Monday, August 31, 2009

Rwanda....Happy & Sad All in One Amazing Adventure

Rwandan Things That Make Me Laugh, Smile or Just Shake My Head

Bad service
Can you really substitute “goat womb” for a standard “goat meat brochette” and really not tell the difference?
Did you not think I’d notice that the vegetarian pasta you gave me does not resemble in the slightest the cheese pizza I actually ordered?

Crazy t-shirts donated to Rwanda by well meaning Americans
A woman wearing “Frank the Tank”…do you think she’s seen “Old School”?
Which leads to BAD saying t-shirts….do we really need to donate the “Johnson” shirts and shirts saying other obscenity?
Does the guy I see every morning understand the meaning of
“Machine Fuckin’ Head”?
Be careful what you donate!

College Shirts….Cornell, Yale, Harvard very wealthy do gooders (or significantly in debt) giving to the less fortunate and uneducated. One year’s tuition would equal a lifetime of income for the average Rwandan….Does anyone else find this ODD?

Using three languages in most conversations just to communicate basic information…broken English to Max, Max French to the coop leader, Kinyarwanda from the coop leader to the farmers….amazing we can actually sell or fix ANY bikes!

Rwandans are nose pickers….must be the dirt and dust
...I pick my nose
…need to stop THAT habit!

Everything is 200 RWF in the market unless you’re a “Muzungu” then it’s 300 RWF, unless you have a Rwandan with you…then it’s negotiable.

The Ishema Hotel where I get “brown bread” never has brown bread until I ask for it, then they bake it, sell it and when I go back to get it, they don’t have “brown bread”.

Not every Muzungu wants a Rwandan boyfriend but every Rwandan wants a Muzungu girlfriend.

Rwandans listen to really bad music! This is not African music….it’s Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton circa 1980ish.

When I ask Rwandan’s what time we’ll be meeting, I always clarify if we’re talking “Rwandan Time or American Time”.

You can always cut in line at the bank if you bring the girls really good chocolate! And yes, I abuse this! If you had to bank in Rwanda you would too!
Speaking of banking….it is not unusual to not have an internet connection at the bank to get money, or to actually not have money at the bank. Can you imagine that one in the US? AND….no ATM cards!

Rwandan’s have no concept of multitasking. There is no list of 37 things to do and one trip to do them in. There’s 1 thing to do in 1 trip and you do that 37 times.

Trucks all have sayings across the windshield. Some of my favorites….
Go With God
Life is Short
Life is Life
God is Good
God is God
Nigga (I kid you not!)
Jesus is God
No Time to Lose
Thank You…(insert various names here…including God)
Various Kinyarwanda sayings that I have no idea what they mean!

Then, the big trucks are highly decorated with the following options:
Picture of Jesus with His crown of thorns in the front windshield
Stuffed cat, big and white
Carpeting, generally 1970’s circa shag across the dash
Various plastic people, animals and chatkes
Dangly thingys hanging from the headliner

Drivers…the worst I’ve ever seen!
Don’t look when pulling out, drive too slow, drive in both lanes, if they are talking on the cell phone see above comment about multi tasking!

The reaction of people on the street when I was carrying a frantic King Kongo of Rwanda (our cat) to the vet to be neutered. As he’s clawing scratching and wiggling away from me so were all the people who wanted nothing to do with a domesticated animal attacking the freaky Blonde Muzungu.

Not showering for days on end because no water, or no electricity or both and feeling like it’s not that big a deal anymore.

Rwandan women who spit gigantic “lugies”. They can hack with the best Red Neck American man!

Kids on Jock’s street that call every blonde girl Rebecca regardless of who we really are. Thanks Rebecca for teaching them your name….we’re all Rebecca’s!

Things in Rwanda That Make Me Sad, Cry, Emotional or Just Make Me Wonder Why?

Poverty….how can it be so intense?

Electricity….why is it such a luxury to 90% of the population of Rwanda?

Water….can you imagine spending every day gathering water? And it’s not drinkable?

Children….tiny children…tiny due to malnutrition, due to poverty, due to other forces beyond their control

Intensity of days….how can I possibly pack as much as I do into a day and still feel like I haven’t done enough….It’s Africa….I will never be able to do enough!

Begging children….they were taught this by the prevalence of too much aid and not enough REAL help! Teach these people to fish!

Friends always leave….some come back, most don’t….you attach and then they’re gone.
Leaving my friends today….
….this is a difficult day

The sheer beauty of this country….
…the smiles on the children
….their curiosity
….the faces and inquisitive looks from women watching another woman ride a bike
….a bike….can you imagine?
….the kindness and smiles of Rwandan’s….they will keep me coming back, they will keep me fighting to help them have a better life.

Team Rwanda…
….their stories
….watching Alex look at his passport
….listening to Sibo tell me he can’t train because his wheel is broken and I can’t fix it and we have no more wheels because we have run out and it will be four weeks before I can return with wheels….He is emotional, his voice cracking as he tells me this.
….watching Jock with his Team ALWAYS makes me cry….
…hugging Kiki
…watching Adrien’s success at Tour of Ireland
…knowing what I know about how much Jock has sacrificed to make this happen for these boys…..THIS makes me emotional
…this makes me cry
…this makes me stay

Project Rwanda
…the stories of farmers
…Leonard riding his Project Rwanda bike with his Project Rwanda jersey and his million dollar smile
…the story of the 62 year old farmer in Bukonya that has a dream for his family that life will be better because they have a bike and may have more bikes
…watching 12 farmers ride off with their bikes
…watching 50 health care workers checking out their new bikes
…watching a woman, Penina, want a bike so badly it brings her to tears
….having Luna Chicks and Marika sponsor Penina to get that bike
…YOU women make me emotional!
….not having the NGO yet to bring in more bikes….
….this makes me cry in frustration…will I EVER make it happen? These people need more bikes and I can’t ship them from China until the NGO is renewed
….I cry in fear…
….I cry in frustration…
….I cry because I feel helpless….
….THIS is why I stay….

Friday, August 21, 2009

One Simple Bike

Probably a couple of times a week I get asked by people, why I do this...why I put up with the bad hours, the crazy home dynamics, the frustrating bureaucracy, the difficulties that are inherent with living in a country like Rwanda. Some days I ask myself that same question.

Yesterday as I was driving 30k down a dirt and gravel road into the middle of nowhere Rwanda with four people in the car, most listening to their IPods, oblivious to the surroundings, I thought about how far I have traveled. It's not a matter of miles, it's a matter of perspective, it's a personal journey miles cannot quantify.

Six months ago I was traveling in the circle of fancy restaurants, celebrity chefs, decked out in nice clothes, fabulous shoes, and living the life most people dream about. Today, I am two days out from a shower, wearing dirty jeans that are now a size too big, and flip flops, a life most would never long to have. It is my "perfect" life at this moment in time. I am thanking God as I look at the amazing countryside. I have had several moments while on this adventure of these surreal waves of peace and contentment that wash over me. It's difficult to explain. It's almost other worldly. To know you're exactly where you need to be at the exact moment in time you are there is emotional.

I am heading to the Bukonya wash station, home of Land of 1,000 Hills Coffee, to document the stories of farmers who have been fortunate to have the opportunity to own a Project Rwanda bicycle. These farmers are able to own these bikes through the generosity of Jonathan Golden, owner of Land of 1,000 Hills coffee. These farmers have had the bikes since February and when you hear them tell their stories you can't help but feel fortunate to be just a little piece of their hope for the future.

The very first farmer we interview is a slight man in his 60's, although his hard life makes him look a decade older. Two of his children died in the Genocide. His family has taken in an AIDS orphan as their own. I do not know Kinyarwanda. As he begins to answer the questions we ask I don't need to know. I already know the answer. As he begins to speak his voice cracks, his jaw quivers, his eyes well up, although no tears fall. Watching him I begin to cry. One simple bike. That's simple bike.

The translator relates to us that the bike has allowed him to provide for his family. It has increased his income by 20%. He is now able to support his wife and children and he has hope for his grandchildren. He wants them all to have bikes. Hope is a powerful thing...especially in this country.

I walk outside to be alone with my thoughts. As I do, I hear behind me the school children coming down the hill. The children here are so beautiful. They are curious. They want to learn English and love to practice English. They spot me sitting on the stoop with my lime green Dell in my lap trying to write down my thoughts about what I had just witnessed with the farmer. Within minutes I have a hundred or more children all surrounding me. It's a Muzungu in Bukonya. That's akin to spotting a white rhino on a safari. Extra credit points!

Around the corner comes an older gentleman dressed nicely who begins speaking to me. His English is difficult to understand but I begin to realize he is trying to teach the children a powerful lesson. We are all the same. My white skin is the same as their black skin. He wanted the children to feel my skin and asked if I would let them. I stuck out my arm and within seconds tiny little hands were touching my skin, my white skin. They laughed, realizing that yes, all skin feels the same. There is no difference. It is very strange at times to be an object of curiosity. For some people who come over it is enough to drive them home, never to return. There are days when I wish I could just blend in, but then I realize, I've really never "blended" in and it has nothing to do with the color of my skin.

We interview three more farmers, all of them with similar stories of increased income and hope for their families. All of them are so proud to share their stories. The sound of the first farmer's voice however, will stay with me forever.

As we head back to town everyone in the car is again wrapped up in their thoughts, listening to music. I'm always very quiet after these interactions with farmers. I feel privileged to be the one to help them tell their stories. I feel blessed to be the one to help them get their bikes. One Simple Bike.

Monday, August 17, 2009

4 Nationalities, 3 Passports, 2 Car Accidents, 1 More Police Stop....Just Another Day in Rwanda!

Thursday morning the alarm starts ringing at 4:00am. Every day in Rwanda seems like it is a lifetime. By 5:30am we're pulling out of the driveway on the way to Rukara through Kigali. All roads go through Kigali. We are heading to Rukara to do a training and maintenance/repair class for the health care workers from Malaria No More who received 50 bikes from Project Rwanda last month. In the car is Matt Rendell, a Brit, an amazing author here doing a story on Team Rwanda. He is an incredibly fascinating man with a life of adventure we all dream about. He is headed back to Kampala to meet up with Paul Sherwen (yes, cycling geeks, that Paul Sherwen) and then home to London. We are leaving him in Kigali to catch the 10 hour bus ride back to Uganda. New to the crew is Julius Schneider, a volunteer from Germany, who just landed in Rwanda Tuesday. I do believe he is on serious sensory overload as there hasn't been a second of down time since his feet touched Rwandan soil. He will be covering for Max while Max goes back to Paris for 6 weeks to recover from the "Muzungu, Amafaranga" infection we both are experiencing. So soon it will be Au Revoir to my favorite French mechanic, my main man Max. Rounding out the testosterone in the Explorer is Omar and Evan, volunteers from America working on stories for Project Rwanda. Oh, and once again, the sole chick

Only about 30k into the trek on the Road of Death, just as the sun is coming up, an accident. A truck missed one of the hairpin curves and ended up in the ravine. Luckily it was a ravine on the inside of the road and not the outside, which is a steep drop no one is coming home from. Seeing accidents like this always remind me how dangerous the driving in Rwanda can be. Matt and I continue our conversation while the four boys sleep scrunched up together all in the back seat of the Explorer. At times like this, I need a camera!

We make a quick stop in Kigali, meet up with Kiki, who has secured the Jaquar bus ticket to Uganda for Matt and give lots of hugs and goodbyes and send Matt on his way. Max jumps in the front seat and in goes the Iphone and we are jamming to music that makes me realize I actually am 43. For some strange reason, it is exactly what I want to be listening to. Max is definitely rubbing off on me!

By 9:30 we are cruising down the final 10k of dirt road to the Health Center in Rukara. We're technically late, but this is technically Rwanda so they cancel each other out. As we pull into the center I see about 40 bikes all lined up. I see Max's face. He's going to need cigarettes. Whatever Max needs at this point, Max gets! Julius is simply looking like a deer in the head lights and Omar and Evan are bracing for the onslaught of kids and stares and shouts of "Muzungu". I'm just worried about getting on my laptop and onto the internet to check on Max's Visa so he can leave on Sunday. The beauty of air cards in a cellular country! Max's Visa has been at the Department of Immigration for the last three weeks, because it was incorrectly stamped when he entered and he has "officially" overstayed his welcome according to the laws of Rwanda. We have been there four times, taken four passport photos and paid 50,000 RWF ($100) and still don't have a passport. No passport, no France, no France, Max is going postal. We are both completely in need of a break. No passport today and Blondie Muzungu might just go Postal!

As Max gets to work wrenching, Julius follows suits, Max and Omar start documenting with pictures and I sit on a stoop surrounded by 20 Rwandans all curious about the lime green Dell in my lap and my heated conversation with my contact at MINICOM (NGO issue...can't discuss...end up in fetal position). According to the update on the website, Max's Visa is ready. Until Max's Passport is in his hands that chicken hasn't hatched. Another call to the American Embassy to confirm I can pick up Jock's passport there. (You know you travel a lot when you run out of pages to stamp in your Passport and have to go to the Embassy to have them add more). And one email to Jock to check on the progress of Adrien's Passport which is supposed to be sent from the Irish Embassy in Kampala, Uganda to Pretoria, South Africa so Adri can ride in the Tour of Ireland. Adri will be the first Rwandan to ride in the Tour of Ireland and ironically, the Tour of Ireland was Jock's last professional race. How amazing is God?

Oh, damn....the cigarettes!

Three hours and 39 bikes later our little road show packs up and rolls out. Max has shown all the patience in the world to the Rwandan health care workers but as soon as we get in the car, he just shakes his head and says, "Stupid". I agree, sometimes it's disheartening to see how fast a bike can be destroyed. These are bikes that would last the average American a lifetime, however, for some strange reason, Rwandans destroy the bikes. Perhaps it's the lack of really good mechanics. I am not sure exactly why. The riders are extremely hard on their equipment as well. I saw our guard one day taking steel wool to his biking shoes to clean them. Would you ever consider using steel wool to clean shoes? I think that is what frustrates Max and myself most is trying to keep bikes, cargo and team, running.

Next stop....feed the boys. It's almost 2:30 when we pull back into Kigali. There is no way any of us can deal with Immigration and the Embassy on an empty stomach. There's an amazing restaurant in Kigali, Afrika Bite, which is traditional style African food served buffet style with drink for 3,000 RWF ($5.50). Great place for four starving young men and one bitchy hungry old chick! We literally inhale the food, two plates each, and we're on our way to Immigration.

As Max and I walk in we are number 3071 and they are on number 3053. I leave Max and head to the Embassy. Omar, Evan and Julius wait outside with the car at the curb for our quick getaway while I strip down of all non essentials to get through the three security ports at the Embassy. I walk in with the clothes on my back and my passport. No phone, wallet, keys, nothing....the more you bring in the more they have to confiscate. Ten minutes later I hit the curb with Jock's passport and back to Immigration.

We are now number 3061. As Max and I wait, I am on Facebook with Jock letting him know I have his passport and getting info from him that yes, the Irish Embassy released Adrien's visa and passport and it is on it's way to South Africa. Two down, one to go....number 3071....ten minutes later we're out the door. The chicken has hatched! Max is going home. I have never seen a kid so relieved in his entire life.

We head to MTN Bourbon, the only place that has ice cream in Rwanda I believe, and celebrate. As we're leaving we witness accident number two. A RAV 4 in a Rwandan ditch. These are not any ditches. These are deep, stone, edge of the road, troughs from where a car will never return. I see the car and wonder how anyone could have made it out alive. I don't want to look. It's 4:30 and I am chasing daylight on my own drive home on the Road of Death.

Just when I begin to relax and feel good about an amazingly productive twelve hour day in Rwanda, I'm pulled over. I'm 50k from home and I'm busted. I wasn't speeding. I was simply trying to pass a truck blowing diesel exhaust chugging up this hill. I pull out and they see me. I do not have my driver's license. It's in my other bag at home. This is not good. I try to explain to no avail. They want the driver's license. Of course they do not understand English, so Max gets out of the car, lights a cigarette and next thing I know I'm standing in the middle of a heated argument in French. All I know is Max is irritated and is trying to reason with them. Finally Max looks at me and says they will take 50,000 RWF ($100) for the "punishment". At this point, darkness is closing in and I just want to get us home. Fine, 50,000 RWF I'm out of here. Give me my ticket and I'm on my way. Wait, no ticket? No receipt? I give them 50,000 RWF and walk away. Max just says get in the car. This did not just happen. They just pocketed the money. Welcome to third world reality. On top of that, I cannot drive. Max, Omar and Evan all forgot their licenses. The only person who has a license is Julius who has been down this road one other time and has only been in the country 48 hours. This is not good.

As I'm sitting in the back seat with Omar looking like he's going to vomit and Max even clutching the side of the door, I realize this is not going to fly. I will have to take the chance and drive. Better me in jail and alive then being accident number three. Omar looks at me and asks quietly, "Will you PLEASE drive?" Twenty kilometers down the road with Julius all over the road, weaving to avoid the people I have had enough and make him pull over. I am driving the rest of the way. It's dark and generally the police go home at dark. I know I'm late, Jock is texting me wondering where I'm at.

I finally hit Jock's. It's almost 7:00pm, it's dark and I'm going straight back to his closet for my last stash of wine and I'm not sharing....okay, maybe a swig for Jock. Just another day in Rwanda.