October 31, 2011

Flat, be-speckled

Still here; still safe.  The most significant "problem" of our first week has been the buckets of rain making the roads impassable muddy swamps and thereby impeding our community-based work.  Of all the set-backs, large and small, that I've encountered in working in Kenya, I never expected "torrential rain in an extreme drought/famine zone" to be one of them.  But for our first 3 days it was, literally, buckets.  

Collecting a bucket of rainwater in our atrium.  

As for my other problem, the flying nighttime cockroaches, I found the solution to be right under my nose: I've simply stopped wearing my glasses after dusk.  In dealing with bugs, as with much in life, denial is a most efficient coping mechanism.

But more to the issue at hand, it began to dry out a bit yesterday, both the sky and the land, and we took the opportunity to take a walk around town and hike up to a hill-top shrine with one of our new coworkers.  I think anytime one needs to orient to a new place, heading for high grounds is a good first step.  Removing yourself from the fray and observing it all from a distance, in rarefied airs.  We looked over the town.

My home for the next month.

And then we looked beyond the outskirts.

The landscape is unlike any others I've seen before.  Flat, be-speckled with moonscape hills that hardly seem unintentional.  And if you look closely, there's a long dirt road that cuts through the plain.  If you take it going left (south), it's the road to Nairobi.  If you take it going right (north), it becomes the road to Ethiopia.  A long delicate vein, snaking through the heartland Kenya.

And we turned back towards home in my favorite hour of light: pre-sunset late afternoon, the ground ensconced in warmth.

 In the sun, we are giants!

Beneath trees, we stand dwarfed.

October 27, 2011

It looks like this

I arrived, safely, in northern Kenya on Tuesday... town name redacted for security purposes (Because-- as they always say-- better to exercise half-hearted paranoia than to be kidnapped at gunpoint or grenade).  But I can say that it looks like this in the late afternoon sun:

And I think you can see that it's quite a lovely place.  There was rain a few weeks ago, so the grass has sprouted a boisterous green.  Duration of greenery unknown.  

Our lifestyle isn't half bad either.  I currently have my own room with 3 beds, which is the perfect amount: one for sleeping, one for semi-dirty clothes (the things you've worn once and don't need to wash, but also don't want to put back in the closet to contaminate the truly clean things), and the third for miscellaneous items of the day (notebooks, bottled water, mini-fan, bag-full-o-medicines).  

The place we stay is oriented around a small courtyard with a table and chairs under flowering trees, and we have a kitchen to cook in and a sitting room to sit in.  And everything is neatly labeled.  I like that.  

Usually you have to OPEN the door to identify a corridor.  Not so here!  

As far as settling in goes, I'm acclimating to eating cooked cabbage twice a day and not carrying a wallet.  I also left my jeans and make-up back in Nairobi, whence flights only come twice weekly, so if I miss them I'm plum out of luck.  

And the cucarachas fly.  Which transports me back to evenings in our ground-floor apartment in Athens, placing overturned laundry buckets over those ones that I was too afraid to kill but willing to entrap in a plastic prison for slow death.  Or until someone else took care of it.  Perhaps a first in cockroach nostalgia.  

October 22, 2011

I said 'Wow'

If Hollywood teaches us anything, it's that all good chapters conclude with a wedding.  Perhaps that's not the nugget I should retain from media, but there it is.  And, as the dates of my departure up North bounced around and finally settled on next week, I had the honor and the pleasure to conclude my Nairobi chapter with a wedding.  

All the best weddings have adorable dancing kids.

Now, this being my only Kenyan wedding ever, I will take liberties to generalize it to all others.  Mostly, the format is the same as what we know in the US: church, priest, ceremony, reception, family toasts, food, gifts, dancing.  The differences were in the details.  For instance, Priests.  Every wedding (all 3) I've been to, the priest (or other officiating equivalent) has tried to be funny.  I suspect they're piloting stand-up routines to see if they're in any position for a career change.  However, I don't think this particular Kenyan priest was intending to be funny, and yet I probably laughed more than all the others combined.  He began with a rather stern badgering of the groom:

Priest: "So why are you here?"
Groom: "Uh, uhhhhh... Because I want to be married in holy matrimony?"
Priest: "Oh, so you want to be married in holy matrimony?  When did that start?"
Groom:  "Uuummmmm.. when we first met."
Priest: "Oh, when you first met.  Well what happened then?"
Groom:  "I said 'Wow.'"
Priest:  "So it started when you said, 'wow,' and when did it end?"
Groom:  "When I said 'I love you.'"
Priest:  "And what did she say?"
Bride:  "Let's see how it goes."
(As an aside, that response is probably why she and I are friends)

And after a brief sermon interlude...

Priest: "So when the two of you said those magical words: 'I love you' and 'Let's see how it goes,' where were you?  Were you under a tree?  On campus?  In a shady motel?  You know, I ask if you were under a tree because all those hippy Indian movies, people are always dancing around under trees saying "I love you I love you" .... Don't watch those movies."

But our laughter was premature, for after he finished grilling the groom, he started badgering the witnesses. Questions directed to us, the audience:

"And how many of you have ever told another person, 'I love you'?  ...Raise your hand!  You know you've said it!  And how many of you have broken those commitments?  Raise your hand- you know you have!  And how many of you have ever shown late to an appointment?  Where you plan to meet at 10:00, but then it's 10:30, and then 11:00, and then the person is sweating and they're wet all over.  And how many of you are CEOs who don't respect other people?  It's true!  I'm not afraid to say it!"

Mostly I just tried to slouch down in my pew.  However, it's hard to stay under the radar when you're the only mzungu at a Kenyan wedding, as the ceremony MC made it perfectly clear later that evening.

While we waited for the arrival of the wedding party, the DJ and MC entertained guests by playing songs from each tribe and inviting all guests of that tribe to share their heritage dance on the dance floor.  After each tribe took it's turn, I was conscripted to the dance floor, solo, to do the "American dance."

Americans, I am sorry.  Had I known I would be called on to represent I would have tried to scrounge up a few sweet break-dance moves, or even the routine from Napolean Dynamite.  As it was (or at least from what I can deduce in this photograph), it appears that I presented the traditional American dance to be "The Snuggers," a move named and choreographed after my friend's dog's habit of dragging his butt across a carpeted floor.  I am not making this up.  But... I do hang my head in shame.  Please don't interpret that as another lame American dance move.

But forcing your guests to dance their acceptance is actually quite the efficient ice-breaker, and I might employ it one of these days.  Another Kenyan aspect that must be included in any weddings of mine (hey, you never know) is that of Cake-matron.

Cake-matron.  Start submitting your applications now.

And then, as with all good parties, twilight crept up.

And, while not confirmed, I assume that the brightly dressed women in orange and blue is the Cake Matron.  Mmmmmmmcake matron.

And of course there was more dancing, and the throwing of the bouquet to the single ladies, to the soundtrack of Beyonce's "Single Ladies."  Like I said, mostly we're all the same.

As evidenced above, I am clearly not prepared to catch this prize, but like I said: It's impossibly hard to hide from the MC when you're the only mzungu in tow (he just hollered, "Hey Washington University, are you married?" so there I am in the line-up.  But at least my loss was another lady's happy promise.

And the happy couple takes center stage.

October 17, 2011

Quinoa pops, people

So, now it's October.  Which means it will soon be November, which means it will soon be December, which (as everyone who designs mall window displays in the US knows) means that it's time to start Christmas shopping.  

No joke.  I totally shopped for Christmas gifts this weekend.  And men, let it be noted, on the record, that you are all ridiculously difficult to buy for.  I asked my brother if he wanted a traditional Masai spear, and he said that New York MTA frowns on that sort of thing.  Then I asked if he wanted sandals made out of car tires, and he said, "umm, what?"  And with those two suggestions shot down, I am officially out of ideas.  

But I suppose I was mostly just tying to soak up my last week of conveniences, before flying to Marsabit in 8 days time.  And Nairobi really does have everything a person could ever want in shopping.  To this end, I present Exhibit A:  


That's right.  Organic, fair trade, gluten free, quinoa pops.  And, no, I did not take this photograph in Seattle.  Sure, these gems were spotted in Yaya Centre, which is arguably the whitest shopping mall in Nairobi, but still, quinoa pops, people.  Please take all the time you need to reevaluate your impressions of Kenya.  

Of course, this sort of stuff is prohibitively expensive to most people, myself included, but I did walk out of Yaya Centre with a different prize that day... Exhibit B indication of Nairobi having anything you could ever want:

Razzle Dazzle.

I bought this at the toy store (kids these days), and tried very hard to arrange my face into an "Obviously, I'm buying this for my niece/daughter... NO, it's not for me!" expression, but the smirk on the cashier's face was not believing a single non-verbal word of it.  

What can I say?

From my experience, Nairobi shopping can be divided into three distinct categories: 1. The legitimate shopping malls that cater to ex-pats and wealthy Kenyans, where all incoming cars are searched for bombs (Razzle Dazzle hat and quinoa pops both spotted here);  2. Masai markets and other curio stalls that cater to tourists; and 3. The markets where most Kenyans shop.   

The Masai Markets are the type of open-air craft market that you can see at any tourist city in the world (albeit with Kenyan-made (presumably) crafts).  The heady combination of souvenirs and haggling.  

The toy buckets below are actually from a free-standing shop rather than a Masai Market, but I'm sure that's only because the greater Kenyan entrepreneurship hasn't come across the idea to mass market them yet.  These are balls of plastic bags, tied together with twine.  Literally, like a bunch of QFC (or Safeway, or Windixie) plastic bags tied together with string, into a ball form.  It's a toy I've seen some Kenyan kids playing with in lieu of an actual ball, but these ones were priced at around $6.  $6 for a bunch of old plastic bags tied together.  Just saying.  

The third type of Nairobi shopping is where most Kenyans go, to my understanding.  The outdoor markets that sell food and functional work clothes instead of brightly-colored beads.  One such market is Toi Market, which I had the pleasure to visit this weekend.  

Toi Market stalls.

It's a maze of stalls held together by wooden poles and tin roofs.  Basically, it's like a huge thrift store.  As if Goodwill, Crossroads, Buffalo Exchange, and many others set up shop together in an open-air market and actually assisted you in finding what you need.  Sellers are so motivated that you can just say, "I want a pair of 7 jeans, size XYZ, not white, not black, and no rhinestones," and less than 10 minutes later, someone will run up to you with the requested item.  Aside from explaining why you think white jeans are a generally bad idea, the hassle is minimal.  That's a pair of >$100 designer jeans, hand-to-hand service, for just $20.  And then someone will personally take you to the lovely tailor Grace who will hem them for you on her beautiful old Singer machine, and she'll smile when you say that you think your grandmother would like to see a picture of her sewing table.

Another positive is the apparent assumption that if you have wandered into the Toi Market depths, you're probably not a tourist.  Why would you pay thousands of dollars to fly across the world just to get a $15 H&M dress for a discounted $3?  Not even a mzungu is that crazy.  So, even though you still have to haggle/negotiate over prices the opening offer is generally reasonable rather than the 10x-inflated mzungu prices you get at the tourist markets.  

And while Grace hems, a somewhere else in the maze group of men play pool on a billiards table that's in better condition than the one at Si Si's bar in San Francisco.  Where did that table come from?

October 12, 2011

Bouts of unsustainable gusto

What do Lara Croft and Simba have in common?  

Are you stumped yet?

They were both the stars of movies that were filmed at Hell's Gate national park, Kenya.

That's right, sources (our national park guide) say that The Lion King was "filmed" at Hell's Gate.  I assume the production department must have had some kind of fancy film-editing software that renders video into animation, kind of like how Photoshop can make your photos look like oil paintings or charcoal drawings.  Disney has always been ahead of it's time.

Reputed inspiration for Pride Rock, on your left.

Yes, Hell's Gate was the destination du jour this weekend.  Rather, the greater Rift Valley was the weekend destination, and Hell's Gate was simply one component, with Saturday kicking off from another Mt. Longonot hike.  

I've realized that I tend to exercise in the way I assume other people crash diet: with sporadic bouts of unsustainable gusto.  Would I care to join a gym or develop a moderate jogging routine?  No thanks, I'd rather sit here on the couch with this glass of wine and watch The Daily Show.  How about going away for a final, multi-day training expedition with a group of people who are leaving next week to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro?  Of course!  Why in heavens not?  I'm sure I can't possibly be that out of shape... Right?

My Kilimanjaro companions' footwear.  My footwear.  

Although, actually, the Hell's Gate gorge hike isn't all that taxing (if you have a car and don't have to start by biking several miles to the entrance under the blazing Kenya sun).  The majority of the walk is flat, along the gorge floor, punctuated by a scramble down into it, several scrambles over flash-flood-dislodged boulders, and a scramble back up to the top.  And the geological rewards are pretty awesome:

Cradle of life...

Lara Croft...


Of course, I imagine it's a little less scenic during a flash-flood, to which the gorge is prone.  One story suggests that Hell's Gate is so-named after the dying wailings and screams of animals caught in the gorge during the rainy season.  It's a theory I'd rather not test.  

And yet, at our half-way point (even though it's the dry season), along came the waters.  

So it begins.

The source still hasn't been determined, since it hadn't rained all weekend, and I desperately cling to the hope that it wasn't just a campsite emptying out their latrines.  But it was actually quite a robust amount of water.  And Hell's Gate has geothermal springs, so in some places the water falling from the cliffs is of scalding temperatures.  

Hot cliff showers.

But, okay, sure, my canvas Sauconys aren't ideal for walking through muddy rivers, but I'll live.  The larger challenge came back upon reaching those "scramble" bits that had since morphed from pleasant rock-climb to hot, muddy waterfall.  Below, our guide building a make-shift dam to divert the river to the left side of the cliff as we scramble down the right.  

The dam didn't hold up very well...

Lone backpack climbing down past the diverted waterfall.  

But really, Lara Croft, hot springs, flash-floods.... who am I kidding?  We all know that the real Hell's Gate highlight is when you climb up to the top of the cliff from whence Scar threw Mufasa down into the gorge full of stampeding wildebeests.  Right here:

~ It's the ciiiiiiiircle of liiiiife ~

Ok, so really the circle-of-life pose (with backpack subbing in for baby Simba) should be at Pride Rock instead of Scar's cliff of death, but it's still pretty cool.  Even more so when somebody's phone goes off to an Hakuna Matata ringtone.  

October 7, 2011

To feel untethered

The concept of freedom keeps recurring in conversations I have about living in Kenya.  Not the human trafficking/slavery concept, but rather the nuances of what allows a person to feel untethered.   I've heard from multiple people who have lived here-- past and present-- that living in Kenya has bestowed upon them a feeling of complete autonomy, free to jump in a truck and ride off into the wild sunset at a moment's notice.  To wake up in Nairobi and greet dusk over the Maasai Mara or Serengeti.  

And it's true, there is something grand about Kenya's big sky that beckons the adventurer, the throwback cowboy.  

Big dawn sky over Tsavo Park

Big day sky at Soysambu

There's a timeless thrill in driving through the great wide open, not another soul in sight.

But I wonder whether a large chunk of this perceived freedom, this autonomy, isn't simply the result of an ex-pat lifestyle.  Maybe it's less about the "big sky" and more about being disencumbered of the commitments that were left behind.  When one picks up and completely moves their life to another country or another continent, many of the expectations that bind us together are severed.  No one telling you what to do or expecting you to spend your time in a particular way.  No schedules or people demanding social accountability.  And perhaps that's really the underlying freedom that people feel when they jump in that truck and drive off.  The farther you drive towards something, the greater the distance between you and something else.  

And even then, nothing comes without its cost.  I can view this country like a playground of options, but due to security concerns I can't walk outside after dark.  And in that sense it doesn't feel much like freedom at all.

But for now I'll turn a blind eye to that price tag and go pack my backpack for another weekend in the Rift Valley.  Luckily, it's quite the easy task as I've simply stopped unpacking it.  Bandaids, flashlight, bug spray, REI sleeping-bag liner, advil, and SPF15 chap-stick have taken up permanent residence in my bag.  And since I only have about 5 T-shirts here, packing consists of just grabbing the clean ones.

And we're off again!

October 4, 2011

Find the flamboyance

It's been a bit quiet on the Kenya front this week (except for armed kidnappings and Dengue fever outbreaks).  The hijinks are on hiatus; perhaps I've hit the three-month travel slump.  Mostly I've been tied up on the computer coding syntax in SPSS.  Actually, if we're being honest, mostly I've been on Google learning how to code syntax in SPSS, and a smaller percentage actually coding.  No matter how user-friendly people say it is, I will never like SPSS.  That is, until I switch back to Stata, at which point I will commence grumbling about that.  Mostly, I just resist change.  I will be a very cranky old person when the time rolls around.  

But on another note, everyone knows that one of the best parts of traveling is chuckling at signs mis-written in your language.  Since English is one of the official languages of Kenya, the spelling and grammar are rarely problems, but content can still be quite amusing.  This one remains a favorite, but here are a few more that I've collected over time.

Follow the arrow to find the flamboyance!

Flamboyant Hotel in Diani Beach.  Failing to take a photo with someone standing to the right of that sign has been added to my list of major life regrets.  

Doctor with a website.

I might be missing something, but I thought black magic was bad?  Endless luck, love and joy in your entire life.  If anyone needs some spiritual assistance, the Kenya country code is +254.  Also, if you go to his website (which I obviously did), you can see a full list of solvable problems including "troubled marriage," "all skin diseases," and "bewitched persons."

Marketable on Craigslist in 2 categories.

I walk past this place several times weekly, but no one else seems to bat an eye at it.  Uncomfortable euphemisms must differ across oceans.  

Rich in carbs!  

I'd love to see someone try to market anything as "rich in carbohydrates" in America.  Standards of beauty are different here.  Yesterday I was told that "Kenyan food has been good" to me, and that I've "grown big" since getting here.  While intended as a compliment, I still had restrain my offence enough to respond with a neutral (and intended to be rhetoric) "oh, you think so?"  Which earned me an enthusiastic, "I don't think- I know!"  Time to stop buying the high-carb cereals.  

For that presidential style your wardrobe is missing.

The Obama novelty hasn't worn off in Kenya to the extent that it has in the US.  From fashion wear to spare tire covers, he's an overseas trend-setter.  In any case, it's always good to have a plan B career in case 2012 doesn't swing his way.  

That's right.  Happiness and Love Restaurant.

A new restaurant opened up next door to my apartment: The Happiness and Love restaurant.  So, obviously, I had to go.  This is what it looks like from the entrance: 

Who knew that the keys to contentment were just down the street?  Of course, we all know that love ain't free, and this is no exception: pricey pricey! But I must assume that the exorbitant costs go into customer service (as well as pink and blue paint), given that a table of 2 is bestowed with approximately 6 attentive servers, and taking these pictures earned me a personal tour (even though I had already been there) and 10 business cards (even though I said I really didn't need them).