Sunday, April 25, 2010

Polish mission

Preface: a Dutch couple mentioned a beautiful Polish mission orphanage in northwest Rwanda. Their description: "totally amazing, but the trip is a little dangerous." Just the thing to spark my interest.

A few days after my GM left me in the mountains with the gorillas, I went into Ruhengeri (the second largest city in Rwanda), to chill out. I stopped by with a friend to a local bar/night club hangout called the White Gorilla and ordered a small bottle of Waragi (Ugandan "war gin")n and a coke. Some girls were dancing on the patio outside, and the guys at the bar were giving me the "white man" look-over. After the war gin started working, I got up and strolled over. "What's up fellas?" "AhHH! You are American! You see the gorillas?" "No, I'm just working up here at the Nest hotel. Say listen, do you guys know of a Polish mission northwest of here? Maybe near the Congo border?" One of the guys stood up and told me to wait. He got up, left the bar compound through the large white gates. I sat there drinking with the others, not saying much, until the kid returned close to 20 minutes later. A man in military fatigues with a RPF symbol sewed to his arm followed him. "This is my uncle Joseph. He knows the mission."

Its funny, one bottle of Waragi followed an adventure of border jumping, a gunfight with interamwe (Hutu killing squads of the genocide), gorilla infested jungle treking and a weekend with orphans dispersed by the events of 1994. But it is definetely not a PG story. You'll have to buy the book....


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Djiboutian Khat Flight

One of my responsibilities as Purchasing Manager at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski hotel was to ensure that all air and sea freight deliveries pass customs upon entry. Although this sounds bureaucratic, I can assure you it was just as physical. Being at the airport with the proper ID, paperwork, and trucks were a weekly event, and the timing of the flights were essential. It would mean, sometimes, a hit or miss when trying to recover a pallet of frozen food product from Amsterdam from the belly of a Emirates 727 cargo plane (usually arriving at 2:30 pm ETA).

What became perhaps the biggest nuisance was the daily flight from Ethiopia (1 pm ETA)which brought the khat. You might be asking, what is khat anyway? Khat is the narcotic leaf of a tree that, when chewed, gets you high. I would say a clear majority of the population either chews daily or at least every other day. In muslim countries, it is very popular as the majority of chewers can personally and politically reconcile it as not haram (forbidden) in the Q'ran. Ismael Guelleh, the President, loves the stuff. The delicacy of the situation is that after 24 hours of being picked, the khat begins to lose its potency. This is why a delay in the flight from Ethiopia screwed us. If the khat was being unloaded, all of the custom guards and police would abandon their posts and stand by the khat trucks waiting for a hand out.

Waiting behind the wheel of one of the trucks, I would anxiously watch the Emirates flight land, unload and take off within the time that locals were unloading the khat from, yes, a smaller plane. I would sit and watch my pallets not 200 yards away baking in the mid afternoon sun which, during the summer, could easily reach 130-140 F. But one thing I learned working in Africa was patience. There was nothing I could do, so I waited. Once in, I would load up into my refrigerated truck as quickly as possible, and take the product back to the hotel. If it was damaged beyond use, I would take digital photos, send them to purveyors and try to squeeze some credit. The problem was Emirates' efficiency: as they did not want to be blamed, they took their own photos, and occasionally the reponse from the purveyors was a big "no way"!!

Eventually it took a little bribe to the Belgian airport director to get special passes. Its Africa!


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Kigali Evening

I arrived in Rwanda via Ethiopia in the begininng of May 2007. I was sent by Kempinski hotels to assist in the takeover of two properties, and was excited to further my travels in Africa. We landed in the early afternoon and I was met at the airport by the General Manager and an Indian accountant from our hotel in Jordan who would become a close friend in the months to come. But I wasn't thinking about friends that night. I was thinking about Rwanda.

More than 800,000 deaths following the coup 13 years before had left a blood stained countryside and a global emotional stain on the inaction of powerful nations watching the massacre from afar. We jumped into a rented 4x4 and began the drive up to our hotel sitting on a hill overlooking the city. We were staying at the Hotel Mille Collines, or as the rest of the world knew it, Hotel Rwanda. There are many emotions I experienced being in the presence of this hotel, but it wasn't Rwanda's past that most moved me.

After a wonderful dinner at the French restaurant on the top floor, I took off to the pool and sat down with a pack of smokes and a couple Mutzig beers. Overlooking the lights of the city, I came to a revelation. I was about to experience a nation, people, and adventures that were beyond my emotional stretch. It was an exciting feeling, but I stopped by the hotel boutique and picked up a history of the genocide. I felt like I needed to prepare myself. The worst thing to do would be to experience Rwanda's future without knowledge of its past.