Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bus to Kampala

Just last week I met this great young woman, Charlie Grosso.  She had actually met Jock in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on his way home from the inauguration of the Sports Academy in Addis the end of May.  He had suggested if she's in Rwanda to look us up.  She did...and in the small world which is international travel, she happened to be friends with one of our friends who had just purchased Jock's BMW 800 GS, the one he got in Khartoum, Sudan (yet, another blog).

Charlie came up to Musanze for a day and spent the night with us.  She was planning on seeing the gorillas until she found out it was $750 to do so.  Yes, that prices it out of most of our meager disposable income levels.  She was telling us about her plans to travel to Uganda and I quickly remarked, "Are you taking the Jaguar?"  Jaguar is this horrific bus line which runs an overnight bus from Kigali, Rwanda to Kampala, Uganda.  Ten hours of a stinky, African, crabbing (travels sideways because the frame is bent due to so many accidents), screaming babies and errant farm animals on the bus...yeah, I'm out!  Some people use the excuses, "Well, I'm not working so the bus is only $20" or "I really want the African experience."  Me, I make one quarter of what I used to, have lived in Africa for four years and frankly, a $300 thirty-five minute FLIGHT to Kampala sounds much better.  I don't really need that much "authentic" Africa to feel like I have lived the African experience.  We tried to talk her into flying.

Sadly, Charlie took the is her story:

Matt's white Land Cruiser is stuck in the middle of bus station traffic in Kigali, Rwanda. I give him a big hug and a quick kiss. I'll get out here. I grab my two packs out the backseat; with a wink I disappear into the crowd.

I find the Jaguar Express office and wait. It is a full hour before the overnight bus leaves for Kampala, Uganda. I am not sure why I am here so early, for no other reason than Matt said I should. Not willing to draw attention by pulling out the iPad to read, I sit and watch the chaos of the bus station and almost miss the cheapness of paperback books.

The bus pulls out of the mayhem right at 8 o'clock. A bus that runs on time in this part of the world?! Wow. The big bus huff its way through dark bumpy pothole marked roads and we reach the edge of Uganda by 9:30pm. Everyone gets off the bus to cross the boarder. I am tired. I want to get back on the bus so I can sleep. The next thing I want to see is the edge of Kampala. The night has a touch of chill in it. I zip up the fleece, wrap the scarf around a little tighter, cue up Massive Attack on the iPod and assume the sleeping pose.

It’s the middle of the night and the bus comes to a sudden stop. There are men shouting outside and I hear two popping sounds. Could that gun shots? No….I'm sure its nothing. Go back to sleep, I tell myself. The shouting gets louder. The driver side door opens, five to six men with LED flashlights push onto the bus. The bus is being hi-jacked and we are being robbed.

More shouting and everyone move into the rear of the bus. I try to follow but one of the robber stop me and told me to stay in my seat, right behind the driver. I am on the onlymazunga on the bus tonight. The bus pulls off the sealed main road onto an unpaved back road. We stop and go a couple of times. The robbers can't seem to agree on where they want to take the bus or how far.

One of the robber grabs at my cargo pants and the iPhone, iPod are the first to go. My passport is in that same pocket but he is not interested. MONEY MONEY he shouts at me and keeps on tugging at different pockets. I hand over the small wallet as he tosses through the wad of kleenex, chap stick, eye drop in the other pocket.

They are shouting in the back of the bus. Pop Pop Pop. The same sound I heard when the bus first stopped. There is no mistaking it now. Gun shot. Small caliber and it sounds just like the firecrackers we used to play with.

Another man comes over and shouts at me. MONEY MONEY. I point to the back of the bus --- I GAVE IT ALREADY. He smacks me on the head and walks away. Another one comes back to me. Which one is your bag? He picks the one that is right in front of me and starts. I watch and wonder what they will take, if not everything. He throws out everything that is useless to him. My little travel bunny, sharpie, Tiger Balm, small bag of film, notebook…then he comes to the iPad, laptop, Nikon D800, Hasselblad… He unwraps every one from their protective covers and wraps them back up as soon as he see what they are. He reaches into the back pocket of the pack and finds my real wallet. Two more passports, credit cards, extra ATM cards and an envelop of US Dollars. He takes the cash, folds it in half, and tucks it in his pocket. Something tells me he won't be sharing the loot with other guys. He tosses the wallet back at me with passports and cards, zips up the pack with all of my hardware inside. I wishfully think for a split second that he doesn't want my cameras and just take the money. He puts the pack in the middle of the isle and I get he has assumed ownership of every thing inside the bag.

He walks away and another man comes over. MONEY MONEY. I GAVE IT ALL ALREADY!!! I shout back at him. He grabs at my scarf trying to un-tuck it….I loosen it for him before he chokes me with it. Okay. Sure you can have this scarf if you want. He reaches down my shirt to see if I am hiding money in my bra. Nope. Sorry to disappoint you. I tuck my passport in my underwear and put my green bunny in my pocket.

They are kicking everyone off the bus but not before a final search. I hide the wallet in the back of my pants; all three passports, credit cards and I squeeze through the door in the confusion avoiding the last search.

Everyone is laying face down on the side of the road. I join the pile. I don't know who I am laying on top of but I feel them trembling under me. This armed robbery seemed comical until now. I don't know what is next but I know what I fear. Please don't rape me.

I stick my head up a little to keep an eye on them searching the passengers coming off the bus. Please don't rape us. If there ever is a time to pray it would be now. A hand comes out of the human pile under me and gently pushes my head back down.

The engine starts. They drive off with the bus.

A skinny woman in a shinny black jacket sits up. We are still alive; there is a God she says. We get up and start walking. The night is dark and there are no lights. I finally feel the adrenaline surge and the tiny handshake that comes with it. It didn't last long, seconds at most. I am surprised. There are few quiet sobs around me. The woman in the shinny jacket takes my hand. Are you okay I ask. Yes. Do you have your documents? She asks me. I do. Do you? No, they took it. She starts to cry a little. What is your name? Peace. My name is Peace.

Headlights. A truck is coming up from behind and everyone jumps into the woods. What if it is them coming back? I duck down behind some shrub until the truck passes us by. It is not the robbers. We could have flagged them down for help but then, you don't really know who is on these back roads at 5am in the middle of nowhere.

We keep on walking in the dark and I think about all the work that is lost. All the film from these last 7 weeks, video footage, digital files. All the stories I've written or are in the middle of. I've lost everything. Computer, cameras, phone, every piece of hardware and yet I feel okay. I am not panicked. I am not upset. My mind is already at the problem solving stage. Should I keep on going and spend the summer in Africa and South America like I had planned or should I go to my mom's in Taiwan and work on the other book instead of Wok The Dog? Should I re-trace my steps or should I just pick new counties? There are plenty of options and the freedom to decide sends my mind into overdrive.

There is a fork in the road and the group can't decide which way to go. A man comes out of nowhere from the bushes. He has a lantern, a small plastic bag and plastic flip-flops that is close to being worn through. What is he doing in the woods in the middle of the night? He points us to the Y junction in the road. I bump into a man in the dark. Oh thank god you are okay he says. I was so worried about you. I was asking everyone if they've seen you. It is Ken, the Congolese man next to me on the bus.

Back on the main road. Light. Pavement.

The gas station attendant is carrying a rifle. A couple of hour ago I might have thought the gun is an exaggeration but now I retract that thought. He goes over to the darkened Police Station to wake up the police.

A brand new truck pulls up to the gas station with great urgency. Ogwal the policeman with perfect English hops out. We know where the bus is. I need one of you to come with us. A handsome tall man who I am noticing for the first time jumps in the back of the truck and they take off. First light. The day is starting and I’m finally seeing everyone clearly. There is a man whose gray shirt and pants is soaked through with blood. Another with his white trainers stained red. I turn to Ken. Who got hurt? They shot him, right there on the bus, right next to me, Ken says. This is the third time in my life where someone got killed next to me and I've been spared. But it is the first time I've gotten human blood on me. He holds up his arm, bright red against his dark chocolate skin.

Kids in uniforms walk by with big smiles and curious eyes. Mini buses drive pass and honks. A man rides a bicycle with two kids in uniforms, one on each end of the bike.

The police escort the bus back to the gas station and a policeman comes out with a fake rifle made out of cardboard and electrical tape. The robber only had one real weapon between them. The dead man is still inside. Everyone get back in the bus to see if there is anything left. I know there is nothing left. There are bits of paper everywhere. A pair of white sneakers in the middle of the isle, clothes scattered around, the dead man and a pool of blood. I spot my eye drop and headlamp on the ground. I pick them up and get off the bus.

Lord and behold my big pack is untouched in the luggage compartment under the bus. All the film and back up hard drives are in there. This feels like a bonus. Not just work I've already done, but clean underwear and toothbrush too.

Men with guns multiply. Police in khaki uniforms and black beret, military in blue fatigues and unknown designations in solid blue jump suits swarm the gas station. There are nearly as many of them as there are passengers. I am not sure that they are actually doing anything but their presence gives the illusion of justice and order. A tall man in solid blue jumpsuit stand next to me and says I'm sorry. Do you have a card? I can call you when we find your stuff. I can't tell if this is strange pick up or if he is genuine. I hand him a business card either way. A woman makes a beeline for me, shoves a brown paper bag in my arms and walks away. There are three tins of sardines in tomato sauce in the bag. Urrh…Thanks?!

Eventually, the police remove the body and piles us back onto the bloody bus. We drive for about an hour to a proper police station to wait for another bus. Peace found her purse and there are still some money left. She insists on buying me a soda. A guy buys a dense fried pastry shaped like a muffin and offers me part of it. I try to ripe off a piece but the shape and density made it hard and I end up with a tiny bit. Come on, take more, this is Africa, don't be shy the man says. Ken has assumed the role my escort. I ask him what happened back there and why did the robber shoot the man. The dead guy was a businessman and had an envelope of cash on him; he didn't want to give it up. Dead for nothing. Ken shakes his head. This is Africa.

We arrive at Kampala around noon and the bus company offers everyone a free bus ticket as compensation. Ken insists on hiring a cab with the bit of money he found left in his bag to take me to the US Embassy. Before I got out of the taxi, he grabs my hand and slips me some money. For your transport later. I hug him tight.


By the time you get this, I will have returned to Africa...Nairobi to be exact, picking up where I left off. I dashed in and out of NYC quickly and quietly to restock and file insurance. I'm sorry I didn't get to see you....but I will see you soon enough.

For aftermath on the robbery and tales of adventures beyond, visit SpyTravelogue. Track me through the spotty Internet connection for the rest of the summer here and see what I see here.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Empathy, Genocidaires and Gangbangers

I haven't written in weeks.  I haven't been in the best place.  I needed a break, not sure if it was from Rwanda or from life this year.  This year I've simply been "off".  So many variables, things back and forth, scheduled and rescheduled, taken off the schedule completely then put back on the schedule at the last minute.  Last year was fairly cut and dry, the Olympics were our main focus.  This year has been akin to sipping out of a fire hydrant.

I went home at the end of April hoping for a long rest.  I had been on and off sick for most of the beginning of the year, staph infection, broken blood vessel  in the eye, seriously bad case of influenza which ended with a trip to the Emergency Room in Switzerland.  Throughout most of the year I had also been off the bike.  I rode every week, but generally only once a week.  Travel, available time and sickness had kept the bike at arms length.  My first 10 days back in the US was spent in a plane....Las Vegas, DC, Kansas City, LA, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Silver City New Mexico, Las Vegas.  I was exhausted, mentally, physically and spiritually.  And then I got on my bike in the second week of May and started riding again.  A week or so later I remember waking up in Las Vegas and thinking this was the first time I felt 100% all year.  I felt rested, well and strong again in all areas of my life.  I spent the last two weeks home riding and eating and seeing friends.  It was good.

I came back to Rwanda for only a week and then onto Sardinia, Italy for a sponsor bicycle trip with Vittoria tires....that story will be for another blog.  Suffice it to say, it was heaven.

I felt like I had found my meaning again.  There had been so many distractions since late last year particularly with the fallout from the film.  But really, for me, once I got back on the bike, started riding with the riders again, testing riders, essentially doing what I love most, I felt calm, peace and a sense of this is exactly where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing.  I have ridden more in the last 8 weeks than the prior four months and mentally I felt the positive effects.

Until quickly this place can unravel it for you.

I went out for a quick ride late this morning before the riders came in for my first training camp with them in months.  As I rode along with our new teacher from the US, Jody Nathan, I felt good about life, about the team, about how I live.  2.25 miles into our ride we crested a hill and just a few feet below the top of the hill was a dog laying in the middle of the right hand lane.  He was dead. He had been hit by a car....recently.  As Jody and I rode past I started to become emotional.  We pulled over on the side of the road and I called my girlfriend, the head vet for the mountain gorillas.  No answer.  I called back to the house to get the number of the other vet at the organization, his name and number pinned above my desk, no answer.  Cars, busses, and trucks came over the hill and quickly swerved to miss the dog but no one stopped.  I looked up after my last phone call to see three women standing across the street staring at us.  The stare....there it is...the stare that unnerves me, leaves me angry and leaves me hopeless for this country.  It is the most vacant stare you will see.  There is no soul behind these stares.  It is prevalent in Rwanda, especially in this part of Rwanda.  You look up and into their eyes and all you see is a giant void, a complete nothingness.  They just stare.  They stare because I am white, I am a novelty (yes, even after 4 years of riding the exact same road day in and day out).  It is a look of hopelessness and emptiness.  I will have nightmares about these stares.

I turned the bike around and rode back to the dog.  Jody said we should move him to the side.  I propped my bike up against the light pole and walked over to the had probably been within the past hour he had been hit.  He was so peaceful.  I grabbed his hind legs and Jody grabbed the front of him and we carried him off the road and laid him to rest on some grass near the shoulder.  There had been a shirt in the road next to him which I placed over his body.  I am not sure why I did this, it just seemed like he was sleeping.  My eyes welled up with tears.  I was sad for the dog and increasingly angry with the growing crowd.  The crowd which laughed and pointed at the two white girls pulling a dog out of harm's way.  One young man pointed at me and laughed.  Normally I would have had the thought, "if I could only punch my fist through your face, I would feel so much better".  Today I looked at him with fear, horror and disgust.  More than 100 people walked past that dog and did nothing...nothing. When we did something they laughed.

People wonder aloud with me at times how something like a genocide could have happened here 19 years ago.  Genocide happens in the absence of empathy.  Empathy according to is "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another."  Basically putting yourself in someone else's shoes...or paws.  I do this every day when I become frustrated with a rider.  I also ask myself, "where are they coming from, what is their filter, how has the culture influenced their action."  This is empathy.  I am not perfect, sometimes I become angry when I shouldn't, but I always reassess every situation and look at it from another's perspective.  Today I saw people leave a dog in the street, walk past it without a glance and then laugh when someone helped.  There was no sign of empathy.

After we moved the dog we jumped back on our bikes and I rode off.  I left Jody behind, usually I circle around after each hill but today I just kept riding.  I tried to ride the feeling I had, the visual burned into my brain of the "stare", I tried to ride it out of me.  I could not.  There was no escaping the truth.  

How do people turn on each other, kill each other, kill neighbors and friends and even family?  This only happens if people are void of empathy.  I could never in a million years kill anyone.  My heart breaks when I see animals, people or children abused.  Today on Facebook I saw a friend of mine showing off her new diamond ring for her 25th wedding anniversary....I thought of all the people on this continent who die mining those diamonds.  I cannot wear a diamond because I know where they come from.  I know the people who die every day to feed their family by working in a mine.  I cannot turn a blind eye to what happens here.  

As I rode I thought about how Rwanda really is not all that different from the US in some aspects.  I recently read a book, "Tattoos on the Heart".  It was written by a man who has worked with LA gangs for over two decades.  Jody, our new teacher, took a sabbatical from her job as a high school teacher in LA to work in Rwanda.  The stories they both have about the young men and women born into poverty, lacking a bond from birth which establishes an empathetic core, are similar.  The young men and women who kill each other on the streets of any big city in America simply because they don't belong to the "right" gang is no different.  They kill because they have no empathy.  Bloods and crips or whatever the gang name of the day are no different than the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda.  They are the same people, they simply have no empathy for their neighbor, friend or family.

So I wonder....can you teach empathy?  If you're empathic you're less likely to pick up a gun or machete and use it.  Then can we teach these young people empathy?  If we could would the violence cease?  It almost seems too simple.  But what if we could..?

I know the lesson of empathy will be taught at every opportunity with this team.  I would like to think our riders are different, they have been exposed to different thinking, more education, they have empathetic role models.  I will not leave it to prayer is one of our riders would have stopped to move the dog off the road.  Only by example will things change both here and home.