The past two weeks have been…busy. Crazy. A combination of culture shock and exhaustion; a lot of travel and a few panic attacks, countless Finding Nemo references and some familiar camp songs to remind me of America. (By the way, this will be a long entry— so prepare yourselves accordingly).
The lunacy began in Kigali, just as I was gearing up for the thirty-hour bus ride that some friends and I would be taking from Kigali to Dar es Salaam. Being the person that I am, I waited until the day before leaving to figure out how to get the money I needed for the trip—in retrospect this probably wasn’t the wisest decision. Standing in front of the ATM with my debit card in one hand and my credit card in the other, I realized that I had absolutely no idea what my PIN numbers were and had no way of looking them up; the last time I’d used either of them had been back in the states nearly a year ago, and with my memory a month of not using them would have made it a stretch to remember.
As the gravity of the whole thing began to sink in (the possibility that I would not, in fact, be able to go to Zanzibar as I’d hoped), I became more and more frantic in my quest for cash—a friend accompanied me to numerous banks, each one telling me a slightly altered version of the same thing:
“Sorry, but you should really remember to write your PIN numbers down somewhere.”
After a lot of searching and absolutely no luck, I called two people who could surely help me…my parents. Mom calmed me down, Dad called the bank, and suddenly I was sixteen years old again. So much for the whole ‘Peace Corps self-sufficiency thing’; I guess it really does have it’s limits.
The next morning at 5:30am I arrived at the bus station with the money I needed and just enough exhaustion to make the first few hours of the ride relatively painless. First panic attack, taken care of.
The bus ride itself was it’s own adventure. For three hours I sat next to a soldier named Peter with an AK47 practically in my lap, and it took me nearly an hour to get up the courage to ask him if a) he spoke English, and b) if he wanted some of my chips (the answer was yes to both). We stopped and started constantly, letting people on even when there were no seats left to fill. People crammed into the aisle, some sleeping on the bags they carried with them and some of them standing for hours and hours because there was no place else to sit. We had people draped over our armrests and tangled up in our feet, all of us fighting for enough space to get a little shuteye. We stopped at night for four hours (in Tanzania buses aren’t allowed to travel at certain hours), playing cards and drinking Fanta and trying not to think about how many hours we had left to go. We arrived in Dar the next day around noon, looking significantly more rumpled and unhappy than we had at the beginning of the trip.
One night in Dar that included Subway and a cockroach-infested room (those are the highs and lows of our time there) followed by a short one-and-a-half hour ferry ride and then we were miraculously in Zanzibar—I think it shocked all of us a little to know that we’d actually made it to our destination relatively unscathed.
Three nights of our vacation were spent on the western side of the island in Stone town, where we did a spice tour, shopped, and ate amazing food at a night market that was crawling with cats. After Stone town we headed east to Jambiani, where we rented a villa and spent two days relaxing and exploring.
In the morning we woke up at 6am to go swim with dolphins, which turned out to be a very inaccurate description of what actually happened. Our guides gave us flippers and snorkel masks, ushered us into a boat, and then we took off immediately behind about 10 other boats, no instruction given.
For the record I would like to state that I have very little experience with snorkeling (so little that it would almost be better to say ‘none at all’), and so when our trusted guides stopped in the middle of the ocean and started yelling at us to get into the water as fast as we could, no questions asked, I was more than a little terrified.
The five of us jumped, a little hesitantly, and that was the beginning of another panic attack.
The only thing I could see was the fog in my snorkeling mask, the only thing I could taste was salt, and the only thing I could hear was one of my friends wildly screaming “help!” from a few yards away (thankfully he wasn’t drowning, only traumatized). On top of all that was the underwater camera tied to my wrist—although I couldn’t see anything I kept taking pictures hoping to catch one of a dolphin to make the $20 we’d paid for the tour worth it.
After a few minutes of clawing at the water and trying not to be pulled down by the flippers, gulping down seawater by the mouthful, the guides called us back to the boat so that we could chase after the dolphins, who had had enough of us by then and left.
The next time was better; I left my camera on the boat and I figured out how to use the mask and flippers (sort of), and I came very, very close to touching a dolphin. Each time we caught up with them we got about five minutes to see and hear them. They’d swim in groups, so we’d see five to seven all together, they’d see us, and then they’d dive farther than we could go and we’d have to start all over again. It was a ridiculous activity, tiring not only because of the swimming but also because it was absolutely impossible to get back into the boat with any amount of grace. Two or three of us would have to help one climb over the edge because the flippers were too big to fit into the rungs on the boat ladder. Definitely an experience worth having, but the next time I do any sort of a dolphin swim, I’m going to make sure they’re trained and in an enclosed area.
After dolphins we had breakfast back at the villa (crepes, fruit, eggs, tea) before we went out fishing and snorkeling. The fishing was mainly unsuccessful—we only caught one and it was too small to eat. But the snorkeling was amazing—unbelievably clear water and a good portion of the cast from Finding Nemo. We captured fifteen sea urchins because we hoped to eat them raw; it wasn’t until we cut one in half that we realized we had no idea what parts were okay to eat and what parts weren’t. That was unfortunate. We all stood around the cutting board after the execution was over, watching the spikes move around, blindly feeling around for the other half of the body. Purple blood was absolutely everywhere.
The morning after all that a few of us got massages (which were fantastic) before it was time to start heading home—way too early in my opinion. We taxied back to Stone town, caught our ferry, spent a night in Dar, and then rallied for the thirty-hour bus ride back to Rwanda.
And that was my trip to Zanzibar—practically perfect in every way.
Because this will be an exceptionally long entry, I suggest that you stop here and take a break. If you’re in America you can go eat some cheese, if in Rwanda then you can go eat some cassava, and if in some other country then…I’m out of ideas for you. But I’m sure you can come up with something creative.
Are you back? If so I’m going to assume that you’ve either satisfied your hunger or are incredibly bored right now. Either way, I’m going to continue.
I went straight from Zanzibar to our regional GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp, which was held about an hour away from my site at a fellow PCV’s school. The camp was designed to educate girls about women empowerment, self-esteem, and HIV/AIDS, and it’s a project held not only by region in Rwanda, but in many other PC countries as well. Our particular camp (in my opinion) had the very best collection of PCV’s dedicated to the project and Rwandan co-facilitators; everyone involved was flexible, optimistic, and willing to help out in whatever way they could.
The structure of the camp was relatively simple. We had six teams of girls (later, two of them combined to make five teams altogether), with four or five girls to each team. I was in charge of one of the groups and assigned a co-facilitator to help me with the lessons. We had a color and a famous woman for our team (green was our color, Wangari Maathai our woman), and we came up with a team cheer to do throughout the week.
My role was something similar to what I imagine a camp counselor’s role would be back in the states (although I never went to camp) –I helped out my girls whenever they had questions, I led ‘getting to know you’ activities, and I taught lessons to both my group and all the others. All of this was done with the support of my fabulous Rwandan co-facilitator, Candide. I won’t break down the camp day by day, mainly because I can’t remember what happened which day, but also because the basic structure of the camp stayed pretty much the same throughout the week. Instead I’ll share some of the highlights: for me they were getting to watch Mulan, playing frisbee with the girls, teaching yoga, catching up with everyone at mealtimes, our dance party, watching the talent show (and performing a very hastily-prepared dance to Justin Bieber’s “Baby” with some of the other facilitators), and singing “Lean On Me” with the girls. Some rather unfortunate occurrences included getting hit in the face with a basketball (which I really should have expected given my level of athletic ability), having to watch two of the girls get sent home for inappropriate behavior, and listening to the girls talk about how rotten some boys had been to them in the past.
As you can hopefully tell, however, the good far outweighed the bad. GLOW was fabulous; there was such a visible improvement in the girls by the time the camp had ended. Those five days really helped to open them up and make them more confident both in the classroom and out.
I loved seeing them ask difficult questions by the end after starting out so shyly at the beginning. I loved hearing them sing songs together and give each other hugs of encouragement and stand up for themselves in role plays about peer pressure. I loved the end of yoga class how after ten minutes of relaxation I told them they could get up and the girls said ‘please, this is very nice. Can we do more sleeping?’. I loved the end of relaxation when a girl named Ruth came up to me and said ‘thank you very much for helping us to play yoga.’
I loved every part of getting to know our girls and my fellow facilitators. At the end we had an affirmation wall where we could write each other words of encouragement; I’m going to steal another PCV’s idea and write a few of the ones I received down here for you all:
Hello!! Ella I love you so much. Me and you have the same age and you are very smart. –Claudine
Dear Ella I love you because you are sociable. You study very well. I will visit you if you want. –Anualite
Hello, how are you? Me I am fine and very nice. You are a good teacher, smart, beautiful girl. You have confidence and strength that make you a model for me.–Henriette
I love you because you are beautiful.—Ruth
First, I think you have few years, but you have very high knowledge. It is a better thing. You like sport and me I like it. You are a good teacher. –Madeleine (I think she had me confused with someone else about the sport thing).
Thank you Ella because you teach yoga very well. –Beatrice
You are a nice girl. I love you. When I see you I have joy. –Angela
Such a wonderful self-esteem boost to get an envelope full of notes like these.
I can’t express to you how wonderful it was to get to know these girls and watch them become more and more comfortable in their own skin. GLOW was an awesome way to end this break from school; it’s so hard to believe there’s only one more term to go before I end my first school year in Rwanda!
Thanks for sticking with this long post (assuming you haven’t already abandoned it in search of something more exciting); wishing all of you the best from here in Rwanda!