Silver Linings

18: Rwanda

Maybe So, Maybe Not. We’ll See.

A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

The moral of this story, is, of course, that no event, in and of itself, can truly be judged as good or bad, lucky or unlucky, fortunate or unfortunate, but that only time will tell the whole story. Additionally, no one really lives long enough to find out the ‘whole story,’ so it could be considered a great waste of time to judge minor inconveniences as misfortunes or to invest tons of energy into things that look outstanding on the surface, but may not pay off in the end.

The wiser thing, then, is to live life in moderation, keeping as even a temperament as possible, taking all things in stride, whether they originally appear to be ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Life is much more comfortable and comforting if we merely accept what we’re given and make the best of our life circumstances. Rather than always having to pass judgement on things and declare them as good or bad, it would be better to just sit back and say, “It will be interesting to see what happens.”

– Chinese Proverb

I came across Maybe So, Maybe Not. We’ll See. several years ago, I forget where. I’ve made a habit of writing down quotes and passages that strike a chord, having scribbled hundreds of them into journals over so many decades. Some stick, others don’t. This one stuck, as some of you already know, my having shared this plagiarized bit of wisdom with you during times of personal challenge.

But while it’s true that this proverb gives equal weight and caution to moments of good fortune as well as bad, it’s also true that we all do a hell of a lot more suffering when faced with unexpected challenge and struggle, so it tends to be most relevant when things just aren’t going our way.

Taking this quote to heart won’t magically make our struggles disappear, and I certainly still get upset when my best laid plans blow up in my face, but what this quote has taught me is to take a deep breath in the midst of a meltdown and remember that all it really means is there’s a new path ahead, and new paths lead to new lessons and new experiences that I never would have otherwise had.

Without my terrible interaction with Philippe and François in Paris, for example, I never would have discovered The Stella Hotel (nor would I have had an amusing story to tell). If not for a last second, late-night AirBnB cancellation in Bordeaux, I never would have spent the night on the Garonne River aboard The Tango Barge, where I received an amazing, budget-friendly itinerary for southern France from a couple who just happened to be completing that exact trip. Hell, even Pascal-the-Connard took me from a four-man bunkroom in a shitty hostel to beachfront accommodations in Nice (but if we’re being completely, honest, if given the chance I’d still punch him in the forehead).

I know I won’t be getting much pity here – Paris, Bordeaux, Nice, ohhh, poor little Peter and his awful little misfortunes – but when you’re in your fifties and literally minutes away from making a bed on the dirty floor of a heavily trafficked train station in a foreign country, you’re not thinking about how lucky you are to be doing it in a region that’s world renowned for it’s grapes.

And besides, I’d been applying the lesson from this proverb long before I set out on this journey. The only difference now is that due to my lifestyle over the last few months, I’m getting a hell of a lot more opportunities to remind myself that this too shall pass – and if Rwanda is any indication of what lies ahead on the African continent, I’m going to get a lot more practice.

Right out of the gate I ran into visa issues trying to get to Uganda – my original destination – making it impossible for me to travel as planned. But had I not run into that problem, I wouldn’t have had the amazing experiences or met the wonderful people that I did in Rwanda.

If not for Covid regulations making travel a pain in the ass across the world, I never would have been able to get a gorilla trekking permit with literally zero notice, as the wait is normally 4 months or more.

If the cost of the Rwandan gorilla trekking permits versus Uganda’s hadn’t caused me so much agita (the money goes to their amazingly successful conservation and gorilla rebound, so it’s for a great cause), I never would have sought out and chosen the “budget package” with Explore Rwanda Tours, landing me at the oldest hotel in all of Musanze, which, because it’s the oldest, just happens to mean the hotel existed when Dian Fossey, whose research camp and grave I’d also come to visit, happened to stay at that very same hotel, in Room 12 – right next to mine, whenever she came down from the mountains over the 18 years she lived in the Virungas, something I wouldn’t even discover until after I’d checked in.

If I hadn’t run into a problem with the timing of my PCR test, I wouldn’t have been forced to take one at Volcanoes National Park and wait several hours for results, missing my scheduled group gorilla trek. Without that unfortunate circumstance, however, I wouldn’t have ended up with an exclusive, private trek (six times more expensive if I’d selected that option), meaning I had the full attention of my guide and tracker, and unobstructed, unfettered access to my 13 member gorilla family, which included a 450-pound Silverback and a 6-month old baby, and whose family name, Hirwa, rather appropriately, means The Lucky One.

If my AirBnB in Kigali hadn’t turned out to be an out-of-date listing leaving me scrambling for a bed for the evening, I wouldn’t have ended up at the $14 per night Inzozi Bed and Breakfast. where I would meet Jacob on my first morning, a fellow American from Dallas who is also on a one-year round-the-world-trek, and who just happened to start his trek within three days of my own. Jacob was quarantined due to a positive covid test (we spoke through his hotel room window) and because of his misfortune, knew that I could get a free Moderna booster shot at a nearby clinic – something that had proved impossible in much more advanced countries through which I’d already passed. Originally resigned to getting my shot nine months from now, I am now fully vaccinated and boostered, and Jacob and I will stay in touch and possibly even meet once again during our overlapping journeys.

The lessons I’ve been repeatedly taught from the proverb – and have now brow-beaten into all of you – is no matter where we are, and what our circumstances, life happens, good and bad, and all either means is there are new things coming on our horizons, many of which never would have otherwise happened.

Consider all of the unique moments of wonderment and joy each of us has experienced in our lives, and all of the people we love and are thankful for, from family and friends to spouses and children and more, so many of whom wouldn’t exist in our lives today if things had only gone as we’d originally planned. So, when things don’t go as expected, it’s fine to be disappointed and feel a bit put out, but take heart in the fact that new experiences lie ahead, and life is moving forward exactly as it should.

The view from my balcony in Kigali, where I was quarantined in my room for three days upon arrival – a mandatory requirement of the Rwandan government, something I learned about only after booking my flight and my AirBnB. I would have to cancel my original room and reserve one in this government approved hotel. The good news is I received three meals a day delivered to my door by my new friend, John. The bad news is the only hot water was in the kitchen. Luckily, room service included adult beverages, so I could steel myself for those cold, cold showers.
While the mosquito netting above my bed proved to be less than 100% effective, the good news is I do have malaria medications. The bad news is the pills make me more susceptible to sunburn, putting me at even greater risk of spontaneous human combustion in the hot African sun.
Luckily, malaria pills aren’t the only method of attacking those pesky little critters. I only hope I was using this thing correctly.
I would earn the freedom to visit the outdoor bar in my hotel compound just in time for New Year’s Eve, however Rwanda imposes a strict covid curfew, requiring activities to cease at 9PM and the streets to be empty by 10. If caught out at 10:01 you are taken to the local futbol field where you are forced to sit on metal benches until sunrise (and it got quite chilly in the evening) and then you are fined $10 (a large sum) and sent on your way. One of the locals laughingly told me he’d ben caught twice so far, while getting dangerously close to a potential third.
It is impossible to visit Rwanda without addressing one of the most difficult topics in world history. What makes the Rwandan Genocide even more difficult is the definition of “history,” as it took place only 27 years ago, when I was 28 years old. Nearly everyone with whom I interacted lived through this horror. Not a single one escaped loss, some losing entire families. The only thing I found more shocking than the horrors that took place here, is what appears to be a very sincere desire and capacity for forgiveness that the people of Rwanda possess. I saw it, heard it, questioned it, and discussed it at great length, and I still have trouble understanding it. A friend I would meet in Kenya some days later fears their capacity for forgiveness relies too heavily on government dictate, and is therefore a powder keg for future conflict. We both hope he is wrong. If peace can be maintained beyond the rule of Paul Kagame, however, Rwanda may very well be a lesson and model for peace and forgiveness the world over. Time will tell.
That said, you, my dear readers, are not getting off that easily…
When people think of the Rwandan Genocide and its main weapon – the machete – far too many Americans picture primitive villagers, the Hutus, fighting equally primitive Tutsis, cultures with which it is hard to connect and understand. But the victims of the Genocide were far from primitive, far from uneducated, and not so very different from you, me, our grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers and kids, as walls upon walls of photos of lost loved ones at the memorial attest.
It is equally important to understand that this wasn’t a fight, but a slaughter of the Tutsi people, from the youngest infant to the oldest grandparent, lives were stamped out at every stage. And despite the perception that the madness seemingly happened overnight, it had actually been carefully planned over many decades.
It is well documented that the French assisted the Hutus with training and weaponry before, during, and even after the slaughter, knowing full well that a Genocide was planned and taking place.
The rest of the World was equally guilty, however…
Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Daillaire was leading the UN Peacekeeping effort in Rwanda in 1994 when he warned World leaders of the coming slaughter. He asked for a force of only 5,000 men, a troop size experts agree would have been more than enough to quell the coming Genocide and save more than 800,000 lives. His request was denied, and the UN was very careful to label the Genocide a “civil war,” a term they knew was a lie, but one that made intervention impossible.
“I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and therefore I know there is a God.”
– Roméo Dallaire
The ethnic concept of Hutus and Tutsis wasn’t even Rwandan. It was introduced by Belgians, and was originally socioeconomic, with genetics coming later. If you owned ten cows or more, you were a Tutsi. Nine cows or less and you were a Hutu. Tutsi tended livestock, while Hutus tended farms. One could actually change from a Hutu to a Tutsi based on changing economic fortunes. While the Tutsi were the minority, this made them economically more powerful than the Hutu, sowing seeds for future discontent.
The manner in which entire families were killed is disturbingly horrific, the details of which I will leave for your own research. In a room dedicated to futures lost, the children of the Genocide, the manner of death was included on placards also bearing the name, age, favorite activity, and fun, innocent characteristics of the children who did nothing to deserve their fate. It was utterly heartbreaking.
“The 600,” the heroic third battalion of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) held the Parliament building against a force of thousands of government forces for four days. When reinforcements arrived, it was the beginning of the end for the Rwandan Genocide. This monument honors two soldiers who kept enemy fighters at bay from atop the roof. One would die, the other continued to fight alone.
Visitors to Parliament can still see signs of The 600’s heroic resistance.
The day after gaining my quarantine freedom, my Explore Rwanda Tours trekking guide-turned-great-friend, Bosco, picked me up at the Parador Hotel and drove me several hours north to Musanze. Bosco and I shared a lot of laughs over the next few days together, and he went out of his way again and again to make sure I was enjoying my visit. If you’re ever blessed to take a Rwandan gorilla trek, use Explore Rwanda Tours, and be sure to ask for my friend, Bosco.
“I have two homes. My first home is Karisoke in the forest, and my second is Room 12 at Muhabura Hotel,” reads the the placard above the door. The quote is attributed to Dian Fossey, famed researcher and author of Gorillas In The Mist, whose camp and gravesite I came to the Virunga Mountains to see. I had no idea she’d stayed here until I was being shown my room.
A chair and walking stick are just a couple of items of Fossey’s that remain in the room, which can still be rented by guests of the hotel.
My friend Theo Mwambutsa, the Muhabura Hotel manager, bartender, waiter, and most importantly, a truly wonderful human being.
My friend Joel, from Musanze. He is hoping to go to university and maybe one day become a guide.
The hike to Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Center would take around three hours, with a team of armed rangers meeting us to provide security from any buffalo we might encounter. As it turned out, mud would be a bigger challenge than buffalo. Next time – rent the boots!
Mom – click the underlined links for video!
Oh relax, it’s just a little worm.
The three-hour, uphill muddy hike would lead us to the camp and gravesite of Dian Fossey, who requested she be buried alongside her gorilla family.
Grave of the famous silverback, Digit, beloved by Fossey. His death at the hands of poachers in 1977 led to what today is known as The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Become a member and donate today!
The cemetery of Fossey’s beloved gorillas, with her own plot and headstone at the far corner.
At the base of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, newborn mountain gorillas are named during the Kwita Izina naming ceremony. Covid has forced recent ceremonies to go virtual, but this event usually draws thousands of spectators.
Having missed my group trek due to an unexpected PCR test, my guide Ignacius and I would be met by a single Ranger named Theo for my solo trek. Theo led us through the bamboo forest to a team of waiting trackers, one of whom would cut a trail for Ignacius and me. After a short walk, I heard what sounded like a low grunting coming from the thick forest ahead. Ignacius grunted in return. A grunt from ahead, a grunt from Ignacius. And then, suddenly. we stepped out from the thicket…
…and just like that, I was staring at the ass end of a 450-lb male Silverback gorilla named Munyinga, three females, and a 6- month old baby, all members of the Hirwa family,
Just like human spawn, this little guy was having nothing of his family’s desire to catch a few minutes of shut-eye, crawling, climbing, and playing when all they wanted was a quick nap. He even made his way toward us at one point, which gave my guide and tracker some concern, forcing us to back up in the event the mother, who had sat up and taken notice, might come to retrieve him.
A short time later, another member of the family would arrive.
Walking up hill from the lounging family members, we discovered the rest of the family.
Including twin brothers, Silverbacks in training.
When we came back to the Silverback and females, they’d gotten up from their slumber for a little snack. For a quick second, Munyinga even made eye contact. Luckily for me, I was told that it is a fallacy that you should “never ever make eye contact with a Silverback.”
The best part, however, was saved for last. Munyinga had picked a spot for one last snack before he and the family would head off into the bush at the end of my hour, as if on cue, and that’s when other members of the family would walk closely past…two of them within touching distance.

I came to Rwanda for one reason – to see gorillas up close. Despite what Lonely Planet says, this is, was, and will always be my #1. It lived up to the hype, and then some, and I am still in awe that it really happened.

But Rwanda itself was yet another unexpectedly amazing country on this journey, filled with wonderful human beings. I walked tough-looking neighborhoods where every single person said hello to the passing mzungu, many adding unexpectedly animated waves. I met strangers on the street, Joel in Musanze, Moses in Kigali, who stopped to talk to me, take a picture, and exchange contact information. We still exchange messages today. John, assigned to my room at the Parador, could not have been more kind, we sharing stories about our mothers, fathers, families, lives, work and more, and we too are still in touch. I still exchange messages with Rosalie from the Inzozi Bed and Breakfast, Theo from Muhabura Hotel, and of course, my dear friend Bosco.

Life in Rwanda is far from easy. Kigali is a hectic and bustling capital, somehow clean and dirty, advanced and archaic, all at the same time. It has come so far in twenty-seven years, yet has such a long, long way to go. I was awed and touched and hopeful and hesitant about the Rwandan people’s seeming ability to move on from the horrors of 1994, each person I met talking so sincerely of the futility of revenge, acknowledging that it is an otherwise endless cycle, stating their determination to end the cycle right here and now.

And yet, as my friend and I would later discuss, it still feels like such an impossible challenge, at odds with human nature since the beginning of time. But I have witnessed success against the impossible all along this journey, and goals are only impossible until human beings succeed and prove their doubters wrong. I look forward to being proven wrong. And I look forward to returning to Rwanda one day to admit as much in person, and ask forgiveness for those doubts from the friends I have made here. If there is one thing I am certain of, it’s that forgiveness will be granted.

A toast to Rwanda, my Rwandan friends, to Hirwa, my Virunga gorilla family, and to the hope of a future filled with true peace and prosperity.

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