Monday, 29 August 2016

A perfect day

For my last full day in the Czech Republic my former students Honza "Jack" Mlčoch and Jarda "Littlecross" Křížek invited me on a rafting trip down the Vltava River (that's the one that eventually flows through Prague). Jarda's wife Eva, kids and niece joined us for a perfect day of great company, scorching weather,  lovely scenery and occasional rehyrdation stops at beer stands. I couldn't have thought of a better way to end my time here. Thanks very much Jarda and Honza.

The kids preferred to travel the river by paddleboard

The bagpipe festival

Q: Where is the International Bagpipe Festival held? 
(a) Edinburgh, Scotland
(b) London, England
(c) Britanny, France
(d) an obscure former industrial town in the Czech Republic

If you answered (d) you are of course correct. Every two years the International Bagpipe Festival is held in Strakonice, a not especially pretty town about halfway between České Budějovice and Pilsen in the south of the Czech Republic. This year 1100 musicians took part from 14 European countries, playing bagpipes on seven stages - not to mention street corners, pubs and parks - for four days. I went along for two scorching hot days and greatly enjoyed myself, camping just outside town because every hotel for kilometres was full of bagpipers from France, Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Holland ... you name it. The photo above is of the Spanish group, who stole the show on opening night. 

The Slovak flagbearer

Pity the poor double-bass player at parade time (this group is from Croatia) 

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The closest I got to a gorilla

People have been asking me if I went to see the gorillas while I was in Rwanda. I didn't, because the gorilla trek costs a whopping US$750. Instead I went on a volcano hike for a tenth of the cost. Very occasionally volcano hikers bump into a group of gorillas; we didn't, so this is the closest I got to meeting one of these magnificent creatures. Gorilla poo. 

Things I love about the Czech Republic #2

1. Catching up with old friends over some of the world's best beer 

Really, need I say more? This picture was taken during a couple of lovely days with my old mate Simon Gill, who now lives in a village near Olomouc in the east of the country. I've known Simon since the mid-1990s when he was living in Slovakia; he moved there a month before the Velvet Revolution, after living in the UK, the Netherlands, Sudan and Turkey. Any visit to Simon is enjoyable but on this occasion I also got to spend some time with his wife Lenka and highly entertaining daughters Annie (pictured) and Emma. 

2. Tvarohové kolače

These are fabulous pastries made with tvaroh - a dairy product which, as far as I know, has no New Zealand equivalent - and, in this case, forest-picked blueberries. Mmmm. 

3. Old-fashioned pubs

I was amazed to discover that one of my favourite pubs from the 1990s, the very unglamourous and slightly dingy Na Dvorku, not only still exists but also still serves my favourite meal for only a little more than I paid all those years ago. And a half litre of Budvar still costs 26 Crowns, about NZ$1.50. 

A bike ride through the Rwandan countryside

I spent my last full day in Rwanda on a bike ride with this enterpreneurial young man, Yannick, who runs his own cycle touring business during the day and studies tourism management by night. We rode from Musanze (also called Ruhengeri), a city in the north of Rwanda, through a series of villages to the twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo. 

No one told me beforehand that Yannick used to be a member of the Rwandan national cycling squad... 

The highlights were a boat ride across Lake Ruhondo...

... and the lovely landscape of terraced hills and sweet potato plots that surrounds the two lakes.

A volcano mudbath

After Jan and Yvette's wedding I had another couple of days free so I headed to Volcanoes National Park, where I joined a guided hike to the top of Mt Bisoke (3711m). It's one of a series of volcanoes which rise up to 4500m and form the border between Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. 

I soon found out hiking is Rwanda is nothing like tramping in New Zealand. For one thing you're not allowed anywhere on your own - the dozen or so tourists on the hike were accompanied by a guide, several park rangers, half a dozen porters and five Rwandan army soldiers toting Kalashnikovs (to protect us from buffalos and elephants, apparently). 

However, the biggest wildlife I saw was this earthworm... 

The trailhead is at 2500m but it was still quite a slog to the top through rainforest and stinging nettles... 

Alas at the top the mist was so thick it was impossible to see the view or even the crater lake. All I could see was this sign. It was also bitterly cold up there so we didn't hang around long (that's not a smile, my face has frozen into a grimace).

Things got really interestting on the way down because two days of rain had turned the track into a mud chute. By the time we got down, about six hours later, we were all caked in mud. 

Then the clouds parted just long enough for us to get a peek of the mountain...

... and I caught one last glimpse at sunset. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

An on-road, off-road adventure

I was wondering why, in a land bursting with public transport, there was only one minibus a day between the towns of Gisenyi and Kibuye on the shores of Lake Kivu. I soon found out. It's one of the roughest roads I've experienced and I still can't believe an overloaded two-wheel-drive van made it all the way (the driver should be in the Rwandan national rally team). 
At one point we were stopped by police who fined the driver for operating a vehicle which was not in roadworthy condition. As if to prove their point the driver was unable to re-start the van and a door fell off while he attempted a push start. After an hour of tinkering with the engine the driver got it going again. Instead of being annoyed by the delay my fellow passengers thought the whole escapade was hilarious.

The driver tries to put the door back on

Jan and Yvette's wedding: The milk ceremony

Compared to the three previous days, the fourth and final day of Jan and Yvette's wedding was a low-key, intimate affair. A small number of guests went to a cousin's house (a stand-in for the couple's home, which will be in Uganda) and crowded into the bedroom. There Jan removed Yvette's veil and they fed each other milk from wooden vessels, then fed a young boy and girl - a symbol of the importance of milk in Rwandan culture and the family's hopes they will soon have children. That was followed by gift-giving and the final speeches from each side of the family. By the time you read this Jan and Yvette will be settling into their new home in Kampala.

People carrying stuff on their heads

I wanted to make a series of photos called People carrying stuff on their heads, but photographing people in Rwanda turned out to be more complicated than I expected. Instead you will have to make do with this one photo and imagine the rest. Other things I saw people balancing on their heads (mostly women, they seem to do the bulk of the heavy lifting) included water containers, bundles of sugar cane, roofing iron, firewood, bananas, rocks, panes of glass, washing baskets, hay bales, sacks of charcoal... I could go on all day.

A wad of money

With an exchange rate of almost 700 Rwandan francs to the New Zealand dollar, you feel very rich the first time you visit an ATM. That feeling doesn't last long, however, because in Kigali at least there's plenty to spend your money on...

Lake Kivu

I had a few days free before the wedding so caught a bus to Lake Kivu, which forms Rwanda's western border with Congo. In the town of Kibuye I stayed in a church-run hotel called Home St Jean - that's the view from the balcony in the picture below. Accommodation in Kigali is expensive - even a dorm bed costs US$25 - but hotels and guesthouses outside the capital are great value. My bed at Home St Jean cost less than US$10 a night with a vast breakfast and this view thrown in for free.

Another thing I enjoyed at Lake Kivu was watching the fishermen at work. At night they paddle out in these distinctive boats called amato, made from three dugouts lashed together for stability, and use lanterns to catch sardine-like fish called sambaza.

A crowded country

One of the most striking things about Rwanda is the sheer number of people everywhere. It's one of the most densely populated countries in Africa with 12 million people squeezed into an area less than a tenth the size of New Zealand. My first real experience of this was at Nyabugogo bus station in Kigali, where it felt like all 12 million people were simultaneously catching a bus, hawking vegetables and begging. This photo was taken from a bus as it drove at speed through the station;  amazingly the crowd always managed to part in time and no one was run over.
In the countryside almost every square metre of land is cultivated or built on. It's very hilly - the Rwandans' nickname for their country, Land of a Thousand Hills, is a major understatement - so it's heavily terraced, and every roadside is crowded with people streaming to and fro between their homes, fields, schools and markets. 
With so many people about it's hard to take candid photos. Someone will always spot you and start talking loudly about the mzungu ("white man") with a camera, and even taking a surreptitious pee behind a tree is difficult. And if you want a quiet walk on your own, forget it. There's always someone who wants to keep you company.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Jan and Yvette's wedding: Day 3 in photos

Day 3 of Jan and Yvette's wedding in Kigali started with a church service and ended with a reception, gift giving and dancing that continued until the wee small hours (I lasted only to 3am). For pictures from day 2 see the previous post

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Where public transport and adventure tourism meet

There's only one fast, practical and affordable way to get around Kigali and that's by moto-taxi. You can wave down one of these motorcycle taxis any time, anywhere, and be whisked to your destination for as little as 300 Francs (NZ$0.50), depending on the distance. By law the riders have to be registered and provide you with a helmet but it's still an adrenaline-filled way to travel, especially at rush hour when they weave in and out of traffic at break-neck speed. You don't need to go bungy jumping here if you are looking for a thrill.
Anna and I with our moto-taxi drivers

The genocide museum

In an earlier post I talked about Rwanda's remarkable transformation since the 1994 genocide which left a million people dead and the country in ruins. Most places have some kind of memorial for the victims but the most harrowing one I visited was the Genocide Museum in Kigali, built on the site of mass graves where more than 250,000 people are buried. The museum traces the background to the events of 1994, the 100 days of slaughter, and what the outside world did to stop the killing (nothing). The museum pulls no punches about the European countries it says helped the perpetrators.
The most distressing part of the museum is the children's room, with life-size photos of a dozen or so of the child victims. Each photo is accompanied by their name, age, favourite food and pastimes, a short description, and the manner in which they died. Most were hacked to death with machetes.

 Detail of the genocide memorial in Kibuye

Everyone in Rwanda has a story about the genocide and everyone over the age of about 25 witnessed it. It's beyond me how perpetrators and victims' families are able to live side by side, as they must because so many people were involved they can't all be jailed. A few days ago I met someone who still lives next door to the man who murdered his mother. He told me he couldn't touch his neighbour because the government takes a hard line against anyone seeking revenge; instead, it has set up a system of community courts and restorative justice which has so far heard 1.2 million cases. All the same, it will take a few generations for this country to heal.