The KLM 747-400 City of Nairobi sitting at the gate in Toronto. A sight that, not long after my flight, was no more – Photo: Matthew Chasmar
How does one get to Rwanda, anyways? This is probably not a question many North Americans have asked themselves. But it is one I heard a lot recently, when I had an unprecedented opportunity to travel to the East African country of Rwanda. This was an incredibly unique experience in many ways, and the flights involved were no exception. For this trip, I flew from Toronto to Kigali (Rwanda’s capital city), via Amsterdam on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. This is one of only a handful of options for that particular trip, the others being Brussels and Turkish Airlines. So, this February, I found myself at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, ready to embark on one of the longest series of flights I’ve ever taken.
That’s no plane! The first leg of my journey was a train ride into Toronto – Photo: Matthew Chasmar
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.
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.
See all 101 Photos of Rwanda From My Trip
RWANDAIR BOEING 737-700 DELIVERY FLIGHT
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Kigali International Airport (KGL).
When flying out of Kigali, Rwanda, it is best if you have a lot of patience — there is a lot of waiting in lines. I got to the airport about five hours early, so I was prepared to wait. I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal, since I read there was free WiFi in the front lobby, which consists of only a coffee stand and a few seats. Unfortunately, the WiFi was not working, so I got myself a cold drink and started going through all my photos from my trip to Rwanda.
Passengers are not allowed to leave the lobby area to go to the ticket counters until it is two hours or less before your flight departs. Once I reached the two hour mark, I was able to go outside and wait in-line to go through the first set of security. Since three flights were leaving about the same time, a large group gathered outside waiting to get back inside. Before getting back inside we all had to have our documents reviewed and since I did not have access to a computer, I had to show my passport and my confirmation on my smart phone. I was given some looks, but they still let me through where I had to wait in another line to be screened. The first security screening was much like in the US, where I had to take off my shoes and take out my laptop.
After I went through security, I headed to the ticket counter, but was stopped by a security agent and told I had to go back and wait in a second line to have my passport scanned and my documents reviewed again. Sigh…okay.
After waiting about 15 minutes in that line, my documents were checked and I was finally allowed to wait in the ticket counter line. I was previously given a center seat, not something I wanted to have for a 10 hour flight. Luckily, I was able to get a window seat, so I thought I was set and headed towards the gate.
It is awesome to board a wide-bodied A330 on the tarmac of a small airport.
I followed signs telling me to head upstairs to get to the gate waiting area. On top of the stairs there was another, yet short, line for customs. They checked my forms, asked me a few questions and off I went to another waiting area, but this was still not the gate.
I was now in another waiting area with only 32 seats and a small bar area. Although outside it was cool, the upstairs waiting area was hot. There was a very small, maybe 19″, TV playing something not in English in front of the seats, but there weren’t enough for me to sit down. After a while we were allowed to move through another security check point to wait in a larger waiting area, which would be our departure gate.
Yes! After a six hour wait at the airport, our KLM Airbus A330 had arrived and we were told to start lining up. I knew there were no jet-ways, but I wasn’t sure if we would be bussed out to the plane or able to walk from the door to the plane; I was hoping for the walk. At the terminal door, we had our documents checked again and out onto the tarmac we went — sweet, no bus.
Kigali Airport is small and it was neat walking along the tarmac seeing a Brussels A330 and KLM A330 both in the middle of Rwanda sitting next to RwandAir’s two 737s and two CRJ200s. After having my documents checked one more time at the bottom of the stairs, I was on board the A330 and ready to find my seat.
Normally, I am aware where my flight came from and where it is going. However, I just received my itinerary for my flight home the day prior and with limited internet access, I had no idea. It didn’t seem like there were many folks in the waiting area to fill up an Airbus A330, so I did not know what to expect when getting on to the aircraft or even if we would have a few stops between KGL and AMS. When boarding, it became clear the aircraft had come from somewhere and I was guessing it was a long flight since the plane was full and people looked tired and grumpy.
Map of my flight from KGL to EBB then AMS on a KLM Airbus A330.
Turns out the flight had some passengers from Amsterdam, but was heading to Entebbe, Uganda (EBB) from KGL. It was pretty lame, since the person who had had my seat obviously had just gotten off. It was still warm and there was trash everywhere. However, I was told it would be a quick 35 minute flight to EBB where the aircraft would be fully cleaned.
I did not have far to go to find my seat. I was sitting in seat 15A which was in the KLM Economy Comfort section located near the front. This gave me priority boarding, a few inches of additional leg room and more recline. It was nice, but there was an in-flight entertainment computer under the seat in front of me, eliminating half of my leg room. I thought with the big box in the way, I would at least have an outlet, but there was no in-seat power which was very disappointing. Kigali Airport is not known for the abundance of power outlets and by the time I boarded my electronics were needing some juice.
KLM definitely has their official color of blue down. Not only is the outside of the airplane blue, but the carpet is blue, the seats are blue, the bulkheads are blue and the flight attendants are all wearing a bright blue. When the flight attendants have their dress jackets on, the blue seems almost a bit overpowering and almost feels like I am on the official airline of the Smurfs. Good thing I like blue.
Blue is an obvious theme on KLM aircraft.
The aircraft loaded up quickly and we were ready to head to EBB. That was the shortest wide-bodied flight I have taken. It was just enough time for the flight attendants to run up and down the aisle to give us orange juice boxes and sit back down.
By the time we landed in EBB, it was obvious that the flight attendants were done with their shift. Along with the passengers, they came across as very tired and grumpy. This was okay, since they got off in Uganda and a new, fresh crew got on board.
During the layover, there were not too many of us left on the plane and a cleaning crew came on and worked around the passengers. It was interesting to see them in action, but it was obvious they were annoyed that so many passengers were in the way… I do not blame them. We had only been on the plane for about 40 minutes and passengers were out of their seats and walking around, getting in their way like we had just completed a marathon flight.
The seat-back in flight entertainment isn't the best, but surely better than nothing.
During the down time, it got amazingly hot inside the aircraft. The information screen showed it was only 73F outside, but it had to be over 85F inside the aircraft. The unfortunate part was the gentleman in front of me, apparently had made a life decision not to wear deodorant.
I am not quite sure why they weren’t able to run the APU and A/C while we waited and I heard multiple passengers complain, but the cabin did not seem to cool down until we started boarding again. Maybe it was an oversight with the changing of the crew, but after working up a nice sweat, I wasn’t able to cool down until almost landing in AMS.
Every economy seat has its own in-flight entertainment which is nice. The system seems a bit old and takes a little more time to navigate, but it is all free, which makes it worth the trouble. There is a decent selection of movies and TV shows in a number of different languages. It was entertaining enough for a one-way ten hour flight, but if you had more than that, the entertainment would get stale pretty quickly.
Talking about stale, we were served some hot food during the trip and a choice between beef and pasta — I chose the beef. I guess “stale” might be an unfair way to describe the food, it was not that bad, but not that great either. It is what one would expect from economy food from an airline.
My KLM Airbus A330 (PH-AOL) at Amsterdam after my flight.
I was actually quite surprised how quickly the flight went. I watched some movies, got some sleep, ate some food and BAM we were heading into Amsterdam. I think even though part of my legroom was taken by the in-flight entertainment system, the extra room and recline really helped. It was a little frustrating when the person in front of me decided to recline their seat all the way (remember Economy Comfort has the ability to recline more), but being by the window with only another seat next to me, with a few inches of extra room made the flight enjoyable.
After landing, I had a four hour layover in Amsterdam before flying on a Delta Airbus A330 back home to Seattle. I will be reviewing that flight in the near future.
A FEW OTHER PHOTOS OF THE TRIP
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.
After things calmed down, we headed through customs and over to a special tent where additional guests were seating. All the important dignitaries and the airline CEO spoke and talked about the importance of this proud achievement.
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…
VIEW ALL 90 PHOTOS FROM THE TRIP TO KIGALI
RWANDAIR BOEING 737-700 DELIVERY FLIGHT
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