Stories and Observations From a Working Photojournalist
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Rwanda is an amazingly beautiful country. It is by far the cleanest developing country that I have ever been to. The streets in Kigali are spotless. You have to look really hard to see any signs of litter. The same goes for the rural areas. Someone said that a government imposed ban on plastic bags is a main factor for the cleanliness. There has to be more to it.
The day began early today. Another 3 hours of rest for me. We were loaded in the buses and headed to the airport to get on helicopters that would fly us out to a village where they grow cassava. The Rwandan Air Force transport helicopters fit in with all of our other aircraft on this trip, antiquated. Thankfully, the three Mi-8 Hip Helicopters made it through the day without malfunctions.
After flying over rolling hills dotted with small huts and farms that looked a patchwork quilt, we landed on a dirt soccer field in Rwinkwavu. At the edge of the field you could see people perectly lined up, fixated with the helicopters. There must have been 100 people just standing there and more were running down the dirt road. We drove in a van to the first event down a smooth brick red dirt road. As we drove along the road kicking up chalky red dust that clung to the roadside vegetation, kids ran from their homes to see a vanload of white people. Since we were ahead of the president, we had a chance to walk through one of the villages and talk to some of the villagers. It seemed like every resident was standing in front of their mud houses.
After Bill looked at a cassava field with a couple of farmers, we visited a rural healthcare clinic and then we flew over to another village while he dined with the president of Rwanda. We had box lunches.
When our helicopters took off, the same 100 people looked on. A group of about 15 kids had made their way to a closer vantage point, about 10 yards away. They ignored orders from a police officer to move back. When we lifted off, the rotor wash sandblasted the kids with red dusty dirt. They actually seemed to like it as they were blown around, some falling over, but still jumping up and down with excitement. A similar scene happened later in the day, but this time it was a group of singers. They didn’t seem as happy about it.
While Bill chowed down with the president, we sat in the bus for hours near the soccer field heliport. It was here that my fatigue started to show. I was attempting to get some work done and inadvertently erased one of my flash cards, one that had several images that I really liked. The photos of Chelsea getting her nose pinched by a little girl…gone. The kids getting sandblasted was also one for the memory. It was a nightmare. And once again, the day was turning south.
The bad news kept rolling in. Upon return to Kigali, we learned that our beloved Air Bon Jovi was being commandeered by Bill and friends and we would inherit their newly chartered Ethiopian Airlines 767, fully equipped with coach seating. I couldn’t help but think of the Seinfeld episode when George and Jerry were being flown to LA for a meeting in a small plane. George was mad about the size of the plane and said “I bet Ted Danson has a bigger plane then this!” Well, he certainly does.
Then it was time to go to the hotel, which wasn’t the same hotel as the night before since a last minute change has us staying here one more night. The room situation was bad. As a matter of fact, for a while there, we weren’t even sure that anyone would even have a room. Seems that while the advance team was hanging with us all day, important things like making sure rooms were being reserved and who would be staying where went unchecked.
We were all at the Novotel Hotel trying to figure out who was staying where. The front desk claimed they only had 10 rooms. We needed 18. While this mini crisis unfolded, David Braun of National Geographic and I looked on as one of the advance persons took the time to iron out her personal travel plans and another worked diligently to organize a tour of the Genocide Museum which would be closing in less than an hour. Meanwhile, we all waited. I stared out the fornt door and watched as dozens of couples had weddings in a grassy area in front of the hotel. I'm too tired to lift a camera.
When everyone finally got checked in, I learned that I could have been in my hotel much earlier since I wasn’t even staying at that hotel. I was instead at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, better known as Hotel Rwanda. In 1994, the hotel gave shelter to thousands during the Rwandan Genocide. I thought that it was going to be really cool to stay here, but I was very disappointed. Maybe I wasn’t being fair. Maybe had just reached the tipping point and exhaustion had taken over. But, when I think four star hotel, a twin bed and a plastic fan in the corner doesn’t come to mind.
My time at Hotel Rwanda will be short. Bag call is at 3:30am. Load and go is at 4am. Liberia, here we come.
Justin Sullivan decided to pursue a career in photojournalism in 1994. A self-taught photographer, Justin worked as a freelance photographer for local San Francisco newspapers for 5 years before getting hired to work on staff at the San Francisco Examiner in 2000 then later at the San Francisco Chronicle that same year where he served as a fill-in photographer. Justin returned to freelance in the fall of 2000 shooting primarily for the Associated Press, Reuters, Getty Images and numerous newspapers across the country before being hired as a Staff Photographer with Getty Images. In the coming years he would cover a wide range of events from the World Series and political campaigns to natural disasters and overseas conflicts. Justin's photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world.
The views expressed in this blog are those of Justin Sullivan and do not represent the views of his employer, co-workers or friends