GoNOMAD Travel

Rwanda: Crossing the Border

-Julia Dimon, travel journalist, TV Host, author of Travel Junkie: A Badass Guide to Travel

Travel Junkie: A Badass Guide to Travel

By Julia Dimon

Travel Junkie: A Badass Guide to Travel taps into the real-life around the world experiences of travel journalist Julia Dimon, a young adventuress who has traveled to over 80 countries, all seven continents. On assignment, hosting a 40-episode television series for National Geographic Adventure and Travel Channel International, her work led her to experience the extreme: from hiking with mountain gorillas in Uganda, to polar kayaking among icebergs in Antarctica, trekking in Chernobyl, to snacking on local delicacies such as deep fried scorpion, Cobra blood and severed human toe.

In this book, Julia aims to inspire and empower future travel junkies to travel further, play harder, say yes to new experiences and channel their inner badass. Julia shares tried-and-true travel tips and advice for the next generation of adventurers. With chapters on scoring cheap flights, maximizing air miles, using the best travel apps, surviving solo travel and staying safe on the road, Travel Junkie: A Badass Guide to Travel is an insider’s look at how to travel smart and beat the system.

Practical travel tips are interspersed with uncensored, diary-style confessions straight from Julia’s private travel journals. They are honest (sometimes too honest), raw accounts of real life and lessons learned on the road. From the wrestling rings of South America, to the genocide memorials of Rwanda, the gladiator training camps of Italy, to notorious maximum security prisons in Thailand, readers will be immersed in some of the most interesting places on the planet.

Travel Junkie: A Badass Guide to Travel is a no holds barred, inspirational account of around-the-world-travel for aspiring travelers, hopeful bloggers and the young at heart.

Excerpt from Rwanda chapter:

My story starts where all good stories should – in the back of an African mini-bus somewhere between Uganda and Rwanda. Stuffed in, legs crammed between a clucking chicken and a bag of maize, I watch as rural life speeds past. I spot boys in a dusty field kicking a beat-up soccer ball made up of recycled plastic and masking tape. There are pretty girls in torn taffeta dresses carrying their newborn brothers and sisters. Though they must be no more than four-years old, virtually babies themselves, they are responsible for their younger siblings.

I see groups of African men slouching in the shade while their women toil in the equatorial sun. I can’t help but get the impression that the women do everything around here. They collect the water and the firewood, they raise the kids, cook the food and take care of their husbands. African women must be some of the strongest, hardest-working women on the planet.

Many walk dozens of miles a day, just to collect fresh drinking water. It’s common to see mothers and daughters walking single-file along the road, balancing heavy water buckets on their heads like poised ballerinas. The amount of effort they put into getting a glass of water is staggering. All we have to do is turn on the tap.

My window view turns from matchstick huts to a sparse but vibrant landscape. I know we’re finally at the border when I see a faded blue sign trimmed with rust. It reads “Welcome to Rwanda.” The R recedes into the background as if trying to escape its own troubled and misunderstood country.

This tiny African nation made world headlines in 1994, not for its rolling green mountains or gorilla treks but for the genocide that killed 800,000 people in three months. Friends murdered friends, neighbors slaughtered neighbors….

White Noise

I vaguely remember hearing about it on the news. I was only fourteen at the time and world politics was like white noise, it lulled me to sleep. I was more pre-occupied with Kurt Cobain, smoking cigarettes (without my parents catching me) and passing Mr. Reynolds’s grade 9 math class. Rwanda just wasn’t on my radar.

Fourteen years later, things are different. I no longer like grunge music (or math for that matter) and Rwanda is no longer at war. Though I’ve moved beyond my former high- school self, Rwanda’s reputation is still stuck in the early ’90s. Despite time, reconstruction and political reconciliation, Rwanda remains cloaked in notoriety. Its reputation is stained with the blood of its people.

Julia visits Chernobyl in Ukraine.

This is the reason I’m here. I want to judge for myself, to see what the county is really like, and ultimately, to advocate for, what I’m sure is, just another misunderstood African nation. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the underdog and Rwanda is a blind, three- legged, one-balled puppy.

Drawn to the off-the-beaten track, I thought a travel article on this obscure destination would be great for my weekly column. It would give me a chance to bring readers to a part of the world they’d never dream of going themselves. So here I am, sitting in the back of a local bus – bum sore,legs crippled and bladder bursting – heading into a former war zone.

Jon the Backpacker

Julia with a Maasai woman in Kenya.

I have to say, I’m pretty relieved that I’m not here alone. I shift my weight away from the window and turn to my travel partner Jon, a cute 28-year-old backpacker from New Orleans also traveling solo through Africa. He reads aloud from a book of useless trivia. “Did you know that Charlie Chaplin once won third prize in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest?” he says raising an eye-brow. When he gets excited, the gold flecks in his right eye sparkle.

Jon is like a Siberian Husky, one of his eyes is blue, the other green. “Did you know that a cockroach can live for ten days without a head? And that chewing gum while peeling onions will keep you from crying?”

As the bus pulls towards the Rwandan border crossing, Jon and I gather up our bags. After a cramped nine-hour bus ride from Kampala, we’re anxious to stretch our legs and drain our bladders.

Passports in hand, Jon and I make our way toward an office of grumpy border officials. I slip my weathered passport though a plastic shield. The surly official leafs through the little booklet, finds a blank page and pounds it with a fat purple stamp. It smudges and looks more like a birthmark than it does a tourist visa. I flip through the pages of my newly marked passport.

Running on the Great Wall in China.

When I was a younger, I collected Garbage Pail Kids. Though politically incorrect in hindsight, they were my favorite. Today, my love for “Barf Bag Brad” and “Fryin’ Brian” has been replaced with a far more mature collection – entry and exit stamps from countries all over the world.

I look at the smudged Rwanda tourist visa like it’s a collector’s edition trading card. Awesomeness!

Muzungu

As Jon steps up to the border window and slips his own passport through to the custom official, I scan the room. There is a long line up of people and all eyes are on us “Muzungu.” This Swahili word means ‘foreigner’ and is universally used throughout Africa. Locals use the term so frequently that Jon and I now jokingly refer to ourselves as Muzungu.

Us Muzungu are part rock star, part circus freak. We’re greeted either with warm smiles, friendly ‘hellos’ or death stares. I don’t know why people stare, their faces blank and eyes locked. Maybe they’re scared,maybe they’re amazed, or just plain curious.

I dunno but sometimes it gets under my skin and all I want to do is revert to a middle- school mentality, turn and sarcastically ask them if they have “staring problems?” True, it’s not the most mature or culturally sensitive way to handle it, so I fight the temptation and keep my mouth shut.

Here, despite sticking out like a compound fracture, I feel at ease. It’s strange but I almost feel more comfortable in Africa than I do at home.

Big cities, away from the threat of familiar faces, bring me peace of mind. Perhaps that’s why I love to travel. I enjoy being a faceless person in a faceless crowd, never worried about bumping into someone I know and having awkward small talk. In travel there is the freedom of anonymity. When no one knows me, I’m free from expectations and judgments.

In a foreign city there are no random chance encounters with a friend of “such-and-such,” no running into “what’s- her-face” for some bullshit conversation. In a new city, I can navigate the urban landscape, unattached to my past. Best of all, I never have to worry about running into an “ex” when I’m wearing sweatpants and look like crap. In this foreign land, I’m anyone, I’m everyone, I’m liberated from the person other people think I am or should be.

With our passports stamped, Jon and I join the herd of commuters and pile into the back of the bus…just a little while longer before we reach Kigali, Rwanda’s notorious capital city.

“Travel Junkie: A Badass Guide to Travel” is available on Amazon.

About Julia Dimon: Travel Journalist, TV Host, Author

From the depths of the Dead Sea to the top of Machu Picchu, this fearless adventuress has backpacked through some 80 countries, across all seven continents. Travel journalist and National Geographic/Travel Channel TV personality, Julia has been featured as a travel expert by CNN, ABC, New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, Travel & Leisure, Forbes Traveler, Fox, E! and MSNBC. She has a popular blog www.traveljunkiejulia.com.

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