A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Rwanda and a Final Goodbye

I pen this now from a coffee shop at Nairobi International Airport, several hours out from the flight that will take me home, back to the United States and into a new journey over the summer months as I attend weddings, speak at conferences, and visit old friends.

My website was blocked these past weeks as I traveled through Rwanda, and so, apologies for the gap in dispatches — this is the last I will write from Africa.

I am ready to leave.

This is not always the case as I board a homeward bound flight, but while I loved much of my time in Africa, the travel grows weary on me these past few weeks—I added another bout with serious traveler’s sickness to my already long running list — and I am looking forward to a bit of down time before planning some travels this fall. Several years ago I penned a piece about going home called a A Little Love Letter… On Travel and Leave-Takings. It’s still a favorite of mine, and much of that still holds true on this leave-taking. Friends have had babies these past few weeks, other friends planned weddings this month and I look forward to attending, and too, my niece Ana is begging for me to return and scoop her up for some sort of adventure — even a stateside adventure is “acceptable if necessary” according to her.

Fun finds at the morning market. The baskets full of beans and local veggies made for a pretty arrangement and made wandering Kampala’s small markets are the more fun.

And so, I write these thoughts with less nostalgia than I would have guessed going into a long-haul flight taking me back to America. Less nostalgia, but no less appreciation and gratitude for the experiences afforded to me these past four months. There are countless new friendships that shaped my time on the continent, and some of the most incredible wildlife experiences our planet can afford. It’s been good. And so, onward with the final dispatch covering a bit about Rwanda these past few weeks, as well as some of my travel plans and the cities I’ll visit throughout the summer months if you’re keen to meet up!

On Traveling Through Rwanda

Rwanda caught me by surprise. Many nations have a nickname, and as I passed from Uganda, the “Pearl of Africa” into Rwanda, the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” I was unsure of nature of the country I would find on the other side of this new border crossing. The diversity of each country in East Africa has surprised me, though they share borders (some borders that seem quite fluid if you look far enough into the past), the modern versions of these countries have strong national identities and cultures unique unto themselves. Rwanda is no exception, and the visible cues that I had switched countries were as noticeable as the change in demeanor.

Women in Rwanda head home at the end of the day, walking up a tall hill with their goods.

The sweeping beauty of the landscape is the first sign you’ve entered a new country. Though Uganda shares topography with Rwanda, Rwanda’s fierce dedication to keeping up appearances manifests as a countryside free of plastics blighting the hills and gutters. My bus rocketed through the countryside at sickening pace, taking turns I was sure would tip us, and the cleanliness of each new village we whizzed past struck me as different. Women walked the roadsides with their goods balanced on their heads, children snapped to attention, hollering “mzungu” at the top of their lungs and waving with unbridled enthusiasm.

The beauty here struck me so strongly, perhaps, because of the country’s past. Beyond the fact that you can track gorillas in the wild here (which I did not, though I did see monkeys in one of the other forests), the country is most notable in the global consciousness for the horrific genocide back in 1994 that took the lives of roughly a million people in the span of just 100 days. Over the past three weeks I zigzagged my way across the country from the gorgeous Lake Kivu, which forms a partial border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the high peaks near Virunga National Park, home to several extinct (and active if you’re on the DRC side) volcanoes.

Throughout, Rwanda’s beauty was staggering. Terraced hillsides sidle up against lush forests containing some of the richest biodiversity in Africa.

lake kivu rwanda

Storms rode in from the east with rains and spectacular lightning as the sun set over Lake Kivu with layers of misty mountains far into the horizon.

The air thinned as we climbed higher and the sun peaked from behind the clouds to reveal the tip of Mount Muhabura, an extinct volcano in Rwanda.

On Traveling with Friends

These past three weeks were also special in that I threw off my solo travel mantel and teamed up with the loveliest blogging couple I know, Dan and Audrey from Uncornered Market. When we realized we would both pass through Uganda the same week, and could then easily align our Africa travels, I jumped at the chance to tag along—and tag along is exactly what I did since Audrey is an amazing travel planner and plotted out the important parts of our joint travels, allowing me to transition into “blindly accept and follow” mode for several weeks.

We talked over drinks in Jinja, Uganda, laughed as the wind whipped our faces on our tour of Kampala via motorbikes, colloquially known as boda-bodas, and survived an eleven hour mostly food-less bus ride into Rwanda. We headed straight to the gorgeous blue waters of Lake Kivu, where a friend of mine from Thailand (who is now working in South Sudan) joined our motley crew.

To say that having friends here was a lovely way to end this trip is an understatement.

Not a picture of my friends, though we did goof around like monkeys at times. This family of Vervet monkeys posed for me in the trees near Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park.

On Future Travels

As always, I have no clue where my next plans will take me—I dream of visiting Bangladesh and exploring more of India. Ethiopia was a purposeful oversight on this trip as I would love to dedicate an entire month to exploring the deep history there. Or, as always, the Spanish-speaking regions of the world beckon as a potential home-base for a more grounded six months exploring a region.

What I do know though, is that I will be in Los Angeles next week for a wedding, then home to Florida for another wedding. July kicks off in Portland, Oregon for the WDS conference, and I’ll head to Seattle just after that for a couple of weeks. I am speaking at a conference in Atlanta late July, then on to NYC for the beginning of August. If meet ups in any of those places sound good, leave a comment or reach out on the Facebook page to let me know!

As always, thanks for the support these past months!

~S

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71 Responses to A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Rwanda and a Final Goodbye

  1. Piotr Kulczycki October 27, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    But this post you convinced me to go to Africa. Seems like great photo opportunities…

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 28, 2015 at 10:44 am #

      There are some truly gorgeous places there and wonderful places and people you could photograph. :)

  2. Pranish Shakya June 14, 2015 at 7:51 am #

    Africa is really a place Heaven on Earth. Hoping my Dream to visit Africa will be true some day. :)

  3. Anita May 15, 2015 at 1:47 am #

    Since my childhood, I’ve always thought that African women balancing vases or buckets on their heads must be so strong. I’d love to meet them one day.

  4. Suzanne Fluhr February 20, 2015 at 4:58 am #

    I visited Africa for the first time in October—-South Africa—-which as you describe, is very much its own place. Your photos “almost” make me want to visit Rwanda. They are gorgeous and no one can look at your monkey photo and not have a large grin on their face.

    • Shannon O'Donnell February 20, 2015 at 10:01 am #

      Rwanda is one of the prettiest and most unexpectedly lovely countries I have visited — I highly recommend you visit if you are in the area! :)

  5. Rp December 10, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

    The vervet monkeys are so cute.

  6. Rebekah Voss November 24, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

    I LOVE the photos of Mount Muhabura and Lake Kivu. Such incredible lighting, doesn’t even look real! Thanks for the inspiration, Shannon.

    • Shannon O'Donnell November 24, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

      Thank you Rebekah, Rwanda was such a surprise for me — so much prettier landscape than I anticipated. :)

  7. Fabiana October 13, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

    Rwanda sounds
    like a really cool place to visit. I must admit that I never thought of it as a
    place I’d like to visit. But I am considering it now.

    • Shannon O'Donnell October 13, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

      It surprised me as well! I had heard good things from friends but was even so pleasantly surprised by how lovely it is!

  8. Mary E. Ellis August 14, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    Hey Shannon, I’m in Brooklyn and would be happy to meet up / recommend places if you’re interested. Just lemme know!

    • Shannon O'Donnell August 14, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

      Hi and thanks! I am in staying in Harlem for another five days, and then back to Florida — am keen to grab a coffee if you’d like, and if we can’t make it work this time, I should be back around the holidays. :)

      • Mary E. Ellis August 15, 2014 at 11:37 am #

        Ah, that would be fun! I’m free on Sunday, but like you said, if that doesn’t work we can always catch up another time. Also, I’m sure you have a ton of things planned, but the group the Neofuturists are performing for free tonight and tomorrow night in the East River Park right along the water. It’s a fun event (that ends around 9ish) in a really pretty location, with the LES nearby for drinks afterwards. I went last night and it was great :)

        • Shannon O'Donnell August 16, 2014 at 11:11 am #

          I didn’t make it to the concert, but thank you so much for the details. I’ll be in Brooklyn tomorrow for part of the afternoon, if you are around and perhaps want to grab a coffee, shoot me a message (727-642-8179) :)

  9. Shaun Robertson August 6, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    Interesting read and find. I will be flying into Narobi early 2015 with no return flight booked. I will have to check out your Africa posts for highlights!

    Shaun
    http://www.thislifeintrips.com

    • Shannon O'Donnell August 6, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

      Safe travels Shaun! I will have a post coming up in the next month or so with heaps of ideas and thoughts on East Africa, so check back while planning and it should be up! :)

  10. Stephen S. August 4, 2014 at 1:26 am #

    Great post Shannon! Sounds another beautiful country to visit and beautiful people to meet and learn about their culture.

  11. Shannon O'Donnell July 29, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    Thanks for sharing the Ethiopia piece Sarah! It is so high on my list to make it over there again and spend several weeks in Ethiopia. Now that I’ve been home for a good month of relaxing and such, I am missing it all again. :)

  12. A Week at the Beach July 28, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    I have totally been there… I love Africa and have traveled across the continent regularly for the past decade, but also am generally ready to return home at the end of each adventure. Ethiopia is a must when you have time, here is a bit I wrote about it, one of the most intriguing destinations I’ve ever been to, the history and lack of crowds combined for one inspiring journey. Happy to chat if you have any questions as you plan for Ethiopia!

  13. Laura July 10, 2014 at 7:11 am #

    Lovely sentements about going home. It can be difficult to leave behind a lovely trip, but I know the feeling of looking forward to what awaits you back home. The older I get and the longer I am away the more I miss. It makes going home much less of a chore.

    • Shannon O'Donnell July 10, 2014 at 11:49 am #

      Six years ago I couldn’t see a time when I wouldn’t love the call of the road more than the lure of friends, community, and a homebase, but through my travels I have slowed down a lot and just this year decided to make more of a homebase here in the states from which I can travel and still have that idea of home. Thanks for reading and weighing in Laura. :)

  14. Claire @ Vegetating Earth July 3, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    Beautifully written. The African continent has never really appealed to me until recently (I’m not sure why it took so long!).

    • Shannon O'Donnell July 3, 2014 at 10:16 am #

      I always had an odd relationship with the idea of Africa as well. It took me nearly five years into my travels to make it there, and I am glad I went. It’s unlike any of the other regions of the world I’ve visited and shifted my travel perspective significantly. It’s worth a visit if you’re pondering it now! :)

  15. Becky Dumas July 1, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Hi again Shannon! Since I last commented (voicing my dilemma about what destination to venture to) I have experienced Cuba for three weeks and have now returned to Vancouver to re-organize and compile my research/stories. A very neat travel experience and a fun country to explore! Anyway, I just wanted to get your opinion on traveling to Kenya in October. I was planning to go with a group ( to Kenya/Tanzania) yet am having hesitations due to recent situations and a seemingly growing unrest. I’m not one to pass up a travel opportunity yet I can’t help but wonder if I should continue to go or not. Any thoughts? (I apologize if this isn’t the best place in which to ask this question). I hope all is well and that a lazy day or two of summer is being enjoyed!

    • Shannon O'Donnell July 1, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

      Hi Becky! So glad to hear that you’ve made it to Cuba and back — what a great adventure. That’s a tough call on the Kenya situation. Right now a lot of the unrest is located on the coast, and if it stays that way then traveling through Nairobi, especially en route to Tanzania shouldn’t really pose a huge issue. If there is flexibility in your plan once you are there, then you could keep the trip plans and then get out of Kenya immediately if needed and visit somewhere nearby like Uganda or Rwanda (both lovely). Ultimately though, you have to trust your gut about what you feel comfortable doing. I know the unrest started a few days after I traveled into Uganda from Kenya, and it was business-as-usual in Uganda, no one was concerned much at all. Tanzania relies big-time on tourism, so they are going to be invested in making sure the safaris and such are as safe as possible. I would look closely at your route, weigh how much flexibility you would have to head to nearby spots if something happened, and then go from there. Hope that helps give you some things to consider, sorry I couldn’t say one way or the other! :)

      • Becky Dumas July 1, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

        I cannot thank-you enough for your response and perspective (it’s priceless to be able to ask an admired traveler an enquiry and to receive a response. You’re amazing Shannon and thank-you again so much) regarding my decision to follow through with Kenya or not. I’m still mulling things over yet am hoping to make a decision I feel content with soon. It’s really depends on what transpires around the time I am to depart and thus it’s difficult to make a decision in advance. Anyway, more thinking to do and thanks again!

        • Shannon O'Donnell July 3, 2014 at 10:18 am #

          I am happy to have been able to help! You’re in a very tough spot with the unrest and deciding to go, but I do hope you get the chance to experience East Africa. Keep me posted, and safe travels. :)

      • kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 1:07 am #

        So called unrest in kenya is a lot to do with foreign trained and sponsored terrorists…very sad…we all know who is behind the whole terrorist movement in Africa…yes, the West will never let Africa be in peace…

  16. Clay June 27, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    I just stumbled upon your blog and I love your writing style, it’s amazingly rich. I’m dreaming of going to Bangladesh as well, thankfully I have a friend there who can show me around a little :)!

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 27, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

      Having friends and locals show you around a place is the best way to travel! I will cross my fingers that you make it there soon; thanks so much for the support and glad you enjoy the blog! :)

      • Clay June 27, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

        I completely agree! Thank you so much, I will do the same for you! I look forward to more content. :)

      • Clay June 27, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

        I completely agree! Thank you so much, I will do the same for you! I look forward to more content. :)

  17. The World on my Necklace June 22, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    Very interesting to read how clean Rwanda is and also how green. I have only been to Egypt and South Africa in Africa and I realise there is so much I don’t know about the continent. After seeing a travel show that featured Ethiopia, I now would love to go there and Mozambique, Madagascar,Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya are also places I would love to visit.

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 22, 2014 at 10:44 am #

      Ethiopia is high on my list as well! I would love to return and explore some of those other regions one day soon; each country had such a distinct culture and vibe that I was happy I had so many weeks to spend in each place. Safe travels! :)

  18. Zoe June 19, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    Your site is awesome, I’ve just found it. I loved reading about Africa, I would love to go there one day. :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 19, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

      Thank you Zoe, so glad the site resonates with you and I appreciate you reading and commenting! :)

  19. Matt Meshey June 8, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    Shannon – I just wanted to say that I find your site very interesting. I have travelled to Africa several times visiting both the east and west, and I have a true love for the country. As maddening and frustrating as it could be at times, it’s also a country so full of beauty that I couldn’t take it all in. Only upon retrospect does the beauty truly roll in like the fog and cover the difficulties that I encountered. It doesn’t make them go away, only covers them from memory for a short time, and I realize what a beautiful continent Africa is.
    Thanks for your reports and pictures. The sunset over lake Kivu is stunning! I look forward to seeing more.

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 9, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

      Thank you Matt, I appreciate the support and am so glad to hear that your Africa travels continue to resonate. I already miss the cadence of life in East Africa and would love to make it back soon. Cheers and thanks for reading and sharing!

    • kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 1:09 am #

      BTW, Africa is a continent…but yes, all Africans are brothers and sisters…we need to get rid of trouble makers, who are invariably foreign trained and infiltrated…The US churches are alo creating chaos in countries like Uganda and others with their myopic and hateful worldviews…and their money…

  20. Katie@From Shores to Skylines June 5, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    I’ve enjoyed so much your Africa posts, a friend just got back from Rwanda, and she gushed about the country with a similar sentiment. I particularly loved your shot of the sunset over Lake Kivu – gorgeous!

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

      Thank you Katie! It’s worth adding Rwanda to your travel bucket list, it really is gush-worthy. :)

  21. Heather June 5, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    The words “final goodbye” in this post title threw me for a loop. I was prepared to read about your shutting down your blog and was working out how to tell that your writing has inspired me so much. So glad there will be more to come!

  22. Theboywander June 5, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    Sounds like a beautiful country, it was particularly nice to hear that the countryside is plastic free!

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

      It’s wacky to see the countryside so free from trash and plastics — the only country in the developing world that I’ve seen that way, it’s even cleaner than most US cities because all the citizens participate in the monthly cleanup!

      • kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 1:10 am #

        South Africa is pretty clean…but I have never been to USA…so the homeless don’t count as rubbish lying around…ok, weak joke…

  23. Monica McCarthy June 5, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    Gorgeous photos and honest reflection as always. Looking forward to catching up once you’ve caught your breath:)

  24. Caroline Eubanks June 5, 2014 at 4:22 am #

    Beautiful pictures! Let me know if you want to hang with some Atlanta bloggers.

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

      Thank you Caroline — I will shoot you an email when I nail down my dates and perhaps we can make a small meet up happen. :)

  25. Corinne Vail June 5, 2014 at 3:59 am #

    Shannon, As always I love hearing your thoughts on a destination. I would love to go to the places you describe in Rwanda. Love the young monkey’s smile! Have a fun summer!

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 7, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

      That monkey was just too cute to resist! He was goofy too, climbing all over the others. Hope you have a wonderful summer as well, thanks! :)

  26. budgetjan June 5, 2014 at 1:44 am #

    I am glad Ana is begging for another trip. I loved reading about your Asian Adventures. Bring back Ana I say. :) Love your monkey family photo by the way.

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 7, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

      I love having her with me, so I will see what I can do! Thanks for the support. :)

  27. Roxanne Rockett June 5, 2014 at 1:17 am #

    Shannon! WE MUST meet up when you’re in PDX for the WDS! Will PM you via FB. So excited we’re finally going to be in the same place at the same time!

  28. RenegadePilgrim June 4, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

    I’m also up for meeting at WDS in Portland. I’ll be volunteering again as an ambassador.

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

      Thanks and let’s plan on it! I’ll keep you posted, I am really looking forward to WDS and appreciate all the work that the ambassadors put into making the weekend happen! :)

      • RenegadePilgrim June 7, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

        Awesome! When the dates get closer, we can figure out something.

  29. Mary B June 4, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    I’m sure things get crazy busy around WDS, but if you have time for a reader meetup in Portland I’d be interested!

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

      Thank you Mary, I will definitely plan on a reader meet up as there are a couple others in the area, and if that doesn’t work out then we can plan on us finding a time to grab a coffee at the very least. I’ll let you know. :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell July 3, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

      Hi Mary! Wanted to let you know that I have a meetup scheduled for Friday at 10am at Powells — https://www.facebook.com/events/1454591298122464/ . If that doesn’t work for you, let me know and I can try to find a different time for another one! :)

  30. Justin and Lauren June 4, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

    Unbelievably wonderful photos! I’m a relatively new follower to your blog and can’t wait to read your future adventures. Maybe I will catch up on your past travels in the time being :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 11:24 am #

      Thank you! It’s a stunning place to visit, so it helped me in capturing it all. Appreciate you reading along the journey and your support! :)

  31. Travels with Tam June 4, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

    As always, great to hear from you. Rwanda looks gorgeous…and yes, all I can think of is Hotel Rwanda. I heard Paul Rusebegina speak at Eckerd College…an amazing man.

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 11:23 am #

      Oh wow, I had no idea he came to the St. Pete area, I would have loved to hear him speak. There is so much more to the country though, and even the past adds intriguing layers to it all that make it a fascinating place to visit.

      • kaitangsou May 27, 2015 at 1:16 am #

        Rwanda was turned into an Aparthate state by Belgium…that was the roots of the massacre…the Belgians also did a great job of ruining the Congo…like their charming habit of cutting off the arms of every tenth child in the country…so the poor parents had to work themselves to death to feed the children without hands…and of course the very first pogrom in Africa was engineered by the…yes, you guess it, the GERMANS!!! Deutschland uber alles!!! Jawohl, check out the Herero massacre of Namibia…ach well…

  32. Reclaiming Your Future June 4, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    Really sorry to hear that you were ill again Shannon and that you feel more than ready to leave the country; it’s something I can truly relate to after my own recent struggles but I also love that Africa managed to strike you with its unexpected beauty like it did for me. I really think it’s a continent that finds its way into every true-travellers soul if they allow it to :)

    I wish you a happy time at home with your down time, catching up with friends and enjoying closer to home travels :) Toni x

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 6, 2014 at 11:20 am #

      Thank you Toni! I can now see why so many travelers fall in love with Africa — there is so many varied pieces and parts of the continent, and the rich history, that form a fascinating tapestry during travels. I am also glad I waited some time before traveling there, having some past travel experiences helped me appreciate and dive deeper into the place than if I had gone on my first year of travels. Cheers and thanks for reading, hope you have some fun things in store this weekend. :)

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