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Travel

Back in the groove

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VIEW FROM THE TOP: A family-run farm on a tiny islet in Lake Bulera, in Northern Rwanda

I'll begin at the Delhi airport. I was on my way to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda to teach English to French-speaking adults. While boarding the Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa, I noticed that there were only a handful of Africans around me, mostly those who had been to India for medical treatment. I wondered whether it was economical for a Boeing to fly such a small number of people, but then I got on the plane. It was packed with the Chinese who had boarded the aircraft in Beijing. Delhi, I discovered, was a stopover. I settled into the seat for a little shuteye, but with excited Chinese passengers chatting across aisles, some even sitting on their haunches on seats, it was impossible. With China doing business worth billions of dollars in Africa, Chinese are naturally regulars on this route. They also provide aid in millions and have even built the external affairs ministry building complex in Kigali.

The Addis Ababa airport is a swanky glass and steel structure that serves as a gateway for Northern, Central and Eastern Africa. At the lounge, the Africans were sleeping or sitting quietly. The Chinese were seated on the floor in huge groups, laughing, talking and playing cards. The whites were pacing up and down, stealing glances at the noisy Chinese, drinking endless cups of coffee and reading such books as The Wisdom Of Whores, all about AIDS in Africa.

The last leg of my journey - from Addis Ababa to Kigali - blew me away. The view of the continent below was breathtaking, dispelling my preconceived notions of a dry, arid region (my geography was mixed up and I only remembered pictures of the Sahara in National Geographic). Kigali has verdant hills, volcanoes, rivers and lakes. I even saw Lake Victoria from the flight. Temperatures are around 17 and 25 degrees celsius, the air is cool and crisp and the emerald ridges tell you why Rwanda is called the 'Land of a Thousand Hills'.

My house for the next seven months of my stay was quite modest. But Rwanda has its share of huge mansions that resemble Swiss chateaus and house well-heeled foreigners, Rwandans and important government officials. Most Rwandans outside the precincts of the capital live in mud houses with tin roofs amidst banana plantations. The country lies about two degrees below the equator, at an altitude of around 4, 800 feet. This has resulted in a unique climate that allows fruits and flowers to thrive in abundance right through the year. And then there is the sky, in an unbelievable shade of blue, on which you can study cloud shapes by day and star patterns by night. Quite magical!

On top of every tourist's must-see itinerary is the genocide memorial centre. Here, the concretecovered mass graves of a quarter of a million genocide victims is a heart-stopping reminder of the mindless violence in 1994 when more than 800, 000 Rwandans, mainly Tutsis, were massacred in just 100 days by the majority Hutu population (Remember Hotel Rwanda?). With such a grim past, it's hardly surprising that Rwanda is not really considered to be a tourist hot spot. But a closer look will show you that in the last 16 years, the country has been completely transformed. And the increasing number of tourist arrivals proves this.

Rwandans themselves are making a concerted effort to bring about changes. The locals are hospitable and keen to change their country's image. New restaurants, new hotels and new industries are changing the face of the country. And tourism is on a new high. One of Rwanda's major attractions is the famous mountain gorilla that lives in the Virunga volcanoes in the northwest. With only 750-odd silverback gorillas left in the wild, measures are being taken to ensure that they are carefully protected. To begin with, no more than 50 tourists are allowed to undertake the trek to see these animals. Also, each group of visitors is allowed an audience with the gorillas for only one hour. Of course, wildlife enthusiasts can also go to the Akagera Game Park (savannahs with dozens of species of deer, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos and Nile crocodiles) and Nyungwe National Park, home to hundreds of species of birds.

What makes travelling in Rwanda a pleasure is the fact that it's small and the road connections good. For instance, a threeto-four-hour drive from Kigali will take you to Rwanda's international border with Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi or the Democratic Republic of Congo. For the locals, the common mode of transport is the motorbike taxi, known as 'motos'. Motos are a cheap means to get around the city though the helmets (mandatory!) are a tad stinky. Tourist buses also crisscross the country. For a country that has made rapid progress, I was surprised to find that in some ways, age-old practices still ruled the minds of the people. Villagers still believe in the witch doctor and local craft shops sell scary voodoo dolls.

Although one can get handicrafts from all over Africa in Rwanda, two Rwandan crafts deserve special mention - hand woven baskets and cow dung paintings! For Rwandans, making merry is a part of life. Kigali has a few clubs where Friday nights are reserved for special disco sessions. A good number of restaurants also serve an eclectic mix of European, Indian and East African cuisine. Where food consumption at home is concerned, Rwandans prefer beans, bananas, beef, cassava and sweet potato. Most of the food is either boiled or roasted and then seasoned with salt. This, along with French salads and German breads, makes a meal. Kigali has butcheries and bakeries too. The most popular brew is beer. In fact, Rwandans love their alcohol so much that it is available everywhere - at the bread shop, the milk vendor's, the fruit stall. . .

For any tourist or, for that matter, even for a Rwandan, the best part of the day is early morning. And if you are an ornithologist, it's a dream come true. The cacophony of birds of every imaginable hue will wake you up at daybreak. But I looked forward to my morning walks for another reason too. Apart from close encounters with winged beauties, I also came across local kids on their way to school. They would wave out and greet me in French. On one occasion, a bunch of cheeky kids walked behind me, singing Jimmy, jimmy aja, aja...

Yes, Rwanda has its share of Hindi film buffs. I had to fend off many a request for Bollywood dance lessons! Many locals also love to wear the salwar kameez, depending entirely on the imagination of local tailors to conjure up their |versions of the outfit!
The Indian connection has spread to other areas as well. Rwanda has a sizeable and rapidly growing Indian community of professionals and businessmen. Many Rwandans visit India for their undergraduate and post-graduate studies. It is not unusual to find advertisements to private Indian universities in local newspapers.

The national languages of Rwanda are Kinyarwanda, French and English but most people can only speak Kinyarwanda, Swahili and French. Interestingly, English is now replacing French as the medium of instruction in educational institutions. Francophone adults follow English and are now taking evening classes to improve their proficiency. Ultimately, I guess, it's all about breaking the language barrier.

And that's what took me all the way to Rwanda. I thoroughly enjoyed my job teaching English. The classroom was always alive with laughter even though the students had come to learn after a day's work. It was only when I read essays by my students recounting how they lost parents, siblings or spouses in the genocide that I was let into their troubled past.

What has stayed with me after my visit to Rwanda is its natural beauty and the eagerness of its people to leave behind their violent past.

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