Most people, including myself, have some preconceived notions of what kind of place Rwanda is in the world. I think many define it either by the genocide of 1994 or the fact that it is an African country, so it must be hot, poor and not a place to visit. Let me tell you, my preconceived notions were very wrong and I cannot wait to return to Rwanda again. I hope sharing my experiences while visiting can help change your ideas of the country as well.
Kigali is located in central Rwanda. Rwanda is located in central Africa. Image from Google Maps.
Rwanda is a country with a population of around 11.7 million and is about the size of the state of Maryland. Farming is a large part of the population, where some people farm to make a living, and others are farming to feed their families.
Tourism is also a growing economic resource for the country. It was unbelievably easy to get from Kigali back home to Seattle. Even though I can easily have more than one stop flying across the US, I only had one stop in Amsterdam getting from Rwanda back to Seattle in about 24 hours. Took one non-stop KLM flight from KGL to AMS, then another non-stop Delta flight from AMS to SEA. Flying south to Johannesburg or north to Cairo also provides many other easy connections to the US.
Hôtel des Mille Collines is the location where the movie "Hotel Rwanda" was based on. The hotel in the movie was actually filmed in South Africa. The genocide involved much more than just this hotel.
Let’s get talking about the negative part of Rwanda out of the way: the 1994 genocide. The chances are you have heard of this or gotten a pretty good idea at how horrid this was by watching the move Hotel Rwanda. Over 800,000 people were slaughtered, families ruined and a nation put in turmoil in only over 100 days. At that time, the country lost as much as 20% of their population, had a weak infrastructure and no power to most of the nation. During my five days in the country I couldn’t believe that this tragedy happened only 15 years ago. It is astounding how much the people of Rwanda have been able to work hard and try to move past a difficult recent history.
Quite simplly, the genocide is a very important part of the Rwandan history, but by no means defines who they are today. That is the old Rwanda that no longer exists and people around the world should not judge an entire nation and people by what happened so long ago.
Rwanda was much greener than I was expecting.
It is Green and Not That Hot
Who knew? I assumed since Rwanda is pretty much located on the equator and is in Africa, it would be hot, humid and brown. Turns out it is tepid, not humid and mostly green. Since Rwanda is at such a high altitude, even though it is near the equator, it stays relatively comfortable and consistent throughout the year. Since it has its rainy season (which is just starting), a good part of the country is lush with greenery. Part of the reason for the climate is Rwanda’s elevation. The lowest point in the country is 3,000 feet above sea level and the highest is almost at 15,000 feet at Mount Karisimbi.
The Genocide Museum is beyond powerful. Photos of those who were slaughtered is difficult to take in.
Visit Genocide Museum
I will warn you, that a visit to the Genocide Museum is extremely powerful. I would suggest doing it near the end of the day, since it will put you in a downer mood afterwards. It is not easy to get through, but you cannot get the true feeling of how bad the genocide was without it. The detailed stories, the unedited photos and skulls of some of those that died are beyond powerful.
It is still hard to really grasp what happened and how it has made an impact even after a visit to the museum. Even today, many citizens walk around with machetes (a common weapon used during the genocide), which are used to everyday labor, but they are still a reminder.
Even though difficult, make sure to give yourself enough time to go through the whole museum.
Even though Kigali is rapidly growing, access to international cash is not easy.
There are only a few ATMs where you are able to withdraw money. If you plan to go to one, you will be welcomed by an armed guard with a large gun. They are plenty nice and all, but it would be easier to just make sure you bring some cash with you.
If you bring your own local currency, you can change it out at your hotel or the airport. Do not plan on using your credit cards very much — since most places will not accept them.
Kigali Serena Hotel -- not what I was expecting. It was a nice surprise.
Rwanda is Safe
During part of my visit I was escorted by locals, but I also had quite a bit of free time to wonder around on my own and pretty far away from my hotel. Being 6’1, 250lb white man, it was pretty obvious that I was from out of town. I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe, even while having my expensive camera with me.
It is worth the effort to get out of town and see how people live in rural Kigali.
Get Out of Town
To get the real experience, one needs to get out of town. You do not have to go far to see hundreds of people walking down the highway with food and goods on their heads. Many people still farm their own food for survival and make houses out of what they can find.
Luckily there weren't too many mosquitoes during my trip, but better to be safe than sorry.
Get Your Shots
Yellow Fever vaccines are required to enter Rwanda or to return to most other countries. I only had a week’s notice and had no problem getting it completed. Make sure to speak with your doctor, since they are probably going to recommend a whole set of shots and pills for you to take before departing to Rwanda. I opted for pretty much everything, since I didn’t want to ruin my trip. I had all sorts of food and never got sick, but I steered clear of any tap water or ice. I slowly kept eating more vegetables and fruit and never had any issues.
The streets and yards were amazingly clean walking around Kigali.
There is an Official Cleaning Day Once Per Month
Talk about clean. Every last Saturday of the month, Rwanda has a cleaning day where it is mandated that citizens and businesses stop what they are doing and spend the morning cleaning. Our RwandAir Boeing 737 actually arrived on cleaning day and everyone who came to the airport to participate had to show paperwork that they were allowed to be out and about and not clean.
This concept creates a strong sense of community and obviously keeps the country clean.
Twin baby Gorillas with their mother. Photo from Pat Adams.
Go See Some Gorillas
Unfortunately I was not able to do this, but a few of the people I was with had the opportunity to go trek out into the woods and check out Gorillas. You need to plan way in advance and it can be quite costly, but you cannot beat being only a few feet away from one of nature’s most amazing animals.
It was surreal being at the real "Hotel Rwanda."
The Real Hotel Rwanda Means Something Different to Us
I was invited to go to the real Hotel Rwanda, that is really called Hôtel des Mille Collines, and I was a bit freaked out. We weren’t going to check out the hotel, but to go to a dance club in the basement. Dance clubs are not really my scene, but I had to check this out — why would they put such a happy, fun thing into a place with such a troubled past. Well, it is because of my American perspective.
RwandAir, Boeing and Media at Republika Lounge in Kigali.
There is Some Amazing Food
Not all the food I tried was something I would want to try again, but I have to say it was unique. But most of the food that I ate was amazing. We were able to make it to the Republika Lounge in Kigali twice and one of the most interesting things was banana wine. Not exactly what one might think, but still a good drink.
Motor bike taxis are all over the place and very cheap. You are taking a risk. You can also walk; many citizens do.
Taxi, Motorbikes or Your Feet
How much guts do you have? How much money do you have? If you have a lot of guts and not much money, taking a motorcycle taxi is for you. These are pretty much dirt cheap and consist of you riding on the back of a person’s dirt bike to your destination. It can get a little scary weaving in and out of cars, when it is raining, while it is dark. I am one that doesn’t have that much guts, so for a bit more there are quite a few taxi’s located around Kigali. There is also a bus system, mostly consisting of vans, but they are very crowded and I would suggest avoiding them if possible.
If you want to try a full local experience, then just walk. It didn’t matter where we went or how far away we were from any structures, there were people walking everywhere. Either business people walking to lunch to people with water jugs on their heads going home. A sidewalk is not required. Many of the citizens have no form of transportation and would carry furniture, food and much more miles from town to their homes.
Kigali offers many flights to other African destinations.
Springboard into Africa
Kigali is a great place to start an African adventure. Pretty centralized, there are flights from Air Burundi, Air Uganda, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, South African Airways and of course RwandAir that can take you to many destinations inside Africa. Not to mention Brussels, KLM, Qatar and Turkish which can take you out of Africa.
Boeing builds their 737s in Renton, WA, but their aircraft are used all around the world. How does an airline get a brand new plane, built to go short distances, half way across the world? Well, they fly it there of course.
As previously reported, I was lucky enough to be invited on a delivery flight of RwandAir’s first brand new plane, a Boeing 737-800, to Kigali, Rwanda. I have already covered it in three different stories (one, two, three), but it can’t beat a video… Luckily I made one of those too.
This video follows our adventure from Boeing Field (KBFI), heading to Iceland (KEF) for fuel, then to Istanbul Turkey (SAW) to spend the night. Then finally to an amazing welcome at Kigali, Rwanda.
We had taken off from Seattle a day before and had mini-adventures while in Iceland and Turkey. Now RwandAir’s first Boeing 737-800 was on her final leg to Kigali, Rwanda with only about 5.5 hours to go. In Part 1 I talked about pre-departure, then covered what it was like flying from Seattle to Iceland to Turkey in Part 2. In Part 3 I talk about what it was like finally arriving in Kigali to an amazing welcome.
Heading into African airspace on our way to Kigali, Rwanda.
Before the 20hr flight I was concerned about the comfort level of a domestic Boeing 737. I was also afraid of having too much free time on my hands, so I brought a book, downloaded a lot of airline articles and even got some additional games for my iPhone. However, with sleep, socializing and watching 30 minutes of Big Mama 3 (I can’t believe I lasted that long), I did not get bored. It was comfortable having an entire row to myself, but I am sure my tone would have been different if I had shared my row with seat-mates. The back of the plane seemed the place to go if you were looking to get some sleep. Quite a few folks sitting up front made their way to their own rows in economy to stretch and rest.
9,200 miles of adventure. Our route to Kigali.
I had used my electronics quite a bit from Seattle to Iceland to Istanbul. By the time we were on our final leg, they were badly in need of some power. I had forgotten my international power adapter and did not get to charge while in Turkey (luckily someone let me borrow theirs while in Rwanda — thanks Adam). Unfortunately the seats in the back of the plane did not have power outlets, but those in Business class did. I had three different devices plugged into three different seats up front. It was important I was all ready to go when touching down in Rwanda.
While my electronic distractions were charging,I had no problem gazing out the window. The sky was clear, so it was easy to witness crossing over to African airspace. It was interesting seeing desert forever, then civilization and green around water. We followed the Nile for a while and it really became clear how a river or water source really creates growth.
Hanging out in the cockpit of RwandAir's Boeing 737-800 while over Africa.
Although socializing and watching movies can be entertaining, the best form of entertainment is being in the cockpit. Even though my devices weren’t fully charged, I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity to visit the front of the plane while cruising at 39,000 feet to take photos, video and talk to the pilots.
Both pilots at the time had come from the now defunct Olympic Airlines and were very excited about flying the 737-800 — almost to the point of being giddy. They said it was an obvious improvement in performance, ease of use and efficiency. It sounded like there would be a formidable (and friendly) competition to see which pilots would get to fly the new 737-800 vs the older 737-500s in the fleet.
Every time I got up into the cockpit during flight, the calm always surprised me. I don’t know what I really expeced. Maybe the pilots constantly at the controls, talking on the radio, messing with knobs. But during cruise with a modern airliner, they are able to easily take time to enjoy flight. Looking straight out the front windscreen into the limitless blue makes the aircraft feel like it is not even moving. It is a cool experience and it is unfortunate that it is rare for even media to get into the cockpit during flight (and this is only the second airline to allow me to share photos).
RwandAir's Boeing 737-500 looks on.
Before we knew it, the plane was starting its descent and we were almost done with our flying adventure. From the hotel to boarding the plane, most of us dressed up. But once on board, we changed into something more comfortable. Now realizing we were getting close to Kigali, it was time to get back into professional wardrobe. You would have thought with only 30 people on board, there wouldn’t be any lavatory issues, but when so many are trying to change and brush teeth at the same time, it really caused some issues. Ichanged my shirt in the aisle and brushed my teeth in a lavatory being used to store drinks. A guy has gotta do what a guy’s gotta do. Luckily everyone was ready to go and seated by the time we were flying low over Kigali.
We were told we would do a low fly over the airport before circling around to land. As we kept getting lower and lower, some of us became certain that the fly-by was cancelled and we were going to land. Kudos to the pilot since we buzzed the tarmac just a few feet off the ground before pulling up, circling around and landing.
Our flight buzzed the airport before coming in for a landing. That is one nice fly-by. Photo from RwandAir.
People on board the airplane cheered as we landed and taxied to the tarmac. Two fire trucks gave us an official water salute as we pulled into the airport and before getting off the plane we could see a group of dancers starting to make their way out towards the plane.
It is hard to describe what it is like to be jet-lagged and stepping off a plane that just flew from Seattle to Rwanda with people dancing, music playing and people wanting to shake your hand. This was an amazing moment for almost everyone there and the most impressive welcome I have ever experienced.
Upon landing we were greeted by dancers, local media and VIP guests.
The plane was not just carrying people over to Africa. Boeing has a program called Humanitarian Delivery Flights that, “humanitarian items; such as, medical supplies, clothing, and educational materials, are loaded into the empty cargo space of new airplanes being delivered and transported to a customer’s home destination.” On this flight, there were 1500 educational books that were being delivered to the Rotary Club of Kigali to be distributed to high schools, universities and libraries around the country. Boeing partnered with RwandAir and Operation USA to help deliver the books and there were a group of children at the celebration to accept them.
Some RwandAir pilots and me hanging during the post delivery reception.
We all had some food, drinks and great conversations, but after our long journey, it was time to head to the Kigali Serena Hotel. I was not quite sure what to expect of my accommodations when staying in Rwanda. For some reason I kept picturing a bed with a bug net and a generator providing electricity. It is my own fault for not being informed, but it was a nice surprise to find that the hotel was way beyond my expectations. They even offered free Wi-Fi internet which can be hard to find in many American hotels.
The hotel was one of many interesting experiences during my four day stay in Kigali. Stay tuned for my Destination Rwanda story coming soon, followed by a video documenting the delivery flight. Until then…
In Part 1, I discussed what it was like from pre-delivery of RwandAir’s first Boeing 737-800 to taking off from Seattle. Part 2 will cover our adventures from lift off to a stop over in Iceland and Turkey. Here is Part 2:
The Boeing 737-800 normally has a range of about 3000 miles with an average load, but this was not an average flight. With only 30 people on board, the aircraft was much lighter which allowed us to fly over 3,600 miles non-stop from Boeing Field in Seattle, WA to Keflavik (KEF) just outside of Reykjavik, Iceland.
I had the entire 14th row to myself, and rows 13 and 15 were totally empty. I felt like a king sitting in economy, which doesn’t happen too often. Though I had ample space, there were some disadvantages to sitting in the back of the plane was the in-flight entertainment system. Business Class passengers got their own in-seat entertainment system, but it is all about sharing in the rear. After we took off and leveled out, the movie Cedar Rapids started playing, but I opted for a nap instead. I knew I wouldn’t have too much time to sleep since we were racing against the sun. Even though we took off at about 5:30pm, we were going to land in Iceland after it would be dark a little under seven hours later.
The in-flight map shows we just left Seattle. We have a long trip ahead of us.
Even with an entire row to myself, it still was not easy getting comfortable as a 6’1″, 250lb person. Still, I managed to sleep a few hours lying down and a few hours while sitting up. When I awoke, it was time to eat our first meal. Before the flight, food service was loaded onto the aircraft, and I was looking forward to (eh, more afraid of) what it might be. Fortunately, the food was better than your standard economy fare, consisting of a decent steak and shrimp.
At first, the service on the flight was a bit strange. Although there were only about 30 people on the aircraft, the flight attendants provided separate levels of service for business versus economy. I have been on a few VIP flights with a smaller number of passengers and service was the same in the front and back. At the start of this trip, the front got hot towels, champagne and first class service. Not that we were hurting in the back, but I wanted my hot towels and extra drinks (how spoiled I have become). It turns out the cabin crew just never thought about it was initiating the standard level of service they regularly complete. From Iceland on, the divider curtain was not shut and everyone received the same high level of service.
Some of the different flavors that Boeing's Sky Interior can produce. Upper left is meal service and bottom right is sleep. The others are standard operating settings.
Most passengers might not realize they are on a 737 with the new Sky Interior. But they should notice how modern and roomy the plane feels. After catching a ride on American Airline’s first Sky Interior 737 and now after about 20 hours in RwandAir’s, I can truly say I love it. It is not revolutionary, but a very smart evolution to the 737.
There are optical illusions and actual changes that make the cabin seem larger. The windows now have a round surround and updated paneling on the walls. The ceiling has color-changing LEDs and the standard setting is a nice blue, which makes the cabin feel taller. The overhead bins have been re-designed to be opened and closed more easily, while providing more head space for passengers. As of now, the Sky Interior is an option for airline customers and about 88% of airlines are opting for the new interior. Boeing has announced that all 737 MAX aircraft will come with the Sky Interior standard.
Because this was a longer flight, I was able to see a larger array of lighting choices. Airlines are able to choose different light settings for different parts of the flight: blue for boarding, white before landing, an orange while eating and maybe a deep blue for sleeping. But by the time we were getting close to Iceland, it was already quite light outside.
Coming into Iceland is quite bare. I wasn't sure we were actually landing at a main airport, but it was.
When finally breaking through the clouds outside of Iceland, I assumed it was going to be a while until we hit the airport since there was nothing but land in sight. Sure enough, the airport was in the middle of nowhere. When landing, I was hoping for some pretty heavy cross wind normally found at the airport, but on this cold morning there were only a few gusts. The airport is great if you love Icelandair Boeing 757s, since there were quite a few. We ended up parking next to the cargo loading area and waited to be fueled. We were allowed to leave the plane and hang out on the tarmac and even though it was nippy, I opted to spend almost the whole time out there.
After being fueled up and loaded back in, I noticed the special Iron Maiden livery Boeing 757 was behind us, providing a nice treat. Even the non-airline nerds on the plane found the livery interesting. Then was were back in the sky, heading south to Istanbul, Turkey.
An Icelandair Cargo Boeing 757 looks on while we wait to be fueled. Lots of nothingness in the background.
We were supposed to land at Atatürk International Airport (IST), but our late arrival meant, there were not any slots available during our new landing time. We landed instead at the much smaller Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW), which operates low cost carriers like Pegasus Airlines. This wasn’t a bad thing, since it allowed us to deplane on the tarmac, giving better photo opportunities.
After clearing through customs, we had a van waiting to take us to Divan Hotel. It was about 8pm local time when we arrived, but I knew I did not just want to eat and go to sleep. First things first; it was time to take a nice long cool shower and then prepare for a night-time adventure.
Not too shabby. View from my hotel room while in Istanbul, Turkey.
After cleaning up, most of our group met on the rooftop bar of the hotel. When I first arrived there were only four people including RwandAir’s CEO John Mirenge. He welcomed me to the table and offered food and drink and I asked him what it felt like to see his brand new plane for the first time. He stopped and it was obvious he was emotionally affected. It was not only about buying a new plane, but it was about being able to take the plane back to Rwanda. I have never seen an airline executive so connected to one of his aircraft — it was quite powerful.
After talking about airplanes, it was time to relax and have some local Efes Beer and some food. Even though it was late, most of us decided to head out into town. I was told we were on the Asian side of town, but there is also the European side of town as well. We got three cabs and honestly I have no idea where we went, but I was just along for the ride. After some coffee we decided to get some “adult” drinks and ended up at a bar called “The Sheriff” that was Old West themed. It took us a while to realize we had just flown half way around the world to go to a western bar — oh well. We were quite surprised that it happened to be so dead around midnight on a Friday. We asked some locals and learned it was Ramadan. Religious natives were not going out, which I can understand, but it made the night life more like a mid-week evening life.
After hanging out for a while, it was time to take a cab back to the hotel. Driving in Istanbul seems like every man for himself. At intersections, people do not yield and speed is the name of the game. During the taxi ride home I sat in the front seat and my belt did not work — it was quite the hairy ride. The driver had a hard time finding his way back to the hotel, and just decided to stop in the middle of the freeway where he pointed to stairs across the road that we could take. Obviously hospitality was not a concern of his.
It is difficult to judge an entire city by just spending 14 hours there, so I would love to return with some additional time and maybe a better taxi driver.
Loading back on the plane in Istanbul, getting ready to fly to Kigali, Rwanda.
After a short rest, we met up in the lobby of the hotel ready to continue our journey to Kigali. While heading back through the airport customs, the security official was shocked when he saw my boarding pass said “Kigali.” Because of a minor language barrier, it took me a while to realize he wasn’t questioning me for security purposes, but because of his own interest in the boarding passes he sees.
The RwandAir 737 was right where we left it. We quickly re-boarded and I decided to take a seat a bit closer to the front of the engines for better photos while landing. I already had quite a few assumptions about what Rwanda was going to be like and I was about to find out how wrong I was. We had about a five and a half hour flight down south and we heard we had quite a celebration waiting for us at our destination. I buckled up, sat back and was ready for the real adventure to begin.