Whenever I go for a hike, I expect magnificent top-of-the-hill views, dreadfully sore legs, and multiple empty water bottles. As a fairly avid hiker and nature enthusiast back home in Colorado, I have formed many of these preconceptions following many treks with friends and family. However, on my most recent excursion to Mount Huye in Rwanda with my DukeEngage cohort, all of these expectations eluded me.
It was a fairly hot Saturday in Huye. The sun beat down and only meager cover from the few clouds scattered across the sky. It was early in the morning, so the full brunt of the heat had yet to hit. From the entrance of the trail the hike looked promising, even though the hills were not like the mountains back home. Following our driver as the guide, we started the climb. The trail was reasonably difficult as loose gravel dominated much of the terrain. After walking for a mile, we stopped upon a little cove with a viewpoint of the valley. As pictures were being snapped, I made a spontaneous decision: to stop hiking.
I’m not one to prematurely quit while the real reward awaited me at the top, but for some reason I felt that there was some value in staying at the humble cove. Earlier in the week I had seen pictures of friends stopping mid-trail to read books and was interested in the prospect of trying it out myself. I suppose this and my minor leg cramp encouraged me to make the swift choice to halt. Besides, my DukeEngage experience had been all about trying new things, so the decision felt relatively natural. While the rest of the group sauntered up the hill, I parked myself onto a hastily cleared patch of grass and pulled out my Kindle expecting to make great progress on a novel.
I enjoyed the slowly intensifying sun, sounds of bees and crickets, and the solitude to read in peace. However, my state of seclusion ended quickly when four young boys with bundles of sticks dropped off their loads a few feet from where I sat. I briefly exchanged some afternoon greetings in my broken Kinyarwandan and all four of them approached. They were all very young, no older than 8 most likely. They walked slowly towards me smiling and murmuring to each other. The oldest of the group fired off a few questions at me, none of which I understood. In an attempt to make conversation I asked them their names. Although they understood my request, I couldn’t fully grasp their replies. They came closer, showing signs of clear fascination with the Kindle in my hand. The group circled me, two of them got behind me to rest their heads on my shoulders and peer over while the other two crouched beside me and squinted towards the screen. I continued to read as they attempted to make out some words. After a few minutes of boredom, they started tapping on the screen and inspecting the case. One of the kids kept repeating a phrase to me which I couldn’t comprehend, I simply shook my head and smiled at him.
I had yet to have such an intimate interaction with locals despite being in Rwanda for nearly 7 weeks. I decided to continue my day of spontaneity and put away my book. Growing up my extended family used to go on camping trips and hikes. I have fond memories of me, my cousins, and my uncles stacking rocks and attempting to build the tallest structures for bragging rights. Out of curiosity, I introduced the concept to the four of them, wondering how they would react. I grabbed the three closest stones next to me and started to stack them. They were immediately fascinated and began to laugh. I got up from my spot to grab more rocks and I handed them to one of the kids. Soon after, the other three ran off furiously in search of additional stacking materials. They grabbed piles of pebbles using their shirts as makeshift knapsacks.
As the sun started to beat down harder, the five of us engaged in a competition. Although I had shown them the game, it was apparent that they were the masters. One kid was particularly adept at the task and comfortably fitted the most strangely shaped rocks. It seemed the entire group enjoyed the competition in good spirits. On multiple occasions, towers were accidentally knocked over, but instead of anger and annoyance, the falls were met with giggles and teasing.
The conversation was limited, but the enjoyment was boundless. Eventually, instead of an individual competition, one of the kids started to combine structures unprompted. Everyone joined in the effort which culminated in an impressive structure. This was the last thing I would have expected to happen when the group had first embarked on the hike. What felt like half an hour turned into two hours of fun. My series of spontaneous decisions had paid off. This basic day of play with strangers turned out to be among my most memorable experiences during the program. Back home and at school, where many interactions are characterized by stress and worry, these few hours acted as a refreshing reminder. Enjoy the simple moments – even ones where words are not exchanged. Good company and good intentions trump the need to understand each other fully. Although my hike was left unfinished, I ended up with a day of satisfaction and carefree joy.