Since it was established in the 19th century by Emperor Menelik, Addis has had the feel of a mystical portal to an ancient world. Addis Ababa, meaning ‘New Flower’ in Amharic, is sprawling, bustling, and blessed with an agreeable climate and cloudless blue skies for 75% of the year (it’s the 3rd highest capital in the world). Read more about my explorations through Addis and ancient Lalibela’s centuries-old rock-hewn churches, showcasing Orthodox Christianity at its most raw and powerful.
I opened my eyes as we were crawling up the hills. Winding through an intense fog blanket, I could start to see hints of sunrise. Almost two hours had passed since we set off from Kabale town at 5:30AM with Alex in the driver’s seat. We were almost at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – by Uganda’s southwestern border with the Congo. This was a moment I’d been waiting for with nervous anticipation since the time I arrived in East Africa.
I’d been warned by multiple people about Kampala’s dangers as a solo traveller, especially after dark. Before I left Rwanda, people had me believe that phone snatching, pick-pockets, thieves, bag-slashings and muggings were all too common in Kampala. So I was prepared to just stay in the guest house on my first day, since I arrived in the evening. But something told me to pluck up the courage and go see the sunset. So off I went in search of the Old Kampala National Mosque in Namirembe in an Uber (I was not yet ready to try out the city’s matatus – the equivalent of minibuses, supposedly a hotspot for theft, driven at breakneck speeds and usually stuffed like sardines).
As I continued to read, I learnt more about Rwanda’s beautiful lakes. I’ve also been magnetised by the enigma that is the Congo. So after a few days in Kigali, I headed west to Lake Kivu, which dominates the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo – the closest I could safely go (an Ebola breakout with WHO advisories meant crossing the border into Goma was risky). The mammoth Lake Kivu surrounded by tall mountains with several islands make it an explorer’s heaven. Particularly so if you’ve got access to a boat. From there I headed north to Lake Ruhondo, the less popular of Rwanda’s northern twin lakes to read, relax and stay in a Foyer de Charité – a Catholic mission focused on offering spiritual retreats, not quite sure of how they’d react to me. Both regions reinforced the quiet and level-headed image of Rwandans I already had, and what a calm oasis Rwanda is compared to its neighbours.
If I was to summarise Rwanda in three words, they would be: safe, tidy and forward-thinking. According to the World Economic Forum, Rwanda is the 9th safest country in the world – ahead of Austria and New Zealand. And I definitely felt it. Maybe it was the peaceful and level-headed nature of Rwandans. Or maybe it was the reassuring police presence on the streets. I walked about alone at night all around the city, and hailed random motorbike taxis, but there was not once a time when I felt threatened. For a country that was (wrongly) defined to me by the media coverage of the tragic genocide in 1994, the forward-thinking mindset of the nation blew me away. A nation that is ever determined to rebuild itself. A nation that strives to be a leading example to the world.
From the underground troglodyte dwellings in Matmata that were used as the film set for Star Wars, to the palm groves of Douz, to my first time camping in the Sahara Desert – this is the final instalment of my Tunisia series.
It is true that after a while, as memories slowly become hazy, you mostly remember how a place or people made you feel. The warmth I felt in Djerba is something I’ll remember forever.
From discovering the soul of Sousse, commonly dismissed as just being a European package holiday destination of the past, to understanding what the local view point is on life post the 2011 revolution, to enjoying the slow life in Kairouan – Tunisia’s Holy City and carpet making capital, here’s Tunisia Part 2.
My two weeks in Tunisia left me with a lasting impression of the warmth of its people – where family ties are particularly strong. A country where a lot of emphasis has been placed on the status and equality of women – not particularly common in the Arab world. A country of greater tolerance and moderation than most of its surrounding neighbours, as the government doggedly pursued a secular political agenda since independence in 1956. A country where desertscapes and some architecture were so otherwordly, that it was deemed bizzare enough to be the set of many Star Wars films.