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)


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.