Maybe this is normal. Maybe this is not normal. But lately, every day almost, I have had a tickle in the back of my soul that rings like the Santa Claus costume clad Salvation Army volunteers who stand in front of Macy’s during the holidays collecting change. I wouldn’t call it a friendly reminder, but a constant one nevertheless, that this thing we call life is a special gift.
Do we need to earn our right to be here?
Is that our purpose here? That we spend each day earning the gift, deserving the opportunity to breathe and speak, to sing during hot showers and munch on delicious ambrosia, to hit the road with just enough gas in the car and pull a nose scratch without worrying about the next driver over catching a nose pick. Is is possible that this entire journey isn’t the kind of test where you can eek by with a passing grade? Rather one that is pass or fail? And if so, where do I stand? Where do you?
These questions have been tickling my soul. A gentle, constant, though I wouldn’t quite say friendly, reminder that I have a greater purpose. And that I should probably get to it.
I tumbled in love with the Kenyan sky. Painted with swift brushstrokes and circular sponges soaked in bright whites and faded grays dampened onto pale blue skies. From the top of the hill, after weaving a loopy path around thorny bushes, hardened piles of cow dung and neighborhoods comprised of mud huts and clothing lines strewn with brightly colored cloths, the greatest, most vast sky in the world loomed above. Quite possibly the largest sky seen from our planet, the Kenyan sky is at once beautiful and taunting, as clouding carrying tears of unrest danced from one corner into a lazy sprawl across eternity.
I awoke every morning to meet the sunrise, stubborn in her angst to prevent campus from seeing a single drop of rain. Wandering down the path from my banda to the dining hall, several students would sing out “morning!” as I made my way, elongating my smile. By the time I reached the breakfast line, I had over a dozen hugs from joyful morning persons who lit up when they saw me, wrapped arms tightly around me in a warm welcome to the day.
As I readjust to life back in California, coping with the deep grief that suddenly arose and overwhelmed me from the loss of the daily dose of happiness I received from the Daraja girls, I will continue to write.
I do not have expectations for this blog. I do not have a certain number of posts I am striving to hit each week or month, a word count, or subject restraint. This blog is for me, and hopefully, whether I am writing about the beauty of San Francisco, the joy of Kenya or the pleasure found within everything from the common to the crazy moments of everyday life, you will find a dose of happiness somewhere between the lines as well.
On my last trip outside of the Daraja bubble, Leah and I made the Laikipia County rounds, venturing into the most rural areas as the greater Rumeruti area to visit junior Irene’s home, and trekking to more touristy areas like Lake Naivaisha, where we went on boat safari. Awesome times all around. Last weekend was another venture outside of Daraja.
This time, fellow Daraja family member Tehsin (Th-a-zin) and I made the trip to the diverse, international city of Nairobi with a simple plan: beer, boys, and food that didn’t consist of beans and rice.
Sometimes the Adventure is in the Journey: How to get to Nairobi
1. Hiked from banda 14 down to the gate, where Mr. C will sent us off with hugs and traveling mercies
2. Call Leonard, the ring-leader of cab drivers in Nanyuki town, who sent George in a super flossy ride to drive us the 25-kilometer/1 hour drive from the Daraja Academy to Nanyuki town. Along the way etiquette: beware of impending camels, that although potentially dangerous, can always be found with their lips curved upwards in long, crooked smiles; comment on how bad the road is getting and ponder aloud if the government will ever fix it; sit next to a window to ward away waves of nausea from the twists & turns of avoiding massive potholes along the road
3. Grab breakfast! Critical to eat before setting off on the 3-6 hour journey from Nanyuki town to Nairobi (matatus don’t leave the stage until they’re full; any sort of accident on the highway results in a couple hours of delay; matatus stop in every town to negotiate with locals for bananas & other fruit; you know, regular transportation delays). We went to Consumer Pride Cafe, an unassuming Kenyan cafe where we ordered Masala chips (french fries with gooey deliciousness on top) and omelets. Prepare for the journey: stopped at the local grocery store to stock up on biscuits and magi (water).
4. Nairobi stage time! We negotiated with a few matatu drivers to find the most fair price and departure time to Nairobi and found an express matatu that isn’t supposed to stop anywhere along the way (pah!). I broke rule #1 of the Simama Project (we won’t hand out money or buy food for street kids, but we will help them get into school– I bought a packet of crackers for Francis & Patrick, who always walk me around Nanyuki town), settled in next to my window seat, turned on my republican talk radio show, and headed to Nai.
So much fun.
Tehsin’s friend Nilafur is living in a sweet pad right across the street from the Aga Khan hospital in Parklands, one of the nicer areas of Nai. When we got to her place, she had lunch waiting for us. What a treat! We had tandoori-like chicken, masala chips, salad, ginger ale, oh my! There was electricity and running water! Talk about paradise. Nilafur introduced us to her cousin and their friends, and we had a really amazing, Italian dinner at a restaurant with 7 new friends from Uganda, London, New York and Kenya. Smooth jazz and soft crooning played in the background of our candle lit dinner while we feasted on lamb chops, steak, penne pasta and shared several rounds of sangria. We sauntered from the restaurant to a rooftop bar down the street and shared orange/apple flavored hookah while we swapped stories, searching for meaning and connections in this small, beautiful world.
We slept in. Must have been the first morning I wasn’t woken up at the crack of dawn by chickens, Daraja girls practicing their poems for the poetry slam competition or angry coos hollering “moo”s as they trampled past my banda. We enjoyed a day of mani/pedis, girl talk, and plans for the evening. I almost cried when I saw the menu at the Art Caffe in Westlands Mall- eggs benedict? Say it aint so. I DE-voured the meal in the company of internationals, people of every color with voices radiating unique dialects, while the girls and I shared a white, cinnamon pear sangria. We later went out with Nilafur’s friends Natasha and Natasha, partied at a place called Gypsie then Tree House (a club in a tree!), then ended the night with sausages and chips (french fries) from this place called McFrys… which would, unbeknownst to me, send me to the toilet only 45 minutes later for hours of simultaneous vomiting, raging diarrhea and cries to God to just end it now.
Did I mention the vomiting, raging diarrhea and cries to God? Also got in an hour Skype date with my mom and stepdad, then another hour Skype date with my dad, stepmom and two younger sisters = Hell to happiness within 24 hours.
Tua Nane Badaye (I’ll see you later…)
This weekend, I’m headed back to Nairobi with a cohort-in-crime: M-beezy (Marybeth), Thizz (Tehsin), and Olives (Olivia). Mission for this weekend: elephant sanctuary, giraffe center (where they eat out of your hands!!), and crocodile & lion sanctuary. So excited. Will blog about it badaye.
I treasure adventure days with Carson. The guy is this awesome, free spirit who is simultaneously all-knowing and born last night. Carson and I decided to head into town one day. We set out from Daraja and struggled to leave one of the dogs, Rasta, at the gate. Determined to come with us, she followed us despite the security guard at the gate calling out to her to stay on campus. We got to the rock, she was still with us. We tried to flag down a sand truck that kept going, she followed us. We walked about half a mile to the main junction, and there we stood, Carson, Rasta and myself, under the blazingly cruel sun, waiting for a matatu or sandtruck to roll by. Finally, one came.
How to flag one down: Above the cab, tons of people stood atop, staring at us as Carson waved down the truck, which slowed to a stop. It was then that I remembered that I was terrified of heights. (This is a common occurrence for me in this country—doing something, and then remembering that this is something I would not do at home). I looked at the stairs leading to the roof of the massive truck, swallowed the lump of fear in my throat, and scurried up to the top. Almost half way up, probably because I was overly anxious to get to the top already, I banged my knee with full force into one of the stairs. I winced, shook it off, and hopped over the top, landing in a little sand, and staring at a couple dozen high school kids in uniforms. Carson, with ease, hopped over the top and joined me. To our dismay, Rasta chased the sandtruck another quarter mile down the road before giving up on joining us. Turns out the kids were from Ilpolei, just up the road about an hour, and they were headed home to Nanyuki for break. We chatted with the kids until we reached the police checkpoint, where we all had to duck and remain silent. What Carson hadn’t told me was that it was illegal to travel on the top of sand trucks. Oops. So there we were, huddled together against the back of the truck, heads down, holding our breaths until we could pass (well, I was holding my breath. Knowing Carson, he wasn’t nervous or fearful for a second).
Ni shillingi ngape (how much): the first time Carson and I had hopped a sand truck, he rode on top[i], and I rode in the cab. The trip from Naibor to Daraja cost 50 ksh, which was too much, but they were nice to pick us up, and I enjoyed the conversation with the three guys in the cab. The typical price into town is 50-100 ksh. Any more than this, and they’re fucking with you. Excuse my English. But seriously, everyone is a hustler, and it wouldn’t shock me for someone to quote some outrageous price with a serious face. Albeit cheaper than a matatu, this is not technically a legal way to travel, and because the roads are so poor, the bumpy ride is crucial.
So you’ve hopped the sandtruck, now what?First, you’ve gotta pay. If you ride in the cab, you can pay the driver. If you ride up top, there’s usually a guy up there who collects money. BEWARE- there very well could just be the driver collecting money, and a guy up top who sees Mzungus (foreigners) and quotes you a price as if he is collecting money. We had a slightly sketchy looking guy give us a price when we rode with the kids, so Carson asked the boys how much they had paid, and who they had paid, before we handed over any money. All knowing, I tell you. After you’ve paid, enjoy the ride. It’s an amazing feeling, sitting atop this magnificent beast of a vehicle, bouncing along the road, with an incredible, (literally) rooftop view of the breathtaking beauty of this country.
Capacity: I’m not sure there is a capacity. Whoever fits!
Ni shillingi ngape (how much):from Daraja to Nanyuki, the cost is 1000 ksh with the drivers that we have established relationships with. This is way more than the 100ksh it might take to hop a sand truck, but with enough people squished in, the convenience of having a car come get us far outweighs the shared price. Other people might charge more, but I wouldn’t know because I have three guys only who I will ride with. Around town, the price ranges from 100-250ksh. Again, with almost everything in Kenya (and maybe Africa), prices are negotiable. When driving with someone new, negotiate the price first before departing, and whittle it down as much as you know to be reasonable.
How to flag down a private cab:We have guys that we call. Mugaka (translation from Kiswahili to English: dude) is my favorite. What a great man this guy is. He has suggested I become his second wife a couple times (tbd if he’s run this by wife #1 yet…), but really, I consider him a friend. When we pile into his car and he talks about his family, Kenyan life, the struggles of the average man trying to take care of his family, and his favorite subject, Barack Obama J My other favorite guy is Munesh. He plays the jams in the car! I asked him if he had any Beyonce, and the next time I called him for a ride, he was bumpin’ Queen Bey. Much appreciated. In groups when we’re out at night, we’ll flag down any random driver if he seems cool, as long as we’re all together. We’re not afraid of being kidnapped, more so just weary of outrageous prices.
Capacity: I have been in a 5-seater vehicle with 8 people: the driver, two in the front seat, 5 in the back. We got real close that night.
I have garnered a deserved reputation for lying to boda boda drivers. Every time I get on, I say, “This is my first time on a boda boda, so drive slow.” This is because I used to be terrified of motorcycles, but after several death-defying adventures by this mode of transportation, I now feel more comfortable on them.
Ni shillingi ngape: totally depends. Again, prices are negotiable. Around Nanyuki town, I’ve paid 150ksh, which was a little high, but I asked him to drive slow (since it was my first time and all), and he did. I appreciate that, so I’m willing to pay a little more and use the same guy over and over[ii].
How to flag down a boda boda: I have a couple guys that I have numbers for that I trust. But if you feel comfortable enough, you could just flag down any guy. The numbers that I have were given to me by cab drivers that I already had relationships with, and these are guys that the school uses all the time. So while I feel safe, you may not. Use your judgment.
Capacity: I have seen a boda boda with 4 people on it. I see many with two people and sheep, or a goat, or stacks of wood. Just depends on how safe you feel clinging to the back of the bike.
Most people just walk. Most people do not have cars, and if the distance is reasonable, they hit the streets and go.
Forget decorating your perfect apartment. That’s out the window. I’m in Africa, so I can’t breeze through my local Anthropologie to pick out perfectly mismatched plates, randomly sized and designed cups, and the most delicious smelling candles in the world for my new place. Since living at the Daraja Academy, I have occupied four bandas now, so I feel as if I am in a place to give the inside scoop on .
Banda 101: my top 5 rules for banda living.
1. Keep snacks on hand!
At Daraja, we get breakfast, tea, lunch and dinner. I live at a school, not a hotel, so I can’t wander into the kitchen and order whatever my taste buds are craving at the moment. Lucky for me, the kitchen staff loves me J Ruth gives me huge hugs and kisses my cheeks whenever I have an update about Matt, Bush Baby’s grins spreads across his entire face when I skip through the kitchen singing out “Habari rafiki!” (What’s the news, my friend?) to him, and George nods toward the huge bowl of sizzling hot mandazi after he deep fries them knowing how hungry (and desperate) I am for food. But even still, besides the three meals a day and teatime, food is not available. This is why every successful banda occupant must keep snacks on deck. Our local Nakumat sells their best version of Doritos called Ola chips that are, um, almost as good. They have chocolate that has Arabic writing on the side of it that is… well, kinda like Nestle. The rest of our snacks are a compilation of Goldfish, Cheez-its, chocolate and Skittles from precious care packages our loved ones have sent us.
2. Bedside survival items
The magi (water) we drink on campus is boiled rainwater, so sometimes it has this really interesting, thick smoky flavor to it. If you drink it really fast, you can’t taste it, but the after taste likes to sit in the back of your throat for a little bit. The water we shower with is from the river; the same river that the occasional elephant will drink from and locals will bathe in, so we are strictly instructed to not use it to drink or brush our teeth with. It is useful (read: critical) to have bottled water to drink and use for brushing teeth. Because the generator is only running from 6-10pm every day, having a torch (flashlight) next to your bed also proves to be a critical resource.
3. Learn to live out of a suitcase
I started in banda 16, way up on the big hill with a couch, a loft area and a mosquito net. Pretty sweet living, but I only stayed there for about a week until my banda was ready.
Banda 4 sits in the middle of campus, so I was always surrounded by students, which was amazing, because I got hugs all the time, but I couldn’t dance around my banda in my underwear singing at the top of my lungs (per my California daily routines) because the banda had zeroprivacy. The perks: hot water, semi-decent Internet connection, cell phone service. The downsides: spiders, EVERY FREAKIN WHERE. Jesus. That banda packed the Daddy long-legs like they were told it was Noah’s Ark and the storm was a comin’.
I moved into banda 10 with Tehsin (pronounced Thezin). Perk: bigger banda, I loved having a roommate (it can feel pretty lonely in Kenya…), and we were parked right next to the dining hall, which comes in handy when I need a hug from Ruth or a mandazi from George. Downsides: freezing cold shower water, and mice in the roof. One of which dropped me in the middle of the night before scurrying under my sheets, dropped to the floor at the edge of the bed and was never seen from again.
Now I’m living in banda 16 with Tehsin, Marybeth, and Leah. Yes, lots of folks, but we’re talking about one of the sweeter bandas. We’re up on the hill (privacy, but a hike to get to and from campus), we have two rooms, a fridge, and hot showers. What more could a girl ask for?
Because of all the moving around to accommodate the volunteers that visit campus, it’s pretty crucial to learn how to live flexibly, and out of a suitcase.
4. Make the banda your own!
Carson, my brother from another mother and father, made a jiko (probably spelled wrong- pronounced gee-ko, means an oven type thingy) out of a termite hill next to banda 16. Not one to turn down an intestinal adventure, Matt and I decided to let Carson make dinner for us, and Leah even pitched in by making, from scratch, chipatis.
When MB, Tehsin and I first moved into 16, we unloaded our library onto the shelf, combining our books with the ones already there.
5. Embrace the bathroom
After traveling around Kenya, I consider myself lucky to have an indoor toilet that flushes. Because of our constant attempt at conserving the little water we have, we have a “if its yellow, let it
mellow; if its brown, flush it down” rule. If When we take showers, we are encouraged to turn on the water long enough to get wet, then turn it off to wash. Then turn it back on to rinse. Or we could fill just enough to wash from a bucket. Basically, only use the water when we actually need it. What a change—at home I would turn the water on and then do a couple other things while it runs and then get in, and then chill in there for the next 20 minutes or so. That seems like a lifetime ago.
The modes of transportation in Kenya have been some wild experiences. Because the San Francisco Bay Area has bridges as barriers, most of my getting around was by way of my car (oh, how I miss driving!). But should I need to ditch the wheels for a cheaper, more convenient way around, I’ll often take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), which is like the metro. My craziest memory of using public transportation was when I journeyed to Washington, D.C. for President Obama’s inauguration. As I got off of one metro train at 4:30 in the morning to switch to another, I found myself surrounded by a sea of unmovable traffic. People, everywhere. All around me. I could not breathe, or even move. There were so many people in the station, we all found ourselves at a standstill until the next train came. There was no way in. There was no way out. I thought that was craziness, until I got to Kenya.
Possible that this is only interesting if you are interested in the transportation in Kenya lol but maybe some of the anecdotes along the way will keep it interesting.
Below, part I of III of transportation in Kenya. Enjoy.
Key points before we begin:
– ksh= shillings
– 1 ksh= $0.01
– 100 ksh= $1.20
– 1000 ksh= $11.95
The Matatu Experience
Death by minivan-turned-bus.
Ni shillingi ngape (how much): varies, and not just by where you’re going. Like most things in Kenya, the prices for matatus are negotiable. Everyone is a hustler, so typically, the first price quoted is likely an absurd amount of money to pay for transportation. From Daraja (the school where I work) to Nanyuki (the closest major town), 100-150ksh (shillings) might be charged. Any more than this, and they’re effing with you. Excuse my English. When Leah and I were at Naivasha, we arrived at the Matatu stage and asked how much a matatu to Nairobi was. We were quoted 300 ksh. Psch. Lonely Planet says it should be less than 200ksh, so while I negotiated, Leah looked for another van. We weren’t about to settle for Mzungu prices. Leah found another one, and we purchased our ticket for 180 ksh each. Take that, Matatu Driver Guy.
How to flag one down:There are a couple ways to catch a matatu ride somewhere.
Hire a matatu for a group: a couple weeks ago, I joined the teachers on campus for a night on the town, and a matatu was called to pick us up and take us back home. This was the safest bet, since we wouldn’t have to worry about how to get home, and a pretty cheap deal, since we were in a group, the price per person was reasonable. When I hopped in, I was more than pleasantly surprised when blue lights running along the upper edge of the van lit up, reminiscent of party buses I’ve partied in back at home. There wasn’t booze served in this one, but I was diggin it.
Wave a matatu down: Andy (kick-ass volunteer coordinator for Daraja) says that to flag a matatu down, you wave your hand in the air as it approaches. I added a little soul to it, and will wave my hand like half the snake dance. This has only worked for me once. I have considered adding the last part of the Robot to it, but I’m not sure if that would get me picked up, or run over. TBD. Sometimes, several matatus will drive by you. Sometimes, HOURS might pass before one rolls by. And often, even if one does drive by, it’s at capacity (please see now what
segment below). Totally unreliable at BEST.
Venture through the Matatu Stage: these will either look like parking lot areas filled with matatus, or matatu-lined city streets. The vans have huge signs on top, stating a destination.
So you’ve flagged one down and paid. Now what? You get in, sit down, hopefully in a seat, but possibly on someone’s lap if that’s how it plays out, and likely, wait. The matatu driver will typically wait until the van fills up with enough people to make the trip financially worth his/her time before leaving. There is no matatu schedule. There is no poster hanging at the stage somewhere with routes and times. The two times I have inquired as to what time the van was departing, I got a blank stare, and laughter. I haven’t asked since. In a 14-seater, I can count the number of times on one hand that we have had less than 22 people in the van. The most I counted was from Rumeruti to a student’s village area, where we had 24 people in the van, in the rain, with defective windshield wipers. Women, men, children, chickens. That was a fun ride. You really feel alive when you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of death, and paid to be there. The vans are commonly decorated with bumper stickers, some in English, others in Kiswahili. My favorite: “Hail the black man.” Awesome. The vans have side windows that sometimes open, although I have noticed that matatu riders seem to have something against fresh air. With 24 of us squeezed into these vans, I often ask for the window to be cracked, just kidogo (a little). The window is opened, and promptly shut by someone else. I have traveled with a sheep under my feet, a goat shoved under the back seats crying out to be freed, and chickens shoved in a box that is shoved under the seat next to my backpack.