Gorillas Times Two

Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda


Vincent and I headed out into the rain and down the bumpy, rocky road towards the paved freeway” to Rwanda. The trip to the border took all of 20 minutes and before I knew it, we were pulling into an official looking parking area. First stop was the police chief who reviewed my documents, (he wanted to know why I hadn’t visited Congo) and then handed me a tiny slip of paper that allowed me to walk across the gravel parking lot and into a small, two booth room where one man was sleeping and the other was watching T.V. (Wow I haven’t seen a T.V. Since Kampala.) Anyway the guy who was awake handed me an immigration card to complete, and two minutes later it was stamped, and I was sent on my way to walk across the border (seriously). A few minutes later Vincent followed me in the jeep. I’m not sure why I didn’t get to ride across with Vincent.

Anyway, I was met at the border by a female guard who looked at my passport and motioned me across where I suddenly gained 1 hour. (Rwanda is 9 hours ahead of Seattle and Uganda is 10 hours ahead.) I then walked over to yet another building where there was an exit line and an entrance line. was handed an immigration form to complete and then waited while a guy behind some plexiglass scrutinized my paperwork, stamped my passport and waived me on. I then waited while Vincent went through the same drill except he drove across instead of walking. Once he drove the jeep into Rwanda, he then had to go through the immigration drill. And while he was waiting in line, the same guy who waited on me decided to take a break and leave a line of people just waiting. Fifteen minutes later the guy still had not returned so Vincent ended up convincing the “exit” guy to stamp his passport and allow us to proceed.

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The masses on the roads in Rwanda

We then drove 20 minutes to the turnoff, past a bunch of kids playing soccer and then up, up, up a very bumpy dirt road to the top of a hillside and an absolutely spectacular setting for Volcanoes Verunga Lodge. The lodge sat on a bluff and overlooked two lakes: Lake Buera and Lake Ruhondo. I was shown to my banda, got settled, had a massage, slept for a couple hours, and then headed up to the lodge as the sun was setting. The bar area was absolutely gorgeous with a very high ceiling/thatched roof, a large raised fire pit in the middle of the room, a bar with bar stools and a sitting area. Cozy, cozy, cozy. There were some folks already in the bar, so I grabbed a drink and got acquainted with a Scottish couple and two gals from the San Francisco who had just climbed Kilimanjaro (and were only too happy to brag about it to everyone who got stuck listening to them).

Anyway, after drinks, we moved into the dining room for dinner. It turned out it was the Scottish couple’s 25th anniversary, and the staff surprised them with a bottle of wine, a beautiful cake and a chorus of “Happy Anniversary” to the tune of Happy Birthday. Very cool!

So after dinner and drinks it was time to turn in. Wakeup was at 5:00 a.m. as we had to be on the road to Verunga National Park by 6:00 a.m. The good news was that when the wakeup call came, the sun was already rising (thanks to that one hour time change) and the sky was clear. It was going to be a good day for a hike to see the gorillas.

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The view from my banda over Lake Ruhondo

We left at 6 sharp and drove down the hill and passed dozen of folks heading off to the fields. As we hit the main paved road we were met with hundreds of people walking. Now I had seen a lot of folks on the roads in Uganda, but I had never seen this many people. There were guys struggling to push bicycles uphill loaded with containers of beer, huge clusters of women walking with an array of foodstuffs, and utensils (shovels and hoes) on their heads, kids running all over the place and just an extraordinary mass of humanity. I mentioned this to Vincent and he told me that Rwanda has a huge population problem. The country is the size of Maryland and has a population of 11 million people. The government, which is run the by minority ethnic group, the Tutsis, has mandated that families only have two children and any families with more than two children are taxed. However, collecting is a problem. In addition, the majority ethnic group in Rwanda, the Hutus, continue to have children because they believe the mandate has been instituted so that the Tutsis, can “catch up” to their numbers.

(The Hutus were the group that was responsible for the 1994 genocide that resulted in the mass murder of over 1 million Tutsis between April and July – more about that later).

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Sacola traditional dancers at Verunga

After approximately an hour of driving (on surprisingly well paved roads) we reached the entrance to Verunga. I had begged Vincent to put me in an easy hiking group today because I was completely wiped out from my 5 plus hour hike the day before at an altitude of over 2,500 meters. I really needed a break today. We got out and to my surprise, there was entertainment. The Sacola Traditional Dancers were performing for the large number of hikers who were waiting to get started. (Clearly Verunga was a more popular treking destination for gorillas and I soon learned why. A lot of people fly into Kigali, drive 2 hours to Verunga, spend the night, hike to see the gorillas in the morning, drive back to Kigali in the afternoon and then catch a direct flight to Kenya or Tanzania for a safari. Bwindi and Mgahinga in Uganda are much more remote and more difficult to access and virtually impossible to only commit a couple days to the gorillas.)

Anyway, the dancers were superb. They performed traditional tribal dances for the better part of a half hour while we had tea and coffee and watched and waited for our group assignments. Finally, Vincent motioned me over and told me that I would be hiking to see the Kwitonda group with our guide Fidel. There would 8 of us hiking: a family of 3 from Australia, one guy from Germany, one guy from Switzerland and 2 guys from the U.S. Vincent told me that the Kwitonda group is usually found in the lowland areas so I was hopeful this was going to be an easy hike. However, it would be about a 20 minute drive to the start of the trailhead so I had a little extra time to relax before the big work began.

The sky was fairly clear as Fidel, Vincent and I jumped into the jeep and headed down the road and through a village and past the ever present staring and waiving people. As we turned left and began to drive up a hill, Vincent asked me if I was ready for my morning massage. It only took me a couple seconds to “get” his joke as we began to bounce up and down and sway back and forth. Rather than a massage, it felt more like being in a blender. We swirled and swayed so much I was afraid I was going to get motion sickness. Clearly, this was the worst road we had been on, and I assure that is saying an awful lot! The road was so bad that two of the vehicles (not jeeps) turned off and went around and through a field to reach the trailhead.

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Momma and baby day 1 at Verunga

When we arrived at the start of the trail, we had to wait for the 2 vehicles that couldn’t make it up the road. The vehicles finally arrived, we hired our porters, grabbed our walking sticks and set out through the field and towards the forest. The German and the Swiss dudes led the way with Fidel and our guard, followed by me, the Aussies and the two Americans pulling up the rear. I was particularly concerned about one of the American guys. By his own account, the guys was carrying about 150 lbs of excess weight. I had no idea how this guy was going to make it. I really hoped it was a short trek for his sake

So as we hiked up the muddy path, the trail traversed back and forth in an easy incline up the hillside between Sabyinyo and Gahinga volcanoes. So far, my kind of hike. (Thank you Vincent.) However, the bad news was that the trackers still had not located the gorillas. Uh oh. We periodically stopped to let the big guy at the end catch up so it made for some easy hiking. However, the terrain was very muddy, was becoming very steep, and we were climbing over fallen logs, dodging stinging nettles and an awful lot of fire ants. At one point, we were all covered in ants and were all brushing them off each other. This is the reason the guide and trackers tell everyone to tuck their pants into their socks, tuck in your shirt and button or zip your jackets all the way up. The ants try to attack you any way they can and if they find bare skin they will bite like crazy. I, fortunately, was also wearing gloves and gaiters (coverings for your shoes and pants). I was not going to get bit if I could help it (and fortunately, I was not bit).

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Lazing in the nest day 1 at Verunga

We finally heard from the trackers that the gorillas had been located in the bamboo forest so we altered our course and headed to the right and up the steep hillside towards the bamboo. We had been hiking for about an hour and half by this point, and it was turning into a much longer hike than I had expected. The big guy by this time was covered in mud having slipped numerous times, but to his credit he was not giving up. Good for him!

We reached the bamboo forest and began the hike through the dark bamboo. As we hiked, our guide heard from the trackers again and … bad news. The gorillas had apparently left the bamboo forest and were on the move because they had apparently come too close to another gorilla family. (It turned out it was the family that had left Mgahinga National Park … uh can’t we just go see them?)

So with this little wrinkle, we changed course, turned to our left and hiked out of the bamboo forest. We were now approaching two hours into the hike. We continued to dodge mud, ants, vines and heavy vegetation. Finally, 2 ½ hours into the hike, we met the trackers who told us the gorillas were just ahead. Haaaaaaa (Angles singing). Hallelujah!

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Line up and eat day 1 at Verunga

We followed the trackers up a slight incline through some heavy vegetation and then …. there they were … and there were a lot of them! We immediately saw the dominant Silverback who was sitting in the bush eating, and three females and a couple babies were in some heavy vegetation peeling stalks of bamboo and munching away. Yes!! I had not seen any babies until now and damn they were cute! Little fur balls on wobbly legs. It was hysterical watching them try to feed.

Suddenly, one of the little guys decided he was going to try and climb up some bamboo. The next thing we know the little one was half way up the bamboo and sliding down as if it were a fire pole. Up, down, up, down. On and on it went. Just like a little kid. Hysterical.

As we watched the baby, the Silverback decided it was time to move so he got up and lumbered right in front of us and through the bush. Apparently there was a nest in the bush, and the big guy had decided it was time for a rest. Soon the mommas and babies followed. We waited until the family was settled before we moved to the right to take a look. Our guide told us that after gorillas eat, the young ones engage in “social” time, which we soon learned was gorilla speak for play time. The young ones and a couple junior gorillas proceeded to climb on the mommas and the Silverback, roll around on the ground and generally put on a show. They appeared to be really interested in us and kept rolling onto their backs and staring up at us. It was priceless.

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Hi.   Can I play with you?

One of the trackers then motioned to us to head over to another area and two of us followed. We we were rewarded with an up close view of a momma and little baby just sitting in a clearing. The little baby wobbled over to us and the tracker had to make a deep, throaty warning noise so that the little one would back away. It didn’t, however, stop the wee one from trying to grab the tracker’s pants before wobbling back towards its momma. Oh my God!  So damn cute!

Soon our hour was up and it was back through the thick brush to where we had left the porters. We ate some lunch and then it was time to hike back. Our guide decided to take back a shorter route and we ended up crossing back and forth over a stream. Because we were hiking downhill, it made for a very slick and muddy trek. The big guy slipped multiple times and was by now coated in mud. To his credit, the big fella kept his sense of humor. After all, he had made it to see the gorillas so we were in the homestretch now.

The underbrush was pretty thick and my porter was not showing me any love by holding the branches out of my way or helping me through the mud. Quite frankly, the guy was pretty useless and seemed to be just mailing it in, and I as much as said so to him, although he had no idea what it meant. It got so bad that the guy was actually pushing branches out of the way for himself only to let them slap back at me. Good grief!

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Working the fields (no tractors here) on our hike back

It was by now 1:30, we had been hiking for almost 5 hours, the sky had darkened and thunder was rumbling all around us. We finally broke through the forest and reached the stone wall that marked the end of the trailhead. As we climbed over the wall, the rain began to fall. Great timing. We walked across the field and the jeeps dove up to meet us. I could not wait to sit down.

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Sabyinyo Volcano (day 1 hike)

I climbed in the jeep, muddy, wet and exhausted. We headed back down the bumpy road and I barely had the energy to tell Vincent “uh not so short”. He nodded and asked what happened. I explained about the gorillas running into each other and then the race to catch up to them as they moved around. He nodded again and said that it happens. Yep it does!

I got back to the lodge, showered, had some soup and then collapsed on my bed and slept for a couple hours. I was exhausted. The young masseuse came to my room and gave me a leg and foot massage and by the time dinner was being served, I was in much better shape. However, once dinner was finished I was ready to crawl into bed at the late hour of 8:23. 5:00 a.m. would come bright and early again. I was, however, rather worried about the hike the next day. The rain had not stopped since I got back from the trek, and I am not talking about a light shower. This was world class, gold medal torrential rain. It was going to be very, very tough going up the hillsides.

And sure enough, before I knew it I was being awakened by one of the staff members from the lodge. It was time to get ready to see the gorillas one last time. By 6:00 a.m., I had eaten breakfast, strapped on my gaiters and jumped in the jeep with Vincent for the one hour drive to Verunga. Fortunately, it had stopped raining, but there were mud puddles everywhere.

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Street scene outside Verunga National Park

We reached Vergunga and were again met by the Sacola Traditional Dancers. I found a place to sit and watched and waited for my group assignment. As I wandered around, who should I run into but the big guy from the day before. He was back for more. Turns our he is a doctor and had been on a safari with his buddy in South Africa and stopped in Kigali to spend two day hiking to see the gorillas. He appeared a little worse for wear from the day before, but he was raring to see the gorillas again. Can’t blame him. They are addictive, although rather expensive. (It costs $500 for every permit to see the gorillas, although a bulk of the permit fees go towards conservation efforts. The price explains why most of the people I had hiked with were only doing one trek.)

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Treking on day 2 at Verunga with the porters

Anyway, I wished the big guy well and went over to where Vincent was standing. He had my assignment. I would be hiking to see the Hirwa group and bonus of bonuses, the group had a new set of twins (8 months old). Twins are very, very rare because it is so hard for the mother to provide care for two baby gorillas at the same time. I was super excited. This was a great opportunity. My fellow trekkers assembled and it turned out there would be 7 women and 1 man, which was very different from my other three treks where it had been me and mostly men. (The last trek there had been two other woman and me, while I was the only woman on the first two treks.)

Anyway, we jumped into the jeep and drove down the road for about ten minutes where we met our guide Francis, picked our porters and walking sticks and headed out. This trek began very differently than the past three. We spent almost a half hour treking across farmland and pastures, past women working the soil and cows staring at us. We finally reached the edge of the forest and began any easy meander up the hillside at the base of Sabyinyo volcano. Ahhhh … just what I needed. The hike was VERY muddy with lots of standing water everywhere, but our porters were absolutely magnificent lending a hand and helping us dodge the muck and mud. The trek was pretty easy compared to my other three treks.

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I think he’s looking at me date 2 at Verunga

After another half hour of hiking up the hillside and through the bamboo, we met the trackers. The gorillas were in the bamboo ahead and were eating. Five minutes later and we were through the underbrush and into the bamboo forest watching mommas and babies eating. The dominant Silverback was sitting in a clearing staring at us and … posing (really). We all snapped pictures of the big guy as he stared at us, turned to give us his profile and then turned back to stare at us again. It was amazing. However, the real show was two four year old juveniles who were chasing each other around and around a tree, up a tree, past us, and then around and around the tree again. This went on the entire hour we were with the gorillas. The funniest moment came when one of the juveniles tried to climb up a tree and the other kept pulling him down. The two would wrestle for a while and then off they would go again chasing each other. At one point, they came so close to us they almost knocked us down.

We were so busy watching the two juveniles, we almost forgot about the Silverback who apparently was feeling rather slighted. Our tracker alerted us that we needed to move back because the big fella was up. We turned to look and in the blink of an eye, the Silverback was barreling to towards us. We dodged out of the way, but our tracker was not so lucky. The Silverback raised his arm and gave the tracker a shove out of the way as he charged passed us. Yikes. Did that just happen? Holy crap. Our tracker was fine, but the incident scared the bejesus out of the rest of us.

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Momma and her twins

However, we quickly got over it when our guide told us the momma and twins were sitting in a clearing in the bamboo. We crept over to the area and there they were: momma and the two little fur balls. They were adorable. I moved away from my hiking group and walked a few feet away to where our tracker was standing. We had a much better view. Momma was lying on her back with the two babies on her belly. She had her arms around the twins and her head tilted back staring right at me. It was amazing. I shifted a couple feet to my right,and I could see momma staring at me as I moved. I am certain she was making sure I did not take any steps closer to her and twins. We watched as the two little ones rolled off Momma and began to wobble around her. They looked like a couple of drunk little blobs as they struggled to stay upright.

In the meantime, the two juveniles were continuing their romp around the tree. At one point the two came charging passed us, and we barely avoided being run over. As they chased each other, the two emitted this low growling noise. Up the tree, down the tree, around the tree and rest. Up the tree, down the tree, around the tree and rest. It never ended. We were all stifling our laughs (so we did not scare the gorillas), but it was really, really funny.

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Weeeeeeeee day 2 at Verunga

We moved away from momma and the babies and encountered another baby gorilla trying to swing from a vine hanging from a tree. The baby would climb up the vine and swing around and then rest. This continued for a while until an older gorilla grabbed the vine and tried to climb up and into the tree. The older gorilla then proceeded to entertain us with some swinging from the vine.

Our guide informed us we only have a few minutes left with the gorilllas so we wandered down the slight hill and spent the last bit of time watching the Silverback. Then before I knew it my time with the gorillas was over.

We wandered through the bamboo up a small incline and back to out trackers. Because we were so close to the gorillas were were not permitted to open our bottles of water. We headed back down the hill and through the mud and water and before we knew it, we were back on the farmland hiking towards the jeeps. I could not believe that my last trek to see the gorillas was over. As tough as some of the treks had been, I would not change any of it. These phenomenal primates had been worth every bit of pain.

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I’m the boss

Vincent and I went back to the Verunga headquarters so that I could have a look in the crafts store and low and behold …. I found Christmas ornaments! The streak continues!!! After buying some ornaments and a tiny elephant for the Big E, it was time to head back to the lodge. Since the hike was so quick (only about 3 hours), I was back at the lodge by 1:00. I had some lunch on the veranda to the sounds of thunder and then went back to my banda for a little snooze.

About 4:00 I woke up to the sound of drums. I quickly grabbed my sandals and ran up the hill to towards the drum beat. The staff directed my down a path and up some stairs to where a group of kids form the local high school were performing for the guests. The kids were fantastic. They performed a number of traditional dances and some of the local villagers were watching as well. For the last song, the kids grabbed all of us and made us participate in the dance. It gave the local villagers a good laugh to watch the muzungas make fools of themselves.

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Students performing a traditional dance

After the show, I went back to my banda, got cleaned up and then headed back to the lodge for a sundowner before dinner. I had no hikes the next day and could really relax. Before I knew it, I was drinking beer (the local brand known as Primus and I highly recommend it) with a group from Scotland: a father, his partner, three sons and their signifcant others. An absolutely wonderful family all very, very funny. We were having such a good time we did not want to move on for dinner. It as a really enjoyable night.

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Me and Vincent after my last trek

I was up bright and early the next morning for some breakfast before Vincent and I hit the road for our trip to Kigali and my flight to Zanzibar. The drive took about 2 ½ hours and we passed by hundreds of people walking to market Friday with pigs and goats and lumber and produce. Two of the markets were right off the highway and were already packed with people. I was dying to get out and wander around, but I only had a couple hours of free time before my flight and I wanted to see the Genocide Museum in Kigali.

One of the interesting factoids that Vincent pointed out as we drove is that the Rwandan government had decreed that all building fronts would be constructed in the same style. Each building was required to have three pillars and a colonial style front. I had noticed the style similarity as we had been driving back and forth to Verunga, but until Vincent pointed out the obvious it hadn’t really struck me. Now as we drove, I was obsessed with finding a building that did not conform (I never did).

We continued on and also passed numerous mass graves from the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. One in particular was difficult to hear about: a river where hundreds of women who could not swim were raped and then thrown into the river. Large monuments marked each spot and covered a large cement mass grave. It was very difficult to see.

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On the road to Kigali

We finally reached Kigali and took a quick drive by Hotel Rwanda, which it turned out was also the location of Volcanoes Safaris Kigali office. I met some of the staff before Vincent and I got back in the jeep to head over to the Genocide Museum. I knew this was going to be a gut wrenching visit, but it was much harder than I had imagined. The outdoor garden area featured a fountain with a flame that is lit for the period April through July each year marking the time frame in 1994 when the genocide occurred. Right beside the fountain was a Childrens’ Garden, which was a memorial to the children who were murdered. All around the grounds there were symbolic gardens representing the effort of the Rwandans to remember the past and forge a bridge of healing for the future.

The most heart breaking sight outside the museum were the rows and rows of concrete mass graves. Over 250,000 people were buried here and it was a very, very disturbing scene. I placed a rose on one of the graves and wandered around staring at the wall of names that was only partially completed. It was beyond horrible.

I finally mustered the courage to go inside and the story of the genocide unfolded in front of me. The seeds of the genocide actually began with the Belgians who colonized Rwanda and drew a distinction between the Tutsi tribe and the Hutu tribe to better control the population. As a general rule, if you had more than 10 cows you fell into the Tutsi tribe and less than 10 cows put you in the Hutu tribe. The Belgians also emphasized the physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. In 1956, the Tutsi King called for independence from Belgium, while the Hutus favored a slower track to independence. As a result, the Belgians who had supported the Tutsis switched sides and backed the Hutus. In 1962, Rwanda gained independence and the Hutu majority came to power and immediately issued identification cards to all citizens so that there was no denying who was a Hutu and who was a Tutsi.

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One of the mass graves at the Genocide Museum

In the years that followed, tribal tensions flared and were exacerbated by repeated attempts of the Tutsis to overthrow the government. As a result of these attempts, government officials began training an “Interahamwe” (those who stand together) militia with the intent of wiping out the Tutsis. The plan was put in motion in April 1994 when the Hutu president’s plane was shot down by a surface to air missile as it approached the Kigali airport. The Minister of Defense then directed the army to murder the moderate Tutsi president and 9 Belgian peacekeepers resulting in a complete pull-out of the Belgians. This paved the way for the Interahamwe death squads and the army to begin the massacre. Over the next 100 days from April to July 1994 over a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed.

As I wandered the museum there were displays featuring the history of the genocide, stories about families who had been hacked, burned, strangled, shot, tortured and drowned by Hutu neighbors and family members, videos showing survivors who told their heartbreaking stories of losing loved ones, remnants of clothing and articles recovered from victims, pictures of those who had been murdered and stories about citizens who saved untold numbers of people, including one story I read about a young muslim fellow who dug a hole in the ground and saved 30 people by hiding them in the hole and covering the hole to make it appear that it was all part of the garden area. The area of the museum dedicated to the Rwandan genocide also featured a video of trials being conducted by villagers for men who participated in the genocide. The last area of the museum was dedicated to the efforts the Rwandans have undertaken to heal their country including studies and education of other genocides.

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The Memorial Fountain at the Genocide Museum

The stories and the displays were absolutely heartbreaking, and I walked up the stairs and out into the courtyard by the fountain feeling completely exhausted. It was impossible for me to reconcile the wonderful, warm Rwandans I had met over the past three four days with the horrible stories and displays I saw in the museum.

I met Vincent outside and climbed into the jeep in silence. It was a very sad way to leave Rwanda. We pulled out of the museum parking lot and headed towards the airport, which we reached in about 20 minutes. I then had to face another sad fact. My time with Vincent had come to an end. My companion, guide, driver and all around great guy walked me to the security gate at the front of the airport. I gave him a big hug and thanked him for everything he had done for me in Uganda and Rwanda, for showing me two amazing, beautiful countries, and above all else, for his supremely professional and stellar guiding skills. I then followed the porter to the front of the security line into the airport and turned one last time to wave goodbye to Vincent. I was really going to miss that guy!

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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