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Nyungwe is a mountainous rain forest in the southwestern corner of Rwanda (that also contains the most distant source of the Nile! fun fact). I tend to get disproportionately excited about anything rain-foresty, so this was… indeed very exciting. Compared to rain forests in Belize, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica, Nyungwe feels less tropical, more untouched–roads have only been developed to access it since 2004 or so.

chilly green

chilly green

The elevation shrouds everything in a layer of mist, and the topsy turvy topography means you can see layers of forest floors and canopies at the same time.

The elevation shrouds everything in a layer of mist, and the topsy turvy topography means you can see layers of forest floors and canopies at the same time.

Unfortunately, Nyungwe is also price-gouging at its best. Foreigners pay $40-$50 per TRAIL for the privilege of a basic jungly stroll, and $90-$100 to potentially encounter creatures of the monkey/chimpanzee variety. To enforce this, it is forbidden to wander anywhere in the park without a guide, even along the main road.

playing with a 300mm zoom

playing with a 300mm zoom

I understand that tourism contributes pivotally towards Rwanda’s economic development, but it’s depressing that such a primeval natural area has been  ruthlessly zoned, regulated, and closed to personal exploration. (Would it not be better to have visitors pay a larger park entrance fee and give free reign throughout the park?)

monkey tracking...

monkey tracking...

unhabituated colobus monkey

unhabituated colobus monkey

Also–would recommend coming to Nyungwe with a car/driver and lots of snacks. Traffic is very scanty on the road through the forest, and it was a while before we managed to flag down random vehicles to take us back to Kigali.

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Once every few days, the power here snuffs out, usually briefly. It’s happened a few times while we’re teaching, which can be annoying, and last night it happened in a crowded local eatery / world cup watching venue, as we were waiting for the USA-Ghana game to start.

raucous-world-cup-bar-turned-romantic-candlelit-restaurant

raucous-world-cup-bar-turned-romantic-candlelit-restaurant

To cope, the staff lit candles in the open-air restaurant. Besides that and the full moon, there was absolute darkness all around, and parties yelling wildly to each other just moments ago suddenly spoke in hushed tones.

This was all fairly distressing to the die-hard game watchers, but I thought it created a wonderful-surreal-ambiance  (kind of reminiscent of Blue Bayou in Disneyland, which I sadly still have never called early enough to get reservations for) that was far lovelier than what it had been before.

I want to start a chain of “power-free” restaurants and cafes in the states — it would be beautiful, nostalgic, and fit with the eco-bug that’s been going around.

Matt, Austin and I hopped on a $6 bus out of the city last weekend to Lake Kivu, a giant volcanic lake on the eastern border of Rwanda and the DRC. My plan to peacefully snooze during the ride there was happily interrupted by the beautiful landscapes of small towns and sloping farmlands along the Kigali-Ruhengeri road. The villages we passed through were simple, nestling harmoniously into the surrounding countryside (these people are living on dollars a day, but gosh what a view).

Few vehicles and even fewer roads in this part of the country means there are lots of people traveling on foot along the main road.

Few vehicles and even fewer roads in this part of the country means there are lots of people traveling on foot along the main road.

We arrived in Gisenye, the largest of the three towns on Lake Kivu, and took a gorgeous moto-trip along the lake out to the smaller fishing village of Rubona to enjoy the water in a more intimate setting.

Lunch was at the adorable/honeymooney Paradis Malahide Hotel, the top-rated hotel in Rwanda on TripAdvisor.

Lunch was at the adorable/honeymooney Paradis Malahide Hotel, the top-rated hotel in Rwanda on TripAdvisor. Travel tip: STAY HERE

Fishing pirogues

Fishing pirogues

After a very leisurely stroll around the lake + village, we hiked to the border to cross into Congo (what happens in Congo must stay in Congo). Everything in this area is elevation 8,000 feet or higher, which made strenuous physical activity a bit harder..or more likely I’m just really out of shape.

Lakeside serenity

Lakeside serenity

DRC border

DRC border

All three of us had lugged our SLRs along and were salivating for photo opps, so the next morning we did it Japanese-tourist-style and, for the price of a cab to Logan, commandeered a small private bus to take us the 100km to Rushengiri. This freed us to stop anywhere along the road to shutter away, talk to people, or just linger longer in places that we found particularly lovely.

Our photo-bus

Our photo-bus

Lake Karago...not the most beautiful of lakes..

Lake Karago...is not the most beautiful of lakes..

Seas of lush Rwandan teafields on the way to Ruhengiri

Seas of lush Rwandan teafields on the way to Ruhengiri

Traveling around Rwanda is fairly laid back and non-touristy feeling, probably because there actually aren’t too many tourists. This is definitely nice, but it also means that entire streets stop to stare as we walk by, and  troupes of children are constantly following us around everywhere. Lots of them try to touch my hair and attempt communication in creative french/english phrases (or even /cringe/ asian-y sounding things), sometimes asking for photos, sometimes asking for money.

Austin/Austin's camera being smothered by curious village children

Austin/Austin's camera being smothered by curious village children

Very different from traveling around rural China, where kids seem to be equally fascinated by foreigners but are usually not bold enough to go up to them or say anything in English, even though they study it diligently in school.

Mototaxis in Gisenye

Mototaxis in Gisenye

There are lots of ways to get around Kigali, but if you’re into stunning views, ridiculous fun, and willing to entertain the slight possibility of coming to a fiery demise, nothing beats taking motorcycle taxis everywhere. This has quickly become the preferred mode of transportation for our team whenever we don’t have a ton of stuff to carry.  A typical ride for me involves hurling through windy, hilly roads (the topography of Kigali is somewhat similar to San Francisco) with endless greenery and a wonderful sense of terror and abandon. As an extra perk, motos are also nimble enough to weave through rush hour traffic, though this definitely improves your chances of having a near-death experience.

hello there

hello there

Some tips:

  • Rates are negotiable. Most places in the city can be moto’d to for around $1 (~580 RWF), but the experience is always worth whatever you end up paying. As a comparison, buses are 180RWF per person, and car-taxis are 2000-3000 RWF (for up to four people).
  • To ride like a local, keep your hands calmly in your lap–resist the urge to hold onto anything.
  • To avoid scandal, wear pants or skirts of an appropriate length and swingy-ness.
  • If you seem terrified, they will slow down…so keep that game face on.

the sunrise from my apartment in kigali

I’m here for the next 6 weeks, teaching a class at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.  We are south of the equator, so it is technically winter — though still 80 degrees and beautiful every day.

You can follow my team’s official blog here, and my non-official thoughts on this blog.. I’m also keeping a written journal (ish). And sketchpad. Is there such a thing as too much reflection?

We stumbled upon this beautiful winery during a family Napa trip. It’s a little bit out of the way, but so stunning. More arty and contemporary than most places in the area, and oh yeah you’re basically on top of the world.

(how wonderful is this red farmhouse?)

In other news, it’s the first day of my last semester as an undergrad.

ifc at dusk

No tripod. Which becomes immediately apparent if you zoom in…

Back from Hong Kong–I have a lot of pictures to get through (though, still not as many as I would have liked from this summer).

escalators

marble floors

wealth, in bad taste

international brands, shopping, endless mountains of consumerism, connected by..

labyrinth-like pedestrian tunnels + walkways, assuring navigation from one shopping district to the next without ever having to go outside..

skyscrapers in unwieldy shapes

lights, lights, lights!

octupi

So! After two lovely and largely relaxing weeks at home in CA, I’m heading to HK tomorrow to join the ranks of a venerable capitalist institution known for its monolithic skyscrapers, 3inch stilettos, long slavelike hours, and making grown men cry.

Seeing as how HK is possibly the epicenter of h1n2 hysteria, sars masks are a needed accessory, and there’s no reason why accessories shouldn’t be fashionable.

sarsmask

sarsmasks2

Hm. How could one make this look more business cas. or office appropriate?

Our flight to the Philippines was supposed to be a 24-hour whirlwind of Boston –> Chicago –> Tokyo –> Manila, but this is what we saw upon afternoon landing in Tokyo:

runway crash

The unfortunate runway accident meant our flight was canceled until tentatively the next day, forcing us to rearrange a rather jam-packed itinerary of meetings and workshops in Manila. To make the best of it, we decided to take the bus into the city instead of staying at an airport hotel. The trip from Narita into Tokyo ended up being surprisingly far — approximately 90 minutes by bus.

We ended up booking a room at the fancy-yet-pompously-westernized Westin Tokyo, near Ebisu Garden Palace. (I would suggest checking out Hotel Nikko in SF if you are looking for a beautiful Japanese-style hotel) Ebisu is a nice but sleepy little neighborhood, so my first impressions of Tokyo were slightly underwhelming (where were the bustling avenues, esoteric street fashions, and Judge Bobs that I endearingly associated with Japan over the summer? )  .

Our resident documentary filmmaker Nicole left us to have dinner with a friend, so Leo, Zack + I got a restaurant recommendation from the concierge and set off for a late dinner. We never ended up finding the recommended place, but instead decided to pop into this rather authentic looking restaurant that turned out to be a worthy selection–the food was so-so, but boy what a festive atmosphere! We were seated next to this gigantic 30 + party of Japanese businesspeople chilling out together after work.  The room would occasionally break out into synchronized clapping patterns and rounds of congratulatory “hoy!s” as we ate. I don’t think I have ever seen an American business unit be so carefree and lovey together. Perhaps the corporate world here is too focused on short-term career goals and conservative propriety to develop these kinds of boisterous, sake-filled business relationships en masse.

jolly corporate function!

jolly corporate function!

After dinner, Zack and I tried to maximize our 16 hours in Japan by exploring the city at night. An ice-bar that we had hoped to visit was closed for reconstruction (they give you a parka while you drink in an igloo-like environment!), so we once again asked our adorable concierge to go off the record and recommend some truly hip places that he himself would go to.  We took the subway into bustly Shibuya district with a very vague idea of what we were looking for, and just walked around aimlessly down main streets and side streets. It was nice–Tokyo is a city that really shows off at night. I was surprised by the number of people coming home from work on the subway at 11PM—the subway station felt like the same sea of suits you would see at Government Center around 7PM.

tokyo street at night

tokyo street at night

We wandered through a neighborhood of affordable love motels…

a bargain for love

a bargain for love

great room selections!

great room selections!

classy

classy

…and after some cryptic instructions to go down the street and take a “left-right”, found the place our concierge directed us to– a dungeon-themed bar ( called “The Lockup” ).  Excepting the japanese hipsters milling outside, the entrance to this place was an eery descent into dark passages and spooky noises. Very haunted-house-esque, I think I screamed a few times, haha. The bar was just closing as we got there (it was a Monday night), so we moved on. It does seem like a cool place to hang out though–will definitely have to come back the next time I’m in Tokyo.

we thought the concierge said "rock-up"..

we thought the concierge said "rock-up"..

dungeon style booths

dungeon style booths

thoughtfully neon

thoughtfully neon

I was in dire need of some sake by this point. Fortunately we were able to pick up a wasted American expat named Cedric, who took us to his favorite place, the Gaspanic! for drinks. It was quite empty (again, Monday night…), and unfortunately seemed to cater to a more touristy crowd. We shared the space with some Euro-looking hipsters and a sketchy boy canoodling with his girlfriend. Overall, recommended if you have a longing for clubs blasting Chris Brown + Akon, not recommended if you are looking for good sake or to feel like you are partying in Japan.

a SUPER cup of sake

a SUPER cup of sake

Cedric, keeping his LA roots alive

Cedric, keeping his LA roots alive

We then took a cab to Roppongi Hills / Mori Tower to try and get a better view of the city, but everything had long been closed. Even so, I really appreciated the calmness of the urban space and the solitude of being there afterhours–I’m beginning to think that 3AM sightseeing is the best way to get an intimate feel for any place.

Afterwards, an amused cabdriver took us to the well-guarded Imperial Palace for a nighttime jaunt around the moats, and we called it a night at 5AM, just in time for our 6AM wake up call.

Overall, a wonderful introduction to Tokyo + the country of Japan, though I am wistful that we missed the cherry blossoms. Next time!