With the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend coming up I wanted to revisit one of the many “weekend road trips” I’ve taken over the past few years and in particular my trip last year to Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Right off the bat, Vicksburg is a must for any Civil War history buff (which I classify myself as). But it also is a great location to get your first taste of Mississippi. Vicksburg seems to find that perfect balance of Southern charm, living history, and a moderately hip night life. And let’s be honest, Mississippi takes it’s lumps in the important game of public perception, and Vicksburg will help you revisit any preconceived notions about the state that reportedly earned a dubious reputation for finishing last in every survey of American states. I’m not sure how true that is but I reckon there is a reason Wikipedia added a page on the phrase “Thank God for Mississippi“. Sure there were some supporters yelling against the storm (Johnny Cash and June Carter did make me want to go to Jackson after one particularly depressing break up) and The Charlie Daniels Band did strategically place a lyrical homage to the state right after “Devil Went Down to Georgia” on their Million Mile Reflections album. But Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash aside, there isn’t a lot of praise heaped on Mississippi. Although I drove through Mississippi once before I didn’t spend enough time to challenge that preconception.
Which made Vicksburg so refreshing.
I won’t say it felt like a college town, but the young people wandering the streets of Downtown Vicksburg certainly was proof that this was a vibrant town for young Mississippians. Cool and hip but with a bluesy undertone that we northerners simply could never duplicate (well, maybe Chicago, but nobody else). Vicksburg was quite simply a fun little town.
But then again, I didn’t see much of the town so maybe I should add that caveat. I arrived somewhat late and decided to stop off for a quick snack and drink at the Cottonwood Public House. It was a quite place, and I had just missed the live show from Randy Cohen, a blues musician from New Orleans. But I grabbed one of his CDs and I will say this, if you’re ever in New Orleans and he’s playing somewhere…you’d be wise to stop there and check it out.
But my friend and I didn’t drive across Texas and Louisiana to hear blues music…we came to see the battlefield.
The following day we made our way to the Vicksburg National Military Park, a 1800 acre national park where a bloody 47-day battle that saw Union General Ulysses S. Grant capture the city from Confederate defenders in 1863.
Actually, battle isn’t a good way to describe it. It was a siege. And if you are someone who enjoys visiting Civil War Battlefields then Vicksburg should be at the top of your list. Because it is really unlike any other Civil War Battlefield. When visiting Gettysburg or Bull Run or Fredricksburg you can’t help but feel the battle for what it was…two armies throwing everything they had at each other in an attempt to destroy the enemy. When you visit the Vicksburg National Military Park you can’t help but feel something different. This was a battlefield that felt disjointed and confusing and spread out. It felt like a powerful army bogged down by a determined, but outgunned, adversary. It felt like the battle lines owed more to chance than to strategy.
It felt like modern war.
Unlike other battlefields Vicksburg is seen from the car, where 16 miles of road snake across the old Union and Confederate front lines. Much of the battlefield is also peppered with numerous monuments (over 1,300 in total) from all of the states that took part in the battle.
Two antebellum homes are also on the tour, as well as the U.S.S. Cairo, one of the first Ironclad warships that was sunk on December 12, 1862 in the Yazoo River. The Cairo, having been raised in October of 1964 and been opened officially to the public in 1980 the Cairo is a fascinating snapshot of naval warfare in the Civil War. But since being raised the Cairo has suffered from the elements…and one can’t help but wonder how much longer she will be able to hang on as a living museum.
In the end Vicksburg was an amazing and powerful way to spend a Memorial Day…and it remains one of the most powerful Civil War battlefields you can visit.
“I remember when we used to sit in the government yard in Trench Town.” – Bob Marley.
I had to hand it to Bryan Pert…he was undoubtedly the best Airbnb host I ever had. I had a big day planned: Trench Town and then a very early flight to Miami. I already made arrangements for a driver to pick me up but even with that I knew I wanted to cram in as much as I could during my last day in Kingston. I decided a tour would be the way to go when I arrived in Trench Town. I read that the tours would run about $70-$100 USD, not cheap, but I also read that the community was in dire need of any sort of influx of capital it could get.
Bryan joined me as we made our way to Trench Town by way of route taxi. I knew I would never be able to figure out the route taxis without Bryan’s assistance, and I was appreciative that he agreed to spend the day with me as I toured Trench Town.
As we made our way into Trench Town I was blown away. It was undeniably a city mired in poverty, and the scars of the the political instability of the 1970s were considerably more evident than in the rest of Kingston. But it also had an energy to the place and an unmistakable identity. This wasn’t the Caribbean. This wasn’t Jamaica. This wasn’t even Kingston. This was Trench Town.
To my surprise we stumbled upon a Trench Town funeral or memorial service, which was really an unexpected experience. Young Jamaicans rode their motorbikes loudly up and down the main road revving their engines and attracting attention from far and wide. Interestingly enough nobody complained. On the contrary, people began to stream out of their homes to pay their respects to the departed.
I won’t lie, this was not what I was expecting. Revving motorcycles during a memorial service seemed like something you might stumble upon in Sturgis, but not in the birthplace of Reggae.
We then made our way to the Trench Town Cultural Yard and I was happy to discover that the tickets would not be in the neighborhood of $100 but would instead be only $20 for a 90 minute tour. I readily signed up and my tour guide took me down Lower First Street where I would get my first glimpse of life in Trench Town.
Right off the bat I realized that they were not exaggerating when they spoke of the crippling poverty in Trench Town. Just a few hundred feet from the Trench Town Cultural Yard I saw how different life was for Jamaicans here in comparison to the other parts of Kingston I had been in.
I felt somewhat voyeuristic snapping pictures although my guide assured me that it was OK. Still, this was the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest musicians. I wanted to get as many pictures as I could. After all, these were all buildings that a young Bob Marley and a young Peter Tosh walked by regularly.
Of course no trip to Trench Town would be complete without some murals of Emperor Haile Selassie.
We turned right on West Road and then turned on 2nd Street where I would finally see it: a lyric in stone. There was a (not necessarily thee) government yard in Trench Town. I won’t lie, my heart skipped a beat as I pictured a young Bob Marley and a young Georgie would light up the fire light. It was here (maybe, probably not) where they would cook corn meal porridge…and here (maybe) where one of the greatest lyrics in music history was born.
My excitement soon was stifled somewhat. This was not a museum. It was a government yard in Trench Town. People lived here and they lived in abject poverty. I was a tourist snapping pictures of their lives, seemingly indifferent to their struggle. I realized that I would never really get it. I remember hearing a story about an old confederate veteran who was asked to give a “Rebel Yell” to a young woman who was curious to hear what it sounded like. He declined, saying that he couldn’t do it justice, not with a full belly.
I would never be able to really connect with Georgie, as much as I wanted to feel that moment…I couldn’t.
All I could do was take a picture at Gettysburg and imagine what those men went through. All I could do was was take a picture near the fire light.
We soon made out way to the corner of 2nd Street and our guide soon shared more of the history of Second Street before we made our way up to Third Street.
We continued to tour Trench Town itself and I was impressed by the unmistakable spirit of the place. It was very clearly a rough place…but it wore its identity on its sleeve with unmistakable pride. In the murals they celebrated their identity…and their history. A recognition that Trench Town was, in many ways, the beating heart of all of Jamaica. Negril and Montego Bay might pull the tourist, who would never see the grinding poverty of Trench Town first hand. But they, like I, were in many ways drawn to Jamaica because of Trench Town. Because Trench Town gave the entire nation an identity that was unmistakable.
We headed back to the Cultural Yard where I would get a chance to check out Bob Marley’s old Volkswagen van, but first was a stop to Trench Town’s community music studio which appeared to be inside of a school where a religious revival was taking place. It was there Bryan and I had a chance to meet the Jamaican reggae artist Lanz, who was working on a new album. I got to hang out with Lanz for a little while and bought a demo from him. It wasn’t bad, but after burning it to my computer I gave the demo to Bryan, who I could tell was really digging the vibe of it.
Recently I noticed Lanz was on tour with stops in the United Kingdom. Who knows, maybe he will take off and young folks with be envious of the fact that I actually met him and hung out with him. After all, what’s cooler than elected officials meeting musicians that they never listened to?
Leaving the studio we headed back to the Cultural Yard, but not before another quick stop at what appeared to be an Icelandic grandstand.
We had a new tour guide for the Cultural Yard, where I was able to see what they claimed was one of Bob Marley’s first guitars as well as his former Volkswagen which I was allowed to sit inside it, which was a cool experience to say the least.
It was now time to make our way back. I was lucky in that Bryan knew a few other places that I could squeeze in before I had to go to the airport. We started with Emancipation Park before making our way to Devon House, where I would have the chance to try what many claimed was the best ice cream in the world.
Devon House (the former residence of Jamaica’s first black millionaire) was a perfect way to close out my trip to Jamaica, and yes, the ice cream at Devon House I Scream was indeed some of the best ice cream you’ll ever have. They even had some sort of old car show going on, which added to the charm.
But I couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast between Trench Town and Devon House. Devon House was prim and proper and would probably be played by Billy Zane in a movie.
I left Devon House to return to Bryan’s Airbnb where I quickly packed up before taking a nap. He arranged an early pick up for me and I would need to get some sleep before I left. But I knew that Trench Town, and Jamaica, had left a mark on me. I didn’t know if I would ever be back to Jamaica. Maybe someday I’d be on a cruise ship that stopped in Montego Bay or Negril…but Kingston? Doubtful.
But I felt like I made the most of my time in Jamaica, and I couldn’t ask for a better host in Bryan Pert. In the end, I was glad that Georgie’s firelight led me to Kingston.
There will be a lot of obituaries for LaMotta by writers and pundits who knew him better than I, but I did want to share one story I had of LaMotta. I met him once, back in July of 2001, at a ESPN televised show I was covering for Fightnews. LaMotta was brought in to do some standup comedy, and, well let’s just say he was a better fighter than a comedian. After a series of jokes of the “take my wife, please!” varient, LaMotta returned to his seat where another writer decided to grab a quick interview with the former champ. LaMotta was personable and engaging…until the writer decided to try his hand at comedy at Jake’s expense. Quoting a line from the film “Raging Bull” (the famous scene where DeNiro confronts Joe Pesci about having an affair with his wife), LaMotta glared at the writer with a look that probably was identical to the scowl he bestowed on Sugar Ray Robinson. The writer joked afterwards that he was going to “leave the comedy to the professionals” and even wrote about the experience.
It had become a running joke, but unlike “Get ‘er done” or the original “yes guy”, it actually was funny with each telling. I was touring the Presidential Palace Museum in Kigali, the one time residence of former Rwandan dictator Juvenal Habyarimana. And with me were a Finnish guy, an elderly Rwandan woman, and four young men from Cameroon who made it quite clear that they wanted nothing to do with the numerous trinkets and gifts given to Habyarimana by the former dictator of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. With each stop there would be some tacky painting or display that Habyarimana had received over the years (his reign lasted from 1973 to 1994). And it quickly became a running joke: the tackiest pieces in the museum seemed to always come from Mobutu. We discovered that Mobutu gave Habyarimana a pet python (because why the hell not) and Habyarimana went so far as to build a pond for Mobutu’s python in his back yard (I won’t lie, if I ever start a heavy metal band I may just call it Mobutu’s Python).
But with each joke I found myself appreciating the simple fact that, at least in some small way, there was justice in the world. I had to appreciate the fact that Mobutu Sese Seko’s legacy was firmly entrenched in the minds of Africans. Time was not going to rehabilitate his image. He would not be forgotten as one of a long line of corrupt post colonial dictators. No. He was so much more…and history wasn’t about the let him off the hook.
But maybe things were a little different in the Democratic Republic of Congo when you talked about Mobutu. I doubt anyone really misses him, although if the Republic of Georgia taught me anything it was that anything is possible. But I wondered if the memories of his brutal rule were a little more…raw to the Congolese. And from what I could tell Mobutu wasn’t exactly a subject of humor to Rwandans either. Sure we (and by we I mean the Finnish guy and the four guys from Cameroon) were laughing at the idea of a crackpot dictator giving another crackpot dictator a python as a gift. It was humorous to us: the most absurd gift ever given to an African leader. At least until this happened earlier this year:
But like so many things in Rwanda, laughter often masks the pain. The elderly Rwandan woman never once cracked a smile during the tour. Not once.
I suddenly felt guilty. Sure Mobutu may have been a joke to these folks from Cameroon. But he was just one more piece of the puzzle in Rwanda: a puzzle that ultimately made up a picture of pure carnage and genocide. I almost even started to feel bad for Mobutu’s python. After President Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994, an event that triggered the Rwandan Genocide, Mobutu’s python disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to it, although considering how bad things ended up being, one can imagine life was probably hard for an orphaned 300-pound python in Kigali. But our guide did mention that there were rumors that Mobutu had sent some men to recover the python and bring it home to Zaire. Oddly enough, that just made the story more depressing. Sure, I was sort of glad that maybe the python might have lived a life of relative luxury after being uprooted during the Rwandan Civil War…but didn’t anyone care about the rest of the country? It just added to the absurdity of the tragedy that was Rwanda. After the murder of ten Belgium peacekeepers the UN decided they didn’t want another Somalia on their hands and abandoned the nation. Soon Western nations sent soldiers to evacuate foreign nationals, all the while many Rwandan Tutsis begged for their lives. At a technical school in Kigali, some 2,000 Tutsis sought refuge. The school was guarded by Belgian peacekeepers and they knew that as long as the Belgians were there they were safe.
Strike that. They thought they were safe.
The murder of the ten Belgians prompted the Belgian government to withdraw the remaining peacekeepers. And as they fled those same 2,000 Tutsis tried desperately to prevent the Belgians from leaving. They knew once they left they would be massacred. But the Belgians fired into the air to disperse the desperate Tutsis (priorities, right?) and left the 2,000 Tutsis fend for themselves against a growing horde of genocidal monsters that began to congregating outside of the school grounds. The Tutsis decided to try and walk out of the school and reach RPF controlled territory, where they would be safe from the genocidal militia called the Interahamwe. But they never made it. The Interahamwe intercepted them and led them to a gravel pit, where they were butchered with machetes.
But don’t worry. Someone sent an elite team of soldiers to rescue that snake.
“This is like that movie,” one of the Cameroonians exclaimed as we were led into another bathroom, the seventh or eighth we had seen on the tour. “Coming to America!”
We all laughed as we pictured Juvenal Habyarimana walking on rose pedals towards the extravagant toilet, followed by a team of royal wipers.
Well, almost all of us. The elderly Rwandan woman only glared at the toilet.
It was a fascinating tour since we also saw Habyarimana’s paranoia on display. He had everything from his secret torture room, motion sensors on the stairs leading up to the master bedroom, hidden doors and escape routes, and not so hidden compartments with money and guns. In the master bathroom he kept a file cabinet full of American dollars open for everyone to see. The file cabinet was full of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars and was meant to distract an assassin who actually made it that far into the compound. The theory was that they would be distracted by the money, giving Habyarimana a chance to escape. It probably seemed to him like there was no way he could be assassinated at the Presidential Palace.
But in the end it didn’t matter.
Habyarimana would in fact die just a few hundred feet from his motion sensors, gun cabinet, secret witchcraft room (yeah, he had one of those also) and the open file cabinet full of Benjamins in his master bathroom. In the end his assassin would never even see the file cabinet or need to worry about his motion sensors.
The assassin would just wait until President Habyarimana’s plane was landing.
The airport was just a few miles from the Presidential Palace, and on April 6, 1994, an unknown assassin would wait until the President’s plane was in its final decent. Moments before reaching the airport Habyrimana’s plane was shot down from the sky with two surface-to-air missiles and crashed in the garden of the Presidential Palace. The crash ended up killing twelve people, including both Habyarimana and the President of Burundi who had the misfortune of being in the wrong plane at the wrong time.
After twenty three years most of the wreckage is still there. We were told that we couldn’t take photos of the plane from inside the gardens, but I was able to get a wide shot of part of the tail from his BBQ pit, which was located next to his swimming pool and tennis courts.
By the end of the tour you can’t help but feel depressed. Not just because almost everything in there was probably at one point touched by Mobutu. No, it was because this place, this shrine to opulence, was where so much suffering would be born. Not just in Rwanda, where 800,000 were killed during the genocide. But even in Zaire where the country would be destabilized by the presence of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees who fled to Eastern Zaire after the end of the Rwandan Civil War. These refugees would in turn trigger a chain reaction that would lead to two brutal wars in Zaire/Congo: two wars that would lead to the death of over 5,000,000 people. I can’t help but wonder if the unknown person who fired that SAM at Habyarimana’s presidential plane knew how much suffering would follow as a result of that act. The Rwandan government, the U.S. State Department, Mi6, and a majority of neutral observers felt that the evidence strongly pointed to Hutu extremists opposed to the proposed peace deal with the RPF as the perpetrators. A French anti-terrorist magistrate claims that the evidence points to Paul Kagame and the RPF, although to be fair the French have about as much credibility when it come to Rwanda as the guy you sort of knew in high school who is always posting links and rants on Facebook about chemtrails and FEMA camps. Ultimately we will probably never know; it will go down as one of history’s great mysteries.
Right alongside the question of what ever happened to Mobutu’s python.
By the time the tour ends the day is coming to a close and I need to head back to the hotel. Alex picks me up from the Presidential Museum and takes me to a place I really wasn’t expecting to find in Rwanda: the Inema Arts Gallery. I’ve been to a lot of art galleries over the years, and although I consider myself a fan of good art, I also realize I am in no way an art coinsure. But I like to think that I’m savvy enough to spot good art from bad art…and this was damn good. But more than just being good, it had a vibe to it that I wouldn’t have expected to find in Rwanda. This art gallery reminded me of visiting an art show with my aunt and uncle, both art professors in Geneva, New York. This place was legit, and it had the vibe to go with it. Numerous Westerners wandered around with glasses of wine, looking over the paintings carefully. It was a scene right out of New York or San Francisco. But as I was to discover, there was a thriving art scene in Kigali and the city was quickly emerging as the most cosmopolitan city in Africa. After meeting with one of the artists, Emmanuel Nkuranga, who also was a co-founder of the Inema Art Center, I discovered that this gallery was not alone in Kigali. Although I enjoyed the gallery, I decided it was time to go and Alex and I soon left. I wanted to stay but I was hungry and this place only was serving alcohol.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel this trip was feeling more like a trip to Napa Valley or Bar Harbor then Africa. This was the second spot of the day that I felt had been transplanted from a nice neighborhood in the States, the first being the coffee shop Shokola, where we stopped for lunch. Shokola billed itself as a “storyteller’s café” and had the location to go with the the theme. It was located on the top floor of the Kigali Library, right across the street from the U.S. Embassy. It actually was a really cool little place, and would have felt right at home in Seattle.
I didn’t know how many more locations would make me think of American college towns, but Alex had another surprise in store. We then went to another location that almost seemed like it had been transplanted from a posh suburb of Seattle: Heaven Restaurant and Boutique Hotel. The restaurant was founded by an American couple, who documented their relocation to Rwanda in the book A Thousand Hills to Heaven. Alex swore it was one of the best places to eat in Rwanda, but I wasn’t convinced at first. It seemed too americanized; burgers and pasta seemed to make up the foundation of the menu. Nonetheless I found something that sounded traditional. I ordered the kuku paka: Swahili spiced chicken curry. I wasn’t disappointed. The curry was excellent, although I couldn’t help but wonder if this really was an authentic Swahili dish or just an awesome bowl of curry that was given a back-story.
But by now it was after 10 PM. I had hired Alex for the day and felt bad that I had keep him over well past the hour he expected to be done. I had to fly back tomorrow, part of a comically long journey back to the United States that involved five stops and two layovers in excess of ten hours. But the fight out of Kigali wasn’t until after midnight. I had all of Friday to spend touring Kigali. I still had one more day in Rwanda.
And I was going to take advantage of every minute of it.