The Moment Begins Now.

Friday, January 7, 2011

And Fade (To Black).

What are the lessons learned from six months in Rwanda?

What do you take away from a country, a people and a place that you feel like you've never really left... or that you left such an important piece of you there, you never fully came home.

How do you find meaning in what happened; find hope and strength and inspiration from the work you poured your soul into?

How do you come home after an experience that tested the mettle and courage and resurfaced all of the fears that you've ever had to deal with to answer the question everyone asks when someone gets home from an adventure...

"Well. How was it?"

What do you say to that? Do I dismiss it with a grin and a simple, "It was good, man. It was really good." Or do I try and dig deeper, unprying thoughts, feelings and experiences I have yet to wrestle with. Things that you may not want to hear when you asked that three headed dragon of a question. Things that you have to deal with on your own, before you can deal with them aloud. The state of humanity, overwhelming suffering, abject poverty, crippling disease, greed, corruption. Alternatively, the perservance of a people, hope, a thriving culture, sustained harmony and safety. The absence of war.

I internalize a lot of it.  How do I help this world most? How do we help each other get through life better? And how do we do it without losing ourselves... without losing enthusiasm, optimism and hope?

These questions emerged over the half year I spent in Rwanda, and the more I thought about it, the more I realize we may never have the answers. Heck, like my friend once pointed out, we may not even have the right questions. And that's starting to become okay with me. There's no easy answers, no simple cliche's that will solve the thoughts that have resurfaced in the land of a thousand hills.

But this came close. Halfway through the trip, a sentence arrived from a closely distant friend.

"We're doing it, Rav," it read. "We're living our dreams."

At the heart of these questions, through the answers we maybe will never find and the world we'll never completely understand, maybe the lesson of this whole journey... is this simple. We. Are living. Our dreams. We're doing what we feel is right. We're going to try and make this world a better place when we leave. This, I believe, is my purpose in all of this.

 So please, go ahead. Ask me how it was. I may not have the answer your looking for, or any answer at all for that matter. But I hope the smile that flickers across my face when I think of Rwanda in that instance is enough to give you a glimpse of a place and an experience I could never fully articulate.

It was... exactly how it was. Exactly how it was supposed to be. It was...
A Moment in Rwanda.


For everyone who has followed and commented on this blog, sent and received emails or letters, laughed or shared in the tears, my gratitude goes out to you. Family, friends and perfect strangers, you were there when I needed you.

Every. Single. Time. You. Were. There. I won't forget that. I couldn't forget that. Thank you so much.

With love, hope and the continued search for meaning in what we call life.

    Live the Dream,

    Ravi Jaipaul

   (The photo journey continues on:

Monday, January 3, 2011

It Begins (The End).

The class erupted at the opportunity to sign my flag, as they leapt from the desks to grab at the markets. It was a silly day, this last one, and as I handed out Canadian pencils and paraphenalia that my parents had shipped in an overstuffed box, I took out my camera and began taking pictures of the students I would never see again.

They returned the favor, bombarding me with cell phone cameras and the like, snapping away, chattering and giggling among themselves (just like Nursing students would do anywhere). I spent ten minutes explaning the timer on my camera and asked the class to pile into the corner. After many hilarious practice shots, we finally had everyone in the shot, and we cheered as the flash went off.

We had come so far, I thought, as I reminisced to my first day of teaching...

For a public speaker, I'm used to pre-talk butterflies. This time, they are in flight, diving from my throat to the depth of my legs. 36 students, the Dean of Nursing and the Faculty Head all crammed into an old military room that constituted the classroom. The class remained unnervingly quiet as I nervously plowed through an hour and a half lecture on the Central Nervous System. No one said a word. At the end of the elaborate power-point and diagram presentation, I implored them to give me any feedback. One nervous student eventually raised her hand and said, “Sir. We could not understand a word you said. You speak too fast.” I gulped, and promised to repeat the class in the afternoon, speaking one third the speed of what would be considered regular pace.

With... my.... new... pace of.... speaking.... established... we moved on and.... began to learn. In the afternoon class, only half of the students showed up, but had signed in for everyone there. This was the only time I ever lost my temper. I held the sign-up sheet in front of everyone, counted the signatures and the number of students aloud. Most students dropped their heads as I ripped the sign-up sheet in front of them and wrote on the board, "I DON'T CARE."

"Listen guys, I don't care if you come to my class. If you don't come, that's fine with me. But don't EVER lie to me. From now on, there will be no sign in sheet. I'm not going to chase you down, I'm not going to ask where you were.  I... Don't... Care. But you should. You are the future of Nursing in Rwanda. Rwanda  needs you. But your old enough to decide what you need. If you don't come to class, you don't learn the material. You don't learn the material, you won't pass my course."

I took a deep breathe and softened, spending the rest of the class showing them a slideshow of Canada, my family and friends of what my life is like. The explanation of strapping ice-blades onto your feet to slide on frozen water to chase a puck, I am sure, seemed like pure insanity, as evidenced by their open mouths and wide-eyes. This guy, they thought, was nuts.

I thought I had took it too far. They clucked and cried out when I ripped up the sign-in sheet and at the end of class tension was still palpable in the air. Great, I thought. First day and I'm fired.

I arrived the next morning, and walked into the classroom to find all 36 students seated in their chairs, books open and quiet. "Good Morning Professor," they said. I smiled. "Good Morning Class. Let's begin...."

They had gone on to be a great class, studying hard and destroying the midterm test I had set out for them. We had fun, and they continually poked fun at my stickmen drawings, my 'thick' Canadian accent and how much chalk I had usually managed to douse myself with at the end of each class.  
Regardless of how much you travel, goodbyes never get easier. The relationships and work that you find yourself connected to cause you to live in the moment, leaving the last moments to fall with such a shattering finality. You soak in all the moments with a grin on your face, but a crack in your heart.

The class rep shyly stood up after the class and  held up a package which said "To Jaipaul." I opened it in front of the class, as tears began to well up in my eyes. Stay strong, kid, I told myself. I pulled out heartfelt (and totally Rwandan) goodbye gifts; a watermelon flavored lollipop, a Wooden keychain of a shoe that I was wearing, a minitaure Amahoro (peace) basket colored in the national colors of Rwanda and a package of Juicy Fruit. At the bottom was a card, which I read aloud:

"Dear Jaipaul. We thank you for your kindness. You are a wonderful teacher! and we have learnt a lot from you. This is just to wish you all the best as you go back in Canada and don't forget Rwanda and your A0 Nursing Students (Level 2). All the Best. Your students."

Thank you was all I could muster, biting my lip, and gathering my bag. I grabbed the Juicy Fruit out of the package and loudly chewed it while looking over the class one last time. I get nervous at the end of farewells, swallowed down the frog in my throat and told them I was proud of them for being my students.

I looked to the right, the door was swung open and the sunlight was blinding outside compared to the darkness of the classroom. I gave one last wave, and with my backpack slung over one shoulder, walked out of Room Nine for the last time, the class quiet as I walked out.


Staff organized a surprise going away party at the local watering hole (Carwash) and the entire faculty showed up, gathering around three large U-shaped tables underneath an imitation Tiki-Hut that sat on the corner of the bar. Amidst an unlimited amount of Fanta's and Coca Cola's the Faculty took turns going around the table thanking me for my time, and presenting me with various Rwandan relics to bring home with me. Trays of large animal husks showed up on platters and the newfound vegetarian in me tried to disguise it by loading my plates with an obscene amount of overgreasy fries.

After the meal, I shook as I stood up to finally say my piece. Near the end, I faltered, looking up and seeing my colleagues eyes filled with tears, the ones that had brimmed on my eyelids began to fall as my voice cracked. "You guys do so much, with so little... and it amazes me how you keep going through all of this. It meant... so much to work with all of you," I finshed, taking a seat and looking down, unable to control the torrent now. Elizabeth glanced at me through her own watery eyes, "You ass," she said. "You made me cry."

That was it, I thought, shaking hands and giving hugs one last time, as the group left and eveyone scattered for home.
 My last night, brought with it both a sigh and a smile.

I did what I came to do and it was time to go. I am forever grateful for the opporutnity.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dreams (Reality)

I dreamt of Africa.

Like many children of my generation, I imagined  the vast, animal-filled plains of the Savannah and boldly dark people with long, lobed ears and strange foreign clicks and whistles. I dreamt of animals; massive giraffes grazing on high treetops and lions prowling through the tall grass stalking gazelle drinking at a watering hole. I imagined heat that soaks through shirts on long, humid nights and the endless heartbeat of the ocean that hemmed the land in.

I dreamt of a world I was afraid of. A land where amidst the beauty, happiness, and adventure lay the dark underbelly of poverty, corruption, and war. My mind replayed movies of children carrying AK-47s, snarled police checkpoints with razor wires, and refugee camps further than the eye gives vision with makeshift hospitals on mud floors.

These hopes and fears replayed through my head as I boarded the plane to Rwanda for six months, chosen among 400 applicants Canada-wide to teach Nursing at the Kigali Health Institute. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I thought. I graduated from the University of Alberta in December of 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and planned to find a job in an emergency room in Canada. When I couldn’t, I accepted the only opportunity I had to use my education, an internship through the Coady Institute and the Canadian International Development Agency.

For half a year, I was a nursing instructor at the Kigali Health Institute, attempting with my colleagues to battle inefficiencies and improve the standard of education for the nurses of Rwanda.

The conditions at the Institute were difficult and ever-changing. We dealt with scheduling problems, always worrying if we had a classroom to teach in. The one projector we shared was found without its power cord, leaving me to convert my two months of PowerPoint slides into a chalk and chalkboard format. Rewriting the curriculum to reflect current standards and teaching methods took months to finish. Teaching clinical in the hospital was a challenge, trying to restrain myself and guide students to care for patients in the most effective way. The hospitals were always a struggle for me, having to mentally deal with the individual stories and collective suffering, so much of it needless.

The biggest difference I made there was a simple one. I developed professional and personal relationships with the locals around me. Those friendships, as I look at it now, are the lasting change I left. You can't put a price on the quality or respect that two people from different worlds could share. The laughs, the memories, and the struggles we faced together are what stand out.

I learned about Rwanda through Rwandans. Whether it was learning the proper way to greet a Rwandan (using one of five greeting phrases followed by a handshake), or a new saying in the local dialect, they were always willing to share their culture with me. At the same time, I fielded questions about Canada, which hopefully no longer conjures up images of polar bears and igloos to the Rwandans. We gathered on Fridays, after enduring a long work week to unwind, like old friends at the local watering hole, shooting pool and laughing about work. We criticized each other, whether for a shoddy midterm question or an incredibly disorganized meeting. Most importantly, we succeeded together, somehow, someway, manipulating our classes to teach under increasingly difficult time constraints and lack of classroom space.

My fellow professionals were the first to treat me just as that: a Registered Nurse with the ability and knowledge to teach difficult concepts to new students.

I remember, with fondness, my first class. I was excited and nervous as 34 students, the Dean of Nursing, and the Faculty Head all crammed into an old military room that constituted the classroom. The class remained unnervingly quiet as I ploughed through an 90-minute lecture on the Central Nervous System, them never saying a word. At the end of the elaborate PowerPoint and diagram presentation, I implored them to give me any feedback. One nervous student eventually raised her hand and said, “Sir. We could not understand a word you said. Your accent is too thick and you speak too fast.” I gulped, and promised to repeat the class in the afternoon, speaking one-third the speed of what I considered normal.

My students were a source of inspiration, sharing limited computers, living in cramped quarters, and taking turns with one textbook. They were being trained to be the first degree-granted nursing students in two decades and as such had a long and chaotic schedule, a thirst for knowledge, and an aptitude for perseverance.

The six-month internship had an injection of adventure, using time off from teaching to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba dive in the Indian Ocean, and take day-long train rides through South Africa. From safaris in Kenya to weekend trips to the famous Lake Kivu, dull moments were hard to come by on the varied continent.

After my time in Rwanda, I realize that my childhood dreams, to some extent, are real. The country, however, like my childish notions willed me to believe, cannot be summed up in generalizations; to do so would be missing the point, and simplifying a complex country.

Rwanda is a place where those I met are working and struggling for a better future, not yet satisfied with all of the progress that has been made. I am proud to say that I found heart in the education system, in being a part - however small- of the struggle, and appreciating the hard work being done to train the future of healthcare in the land of a thousand hills.

Till The Next Great Adventure,
Ravi Jaipaul (BScN, RN)


Friday, December 24, 2010

South Apricot

"Let's go to Antarctica," she said, opening the only New York times article that caught her eye. The discount was enormous, she explained, and we could fly directly to Buenos Aires from South Africa. Now, when most people say, "Let's go to Antarctica," it's more of a pipe dream, one that gets lost behind sobriety and some rationality. She was serious, I realized, with a start. I'm not one to be out-randomned often (both a blessing and a curse), so I gently encouraged her, prodded to see if she was serious and before long we had compromised on a direct sale flight, not to Antartica, but to Johannesburg, South Africa.

In Jo'Burg, we were abrasive about the inflated prices of the taxi cabs, and only realized much later that they were so expensive because they were the only safe way to get around. South Africa's violence was not to be underestimated. A taxi driver allowed us to hire him for the day as we spread out time from the Apartheid Museum to the Sushi Bar to a tour of the downtown core, and ending up in a casino, where we left far too late to catch our train which was far too early the next morning.

Our goal was to ride trains across the country, traversing the mosaic of landscapes from inside a speeding box car, escaping to our cabins to watch the world pass us by and reversing to the meal car for wine and laughter. The trains became a fixture, using fourty eight hours to disappear from the world; the tracks as our road, and the sky as our watch. We followed the light as it disappeared under a crimson and puple hue of mystery only to pop up on the other side in golden brilliance.

In Cape-Town, we joined a wine tour and traversed to little towns with unpronouncable names to be sheparded from wine farm to another, tasting their finest reds and nibbling on cheese. Before high-noon, we were feeling lighter with every stop, giggling and using the washroom ad nauseum. After the tour, we were deposited on top of a mountain overlooking the city, where we spotted the "Wheel of Excellence" and took a turn spinning round as the night grew darker. Most nights were spent lounging on delicious food and drink we couldn't find in Rwanda. At  Fork, a Tapas restaurant, the waitress continued bringing us plates of her favorite dishes until hours later, we finally submitted. There was no time limits on our meals, no structure but the ones we created in our adventure. In Tamberskloof, we drank delicious sangria and then another one after the issue of race raised it's ugly head.

On Long Street in Cape Town, I stood outside the barred gate of a music store. I orginally thought it was closed, and then caught the gate-keeper who eyed me with the practiced stare of hatred, a white-haired man glaring at me through the haze of his cancer-stick dangling in his mouth. "You going to let me in?" I asked the question, then regretted it as he hesitantly pushed the bell to allow entrance. I felt like an animal, degraded and forced to beg to enter. I took one step, and we shared a dark look at each other before I turned around and left, leaving the door open, forcing him to get up to lock himself back in his cage. My own form of silent protest had me shaking and choked at such an oddly telling moment, one that has replayed itself in far worse ways in South Africa.

"I'm sorry," the Zimbabwean bartender explained as he sadly shook his head. "They don't like you here." The "you" refers to a racism that divided a country, a people, a world. Apartheid. The "you" in this case, was us. He saw us both lost in thought and tried to brighten our moods. "Let me buy you a drink," he said, ducking behind the bar to grab more glasses.
In Robben Island, we were shown the cell where Nelson Mandela spent so many of his years incarcerated. His struggle, South's Africa's struggle, humanities struggle, of dealing with generations of racism and hatred has come so far, erasing the segregation and divide by law that had been imposed for so many years. However, there was still so much more work, so much time needed to heal over the scars that had been inflicted on a people raised to be divided.
Nelson Mandela summed it up in a simple phrase, "After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

I had known Elizabeth for 11 days before we embarked on an impromptu cross continent journey for the same amount of time. An incomprehensible and incredulous number of circumstances had to occur for the trip to happen, and we succeeded. She smiled as she chewed into the already broken sunny side up egg as our car shuddered and sped along the four lane highway to the airport, where we were excited to return home, to Rwanda.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Blast

It was exactly how it sounds on a video game; the explosion of a grenade.

Kigali has been under attack for the past six months; 5 grenade attack gnawing at the relative and fragile peace here like a long-shadow in the high noon sunlight. Under the auspicies of the upcoming elections, the attacks are expected to increase, both in intensity and frequency.

It happened during a lull in conversation, a break between the raucous laughter and general gallevanting that punctuated the Friday night at the outdoor bar and meat-eatery, known affectionately as Car Wash.

It was a sharp, cutting noise; an audible rumble, as if it had come from the earth. For one intense moment, I had a flashback to when the ground split in Peru; my mind dragged me back to the night when my world changed. I could hear the chaos over again, feel my feet unsteady on the cobblestone shifting street, smelling the same fear and survival that encapsulated everyone's eyes. It coursed through me, a kaleidoscope of that dark night, and left as quickly as it came; giving  me the parting gift of adrenaline, energy and action.

I appraised the situation. There were well over a hundred people in Car Wash, many of whom either did not hear the loud burst that punctuated the night sky, or simply ignored the noise altogether. My friend later told me,

"Like most of the other men in here, I have heard hundreds of grenades before. I've been to war and it makes you immune to noises like that. Sadly, it also makes you immune to much of humanity."

I noticed he was suspiciously active in the few seconds after the grenade, getting up and dialing on his phone while shooting me a look that inspired confidence. The look said if anything happened, I would be safe with him. It was a stone-cold look that showed no fear, no hesitation and only action. I rose with him, instinctively thinking of helping anyone who was injured, that was what I could offer. I followed him to the main gate where a dozen curious and scared people had gathered. People pointed and chatted excitedly as to where they thought they had heard it.

Within minutes, the silence in the surrounding valley prevaled and left many Rwandans dismissing it as a flat tire. As we returned back to our seats, I asked my friend if that was a grenade. His answered yes with his eyes but betrayed them unconvincingly with a wave of his hand and a simple, "You know," his thick Ugandan accent adding a tilt to the tone of his voice, "it could have been anything."

The combonation of the oversized glasses of delicious Mutzig, a quickly departing and exhausted hormone release and a long work week willed me to arise from the table shortly and grab a Moto to the relative safety of our Nyamirambo home. As we zipped and zagged home, we passed a few convoys of military personnel, preparing for their night watch, armed to the teeth with large weapons belts, radios and semi-automatic weapons. These soldiers, previously feared, have become a pillar of comfort and safety, and I took heart in seeing them posting up for the night, as I layed my head down to sleep in Kigali.

The grenade was not reported on any media outlet or government news source, and the facts muddled and mixed in my head. East Africa was full of contradictions, inconsistincies and half-truths and this experience,  left me asking the pivotal question once again;

"What the heck really happened that night?"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Day in the DRC.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo's greatest gift - and its inescapable curse - has always been its abundance of natural resources, estimated at around 17 trillion dollars. 

Our guidebook states "the city is starting to attract a small trickle of hardcore travellers." One part boredom, one part claustrophobia and one part insanity had led us to an impulsive decision to gather a crew for the weekend to explore the town on the edge of the DRC, Goma.

Joseph Mobutu, who dubbed himself (and get this) Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Waza Banga (the fearless warrior who will go from strength to strength leaving fire in his wake) took power in government in 1965 and created a new level of government during his time; a government that ruled by theft (theftocracy). In 1997, he left, and the under-reported Great War of Africa followed in his wake; 9 countries, 5 million dead. The Mai Mai, a militia group that believes holy water protects them from bullets, took the famous words uttered after the Jewish Holocaust ("never again") and twisted it into a disturbing Congolese translation of "till the next time."

"It's not that democratic, it's barely a republic, but it is... the Congo," said a close friend on the situation.

Before we left, we checked in with Fidele;  a kind, thoughtful hotel manager with an easy and contagious laugh about the situation across the border. He lived and went to school in Goma (you can speak your mind over there, said the soft spoken man) and was going three times a week trying to get his broken computer back. After receiving his blessing and taking his phone number, we crossed into no man's land.

The energy changed, as we applied for our visas on the other side of the border crossing. After paying $35.00 for the visa, I was hassled by a customs agent who wanted a bribe because I didn't bring my yellow fever vaccination with me. After an extended discussion in French where my friend translated, I settled on 22 dollars, a price I wish I should never have paid for entering. He shook my hand, and the money disappeared into his pants as he smoothly lifted his belt and simultaneously scratched the bushy moustache that resided under his crooked nose. His eyes watched me with cautious dislike the entire time.

A money changer materialized out of the crowd to offer us a 'fair' rate for our American notes. As more of a novelty than a necesity, I exchanged $15.00 USD and began to count the money he gave to me. Watching me carefully, the changer sighed and simply handed me the rest of the money. I finished counting and held the rest of my hands out. He reached into his pocket and handed me the 'forgotten' 1000 Francs and walked off, whistling. The money was fascinating, especially the 500 Franc note which displayed shirtless Congolese miners, using picks to dig into the earth, a large outline of a diamond overshadowing the workers in the background.

We began the walk into town along a dusty street littered with strewn trash, speeding cars and rampant street sellers gawking at us. Though the hot, equatorial sun was beating down on us, I felt a shiver up and down my spine. This was not a good place, and it resonated a deep warning within me to be on alert. Motor taxi's pulled up dangerous close, pushing us backwards until we screamed at them to stop.

The 2 kilometer walk into town was eerie, with the unfamiliar constant drone of UN planes whizzing through the sky, and large troop trucks filled to the brim with soldiers, dog-tags glittering in the hazy light. We made our way to the center 'square' of town, which was marked by a destroyed monument and concrete circle, complete with scattered open drainage ditches filled with trash and sewage. We found our recommended restaurant with the attractive 'no weapon' sign, ate and emerged again to find that the world had all changed.

Despite it being mid-afternoon, the sun felt as if it was gone, hiding behind clouds, giving the street an incredibly sinister vibe. One of the girls we were with was being eye-fondled by a local on a motorcycle and when she pulled behind me and told me what was happening,  I turned around to face him. He eyes burned with pure hatred as he mouthed the words, "Fuck you" then sped off on his bike. The mere experience left me shaking.

I live by certain rules while traveling. They have been learned through experience, from earthquake zones to robbings, dark alleys and unsavoury drunks from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. These rules have rescued me from dangerous and potentially deadly situations before. The cardinal rule? Follow your instinct. And my instinct was shaking it's wise head. No. No. No. I berated myself for putting ourselves in such unnecessary risk. What were we there for? What were we trying to prove by being there? There's nothing romantic or exciting about escaping to this country for a day. This country is in war. This country is dangerous. Any pretense that we would be safe had quickly left.  I no longer felt safe, and my body refused to relax until we began our trek again to the border.
As we neared the border, I saw an MSF (Doctors without Borders) truck rattling it's way into the town, white flag raised high with concerned members inside squinting as they stared ahead at what seemed like an invinsible threat. I stopped and watched, and contemplated my life. I've always wanted to work with this organization, in places like this... or so I thought. Five hours had left me with a dark, brooding feeling of insecurity, stress and fear. What, I thought, would 9 months make me feel? Would it claim my soul? With these rambling notions rolling in my mind, we backed our way across the border and felt instantly safe, familiar... home.

The cortisol, which was coursing steadily through my body began to slow down, and I at once, felt exhausted, and contemplative. Watching the now darkened Congo recede in the rear-view mirror,  I realized I needed a drink and I needed to re-think my future. I retreated from the Congo, thankfully safely with our friends in tow,  four hours after we had arrived, leaving the country with far more dark questions for my future than I had answers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Sun Falls But Will Rise Again

The sun has disappeared behind Mount Kigali, but somewhere on the distance retains buoyancy over the horizon. The peak of the mountain is the eminant color of a fleeting sun, a wash of yellow with a white aura, resembling a vanilla frosted chocolate cupcake.

Scan your gaze higher into the sky and the transition is subtle and abrupt at the same time. A pallette of incredible blues; beginning at a soul stirring light blue fusing into a deep-dark-powerful navy blue. The lights in the distance shine, almost as if floating on the distant mountain, attempting to defy the impending dark nights that engulf this sleepy East African city. It's my favorite time of the night, as the cascade of blues is a gentle reminder of the quiet beauty of the sky, while also serving as a stabbing reminder of how much of it you miss when your heart resides in the city lights.

The night prevails, for now, in Kigali.