Saturday, 18 November 2017

Rwanda: A Story of Resurrection

This year I got an incredible opportunity to visit one of the most fascinating countries in the world. I call this tiny, land-locked nation fascinating not because of its unparalleled beauty, zesty culture or exotic wildlife. But solely for its sheer grit and determination to fight back to life and prove the world wrong - for its unshakable faith in itself and the power of humanity. In the last two decades, the people of this nation have been able to achieve what many others can only dream of. Today, its famously litter-free capital city is the face of multi-faceted development despite being reduced to a rubble of corpses just twenty years ago. It is the safest country for women in Africa with women outnumbering men in the Parliament. Believe it or not, corruption is rare in this spectacularly clean land of a thousand hills that has banned plastic bags altogether. I am deeply grateful for having been able to personally decode the "Remarkable" in Remarkable Rwanda!

On the eve of the 13th Kwita Izina (Gorilla Naming Ceremony), Rwanda Development Board in collaboration with the Rwanda Tourism Chamber, organized a ten day familiarization tour of the country for select travel operators from across the globe. I had the privilege of participating in this tour as a representative of The Kiwi Vacations, a burgeoning Package Holidays portal with sales offices in Kuwait, India and the USA. 

Arriving in Kigali

I flew from Mumbai to Kigali by the Rwandan national airline Rwandair on the 23rd of August 2017. My e-visa was stamped at the immigration desk upon payment of a nominal fee of 30 dollars and I stepped out of the airport before daylight crept in. Catherine, the General Manager of Jambo Tours, our associate in Rwanda, was already there with her handyman Karim, beaming from ear to ear as she extended the warmest welcome. I had arrived a day early to allow some time to prepare myself for the ten day adventure that lay ahead. I checked into Kigali Serena, the oldest five star hotel in the nation offering award winning service and featuring one of the best restaurants in the city. Sampling some of the traditional cuisine from the well-stocked buffet meals and shopping for traditional Rwandan artifacts from the local market, my first day in Kigali was well-spent. The others in our group arrived the next day and I moved to The Marriott, just a few blocks away from Serena. Marriott is one of the newer entrants capitalizing on the enormous development and tourism potential in the country.

Akagera National Park

The tour commenced on 25th morning under the able leadership of RDB executives Peter and Annie, with a road-trip through the scenic villages of Rwanda - from Kigali to Akagera National Park along the Tanzanian border in the East. We were a big team of about 25 tour operators from around the world split into groups and accommodated in a fleet of safari vehicles. Needless to say, the organizers took great care to ensure everything went according to plan. Akagera is the largest protected wetland in Central Africa and the only Big 5 Park in Rwanda with exceptional biodiversity ranging from highlands and swamps to savannah grasslands and forest-fringed lakes. Home to more than 12,000 mammals and 482 bird species, it is an important source of tourism revenue and a means of livelihood for neighboring communities. Adversely hit by the genocide of 1994, the management of the park was handed over to African Parks, a not-for-profit organization that works with governments in the areas of conservation, tourism development, community engagement and infrastructure creation. Once a wildlife haven, the park suffered irrecoverable losses during the genocide and is currently being restored to its past glory through the concentrated efforts of African Parks and Rwanda Development Board. With the introduction of South African lions in 2015 and the Eastern black rhinos in 2017, Akagera reclaimed its status of being one of the Big 5 parks in Africa. We got a night's rest at Akagera Game Lodge before embarking on the big game drive through the park. Starting out on a low note, the drive soon turned into a spine-tingling adventure when the notorious elephant who had kicked a safari vehicle into the unfathomable depths of Lake Ihema just two days prior to our arrival, forced us to retreat into the bushes to let him pass. We spotted a lion and his lioness, a honeymooning couple, peacefully soak in the shade of a lone tree in a sparse land. Zebras, giraffes, topi deer, cape buffaloes, water-bucks, baboons, impalas and warthogs provided the extra kick making it a helluva wild safari, making it truly unforgettable. 

Kwita Izina Gala Dinner 

By dusk, we were back in Kigali for the Kwita Izina Gala Dinner at Kigali Convention Center adjacent to the Radisson Blu Hotel. The evening was fun and relaxed with live music, charity auctions, food and drinks. A city tour was organized the next day with a visit to the Genocide Memorial painting a graphical narrative of the dark past of Rwanda. It was followed by a sumptuous lunch sporting an Indian menu at Ubumwe Grand Hotel, another noted luxury property offering panoramic views of Mount Kigali and the cityscape. Dinner was hosted by a hugely popular boutique restaurant called Heaven, which has a whole book dedicated to itself. A Thousand Hills to Heaven is an enrapturing read about the genesis of this restaurant and the story of its founders Josh Ruxin and Alissa, an enterprising couple and public health stalwarts from New York who came to Rwanda in search of meaning and adventure right after they tied the knot. Every detail about this country is riveting and awe-inspiring in its own right, with a mysterious anecdote, a heart-wrenching tale or the outlandish streak so characteristic of Africa, deeply entrenched into its many folds. 

Kwita Izina Conference

The Kwita Izina Conversation on Conservation at the Kigali Conference and Exhibition Village was the highlight of the fourth day, raising some pertinent questions on wildlife conservation in Africa and providing a top notch forum to discuss the best practices in the field. The B2B meetings culminated in a networking cocktail at The Marriot. 

We were soon back on the road, this time headed for the Nyungwe National Park in the South-West of Rwanda, bordering Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. En route we stopped at the Royal Palace Museum where the heritage homes of royalty are preserved until today as a tribute to the rich legacy and cultural abundance of a land lost in the pain of bloodshed. The long-horned cows called the Inyambo raised in the palace grounds have a prominent position in the traditional Rwandese society as a symbol of power, wealth and friendship. The national dance called Intore has some interesting moves inspired by the curvaceous horns of the Inyambo. 

Nyungwe National Park and Canopy Walk

Nyungwe National Park established in 2004 is one of the best preserved montane rain-forests in Africa with a dense canopy and a wide diversity of animal and plant species including chimpanzees and golden monkeys. On arrival, we were briefed about the park and guided on a hiking trail to the Canopy Walkway spanning 90 metres in length and 50 metres in height. That moment when you are precariously balanced on a hanging bridge, engulfed by the cryptic whispers of the jungle and invigorated by sweet mountain air - that moment when twirling orchids and flitting butterflies overpower your senses - that moment when you are in the center of a parallel universe with towering ebonies and giant ferns encompassing your being from high above and deep below - , well, that moment is what travel is all about and you have to be there to experience it. Words fall short as time freezes and that instant stays alive in the recesses of your heart for many, many years to come. 

Boat Cruise on Lake Kivu

That night, an exclusive dinner was arranged for us at Emeraude Kivu Resort with the accompaniment of live tribal music and dance performances. Local women exhibited their hand-woven creations - Rwandan peace baskets in variegated hues and designs. We halted for the night at Peace Guest House overlooking the mesmerizing waters of Lake Kivu. Sipping on exquisitely flavored Rwandan coffee in the lawns perched above the hills bordering Lake Kivu was the perfect way to start a beautiful day of cruising. We drove past undulating tea plantations glistening in the morning sun to the northern most point of the lake in Rubavu. Post lunch, we set out on a long and unhurried boat cruise, chilling on the open deck with bottles of beer, reminiscing about the best moments of the trip and sending positive vibes into the universe. Steve Venton, Director of Kingfisher Kayaking Journeys briefed us about his niche venture for the thrill-seekers who might be interested in kayaking and canoeing on the waters of the Kivu, exploring lakeside flora and fauna or/and camping in the villages adjoining the lake. We got to the shore at Gisenyi after sundown and checked into Kivu Serena, a plush resort offering poolside dining and folk art performances.
Gorilla Trekking

The big day had finally arrived. The capstone of any Rwandan adventure - Gorilla Trekking on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, was awaiting us. Priced at $1500, it is indeed an expensive activity and not everyone can afford it. But the good news is that all of this money is put to great use, with the funds fueling conservation efforts and the welfare of the local communities. We set out at half past five in the morning with packed breakfast and arrived at Volcanoes National Park at about seven. Home to five of the eight volcanoes of Virunga Mountains, the Park is inhabited by the rare and critically endangered mountain gorillas that caught the fancy of the legendary researcher, Dian Fossey. Split into teams of eight, we were allotted a gorilla family each and a trained guide to help us track them. My team tracked the Susa family which included one of the babies that was going to be named at the Kwita Izina finale the following morning. We were accompanied by porters who offered to carry our belongings while we trekked. They were ex-poachers being encouraged to earn a respectable living by feeding on the tourism potential in the region. Hiking through dense bamboo forests in the greater heights of the volcanic mountains, we eventually got to the location where the Susa family ranged during the time. The next one hour was pure exhilaration - getting to observe one of the most amazing creatures on the planet at such close quarters was overwhelming. Gorillas share 98% of our DNA and if you watch them closely you will know why. We were in a fix, unable to decide whether to simply keep watching their amusing antics or capture every detail on the cameras that hung around our necks. At the end of the trek, each of us was awarded a certificate recognizing our participation in the gorilla trekking activity. We had one of the best lunches that afternoon at Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel before reclining to our respective lodges. A farewell bush dinner was organized at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge with bonfire, dancing and drinking. The trip was coming to a close and I felt a surge of emotions bubbling inside of me as I retreated to my luxurious bed at the rustic Da Vinci Gorilla Lodge that night. Kwita Izina 2017 - the much anticipated finale of the tour was just a few hours away. It was going to be a long and busy day at the end of which I'd be on a plane back to my homeland. 

Kwita Izina 2017

At the headquarters of the Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, a whole district had gathered to honor the gorilla conservation efforts and the local communities thriving on them. The 13th staging of Kwita Izina saw the presence of international celebrities, conservationists and other eminent personalities from diverse sectors apart from media representatives and tour operators like us. Conceived on the lines of the Rwandan tradition of naming babies, Kwita Izina brought together thousands of Rwandans and friends of Rwanda to join in the celebration of the birth of baby gorillas, simultaneously raising awareness about this critical issue on an international platform. Naming a gorilla baby is considered a distinguished privilege and honor. The namers, chosen based on their contribution to the conservation efforts, were introduced one by one before they revealed the names of the gorilla babies. Every name carried deep and significant messages to the conservation circles around the globe. Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda and the revolutionary military commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front - the rebel force that ended the 1994 Genocide, graced the occasion with his presence. The rhapsodic crowd grooved to the rhythmic beats of Rwandan music, enthusiastically waving paper flags high up in the air. The ceremony which ended with a rendition of the Rwandan national anthem, was followed by a celebratory feast attended by all the dignitaries. 

Soon after, I drove back to Kigali to get to the airport in time for my midnight flight. I caught up with Catherine for a final dinner at a boutique restaurant known as The Hut before boarding my plane to Mumbai. As the saying goes, people don't take trips, trips take people and that's exactly what transpired in my case. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined visiting Rwanda, yet it happened to me in the most unexpected of ways, changing me in a myriad ways and opening my eyes to a world I never knew existed. 

Monday, 11 September 2017

My Tryst with Mcleod Ganj

A lot has happened in the last few weeks with my sluggish life as a peaceful homemaker being heavily interrupted. Visiting my hometown, having my mom over, traveling to Africa, backpacking with an old friend, trekking in the Himalayas - phew!! No wonder why I've been in a state of brainfog ever since I got back. Reclaiming lost hours of sleep and refueling my sense of responsibility were prioritized above the inescapable task of recapitulating my adventures. Yet here I am, emerging like a sleepwalker to recount the tales that would cloud my waking dreams for a long time to come. 

Some Background

Five years back when life was murkier, I enrolled myself in a 10 day Buddhist meditation course at Tushita Meditation Center in Mcleod Ganj, a popular spiritual and tourist destination in Dharamshala, located in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh. Unfortunately or not, I had to cancel my plans at the eleventh hour due to work constraints. (On a side note, I did complete the course at a Vipassana center near Bombay last October). Two years ago when my husband and I were on a road-trip to Ladakh with our pug, I popped the question again. We could have easily tweaked our itinerary to cover Dharamshala but as fate would have it, my husband got an interview call while we were in Amritsar and the plan had to be dropped yet another time. This year, we moved to Noida after shuttling between Bangalore, Bombay and Calicut for many months together. An old colleague who went on to become a dear friend, decided to pay me a visit last week. Since it was her first time in this part of the country, she suggested that we plan a trip to the Himalayas. And that's how I eventually made my way into this alluring and evasive town of Mcleod Ganj or "Little Lhasa", the official residence of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.

The Trip

For the onward bus journey from Delhi to Dharamshala, we booked our tickets with Bedi Travels - one of the highly rated private bus operators in the region. The boarding point was Majnu ka Tilla - home to Delhi's very own Tibetan refugee camp complete with a Buddhist monastery, narrow alleys lined by hawkers selling Tibetan merchandise and cozy little cafes dishing out scrumptious food at unbelievably low prices. It was the perfect curtain-raiser for the drama about to enfold. We started from home a little after lunch and took the subway from the Botanical Garden Metro Station in the heart of Noida. Switching lines at Rajiv Chowk, we got off at Vidhan Sabha and hailed an e-rickshaw that took us to Majnu ka Tilla. Sinking into the other-worldly fervor of this not-so-elegant neighborhood of Delhi, we found our resting spot at Ama Cafe - a snug little joint frequented by college students, free-floaters and travelers alike for its delectable menu and casual ambiance. In a few hours, we were on our bus to Dharamshala, unable to contain our excitement as the vehicle screeched forward.

We arrived in Dharamshala around 6 am and shared a taxi with a fellow traveler to Mcleod Ganj town square, another 5 km away. Zostel, the backpackers' hostel where our stay was arranged, was roughly 2 km from the centre, perched atop a hillock overlooking the Dhauladhar mountain ranges in the Upper Dharamkot area. As we were traveling light, hiking up the hilly road in the early morning hours seemed like a delightful idea. However, the elevation of the road and the rocky stretch at the end made it quite challenging for us, haggard souls.

In about thirty minutes we arrived at Zostel, a tad bit early for our check in. We dawdled in the lounge area that instantly lifted our spirits with an exuberant burst of color. Perceptibly laid-back with psychedelic artwork, doodles and comments on the walls, matching cushions generously scattered on low-rise couches and a guitar and djembe tucked away in a corner, the place was designed to create a sense of belonging and unconditional acceptance. It was easy to talk to strangers and make new friends because of the shared camaraderie. The girl who sat at the table next to ours at Ama Cafe now sat across us on one of those plush couches, inadvertently giving in to her acquired fear of dogs even as she spoke about her first solo outing in the mountains. We also made friends with an environmentalist who had arrived that morning. The four of us soon became travel buddies and a plan was born in no time. We would hike to the Gallu waterfall in the afternoon and trek to Triund the next morning and camp overnight in the mountains. Our four-bed female dorm was ready for check-in by the time we finished breakfast at the Salvation Cafe, the in-house restaurant at Zostel, Mcleod Ganj.

Some people and some places possess the uncanny ability to light up our spirits by their mere existence. The neatly made bunker beds in bright fuchsia, the crocheted dream catcher dangling from the door handle, the netted hammock swaying in the balcony overlooking the misty mountains - everything about the place seemed to infuse oodles of life into our wearied hearts. After freshening up, we were back at the cafe eager to start our first hiking expedition. We started climbing up at around 1 pm and went past the Gallu temple when a bull came charging down the narrow, rocky trail. Retreating to a safer spot, the plan was reconsidered - it was scorching, we were hungry and the bulls demanded way. Wouldn't it be saner to go down to the town square and relish a hearty lunch at one of the many exotic cafes Mcleod Ganj is known for? Our group dynamic wasn't working; we soon lost track of each other. My friend and I spent the afternoon cafe-hopping and shopping for curios. We had lunch at Norling Restaurant, an unassuming outlet featured on the popular cookery travel show Highway on my Plate for the authenticity of its Tibetan offerings.

The cramped lanes dotted by Tibetan artifacts ranging from thangka paintings and singing bowls to handcrafted stone jewelery and yak wool shawls titillated the shopaholic in us. The indulgence led us down the road to the Dalai Lama's temple or Tsuglag Khang where erudite monks debated the loftiest philosophies of life as the smoky sierra of the Lesser Himalayas testified to their wisdom.

The museum within the temple complex exhibited photographic records of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and their futile attempts to overthrow the power mongers with grave details of the sufferings of those who were expelled from their motherland. The yearning for freedom and the gnawing desire to reclaim one's identity echoed in every piece. Even as I sighed cynically, the soft whispers of hope that emanated from their resolute voices shook my disbelief.

"There is no good explanation for what is going on here" - so true of life and the Illiterati Cafe. It took us a while to spot this gem removed from the hustle of the town. Cradling in the velvety arms of the Dhauladhar ranges, ornate with a vintage piano and antique woodwork, replete with books, creepers and a whiff of coffee, the Illiterati cafe is a reader's paradise. Smacking our lips clean of the last drop of the house specialty saffron-infused coffee almond ice cream, it was almost natural to transcend the plebeian getup of a tourist and enter the realm of an introspective traveler. We snapped out of this dream at dusk and shopped some more before calling it a day with some hot apple tea and lemon cheese cake at Nick's Italian Kitchen. Back in Zostel, as we guzzled a bottle of Budweiser on the rooftop, the cloudy night sky loomed large above our woozy heads. In the dorm, we got acquainted with the other guests before reclining to our individual beds.

After much deliberation, we decided to trek to Triund the following day. There was a lot of uncertainty at the outset. However, as we gathered momentum, the trek proved to be a thoroughly enriching experience. The original group was back in action with one additional member who was younger, fitter and more experienced. The weather was definitely on our side with the perfect balance of sun and shade. It wasn't as grueling as we expected it to be, but the snaky trail was tediously long. The last stretch through the deodars and rhododendrons was steeper with 22 switchbacks, each of which promised never-before glimpses of virgin nature. Every step along the way came with a realization - what a miss it would have been, had we given in to the frailties of the body and mind and stayed put at the base, forever wondering how it felt to be up there among the clouds. Inching forward through the mist with aching legs, awed by the magnificence of the landscape surrounding us, we managed to break the barriers of the mind and conquer the pristine heights of Triund. Camping gear was available on rent from the recreation shacks. For some reason, the most popular food in the most inaccessible regions like this one is Maggi. We assuaged our hunger pangs with a bowl of hot noodles and gamboled around like the feisty horses and cows grazing on the grass.

The reverie was perfected by a rainbow that glistened right through the haze. That moment was one for the books! It rained madly that night. All hell broke loose as we lay huddled up inside our sleeping bags. The tent shivered in the storm and sparks of lightening shone right through the flimsy fabric. And there was music! We tuned into the forgotten melodies that still lingered in our souls and crooned beneath the hullabaloo of the torrent. When the skies calmed down, we crawled out of our den and got some dinner from the shack. It was a full moon night. The rays melted into the sombre clouds. The dogs gave in to their wild libido. Everyone and everything seemed to be in a trance. 

We started early the next morning and arrived at the base before the sun turned savage. Going up took us about four hours with all the water breaks and photography stops. The return was quicker and lighter on my calf muscles. En route, we stopped for breakfast at Magic View cafe, the oldest chai shop on that trail. Zostel felt like home when we returned - a place that comprehended the heart of a traveler. After a wholesome lunch consisting of Paneer Butter Masala and Butter Roti, we picked up our bags from the storage room and trudged along the pine forests to the town square down below. Our trip was coming to a gradual close. There was still some time left and we wanted to make the most of it. The famous Bhagsu waterfall was just around the corner but my mate was in no condition to hike any further. Moreover, we had already created some terrific trekking memories to last a lifetime. So we decided to take it easy and go for a Tibetan massage instead. Easing into the evening, we indulged on a Chickonara thin crust pizza and Super Fudge Brownie at Jimmy's Italian Kitchen, overlooking the Kalachakra temple (Jimmy's is the non-veg counterpart of Nick's). I had been dreaming about chicken ever since the cold got to me at Triund! Before embarking on a local bus back to Dharamshala, I picked up some Tibetan massage oils and herbal tea from Men - Tsee - Khang, the largest and the oldest Sowa Rigpa institute in India, patronized by the Dalai Lama himself. The bus ride with the locals gave us a taste of the everyday life of the many men and women taking up day jobs in Mcleod Ganj and returning to Dharamshala at the end of the day. We boarded our Volvo sleeper back to Delhi at 6 pm near Maximus Mall in Dharamshala.

The rotund ball of fire sank into the infinite depths of the snow-laced peaks hovering over this charismatic town as the Volvo whizzed down the harrowing curves to lesser lands. Our eyelids started to droop by the weight of the mighty vistas they had been feasting on. The bus lugged into Majnu ka Tila in the wee hours of the morning and we took a cab back to the familiar comfort of our plain sailing lives.