Part of the Kigali seen from the roof of Rwanda’s Parliament building (which you can visit!). – Photo: Matthew Chasmar
This February, I had the incredible opportunity to spend about 10 days visiting the East African country of Rwanda. Indeed, you may have already seen my previous story for AirlineReporter about my flights to and from the country. But what I wasn’t able to do in that story was talk about my impressions of Rwanda itself. As someone who had never travelled to Africa before, I immensely enjoyed my trip to Rwanda and would highly recommend visiting to someone curious about the region.
I spent most of my time in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and biggest city. Kigali left an interesting impression on me because it felt very much like a city of contrasts. Some neighborhoods (like those around government buildings and foreign embassies) have a lot of new development. I saw impressive glass office buildings, luxury hotels, new apartments, and shopping malls.
The dome on the left is the Kigali Convention Centre, a brand-new building that lights up at night. Next to it is a Radisson Blu Hotel. – Photo: Matthew Chasmar
The Alliance Tower, one of the most impressive buildings in Kigali’s Central Business District – Photo: Matthew Chasmar
That said, other parts of the city show that many Rwandans don’t enjoy these luxuries. On my first day there I had the chance to take a walking tour of Kigali’s Nyamirambo neighborhood, run by the Nyamirambo Women’s Center, a local charity. This was a great way to see what seemed to be a more typical Kigali neighborhood.
Kigali International Airport in Rwanda
Unfortunately this post is very delayed. I had the opportunity to travel to Kigali, Rwanda back in August 2011 while taking a delivery flight for RwandAir’s first brand new airplane; a Boeing 737-800. Time went on and I never got this story posted, but I really want to share what it was like visiting Rwanda.
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.
Hà´tel 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 Hà´tel 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.
See all 101 Photos of Rwanda From My Trip
RWANDAIR BOEING 737-700 DELIVERY FLIGHT
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Video | 737 Photos | Rwanda Photos | Destination Story | All
Outside the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.
Flying to Tokyo, Japan to experience the first flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was only part of the trip. This time I was delighted to be able to experience the fascinating city of Tokyo. A year ago, I flew to Tokyo to check out the Haneda Airport’s new International terminal, and the turn-around trip didn’t allow me time to tour the city. However, this time I was fortunate to stay at the Peninsula Hotel for several days and I want to share what I discovered in this city. Of course my critique is not everything one needs to know about traveling to Tokyo, but a good list for beginner travelers to Japan.
TOKYO IS BACK TO NORMAL AND LOOKING FOR TOURISTS
When talking about visiting Japan, the elephant in the room is the Tsunami that hit on March 11, 2011. The quick answer is that Tokyo is back to normal operations and are welcoming tourists with open arms.
Tourism was hit hard after the Tsunami. The numbers of visitors dropped over 72% in March compared to the March, 2010. Tourism has continued to slip and in September 2011 numbers were down almost 25% compared to 2010.
I thought that I might feel a little guilty when visiting and having fun, due to the tsunami, but quite the contrary; the city and the country make it very clear that it is safe to return to Japan and there are some pretty amazing deals going on right now.
The Takeshita area of Tokyo is for trendy younger folks with some very interesting stores. Not my cup of tea, but interesting to check out none-the-less.
ENGLISH IS NOT AS WIDE-SPREAD AS YOU MIGHT THINK
Although quite a few people in Tokyo do speak English, you can’t count on finding that many English speaking locals. However, I did discover that the younger population is more apt to speak English. In many of the restaurants you can get by with pointing, but for others that might not work, if you don’t have a basic food vocabulary.
There is enough English spoken throughout the city to make your way around, but having a smart phone with a GPS map would be very helpful.
CHOOSE YOUR AIRPORT WISELY
Tokyo has two airports to choose from: Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND). Historically Narita handles international flights and Haneda operates the domestic travel, but recently that has changed. Typically you will find Haneda is more expensive, but it is located much closer to downtown. It takes about an hour to get from Narita to Tokyo and costs about $40 per person to either take the train or bus (and about $200+ for a cab). I thought flying into the Narita airport and driving into Tokyo would be a worthwhile opportunity to see the Japanese countryside, but, the views are not that great so that experience does not need to be on your “must do” list.
This was one of the many "dark" alleys in Tokyo. However, even walking around by myself at night, I never felt unsafe or unwelcome.
IF YOU LIKE TO SHOP, YOU WILL BE IN HEAVEN
I am not much of a shopper, but the people of Tokyo are. It is a big city, but many people do not have cars and live in small apartments or houses. They have disposable income and a lot of that goes to “stuff.” Unlike many Americans who shop online, seeing stuff in person is much more popular in Tokyo. This means that there are stores for everything. I got to visit a ten story electronics store and was amazed to discover a six story store that only sold paper goods. You will also find designer shops selling Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci and the like.
WALK TO THE LEFT
People drive on the right in the US and many walk to the right as well when passing someone coming or going. When I first got to Japan, I kept running into people and couldn’t figure out why. It took me a bit to realize that not only do the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, but they also walk to the left of other people. Even after realizing my mistake, it took me a while to get the hang of walking on the left and by the time I did, I was heading back to the US and started running into people again. This is not a huge deal, but having a heads-up can help avoid confusion and possible head-on collisions.
Robataya Restaurant in downtown Tokyo (there is also one in New York) was one of the most amazing meal experiences I have ever had. Great interaction with the Chefs and others that are eating.
A CULTURE OF JOB PRIDE
This is something I partly saw during my last trip, but really saw it during this time. It seems that so many people have a pride in their jobs that you just do not see in the US. From people sweeping up trash to those driving buses, everyone I encountered was nice, professional and clean. For example, in the six story paper store I mentioned earlier there was a woman there whose job was to help people line up for the elevator. This wasn’t some high-end shop, just your run-of-the-mill sort of place. First off in the US, this job would never exist and if it did, the person would most likely be grumpy, hatehis job and make it very clear that he wasn’t happy. “OMG people get in one of the lines, get on the elevator, how hard is this?” In Japan, this woman was polite and she treated her job like it was one of the most important things in the world. It was very refreshing to see this level of service almost everywhere I went.
YOU DO NOT GIVE TIPS, BUT GET AMAZING SERVICE
One might think that people have a pride in their job to get something out of it, like a tip, but that is not the case. Tipping in Japan is seen as a negative thing — almost an insult. Some places will automatically include gratuity on your bill, but people aren’t looking to be rewarded with a bigger tip. Not that I do not mind tipping in the US for good service, but it just seems to be that many times you get sub-par service AND are still expected to tip in the US. Having people treat you with respect and doing their job just makes the experience that much better. Plus you don’t have to worry about how much to tip people or keep bills/coins handy.
Could you imagine vending machines like this in the middle of a busy downtown train station in the US without being damaged or having big bars on them? It is a very different world in Tokyo.
PEOPLE RESPECT PROPERTY
The city is very clean and vandalism is almost non-existent. One of the first things I noticed was riding in the subway and the seats were cloth — CLOTH! Could you imagine cloth seats in the US? How long would it take for them to get ripped, stained, written on and/or worse? There also wasn’t any graffiti on the public transportation that I saw and none of it smelled of urine — nice. Another thing I noticed were vending machines located almost everywhere around the city. They weren’t locked down with big bars like you see in the US and they all worked.
GETTING AROUND IS EASY – USE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
Taxis are quite pricey and the cost can add up quickly. Just going down the street can easily cost about $10. In Tokyo and the surrounding area, there is a great train/subway system to get around and it is best to use them. Public transportation is very clean and safe. It could be a bit challenging figuring out exactly what train to take while at a station, so probably good to plan ahead either on your own or ask your hotel before heading out.
One of the entrances to the Imperial Palace Plaza, which is a large park in the middle of downtown Tokyo and right across from the Peninsula Hotel where I was staying.
CHECK OUT HIBIYA PARK + TOKYO IMPERIAL PALACE
I know Tokyo is a well developed city, but I was expecting to see more traditional Japanese architecture. There were some places that gave a little bit, but it wasn’t until I checked out Hibiya Park that I got what I was really looking for. It is a large park area that is located right in the middle of downtown (almost like Tokyo’s Central Park).
Not only are there a lot of open park grounds, but this is also where the Imperial Palace is located. Unlike the White House in the US, they hide the Palace pretty well. Even from my hotel room, overlooking the park, I was only able to see the roof. Down on the ground, there are a few things to view, but not the actual palace and security is pretty tight.
DO NOT BE SCARED OF THE FACE MASKS
When making your way through Tokyo, you might notice there are quite a few people wearing white face masks. Do not worry — there is not a pandemic. People who are getting sick wear the face masks so that they do not infect others. It can be a little off-setting at first, but with a dense population in Japan, this is done to cut down on the spread of disease. It makes sense and it is too bad that more people around the globe do not do this.
The Peninsula Hotel, where I stayed, which is a five star hotel located right in downtown Tokyo.
STAY AT THE PENINSULA, IF YOU CAN
While in Tokyo, I was staying at The Peninsula Tokyo. Since getting into travel writing, I have been fortunate to experience quite a few first class hotels and this hotel has been one of the best to date. This might be a shocker to most of you, but I am by no means rich and/or famous, so when I travel on my own dime (this trip to Tokyo was sponsored by The Peninsula Hotel and ANA), I am not booking really high-end rooms. However, recently my opinions and thoughts about hotel rooms have changed.
When I was in college, it was about finding the cheapest room possible; I didn’t care what it looked like or where it was located. As I began to explore paying a bit more for nicer hotels and then even a bit more for a better room, I have begun to really appreciate how much a hotel can be a part of your travel experience. Not only are we talking about the quality of sleep you can get (I had my best jet-lagged sleep at the Peninsula to date), but the time you spend in your room. It is pretty nice to wake up and reach over to push a button to have all my curtains open up and (after my eyes got used to the light) seeing Tokyo. It makes one feel like the king of the world and certainly adds an enhanced dimension to your travels.
One of the huge benefits of the hotel is its location — right in the middle of all the action. Luckily I had much free time during my visit and it was easy to leave the hotel and be a short walk from the shopping and important tourist destinations without needing to use transportation. But when I did leave for other parts of the city, it was an easy two block walk to the subway to hitch a ride.
BE PREPARED TO DRESS NICE, EVEN IN LAID BACK SETTINGS
Before leaving, I checked the weather and saw it was forecast to be in the mid-to-upper 60’s. For a Seattlite, that means shorts. I did not want to make the same mistake (of not taking shorts) when I went to Singapore, so I made sure I packed them this time. It never reached the 60’s, and although I would have normally worn shorts anyway, the only people I saw wearing them around Tokyo were the tourists. Most local citizens, even on the weekends, had suits on and were dressed nicely and for some reason to me, it just did not seem right to wear shorts. However, I did wear jeans — I mean I have to have some limits here.
Tokyo is a HUGE city. From every angle, the city just kept going and going. This is the view towards the Tokyo Tower.
This was my second trip to Japan and I know it will not be my last. There is something about the people, the culture and the country that is very alluring and welcoming. I am hoping to visit this summer to explore more of Japan outside of Tokyo. The town and country are ready for tourists and if you have been meaning to make your way over to Japan, the timing could not be better.
YOU KNOW YOU WANT MORE
* All my Tokyo, Japan photos
* Photos of The Peninsula Hotel
* Story and photos on flying on ANA’s 787 Dreamliner
* Video of my Boeing 787 flight from Narita