Nyamirambo Women’s Centre Tour

by Zora O'Neill on April 14, 2014

There’s a great little organization in Kigali, the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre. It’s a work co-op and educational group, teaching women job skills. They run a fun walking tour around their neighborhood, which ends with lunch–which happened to be some of the best food we had in Rwanda.

I highly recommend this! To tantalize you, here are some pics.

Nyamirambo is known as the Muslim part of town, though it’s really quite mixed.

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It’s also known as the place to get your car detailed, and, if you’re a moto-taxi driver, where to get your regulation green helmets.

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First we visited the market. Men pounding things that women should be pounding: always funny.

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Also in the market, a crew of ladies was ready for all our sewing needs. If only I’d brought my other pants! They are still held together with a safety pin.

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Nyamirambo is also known for its hair salons. I got a big long braid put in.

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We stopped in an herbal medicine shop. Like pretty much everything in Rwanda, it was very organized and licensed by the government.

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A great deal of Kigali is still dirt roads.


One of our guides helped us pick out passion fruit and avocadoes, because we needed one last fix before we left town.

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Our delicious lunch in process–just mixing up the ukali, the corn-flour pudding, in the outdoor “kitchen.”


Our wonderfully satisfying meal, clockwise from upper left: plantains stewed with onion, tomato and celery; sumptuous potatoes with green peppers; red beans I wish I’d asked more about; the ukali, the corn-flour pudding, that is cut into wedges; and dodo, callaloo with, in this case, peanuts, dried sardines, green eggplants and celery.


Passion fruit are on prominent display in this pic because our guide Marie Aimee (who runs the organization) taught us how to eat them without a knife and spoon–a life-changing skill.

Passion fruit are on prominent display because the ladies taught us how to eat them without a knife and spoon--a life-changing skill!

(FYI on the passion fruit: You just bite off the end of it, and suck the insides out! Of course, you should wash the fruit first. It’s all so obvious now–and to think how many years I wasted fussing with them…)

Thanks for everything, ladies!


Rwanda, Really

by Zora O'Neill on April 7, 2014

To be honest, I’m still trying to sort out all the threads of our trip to Rwanda. We were there only a week, but we saw a lot, had a lot of interesting conversations, and left feeling as though we could come back for twice as long.

So this post is mostly a photo dump, just to let you know what it looks like. Which I didn’t really know. I mean, yes: green, hills, etc.

But then, of course, that’s all overlaid with mental images from the genocide in 1994. What does Rwanda look like now that it’s East Africa’s rising star? Now that the economy is booming and everyone’s praising the place for its potential and verve (and American-friendliness)?

In short, what does an African country look like when it’s not in the news, for some disaster or other?

Well, first of all, Rwanda looks clean. Like, the cleanest place I’ve ever been. Cleaner than Scandinavia.

They have a ban on plastic bags. They take them away from you at the airport!

Our friend Eric on the right, tolerating our plastic-bag-ban fascination

Our friend Eric on the right, tolerating our plastic-bag-ban fascination

There’s also a monthly community-service day whern everyone picks up litter. Eric, in the photo above, is a police officer who was off-duty when he was driving us around–and only went “on” once, when someone on a bus threw a plastic bottle out the window. (Not that he was ignoring other things–Rwanda has a very low crime rate.)

This is Kigali’s downtown skyline.

Yup, that's about it.

Yup, that’s about it.

The city is very hilly and very green.

Cool retaining walls. Moto taxis are the norm; helmets required for driver and passenger.

Cool retaining walls–click to see the little plants set in them. Moto taxis (like the motorcycle at the top) are the norm; helmets required for driver and passenger.

The roads all curve and loop around, so we pretty much never managed to orient ourselves. “This is where we saw the guy with the mattresses, right?” I said at one point.

You can't see the guy, because he's carrying them.

You can’t see the guy, because he’s carrying them.

Eric was fantastic, because he understood immediately what we did and didn’t want to see. That is, after we explained what “fancy” meant, and how we didn’t like it. So he took us to what he called “a typical East African bar.”

Roasted goat leg, greens and corn pudding (ukali) were on the menu.

Roasted goat leg, greens and corn pudding (ukali) were on the menu.

The open courtyard at the bar. Note the faux-bois columns on the right. There is a lot of faux-bois in Rwanda.

The open courtyard at the bar. Note the faux-bois columns on the right. There is a lot of faux-bois in Rwanda.

I wouldn’t have even thought that was a category of bar, but I’m glad I know now. Car Wash Grill & Sports Bar, Kigali. Make a note of it.

We drove out of the city on a couple of trips. There are a lot of people walking.

Like this jaunty man.

Like this jaunty man.

But the roads are built with extra-wide shoulders, so people have a place to walk–good planning.

Houses are tidy, with new metal roofs or older tile ones. No one lives in a grass hut anymore, said our host, Rogers. “But they can have them for leisure,” he said.

There isn’t indoor plumbing everywhere, but the government is installing public water points all the time. Every restaurant we went to had a hand-washing station.

Handy. (Har.)

Handy. (Har.)

That was good, because we ate a lot. I think I might’ve spent the entire week with a piece of goat meat wedged between two molars. But it was so good, I didn’t care.

Chez Ramadhan, Nyanza

So good, we ate here twice.

That’s Chez Ramadhan, in Nyanza, the town where the old royal palace is. Make a note of it.

Passion fruit was in season. We had it for breakfast every morning!

Our lovely Saran-wrapped breakfast, ready for pre-dawn departure.

Our lovely Saran-wrapped breakfast, ready for pre-dawn departure.

Tree tomatoes were also in season. That’s one of those fruits I’ve seen in the frozen-pulp-bricks-from-Colombia format in our grocery store, but never really understood. But it’s simple–they’re tomatoey, and they grow on trees. Not bad. But can’t compete with passion fruit.

We had some killer ice cream. As we walked up, a guy was toting a fresh can of milk into the shop. It came from a soft-serve machine, but it tasted like the barnyard, in the best way.

Mmm, peanuts.

Mmm, peanuts.

Speaking of the barnyard: We saw the Ankole cattle at the old royal palace. They are not kidding around.

The cow-tender proceeded to sing a lovely song to this cow, while brushing the flies from its face.

The cow-tender proceeded to sing a lovely song to this cow, while brushing the flies from its face.

Wikipedia tells me cattle domestication started in the fertile crescent, then spread to Africa. From the way this particular cow was still being tended, I certainly would’ve thought Africa was the original land of milk. There’s lots of locally made cheese and yogurt and other dairy products.

Edam at the grocery store

Gouda at the grocery store

The food in Rwanda was simple, but so good and fresh, it started to make me a little nervous. Like, you know it can only go downhill from here. There are so many NGOs crawling over this country, and you know American ag dudes are hustling their boring-tasting, unsuitable stuff there.

Holsteins on the money--a sign of the future. Not sure how those laptops are working out...

Holsteins on the money–a sign of the future. Not sure how those laptops are working out…

That’s all very nice, I can tell you’re thinking, but, but…what about the genocide?!

I know. It’s strange. It was only twenty years ago. It hasn’t been swept under the rug at all–there’s a museum and a memorial in Kigali, and a thousand other memorials around the country. Trials are ongoing. It’s a serious topic, but not hush-hush. The people we were with talked about it voluntarily (though their families were genocidees, not -ers, and they had served in the army that ended the genocide, which is an empowering position from which to look at history).

After being in the weird tension of Beirut, where everyone pretends the past is done with yet sharpens their knives at night, Rwanda was a flat-out relief. Even inspiring.

Yet, it still alarmed me to see this:

Looks like a Nike swoosh at first...

Looks like a Nike swoosh at first…

That Rwandese can, presumably, look at that bar of soap without flinching is still a little boggling to me. But I have lived through so little, and pretty much everyone in that country over the age of twenty has lived through too much.

The other side of the soap

The other side of the soap

And though it remains to be seen whether there will be a peaceful transfer of power after Kagame, for now I have to give him credit, because Rwanda looks great.

Cheers from the eastern shore of Lake Kivu!

Cheers from the eastern shore of Lake Kivu!


Itegue Taitu Hotel, Addis Ababa

by Zora O'Neill on March 31, 2014

I just saw The Grand Budapest Hotel this weekend, and I came away with such a swoony fever over that fabulous time-warp of a place (the weird, dying 1968 hotel, not the one in the 1930s) that I’m putting off the Rwanda posts I had planned so I can tell you about the fantastico Itegue Taitu Hotel, where I stayed in January.

As I’ve written before, I have a bit of a thing for what I call “vintage hotels” (also, on occasion, motels). I’m always looking for new ones, and the Itegue Taitu was especially delightful.

Apparently, there are some new wings. You don’t want those. You want the original building–built in 1898 (Ethiopian Calendar, which I think means early 1900s), as if I have to tell you.

After spinning through the original revolving door, Peter and I practically skipped and clapped all through the lobby and dining room and upstairs. The stairs creaked! The wall sconces glowed just right! The rooms were weirdly large and erratically furnished!

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(Vintage hotel rule: Ideally, there will be no TV. But if there is one, it must always look uncomfortable and out of place.)

So, some of the old wardrobes were a little chipped. And the bathtubs a bit worn. But how many things get chucked out, only for the crime showing a bit of age? What is our mania for new and untouched? You can’t really believe no one has slept in a hotel room before you. I’d rather see this somewhat worn honesty, rather than false sterility.

I could not convince Peter that the painting was hung sideways. I imagine many hotel paintings could be improved by rotating them 90 degrees.

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Guests receive the English-language paper, because its guests are so worldly, I suppose (even though the Addis English paper is perhaps not as fine as it once was). You are welcome to read in the central lounge.

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The place is filled with paintings, some old and some new. This is Queen Teitu herself, adding some elegance to what is otherwise a rather ungracious reception room around the corner of the building. (The real reception area has been turned into a gift shop.)


And this fabulous one was on the stairs. Please note the actual silver glitter and sequins.


But our hearts really fell right out when we came downstairs for dinner. The tables were full, the waiters were bustling about in ill-fitting uniforms, and the piano player was at it.

This, though it is so distinctly Ethiopian, could be the soundtrack of all vintage hotels.


Back in the Saddle…Rwanda and beyond

by Zora O'Neill on March 10, 2014

Ahhh, that was a nice little hiatus. Thanks for bearing with me. I know you were drumming your fingers impatiently on your desk all this time. While I hopped around to four different countries and completely wore myself out.

First, Peter and I went to Rwanda. As you do.

But really: Peter and I met a Rwandan (or Rwandese, as they say there) police officer a few years ago, and he invited us to visit. We figured we had better go before he forgot who we were. We also rounded up Rod, whom some of you may remember as our exceptionally great and extroverted travel partner on previous adventures.

It was my first visit to not-North Africa, and I can’t recommend the place highly enough. FWIW, Peter and Rod had been to Kenya before; they both liked Rwanda more. Which, I know, it’s not a contest. But in terms of traveling logistics and concerns, Rwanda has its act together: secure, clean and tasty food.

Don’t go to Rwanda if you’re a penny-pinching backpacker, though. Hotels in Kigali are pricey (we paid $50 for a private room at the hostel; everything else was $70+) and getting around by bus might be tricky. (We got escorted around in a car, which is just not like us.)

Another hotel we stayed in in Kigali one night. Peter and I got put in the penthouse suite--whee!

Another hotel we stayed in in Kigali one night. Peter and I got put in the penthouse suite–whee!

And, let’s be honest, Rwanda is not looking for backpacker tourists and doesn’t really want to help them out. Rwanda wants the tourists who will pay big bucks to go visit the mountain gorillas.

Which is not me and Peter. Our cop friend we were visiting did say the gorillas were amazing, and we should go. But it’s $750 per person, and besides, I just feel a little bad bothering them. My general approach to ecotourism is extreme: nature will be better off if I don’t go visit it.

Instead of visiting the gorillas, we just took a lot of photos like this. That's Rod next to me.

Instead of visiting the gorillas, we just took a lot of photos like this.

I’ll do a separate post with some more details. Suffice to say for now, we thought we would have “done” it in a week, but I am already plotting my return.

From Kigali, Peter, Rod and I all flew to Addis Ababa. As you do.

This was partly because Ethiopian Airlines was the best way to get to Abu Dhabi (long story; it involves frequent-flyer miles, so I won’t bore you). But it was also because Peter and I have both loved Ethiopian food since forever. And Ethiopian music. So why not stop?

Before we left Kigali, our police officer friend’s wife warned us that Addis would be a rough transition. “It is very dirty,” she sniffed. “Lots of chaos.” After being in pristine and orderly Rwanda, I figured any place would be.

But, whoa. Addis felt like Cairo circa 1992. The taxis are Ladas. The pollution is bad. The street kids are frenzied and miserable and one of them yoinked Rod’s phone right out of his pocket (but was clumsy and dropped it, so Rod got it back).

The mean streets of Addis Ababa.

The mean streets of Addis Ababa.

But our Bradt guidebook said of Addis that “its bark is worse than its bite,” which I think is a rather sweet assessment. And after a couple of days, I could see this was true.

It helped that, ohmygod, they really do eat Ethiopian food in Ethiopia. I will get to this in more detail.

From Addis, we flew to the UAE. In the morning, we were in a Lada taxi with smoke coming up through the floorboards. In the afternoon, we were in a leather-interior late-model Audi, being whisked along the smooth, straight highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Totally disconcerting. We were so wiped out, we slept through our entire Etihad business-class flight. Rats.

We landed in Bangkok, third and final leg of the trip. If there’s one thing this trip taught me, it’s that three countries is just too damn many. I don’t know how people do the steady-nomad thing and still absorb anything. I’m glad I’ve been to Bangkok before (was this our third trip? or fourth?), because if it had been my first, I would’ve just collapsed in the street.

Peter’s mother met us, and she kept us moving–without her, we would’ve flopped by the pool at the Atlanta Hotel.

Look at us, sightseeing!

Look at us, sightseeing!

But, as a result, I came home and needed to flop around some more. Traveling thoroughly accompanied for three-plus weeks was exhausting. I did a lot of sitting on the couch and staring into space.

Then I went to Costa Rica for about ten days and stared into space some more.

And here we are. Finally. More details to come, folks.

A very nice picture Peter took of his mother and me, on the 75th form of transport of the day.

A very nice picture Peter took of his mother and me, near the end of a long and interesting day. Phew.