You grab your tattered bag from the carousel and check your belongings. The wheels are scuffed, the zippers clipped, and the fabric barely clinging to life. Your black leather Samsonite reminds you of an aging relief pitcher convinced there’s still an inning left in him.
Together, you’ve been jolted from your sleep by 5 am prayer calls, thumped along the cobble-stoned streets of Lisbon, and nearly parted ways for good in places called Cairo, Addis Ababa, and Dar es Salaam. There have been moments, many of them, where your relationship reverberates the lyrics of a Drake song:
“Suitcase. Suitcase. I been living out a suitcase.”
The sliding doors you amble past this morning are different — the gateway to a land you know nothing about except for the life it took. But as your wearied body climbs into a cab and weaves through lush hillsides, all you see are signs of rebirth.
Bright red mototaxis speed past with young Rwandans heading off to work. Sleek modern complexes seem to crop up on every corner. But mostly, there’ s a spirit reflected in the wide smiles and open arms that surprises then comforts.
You make it to your hotel room before collapsing on the bed, convinced you won’t wake for a month. Only the angst that accompanies adventure always wins, cutting through jet lag, stomach bugs, and fatigue like a plane with tailwind.
You hit the streets and from the moment your feet touch the warm asphalt you’re ogled — visually prodded with irreverence. For a moment, you wonder if they’re looking straight into your soul. You feel a cross between being a pop star or the man whose image they caught on the side of a milk carton.
Famous or missing, you can’t reconcile the two and so you just wave. “B-i-t-e,” you say. Wide smiles break the plains of lips. Who knew a shared humanity could be found in prose so simple?
The next day, you’re whisked away by a tour guide recommended by the pretty girl at the front desk. Together you share a banana at Kimironko Market, learn how the Belgians then Germans staked their claim at Kandt House Museum, and trudge through mud to listen to former gorilla poachers repent through spreading culture at Iby’iwacu Village.
But the halls that give you pause are enclosed in the four walls that make the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Muted gasps, somber gaits, and shaking heads fill the dark corridors as patrons try and wrap warped minds around the ugliness of humanity. How can people be so cruel? you all must be thinking. Moses, your guide, later shares he lost his entire family in the genocide.
You don’t know what to say and so you do what age sometimes offers — the wisdom to know when to say nothing.
You round the corner of the final exhibit and are met with a contrasting forecast. The rain has stopped, the clouds parted, however briefly. For the first time all morning, the city, the country, and the people all seem enveloped by the same bright light.
You end your stay in Kigali by sharing a few sweet drinks with that pretty Rwandan girl. She jokes about the weight she lost, the mounds of pilau she ate, and the hijab she must wear all on account of Ramadan.
Her laugh is enchanting, her smile could land a plane in any fog. You want to take her hand and sense she’d like to do the same, but you don’t know the land or its customs. Later, you head home and check a message from her that convinces you it would have been okay.
Maybe next time, you think, because you know there will be a next time. There has to be. This place is too sacred, the people too special.
This is what happens when you visit Rwanda for the first time.
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