A Travellerspoint blog

Jomo Kenyatta International

This is my last entry from somewhere interesting, or at least that’s how it feels. Though the most overwhelming feeling is exhaustion. Physically, yes. Sleep last night wasn’t sound and the net didn’t quite cover the bed. But also a larger and quieter exhaustion, the mental toll that life here so naturally imposes.
What’s coming seems too new, almost too immense to allow enjoyable anticipation. I think about New York and Shannon and my family and home and I feel nothing. Maybe a silent satisfaction, but the larger idea of what’s happening is too big, composed of too many intricate parts to allow easy and descriptive enumeration.
At the same time, I look out the window at the palm trees and the tropical sun and I ask myself to drink them in, to enjoy and savor the little peculiarities that will soon be lost to sight and mind. But I can’t. I feel as even and blasé about here as I do about where I am going.
Perhaps that’s just how airports are?
I can remember so clearly arriving here. Gleaning so intensely for differences that the most pedestrian of variations seemed profoundly alien. I can recall these terminals and custom desks and stumbling through them guided by Peace Corps staff, exhausted and confused from the 18 hour flight. I could not believe how different things were here. This place – the first place – seems a touchstone for this whole experience because of how different it seemed then, and how normal it is now. It’s an airport. Like many others I have been to in Africa and at home.
Is the contrast of that moment and this one the same contrast that I will see arriving home? Will those faces and places seem as bizarre and unfamiliar as this place once did?
I’m desperate to know how I have changed (as I can only assume I have). But the mirror my recollection provides can only contrast the me I had when I arrived compared to me now. What seemed alien and strange has revealed itself as profoundly normal. Will my experience of these ticket desks and corridors be the same as my experience of myself once I have reached home? Will what seemed so normal here cause me to feel disoriented and out-of-place as I try to ease back into what I knew?
The distance between two moving points tells little about their distance from the start. These trees and this sky, the flags and license plates and colors of faces have all become such implicit assumptions. I’m excited to play with them, to see them change. I just find myself unable to fathom how and what that process will be.

Posted by Natyb25 10:06 Comments (0)

Kampala

The dirt track from the matatu junction descends and then climbs back up towards the clearing upon which the temple is perched. We found our way here yesterday the same way we have discovered other places that we haven’t been before (which in Uganda is every place): asking directions and squinting out the window for landmarks or signs. When we got off here, we could see the coppery green of the temple’s dome poking out above the trees and we walked down the only road that led in that direction. Today, as yesterday, the greenery that overflows the side of the road is coated in red dust. It is the same red dust that covers our shoes and leaves a collar stain like makeup where it mixes with the sweat on the back of my neck. We are running late for the Sunday service.
Kampala is said to be built atop seven hills just like Rome. The Bahai Temple sits at the crest of one of these hills couched in a rambling set of gardens. It’s hard to describe what a shocking contrast this place is to downtown Kampala. The close cut lawns descend down the sides of the peak. Lines of bushes and copses of trees run in lines framing the view back towards the city. Yesterday there were a few people wandering the grounds: sitting on the grass or lying under trees. A group of little girls were racing down the hill, screaming as the slope accelerated them past their legs ability to keep up. They collapsed onto the grass, rolling the last 50 feet to the bottom, laughing all the way. The quiet of the exhausted and the destitute – so salient to the parks in Nairobi and Nakuru, Kericho and Kisumu – is absent here. This space itself seems pensive and welcoming. The quiet and the reflection it invites has drawn us back for today’s services.
Our Sunday best is no longer really in very good shape. I washed my only pair of pants and collared shirt in the sink last night, but the seat is wearing thru and the collar of the shirt has been hand scrubbed so many times that its frayed and losing color. It’s before nine, but the sun is already high and I am sweating.
Up at this time, carefully dressed and groomed, walking up a dirt road is powerfully reminiscent of Kitui. But so many things have been recently. Our Peace Corps training and homestay south-east of Nairobi was almost a year ago but walking here in the sun and dust, we could easily be headed into the Pastoral Center for our weekly group training. The view of Kampala sprawled out below the temple reminds me of standing atop Tsambani rock and the drums of Sunday worship floating lightly on the wind.
Why do we look towards the beginning as we approach the end? I worried for a time about what it means to bookend my experiences; to mark their ending a long way off and to consciously begin the process of summing them up. I take two points and try to find how they exist for one another. I try to measure and articulate the space between. I have worried, in the past and now, that this habit cannot help but strip the experience of vital and gorgeous details, in the same way any generalization loses the romance of its reality. Fortunately (or unfortunately) this experience has proven resistant to such compartmentalization. Daily I have trouble even wrapping my head around where I am. Placing that in contrast to where I was a year ago and considering it in the context of this whole experience is too much to hold at once.
At home I used to avoid learning about – much less using – public buses because I didn’t like the idea of boarding something whose route was unbounded by a set track. And this was in a space where I speak the language and am familiar with the geography. One of my goals in coming here was to confront the pit-of-the-stomach dread I felt with the idea of being dropped off alone in a totally unknown place. The experience of having not a clue about where I am or how to get to the next place is so reliably produced by this experience that it has become less something I confront and more something that I live with everyday. Being lost is an ongoing context to everything, anything else.
What does that mean? I am at a loss as to how to summarize that change. I can see where it began and where it will end, but I can’t yet contain it, understand it at once.
Every two points are related to one another, if only be nature of their mutual existence. Seeing a relationship between them, reading lessons or truths into their distance and sensation is little more than saying that they existed and you remain the link between them; I am the space between the past and present. And in that context, what I am confronting is the fact that I don’t know exactly who I will be when I return. I don’t know who I am now if only because I have come to learn that the self is as essential and objective as the location and attitude in which it is examined.
Time will take care of the reducing the details. In six months, a year, I won’t be able to recall what it’s like to be here well enough to be overwhelmed with it. ‘Permanent’ changes won’t be existent then any more than they are now, but the place will show a different me. I don’t have to worry about summarizing this experience or deciding on its lessons and impacts any more than I needed a detailed summary of the person I was before I arrived. These changes are not set, they cannot be known, detailed; they are a function of where I go next and what that situation demands. I will find myself a new way then, just as I have here.

Posted by Natyb25 09:24 Comments (0)

Too Little, Too Late

We tried to go to the museum and memorial here in Kigale before we left for rainforest camping but found it closed for diplomatic visits. President Bush is gradually realizing that his legacy will be one of diplomatic, military and economic failure and has taken, with a sudden and stinking desperation, to international relations as a hobby. His visits to East Africa carried an unctuous effort. Here in Kigale his visit to the genocide museum resulted in it being closed to tourists for two straight days. Returning on a bright and pleasantly breezy Tuesday, we found a faded floral wreath emblazoned with Bush’s name and an appropriately sober message of sympathy fourteen years too late. It was placed on a concrete foundation over the mass graves that were filled with the unidentified bodies that were rotting in Kigale’s streets back in 1994. These sit in a memorial garden that surrounds the genocide museum.
What is there to say about this place? About what has happened here and what it has meant to the people for whom this violence was not just a news story or a set of photographs in an air-conditioned and dimly lit museum?
There are facts. There is the fact that General Romeo Dallaire – officer in charge of the UN peace keeping mission in Rwanda – met with a government informant who offered proof that the Rwandan government was training youth groups to carry out a meticulously planned genocide. This plan was complete with government military support and annotated deathlists. There is the fact that this information was dismissed by the UN just weeks before President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down by an unknown group. There is the fact that within hours of Habyarimana’s death roadblocks were set up in the streets of Kigale and the Interhamwe had begun the process of murdering, raping and torturing tens of thousands of people.
Too often in considering violence in Africa it is easy to understand and dismiss violence as a result of underlying ethnic tensions. We can chalk it up to the legacy of arbitrary borders created by an imposed government or the same supposed cultural differences that excuse a constant state of governmental corruption. There’s no need to understand what happened in any specific terms; it falls under a universal escape clause: it’s African and it’s ethnic. There’s nothing to understand. What I would have you take away from reading this is simple. What happened here was not unorganized. It was not a randomly expanded act of isolated savagery. The 800,000 fathers and mothers, sons and daughters murdered here were targeted over a period of months and years and the mechanism created and operated to extinguish their lives was coldly deliberate and intentional. What happened and what, therefore, could have been prevented was not spontaneous either in its planning or in its enactment.
Those are facts. They cannot carry the depth of meaning and emotion that I saw in the school group of high school age Rwandan youths with whom I went through the exhibits. Watching a video of interviews with survivors I was ashamed of my own feelings of sorrow and despair. I was embarrassed by how shallow any sense of loss I could summon must stand against their own. I watched as they wailed and sobbed, beat their hands against glass cases containing the clothes excavated off the bodies of those in the graves outside. 15…16? A year or two old when gangs of neighbors appeared at their doors with blunted machetes and bloody hands. I can’t grasp it. I can’t sit with it in the way that they do. In the face of that, what is there to do?
Nothing for now. Nothing for here. The healing that is taking place, the healing that may never end, is not a project for international concern. To make it so would be a disservice to those who perished and to any attempt for real and meaningful reconciliation. Whether this could have been prevented by the UN or the US or any other body is meaningless when it comes to truly shouldering the responsibility for what has happened.
I hesitated to write about our visit for this very reason. In the face of such astonishing loss – even absent our own government’s complicit silence when these things occurred – of what use are my pale descriptions? What could this piece transmit but its own inadequacy? Except that this personal sense of impotence in the face of such large forces is the same one that excuses our leaders from acknowledging tragedies like this one even as they continue to occur. When we stand aside and opt out of our own conscience because things seem overwhelming, that is when tragedy happens. When we cease to heed the courage of our convictions we leave the space for the kind of atrocities that were enacted here. Our penance for what happened here is refusing to give over to any sense of our own powerlessness. What we think, what we believe in the world matters. When we see something wrong, we must say something before it's too late.

Posted by Natyb25 12:43 Comments (1)

Mwanza

The first few months I was here I couldn’t tell the Kenyans apart. The simplest way to say it was that they all looked the same to me. I didn’t realize it, but in my life at home I had grown accustomed to seeing one kind of face. If each race has a set of variables that tend to describe their proportions and colors, the shape of their chins or set of their eyes, then it would make sense that I am best equipped to detect subtle distinctions in the kind of face with which I am most familiar: my own. Over time I have improved and finding white faces the minority of what I have been surrounded by for the last ten months I now have the opposite problem. I am so unaccustomed to seeing white people that they all look the same to me. Waving to the girls at dinner just across from us on the patio, I get a mystified look and half hearted return wave.
But I am right. It is the Dutch girls from the bus office. At least, we think they are Dutch. They are from Holland and we can’t quite agree whether this makes them Dutch or Danish. Volunteers at a hospital in Mwanza they have been living here for two months and kick off tomorrow with a few weeks of travel before they head home. They had planned travel through Kenya but abandoned it in the wake of the election. This, combined with their exclamation of concern over our impending travel to Rwanda, makes them a casebook study in the danger that domestic disorder poses to a tourism industry. “Rwanda? Is that safe?” The genocide in Rwanda was 14 years ago next month and it is still discouraging visitors.
We found this place while we wandered about Mwanza today. The dining patio sits at the edge of the water, separated by a shallow wooden fence topped with small kerosene lanterns. I have been surprised at how calming the wide and quiet flatness of the lake is for me. It reminds me of home I suppose. The land around the lake seems new and ragged: hills climbing to an escarpment that surrounds the city center. The houses terrace up the hillsides creating the appearance of a Mediterranean village transplanted to central Africa. The water and coast are littered with boulders the size of houses, as though god had wandered along the shore scattering pebbles from his pockets. They poke out of the ground and water at intervals, like the ruins of some ancient settlement softened and rounded by centuries of wind and rain.
The Dutch (or Danish) girls are dining with an odd dozen ex-pats from work. Their co-workers resemble nothing so much as the cast of a primetime hospital drama. There’s a stunning, if vacant looking, blonde, a willowy and hippily dressed brunette. Standing slightly aloof is the older, rugged looking supervisor and the grim, tall, thin and dark counter-culture heartthrob. There’s a pop-band pretty boy in the white linen shirt, his tuft of tightly trimmed chin hair bronzed from the sun and a dumpy social misfit sitting with the pair of ambiguously ethnic minorities. The strongest aspect of their TV-drama resemblance is the exotic setting and honest joy that seems to pervade their dinner. Just watching them, I want to be a part of their group, their life. With little more than a cursory introduction, I find myself jealous of their lives. I imagine the houses, the lifestyle that their first world salaries command in this third world country. Their party stretches long into the night in my imagination, as they sip cocktails of fresh juice and imported vodka on the balcony of someone’s hillside home. Their conversation drifts in and out of English and Kiswahili, French and Dutch (or Danish) as they sit smoking clove cigarettes and waiting for the sun rise.
Watching them, wishing for the community and comfort they seem to possess in the midst of this strange and exotic land I start to see how I will remember the life I have left behind in Kenya. I’ve had dinners like this, sitting with my friends under the setting sun enveloped in a bond of common experience and mutual respect. Treasuring an isolation that makes the people and moments more precious than they would be anywhere else. Filled to overflowing with a true and honest desire to be here, now, and nowhere else with no one different. I have a quote written in one of my books to the effect that in travel we become all things: explorer and student, lover and academic, critic and creator and child. But I don’t know that we become residents. There’s a special sense of belonging in a place that’s not your own, of thriving in an adopted home. It’s not a role that we can “try on” as we might do with others. We visit places to try them out, to imagine our lives transplanted somewhere different, but there is a powerful difference between imagining a home and actually having one. It’s worth noting that, for a little while, I had one here.

Posted by Natyb25 05:54 Comments (0)

The African Express

The train station in Dar is cushioned from the street by a ring of families seated on their luggage, lounging in the grey light of the overcast day. The omnipresent and riotous mass of hawkers and street boys that surround the ferry to Zanzibar is absent here. The only things for sale in the street are the domestic supplies that three days on the train will require: five liter jugs of water and loafs of bread.
Rachel sits down with our bags and food on a bench just inside. While I am investigating the platforms a women sitting next to her asks for our two five-liter bottles. In broken English she indicates the child lying on the bench next to her. Rachel refuses just before the child’s actual mother returns to take her towards the train. As we rise to enter the platform we see at her feet already two five liter bottles, a mirror of what she asked us to give.
Third class is seating on a first-come first-serve basis. A stern, tightly packed crowd squeezes against the cars awaiting the conductor’s key. Across the platform sits an older train, one that has been gradually cannibalized over a decade of sitting in the yard. The glass is gone from the windows and the cushions from the seats. The light fixtures hang at the end of slack and worn wiring. Bare metal benches sit facing one another. The friction of a thousand sweating bodies has rubbed the paint from the metal leaving the dully glinting sheen of polished steel in the shape of legs and torsos. I imagine the struggle for these seats that has been repeated here over and over again – fighting for a comfort barely greater than the floor beneath it. And even after gaining a seat, three days of dust and bugs through open windows. Three days of unsleeping worry over luggage and theft. Rationed water and the sweet-sour stink of dirt and sweat.
In first class the compartment door has holes where the lock used to be that are plugged with wood scraps. The plastic light cover over the sole working fluorescent fixture is broken in a jagged streak. The pleather of the seats is ripped and faded from the sun. On each side of the door, facing the windows across the hallway, are one-way light panels with sliding covers propped open with scrap wood pieces. In the corner to the right of the window is a miraculously functional sink. I turn it on and wait for the pipe underneath to pool the water on the floor. Instead I hear it trickling down and out onto the tracks below. Above it, what might have been a medicine cabinet at one time is boarded over with the same wood that holds up the light panels and plugs the door. Down the hall, the toilet is a hole cut in the train carriage that drops right out onto the tracks. Squatting to release you can see the ground rushing by underneath. You watch as the contents of your bowels are splashed out across a half mile of track. We jury rig our mosquito net over the window and lay out our sleeping bags on the beds. We are shocked and delighted to find our rock-bottom expectations thoroughly contradicted even before a porter comes to the door with clean sheets and blankets. We are astonished to hear him ask us if we would like dinner delivered.
A half hour out of Dar Es Salaam the sound of car engines and paved roads on tires has disappeared. At our stops beside cornfields and tiny dirt crossings still more people run past us toward the third class cars and the only sound is the steam like hiss of the wheels as they slow to stop and gradually begin their roll again. The horn-blast signaling departure stands out like a beacon in the silence of the dusk. Sticking my head out the window as we enter a curve, I can see the train stretched our fore and aft, black heads leaning on arms as they watch the passing bush. The sounds of children and villages outside mingle with the voices of our neighbors and the people passing by in the hallway. We start and stop with an indeterminate and unfathomable regularity, as though god has asked us all to take a moment and dwell on this one spot. Consider this field and this sky. Absorb them honestly and fully.
There’s a dirty intimacy in this stifling space. Watching Rachel strip off her dusty, sweaty clothes to bathe with water from the tiny bowl of the sink, I imagine the scores of people sequestered in this space for two or three days of equatorial heat. Traveling with strangers or friends or family clinging to whatever ideas of personal space or hygiene are necessary to arrive at their destination. Rachel’s wet body under the dim bare bulb exudes a universality of human life startlingly distinct from the images of objectified female eroticism so often imbued in bathing. She stands half naked in this dirty and impersonal space as I will later and as people have since this train was new. Once upon a time the doors had locks and the floor was a solid mass of clean tile. The windows closed without bracing and the medicine cabinet was filled and emptied by each set of passengers who spent three days watching the landscape go coursing by. The clothes that lie piled on the bed and the walls that contain this bath are a changeable and ephemeral shell over a living, breathing thing. Rachel’s body enduring in the center of her manufactured skins; the endless procession of travelers removing the day’s dust continuing even as the floor has punctured, the locks failed and the windows cracked.
As night falls and the darkness outside carries only the mediated silence of a quiet summer rain. The light fades from the windows and the rhythmic beat of the train over the tracks fades from consciousness. Climbing into bed we turn out the light and find suddenly that the click-clack of the wheels over joined sections of track has diminished only within our own perception. In the dark, the motion and sound of the train become one thing cradling our senses and drawing us off to sleep.

Posted by Natyb25 05:33 Comments (0)

Zanzibar

Zanzibar has been an unforgiving experience when it comes to how I view myself. As my Kiswahili increasingly rusts in my brain and slows on my tongue it begins to feel as though I am losing a part of myself. It seems this trip is stripping me of the pride and strength I have cultivated from ten months of life here.
This place is packed with tourists, as it should be. The mechanisms are all in place to provide an experience that contrasts and comforts; one that challenges just enough to gratify, but not enough to draw any deep or profound questions. And though Rachel and I harp about authenticity - about real cultural experiences - what are we but culturally focused tourists? Elevating one variable of the experience above other equally imagined inputs to a fictionally ‘true’ whole. What’s ‘natural’ and what’s ‘normal’ is mostly a matter of picking a point in the progression and contrasting it with the present, the average or your preference. We search for essence and end up only shuttling between points of view.
The biggest blow to my sense of being special – of belonging in Africa– is how much I’ve enjoyed being here, camouflaged in a sea of white faces. How relieved I am to have my mistakes forgiven, to finally have the endless hawking and aggressive salesmanship actually apply to me. I can cease fighting the way I am viewed. I match, at last, the expectations daily foisted upon me.
Still, I can’t help feeling as though I have lost something, We share the streets with their overzealous tanning and corn-rowed auburn hair over pasty dry scalps. There’s the same ‘exotic’ African print cut into handbags and trousers, tank-tops and scarves. Cameras are slung over every arm and neck like guns. Every shop and duka echoes with the same argument and rotely memorized phrasebook exchanges. Rachel and I talk about them, snipe at their hair or dress as they come down the alley. We abuse them for reminding us of ourselves.
Most of my existence in Africa has been based around not being a tourist. I’ve struggled to validate my presence in tiny villages and back road bars through depth of commitment - by emphasizing the length of my stay. “I’m not a tourist. I live here.” Being special has become a burden. It started as a congratulation. As feeling better and more and different than those against whom I compared yourself. ‘Special’ ends as a violent and futile protest against a gathering sense of commonality. One that hollows you out and leaves an echo in the space you think you are supposed to fill. In truth, Rachel and I have been in a pissing contest since the day we stopped being volunteers and started being tourists - a word we shrink from using.
It dies hard because this whole thing started in a spirit of exceptionalism. We chose this trial; we elected this time to do something uncommon and unusual. Whether from a youthful temperament or some mix of deeply imbedded iconoclasm and historically posited guilt, we came to do and be something different. (Though it’s important to remember that we came to Africa to do it, a place where generations of white faces have arrived with similar sentiments of their own uniqueness.)
I feel sad to watch it slip away. Different or not, I felt different before. I had an honest pride in my choice to be here and my reasons for doing so. Now, the same thing I used to hold with a quiet confidence at the back of my hand has become an emblem I’m desperate to display. Instead of feeling special, I strive to prove that I am and it fills my interactions with calculated inferences and over-confident authority. My need to tell someone how it really is deepens in concert with a growing fear that I don’t really know. True or not, as I increasingly elevate the ‘authentic’ experience I can’t help but see how absurd my own lingering claim of uniqueness is becoming and, perhaps, how absurd it was to begin with.
The loss is less about my permanent self than about how I viewed myself here. And it’s not a loss. A year ago I would have seen it as so, but however I have grown tells me that it’s just a change; it’s a part of growing. I’m coming home not with a feeling that I’ve failed to authentically be here, but rather the knowledge that being anywhere has less to do with what you know or how long you’ve stayed as it does with feeling like you belong. As always, the only one who can truly validate your presence, your purpose, your intentions, is you.
The gradual relinquishing of my exceptional status is like a slow release of pressure as I come ascend from the depths, back towards the easy and familiar life I knew. To lose a part of something, it must begin with the kind of completeness that can never describe a life. I am not losing a part of myself, merely leaving it behind on the road to something new. I only hope that tomorrow finds me as optimistic and excited for the future as today.

Posted by Natyb25 23:57 Comments (1)

Dar Es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam remains mercifully untouched by the foreigners who flood its airport during tourist season. They flock north and south of the city to white sand beaches and swim up bars. Without them, the city is clean, orderly and largely sober, owing to a significant Muslim population. Municipal workers in orange vests and bare feet sweep the streets and cluster in small groups at roundabouts, picking up trash and maintaining the immaculate state of the streets. The roads are full of personal vehicles and motorcycles. There is little need for the endless streams of matatus that Nairobi’s vast spread demands; the city is comfortably walkable. We got lost repeatedly, only to find ourselves once again back at the intersection from which we started. The city has a geography comfortably grasped in a two hour walk, as opposed to Nairobi which I barely understand after a dozen trips over an eight month period.
When we were sequestered north of the city at the Jangwani Beach Hotel we were told that Dar was dangerous and that we were restricted from going for our own safety. We chaffed at this restriction on our freedom and sarcastically noted the absurdity of suggesting that Dar was too dangerous - the Kenyan office is located in a city nicknamed ‘Nairobbery.’ The reality is that Dar has a whole lot of nothing in a surprisingly small amount of space. It would have been better – and more accurate – to say: “Don’t go to Dar. You will just be bored. Not to mention two hours from your free meals and a 24 hour bar.”
However, the over eager diagnosis of peril was not merely a company line from the PC Tanzania office. Tanzanian volunteers we met decried ‘The Q Bar’ near the Peace Corps office in Dar as an out of control prostitute free-for-all. “Don’t bring too much cash,” they said, “And make sure you keep an eye on your drink.” This sounded great. James and Marcus and I were eagerly awaiting our chance to descend into the depravity of the Q Bar. Where we expected to be aswim in prostitutes and creepy old ex-pats we found instead a pleasant well lit courtyard bar that I would be happy taking my family to. This in contrast to ‘Casablanca’ in Mombasa, where a Tuesday night walk to use the restroom gets you three package pats. I imagine Tanzanian volunteers evacuated to Nairobi undergoing nervous breakdowns like the cousin from the sticks who warns you about Des Moines after 8p on a Friday and ends up at the Robert Taylor Homes at 2:30a after a Bull’s Championship. The end of their first day finding them mugged, hopelessly lost and emotionally destabilized.
The long and short of it is that Dar is boring. And slow. And hopelessly unsophisticated when compared to Nairobi. It is for those qualities that I find myself jealous of volunteers here. I have often wondered about my Peace Corps experience and the other ways it could have occurred. If I had chosen Agriculture – a Peace Corps work sector endlessly more structured and concrete than Public Health – and if I had been assigned to a country where I actually had to learn a language, would my feelings about being away from home be different?
Dar feels appropriate to the work of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Nairobi is hard edged and overgrown. It’s layers of grime and desperation and the shallow luster of new wealth built next to – on top of – dire poverty all constantly surround and assault you. Any public exposure is continually invasive: you are cajoled and needled in rude, heavily accented english. It is exhausting compared to the quiet peace of Dar.
A family friend high up in USAID told me that Peace Corps Kenya is Africa’s best Peace Corps Program. USAID probably thinks that because of the budget, the infrastructure, the endless chain of International Aid organizations and NGOs all comfortably nestled into Nairobi’s top-quality hospitality sector. There are good hospitals and reliable utilities and a high degree of political stability (at least until recently). But the same things that encourage the permanent installation of so much foreign money – as well as the money itself - is exactly what makes Kenya such a difficult and frustrating place in which to serve.
Too many of us found our service to be more about money – how much we could bring and how it looked on grant applications to possess a Peace Corps Volunteer – than about learning to live in another country. Kenyan’s I met without water or electricity knew to ask me for sponsorship for their children, a donation to this project or that foundation. Too often, before being a person, Peace Corps volunteers were dollar signs. Kenya which has (had) the most stable government and highest level of Western aid in East Africa, has the worst roads of all the countries I have visited. Its cities are dirtier, dingier and more broken down than any others. The money, it seems, is eating the country from the inside out. And its evident in the experience of the volunteers who serve there.
Visiting the Peace Corps office in Dar I spoke with a Tanzanian volunteer who felt a similar process was beginning to occur here as a result of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDs Relief (PEPFAR). Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into Tanzania to be spent on AIDs projects. Emily said that their Mid-Service training seemed to forget ideas of community integrations for a focus on grant writing, budgeting and accounting. Money as the center of Peace Corps Service just as it is the center of the America’s foreign policy in the third world. The fear it raises is that the Peace Corps too is becoming an organization more focused on throwing money and recording statistics than on person-to-person change; for host country nationals and for Peace Corps Volunteers.
The decision’s I’ve made - distinctions I have reached – here are life changing shifts of intention and perspective. The evacuation came at a good time for me and I am thankful for the manner in which it is making moving to the next part of my life easier. However, had I to do it over again, I would ask not to be in Kenya. I would wish for someplace like this. For the quiet and regional flavor of Dar Es Salaam or any other place not yet swallowed by the endless money blindly sent to change it.

Posted by Natyb25 01:57 Comments (1)

Mombasa Tourism

I have a fair degree of certainty that this man has just woken from a sound sleep. Coming into the office it was deserted. Three desks littered with brochures, each emblazoned with doubtful English. Posters of electric blue lagoons and white sand beaches. Dusty carved figures and faded African prints. No people. Only after calling out a few times did a woman emerge from the far office, her expression indicating severe embarrassment to be caught carrying a cup of tea. She placed it on the desk in a brisk manner that suggests this was why she exited the back office in the first place. As though the Mombasa Tourism office can only operate with a fresh cup of chai steaming away on its desks.
I am already resigned to being here. It's half stubborn self definition and half the expectation of an experience like the one we are currently having. I have a rigid and thorny self definition: I am not a tourist; I live here. Except that, technically, I don't anymore. I want to remain unique and exceptional here. I want status – a ranking above normal – for the months of struggle towards integration with life here. The other half of my resignation is linked to this desire for special status. The people who need the tourism office are likely in pursuit of knowledge that we have already acquired. What you bargain for and what you don't. What a menu in a Kenyan restaurant actually means in terms of what's available. Where and when to walk in the city and what to carry. How to deal with street children and touts and hawkers. We've learned these things through months of mistakes and awkward moments of silence. It's knowledge – competency – that I am proud of and entering here seems to strip me of it.
James (as his name plate indicates) is the tourism officer. He exits the center rear office after a minute or so of knocking by the tea woman. The office he exits is dark. This, combined with the full, arms and head stretching, eye closing yawn that racks his upper body, causes him to resemble a bear staggering out of hibernation. Whether it's his nap being interrupted or his general feelings about his job – probably both – his enthusiasm is minimal to say the least.
We've come today for two reasons. The first is that tonight is our last night with Charles and he has volunteered to take us out to a nice dinner in celebration. We want seafood, but all we have been able to find is more than we want to ask Charles to pay. The second thing is the Lonely Planet myth of a cargo dhow ride to Zanzibar. Supposedly it is possible to pay for passage on a motarized cargo dhow going from Mombasa to Zanzibar. We want to know if such a thing is really possible.
In some sense, this is a stupid question since: a) if it is possible, it's not something the tourism office would or could sanction and b) anyone who has successfully negotiated with a commercial dhow to camp on their deck during an international port change is likely not to be the kind of person who would be sitting where we are right now, across the desk from a man whose primary job is dealing with foreigners who are intimidated by the prospect of taking a ride on a minibus and are still amazed by how hot it is here.
Rachel explains about dinner:
"We would like seafood, but a place like 'The Tamarind' is too expensive. We want something a step or two down." The Tamarind is said to be one of the best restaurants in East Africa. It's prices are on the high end for American fancy restaurants.
James stretches his jaw downward and repeatedly opens his eyes wide as though he's just put in contact lenses for the first time. He reaches to his right and, stifling a yawn, grabs a brochure and spreads it out in front of us.
"There is a wonderful restaurant here called: 'The Tamarind.' It is very famous."
Rachel and I exchange looks. I feel fairly certain that if we had started off describing our preference for human flesh roasted over burning tires, James would still have this brochure as his go-to.
"…um. Right. But like I said, The Tamarind is a little too expensive. Is there something a little cheaper?"
James closes one eye and then the other and purses his lips in thought.
"You're sure this place is too much for you to pay?" He appears unable to grasp that white people in Mombasa would be unable to afford something. He has a point. Indeed, as much as I feel conceitedly confident that we are not the type of travelers to use a tourism office, I have trouble imagining the ones who would. East Africa is not a casual destination. Visitors interested in tourism have most likely come from far enough away that they had a specific reason for making the trip. East Africa, and Mombasa in particular, is not the kind of convenient stopover where you think to yourself: "And, as long as we're passing through, let's kill a day or two in Mombasa! Gotta be something to do around there."
Given that, anyone who did arrive here without an actual purpose or even vague idea of what there is to do would likely possess a great deal of money and little judgment of how it should be spent. Blindly recommending 'The Tamarind' might work with such people. We, however are not that kind of traveler.
James tries for 'The Tamarind' once more, his office mate with the tea nodding her head: "It's very romantic…" before moving on to suggesting a two day dhow ride-snorkeling excursion.
"Right, but we are actually looking for a place to have dinner." He nods.
"Yes. They serve dinner on the boat both nights." He emphasizes this point by tapping his pen against the brochure.
Rachel continues an insistent line of questioning in pursuit of dining options. On the island of Mombasa there are apparently no more than six restaurants. According to the tea lady three of theses are: "Very romantic." James' final offering is unveiled with the smug satisfaction that suggests he was testing to see if we would refuse all his other options before he trusted us enough to mention his personal choice. From his desk drawer he removes a flyer for the Rehema Restaurant. This restaurant is across the seat. Turning around in my chair I can see the sign over the door. The flyer James offers us is the same one I was handed as we walked by looking for this office not more than twenty minutes ago. Though the description of the food is vague, I admit I am intrigued by the promise of air conditioning.
We move on, at last, to the dhow to Zanzibar. James sighs and presses the heels of his palms deep into his eye sockets as though we have presented him with a very difficult word problem.
"That is very illegal. There is no boat until Zanzibar."
James suggests (obviously) that we should fly. If we are determined to take the bus we should not go to the stage to get a ticket.
"It could be difficult. There may be danger for you. Someone else should go."
"Perhaps you can take us?" I offer, jumping into the conversation for the first time. I am imagining spending the afternoon torturing this man. Having him escort us everywhere. Asking him to be in photos with street children. Insisting he take us into a mosque during prayer. Having him translate ignorant, banal questions asked in overly loud annunciated English.
"No. I cannot. I must be here in the office, but your hotel can send someone, I am sure."
Qwale Guesthouse has a single full time staff member: a woman at the front desk who naps on a cushion on the floor in between customers. I suppose if one of us took over the front desk she could go.
I don't blame James for his half feigned interest and total lack of knowledge. His conduct and skill are spectacularly typical of the city and district employees I have dealt with in Kenya. Moreover, with the election violence, it would not surprise me to learn that we are the first tourists in here all week. I would probably be napping too.
As we get up to leave James makes his first unsolicited effort to be helpful.
"You must have a map." He hands us a two page fold-out Bata Shoe ad and points to the lower right corner where there is a 4X4 inch map of Mombasa. The Bata store locations are marked by large red stars that cover the names of nearby streets.
"Oh good," I say, "In case we have a sudden craving for quality footwear."
He nods enthusiastically. Whether this stems from the quality footwear or the fact that we are finally leaving, I can't tell.

Posted by Natyb25 02:31 Comments (0)

Lamu to Mombasa

The wind has been turned off like a tap. For the last three days its been blowing non-stop, gale force. It has been preemptively ending card games, slamming doors and blowing bottles off tables. Rachel and I initially moved or mattress out to the roof-top terrace because the bedroom was so stiflingly hot. We suspend a mosquito net from the backs of four chairs and sleep out under the stars. The first night of the wind we woke in the pitch black shivering; a foreign enough sensation that we relished the goosebumps. But when we wake up this morning in the dark at five it’s still enough that we can hear the ocean lapping at the hulls of the dhows in the harbor. As we pick up our sheets and mattress under the slowly dimming stars we hear the first call to prayer of the day, the Arabic echoing clearly through the already warm morning air.
Downstairs in our rented apartment Charles is already awake, finishing his packing. Normally at this time of the year this guest house is fully booked. There are four two-person rooms on the second floor that share a small common room. The three-person apartment we have paid for on the third and a pair of stepped rooftop terraces and another bedroom for two on top of the house. There are two full time house boys and a chef constantly on duty. Normally our apartment would rent for $75 to $200 a day. We are paying 2000 shillings each per night, or the equivalent of about $8 a person. Normally holding 13-15 guests, the house now contains as many guests as staff. And we aren’t even needy guests, preferring to wash our own clothes in borrowed basins and shop for and cook our own meals in the fully equipped kitchen. Such is the state of Kenyan tourism in the wake of the election troubles.
We leave a fair sized tip as well as an odd collection of freebies: discarded weight from over-heavy packs. My Chacos were already on their last legs and I’ve ordered a new pair that should have arrived at home in the states by now. They are heavy and I’m glad to leave them on the floor by the bed. There’s also Charles’ tent. He’s reached that inevitable plateau where, trip or no trip, he just needs to go home. We will be parting ways after Mombasa and so the Kenyan bought tent that he was going to use in the parks in Rwanda is also being dropped. This is probably in his best interest considering that its constructed of a thick tarp like plastic that make it better suited to the humane suffocation of an aged and beloved pet than anything else. We also leave a Frisbee and hacky sack. A bottle of shaving cream. A half-finished jar of peanut butter. Ironically, every one of these objects are ones that most of the Kenyans I have met have only a passing familiarity with. Mwanza (our chef), holding out my sleeping bag and the Frisbee, asked me to explain just how you pitch a tent. We try to sneak off in the dark but they awake. Goodbyes and thank yous are breathily whispered through windows as we pass the ground floor room where they sleep.
The descending tide has left the sand uncharacteristically firm. Any coolness remaining in the pre-dawn air is soon overwhelmed by the exertion of schlepping our packs and the remaining tent down the beach. Fishing boats are already coming in with a morning catch. They heft the slick and shiny flesh on their shoulders as we pass. It’s three kilometers to Lamu. We gradually join a growing parade of travelers heading to the early ferry back to the mainland. Even a month ago, ferries ran from Lamu three times a day. With the decline in Western visters, its now down to just this one. If you want to leave without hiring a private boat you need to be in the main harbor by 7a.
We pack into a motarized dhow, the luggage piled in the bow twice as high as the gunnels. A sign says the max capacity is 100. In a space roughly the size of two station wagons end to end, there are roughly 70 people. There’s already no standing room remaining. They sit on the side rails, stand on the stern and the engine housing, they crouch in the bottom of the boat, sitting on carry-alls and duffels. I can’t see where the other 30 people would sit. Perhaps they cling gamely to the underside of the hull like barnacles. Climbing out is a similarly pushy and unorganized process to climbing in. The stone docks we climb are worn by wind and weather, the steps collapsing into one another as though the concrete had melted in the sun and run down towards the water in a river.
Sitting in the front of the bus, I find that an enterprising traveler has already commandeered much of my leg space with a 20 liter jerri-can and a cardboard box tied with string. The box, I will eventually learn, contains a rooster owned by the woman sitting behind me. Over the course of the seven hour trip she will repeatedly hand me corn to feed the chicken and periodically encourage me to kick the box until he audibly responds. Undoubtedly he is a fighting cock and needs to be kept angry. The radio on the bus is mercifully broken and aside from the armed guards sitting by the door – in the case of bush bandits – the most notable thing about the bus ride is just how unnotable it is. Seven hours squeezed between two other people, sweating in the equatorial heat, choking on dust from the road, a chicken in a box periodically interrupting my fevered dozing with an angry crow is astonishingly and casually normal. I never even take out my book.
In Mombasa it’s a short walk to the Qwale guesthouse. We stay in a triple. The florescent light won’t stop flickering and it’s the one room shower/sink/toilet combo again. The economy of space makes multi-tasking a breeze: you can spit toothpaste in the sink, pee in the toilet and stand under the shower at the same time. Apparently having rusted out over the course of its life, the showerhead has a plastic bag with holes poked in it stretched tightly across its underside. At the base of each bed is a topsheet, a towel and a small wad of toilet paper. Any paper left in the bathroom would be soaked.
We head down to the Likoni Ferry in search of a park where Somali immigrants gather in the afternoons to chew miraa, drink tea and scream at soccer matches in their native language. We find eventually a quieter spot than that outside a small duka. Our neighbor at the next table is the perfect kind of stranger. Helpful, coherent and totally uninterested in anything we are doing. He graciously answers a few questions and then goes back to his own chewing.
Miraa is a mild stimulant whose effect is augmented considerably by other substances. The scariest drunks here, in my experience, are those who stagger toward you and reveal white teeth covered in the green mulch of chewed miraa. It comes in small bundles – handfuls – of maybe 100 stems. Red/brown at the stiffer end up to green at the frayed remains of the leaves at the other. You pick off the leaves and chew with your back teeth from the softer green end towards the harder red one. When the pulp stops sliding easily, you switch to front teeth: peeling the pulp off the hard stem. It has a bitter, cotton-mouthing taste that fades as your gums and tongue go tingly or numb.
In my experience, its not a particularly potent or interesting amphetamine. The high is low-key and it grows slowly. It also requires an intensive investment of time and effort to extract a fairly minor payoff. However, the same attributes that would make it ill-fitted for Williamsburg Hipsters jauting about the East Village in the wee hours of a Sunday morning make sitting in the park for an afternoon chewing it a remarkably pleasant experience. It passes the time and leaves focus for other things, like playing cards, but you don’t even have to pay attention.
As the sun sets, we catch a matatu back to the center of town. The tout is at that pleasantly exhausted part of the day where he wakes only enough to take our money and shut the door before laying his head back against the window. We walk to get a late dinner of schwarma sandwiches at a café a few blocks from the hotel. Even close to 11p the streets of Mombasa feel safe and welcoming. A light breeze has cut the heat of the day and the sidewalks are full of families walking together in and out of the street lights. It is a far cry from the dim and frightening grime of Nairobi at this time of night.
On the way we pass a darkened city park where an LCD projector has been set up to show the latest game of the Africa’s Cup being played in Accra, Ghana. Men and women and children lounge, stretched out, on the grass, crouched in trees and seated on utility boxes and dry empty fountains as they watch. We sit outside on the sidewalk patio and hear the muffled cheers and gasps of the crowd as we eat.

Posted by Natyb25 04:33 Comments (1)

Lamu

Removing our shoes, we tie them around our necks to walk along the stone walls of the closed estates. High tide: the ocean waves quietly lapping against stone steps up to carved and ornamental double doors. The chalky white of dried salt on dark wood. We pass a boat yard with a rusted crain a launching ramp. The strong fish smell that tourists wrinkle their noses at; that locals know means work, money, food.
There are streams of pundas. The donkeys trot by with woven reed sacks draped over them, laden with concrete or thick rectangular cut coral stone, bags of flour or cans of water. Their thin brown fur is marked by a black stripe that runs the length of their back and down – like an arrow – the center of each leg. Like the donkey has grown from this central black line; it’s essential form: four legs, a body and head.
The largest road in Lamu town runs along the water. The shallow timber ribbed long boats with their patched and faded sails lined up in rows alongside. Balconies are a relief: sitting above the casual sight lines of the hawkers and dhow captains who greet with the unctuous tones of desperate salesmen. Above you are free to look, to touch with your eyes the things and people that it would be too much trouble to admit you notice when at play below.
The menu is Arabic or Bantu or something in between. Computers made in Japan and resold in India, pirated software from Morocco and a keyboard from Dubai: the Third World Computer. The sub-standard combined parts of the western world’s discarded office. Keyboards and thus menus where every “O” is an “Ω” and every “T” a “+.”
Back down into the narrow streets and cracked white walls; away from the open brilliance of the water. The streets stand at 90 degree angles. The intersections appearing without warning like a choice circumstances force on you unsuspecting. In front of a low, tumble-down building of faded concrete girls in head scarves and long dresses run barefoot with boys in brown shirts and smoky blue shirts: a recess game of tag prior to rules or authority. No one – and everyone – is “it”; they dart from one end of the yard to the other like flies around a street lamp in the dim light of dusk.
The crowded alleys and walkways bring everything closer: the sudden whiff of shit or roasting meat like walking into a wall. Smoke from fires and pipes. Trails of smeared donkey manure pressed into cracks in worn cobblestones by bare brown feet under full length white caftans topped with thick beards and embroidered kofias. Dark doorways into dim shops hung with brilliant colors or dusty shelves with monotonous brown paper packaging. A shop with no lights that we explore with kerosene lanterns like cavers in an ancient crypt; the dim golden light casting long deep shadows that dignify and age the brick-a-brack of tourist trade.
The charm, the disgust, the curiosity flow from the immediacy, the inescapable closeness and intensity of the claustrophobic labyrinth of crooked streets. There is no safe and comfortable tour behind tinted glass and cool climate conditioned air. The charm of these Swahili streets - like the fish and food markets whose narrow aisles fill with foreigners untouched by hunger or household – is their inescapable intimacy. It’s an earnest feeling engendered by a bankrupt mechanism.
The closer we come – the more detail this closeness forces upon us – the more disruptive our presence must be. Our proximity betrays the honesty of the experience in which we aspire to envelope ourselves. The longer we stay - the easier our passage - the more we bring with us the same things we hope to escape in coming.

Posted by Natyb25 22:15 Comments (1)

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