(circa 18 March, 2017)
The plane bumps to the ground, cabin shaking as the aircraft accelerates to a stop. Outside it is overcast, the grey clouds and cement runway stark against the deep, dense green of the sea of surrounding hills. The rises and crests are crowned with an elegant cascade of boxy orange roofs. The whirring sound of the engine finally ceases, and I am stepping down a staircase into the cool, rain-kissed air of Rwanda.
Immigration is easy. Visa stamped next to my pink Indian entry card, I roll through to the arrivals terminal. The sky thunders as I change money, then slowly erupts into millions of raindrops. I hungrily look for a placard with my name, then find it in the hands of a tall, sharp-eyed man. He smiles warmly as he produces an umbrella, and together we proceed to a big white land rover.
Once inside the car, he introduces himself as Adid, the founder of Virunga Expeditions. He will be my guide during my three-day stay in Rwanda. I can already tell we will get along well – he strikes me as one of the most educated people I have met in a long time. Our driver turns the key, and we are off.
Before this surprise trip to Rwanda, I had no idea what it would be like. Even though I have grown up internationally, Kenya is the only home I’ve ever known. The only other African countries I’ve been to are Ethiopia (and only for a week in one small neighborhood of Addis Ababa), and a layover in Egypt during which I had a nosebleed on the pyramids and had to stay in the taxi the rest of the day. To be quite honest, I assumed Rwanda would be a lot like Kenya, perhaps a little more underdeveloped.
And so I unknowingly tread upon the most inspirational country I have ever been to.
Rwanda begins to unfold herself quickly before me as my ignorance recedes into the falling rain. My senses wake up as we climb up a hill, driving on right side of the smooth, even road (in Kenya we drive on the left and roads are quite literally the antichrist of smooth). The only thing that the roads in Rwanda and Kenya have in common are the black and white striped edges of sidewalk that must be a unified trademark of East African city planners.
We do not exceed the speed limit, nor does another car overtake us. Everyone on a motorbike wears a red helmet. There is not a speck of trash in sight. With every exponentially exciting revelation, I have Adid provide commentary of how the government is orchestrated, and more. One Saturday a month is a national cleaning day, meaning that every citizen must clean his or her corner of the land of a thousand hills. Permission to abstain must be obtained from a district attorney, and if someone is caught avoiding the task, he is she must start cleaning from the ground they stand on. I think I can safely say that Rwanda may be the cleanest country in the world. (Rwanda also has the lowest wage gap between women and men in the whole world. Their parliament is also sixty percent women. Just saying).
Soon we shake free of the city, climbing through the thousands of hills stretching before us. Valleys open up, orange-dirt pathways stitching up hillsides through the feathery tendrils of moist green grass. Half the hills are illuminated by sunlight; the other half in the shadow of rain.
We arrive at the hotel some minutes before sunset. I step through the hallways, resplendent of colonial architecture, into a room billowing with curtains. I gaze into the mirror for what feels like a long time, until the sky is dark. For some reason, I breathe easily here.
The evening is sealed with a bowl of dal and the gratitude of being in a new place, stepping into the feeling of a new skin, a new chance to be. I wonder if the energy I am radiating is somehow linked to this amazing place that, until today, I never would have imagined as being the way that it is. I close my eyes as rain patters over the land of a thousand hills, and I sink away into the realm of dreams.
The rain washes us clean.