Rwanda: Distant Ancestors, Darkness, and a New Hope

This post has been entered in the NY Times Most Pretentious Post Title competition for 2011.

Rwanda is a remarkable place. A landlocked country in the middle of East Africa, it’s known informally as the Land of a Thousand Hills. It’s mountainous, lush, and home to one of the last remaining populations of Mountain Gorillas left in the world. (Total remaining world population: 790.) It’s the primate part that brings a lot of tourists to Rwanda, and it’s why we decided to make a visit.

The other major thing you encounter in Rwanda, beyond the primates, are the remnants of Rwanda’s recent revolution and genocide. Thanks to Hotel Rwanda, many of us have heard of and learned more about the Rwandan genocide. But the facts remain staggering. In the span of 100 days, nearly a million people were killed on the basis of their race. And the rest of the world did nothing to stop it.

But the recent past of Rwanda is at odds with its present. Throughout Africa, Rwanda is now seen as a beacon of hope. The roads are perfectly paved. There is little or no corruption. The country is developing and improving itself at a breakneck pace. It is stable and safe. Much of this is thanks to the Rwandan people, but much of it is also thanks to Paul Kagame, revolutionary leader and the current president. The recent history of Rwanda and Paul Kagame’s rise to leadership is one of the more interesting things I’ve read in Africa.

Like many places, then, Rwanda is a land of contrasts. After a few months in Nairobi, it blew our minds to be able to walk safely at night, and to see policemen that were actually patrolling and were there to help you. On the flip side, it’s frightening to read about how quickly the genocide started, and how many normal folks participated. Driving into the mountains to view the gorillas, we were astonished to take roads so perfectly leveled and paved that I’d be impressed if I found them in the U.S. And we were correspondingly surprised that out of all the places we visited in Africa, Rwanda’s capital is the only one without an ATM that would accept foreign cards.

Rwanda is changing fast, and when you’re there, you can feel the sense of hope that’s growing there, both for Rwanda itself and the rest of East Africa. Additionally, there are also crazy super-awesome gorillas.

A pastoral scene, not dissimilar from one of my own family.

So what’s next? For Rwanda, we’ve put together a multi-step tour:

  • It starts with a Sundowner Report in Musanze, where Page and I talk about our experience in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and our expectations for seeing the gorillas the next day.
  • Then, there’s a photo and video gallery that starts with a few shots from Kigali and then takes you though the forest to meet a group of mountain gorillas.
  • Finally, we conclude with a second Sundowner Report, after seeing the gorillas, where we narrate the pretty-rad experience of a real-life Gorilla Encounter.

Kenyan Food

Food in Kenya, as in many other countries in post-colonial Africa, has a complex history. Kenya as a country developed quickly under Western influence from a spread-out, rural area of many tribes into a single large nation with huge cities, over the space of just 40 years or so. Thus, the food also developed quickly, going through a sort of accelerated, multi-cultural melting pot over that period.

While this may mean that Kenyan food doesn’t have the millennia of shared history behind it that say, Ethiopian food has, this doesn’t mean that the deliciousness has been impacted in any way. In a much smaller, much more sedate way, Kenyan food reminds me a little bit of Malaysian food, in the way that both nations freely combine many traditions and cultures to create a result that is fiercely their own.

So, down to business. Here are three areas of Kenyan food that I think are important to know about: the pervasive Kenyan lunch plate, the Indian influence you find everywhere, and BBQ’n a way into my heart: nyama choma.

Kenyan plate

Come to me, delicious lunch. Stay in my stomach and make a little home.

Throughout Kenya, as far as I can tell, the lunch that everyone eats is what I call the Kenyan plate. Man, is it good. The basic template isn’t that surprising: it’s a starch (either rice, ugali, or chapati), with whatever main you order, plus some vegetable sides. Common entree options are beans, beef stew, fried chicken, lentils (called green grams or ndengu), or matumbo (tripe). My personal favorite is beans.

The whole plate shebang will often be topped with a touch of kachumbari, which is something like salsa: tomatoes, onions, peppers, sometimes avocado, all nicely chopped up and fresh.

Often the Kenyan plate is served from a small house or a small business that’s near where people work, and which caters to the lunch crowd only. There’s two lunch places like this within a block of where I’ve been volunteering. They are pretty awesome, homey affairs: just a few people in the kitchen, maybe a waiter to take your order, and some folding chairs and a table in the sun.

The best part about the Kenyan lunch plate, though, is that it changes every day. Every place I’ve had it, and every time I’ve returned, it’s slightly different. Some days you get cabbage, some days you get sukuma wiki (sauteed kale). Some days you get four vegetable sides, sometimes just one. Sometimes they have beef, sometimes they only have ndengu. And sometimes, no matter what you order, you’ll get something totally new. You can’t control it, you roll with it, and it’s great fun.

Counterclockwise, from top left: Stoney, a type of spicy ginger soda; stewed potatoes and vegetables with tomato; sukuma wiki, which is sauteed cabbage/kale; some delicious cabbage; Beef stew, a common lunch entree; pili pili, which are sliced very hot peppers; and steamed rice.

I really, really like the Kenyan lunch plate. It’s one thing I’m really going to miss when I leave Kenya: having a delicious, home-cooked, mostly vegetarian lunch each day for about $1 U.S. The Google cafeteria is fancy and legitimately great, but for me personally, I’d take the Kenyan plate every time.

Indian influence

One thing that I was surprised to learn when I got to Nairobi is how widespread the Indian influence is, both in Nairobi and across Kenya. For a long time, there’s been a sizeable Indian population in Kenya, and you can see this all over town in Nairobi: there’s a ton of Sikh and Hindu temples, there’s a lot of specialized Indian shopping centers and groceries, and one affluent district of town, Westlands, is mostly composed of Indians. (If you watch carefully, you can even see a scene in “Out of Africa” where there’s a parade through Nairobi after the war is over. In a building in the background, a bunch of folks are holding a banner that says, “The Indian Community Salutes The Victory.”)

What this means for you, dear eater, is that there’s all sorts of Indian influence up in your Kenyan food. Which is awesome. One example is chapati, which has been fully integrated into Kenyan food as the most common side bread with a meal. Which, I have to say, is awesome: I will never say no to delicious fried up savory bread goodness.

Lillian, our samosa lady.

Samosas are another way that you see this Indian influence. Kenya has adopted and re-imagined the samosa as a meat-filled, triangular pastry of hot deliciousness. It’s commonly eaten for breakfast, or as a snack. One of the great little pleasures I’ve had while volunteering in Kenya is having Lillian, from the lunch place down the road, come by my desk each morning at 10 AM to give me a freshly made hot meat samosa. Price: 20 cents.

Time from this photo to utter happiness: 4 seconds.

If you ask most Kenyans what they think about Indian food, though, they won’t know what you’re talking about. They’ll firmly assure you that chapati and samosas are not Indian, but are in fact Kenyan. And they’re right. That’s how the melting pot works.

Nyama Choma

Of course, no investigation of Kenyan (or East African) cuisine would be complete without a long, leisurely drive down Nyama Choma Lane.

The Prepping.

What is nyama choma? In swahili, nyama means meat, and choma means grill. But usually, what is commonly meant by nyama choma is mbezi choma, or grilled goat. That’s because goat is the luxury meat of choice, here: a goat strung up on a tree outside your house literally means Party.

The Grilling.

And folks, I have a secret to let you in on: I have discovered that I love goat. I mean, I really, really love goat. To the extent that if you now gave me a plate of expertly prepared cuts of goat, beef, chicken, and pork (thank you!) what I’d reach for first is now goat.

Of course, in the US, we don’t really eat goat. Which is a shame. Because, in fact, goat is ideal in so many ways. As a meat, it’s considerably milder than lamb, and not gamy at all. For those who haven’t had it, the taste of goat resembles something like 80% the taste of lean beef (like loin) and 20% of mild lamb. So it’s like beef with a slight added punch of additional flavor, but not too strong at all. De-licious. Because goat meat is a bit tougher than huge lazy beef slabs, that also means that goat can be cooked in many awesome ways and hold up well: fast grill, slow BBQ, boiled, braised, baked.

The Fixins’. Counterclockwise, from the top: ugali (with some pili pili peppers nearby), sukuma wiki (braised kale/cabbage), kachumbari, pilau rice, chapati.

However, nyama choma is more than just the deliciously smoky-charred-juicy goat. Traditionally, you enjoy the grilled goat with ugali, which is something like maize dough (your starch), and kachumbari (your veg), and a little smidgen of salt to dip it in to taste. The goat is grilled naked, with no additional spicing added, and cut into small bite sized pieces for easy pickup. So, take a pinch of ugali, make a little pancake, use it to grab some meat and kachumbari-salsa, dab it in the salt, and enjoy.

The Chomping.

Or just eat the whole damn leg, like me.

See the full album of Kenyan Food adventures, including a shot of Page with a camel-milk moustache. No joke.

Best 30 seconds of my life

Were you wondering to yourself, what is the prettiest spot on Earth? Because the answer is: Cape Point, and surrounds, near the tip of South Africa.

Our weekend getaway to Cape Town was pretty magical overall — it just felt so trippy to walk on cobbled streets and visit old churches and stop in at little wine bars. I wouldn’t have thought that only a month in Nairobi would have changed my eyes, but when the South African Airways jet pulled into the gate at Kenyatta airport, my spontaneous reaction was “that plane looks so clean.“ Outside of Nairobi’s nimbus of red-brown dust, everything looked fresh-rinsed. Even the planes.

That particular weekend also coincided with my 10th college reunion, which, obviously, I was missing. I was a little blue about it. But then we stopped into a fancy hotel to make use of its fancy bathroom, and who was in the lobby but the Yale Precision Marching Band. I shit you not. I talked to a couple of kids about the renovations to Stiles College — they contend that “the basement is really nice now” (?) — and privately marveled at how old I must look to them. It was a nice coincidence.

Here, for me, was the best bit, though. The scene: Coming down from viewing Cape Point. The view looked like this.

We get into the crappy taxi we’ve hired for the drive. (Crappy like, things like the speedometer, odometer, gas gauge didn’t work.) Our taxi driver, a chatty Nigerian guy whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten now — an animated, quirky dude, kept hopping out of the car almost without warning to pee by the side of the road, leaving the car running meanwhile — wanted to make sure we’d gotten a good view from the peak.

Him: “Were you able to see the water? Did you like it?”
Us: “OMG yes! Most beautiful place have ever seen! Face melted off!”
Him (serenely): “Yes. God’s creation is so great. All thanks be to Him.”
Us: “... yes.”

Doors slam and we start driving out through the shimmering, rose-gold, honeymoon-in-Stonehenge environs. Driver throws on some mood music.

“First off, fuck your bitch and the clique you claim
(WESTSIDE!) When we ride come equipped with game
You claim to be a player but I fucked your wife
We bust on Bad Boy niggas fuck for life…”

And, God having been duly praised, we drove off into the sunset to the soulful stylings of 2Pac. On repeat. I could not peel the smile off my face.

Cape Town: The Edge of the World

Hello there! Have you been to Cape Town? No? Let me tell you some things.

First, wow. It is beautiful. I have been to a lot of places in my life, many of them Super Awesome. But to date Cape Town takes the cake as the most beautiful. It’s amazingly situated, in the lee of two huge, table-like mountains, on a small peninsula. Further south on the peninsula are charming seaside towns, more dramatic cliffs, and then finally, the Cape of Good Hope.

Surrounding the city are the oldest wine-producing regions in the southern hemisphere. The wine country south and east of the city is stunningly beautiful, like a Napa or a Tuscany covered with oak trees, looking out to the sea. And man, is it producing. The wine I had in Cape Town was unfailingly good, with peppery, spicy whites, astoundingly good champagne (or “Méthode Cap Classique” if you like being bullied by the French wine lobby), and their own style of reds, brandies, and port. Cape Town single-handedly helped me rediscover Chardonnay, thanks to their delicate, no nonsense, oak-free stylings.

And did I mention how cheap this world-class wine is? Even at a fancy restaurant, I was hard pressed to find a bottle of wine over $10. Most glasses were only a dollar or two, and the ZA idea of a pour is to the rim, please. Like, so full you spill it on yourself when you pick it up.

On top of all of that, the city of Cape Town itself is pretty neat. It’s got a lot of cute museums, Art Deco buildings, old Dutch homes, and Cape Malay and Muslim neighborhoods. After a long spell in a less developed part of Africa, it was pretty shocking to come to a city whose roads are better maintained than they are in any I’ve seen in the U.S.; a fancy, walkable downtown and harborfront area; and basically a city center that feels as modern as anything you’ve seen in the West. We kept exclaiming to each other over little conveniences that felt huge: Sidewalks! Taxis with meters so you don’t have to haggle over the fare! And after the pervasive dust of Nairobi, everything in Cape Town felt shockingly clean.

Which is not to say ZA and Cape Town are without their problems. Apartheid is a very fresh memory and racism can still be felt everywhere; the tension that remains is uncomfortable. Neighborhoods remain starkly self-segregated by race — the legacy of apartheid means that black South Africans and South Africans of mixed race, who identify as “colored” and who enjoyed more privileges under the apartheid system, mostly choose not to live side by side. So there are black townships and colored townships, or segregated neighborhoods within the townships. And though the townships are VAST, housing millions of people, there seems to be a certain amount of willed blindness about them. Driving past one of the townships (a.k.a. slum areas), our white South African driver remarked a bit defensively that “they have DVD players and everything in there. They’re actually very comfortable.” Uh, OK bro.

(Not that the U.S. has a perfect record in this regard. We sure don’t. I think you just notice things differently when you’re visiting a place that’s new to you.)

We had been warned that South Africa is mega-dangerous, though they also say that about Nairobi so we weren’t sure what to expect. Nothing bad befell us, but (Victoria’s mom, stop reading now!) we did have the most aggressive panhandling experience of our lives — a man chasing us asking for money and threatening to get his knife out, saying he didn’t want to mug us but he would if he had to. We were on a busy street and it was light out, and eventually we turned a busier corner and he gave up, but we were still shaken. And, presumably, that’s part of the reason the predominantly white areas are so gated and walled-in and coated with razor wire — but that feels weird too.

On the flip side, we had cab drivers while were in Cape Town who were from Nigeria and Somalia, who spoke of Cape Town like a beacon of hope in the continent, an opportunity-rich, low-corruption zone where hard work is rewarded. So it’s a mixed bag, man. I don’t think a lot of it would have made sense to me without having actually visited.

With all this said, the Cape is an amazing place to visit. You’re going to see a lot there. So come along with me, as I take you on my magic carpet matatu, to a photo journey through the Cape.

Ride that Cape Town photo matatu here.

Super Furry Animals: Lake Nakuru

One privilege of living in Nairobi is that there are a lot of great day trips that you can take from the city. Lake Naivasha, Mount Longonot, Lake Nakuru National Park, the Ngong Hills, heck, even Mombasa and the beautiful beach along Diani. They are easy to do: just charter a friendly taxi driver, and off you go. We’ve now done a lot of these trips, and it’s great: often, you don’t have to go far in Africa to see Africa.

Lake Nakuru National Park was the first day trip that we made.

As you can see from the bored expression on Page’s face, Nakuru is just not that pretty.

It was pretty terrible. Not much to recommend it: everyone has seen flocks of tens of thousands of flamingos, chillin’, rhinos that you can basically walk right up to you and touch (though we did not), and tons of other animals that check you out and would probably like to ride with you in your car.

So, we heartily dis-recommend the ho hum, not-beautiful, totally not incredibly stunning Nakuru National Park, a mere 2.5 hours away from Nairobi by car. If you are in Nairobi for a few days (doing something like visiting us), be sure to give this a “miss.” Or… the opposite of that.

See all the Lake Nakuru National Park photos over at the photo depot.

Nairobi, week 1!

Oh, blogging. Here is our account of our trip, limping along on its way back to Bangkok, and meanwhile we are in Nairobi, settling in, learning the ropes, consorting with entirely different elephants. I’m going to break chronology again and describe our first week in Nairobi.

(We did not take this picture.)

So, we’re here, on the fifth continent either of us has ever visited. It’s exciting! And entertaining and jarring in the way that new places often are: some things are so different, and of course many things are familiar, just your basic Big Global City attributes.

I wish the first thoughts that came to mind when trying to describe what Nairobi is like weren’t about safety. But, they are. I think, though, that that’s mostly due to advance press. In our admittedly limited experience, even people who live in and enjoy Nairobi usually lead off any discussion of the city with a mention of its unflattering sobriquet “Nairobbery.” Crime rates here are high, and foreigners are easy targets for pickpocketing and mugging. Having been warned about this, we weren’t sure what to expect, and to some extent we still aren’t. Every time we try a new thing, that experience helps orient us and build confidence for the next time, but all the warnings we’ve received make even small events like going to the grocery store feel kind of epic. We can try to follow instructions – walk only on busy roads, and only in the daytime; keep the phone numbers of cab companies you trust; keep close track of your belongings at all times – while trying not to be too limited by the need for these sensible precautions. But it’s difficult to know when we’re being too cautious and when we’re not being cautious enough.

Our initial landing has been substantially eased by the estimable Nat, an American expat who’s the head of the company Kevin is working for. On the Friday night that we arrived, he sent a taxi to the airport to get us and take us to the hotel he’d recommended. On Saturday morning, another cab arrived — preceded by a text from Nat, saying “your cab will be blue” — to take us to the rental apartments he’d arranged for us to check out. He made restaurant recommendations. In addition to being CEO of a complex and thriving business, he volunteered to serve as our temporary concierge.

And in truth, without this help I think we would have felt pretty overwhelmed. Even as it was, I think we felt pretty overwhelmed. But we’re doing our best to be patient with ourselves.

First week — the good: Sunday visits to the elephant orphanage and
giraffe center, where we watch BABY ELEPHANTS play and feed giraffes handfuls of kibble. (Pictures coming.) We each start work, and people are nice and helpful, as well as smart about and committed to their work. We’re working in separate companies that happen to share a building. As convenient as that sounded from 10,000 miles away, it feels like a lifesaver now that we’re here. We have some tasty Indian and Ethiopian meals. There’s a happy hour out at a bar on Friday, and we drink local beer and meet a bunch of people. The city is lush and green, full of trees, plus hibiscus and bougainvillea and lots of flowering bushes and trees we don’t yet know the names of. We’re getting lots of sleep, and the presence of the hotel gym is a huge boost to the Rockwell Stability Index.

First week — the speed bumps: Kevin has a cold and feels crappy. The apartment we decide we want is no longer available. There’s another one available in the same building, but not for another week. Debates about what to do in the meantime feel weirdly high-stakes and fraught. Transportation is a constant negotiation – as much as we’re officially reconciled to being lightly fleeced by the local cab drivers, it doesn’t feel great. Considering the distances covered, taxis are expensive, and the roads are rutted, dusty and hazy with black petrol smoke. You know that thing when you’re in a place where the air quality isn’t great, and there are faint cruddy rings around your nostrils at the end of the day? That’s happening. As we have been warned, traffic is formidable — not enough roads to meet demand, those roads that there are two-lane and unpaved, without traffic lights — and obviously dangerous. Work-wise, we each feel fairly stressed-out — are we on the right track, is this donation of our time helpful to the world? And, as much as it’s prudent to be constantly alert to our safety, it also makes us feel like jerks. It’s all natural settling-in stuff, but we’re each emotional and tense.

First week — points of interest: The biggest bill in local currency is 1000 Kenyan Shillings, or about $12. It’s a predominantly cash economy, so making a deposit on an apartment, say, requires a breadbox full of bills. We do frequent pilgrimages to the nearest ATM, stockpiling. Also, there are all these road blocks around our hotel, which we had initially taken for a standard security measure. But then, what was that building down the road with the extremely serious wall and even more serious razor wire, and the sign saying “photography forbidden”? Eventually we learned: it’s the Israeli embassy. Ohhhh. Much becomes clear.

Thanks for tuning in with us! We miss you guys. We’ll circle back soon with retrospective reports on Thai night trains, Malaysian public-service announcements, and the world’s best chicken wing. FOR REAL.