Sylvestre's Stories

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 | Nyamata, Rwanda (map)

Sylvestre has taught me a lot during my visits to Rwanda.
Of the small group of young Rwandans with whom I work each time I come here, Sylvestre holds a special place. The other Rwandans on our team call him Mzee, a Swahili term reserved for respected elders. He gets that nickname in part because he's the oldest, but at roughly 33 (his exact age is sort of a guess) Sylvestre is barely older than the others, so there is more to it. It's not rank or education either—he's our office's driver and fix-it-man. Rather, they treat Sylvestre with an extra touch of respect in part because he is "a survivor." (In Rwanda, that term has only one meaning: a survivor of the 1994 genocide.) None of the others are; they all returned to Rwanda in the aftermath, having grown up in Burundi, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, or Tanzania. But Sylvestre and his family stuck it out in Rwanda, despite being of mixed ethnic heritage, and thus subject to the anti-Tutsi campaigns that erupted with increasing frequency throughout the '80s and early '90s before fully exploding in 1994.

Gorilla Country: There Are No Creationists in Virunga

Monday, June 13, 2011 | Virunga National Park, Rwanda (map)

I had to remind myself that they only look like humans in gorilla suits.
Within a week of returning home from family vacation in Ireland, I was back on the road for another work trip to Rwanda—my third in the last year and fourth overall.

In my previous three trips, I had never managed to visit Rwanda's most famous tourist attraction—the mountain gorillas. The price tag was a big reason. Visiting the gorillas requires getting to Rwanda in the first place (not a cheap proposition), then to Virunga National Park, on the country's northern border. But the expenses don't end there; the permit to join a small group and enter the lush highland forests, under mandatory escort by a team of trackers, guides, and armed scouts, costs US$500. For that price, one is allowed to trek up the volcanoes' steep slopes to find a gorilla family and observe them for a maximum of an hour. Of course, seeing them is not guaranteed, and online travel forums are full of horror stories of visitors paying the hefty fee only to climb through

Leaving Ireland on a High Note: Galway and the Aran Islands

Sunday, June 5, 2011 | Inis Mor, Co. Galway, Ireland (map)

Family portrait above the cliffs at Dún Aengus fort, on the largest of the Aran Islands
Galway, Ireland's third largest city, is everything its fellow towns along Ireland's western coast aren't—a cosmopolitan, boisterous charmer of a city, alive with the energy of outdoor cafes and street buskers, of art galleries and open-air food and craft markets.

But even Galway can't hide the signs of the times; like everywhere else in Ireland, Galway's residents spent the last decade building. The B&B in which we stayed was just the latest of a long string of recently—and shoddily—constructed places we lodged in, adorned with cheap furnishings and tacky décor. While the various B&B owners were all exceptionally warm and inviting, they also all spoke of Ireland's economic boom and bust in gloomy terms. Ireland's housing bubble was a large part of the cause, but so was America's own economic slump; as our host in Galway explained, the economy in this part of Ireland rises and falls with the tides of American tourists, and this year we