Jan 182012

When I booked this trip, I really tried to find a way to go to Rwanda, Burundi, and end up in Kenya, with two one-way flights.  It wasn’t to be.   Lots of flights between them all, but also lots at 2am, 3am, etc.  Since these are pretty much hour-long flights…and I have a really strong aversion to redeyes, it’s how we ended up in this situation.  Flying into Rwanda from Europe was easy, so that was the jumping off point.  Rwanda to Kenya or Burundi was easy….but to get out of the region you have to be in Kenya….so Rwanda-Burundi-Kenya was the logical order.  Unfortunately, the only Bujumbura to Nairobi nonstop is at some awful hour in the morning, so we took the one-stop back via Rwanda again.  Little did we know it would be such an adventure!

Check-in in Bujumbura was a non-event, seats assigned, and off to passport/security in this very very small airport.  I’ve been fascinated with Bujumbura ever since my undergraduate days when I had a good friend from Burundi….looking back, I never would have imagined back then just how “small” this airport is.  We saw a security lane marked “VIP” and decided to try it with Delta Platinum cards since we were flying Kenyan….no dice.  They gave us blank stares.  Flash of the correct passport and we were whisked through, and straight into the “VIP Waiting Room.”  Not quite sure why it was needed when the whole airport is one gate and there’s no WiFi, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

Kenya Airlines Flight 442
Bujumbura, Burundi (BJM) to Kigali, Rwanda (KGL) to Nairobi, Kenya (NBO)
Depart Bujumbura 12:15, Arrive Kigali 12:55
Depart Kigali 13:40, Arrive Nairobi 16:10 (1 hour time change)
ERJ-170, Registration 5Y-KYL, Manufactured 2006

So, perhaps the strangest part of this trip was the timing!  We boarded in Burjumbura around 11:15, and by 11:30 we were in the air!  Yes…we departed a full 45 minutes early!  Not sure if everyone had checked in or what, but yup that’s what happened.  Same thing in Kigali…arrived way early, and departed nearly 30 minutes early!  I guess Kenyan has a major “thing” for being on-time?  Anyways, the flights were totally uneventful, and we arrived Nairobi about 20 minutes early.  Visa on arrival was quite easy, except for the very very unusual question:  “You no working in Nairobi right?  Only transit?  No making money?”  Um, no.

Our next segment out of Nairobi was on a strange small airline that only takes cash, and we were VERY lucky to spot their office after leaving immigration.  We were due to go ticket the next day (which I had confirmed via e-mail) but turns out the next day was a holiday in Kenya, and they would not have been open!  VERY fortunate.  We headed to the East African Safari Express office, confirmed our tickets, got the first carbon-copy tickets I’ve seen in years, and were all set for the big adventure ahead.

Fortunately, the Hilton shuttle waited for us this whole time, and soon we were off to the hotel.  We were given a nice junior suite as an upgrade, and everything worked perfectly.  A bit of internet time, planning for our one full day in Nairobi the next day, and soon it was off to dinner at a recommended place by some colleagues called “Havana” which was promised as Tex-Mex.

Unfortunately, the food and drink were pretty disappointing, but the amusement of having Tex-Mex in Kenya was pretty high…plus, at least the drinks menu was entertaining if not good!  Next up, I’ll update on our full day in Nairobi, which was 100x more fun and interesting than people had led me to believe was possible!

Jan 142012

Now, “that” always feel you that you need to arrive at the airport at least three hours in advance to avoid cancelation of your reservation on international flights. Kigali has precisely around 15 flights per day from the entire airport, and I can’t believe this is really required for a plane that only seats 70 people. This is africa, however, so we weren’t sure how much we wanted to risk things. We got there around two hours in advance, which was more than enough time – in fact, I think we were two of the first five or so to check in!

The check-in folks were rather efficient, we were allowed to carry the bags on and security was a breeze. The airport has even built an “executive lounge” for waiting if you’re in business class or have some other sort of card. However, there was no Diet Coke on offer – what kind of a lounge is this! Regardless, it was a quiet place to wait for the flight.

A quick view of the airport from outside:

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Jan 142012

First off a very fair warning:  This post will likely be a bit depressing, but as a famous quote says those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Who goes to Rwanda on vacation?  After a massive genocide that left somewhere around 1 million dead (nearly 10% of the country’s population) Rwanda wasn’t exactly on most peoples’ tourist map.  Recently, the government changed the official language from French to English and has been on a major campaign of investment promotion, anti-corrpution, and doing “all the right things” to become a full member of the international community.  From what I saw, this is clearly a country that is going places, and if I had capital to invest it would certainly be high on my list.

That said, the ghosts of 1994 still haunt Rwanda, although it amazed me just how much people have moved on.  How can you see your neighbors, family, friends, etc butchered in such a brutal fashion, and just move on?  I’m not sure I’d be as brave as these people, and I have to admit I kind of fell in love with Rwanda.

Those of you who have seen the movie Hotel Rwanda will remember the Hotel des Milles Collines which was featured in the film.  After that movie, we couldn’t help but stay there.  I wasn’t in Rwanda when it happened, and to me this movie was the best impression I had of what 1994 meant in Rwanda.  Honestly, based on the hotel, you’d never have a clue what happened there.  I highly recommend the movie – we watched it again after the trip, and it really hit home.  The historical accuracy probably isn’t perfect, but I could feel it when I watched it, knowing I’d been there – it was a really cool experience unlike anything else!

We decided to hire a driver for our one full day there to really take us on the highlights, since they were a bit spread out.  It turned out to be the same hotel driver who’d picked us up from the airport the night before – and I honestly give high recommendations to the Milles Collines staff – they really arranged a top notch tour for our very short time there!

The first stop we made was the church at Ntarama.  I’m going to get the numbers terribly wrong, but at this church some thousands of people were massacred.  The idea was that once the genocide started, people fled to the church, feeling the church would protect them from the Interahamwe militias.  This didn’t happen, and thousands were murdered in the most horrific ways:  machetes, long wooden poles shoved into women from underneath until they went out the body/head, babies swung around in circles with heads smashed into stone walls, etc.  It was horrible, gruesome, and the bones are still piled in the church as a reminder.  It was honestly the most disturbing thing I think I’ve ever seen – but at the same time perfect.  It helped to give just a little glimpse into what had happened.  A few shots from the outside – to preserve the dignity of the victims filming inside the church was not allowed:

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Jan 132012

This ticket was surprisingly the easiest part of the trip to book. Ever since United/Continental introduced one-way awards it’s become increasingly easy to book trips part by part…and availability was good. Getting to Europe was easy…lots of options, and eventually I even got the nonstop to Brussels. However, Brussels-Kigali only had one seat for awards…and we needed two. I booked mine, and we figured worse case we could always buy a London-Kigali Z fare for Matt. However, over Thanksgiving weekend I got an alert from ExpertFlyer that a seat had opened up…and we were all set!

Headed out to Dulles, for what’s becoming a bit of a routine flight for me in my country counting quest. I always used to wonder how United kept Dulles to Brussels profitable, but I’ve been on it so many times now that it’s semi-obvious. Other than all the african connections this flight is always packed. Not too sure who’s on it, but clearly people always are. So, let’s get on to the important stuff – the flight details!

United Flight 950
Washington, Dulles (IAD) to Brussels, Belgium (BRU)
Depart 17:49, Arrive 7:15, Flight Time 7:26
Boeing 777, Registration N779UA, Manufactured 1996
Seat 2J

Pretty routine flight…with nothing overly exciting to say about it. A few unusual notes for regular United fliers: The “warm nuts” were 100% cashews. I wish it was this way all the time, but alas, I don’t think it’s the case. The steak was, as usual, a piece of leather and way overdone, and the salad was pretty anemic and pathetic compared to past offerings. Other than that, it was pretty typical upgrade-class, and not much to write home about. Watched a typically terrible United movie (“Bad Teacher”) and dozed off to a solid five hours before landing in Brussels. A few pictures of the meal:

The so-called “Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes served warm with Bernaise sauce”

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Jan 082012

…but then again, I’m not right in the head. I was probably dropped as a child, or something similar, but something clearly isn’t quite right up there.

You might remember the last two years where I spent New Years Eve…yes, Iraq and then Iran/Afghanistan. I was taught in High School that things always seem to happen in threes…some sort of natural law thing. I had a good friend working in Djibouti, and that got my head to spinning…what’s perhaps the only place worse than Iraq and Afghanistan in the mind of most? Could I…I mean, Somalia is only about 20km from the capital of Djibouti!

Of course, when planning, that wouldn’t be enough. That would just be two new countries. I had to add more…and they couldn’t be boring. So, the final trip came out looking like a place of 8 years that normal people don’t spend new years:

1. Djibouti
2. Somalia
3. Ethiopia
4. Rwanda
5. Burundi
6. Kenya
7. Egypt
8. Yemen

Now, I admit normally a couple of these are a little tame. But Egypt’s been more than a little exciting lately, and Kenya is all a-twitter about Al Shabaab reprisals. So that made things a little more exciting. Things got more exciting when Yemen pulled my transit visa…boo hiss! Must find another way from Addis to Cairo. A normal person would have booked the direct flight even though it was at 3am. Nope, that wouldn’t do.

So Yemen was replaced with the world’s newest country: South Sudan!

Sit back, buckle up (well, unless you’re on the one of my flights that didn’t have seat belts, and prepare for a very very wild ride!