Travel Adventures Part 2 – Rwanda’s Haunting Beauty

I was recently struck by a comment I read on Humans of New York: “One day you lose something, and you say: ‘Oh my God. I was happy. And I didn’t even know it.'” It prompted me to ask myself, does this apply to me? In searching for the answer, the first thing that came to mind was an image – surprisingly crisp in its detail and still fresh with the feelings associated with it:

Me on the back of a boda (motorcycle taxi), my head starting to throb from the slightly-too-tight helmet around it, my eyes straining to stay open against the strong wind gusts that press against them as I hold up the helmet’s plastic visor in order to gain an unobstructed view of my surroundings: pure vastness. Green hills that extend far into the distance in such a way that even in viewing it in person, my eyes somehow struggle to comprehend that it is not a painting or a photograph – something about the way the mountains in the distance fade into perfect bluish-grey outlines, emphasizing the full depth of the landscape and standing in contrast to the bright green sculpted hills in my more immediate view and the long swaying grasses along the sides of the road. Passing so quickly before my eyes, it all begins to blend into one beautiful blur of greens and greys and browns and yellows…. a mud house, some goats and cows, children waving, people staring, my friends zipping past us on the backs of their bodas, and the varying contours of the mountains as we head ever higher up the hill. The ride is fairly long – at least a good 45 minutes. Even with the entrancing scene before me, my eyes slowly tire of trying to maintain their focus on any single object. With the strong wind gusts still wrapped around my body, its constant pressure beginning to feel like some sort of strange, cool blanket against my skin, my mind finally begins to drift away from its current surroundings and into a state of introspection. “This is beautiful. The world is beautiful. People are beautiful. I am happy.” The words begin to repeat themselves slowly and clearly in my mind. Once they’ve materialized, they remain stamped in the back of my head, softly continuing on in the background of my thoughts, eventually becoming blurred and intertwined with the scene itself…

It was one of those moments in life where I was keenly aware of my happiness. The kind of awareness that actually manifests itself into expression…in the moment. It took place during my trip to Rwanda, when my friends and I decided to take bodas up this road on the outskirts of Kigali – which our amazing friend who lives/works there suggested we do during our short stay in the city. The road led up to this giant regal tree, which is mythicized to have some link to the origins of the country itself…something about a king coming to this spot, throwing a seed, and declaring that wherever it landed would be Rwanda…or something. It was also super interesting because, despite its mythical status, well-known by locals, there was nothing physically there to identify the tree as anything out of the ordinary – no plaques or world heritage site or means of preservation. It was just there. Only to be discovered by word of mouth and some knowledgeable locals to show you the spot. As my friends brought up, it in a lot of ways reflected the general feeling we got from the country as a whole – a place full of incredible history and cultural significance, but a lot of which seemed hidden in relation to those countries where everything of cultural significance seems memorialized into a statue or museum or world heritage site. Although, Rwanda is a unique case of course…and still seems to be re-building and re-creating itself according to a very politicized and specific government agenda. (But also note that I was only in the country for less than a week and in reality, have no basis to make any valid commentary on most things there due to my lack of deep knowledge — but still, these were just some interesting things brought up while I was there).

Anyways, this was the tree:

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And the surrounding area:

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…and a cow:

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But back to the original question about happiness. The moment on the boda also made me aware of the fact that I’ve had a lot of these moments this year – mainly due to my extreme privilege to have had the opportunity to travel a good amount. But when confronted by sites that are new and foreign to your eyes and fueled by a heightened state of curiosity and alertness as a result of different surroundings and new people, it is no doubt much easier to instantly recognize your current happiness while you are feeling it. In those settings, you often feel a range of things along with the happiness – thrill, excitement, awe, wonderment – and a lot of the times it is those other feelings that prompt you to step outside yourself for a moment and acknowledge the fact that you are happy and that the world is beautiful.

But then there are those long, calm, extended periods of time when you are truly happy but not really experiencing any mind-blowing, life-changing experiences – times when, for many, you are less likely to spontaneously articulate your happiness (for the HONY lady who had spoken the quote, it had been her years of working in a local coffee shop and not realizing just how happy she was there until it one day closed). And I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but just that, for me at least, the act of actually stopping and recognizing the happiness in regular day to day events and general life circumstances is something I think I’ve gotten better at and found to be really useful. And I think having at least some of those out-of-body, life-changing experiences every now and then (which for me, just happens to be through travel) also helps you to become more aware of all the things that bring you happiness during the more mundane moments in life. So I guess I am just grateful to Rwanda for granting me a little more insight into happiness and beauty in a way I hadn’t experienced it before (which is kind of how I feel about each new place I get to see).

As much as Rwanda’s sheer physical and natural beauty captivated me from the beginning, though, there was also something so haunting about all of it – about the sense of peacefulness in the city and villages, of the cleanliness and orderliness of Kigali, of all the things unspoken but clearly still present. From going past the large, simple flat gravestones at the genocide memorial centre in Kigali, literally walking above the bones that testified to the atrocities of only 20 years past, to walking around the beautiful, peaceful streets of Kigali just outside, it was all just so mind blowing. To realize just how many people were directly affected by the genocide, and to recognize the fact that most people I spoke to had actually been in the midst of it and had their lives changed forever because of it…it was simply incomprehensible. Beholding something which from the outside appeared so normal – a bustling city with people just going about their day to day lives – and reconciling that image with scene of chaos and brutality that took place only two decades earlier was something my mind simply could not arrive at.

The role of silence in the midst of some of these transitions was another factor that seemed to contribute to the chilling aura around all of it. Something I honestly didn’t know much about before going there, there is a government ban on “genocide ideology” – which, while clearly a restriction on freedom of speech and likely difficult to enforce in a just manner based on the vagueness of its definition and the overall complexity of trying to enforce any law on speech or thought – in theory, still made sense in the context. I didn’t have a chance to actually ask anyone what they thought about it or how it impacted discussions surrounding the past (nor would it probably have been appropriate to ask anyone about it), but I did have one rare and unexpected interaction that I will never forget…

While sitting at a bar in Musanze (apparently one of the biggest cities in Rwanda but with not a whole lot going on) with two of my friends, this rather drunk-looking guy finally comes up to our table. He attempted to buy my friend and I drinks and then seemed rather perplexed when I told him I didn’t drink, and continued to ask me why I wouldn’t drink. We all began to talk some more – your average, rando-at-the-bar kind of interaction – we asked him about Musanze and Rwanda, to which he openly talked on in a slightly slurred manner. After some time, he suddenly expressed how happy he was to have met us: white people, and how much he loved white people. Clearly intoxicated but still also clearly stating his thoughts in a serious and matter-of-fact kind of way, he continued on to say that he hated black people (he was black, just to be clear) and that black people were all killers.

Still in mid-smile from whatever light, casual topic we had just been on a moment ago, we all just paused for a second to assess what had just passed. Finally, half-smiles still plastered on our faces in an attempt to lessen the awkwardness of the conversational turn of events, we attempted to negate his high opinion of white people – entering into a discussion on how white people are not that great either, how there are plenty of white people who kill as well, and how there are good and bad people of any color. Our words were going nowhere. Instead, we attempted to delve into the logic behind his strong, black-and-white thought process on the matter.

“But you’re black – do you think you are a bad person then?” my friend asked. This eventually led him to explain that it was not all black people he felt this way towards. He finally told us that he was a Tutsi, and that Hutus had killed almost his entire family – leaving only him, his brother, and his mother. They had killed his father and his nine siblings as well as his mother’s ten siblings. After that, we stopped trying to convince him to change his views on black vs. white, Hutu vs. Tutsi. We simply listened, and let him show us the pictures he had on his phone of him with his mother, and of him with his son. We discovered he was 23.

…23. My age. There’s just something about hearing another’s story and realizing that that person is the same age as you that makes their experiences that much more piercing. You inevitably start to compare your life to theirs, to try to imagine having gone through what they have – only to realize you have absolutely no basis to even begin to compare your experiences to theirs. It was also that realization that I think led us to halt our feeble attempts to change his views on people – when you have no point of comparison in something so completely traumatizing and life-altering, particularly when it happened during their childhood, how do you even begin to convince someone not to think a certain way?

After that interaction, I couldn’t help but look at the people around me and just wonder what they had gone through…how many people in their lives have been killed, how many people they have had to forgive. While I’m sure there are still many people with similar sentiments to the guy we spoke to in the bar – who’s feelings typically don’t emerge in day-to-day conversations given cultural and legal speech restrictions – there are also clearly so many who have forgiven. There is no way that any society could continue on in any kind of cohesive, functioning manner after such events if forgiveness was not somehow at its core.

I had spoken about forgiveness in a previous post – in the context of friendship and depression and misunderstandings. Arriving at forgiveness in that context was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But in having even a tiny glimpse into the aftermath of forgiveness in the context of what occurred in Rwanda, I am truly humbled by the strength of so many of the people there. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly suggest you check out this “Portraits of Reconciliation” photo series recently published in the NYT. Its photos and stories capture what I’m trying to express so much better than any of my words can, so I will just leave you with that for now.

 

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