I recently went on a trip back home – to the Philadelphia suburbs where I grew up!
I haven’t been able to go back for almost 3 years, and I have been aching for it so much.
So, when I managed to find a $250 RT ticket from Salt Lake (absolutely unheard of!) I jumped on it and was on my way!
Her Heart Is In Our Hearts
I spent my first night back in Wallingford, PA with my mom’s best friend and her husband. We spent hours catching up, and reminiscing about my mom and all of our memories from when we all lived down the street from one another. We laughed a lot, and we cried a lot too.
I needed that, I desperately needed to spend that time with her and feel as if my mom were in the room with us too, laughing at the old stories and remembering all the good times. Being around her, I feel so close to my mom because she carries a huge piece of my mom inside her heart and I needed to be close to that for even just a few hours; it was so healing and so vital.
My heart felt a little less heavy from sorrow and a little more full of joy after I spent that time with them.
Holidays are the Hardest
After Thanksgiving, my heart has been holding this heavy sadness for my mom – I mean, I miss her all the time but the holiday season is always just a little bit harder. After dinner was done and all of my siblings and I left my Dad’s house, I went home alone. But, instead of going straight home and putting on some holiday movie by myself, I decided to take a detour and go visit my mom in the cemetery.
I brought her a Diet Coke like I always do, because it was her drink of choice. It was freezing, about 29 degrees and it was very dark except for the few grave-sites that had lighted fixtures on them around me on the hill.
There in the darkness I cried – and not just some tears, I full on ugly cried. I felt pathetic, but I think I needed to let it out and feel my grief in that moment. Sometimes I try to hold it all in and just deal with it, when in reality I need to own my pain and my sadness and feel it – really feel it. Because the reason it hurts so damn much is because I loved her, so damn much. And that love will never change.
The next day before meeting up with a friend, I had to go see my childhood house. I can’t go to the place I grew up and NOT go see my house!
I drove down the familiar roads, not even needing GPS even though I haven’t lived there for 15 years; it is all just so deeply ingrained and I remember it all!
Finally pulling up to my house, I pulled the car over across the street and just stared at it. I wanted to go knock on the door and ask if I could go see the inside of it, but I didn’t want the people who live there (in MY house) to think I was some kind of crazy person.
So, instead, I sat across the street and admired it, remembering so many memories as they all rushed over me. I lived there from 18 months to 18 years old, so almost half of my life! Remembering the girl who lived in that front window, she seemed like such a ghost compared to the girl sitting in the car now.
Feeling so sentimental, and still missing my mom and my family being all together for so many years in that place, I was suddenly crying there on the side of the road. And I’m sure anyone driving by must have thought something was wrong; but I mean, wasn’t there?
And one man actually was worried, and he stopped his car next to mine and waved me to roll my window down. He was a gray haired older man with an incredibly kind smile, although his eye full of concern.
“Are you ok sweetheart?” he asked in his thick Delco accent.
“Oh… yep! I’m Okay, thank you!” I responded, feeling stupid for crying on the side of the road trying my best to wipe my face.
“Are you lost? Can I help you with directions somewhere?” He offered.
I wanted to respond no, because I knew where I was and where I needed to go, but in the moment I responded, “You know, I am a little lost. But I think I can find my way.”
“We all get lost from time to time, but remember there is always someone around that can help you find where you need to go!”
After profusely convincing him I was ok, he drove off, but his words stayed with me.
Lost But Not Forever
I stayed there in front of my old house for awhile, just thinking about life.
That man’s kindness and his words meant more to me that I think he could have known in those moments we spoke.
The truth is, we are all lost sometimes – but not forever. And we even lose pieces of ourselves too – but they aren’t lost forever either; not always.
And just like that kind man said, there is always someone around who can help us find where we need to go.
Finding My Way Back
This trip home for me, I hoped would help me recover pieces of myself that I have lost. This town, and area, was where I was raised, where I figured out the beginnings of who I was and what I wanted.
Important steps and parts of myself were created and developed here; some of my most painful memories also culminated there. But you need the hard times to help you see your own strength and resilience, and to appreciate the good times more.
Going back to your home – to your roots wherever they may be – is important. It is an necessary place to return to occasionally, to feel that part of yourself again. If it’s been lost, you can try to replace it where it all started.
Or if there are painful things associated with your home, you can also go to face those old demons and finally let them go. This is also an important step on the road to self-discovery.
Home Is In My Heart
I ended that portion of my trip to the east coast with a dinner in Media with 3 of my closest girlfriends from high school.
We laughed, reminisced, and caught up with each other. I hardly ever get to see them, and every time I do it is magical and so healing to my heart. I am continually grateful that we are all still friends and keep in touch, even though we live so far apart.
That night as I lay in bed I thought of that old saying:
Home Is Where Your Heart Is
And as sappy as I always used to think it is, it is so valid and so true; especially now that I live so far from the place I consider home.
My home is inside my heart, I carry it with me everywhere. My friends, my family, the places I hold such fond memories of, the ones I’ve loved and the ones I’ve lost too; they’re all in there in my heart.
So maybe in a way I’m not really lost, I think those pieces of myself are still in there inside me, they’ve just become buried under everything else that I’ve been facing and dealing with.
But my home, the place where the real “me” resides, is always with me in my heart.
Waking up under the large mosquito net on our king size bed that Heather and I shared, I rolled over and could see the sun poking through the closed curtains from our balcony. I got up and opened them, letting the full views pour into our room.
This spot in the city of Kibuye at The Cormoran Lodge, overlooking Lake Kivu, was one of the most beautiful places ever! We woke up quite early (not by our own decision) because Steve and SueAnne were talking pretty loudly out on their balcony below us around 6 am, but with a view like that I couldn’t really complain.
After breakfast in the resort restaurant again, our group split up: Steve, SueAnne, and Anne headed into the nearby town to do some shopping. Heather, Poppa, and myself walked down to the dock to catch a boat with Mr. Kirenga.
Our destination was: Napoleon Island, so named because of how it’s shape resembles the hat Napoleon famously wore.
The motor boat was small, with a roof overhead, and could fit about 8 people. Our driver was a cute local triathlete named Ken. Hoping to see him in the Olympics someday!
The ride to the island was so great, stopping first to see some local fisherman unpacking their boats from a long night of fishing on the lake.
Then turning out towards the open water, we passed some other resorts currently under construction on a nearby hill, and a gigantic private home which is apparently owned by a man from Germany, and houses the king when he comes to Lake Kivu. It was pretty impressive.
We stopped at a small island covered densely in trees, when we saw a cute little furry face pop up from a branch. It was an adorable Vervet Monkey, and as we came closer he also came closer. When we reached the shore he hopped right onto our boat and checked us out.
According to Ken, he is notorious for visiting the tourists on the boats because he is hoping to get some treats. He walked around the boat, looking into all of our eyes hoping we would feed him. He sat patiently for a moment or two, and then when he realized we had nothing for him he left looking very disappointed, and watched us pull away from the trees.
As we got closer to Napoleon Island, Ken told us about a local farmer who brings his cows to the island everyday to graze. The amazing part though, is he ties them to the back of the boat and they swim behind it! I had no idea cows swam!! Plus they were really cute cows 🙂
Ken led us up the hiking path, which would bring us to the real reason we came to the island: the fruit bats!! The hike was pretty steep and rocky, but it only took us a few minutes to reach the bats.
But don’t worry, you can hear them the minute you get on the island, because there are over 5 million fruit bats living there!
Once we reach a good enough spot, Ken started clapping his hands and ALLLLLL the bats woke up and started screeching and flying around. It was incredible!
After watching them for awhile we hiked back down to the boat. I ended up slipping once and fell right on the edge of a rock, which bruised my lower back pretty good. Poppa also ended up falling too! Heather and I were pretty sad we couldn’t prevent him from falling, but he assured us that he was just fine!
Going back to the lodge, we ate some lunch and then all went to take some nice long naps. Heather and I then decided to put on our swim suits and go down the the little sandy beach area and enjoy the sunshine. We didn’t dare swim in the lake though, because Poppa scared us pretty good about the parasites in the water that will get into your skin and cause itchy uncomfortable bumps, kind of similar to swimmers itch.
Everyone eventually joined us down by the water, except for SueAnne who went and took a late nap. The others decided to all go kayaking, so Heather and I watched them from the shore on our lounge chairs.
We met a few girls who were also staying there, who all work for the UN and are stationed in the Congo. I was so inspired by them and their work, and their passion to help those in the Congo.
Later after dinner, when everyone else had gone to bed – Heather, Poppa, and me talked for awhile just the three of us. We talked very intimately about our birth mom Sherri (Poppa’s oldest child) and when we were conceived and then put up for adoption. I had never heard the story from Poppa’s point of view, and it was such a tender and wonderful moment to have with him and Heather. I will forever be grateful for Sherri and her ability to make the best decision for us at the time, which was to put us up for adoption. She and her entire family hoped that one day we would return to find them, and when we did 4 years ago it was such a magical moment I will never forget. The Hales are just another extension of my family now, and I feel so blessed to have all of them in my life again.
June 16 Back to Kigali
The next morning we left the beautiful lodge on the lake to head back to Kigali. We stopped first at the local market to SueAnne and Anne could pick up their dresses they had made by one of the seamstresses. Their dresses were cute!
While in that market, a younger boy, in his 20’s I think, tried to pick pocket me. I noticed immediately, and he was not successful. I just smiled at him and walked away. It was so funny because I wasn’t angry at all, I honestly felt sorry for him that he felt the need to steal from me. I wished I could have just given him some money, but I didn’t want to start pandemonium with all the little kids who were following us “mizungus” around (white people).
About an hour into our ride home several of us needed to pee, so we pulled off into a small village. We each took turns running into the awful, dirty toilet room; held our breath and peed as quickly as possible over the open hole on the ground.
Walking back to our car, a very handsome local man named Iman started talking to Heather and Anne, and offered to show us the market located just above the bathroom on the hill. We said “YOLO” and followed him, because we wanted to experience a local market without any touristy items.
We were definitely the spectacle in that market! Everyone stared at us immediately, and then wanted us to come look at their goods! Iman kept talking to everyone in Kinyarwanda and we were pretty sure several times he was making jokes about us because they kept laughing at us! But it was all in good spirits so we couldn’t help but laugh at ourselves too.
SueAnne ended up buying 2 drums covered in spotted goat skin. When she started drumming on them with her hands an elderly Rwandan lady got quite a kick out of it, and laughed so hard at her! We honestly must have seemed so strange and out of place to them!
The drive back to Kigali was beautiful, passing by many villages, seeing so many hills, and a gorgeous waterfall.
We also made a brief stop to see the famous Hotel Rwanda once we got back to Kigali. Now, it’s actually called Hotel des Mille Collines and has been renovated since the genocide in the 90s.
The manager of the hotel during the 90’s, Paul Rusesabagina, helped hide and save over 1000 Tutsi refugee lives. Although now it is just a renovated hotel, it was still important for us to go there and see it.
If you’ve never read or learned about the genocide in Rwanda, do yourself and favor and study it. Just like the holocaust, and any other genocide that has occurred, it is important to educate ourselves about it so that we never forget and change history from ever repeating itself.
We checked back into The Flame Tree Hotel around 2 pm, and decided to go meet by the pool for a swim with Poppa because it was incredibly hot and humid outside.
However, the pool was ice cold! Poppa was the bravest of us, and went all the way under and swam two laps. I couldn’t bear to go past my waist!
Since Poppa had been the bravest we decided he had earned himself some Fanta Fiestas! He was pretty disappointed when they said they were sold out and only had Fanta Lemon, so he settled for those instead.
We all ordered soup for dinner and called it an early night.
June 17th Kigali
This day was a Sunday, so we decided to go check out the local LDS Church. According to Poppa; the current President of Rwanda, Kagame, had abolished all practicing religions from taking place. This was because there had been many different “pastors” and “bishops” who had come in after the genocide to start new congregations, and took these people’s money and disappeared. As if the Rwandan people hadn’t been through enough! In order to control his people no longer being taken advantage of, Kagame just abolished all publicly practiced religions.
So, in order to continue meeting every church had to abandon their original churches and worship houses, and find other places to do so in secrecy.
For the LDS congregation, they were sharing a space to meet inside a local hotel’s conference room with 2 other Christian churches. However, every month or so they had to change locations so the government wouldn’t shut them down again. These people are faithful to keep moving around just so they can worship together!
The meeting we attended was interesting, but so full of love and kindness. The members of the congregation were welcoming and friendly, and almost all of them made an effort to come say hello to us! I myself was pretty obsessed with this little girl who was sitting on the same row as us, with a matching dress and headscarf just like her mama! She was too shy though and wouldn’t come see me or Heather, much to our dismay.
Leaving church, we went to a few markets. There was not much else to do in Kigali that day, so we thought we might as well shop!
We stopped first at a smaller market, but it was where we ended up all buying things. Each little “store” basically had the same items, but with small variations. I was very picky with what I wanted to buy and lug all the way back on the long flights, so eventually I decided on a cute basket that I would hang over my bed at home.
We went to another market, this one specializing in fabrics and seamstresses. It was an absolute MADHOUSE. It was inside a giant warehouse, and literally from the floor to the ceiling, each small “store” was covered with all different bright patterns and colors. The vendors were almost ravenous to have you come buy from them, pulling you in all directions to come see their stuff.
Immediately I felt overwhelmed with anxiety, feeling so closed in on all sides. While SueAnne became engulfed in a sea of vendors, Heather and I broke off from the crowd and went into a less enclosed aisle. I ended up buying a cute head band from a local vendor named Tom, who Poppa also bought a cute pair of pants from for Dianne back home.
Figuring the Alders would take awhile, Heather Poppa and I went back to the hotel since Poppa needed to connect with one of the local residents at the Kigali Hospital where he would be working the next week. We ordered some grilled cheeses and Poppa shared some fun medical stories from all of his career in the international infectious disease medical world, while we waited for the resident to show up. Unfortunately for us, it is normal for Rwandans to add mayonnaise to grilled cheese, so I was worried we would become sick from it. (Spoiler Alert: none of us did!)
Leonardo the resident finally showed up, and Poppa gave him the laptop and cords he had brought for him from Utah. He seemed in awe of Poppa, and was so honored to be working with him. Poppa is just amazing!
Then we helped Poppa pack his things into a taxi, and headed down the street to the MTM building to get some money from an ATM machine, and get some ice cream. Because if there’s one thing you need to know about my Poppa, it’s that he loooooves his ice cream!
It was delicious! We all chose chocolate.
Dropping us back off at Flame Tree, we said our goodbyes to Poppa. He would be heading to his fancy hotel by the hospital, where he would be working with the residents for the next week.
I knew I would miss him on our next adventures heading to Akagera National Park, and then to the volcanoes to see the gorillas, but I was so excited for what lay ahead for us!
Looking back on our incredible trip to Rwanda, it sometimes feels like a dream that we even went and experienced what we did!
My heart is so full and grateful for what we saw there – and I am forever changed because of it too. Not to sound too cheesy, but this was a place and an experience that changed my life for the better.
June 9, 2018
Heather and I decided to drive ourselves to the airport, since all the Uber drivers close by were charging a ridiculous $75 rate. With that type of payment, we decided we might as well park at the airport ourselves since it would cost us about the same in the end.
We met up with our biological grandfather Devon, or Poppa as we call him, and met our fellow travelers – Steve and SueAnne Alder (very close and dear friends of Poppa and our grandma Dianne) and their daughter Anne.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the Alder’s would become some of my favorite people on the planet, and I think some lifelong adventure friends!
We boarded our flight which was departing at 10:45 pm. I was feeling a little nervous since Heather and I were not able to sit by each other on this leg to JFK, and it didn’t make me feel any better when we took off and flew through some of the worst turbulence I’ve experienced on a flight! The poor Japanese couple sitting next to me probably heard about 20 straight minutes of unadulterated swearing that would make even the most weathered sailor blush.
Needless to say, we made it in one piece. We landed at JfK at 6 am, had a 3 hour layover, and then boarded our next flight on Qatar Airlines. The flight was 12 hours to Qatar, but it was one of the nicest planes I’ve been on! Even in coach the seats were large, had spacious leg room, nice tv’s with thousands of things to watch or listen to, and more food than I could eat.
I did sleep for most of the flight, thanks to my Xanax. But somewhere along the way my eyes swelled horribly from my eyelash extensions I had done the day before. I seriously looked like an alien, and I frightened the flight attendant to the point where she brought me bags of ice constantly to bring down the swelling.
We landed in Doha, Qatar in one the most luxurious airports ever! Apparently it’s the 5th largest in the world! We had a brief 1 hour layover, and then re-boarded and landed 5 hours later in Entebbe, Uganda. We were almost there!
Customs was a breeze, and the visas were cheaper than we had originally thought ($30 instead of $50.)
We hailed 2 taxi vans, and headed to our first hotel in the city. Our drive through the streets was so eye opening! I loved the energy of the people, the modernness of the buildings against deep rooted culture; there were amazing people everywhere in bright African patterned clothing carrying enormous items on their heads, lots of traffic of cars and Moto taxis, and sweet babies wrapped in cloth on their mother’s backs! It was wonderful, I couldn’t wait to see more.
We arrived at Flame Tree, and were pleasantly surprised with how nice it was! I honestly had no idea what to expect with anywhere we stayed, but the entire hotel grounds was beautifully decorated and landscaped, and each room was a private town home with 2 floors, a full kitchen, 2 bathrooms, and wonderful AC (it was so humid!).
Heather and I took a brief nap, then showered off from all the traveling. It was one of the those showers that just rejuvenates you (even though Heather’s shower was ice cold!)
We met up with the group for dinner in the dining hall. I ordered vegetable soup and some bread because I was worried about trying anything too risky just yet. It ended up looking like pureed baby food, but honestly was so delicious! Poppa ordered pizza and I also stole a small slice.
And the bread… can we talk about the bread in Rwanda?! It is to diiiiieeee for! The Belgians colonized Rwanda in the 20’s and they must have shared their bread making skills with the Rwandan people or something!
We went to bed around 9 PM. And when I say went to bed, I literally think I passed out as soon as I laid down!
June 12, 2018
The Drive to Butare
We woke up early the next morning around 7 to eat and then meet up with our tour guide for the trip Mr. Kirenga, who would be driving us that day to Butare. I highly enjoyed my oatmeal with cane sugar, as well as some deliciously smooth hot chocolate.
Mr. Kirenga has known my grandparents for several years, since they used to live in Rwanda and went on many expeditions through his tourist and birding company. He seemed like a very nice man, and we packed all of us and our bags into his giant 8-person Land Rover safari jeep, which he had rebuilt from the 1970’s.
We were so excited to start our journey!
The drive south to Butare took about 3 1/2 hours, and took us through some beautiful country roads and villages. Rwanda is called the land of 1000 hills, and I could definitely see why with all of the rolling green hills.
Seeing first-hand how these people live in pretty poor conditions was a bit disheartening, yet they were some of the kindest and happiest people! We felt like celebrities, because we stuck out like sore thumbs there and everyone would smile and wave at us as we drove past.
The children started shouting, “Mizungu” at us. We asked Mr. Kirenga what it meant, and he said it means “white person.”
The King’s Palace
Poppa insisted we make a brief stop on the way to Butare, at The King’s Palace. We walked through the reproductions of what these incredible huts used to look like, finding the customs very fascinating. They were also incredibly smart about the way they built and designed the huts!
While the King’s Palace was cool, I was way more excited to see the King’s cows!
Their horns are MASSIVE!! I wondered how in the world they held their heads up! But they were such sweet docile creatures, and they have the cutest faces! The handler walked around with this sage smudge stick to ward off the pesky flies from their faces. He also sang to them, which whenever he would sing they would all stop what they were doing and walk towards him. It was so cool!
We arrived in Butare, which is one of the largest cities in Rwanda with the largest University. It was very busy!
We ate at the famous ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ that Poppa loved when he and Dianne lived there. They lived in Butare in 2014-2015. Our eyes were larger than our stomachs, and we ended up ordering most of the items on the menu! It was delicious but we couldn’t finish it all.
Heather had the great idea that we box up the leftovers and she gave them to a woman who was begging by the gates of the restaurant with a small child on her back. She didn’t speak any English, but we could understand her gratitude as she kept patting her hand over her heart and had tears in her eyes.
As we walked towards the local market, there was another woman who was literally crawling on her hands and knees because her feet were crippled and she could not walk on them. The image of her crawling through the crowds will forever break my heart.
The market was insane! And clearly they were not used to having Mizungus there! Also, I had shorts on (almost to my knees) and apparently they are not used to seeing that much skin either because everyone stared blatantly at my bare legs!
People sold everything there; utensils, fabric, food, furniture, toilets, clothes, and jewelry. One merchant pulled Poppa aside and said, “Hey Poppa! I have something for you!” and pointed to some extravagantly designed boxer briefs. We had a good laugh about it.
The Drive to Nyungwe Forest
Light was fading, so we needed to head towards Nyungwe Forest where we would stay the next 2 nights.
This drive was one of the worst of our trip. It was 4 1/2 hours through windy jungle roads, most of them unpaved or riddled with giant gaping holes. There was also construction halfway up the canyon that caused so much chaos.
One section in particular has very uneven, dusty, and crowded with villagers. A gigantic dump truck that was filled beyond capacity with what looked like mattresses, drove by us and nearly tipped over on top of us!
The windy roads made us all a quite car sick.
Finally, we made it to our hotel called The Top View Hotel. We were relieved to be out of the car, and at such a nice 5 star resort again!
Heather and I headed to our room, which again was a separate town home. We were in #1, Volcano. Ours was all the way at the end of the walkway, on the edge overlooking a valley down below. It was night time, so we were excited to see it in the morning.
Our large king size bed was covered with a mosquito net, we had a good sized bedroom, and a door that opened onto a deck overlooking another side of the canyon.
As we laid in bed we heard wild African dogs howling all night in the jungles surrounding us, but we quickly fell asleep again; and an especially nice surprise? The hot water bottles placed at the feet of our bed under the covers to keep our feet warm and toasty!
June 13, 2018
Waking up the next morning at 6 am to see the sunrise was the best decision we could have made. The light coming up over those jungle hills, the sky water colored with red and orange hues; it was absolute magic. I stood there and almost became emotional, wondering how I was so lucky to be in such a beautiful place as that.
In the daylight we could finally see the grounds of the resort too, which were equally beautiful.
We had a luxurious breakfast on the veranda of the main building; more hot chocolate, some African spice tea, toast and jam, and cheese omelettes.
We drove back into the jungle, to head to track the Colubus Monkeys. At the Nyungwe Forest Visitor’s Center we met up with our guide, Christof. He was a handsome young man from Rwanda who received his education in France and returned back to work.
Back into the truck and towards the large tea fields we went, and turned off onto a small dirt road heading directly towards the jungle. We got out and walked towards the tree line and were very lucky because the family of Colubus Monkeys was right there!
These black and white monkeys are so cute! It was a good sized family, with 2 adorable little babies!
It was apparently time to eat, because they were climbing and jumping around the trees, stuffing as many of the tree fruits into their mouths as they could! It was pretty funny to watch them. The babies were entertaining as well, jumping and wrestling with one another all over the trees. Their tiny squeaks they would make sounded like a dog squeaky toy!
Christof told us that they whole family helps to raise and take care of the babies. But, whenever a male would grab them and try to hold them they would squeak out loudly and wriggle free from them. I asked him if they were hurting them, and he said “No, the males just do not know how to hold the babies and they don’t like it.”
Sounds… pretty accurate!
After watching them to our hearts’ content, we headed back to the hotel for a lunch of sweet corn soup and rolls with goat meat. I of course, declined to try the goat meat.
Heather and I took a 2 hour nap, and then met up again with everyone to go do a jungle canopy walk. Driving an hour further into the jungle we pulled off to the canopy headquarters.
Here we were placed in a hiking group with a cute couple from Denmark, a strange girl from the Netherlands that currently lived in Jamaica, and our creeptastic tour guide named Dauph who would NOT stop licking his lips and staring only at me when he talked to the group. (Like STOPPPPP though!)
The hike was completely downhill to get there, so I knew heading back would be challenging for Poppa and SueAnne and Steve.
Making it to the canopy walk, I felt like we were staring at a bridge that had been constructed in the 1920’s; it looked old and I wondered if we would be the last people to ever walk across it!
But, our group motto had become “YOLO”, as I had taught everyone the night before. So, we yolo-d our way across. (Or as SueAnne said it, “Yellow!”)
The first section of the canopy walk was shorted and not as high off the ground, so we made it to the first tower no problem. The second section across was incredibly shaky, and about 300 feet off the ground!
It also didn’t help that Poppa was shaking the bridge on purpose (trouble maker!)
My hands shook and I definitely got a little light headed, but it was really exhilarating to walk across there, and to look down into the jungle!
Dauph told us we could keep going the way we were to get back to the hiking trail, or we could go back across the bridge. We hesitated for a moment and Poppa decided to tell us that “No one I’ve ever brought here has ever taken the sissy way back… but if you guys really want to we can.”
So of course we turned around and went right back over the bridge! We refused to be the sissies!
The hike back up was quite strenuous, and Poppa took it slow and steady.
Then on the way back to our hotel, Mr. Kirenga’s truck broke down. Anne, Heather, Steve, and myself got out and push started it for him then walked the 5 minutes to the hotel. We worried the truck would not be able to drive us the next morning to go see the chimpanzees.
We had another delicious dinner, and then all went to go get some sleep. While Heather and I walked to our room a GIANT moth flew in front of us and I screamed and ran like a crazy person because I was convinced it was a bat! Ain’t nobody got time for rabies y’all!
June 14, 2018
Tracking the Chimpanzees
Waking up the next morning at 5 am was rough. We met in the lodge sleepy eyed, enjoying some hot chocolate, African spice tea, and some butter cookies.
Mr. Kirenga’s car was not able to drive, as we feared, so he rented us a car with a driver. Now when I say car, I mean… a tiny awful thing that we all had to cram into.
The back seat needed to fit 3 people when it was very clearly only meant for 2, so it was not a pleasant 2 hour drive east. We were all a bit grouchy to say the least.
My favorite part of driving through the remote village was seeing all the adorable school children in their uniforms on their way to school. They all waved at us! We were once again the stars in the Mizungu parade.
Despite the uncomfortable driving situation, we were going to track chimpanzees so we were still excited. We pulled in front of a mall building which had a small store with souvenirs, and this was where we were to meet our porters. Christof was our guide again, which we were happy about because he was fantastic.
A group of porters stood by with walking sticks, all hoping they would be picked for our chimpanzee trek. It is customary for every woman to use a porter, but of course all of the men in our group got one too so they could pay them.
Anne, Heather, and I joked that we felt like it was The Bachelorette, having to hand our bag to the porter of our choosing and ask, “Will you accept this backpack?” I chose a young man named Varun, and he was very helpful! I tripped quite a lot over the vines and underbrush of the jungle when we trekked through.
And when I say trek, I mean we literally ran at times! The trouble with chimpanzees is they are very wary of people and like to avoid them. So we started out slowly hiking upwards into the jungle to where the trackers were radioing in on the walkie-talkies. The trackers had been following this particular family of chimps since the night before.
They were heading right for us, so we stopped and waited silently for them to pass by us. It was so interesting how quietly they moved through the trees, because we literally did not hear them coming until they were nearly on top of us!They came within about 20 feet, and the male in the lead turned his head and looked right at us! Then they RAN.
So of course, we ran in pursuit! It was quite exciting to run full speed though the jungle after this elusive little family of chimps. (And this is where I tripped a ton!)
We made it back to the main road, and Christof had us stop because he said the family would be crossing the road to get to the other side of the jungle and we would be able to see them very clearly.
2 minutes later they crossed about 10 feet in front of us, and it was breathtaking to see them! They were much larger than I expected, and unlike the chimps you see in movies or at zoos these ones were all black, even their cute little faces. There were 6 adults and one little baby holding onto its’ mama’s back.
The chase was on again, and those chimps are stupidly fast! We were running full speed again trying to keep up with the trackers, Christof, and doing so while trying to not trip and sprawl out into the jungle! It was so exhilarating!
We caught up to one of the males, who had separated from the family and was chilling up in a giant Ficus tree, feasting on the fruits. Apparently they are like oranges, and he was stuffing as many as he could at a time into his mouth.
We sat down and watched him for about 30 minutes, enjoying seeing him in his natural habitat. He put on a show for us, climbing around, hanging by one arm, and even peeing for a steady 2 minutes with an impressive stream off the tree! We were all very impressed.
My favorite part was that Poppa in all of his years spent in Africa had never tracked a chimpanzee before. So seeing his face light up as we watched him in the tree was worth it all for me
We finally left our friend, and made the hike back up to the road. It was very steep going back up, so we sent extra porters to help Poppa.
Heading to Lake Kivu
We packed the newly fixed truck, and said farewell to our resort at the top of the hill.
Steve suggested to Mr. Kirenga that we find a place to eat in a local non-touristy town so we could see some of the culture without tourist traps.
There was definitely something lost in translation between them, because he took us an hour out of our way to eat at what looked like a country club resort in a ton called Cyangugu overlooking the southern tip of Lake Kivu; right next to a big touristy market.
Steve was very grouchy about it, and to be honest we all were because he added extra time onto our trip to our next destination. But, the food was good and the view over the lake was gorgeous!
Across the water we could see the Congo, and it was mind-blowing to see how many houses and buildings were crammed against one another on the hills.
After we finished eating, we started our 4 hour trip to The Cormoran Lodge, our next resort on a northern part of Lake Kivu’s shores.
The drive was much prettier (and much less car-sick inducing) than the trip from Butare to Nyungwe Forest. we started throwing out our empty water bottles to kids on the road because they want them to use for drinking water. It was a fun way to pass the time, and they were always excited to get them!
We finally pulled into our resort after the sun had gone down, and we were each led to our amazing tree house rooms. This resort to me, resembled the Lost Boy’s tree house from the movie Hook. You know what I’m talking about?? It was such a cool place!
We enjoyed some dinner in the restaurant (where Poppa discovered his new favorite Fanta flavor, Fiesta) and then we all headed to bed.
I was so excited to see what more adventures Lake Kivu had in store for us!
The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and love, surrounded by family and friends. Even if you don’t necessarily affiliate yourself with a particular religion, it is still just that time of year when everyone feels that urge to spend time with loved ones, and celebrate the soon coming close of the past 12 months.
However, for anyone else out there that has lost a loved one, the holidays are also a time where we can feel a particular kind of sadness or heaviness.
And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas
Growing up, some of my favorite memories were around Christmas. It was a time our whole family was together, when my dad didn’t have to constantly be traveling for work, and we could just enjoy some quality time.
My mom made every holiday special and fun, she just had this amazing gift at creating joy and excitement even out of the smallest and most mundane things.
We had a lot of fun family traditions for the holidays, including family Black Friday shopping (before it’s become the insanely worldly and awful day that it is nowadays), opening one present on Christmas Eve together (which was always pajamas!), and constantly rocking some amazing Christmas tunes like Manheim Steamroller.
There are two traditions, however, that remain my favorites.
The first: Every year in Pennsylvania we would go out that Saturday after Thanksgiving, driving about an hour and a half away, to go cut down a Christmas tree. The tree farm was located out in farm country, and it was so beautiful. We would go with family friends and just make a fun day of it all.
The second: my mom started a fun traditional game when I was in high school, which she named The Candy Sleigh Races. Basically what you do, is you start with a sleigh base of a king-size candy bar of your choice. Some are better for aerodynamics, others are heavier and better for speed. Then you tape on the accessories including candy cane runners, a chocolate Santa rider, and whatever else you want to help your sled win. Using a tilted table as the race course, you do heats of 2 to eventually find your winner.
Ever since my mom passed away, we have continued to do the sleigh races together in her honor, re-naming it “Nana’s Annual Candy Sleigh Races”, and the winner of which takes home the trophy which is a decorated framed photo of her. I’m sure it makes her laugh watching us race in her honor every year, and I know each time she is there cheering each sleigh on.
The best part was always naming my sleighs. Some of my favorite names from the past years:
Fast and the Festivus
See Ya (thanks to Andy and Alex in high school)
Sleigh All Day
Sleigh My Name
Ho Ho H-OK I Win
Waiting Under the Miss-You-Toe
When my mom passed away in February 2015, I remember one night feeling grateful that we had been able to spend just one more Christmas together as a family. What a wonderful blessing and tender mercy to have that with her one last time.
Now whenever the holidays creep up on me, so do those heavy feelings of grief. Despite everyone saying, “things will get easier”, they actually never do. I can go for weeks without feeling weighed down by the grief of missing my mom, and then suddenly something will trigger a memory and I will be pulled right back into those deep, drowning waters.
So I am constantly just waiting under the -miss-you-toe of the holiday season, desperately missing my mom and wishing I could have just one more Christmas with her.
I am actually grateful for the grief though. Maybe that’s a really weird thing to say, but hear me out.
When we miss someone, and grieve their absence in our lives, it means that we truly loved them and had such a deep connection with them that was meaningful and important. And constantly going through the cycle of grief helps us to remember them forever and live our lives everyday with a little piece of them always with us.
So there is such a thing as good grief after all. And every holiday season that rolls around I find myself relishing in those memories of my mom, no matter how many tears I’ll cry or how blue I may feel; because those moments are the ones that I’ll always cherish in my heart and I’m so grateful to always have her close to my heart.
Did any of you know that there is actually a real holiday called Blue Christmas? I had no idea until I was doing some research for this post.
Apparently every December, Blue Christmas is celebrated on the the longest night of the year; the winter solstice which falls on December 21.
On the night of Blue Christmas, it is a night to celebrate and mourn the loss of those we have loved. What a wonderful and reverent concept, to go spend some time reflecting and meditating on whatever loss it is you are grieving.
I for one, will definitely be finding my own way to celebrate Blue Christmas, whether I find a local church doing some sort of service that night, or I may make my own new tradition.
Whatever loss or heart ache you are grieving, especially during the holidays, just remember that you are never alone in your pain. I hope each of you can find some peace this month, and find that good kind of grief that can help heal your heart.