I stepped out of the shower and blew my nose. Red. Inside my ears. Red. The remnants of a day at Akagera National Park on safari. I had been warned.
Awake at 4 a.m., we climbed into Land Rovers at 4:30 and were on our way. People walking on the sides of the street. Always walking. Bicycles loaded up with “umbrellas” of green bananas. Yellow canisters for gathering water. Gathered sticks and wood. Futon mattresses. All morning long. From the city on the way out to the park. We go through a traffic circle and I see arrows for Tanzania and Uganda. We are not going there.
Dawn has broken and children are walking to school. Different colored uniforms denoting the different schools. Many wearing hand-me-down uniforms, several sizes too large. All of them smiling, waving. Some yell out “muzungo” or “well to do.”
We stop at a gas station to use the toilet and we are guided to a pit toilet that needs to be unlocked. Why is it locked? I roll up my pant legs and go in, but refuse to shut the door. I squat low to the ground. I feel like I’ve gone native. My friend Lilly recommended I bring lots of tissue and hand sanitizer to Africa. I am grateful for her advice.
The road into the park is windy, uneven, chewed up red dirt. Long. An hour or more to the entrance. Once in we see zebras, giraffes, tiko. Running water buffalo. Hippos bobbing their heads out of the muck – one up, one down, like whack-a-moles. A handful of gray monkeys.
Rwanda has far less developed safaris than Kenya. It is known for its gorillas. The country limits the number of permits issued to visitors. One of our group has snagged a coveted permit and for $500 is off early in a jeep by herself. Later, over dinner, she tells us about feeling black fur between her legs as a gorilla pressed into her and kept on walking.
The ride home is long, dusty, red. We see banana and pineapple trees. Corn, rice and sorghum are growing. We doze on and off. I listen to a political debate about Israel from the seats behind me. I am quiet and I learn a lot. We are on Africa time. Everything takes a little longer. Everything moves a little more slowly. There is time for talking.
Yesterday morning we met with the Peer Parents from WE-ACTx and learned how these HIV-positive teens and young adults are providing guidance, support and an experience of hope and health to other young people with HIV – most of them born with the disease. In the afternoon we brought yoga mats, collected by the congregation, to the younger children living with HIV – and watched David lead them through Ashtanga poses and an overall experience of joy. His goal, he says, is to bring smiles to their faces. And he does. Later, the children have a snack of donuts and milk. All of them are thin. All of them want their photograph taken and to see themselves on our cameras.
We walk to dinner in the Muslim quarter and eat whole roasted fish and potatoes. No plates, no utensils. Prior to eating, a server brings liquid soap, warm water and a basin to each of us. We eat with our hands. It feels intimate, communal.
Back in our room, my roommate and I debrief on the day. It is full of emotion. We want to leave our American lives at home but all the “stuff” of our lives follows us here. And I have the great, good fortune to have a new friend to unpack it with.