#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

Traveling solo in Bali: I realized happiness is made, not found

She admits it was daunting. But it also taught her a lesson on reaching out to others. She also proved many would be happy to help.

By Shintya Kurniawan

It was unplanned. It was fun and life changing. These are the four simple lines to sum-up my experience.

It started when a book-review competition rewarded me free plane tickets to Bali on 2013.

I can choose the dates, the sponsor reserved and paid for my tickets. I am grateful and excited. However, I have never bought tickets to travel alone. It was a first time for me.

When I go for trips, at least one friend joins me in the journey. Except having the free tickets, I have no particular reason to be in Bali. I have visited the island of gods multiple times. What would I do there alone?

Then, I remembered there was this annual Ubud Writers and Readers Festival to tick off from my bucket list. So I requested to fly on the dates to attend the event on October 2013. The event, however, fell on weekdays. Everyone was working and nobody wants to go with me.

I guess not too many people would take a leave from work for a literature event. My excitement turned into a dilemma – should I cancel or reschedule the trip until we have a national holiday? Should I still go?

Thankfully, my traveling buddy, Mardea, decided to join me. But she could only do it on the last three days due to work. That, at least, relieved me. I have three days to enjoy my own company until she arrives. It should not be too hard.

Shintya’s first trip alone changed the way she looked at the world and people. It also opened doors for more adventures.

I decided to test my survival skills, packed my bags and just took on the challenge. I booked a motorbike and a hostel near the airport in Denpasar – Bali’s capital city. When I arrived, it was already dark and my GPS could not locate or direct me to the right hostel.

That night, I ended up sleeping at a different hostel – the nearest one I could find. The next morning, I decided to go to Ubud with the rented motorbike. I never drove a motorbike in Bali before. I vaguely remembered the road to get to Ubud from Denpasar. Normally I go by car with Mardea’s sister.

With the help of GPS, numerous wrong turns, countless stops and directions from friendly Balinese people, I arrived in Ubud in one piece. Finally! I did a daring 24 km drive by motorbike in an unknown route. Bucket list checked! The first day of the festival was a bit intimidating. I did not know anyone. Over time I learned how to start conversations and made new friends with interesting strangers.

My Bali experience opened my eyes to the world. After that, I have had the chance to travel alone to various places. During these times, I am bolder. These experiences shaped me to be more independent, raise self-awareness in many things in the world, as well as restore faith in humanity.

My prejudices on people got dramatically reduced as my sense of awareness towards new environments sharpened. I have met numerous angels (without wings) who helped me find direction, share travel tips (sometimes unsolicited) and clinch memorable experiences.

While in Frankfurt, Germany, a Spanish guy helped me buy the right ticket to Karlsruhe and even walked me to the right seat in the right coach at five in the morning. When I asked why he did it to me, he simply said that I looked confused and that I reminded him of himself when he first tried buying a train ticket in Germany. He got help from a stranger and he was happy to pay it forward. There is too much goodness in many people around us.

She met Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, at Ubud Writers event.

When I was in Probolinggo, East Java, Indonesia, the hostel owner asked me to help her interpret for expat guests who missed their train. She then insisted to drive me to my next destination at a neighboring city called Malang. She even insisted to pay for my lunch. In Nagarkot, Nepal, two tourists from Italy shared laughter and lessons with me about surviving scams while traveling.

These adventures blur all the labels and boxes that divide us. Although I still enjoy traveling with friends and family, I realized that it is healthy to take time embarking on a journey on your own. Traveling solo encouraged me to be comfortable with myself as company – making peace with myself.

I will most likely not bother to talk to other people no matter how interesting they are if I am with friends. Alone in trains taught me how to live without internet connection and try to communicate even in different language. It makes you creative and resourceful! It also trained my senses to be more alert of what is happening around me.

A female solo-traveler still raises eyebrows in Asia. The risks will certainly make our parents worry – but once you go home safe, it also strengthens trust for your next journey. In the end, traveling alone helped me to be brave and to say yes with many adventures ahead. Indeed, happiness is made not found. Most of it along the road.

Solo traveling can make a conservative Indonesian family concerned. But it also builds trust when you go back safe after a trip.

Shintya is a media and communications practitioner from Indonesia. She used to work as journalist and NGO worker. Currently, she is based in Poland to pursue her second Master’s Degree in Humanitarian Action. Photography, folding origami and collecting batik are some of her interests.