The Moment Begins Now.

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)

Read more at http://ravijaipaul.blogspot.com/

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.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Masaii Mara



Looking back now, I realize the vacation actually began in Masaii Mara, a world renowned National Park spanning 1510 square kilometers west of the capital city of Nairobi in Kenya. Here we did what everyone dreams, thinks, imagines of doing when they visit Africa... go on a safari.

Our excursion into the wild existed in a haze of two nights and three days, with three long game rides occuring either with the sun rising at our backs, or falling at our feets. We held no qualms about stereotypes and loudly sang The Lion King theme so many times to the same giggling effect. As we learned though, in the wild,  it's not all singing and stampedes.


Animals don't come out to greet you; you have to work for it, using an old and long forgotten method of searching for the beasts in the tall grass, amidst the silence and through the haze of the heat. There were plenty of times where you could feel a large presence, but not be able to see it. The most unsettling part was knowing that whatever you were looking for was watching every move you made.

The lion we saw was in fact, scary. Immense, intimidating and strangely cat-like, he didn't like the plethora of jeeps that lined up to get a glimpse. As an overambitious man in an open-topped jeep found out, still a threatening beast. He growled, a dark, deep growl from the bowels of his lungs and tensed his already compact body into an efficient killing machine. It wasn't so much he changed positions as much as he compacted himself and flexed, making him smaller but far more deadly. We drove away and I didn't look back, the incident leaving my spine to instantly shiver at the lion's capabilities.


We spotted a rare black rhino on the distance and chased it down along the potholed filled off-road track, almost feeling the tremor it's thundering jog was creating as he ambled away from us. Elephants meandered in a large pack, looking like old, thunderous men in dark grey, crinkled suits.

The environment always competed with the wildlife for bragging rights, as at the end of the game drives, the clouds would augment and reshape their essence to form different configurations, while the surrounding clear air would form blues and purples of the most magnificent hues.


The sun, would battle for last rites dodging, shifting and shimmering into the night, leaving a long, lasting light for some time after it disappeaered below the horizon, lending a backdrop to the sky's everychanging and darkening palette.

The safari was an assault on the scenes, treating us to the visual delight of nature and wildlife in their natural, incredible setting. As we retreated to the camp for our last night on the reserve, we came across a lone Girraffe ambling out toward the arching sunset, as if knowing that we would forever remember the moment as he began his adventure towards the shimmering horizon.



Thursday, November 18, 2010

Stoop Till You Drop



The barge mistimed it's stopping ability and crashed into our boat gently, bringing a warm spray of Ocean into my lap. The driver leaned over and said in a throaty voiced that exuded calm, "Hakuna Matata, man." No worries. At all.

Lamu exists as an enigma in East Africa. An island town, only available access by boats, the whole stone-city is navigated by donkeys. There are three (count 'em) cars on the island, as the rest of the place is navigated by bicycle, feet or donkey. The donkeys were muscular, timid and plodding creatures, one hammering me over, almost into a baby kitten, as he turned the corner. He didn't break stride. 

In Lamu, we 'stooped.' The rules of "stooping" aren't really rules at all. In fact, I can't even be sure that those who stoop know what it consists of. Which is a little maddening, knowing that Lamuians are born with an innate warning that must vibrate when one is becoming too excited, or walking too fast.

Slow. Down. Sit. Down.


Stoops, square chunks of fading and crack concrete, exist in arbitrary locations throughout the narrowed, grey streets of Lamu and perch upon narrow gutters that constantly flow with the whitish-blue water that drain from the town to the sea. As with tradition, our walking tour guide, Zera, an old persuasive Muslim man with an eye for making a quick buck and a relationship with everyone on the island, told us to sit on fomed planks of concrete complete with arm-rests. Apparently, he explained, the families of Lamu in the past used to gather in these narrow alleyways, out of the heat of the sun to watch the day turn into night.


Alternatively, you could chew 'Mira,' the local stimulant that literally took eight hours of non-stop chewing (think cow and cud) to induce even the slightest effect. For my compatriots and I, a sore jaw and a lot of laughing was all that we could accomplish.

Idyllic to the point where one day my only problem was deciding whether I should have a mango or orange-mango juice for breakfast. I spent three days in Lamu, and on the last day, a wanderlust traveler with a heart for Haiku (5/7/5 syllables) poems , wrote me the perfect one summing up the Kenyan coastal town perfectly. It read, simply,

Stoopers of Lamu
Chewing Mango and Mira
Beware the Donkey

Thursday, November 4, 2010

India (the Ocean)



It was the wind that caught my breath; the same wind that has been carried around the world on the sea; the wind that whispers of adventurers and dreamers; of lovers and loves lost. It's the wind that takes our wildest dreams and gives them flight.

I threw myself down hard, cold concrete steps onto the warm, crunchy sand that lay before the Indian Ocean and was greeted by the feeling of heartsickness; the same, powerful, fleeting essence of missing something. The search for truth, was somewhere on the other side of this Ocean, I could feel.

It was dark blue, littered with seaweed, ragged green rows of sharp, prickling daggers. I knelt down and grabbed a handful or warm semi-formed sand, and pressed it with desire to my other hand. To the right, I realized with a start, was an 8 foot camel, staring down at me, with a glint in his eyes.

This, I thought, getting up and moving out of the way of the beautiful creature in front of me... This is the closest I have felt to home since I left.

This... is the Indian Ocean.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Roof of Africa: Climbing Kilimanjaro

I crawled away from the group assembled at the summit on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa. My breathing was coming in short, ragged, gasp-like bursts and the headache that exploded through my brain multiplied in intensity. Doing an army crawl, I nestled around a large rock, inhaled a knife-like gasp of air and propped myself up just as the sun exploded over the horizon in a dazzling array of pinks, yellows and oranges.

"It's beautiful," I thought to myself, as I forced my mind to thank my parents for everything as I gave up, closed my eyes, and drifted into an oxygen-deprived ending. I gave up on life, and let myself go.

Issa, my guide, was screaming through the haze of people at the top in the early morning. He pushed them, through his own altitude sickness to comb the entire mountain-top, thinking that I had fallen off the edge. Frantically, he searched around a rock in the corner, and saw me, sleeping as peacefully as a child. He dropped to his knees, ripped off his gloves and began shaking me with his strong arms gripped to my ice-covered jacket.

I didn't move an inch. The shaking continued as he pulled me close to his ear as he screamed, "RAVI, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE." My limp body didn't respond. The sun, meanwhile in the background, was rising steadily, shining with a fiercely bright glow for all the mountain-top to see.

-------------------------------------------------------

Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa's tallest mountain, a giant, stretching to 5895 meters tall. Hundreds of trekkers a year attempt the summit, and according to the guidebooks, most do. It was this inclination that led me to believe that the climb would be little more than a hike; I've climbed lots of mountains before, I'm in relatively good shape and live in Kigali, which is at altitude itself. 


"I literally have nothing, but I would like to climb the mountain," I said to Jackson, the tour operator as he appraised me in shorts and sandals. "I don't even have socks," I said. He smiled, and I saw dollar signs flash momentarily in his eyes, as he pulled out a price list for the slightly-used equipment. "I'll see you at your hotel at 7am," he said with a genuine smile.

The morning arrives and I grab my pack and settle into the massive 4X4 Jeep when I'm introduced to the crew. Sidee is a slender-faced youth, known for his quick smile and bright, piercing eyes. He is the Porter for the crew, usually carrying the brunt of the load up the mountain. Beside him is Sele ("like Pe-le, the famous soccer player," he kids), a trusting Tanzanian with short dread-locks and a decorative chain around his neck. Ayubu is also crammed in the back-seat, but I never really figured out what he did. A little bit of everything, I suppose. One night, I defected from the mountaineers and spent it with the guys, and found out that Ayubu was as much comic relief as he was necessary. A great spirit.

In the front seat sat Issa, my guide of almost thirty years old. That summer alone he had been up the mountain more than 20 times. He and I would get close over the 5 days, and we would probe each other for the similarities that made up our lives. We trusted each other from the outset, and talked about our hopes... and fears for the future.

Day 1 was solitary and only saw a handful of trekkers coming back with speed walking efficiency down the mountain, while Issa and I ambled down the pathway, together, but alternating moments of solitude and conversation. The looming mountaintop that seemed miles away made me instantly pensieve, lost in my own thoughts. Could I climb up... there? Every time my mind wandered, I tried to bring it back here, to now, to the mountain. "Pole-Pole," he would say almost a hundred times a day, as if to himself.

Slowly, Slowly.

The end of the day led us to camp one, 2800 meters above sea level. The silence was deafening, almost frightening at times. The wisdom is in the trees, said Jack Johnson, not the glass windows. Theres so much the wind and silence have to say, I spent the night in thought of how I always run out of time to share with the world outside.

The food is made under the watchful eye of Sele, adding spices and salt, almost randomly to his creations. "You need strength to reach the top. I think you will," he added, fiddling with the dial of his archaic hot plate. White bread starts off most meals, with a choice of jam or peanut butter followed by cucumber soup which is then taken away and replaced with vegetable soup of the same stock and a main course of large potatoes and vegetables. Little did I know, this was the start of a month long experiment with vegetarianism.

Issa sat down while washing down the sodium with water and said, water helps acclimitization because here, the oxygen is so thin and water is made up of 2 parts hydrogen and 1 part oxygen. You get air, from water, he continued. Brilliant. I don't think I would have ever put that together.

Day 2: Thin Air (Breathe Deep)

We left the camp first, catching the Colabas and Blue Monkeys sleeping with their tails hanging below like short vines, as they caught the last moments of sleep. Acclimitization is proving to take it's toll. It's hard to eat to bursting levels, drink so that your walking in the brush as much as you are progressing and going slowly. Always. Slowly. Today, we climbed to the middle base camp, stomping grounds for those who attempted the summit from the days before as well as those who are on their way up. Those on our way up gathered around after supper to hear the struggles and hardships of those who summitted, and many left leaving feeling far more nervous than ever. The top was hard, they say, causing panic in the potential summiters. I broke from the group, and spent time with my crew, not wanting to be subject to the potential negativity and doubt that their stories brought. I knew how hard it was... or so I thought. That night, it was cold and I slept with everything I owned neslted to my body.

3 (Day). Kilimanjaro's disappearing snows have been well documented and used as evidence as a continuing case for the detrimental effect of global warning. Issa says that within 15 years, all of the snow will recede and leave this equatorial skyscraper looking like just another piece of rock. Our kids, he says, will never see the whites of the mountain's eyes.

For the next hour and a half, we trudged up the dirt path on the West face of the mountain and stood side-by-side of each other, listening to each other breathe. One in, One out. And repeat. As the day unfolded in perfect silence, our breath started coming in longer and deeper bursts. Our diaphragms expanded and we became more audible as we noticed our bodies working harder to obtain the oxygen we needed. The night was cold, and talking to someone required you to look slightly to one side, lest they become englufed in your visible smoke-like breath.

Day 4: Believe.

3800 meters can mess you up. The next camp, at 4700 meters can send you home. We trudged today to the high camp to begin our summit ascent at midnight that night. I stopped Issa and asked, "does it make sense that all of these tourists fly around the world for this, to climb this mountain?" He fired back, almost instantly, "Why are you climbing it?"

There was no definitive, inspirational, spiritual or conceptual answer to that. I just thought, like most things in life, I was given the choice to climb the mountain or not. I followed an instinct, and it's proved to be right most of the time, so I went with it. I guess I just may never have the opportunity to do it again. As Dad taught me, when an opportunity presents itself, you have to take it. It's the search I think, that holds the most promise. The idea that there may be some surprises or lessons to be gleaned from this mountain, from yourself in this.


To The Moon (The Summit)

The Kibu huts are located at precisely 4800 meters, where the landscape dramatically shifts away from lush, green forests to red, giant rocks. Rocks that look lie a giant placed them there, in a feeble attempt to play checkers at the top of the world. It's the people though, that have changed the most up here. Oxygen is at a premium and cracks are showing in some of the crews arriving, as the trekkers shuffle themselves from the toilet and back to bed, eyes filled with nothingness.

My moment of realization came when, squatting over a key-shaped outhouse, I thought it would be just fine if I crawled in and slept. My mind stopped it's rational side, leaning towards the goofy and grinning.

We sleep for three hours after supper, and awake to the gentle rapping on the door. The briefing is simple, 7 hours to the top, we won't stop, we won't go fast. We'll reach as the sun is coming up and then come straight down. Any more time up there is suicide.

Bags and gear are packed in a fury, zippers are locked with loud efficiency and a ball of subdued excitement fills the air. Izza looks at me through the glare of his head-lamp, and without a word we begin. His eyes showed no emotion in the least. I did the same, trying to distance myself, partition my mind from my body, in preparation of the impending crippling altitude sickness.

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My eyes opened to the world again. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE, Issa repeated. I thought I was dead. A second chance, on life. It all came crashing back, the constant reminders that your body is in trouble, a headache tore through my skull and exited in the middle of my forehead, creating lurching movements. My breathing was broken and shallow, as if my lungs had given up on the effort. My lips were dried, burned and cracking, but the water was too far to reach. And now we had to climb for another 8 hours back to camp.

This, as I collapsed again and began crying on the top of Africa, was the hardest physical moment of my life. I cried uncontrollably. My mind and my body had thrown in the towel.  

Why can't you just let me lie down? Issa was persistent and allowed me the space I needed to fight it out with myself. Within minutes, we had to grab a woman who was delirious from falling down a thousand foot cliff, and it all came rushing back. You Might Not Live.

It was in that moment I chose life.

As we descended down the mountain, away from the sickness and the staggering headaches, I pulled a large American bill out of my pocket and put it into my guide's hand. "You saved my life," I said. "Without you..." I trailed off, voice cracking as the 16 hour hiking day was coming to a close.

"It's my job," he said. "They would have taken away my trail license if you had died anyways."

We both laughed hearty and long, arm over arm as the sun dropped in the distance behind us. I looked back, shook my head and jogged to catch back up with Issa.

I'm alive.

Life is perfect.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bright Lights and Low Tide.

















Like a child in the night, 
        new to the city's darkness,
             I was born again and set free 
                  to run wild down each street 
                       only to find that none would take me home. (B. Knox)

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Mighty Bellow

In the far northern pocket of Rwanda lies an ancient volcano range called the Virungas. They cut an imposing figure chisled into the sky like a grand monument serving as a natural border to Uganda and the Congo. As we drove in, they were shrouded in a mist that only served to further their mystique. Somewhere in the trees, high above the ground we walk, lie our ancient descendents, the endangered mountain gorillas. Our backpacks contained the tracking permits required to witness the creatures in their native habitat.
                                                                                                      Our guide, Placid, began by explaining the infamous 7 meter rule, the distance that we should keep from the gorillas. This, as we found out, was a rule practiced only in theory (“Excuse me gorilla, could you just back up a little bit. Your in my personal 7 meter bubble.”)He then opened up a book of photos, showing us the “Hirwa” group that we would be tracking, a relatively small new group complete with a Silverback, a couple females and some babies to boot.

We began the trek in the early morning haze, up through the lanes of farmers’ fields, passing families busy with harvesting and grazing livestock. When we reached the jungle path of the volcanoes, a guard carrying an AK-47 emerged from the trees to accompany us. More of a precaution than anything, the guard was there to protect us from rogue elephants, water buffalos and poachers intent on killing and maiming gorillas for profit.


Our guide instructed us to put down our backpacks and walking sticks (they could be mistaken as spears) and we hacked our way into the interior, where we could see the trees shaking and bending at unnatural angles.

Out of the dense brush, a black, inky form materialized in front of us and disappeared into the bramble beside us. We inched closer and around the corner came face to face with the leader of the group, the Silverback. He perched on all fours, and appraised us with interest.

Its eyes were large, sentient and had an incredible human-like quality to them. When he took in all of us, he began to grunt loudly. The grunt was rolling and thunder-like, a rhythmic way to communicate with us. It reverberated through the dense air and into my chest, where it settled, and, through instinct, I found myself wanting to grunt back in response. My fear quickly evaporated; he sounded like my Dad when he had a pressing problem on his mind.


The gorilla meant no harm; somehow I was sure of it. The eyes of the creature were speaking of somewhere, of something else. It was but a few seconds that we held eyes, but in the lingering stillness, he held an intense and pure stare, powerful and understanding. In that instance with the world progressing with unstoppable continuance, you are given over to a sole emotion rarely felt; complete and utter respect. The stare transfixed me to the spot until he looked away.

There are under a thousand mountain gorillas left and they are all in East Africa. Only in the last century was it discovered that they are gentle and vegetarian. They share 97% of biological makeup with humans. They spend 30% of their day feeding, 30% moving and foraging for the remainder. They eat bamboo shoots, giant thistles and wild celery, all of which have water, allowing gorillas to survive without drinking.


A groups Silverback, the leader of the group, determines movement and defends the clan. He can pack a punch estimated at 8 times stronger than Muhammad Ali. They communicate through facial expressions and 2 dozen vocalizations. They are the largest primates in the world and weigh as much as 440 pounds.

Simply put, the gorillas are the most fascinating creatures I have ever seen. Our hour flew by too quickly; as the clan stopped taking notice of the strange visitors and continue on with life. The baby gorillas playfully practiced their handstands with limited success, which brought a chorus of laughter from the humans as they grunted and tried their luck again. A large female gently bowled me over as she decided that she wanted to sit in the place I was previously standing. The Silverback, obviously in his prime, found a wide open air to roll over, scratch, yawn, and pose with his hand on his chin, contemplating life’s mysteries.


The fate of the mountain gorilla is still uncertain. Human poverty is the greatest threat to these great creatures, as they live in areas which have some of the highest population densities and lowest adult life spans. This makes conservation a difficult prospect, as habitat loss, local civil unrest and poachers continually threaten their survival.

Founded by Dian Fossey in 1978, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to gorilla conservation through daily protection, anti-poaching, research, education and helping the communities they work in. Thanks to organizations like this, the Virunga mountain gorilla populations have increased in the past two decades. To learn more about the organization and their work in the Congo and Rwanda, click here.







Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Turning 24 in Rwanda (By the Numbers)

  • Today, I turn 24 years old. There are the same number of hours in the day as I have years of my life.
  • The average life expectancy in Rwanda is 40. In 19 days, the Rwandan people will be heading to the polls in what I hope to be a peaceful election. 
  • My Mother, the person I should be celebrating this day with, aptly pointed out I have been in Alberta once in the past 5 years during the day of my birth. Eep, sorry Ma! 
  • I have 47 students in my class. We have, on average, 4 hours of class a day. We have a midterm quiz on Friday, that has 25 questions; 8 on the Central Nervous System, 9 on Diabetes and 8 on the Integument. I hope to not fail a student. I am younger than the vast majority of my students. 
  • I have spent 103 days in Rwanda, there are 50 days left before a flight home beckons.
  • For the past 11 days, for the first time in my life, I have not eaten meat. I don't know when the next time I will eat it.
  • I kissed a girl for the first time when I was 16. She later broke it to me I wasn't her first kiss. 
  • I'd like to think that I've participated in more light-saber fights than the average mortal; 4
  • I first sipped an alcoholic beverage when I was 5. After cartwheeling down the stairs in dramatic fashion, it would be 11 years before I would eye another one. 
  • I've smoked 2 cigarettes in my life. After watching an autopsy being done on a smoker and analyzing his lungs, I decided 2 would be all the cigarettes I will ever have.
  • I was hit from behind 4 times that I can remember in Minor Hockey. After the fourth time, I remember quitting the game I loved. In October, for the first time in 10 years, I plan to play out a full season.
  • There are 4 nurses in my immediate family; they are the most caring people I know.
  • I am 13,894 kilometers away from my bed, a new record.
  • I earn approximately $3000 a month less than I could make for doing the same job in Canada.You couldn't put a price on the experience I've gained here. 
  • Wanting to do something exciting last weekend, I went to the 10th most dangerous country on the planet for 4 hours this weekend. I don't ever wanted to return to the Congo. 
  • This is the 19th post on this blog. Usually, an entry takes anywhere from 4-10 hours from memory to finished post. 
  •  This entry was written in 1 hour (birthday's aren't supposed to be spent in front of a computer).

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Kigali International Peace Marathon



Any country that’s nicknamed “Land of a Thousand Hills” should have provided a clue in my mind, a warning, even just an inkling, as to what running a half-marathon in Rwanda would be like. The city of Kigali, which boasts an altitude of 1496 meters above sea level, should have also been a clear indicator of the how hard running 21 kilometers was going to be.

It didn't, and there I was, at the starting line of the 6th edition of the Kigali International Peace Marathon.
 
There was an eclectic group of individuals haphazardly gathered around the starting gate; a girl attired in black pants and a full-fledged hockey jersey, a man with plastic wings strapped to his back, young adults dressed in Converse high-top shoes. The start time of the race was delayed by 15... 30... 45 minutes, before the organizers decided to put on loud, popular club music. Sporadic dancing instantly began all around me, as I sat down to enjoy the spectacle and conserve my energy.

When the starting gun sounded, the supermarket around the corner proudly advertised the temperature as being 27 degrees, with the sun shyly hiding behind the clouds. It emerged after a short time and boiled for the rest of the run.

The most demoralizing, and incredible moment, was seeing the Kenyans. I stood by a group  in warm up, with complete awe and admiration. My biceps were the equivalent of one of the man’s thighs. Ten minutes into the race, you could hear the elite marathoners coming; like a herd of animals in a stampede, pounding pavement with frantically circular wheel kicks in dogged pursuit of an arbitrary line 42 kilometers away. They flew by in a torrent of focus and adrenaline, jockeying for early positioning, running as if chased by some unseen force. I saw every muscle in their legs flexing and contracting as they moved, treating me to a real live anatomy class far better than any one I had in Nursing school.

The first half of the race was fun, almost easy, as the ten kilometers flew by. Somewhere around the 12 kilometers I began doubting myself, repeating a question over and over in my head, "Why do humans run vast geometric distances?" I had no answer for this.



The heat, with the unrelenting uphills of the last half of the race, destroyed me. The injuries I had sustained through the past month crept into play as the race entered it's last stages; from the sprained ankles from falling in potholes on a basketball court, a  runners knee overuse injury that continually pulsed and nagged, and a delightful cold which left me sniffling and chilly in the thirty degree heat.


I plowed through, using the doused water-sponges and bottled water breaks to rejuvenate and regroup, trying to motivate myself for a final push that didn't exist. It was too hard and too hot. The last four kilometers seemed like forty, as I entered the stadium to circle the track once before the finish line. I stamped down at the finish line, triumphant and defiant in a distance that simply was too much for me on that day. As I regrouped with Anthony, we watched numerous competitors cross the line and faint straightaway into the arms of waiting medics (including the guy with wings).

The race was an incredible experience, and finishing was a special bonus, but my most memorable moment came a month before the race on one long, unplanned training run.
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The sun was setting, almost lazily, emitting the last of its warm rays for the night, winking as it prepared to bring light to another part of the globe. I began my ascent up a sharp, steep cobblestone street of a slum which carved and amazingly constructed itself on a jagged hillside. The fires of the slum could be seen, as mothers were busy boiling water and preparing food for the following morning.

Word spread quickly, almost telepathically, as I continued to stumble my way up the hill, to all neighborhood kids to run/jog/amble beside me on my quest for the top. Within moments, I was doubled over in laughter with the kids, lost in the absurdity of it all; I was lost in a slum as kids continued to come, numbering well over a dozen with the span of a minute. They circled my now slow jog with their dance-ramba-steps and high kicked, as I tried unsuccessfully to cartwheel and attempt some sort of dance, which left them in fits. After exhausting my Kinyarwandan vocabulary, I switched to English, huffing and puffing... "you... don't (gulp)... have to... (haaaah) follow... me.This hill is... steeeeeep. " None of the kids were out of breath when we reached the top, and a group of parents waited alongside a narrow path which led up to more houses on the steep slope. As the parents gathered their kids I waved to them and they all laughed, obviously witnessing my earlier dance attempt.

For its beauty and simplicity, the moment was perfect. Normally, I would feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in that neighborhood, almost ashamed of the divide that exists between me and those who live in the slum. That experience, that hill and those kids made me forget all of that.

I took one last look at the large, sloping, cobblestone hill, and wheeled around to return home. That's why I run, I thought. For moments like that.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Convocating in Kenya


"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust

I remember the day, late last year, that we were asked to confirm our spot at our convocation ceremony that was to take place in early June 2010. I clicked the "Will Attend" option with hope, but something inside of me tingled with anticipation. Without any tangible explanation to explain it, I had a feeling that I was not going to be around for it.

At the same time, fate was dealing the cards to land me in Rwanda, far removed from the Edmonton celebration.



I am addicted to the world; the pulses, people, cities, cultures and general chaos that comprise our lot here on earth. It's taken me to the top of distant mountains, and dozens of meters under the sea. I've seen a small city struggle to overcome a devastating earthquake, while on the same trip watched as a thief struggled to keep me subdued while grabbing my wallet. I'm a proud survivor of multiple infamous 24 hour bus trips, have endured more travelers diarrhea than I should care to admit, and have emerged from it all with experiences, friends and memories I will keep for the rest of my life.
 
That being said, nothing is all sunshine and mangoes. By being here, I have missed out on things at home; Ultimate Frisbee season, weddings (Congratulations Pablo and Theresa!) BBQ's, beach parties, friends, family gatherings... heck, the short Canadian summer. Convocation is lumped in with this crowd, one of those things I wanted to be home for.

Thirteen thousand and three hundred kilometers away from where I sit (13,348 kilometers to be exact), my Nursing graduating class walked across the stage to shake hands with the higher-ups and collect degrees that we have poured our souls into for the past four years. I've idly replayed the moment hundreds of times in my head, hearing my name and walking across the stage clapping and fist-pumping the whole way, turning at the end of the line and sending a hearty "WooHoo" to my already embarrassed parents sitting in the stands.

Instead, the last time I would see my classmates before we all set off on our own adventures would be last December, at our graduation ceremony.


At that ceremony, Laura and I were nominated by our teacher to leave our class with an "uplifting message in these dark times" (meaning the current hiring freeze for nurses in Alberta). We decided to speak about happiness and entitled our talk, "Happiness and the Carrot." The premise was exceedingly simple; in Nursing school, we realized we were guilty of keeping happiness at bay, like someone would dangle a carrot in front of a rabbit.

We always had excuses for this. "When I finish this class, then I will be let myself enjoy this" became "When I finish this year," which, upon nearing graduation became "Well... maybe when I find a job." There never was a moment where we would let ourselves be truly happy, we were always busy looking for the next big thing. We then reached into the podium and extracted a bushel of large-stalked, earthy carrots to show to the crowd.

We had it all wrong, we argued. Being happy was something not to be rationed and controlled. Once you find yourself enjoying a single carrot, you found that it multiplied and grew. The speech ended symbolically with us biting into our carrots, encouraging our graduation class to not let happiness be an abstract, elusive dream.


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I thought back to the simple truth in that speech, that you have to take happiness whenever it presents itself as I glanced around at where life had led me; sitting in a crowded open-air courtyard in Nairobi, Kenya surrounded by my closest Canadian friends on the continent who were together for a brief reunion. I realized, with a little shock, that I didn't miss Convocation as much as I thought I would.


The waiter pulled up to the table with a fresh round of beers as I resigned myself to enjoy where I am and how it all turned out as I stood up to address the gang with a smile, "Halfway across the world right now, my nursing class is convocating. This one's for them. Cheers!"

The clink of glasses was loud and hearty, a collision that sounded not unlike the crunching of a carrot. A sound I now associate with happiness.

Three Cheers and Congratulations Nursing Students.... We Did It :)