Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tracking Gorillas

Hidden among the bamboo and dense jungle of the volcanoes in the northwest of Rwanda are some of the world's last remaining mountain gorillas. We tracked those gorillas yesterday and it was an absolutely amazing experience. One minute we were walking closely behind our guide, and the next we were face-to-face with an enormous 200kg silverback. It is difficult to describe the exhilaration we felt upon first setting eyes on a wild mountain gorilla. Really, the photos say it all. They are captivating, contemplative, gentle, magical creatures that are so human-like it's mystical. We got to spend an hour with the gorillas though we could easily have watched them for days. One of the indisputable highlights of our journey. The US$500 per person permit was worth every penny.

Gisenyi photos

After our mountain bike tour we took a short excursion to the Rwandan resort town of Gisenyi, on the shore of Lake Kivu. The views were magnificent but my favorite moment was walking to the border of the DRC and peering into the Congo - I have an inexplicable curiosity about the DRC. Next time I'll have to cross the border.

Mountain Bike Adventure!

We went mountain biking (for the first time) around the gorgeous countryside and volcanoes of northwestern Rwanda on Tuesday. Kim, the Director of Project Rwanda, a terrific organization committed to furthering the economic development of Rwanda through various initiatives based on the bicycle, had pledged to show us the "real" Rwanda. We did a three hour loop, through rural villages not accessible by road, climbing up to an overlook where we could see Lake Ruhondo and a dramatic chain of volcanoes. It was stunning. Kids from the villages would chase us and shamefully they could run faster than I could bike up the mountains. Riding with us was a member of the Rwandan National Cycling Team, their mechanic, and a few friends. It was great fun.

I also acquired a super chic Project Rwanda jersey! And because of it I feel compelled to pick up cycling as a new hobby when I return to the States so that I can flaunt it ;-)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Genocide Remembered...

We visited the genocide memorial yesterday and it really brought us face-to-face with the horrors of the past. We learned much about how it was that the world watched as the genocide unfolded, the cold and calculated planning of the genocide and its bloody execution. The memorial is extremely well done and includes video testimony from survivors. Buried in the memorial gardens are the remains of 250,000 victims of the genocide, gathered there as a final resting place. The memorial was both exceptionally disturbing and tremendously moving.

While we were there we kept thinking how astonishing it is that all of this happened just 15 years ago, which means it's likely that almost every person living in Rwanda today (except perhaps for some young children) was affected by the genocide, and yet Rwanda is one of the safest and most orderly countries in Africa and there is little evidence today of the horrible violence that occurred in such recent history. How a country recovers psychologically from something like this and is able to progress so much in such a short period is difficult to comprehend.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Camping at Akagera National Park

We went camping this past weekend with Mike and his housemates plus another 50 of their friends at Akagera National Park! The park is located a few hours east of Kigali on the Tanzanian border. Game viewing is not comparable to the Serengeti, but we did see a bunch of hippos in the lake near the campsite as well as several baboons and monkeys on our drive. We had so much fun that I might even consider camping again (I had previously put a moratorium on camping post-Kilimanjaro). I was super impressed with some of the master-campers in the group. Stephanie (one of Mike’s housemates) even whipped up chocolate chip banana pancakes over a campfire for breakfast for everyone – yum! Some photos below.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Project Kivu Fresh Chicken

We're in Rwanda working on our second project. This time our "client" is a friend from primary school named Mike. Mike worked in private equity in Chicago and served as CFO/COO of several ventures in the U.S. over the past 12 years before he decided to come to Rwanda ten months ago to start his own socially-minded entrepreneurial ventures. We've spent a lot of time with Mike discussing the failures of the traditional development model in Rwanda (large sums of donor capital, little accountability for effective deployment and limited resources with private sector business experience, resulting in tremendous wastage and unsustainable initiatives) and Mike fervently believes that building private sector businesses in partnership with local Rwandan entrepreneurs is the best means to have social impact in this country. He has created a fund to invest in this type of commerce and his initial area of focus is a set of businesses that manufacture protein, which is extremely lacking in the diets of most Rwandans and is a serious health issue that doesn't get nearly as much attention as HIV/AIDS or malaria. The first of these businesses is a chicken farm, but eggs and milk are the most inexpensive forms of protein so Mike has detailed plans to build a dairy business as well. Vertical integration is much more important in this market because it's difficult to control the quality of inputs unless you own them yourself so he's also building a feed business and a hatchery. The crazy thing is that prior to the chicken farm Mike had absolutely no experience in agriculture. Shows what can be done by a smart guy with a great deal of conviction.

Our work with Mike is focused on the chicken farm, and this time we're rolling up our sleeves and getting into detailed operations management. We spent a day at the farm with Mike and his General Manager Jean-Felix learning about the business, and since then we've been analyzing throughput, bottlenecks, maximum capacity and optimal configuration for the new buildings being constructed at the farm. Cranberry case, anyone? I actually love this stuff. I love the math and the problem solving. The recommendations are also extremely tangible. Perhaps I should think about abandoning digital media for manufacturing!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Land of a Thousand Hills

We arrived in Kigali a few days ago and love it here! The country is absolutely beautiful with lush, green, rolling hills everywhere and the weather has been wonderful – 80 degrees F and sunny during the day punctuated by short rainstorms (currently in the rainy season) and 65 degrees at night. Kigali is cleaner than most U.S. cities and the quality of the infrastructure is outstanding – without a doubt the best roads we’ve seen across Africa. We’re staying at Vipin’s friend’s house with him and his incredibly warm and welcoming housemates, and they have made our stay in Kigali that much more enjoyable. Rwanda is definitely one of the loveliest places we’ve visited so far.

Some interesting facts we’ve learned about Rwanda:
  • With a population approaching 10 million people in an area the size of Maryland, Rwanda is the most densely populated country in continental Africa (though you would never guess by looking around)
  • 80% of the population engages in subsistence farming
  • GDP growth rate of 7% makes Rwanda a top performer across Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Rwanda has the highest number of female parliamentarians in the world
  • The largest solar farm in Sub-Saharan Africa is in Rwanda
  • The country boasts a zero-tolerance policy on corruption
  • President Kagame’s Advisory Council includes the CEO of Starbucks, the CEO of Google, and the British Prime Minister
  • A third of the world’s mountain gorilla population of around 700 lives in Rwanda
  • All Rwandans are required by law to spend the last Saturday morning of every month working on a development project in their communities

Rwanda has come a long way since the terrible genocide of 1994, when almost one million people were murdered over a period of 100 days. Under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, the country has made significant strides in economic development and is now being called the “Singapore of Africa.” Though 20% of the country’s income still comes from foreign aid, the government is focused on promoting direct investment, and private sector reform has decreased Rwanda’s dependence on aid. One of the biggest success stories so far is Gahaya Links, a company that sells Rwandan peace baskets made by women survivors of the genocide. The country’s economic plan, Vision 2020, aims to increase per capita GDP 4x to US$900 and turn the country into a technology hub for Africa. The focus on investment in the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) sector is particularly interesting to us given our backgrounds in digital media. The government has invested in building out the fiber infrastructure around Kigali and laying cable across the country, and has also purchased rights to the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System, which should significantly expand communication capabilities and decrease Internet access costs. The government also has plans to link up schools to the Internet to help drive education quality.

It’s not all roses here, of course. Three-quarters of the population still live below the US poverty line of $1.25 per day, much of the country is still without running water and electricity (daily power and water outages are common in Kigali as well) and physical infrastructure still has a long way to go, but the country is on an amazing path given its history and we’re so glad to have the opportunity to visit on this trip.

Monday, October 19, 2009

From Summit to Sea

Zanzibar was beautiful, relaxing and just what we needed after our travels through Tanzania. I went diving for the first time which was amazing (though a little scary at first). The underwater life was pretty incredible to see -- it felt like we went from an overland safari to an underwater safari. Though we didn't get any photos underwater, but here is a shot of us with our wonderful instructor.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tanzania safari photos

After Kilimanjaro, we traveled from Arusha to the Ngorongoro Crater to Olduvai Gorge to Serengeti National Park to the Serengeti Mara Triangle before heading to Zanzibar for a few days of rest. Click here for a map.

We were also lucky enough to see a wildebeest river crossing thanks to our awesome guide, Frank, from Sayari Mara Camp (the most amazing place we've ever stayed)!

Small World, Part III

Walked into a business school classmate and friend from NYC, Nushin, at Kibo Hut on Mount Kilimanjaro. We had just descended from the summit and she was resting in preparation for her ascent the next morning. Hopefully how busted I must have looked didn’t dissuade her from the nightmarish climb awaiting her ;-)

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was truly the most difficult physical challenge I have ever experienced. I feel like Kilimanjaro is “marketed” as a mountain anyone can climb. Frankly, I’m shocked that so many people actually climb this mountain every year. It was extremely difficult. And I consider myself relatively physically fit.

Day 5 of our trek – allow me to set the scene. First, the altitude had been causing headaches, loss of appetite, and seriously irregular digestion; hence we hadn’t eaten much of our last few meals so we didn’t have much energy to start the final ascent. Second, the summit ascent is by torchlight and you leave at midnight and arrive in the midmorning, so add sleep deprivation to the mix. Third, you have to trudge up loose volcanic scree (did I mention in the dark?) which means every step up is also half a step back down. Fourth, the air at the top contains only 50% of the oxygen of air at sea level, so just breathing is challenging. And fifth, it was freezing. At the summit I noticed that the corners of Kruti’s lips and eyes had a bluish tint due to lack of oxygen. That day my pulse had been more than 120 beats per minute for at least 12 straight hours (not sure whether that is good or bad for my health).

But six hours into our final ascent as the sun rose over the jagged peaks of Mawenzi and the bed of clouds below, I started to feel emotional and tear up. It was probably due to the combination of sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion, but it was also one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. It was uplifting, and it gave me a second wind. At 9:20am we finally made it to Uhuru Peak, 5895 meters/19,345 feet, the highest point in Africa. Adrenaline and determination got us there, but once there I had little motivation and energy to come back down. As we started our descent our guide Mussa asked if I was feeling ok, and I replied, “Yes, why, don’t I look ok?” (I thought, perhaps the color of my face had turned from brown to a smurf-ish blue). Mussa responded, “You’re walking like a drunk man.” I don’t remember ever feeling so extremely tired, weak, and completely used up. Luckily we could ski down the volcanic scree so what took us nine hours up only took three hours down. And then we had to walk another 3-4 hours to our next campsite. Brutal.

We’ve been talking about our climb pretty much everyday since. It was one of those experiences. Kruti and Salil agree with the consensus – happy they did it, but they would never do it again. Me? Perhaps it was because my altitude sickness was milder or because my memory is shorter, but if Jay (my brother) wanted to climb Kilimanjaro and needed a companion, I’d do it again.

Kilimanjaro photos

Climbing Kilimanjaro took me through a full range of emotions over the course of the six day hike -- excitement, love, hate, cold and exhaustion:-)

We climbed the Rongai route, a "relatively easier route" according to the company we booked through, but I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have made it up the mountain on any more difficult route -- let's just say I got a headache on Day 1 of the hike and we were only at 8500 feet above sea level at the first camp. Here is a detailed description of the Rongai route.

I give our guides, Mussa and James, all the credit for our summit. They were the best guides we could have ever imagined, especially since we had heard some horror stories about Kili guides before we left. First, it's worth noting that the African Walking Company runs an incredibly professional and well-organized operation from start to finish. Mussa (pronounced "moose-aa"), our head guide, was the quieter, more serious guide and his 10+ years of experience and focus on safety gave me a lot of comfort that we were in good hands. James, our assistant guide, aka "DJ Bush Baby" was the more gregarious of the team and kept us laughing all the way up the mountain. We had so much fun with them over the course of the hike and couldn't recommend them more highly to anyone considering climbing.

On the day of the summit ascent, Mussa and James brought a third member of the team (Ernest, our favorite porter) along with us so we had 1-to-1 coverage to help us up the mountain. We started at midnight and within a couple of hours Mussa was already carrying my day-pack (clearly he noticed I was having a tough time already). Ernest probably amazed us most though -- he served us tea at 11:30pm before suiting up to climb with us, carried hot tea up the mountain for us to drink at Gillman's Point (18,600 feet), walked me down from the summit to camp, and then served us lunch at base camp, before heading to the next camp at double our speed to prepare dinner before our arrival. Seriously, these are the hardest working guys ever.

It was an incredible week, and one I can appreciate significantly more now that I'm off the mountain, clean and well-rested. We took lots of photos along the way and the slideshow above includes some of the highlights. You can clearly see us getting progressively dirtier and more tired, but we're still smiling the whole way!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Our expedition begins tomorrow

Tomorrow we start climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest freestanding mountain in the world and the highest peak in Africa. Feeling equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Enough people have told us they’re glad they did it but they would never do it again that we’re slightly dubious about the experience. The trepidation also comes from reading notes like this in our pre-climb briefing: “There is little doubt that taking Diamox will significantly increase your chances of summiting, but it may also marginally increase your chance of dying." Apparently altitude sickness is serious stuff. More than 75% of Kilimanjaro climbers experience at least some form of mild altitude sickness, but more serious conditions such as High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (water in the lungs) and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (swelling in the brain) can be fatal unless the casualty descends immediately. Why are we doing this again? Hopefully we’ll live to tell the story. Inshallah.

Small World, Part II

Saw a guy wearing a Chicago Botanic Gardens hat on our bus from Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania. Turned out he lives in Northbrook, IL – my hometown. And twice a week he goes to the Botanic Gardens, where my Dad volunteers his time every week. They’ve probably seen each other. A 20-passenger border-crossing bus and we found another passenger from Northbrook, IL. Small world.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Kenya photos

Our time in Nairobi was short (just over 24 hours), but we managed to attend a birthday party, feed giraffes, and eat dinner at the "best" Indian restaurant in town.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hello East Africa

We left West Africa, picked up our friend Salil at London Heathrow (he's spending the next two weeks with us in Kenya and Tanzania), and just arrived in Nairobi. Looking forward to the next segment of our trip. East Africa here we are. First destination - our friend Isis' cousin's birthday party - landed, checked into the hotel, showered, and ready to party - how else would we get over the fatigue from flying for the past 20 hours?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dakar Photos

We had a wonderful few days in Dakar despite the oppressive heat and humidity. We stayed with friends, Elya and Katherine (thanks to Anil for the introduction!), walked around the Medina, visited the beautiful Ile de Goree, known for its role in the Atlantic slave trade, and relaxed at Plage de N'Gor, one of the lovely beaches Dakar is known for.

Art Collectors

Experienced something new Monday night. I passed out, and not due to inebriation. It was hot and humid in Dakar and I had been feeling a bit nauseous most of the afternoon; Kruti and I had just finished dinner and I got up to wash my hands. All of a sudden I felt lightheaded and dizzy, everything started to whirl, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor and Kruti was desperately trying to bring me back to consciousness. It was scary at the time, not so much for me but for Kruti. I imagine how I would have felt had I seen her collapse to the floor and stare blankly at the ceiling like I did. Anyway, 20min under a fan and I was feeling fine, almost back to normal. My brother-in-law Vivek diagnosed that it was likely a vagal response, perhaps triggered by hyperthermia and dehydration. Crazy. Never heard of it before.

The more interesting story was the chain of events that followed. Kruti’s sister Riti suggested we see a doctor just to check blood pressure, EKG, etc., and our host Elya recommended the clinic SOS Medicin because the doctors speak English. There I had a consultation with an outstanding doc (best bedside manner I’ve encountered) who confirmed that all tests were normal and independently diagnosed that it was likely a vagal response. While the doc was trying to shave a few patches of my chest hair to get the EKG sensors to stick, Kruti was admiring the artwork in his office. We saw similar paintings throughout the clinic and later when we asked the receptionist where we could find artwork like that in Dakar, he made a few phone calls and soon we were ushered upstairs to meet the clinic’s proprietor Vasenta.

Vasenta is a South Indian woman (the first Indian person we met in West Africa) who was studying/practicing law in France where she met/married a Senegalese doctor 15 years ago and decided to move to Dakar and start a clinic together. All of the paintings in the clinic were by the same local Senegalese artist named Serimacen, and Vasenta and her husband had another collection at home. They were big fans. And so were we. So Vasenta offered to connect us to Serimacen, and the next day we spent a few hours with him at his atelier, looking at his paintings and listening to his stories and inspirations. Fantastic guy.

Serimacen paints about “the struggles of Africa,” and women are the main subjects of his paintings. The one we liked best was a painting of a woman and her two daughters standing at the sea and contemplating their son/brother who had just left by boat to try to find work in Spain. There’s a sadness in their expressions because they know that most young men don’t make it since they’re turned back at the coast and many die at sea in their small fishing boats. Serimacen asserted that this still remains a huge problem in Africa. We liked the painting so much we bought it, along with the story – our story of meeting Serimacen.