari jeep after bus pulled up, grabbed provisions from the local store, and continued on their way. We sat on the second floor of the restaurant, drank strong local coffee, ate roasted corn on the cob, and admired the scenery. Gilbert apologized for the appearance of his country in dry season; normally it was much more lush and green. We had no complaints; it was beautiful still, not to mention a perfect 22 degrees, sunny, and not humid in the slightest. Meanwhile, my phone was issuing daily heat warnings about Toronto. Suckers.
A note on geography: Rwanda is very small and very hilly. By hilly, I mean that I can’t recall ever travelling more than 1/4 of a kilometre on flat ground. And by small, I mean that the entire country is less than half the size of Nova Scotia, or just slightly bigger than the state of Vermont. So between the hills and the hordes of people you can’t exactly drive fast, but within three hours we’d still driven from the central capital province to the mountains bordering Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the crow flies it was barely 80km.
After a series of progressively-worsening roads we finally arrived at Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, our home base for gorilla trekking in the Parc National des Volcans. (Rwanda still uses French to some degree, having been a Belgian colony, but as of about ten years ago English became the predominant second language taught alongside Kinyarwanda.) We met with Alisa, one of Sabyinyo’s managers, got the briefing for the next day’s trek, and had some lunch. Surrounded by the local volcanoes, the scenery was gorgeous, if a little hidden by mist. We struggled up the hill to our room (the lodge is at 8250 feet, and the stairs up are pretty steep), tossed our stuff, sat outside on our porch, drank a bottle of champagne Alisa had left to celebrate Nellie’s half-birthday, and felt pretty happy with our lives.
We went back to the main lodge and had a drink on the front patio by the fire (my favourite local beer: Virunga Mist) then joined the rest of the guests in the bar. Most people gather there each day to share stories from the days’ treks, but since most of us were new that day the chatter was limited to excitement for the day to follow. To wit: I couldn’t sleep at all.
We got up at stupid o’clock (5am), had coffee and tea delivered to our cabin at 5:30, then walked down to the lodge to get kitted out. Gilbert drove us to the park office where those who’ve paid their license fee to do a gorilla trek wait and watch local dancers and singers as their drivers negotiate their guests’ inclusion into one of the trekking groups.
Each family of gorillas gets eight visitors per day, so Gilbert got us in to see a family called Amahoro (which means ‘peace’ or ‘serenity’ in Kinyarwanda) which is a 2-3 hour trek. We drove up the bumpiest road in all the world, then started our trek in a village along with our guide, some porters, and the rest of our group: a British couple, a lovely Irish couple, a guy from South Carolina and a teacher from Alberta. After a long walk through some farmland we entered the park and started through the bush, but our trek was shorter than expected: the trackers radioed to tell us the gorillas were actually moving down the mountain toward us. A good thing too; our porter was already pulling Nellie up the slope of the volcano. And then, there they were.
Groups are allowed to spend an hour with their gorilla family, which was more than enough. We took hundreds of pictures and videos, and then just stopped to marvel at them. They were mostly resting when we arrived, but the young ones were very active…climbing, swinging from vines, play-fighting. We left them to their sleeping and playing and walked back down the hill, took our bumpy-ass ride back, got official certificates (!) and bought a few trinkets, and got back to the lodge. Because the gorillas had helpfully walked down the hill to us, we got back quite quickly, beating most of the other guests to lunch. Our cabin had a fire going when we got back; we showered, relaxed by the fire, and took a serious nap. That night, over drinks, we had real gorilla stories to share and you couldn’t shut us up. The park warden was even there to meet some guests, and it was great to hear more about the governance of the park. After dinner we watched an episode of Stranger Things on Netflix and conked out.
Once again: up early, coffee, breakfast. We were ready to go this time though, and felt like wily veterans when we got to the park office. Nellie’s knee was bothering her so we’d asked Gilbert to get us an easy one, and he did: we were to see Kwitonda (which means ‘humble one’), a migrant group from the DRC, along with a family from Boston who was in a hurry, a guy from San Diego, and a slightly odd lady from…somewhere in California. Our drive was pretty short, and our trek was extremely short…the gorillas had once again made our lives easy, moving to within a few metres of the park entrance! These gorillas were more active than Amahoro had been the day before, still on the move and looking for food.
We spent our hour, hiked back out, and drove back to the lodge in record time, our wrists sore from waving to local kids (they all recognize the tourist vehicles, and wave and yell ‘HELLO’ as you drive by) but our knees blessedly intact. The staff couldn’t believe we’d actually gone gorilla trekking; we might’ve set the record for the two shortest hikes. We took a leisurely lunch, had drinks outside on the patio, and went back to our cabin for another nap. First, though, I decided to read in the hammock outside the cabin, wherein I fell asleep and promptly fell out of the hammock onto the ground and hurt my shoulder. Bravo, Dan. Bravo.
That night in the bar we met a father and daughter from Toronto who are essentially our travel heroes. We were talking so much with them, and with Alisa and Thor (the other manager) that we nearly forgot about dinner and sat down late, but ended up sitting together to trade more stories and travel tips. Most of the tips were one-way: I was furiously typing notes and URLs from their travels. With dinner done we said good night, hiked back to our room, watched the finale of Stranger Things, and crashed again.
No early wake-up or trekking this day, just a big leisurely breakfast. We packed up, showered, and met Gilbert for the 3-hour drive back to Kigali. This time, not so distracted by all the people on the road, we really took in the scenery. Rwanda is a goddamn gorgeous country. Stunning, green (not as green as in rainy season though, Gilbert reminded us), terraced fields lining every square inch of every hill, with blue eucalyptus and red clay accenting the countryside. We eventually reached the hills just north of Kigali with a view of the city centre. We snapped a picture while vervet monkeys scampered up and down the tree line.
Gilbert once again dropped us at the Serena where we checked (back) in, had lunch, and just hung out by the pool. We even bumped into some of the other guests from Sabyinyo on their way home. We booked dinner that night at Heaven, a recommendation from Thor and Alisa, and weren’t disappointed. It’s set on rooftop in a fancy part of town, and the food matched the view: Nellie had the pumpkin and peanut soup special and urwagwa (banana beer) fried Nile perch, while I had deep-fried sambaza (like a sardine) from Lake Kivu and kuku paka, a swahili spiced chicken. It was all amazing. Their wine list was largely South African, and we had a bottle of the 2011 Wolf Trap white blend. It was all fantastic.
Another sleep-in day, more or less, since all we had booked was a tour of Kigali and a late flight out. Gilbert picked us up, showed us a bit of Kigali (including our embassy!), then dropped us at the Genocide Memorial. Definitely the busiest single tourist attraction in Kigali, this is the largest of the genocide memorials throughout Rwanda. The genocide seems to represent some sort of reset point for the country: everything is before 1994 or after 1994. As Gilbert drove us around Kigali he delineated everything as either pre- or post-1994…the new buildings, the new neighbourhoods, the new policies. The government (headed for the last 16 years by the former commander of the rebel force which effectively ended the genocide) seems to be intent on using the genocide as a wake-up call to the country, to modernize infrastructure and industry and attitudes. It seems to be the only hopeful and positive and determined thing anyone can take from something so horrific.
The memorial — not just a museum, but also the burial site of some 250,000 of the dead — was very well done. Incredibly hard to take at times, but this isn’t a soft topic, and certainly the Rwandans confront this part of their history head-on…they have to, or they can’t heal or evolve. I found it similar to Germany’s unblinking acceptance of what the Nazis did, but so much fresher in everyone’s memory. There are, apparently, still bodies of genocide victims discovered from time to time in the countryside. Walking through the gift shop on the way out the book most prominently on display was Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With The Devil, a reminder that I ought to re-read it now with more context of the ground itself. Dallaire was called out in the memorial exhibits as the same tragic figure he’s held to be here at home — a commander who wanted to do more, but who couldn’t muster the resources for it. He was listed among many such tragic figures. Too many.
Gilbert met us after our tour, taking us to a good spot where we bought him lunch: the Shokola café atop the lovely public library which looks out over much of new Kigali. Once again we ordered way too much food, and told Gilbert about where we grew up and Canada in general, and gave him some maple syrup we’d brought from home. After that he took us to Niyo Cultural Centre where we bought some art, then to a grocery store where we bought some Rwandan coffee and chili oil, then on a tour of some government buildings and new neighbourhoods built since 1994, and finally to the airport for our flight. We said our goodbyes and promised we’d ask for him if we ever came back to Rwanda. (Side note: for the past few days he’s been WhatsApp-ing us pictures of gorillas.)
At the Kigali airport we bumped into the father and daughter duo from Toronto, and struggled through the endless passport control and security lines with them, as they headed off to…wherever they were going next. We eventually got on our flight, and after a brief stopover in Entebbe I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel, got a bit of sleep, and woke up to the sunrise.
We’d booked a day room at Schipol Hilton because we wanted somewhere to sleep, but it was so early that we’d have to book an extra night at our hotel in downtown Amsterdam. The Hilton was just more convenient, and significantly cheaper. We slept, showered, got up, and took an Uber into the De Pijp neighbourhood of Amsterdam. We’d be at the uber-hip Sir Albert hotel for two nights. I’m not sure we were cool enough to stay there — De Pijp is something of a hipster neighbourhood, but a neighbourhood nonetheless, and that’s what we wanted after the chaos of the city centre where we stayed last time. Anyway, they seemed fine with us, lack of hipness notwithstanding.
We walked down to the market which occupies most of the Albert Cuypstraat, wandered around for a bit, then filled our growling bellies with messy burgers from The Butcher. We then walked north, past the Rijksmuseum, across the Singelgracht, along the Prinsengracht, to Screaming Beans where we got some much-needed espresso, and from there to one of our favourites from four years ago: Beer Temple. It wasn’t quite the awesome experience we had last time, but my crème brûlée stout was pretty good. We left there and hit the nearby Café Gollem, where we drank two excellent beers apiece and fell in love with a cat who lives there and drinks water from a Westmalle goblet.
We’d been weighing where to eat dinner, and the bartender at Gollem recommended Hoppy Days, which also scores high on ratebeer. I’m not sure it quite deserves that high rating — there seems to be a small beer list focused on Italian beers, which was even shorter the night we visited due to supply issues — but the food more than made up for it. We left absolutely stuffed with a trio of pastas chosen by the chef, and had to walk home to keep from exploding. Luckily, Amsterdam makes for a fricking gorgeous walk home. We fell even more in love with the city than before.
The plan was to hit the Rijksmuseum, and a beer store. We knew we’d need energy for both, so we had breakfast at Bakers & Roasters, a kiwi-owned brunch place that was nearly full when we got there and overflowing when we left. Suitably carbed, we walked through the pouring rain to the Rijksmuseum. There aren’t many better ways to spend a rainy day, frankly. It’s a beautiful building, well laid-out, and with a tremendous collection. My favourites, in the order we saw them:
- Portrait Of A Young Woman, with ‘Puck’ the Dog, Thérèse Schwartze (view)
- Autumn Landscape, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch (view)
- A Windmill on a Polder Waterway, Known as ‘In the Month of July’, Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriel (view)
- The Breach of the Saint Anthony’s Dike near Amsterdam, Jan Asselijn
- River Landscape with Ferry, Salomon van Ruysdael (view)
- Still Life with a Gilt Cup, Willem Claes Heda (view)
- Dutch Ships in a Calm, Willem van de Velde (view)
- View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street’, Vermeer (view)
The crowds, predictably, were heaviest in the room with Rembrandt’s Night Watch and the recently installed Marten & Oopjen (just off of which Nellie found a quiet little sculpture gallery), and the Vermeers. The Vermeer I liked most was his least typical, a street scene from Delft, but up close the brushwork was as spectacular as I’d been led to believe.
Afterward we were hungry for lunch, and realized there was another Gollem nearby. We sat on their patio and enjoyed beers and a pastrami sandwich and some frites, and even managed to stay (mostly) dry when the rain really started pounding down. We braved a little extra time in the rain to swing by Trakteren for coffee and some chocolate, and then walked to Craft & Draft. This turned into one of those epic beer excursions — there was no one in the joint for most of the afternoon except for Nellie and I and our bartender Alex. We did a couple of flights each, and tried some incredible beers (the best: the Black Block imperial stout from La Pirata in Spain, and the Chrysopolis sour from Ducata in Italy), and bought a bunch to take home, and talked beer with Alex for the whole afternoon. Like I said, there aren’t many better ways to spend a rainy day. We walked home through the (now lighter) rain via the Vondelpark and dried off.
For dinner we walked to Little Collins. It’s a new-ish place, owned by Aussies (hence, I ordered a Little Creatures pale to start) and which serves sharing plates. As was our custom on this trip we ordered way too goddamn much, but it was all terrific: olives; lavender wurst; roasted cauliflower w/ freekeh and pine nuts; braised spiced chickpeas w/ greens, roasted peppers, feta, garlic and cumin; rendang beer short rib w/ peanut coconut crumbs and flat bread; sticky duck and pork belly salad w/ green beans, cucumber, apple, coriander and chili; and an Argentinian Pinot Noir. We could barely walk home.
Friday was all about returning home: up, back in another Uber, back in the KLM lounge, back in business class (though in the luxurious confines of a Dreamliner this time), and — after watching Captain America: Civil War, In The Heart Of The Sea, and The Revenant — back in Toronto. We walked out of the airport and into a humidity bomb, and wished we were back in the perfect weather of Rwanda or even the half-sun of Amsterdam. Most of all, we wished we were back on the slopes of Bisoke or Sabyinyo, relaxing with our gorilla cousins.