The rainy season has returned to Rwanda, and this means two things: I am incredibly happy, and muddy adventures have also returned. Rain is one of my favorite things in this world, and can cheer me up when I am in the worst of moods, as I was with the first rain of this season, but being covered in mud is something I never expected to enjoy. But I am about to relay a story that both made me laugh until my stomach hurt and also made my time in Rwanda complete.
I decided that after 4 months of living in the capital, it was time to get out into the village and see what Rwanda was really like (excluding my holiday in Malawi and Tanzania and the three months in Nyanza, I’ve been only in Kigali). I joined a few of my friends in visiting another volunteer in a village called Gakenke, about an hour and a half north of Kigali. There were seven of us total, and as soon as we got off the bus, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. No more paved road, everyone stared at us, and as we walked down the road, all the children began to follow us. Imagine: a pack of abazungus being followed by a pack of children. Now, of course this is normal for most other volunteers in this country, but I have been a city rat for too long, so this is all still fresh. We cooked a delicious meal together that night and had a great time catching up and enjoying each other’s company.
In the morning, we decided to go for a hike. The top of the mountain we chose for our hike was covered in clouds, which should seem intimidating, but not for us Peace Corps Volunteers – we were determined to get to the top. Normally, I would prefer to hike (as I prefer to do everything) in my chucks. But I decided it was best to use my fancy hiking boots my brother bought me before I left. Please keep this decision in mind as you continue reading. The day was pleasant, a little overcast, but not too hot or too cold. We left the house and began our ascent early. The path up the mountain was just outside our friend’s house. As Rwanda is the most populous country in Africa, you have to remember that the path up the mountain is also the path to people’s homes. So as we walked, we were joined by children and called muzungu by the men. One woman decided she was going to walk with us, for the sake of walking. It was Sunday, and she was clearly dressed for church – NOT hiking. She was wearing small heeled sandals, but ntakibazo, she wanted to see what the abazungus were up to. When we stopped, she (and the children who continued to follow us) stopped. You know that phrase about being in a fish bowl . . .
Around mid-day, we decided to stop to eat some bread and peanut butter. We could by now see the top of the mountain and knew we only had a few more hours to go, but we thought it best to eat first and continue on later. Of course we still had an audience, and I am sure you can see the problem with eating when they have probably been hungry for days, so we tried to talk them into leaving us alone. One of the volunteers has become very good at Kinyarwanda and was our translator. She told them that we liked to be alone; he said he understood, but then they continued to stand and stare at us. After about 10 minutes of this sort of dialogue, they finally walked away.
As we ate our bread and peanut butter, we noticed storm clouds rolling in, and thunder was letting us know we probably shouldn’t hold anything metal. We decided it was best to turn back and avoid the rain instead of continue to the top. While this was the best decision, it came a little too late. As soon as we started walking down the mountain, it began to rain. It was light enough at first that we thought we might be safe, so we stopped to buy sugar cane taller than me for about 15 cents, and stopped to hold a chameleon for a few minutes. When the thunder got so loud the children around us screamed, we knew we were in trouble. We started bolting down the mountain, but two of the girls did not have appropriate shoes for running down a mountain, so I stayed back with them while the others ran ahead. Soon, we were soaked head to toe and the clay of the mountain had turned to slippery mud. Luckily I was wearing my handy dandy hiking boots. First, one girl fell. We helped her up, and then the other fell. Soon, the path was so muddy that there were three inches of mud stuck to the bottom of my boots, which means I too fell. We were soaked and muddy, but couldn’t stop laughing at the hilarity of the situation.
We finally caught up with the other girls who had found refuge from the rain under an awning with about 10 other Rwandans, all women and children. There wasn’t enough space for us all to fit, so I stood in the rain some more, but I was already soaked, so it didn’t really matter. We talked the women into showing us how to eat sugar cane. For those of you who don’t know, sugar cane is literally a very long cane that resembles bamboo, and how they turn that into regular sugar, I have no idea, but we always see children and women sucking on the stick here, so we decided to try. Only, we’re not Rwandese and can’t figure this out on our own. Luckily, ignorance doesn’t need to be translated, and they understood that we needed help. One woman, probably 50 and smaller than me, took the stick (which is actually very heavy) and smacked it over her knee to break it in half, then again and again until we had many smaller sticks. She then hacked the smaller sticks so as to peel away the outer layer. Turns out you eat sugar cane kinda like you would eat corn on the cob – gnawing away while you hold the ends, only once you suck the sugar out, you spit out the rest. It’s very attractive - believe me. So there we stood, a bunch of white girls, wet and covered in mud, eating sugar cane with women who thought we were idiots.
After some time, we realized the rain was not going to let up anytime soon, and the path was only going to get more and more muddy, so we decided it was best to continue on our way. We left the women in the most fashionable way – falling on our butts almost immediately. We all clung to the side of the path as we made our way down, buhoro buhoro. The girls with poor shoes ended up taking their shoes off and going down barefoot, as that seemed easier. We all just kept slipping and sliding, getting covered in mud more and more the lower we went. We figured out that the best way down was not on the path, but through the banana plantations next to it, as that land was more rough and not walked on. Of course this wasn’t always realistic.
After a while the barefoot girls and I somehow got separated from the others. We weren’t too concerned until we came to a fork in the road and couldn’t remember exactly which way to go. We picked one route that looked right and were on our merry way, when a Rwandan boy wearing a poncho (no idea where he got this poncho, by the way, since I have never seen one in Rwanda, but the only thing smarter than my hiking boots would have been a poncho) told us we were going the wrong way. Note to self: when you’re lost on a mountain covered in mud and someone tells you you’re going the wrong way, LISTEN. Long digression short, the boy in the poncho led us down a not-so-beaten path about a foot wide through homes and banana plantations until we came back to flat land. We only slipped a few more times, though it took us ages to get down. The boy probably thought we were completely incompetent as he made his way down just fine wearing shower shoes. At the very end of the trail, there was a river, and we later learned that the other girls had to actually cross through the river and almost lost a shoe in the process. We were lucky enough to find a bridge, though I wouldn’t call it that. It was literally a few logs thrown across the river with large spaces between them that wobbled when you stepped on them. Going across on all fours seemed like the safest option. Of course poncho boy practically danced across. The people of this country never cease to amaze me. We crossed the bridge and walked through town and eventually made it back to the house.
It probably would have been easiest to spray us down with a hose as our mothers used to do when we came home dirty as children, but as this is Africa and hoses don’t exist, we peeled off our muddy clothes in the bathroom and showered as best we could. Our clothes went in bags to be washed once home, and we all curled up with a warm beverage and a movie. We were exhausted and cold, but so happy to have bonded over such an experience. The rest of the evening was relaxing and wonderful and we all returned to our homes the next morning. I didn’t realize until I got home, but falling down a mountain definitely takes a toll on one’s body. I could barely move all day and wanted only to sleep. Luckily this was possible as it was a public holiday for the swearing-in of the newly reelected president, His Excellency, President of the Republic, Paul Kagame.
I think this weekend was important, not just for appreciating my time in Rwanda that much more, or appreciating my fellow volunteers, but for getting to know myself. I never thought I would see myself in a mud bath. Please picture Truly Yours, the typical California Girl, in her Citizens of Humanity jeans and her Ralph Lauren sunglasses not only hiking up a mountain, but also sliding down it covered in mud – and laughing the whole time! Of course I spent hours washing those jeans later, but I would go back again and fall down that mountain any day. I think it’s safe to say my boots are broken in. And now I get to fall asleep to the sound of rain against my window and I couldn’t be happier.
As always, click on the title of this post (And Then There Was Mud . . .) to see pictures of this adventure.