#LivingWithNature in Rwanda’s Akagera Rhino Lodge

On top of the world. The Akagera Rhino Lodge cottages with their wide verandas overlook the stunning, often fog-covered, Lake Ihema.

“Akagera is among the most scenic of savannah reserves, with its sumptuous forest fringed-lakes, tall mountains and constantly changing vegetation” – Bradt Guides Rwanda by Phillip Briggs and Janice Booth

The most exciting part of a solo adventure is when you do not really know what awaits you. Not so sure many wanted this kind of a surprise but there are few crazy ones who will agree with me. Sometimes we win, finding the best, and sometimes we lose, getting the worst. But it does not really mean you wasted time. Every travel experience is, of course, a different experience. Imagine if they are all alike!

Warm, rustic welcome after the car navigated through the winding uphill road.

While browsing online what to do next after having explored Kigali, I chanced upon a beautiful lodge in Akagera which I later found out was over a 2-hour drive. Not too bad. Knowing Rwanda’s rolling hills and amazing landscape, I expected the drive to be exciting. It was!

While I enjoyed the freedom of walking around the city, which was my initial travel plan, a personal challenge was finding a place surrounded by nature. I am not so familiar with what Rwanda can offer but that’s the good part – finding them.

Simply idyllic! Mornings are never the same in the lodge. Sometimes bright, sometimes foggy but always new and amazing.

The comfortably huge bed with a view. Loving its simplicity.

As Paulo Coelho puts it well in Aleph, “Travel is never a matter of money but of courage”, having traveled penniless and happy in his younger years. But of course, you still need the money, I can hear you say it.

This was how I discovered Akagera Rhino Lodge, with all of its nine lodges set in a hilltop in the middle of a bush overlooking Lake Ihema. It was an instant fascination! What can be more relaxing than this. Each cottage has a space for one family complete with a ready extra-bed and having it all for myself was almost a luxury.

I guess just like me, people nowadays want an authentic get away from the hassle of a city and its madding crowd. The lodge exactly provides that.

Be open for an all-out nature adventure. Who won’t fall in love with this?

My first night was quite hilarious. I never felt so alone with the nearby cottages empty. Many of the guests came a day or two after me, so I was conscious that I am the only one privileged enjoying the quiet and serenity of the lodge. I am confident I am safe but my gnawing feeling kept on until I slept soundly.

My first sunrise was unbelievably glorious. This is even an understatement. As soon as I woke up, I tucked away all the curtains and enjoyed the quiet, serene view as the dawn broke and the skies hues turned orange to yellow. I am glad it almost took forever. There I was at the wooden verandah basking on the million-dollar spectacle at around 5:30 am.

I never had a sunrise as glorious as this one. I think what made it incredible was the complete backdrop of the dewy lake, the colorful hues of the skies and the gentle singing of the birds. A luxury only nature can give us.

The rest of the team in the lodge led by Arlette and Chantal, the very first two friendly faces who welcomed me and made sure I have what I need for a comfortable stay, were awesome. I cannot ask for more accommodating staff. When I requested a cottage closer to the restaurant, they immediately found a way.

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. —Henry David Thoreau

People, their charm and friendly smiles, always complete the magic. Arlette and Chantal, the humble lodge owner Joseph, and the rest of the lodge staff, made me feel definitely at home.

Next stop: What to do in the lodge and what more can Akagera offer?

#BeautifulDestinations: Exploring Rwanda, The Land of Eternal Spring

Traveling during the time of the coronavirus: A different kind of experience

#WearAMask: You may venture to travel but this is not the time to lower your guard. Wear a mask not just for yourself but also for people you come in contact with. Photo taken at Pepponi Living Spaces in Kigali, Rwanda.

After being stuck and missing my much-needed work break in Juba, South Sudan after six months, choosing a place to go and unwind while Covid-19 is still a threat around East Africa and many parts of the world was a tough decision. Working as a humanitarian working in fragile contexts, I know fully well that the break is not your normal holiday. It is a requirement to keep your sanity and give you a reprieve.

Traveling during this pandemic is a test of steely nerves. Having moved around 46 countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, dealing with the unseen coronavirus is something else, terrifying, to say the least. It took me months to decide it’s time to pack bags and change my environment. Looking at my veranda in Juba that has also served as my stationary running gym has become tough to endure.

After almost nine years (if my memory serves me right), I am finally back in Rwanda. This is Kigali’s beautiful city hall.

Rwanda was my most practical choice. It is close to Juba via Nairobi and took me only a day’s trip, leaving at 4:00 pm and arriving at 9:00 pm in Kigali, switching flights from Kenya Airways to Rwanda Air with a barely three-hour layover. Both airlines did remarkable jobs keeping the trips convenient and on-time. Filipinos also do not need a visa for a 90-day visit so that extra hassle was off.

Early on, I started practicing wearing my mask at my apartment in South Sudan to get me more acquainted with it. It was my biggest worry especially having asthma. This helped a lot while I was traveling as it became a normal part of my face. I was also able to observe how I breathe and where I was comfortable. I packed several masks in a sealed bag enough for the entire trip.

Here are some things kept in mind and packed in my bag ahead of the trip:

  • Medicines – asthma inhalers, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins
  • Extra face masks and less-than 100mg sanitizers; one I put in my handbag and use from time-to-time
  • Fully-charged phone/s and mobile charger
  • Credit card and spare cash (to avoid ATMs)

I am a sucker for real books but this time I brought my 12-year old Kindle with over 90 e-books on it to travel light. This did not stop me, though, from buying two books in the Genocide Museum. Bookworms are just hopeless paperback fanatics. From Juba to Nairobi to Kigali, the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion gave me a perfect insight on how to handle moments, and generally life, at its most crucial time. Amazing how books fitted what I need so perfectly.

Two Rwandan women catching up while waiting for their bus as I was taking an uphill walk. Rwandans are among the world’s friendliest people. Expect a wave and a smile when people see you walk by.

“It seems that hardship, in forcing us to exercise greater patience and forbearance in life, actually makes us stronger and more robust. From the daily experience of hardship comes a greater capacity for accepting difficulties without losing an inner sense of calm” – the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Isn’t that a beautiful reassurance that out of this runaway pandemic, there is something positive we can do with our lives? Working in global emergencies for a long time, reminded me one more time that we humans have the capacity to endure suffering and rise above it when we keep our mind in a noble goal. I have witnessed this in so many survivors.

Many hotels and restaurants are almost empty. In my first week, I was the lone guest living on the hotel’s 3rd floor. But it is also a great time to bond with staff and workers! That’s what travel is all about – meeting people from different walks of life.

One important part of every trip is bringing a positive spirit and spreading it around you. There will be times when you get annoyed or disturbed during the trip, but be ready to shift gears and tell yourself that the world is already faced with a huge threat. The best thing we can do it make it better. Kindness matters at this point.

Beyond Religion shares this reality-check and very timely advice from the 8th-century Indian thinker Shantideva:

If there is a solution, Then what need is there for dejection? If there is no solution, Then what point is there in dejection?

Now, let me leave you to that thought. The most important take-away I have from Beyond Religion is how you do the meditation process well. When you encounter some distractions, the Dalai Lama tells you to just go back without scolding yourself for giving in to the unwanted thoughts that crept in. Just go back and keep trying.

I think that’s the perfect advice that we must do all the time – we find the good and keep going back to it.

A mother and a baby moving slowly. Do you know that the city is also known for its thousand hills. Perfect for walking and running!

Next stop: #ExploringNature – Akagera Rhino Lodge