The Grass is Always Greener: To Travel or Settle Down?


I put a lot of faith in odd things, like personality tests and my horoscope. Every time I take the Myers-Briggs, I toe the line between J and P, which makes me a walking contraction. Usually, J comes up a little stronger. I need my environment orderly, my possessions organized (however few they may number) and I like having a plan. The idea of stability is appealing, in an abstract sense.
On the other hand, I like leaving my options open. I don’t like planning too far in advance.

Commitment to anything, be it a person, a place or a pet, is terrifying. I’m afraid if I make plans too far in advance, if I commit my life to a cause or even if I agree to do something three days from now, that I’ll wake up with a change of heart and decide I want to do something else. The idea of freedom is also appealing, in an abstract sense.

Here’s how a typical day goes for me; one minute, I’m looking up plane fares to New Zealand, or Thailand, or Malawi, thinking about how long I could make my meager savings last as I galavant around the world, unencumbered by possessions or commitments. The next minute, I’m making arrangements to adopt two foster kittens and establishing myself as a cat lady at the ripe old age of 27.

And the truth is I equally want to do both.

Sunset

I want to see the world, to take beautiful photographs, to meet people and learn their stories, to taste myriad flavors in tiny back-alley restaurants. Yet, I also want a place to call home, a space to return to and something waiting for me to come back. I want cats, and kids and, maybe someday, a long-term companion with whom to share all of this. So, I am always internally conflicted.

You see, long-term travel is simultaneously appealing and scary, but so is staying rooted in one place. Whatever I choose, whatever I’m doing, I have a feeling I’m missing something. If I’m traveling, or living abroad, I long for the stability of being home and I fear that people will forget me, because even with Skype, Facebook and email, life moves on and people make new memories. If I’m home and not traveling, I want nothing more than the freedom to wake up in a new bed every few days, the indescribable feeling that comes from capturing a perfect photograph, the sense of accomplishment when you’ve successfully navigated a new city.
Travel brings with it the internal satisfaction and reassurance that I am a risk-taker, that I am somehow unconventional, and, most importantly, that I am not boring. It also ensures that I’ll always have something to talk about at dinner parties, which is a definite plus when you’re not good at small talk.
My friends often joke that I live like a gypsy, that I have no stuff, that I really could pick up and leave to go anywhere at a moment’s notice. This is not true, of course. I signed a lease, I have some furniture, I have a car note, I have a job, and I may soon have some cats.

At the same time, I have no concrete plans after March 19, which is invigorating and scary. I could take off on a trip, or I could acquire more stuff, look for a traditional job and make more moves toward settling down and sense of permanency.

In truth, neither option is totally appealing. Travel can be, at its’ worst, exhausting, expensive,unsettling and incredibly self-indulgent. Staying put, though, is, for lack of better terms, boring, conventional, and expected. I’ve discovered that my limit for both of these is two to three months. After traveling, or being away for that length of time, I want to return home and immerse myself in normalcy for a little bit. After being in one place for a few months though, my wanderlust kicks in. I want to move on and see new things, meet new people, take new photographs, learn new stories.

Cat
As it has currently been about 5 months since I’ve traveled anywhere that isn’t my mother’s house, my wanderlust is at its peak, but so, strangely, is my desire to settle down, or at least to have a permanent place to return to.
I suppose then, the solution, at this point, is to settle down, find a “real job” and milk my two weeks of vacation a year for all they are worth, or to embrace my inner gypsy and travel the world with my camera and my hypothetical cats. It would certainly make a wonderful story.

2012 in Pictures

Midway through 2012, I had my tarot cards read at an art fair in Cape Town, South Africa. I was living in Nairobi at the time, loving the feeling of being an expat, but hating be chained to a desk, a commute and a paycheck. I felt stuck and burned out at 27.

The card reader looked me in the eyes and told me “Four to six months from now, your life will look completely different. You’ll be living on a different continent, doing something totally different. This will be a year of big decisions for you, of big changes. Don’t worry though, you won’t make a mistake.”

I stifled a giggle as he told me this, not wanting to put faith in tarot cards, but wondering in the back of my mind about the possibilities that existed for me if I allowed what he said to come true.

Seven months later, my life actually does look completely different, or at least, it’s beginning to. I’m back in the US, have applied to graduate school, launched two websites, am planning some travel  for the spring and early summer  and I’m happier than I have been in recent memory. There were a lot of stumbling blocks and difficult soul searching along the way, and I’m not so naïve as to think I have it all figured out, but I’m beginning to realize what I want out of life and crafting a lifestyle that will allow me to have that.

In terms of challenges and changes, 2012 was my most tumultuous year thusfar, but this year, and the experiences it brought with it served as a catalyst for an incredible amount of personal growth. I’ve chosen a photo from each month of 2012 to serve as a reminder of the journey, both literal and figurative, this year has been.

January 2012- Ngong Hills, Kenya

Jan.2012

February 2012-Rift Valley Viewpoint, Kenya

Feb.2012

March 2012-Kitengela Glass, Nairobi, Kenya

March.2012

April 2012- Lake Victoria, Kisumu, Kenya

April.2012

May 2012-Cape Point, South Africa

May.2012

June 2012-Stone Town, Zanzibar

June.2012

July 2012- Memphis, TN

July.2012

August 2012- Stax Records, Memphis, TN

photo

September 2012-Chicago, Illinois

photo (2)

October, 2012- Memphis, TN

photo (1)

November 2012- Memphis, TN

photo (4)

December 2012-Greensboro, NC

photo (5)

Here’s to making 2013 the year of following my dreams.

 

 

 

Kitengela Glass advertises itself as “a magical place in the bush.” After spending a Saturday afternoon wandering around there, I am inclined to believe it.
Kitengela, which produces glasswear and beads from recycled materials, started as a poverty alleviation project for the local community that has grown into both an artisan training center and a successful business venture. It is also a somewhat off-the-beaten-path, but well worth visiting tourist attraction.

Getting to Kitengela requires riding a motorcycle taxi along the edge of Nairobi National Park.

Then, you have to cross this bridge to get across a gorge. Don’t worry, it’s not as rickety as it looks.

Kitengela employs people from the local community and trains them in the art of glass blowing.

 

The employees melt down the glass.

 

Then, the glass gets molded, colored and shaped.

 

Here is the finished product.

If you go:
From Nyayo Stadium, take matatu 125 or 126 out Langata Rd. You can change to a larger bus at Bomas or you can continue on the 125 all the way out to Maasai Lodge Rd. (~100KES/ person round trip)
From here, you will take a motorcycle taxi (300 KES/person round trip) to the bridge to Kitengela. You can have the taxi wait, or you can call the taxi when you are finished.
Call the number listed on the sign at the the bridge to cross it (150 KES/person).
Be sure to visit the shop, the bead studio and the glass blowing area. If you hang around long enough, you can get a small tour of the facility.
Change is a problem at every juncture of this experience, so small bills are necessary.

Carnivore

One of Nairobi’s less danger-related claims to fame lies in the fact that it is the only major city in the world to have a national park touch its boundaries. Most tourists to Nairobi head straight to this park before venturing off to other, more picturesque, less chaotic parts of Kenya. When they return to Nairobi for their flight home, they usually spend their last night at one of Nairobi’s most famous restaurants–Carnivore.

Carnivore, located right on the boundary of Nairobi National Park, used to be famous for serving game meat. Patrons sampled all-you-can-eat zebra, lion, gazelle and the like. In 2004, however, the Kenyan government banned the sale and trade of game meat, which mean Carnivore was relegated to the realm of less exotic fares like chicken, pork, lamb, beef and (on some days) camel and ostrich. It’s still straight from the grill, sliced right at the table and still all-you-can-eat, but, I imagine, the character and the allure are a little different.

The experience (and it is more appropriate to use the word experience than meal) begins the moment one enters the restaurant. Diners are forced to pass by the area where the meat is cooked in route to their table. Then, you pass the menu, which shows both the “standard” meats available and the “exotic” options. When you arrive at your table, you are given a yellow flag and various dipping sauces. The meal begins when you display your flag and meat is brought to the table in small portions continuously until you take your flag down or “surrender.”

Our Carnivore flag, flying high.

On the day we went, we were able to sample such options as ostrich meatballs, lamb sausage and camel, in addition to the more standard fare of roast beef, chicken and pork ribs. The beef was among the best I’ve ever had and I had seconds of both the lamb sausage and the ostrich meatballs.

I will never eat camel again. I suppose one might expect something that wanders the desert to be pretty tough meat, but anything that lives on land should not taste like a fish.

Throughout the meal, there are singers and dancers roaming through the dining hall, randomly stopping at various tables to sing and drum. While this makes for a pleasant, albeit disrupted, dining experience, this is problematic in the way that so many experiences geared toward tourists are. Everyone is wearing the same, happy animal-print clothing and speaks flawless English. Even the ice is “safe.” In this way, Africa and Kenya are distilled into something that is packaged and consumable, devoid of the complexity, frustration and contradiction that is prevalent elsewhere.

Visiting Carnivore and participating the all-you-can-eat meat orgy is akin to visiting any famous, overhyped tourist attraction. It’s something you do merely for the experience of saying “I did that,” and not for the quality of the food or the authenticity of anything presented. With that said, Carnivore certainly was an experience that I enjoyed, but not one I care to repeat anytime soon. For the most part, it was really expensive and the food (with a few exceptions) was mediocre. I much preferred dancing next door at the Simba Saloon afterwards.

Bridge Fellows (plus Henk) happy and full of meat.

The aftermath of Carnivore.

Transportation: Take a taxi here as it is pretty far off of any matatu route and the road leading to the restaurant is pretty isolated. Should you choose to stay late and dance, there will be plenty of taxis waiting outside to ferry you home.

Cost: A non-veg meal costs 2,700 KES. This is the cost of at least a week of food anywhere else in Kenya. Carnivore claims it has a vegetarian option, which cost 2,100 KES. Since this is a restaurant whose entire existence relies on the over-consumption of meat, I don’t know why you would come here if you didn’t eat meat.

Chillis Diner

You won’t find Chillis Diner (and yes, it is really spelled with two l’s) in your Lonely Planet, nor your Rough Guide.

In fact, you won’t find it mentioned in any guide book. I stumbled upon this restaurant by accident and took a huge gamble eating raw vegetables and stimulating my palette with spices.

This gamble paid off in the form of some of the best Indian food I have ever tasted.

Chillis is located in South C, a middle-class, mostly Muslim neighborhood in Nairobi where I am living for my first month in Kenya. In almost 5 weeks of living here, I have yet to see a mzungu who isn’t affiliated with our group. It certainly is not tourist or expat territory, but it doesn’t feel unsafe in the slightest bit.

One evening, when I had been in Nairobi for five days and had already grown tired of the fare at Hanan Guest House, two friends and I decided to venture into South C to find something to eat. When we entered Chillis, we found a somewhat dingy restaurant, adorned with pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. After looking at the menu, we decided it was worth the risk.

The Chillis Menu

Every meal at Chillis begins with “lemon soup,” or hot water with a piece of lemon floating in it, designed for cleaning your hands. Then, comes a plate a of raw veggies and a papadum covered in fresh tomatoes, cilantro and onion. The naan, for which there is a choice of butter, garlic or turbo (chilis and garlic) is always piping hot and fresh.

Ben shows off the turbo naan, with Stoney Tangawizi (ginger soda) in the background.

Because of our penchant for always returning to Chillis with more people than we brought the last time and for sharing the dishes between the entire party, I have probably tried 75% of the menu in four visits. Of particular note are the ginger chicken, palak paneer, jawa chicken and stuffed capsicum, though the entire menu is excellent and I have yet to be disappointed by anything I’ve tried.

If you go:
Transportation: Depending on the direction from which you are coming, you can take matatu 33 or 12C from town. 12C will drop you right in front of the shopping center. From 33, you will need to alight just past the bridge that crosses Mombasa Rd, walk up the hill and, turn left and walk straight until you see the shopping center (about 1 block). Chillis is in the back, on the right side.
Cost: Vegetarian dishes are 300-500 KES, chicken and mutton dishes are 500-700. Naan is between 70-100 KES per serving (4 pieces). Tusker is 170 KES and sodas are 70 KES. You should be able to eat a meal with an appetizer and drink for under 800KES (about $8 at the time of writing).

Taxi Cab Confessional

Since I don’t have a car in Nairobi and have no intention of ever buying one, nor putting myself behind the wheel of one, I’ve been spending a lot of time in cabs and or on the matatu.

Taking a cab ride in Kenya is not the same as taking one in the US. Even thinking about trying to cross a street is about as mentally taxing as a Sunday Times crossword. Actually venturing out on the streets is sure to be a risk big enough to raise anyone’s life insurance premium.

I didn’t take this picture, but this scene is pretty typical in Nairobi all throughout the day and night, no matter the day of the week. From http://robrooker.com/blog/archives/507

I’ve been here less than a week and already my life has come to resemble a taxi-cab related soap opera. Since the cabs are not metered here, one has to negotiate a rate beforehand, call a driver whom you know and trust, then hope they show up, reasonably on time, with a car that fully functions and has enough gas to get to you where you need to go. This, combined with Nairobi’s traffic, has made my morning and afternoon commute into somewhat of an adventure.

Here are two illustrative stories:

Simon

It’s rush hour and we are in a cab, inching our way painstakingly through the traffic on Mombasa Rd. A thick haze, part dust, part pollution fills the air, obscuring the sunset and blurring my vision ever so slightly. We are surrounded by cars, matatus, and delivery trucks, all of which must travel on Mombasa Rd., an eight-lane thoroughfare with no posted speed limit that sometimes resembles the Autobahn, if they wish to move through Nairobi going east to west. This is rush hour, however, and Mombasa Rd. is little more than a parking lot.

All of a sudden, Simon’s car, which had been resisting the idea of being driven all week, sputters to a stop and refuses to start again, in the middle lane of Mombasa Rd. At rush hour. In the heat. We figure out that the problem lies in the fact that Simon’s car has no gas, despite the fact that he assured us he did in fact put three liters of gas in the car before he picked us up from work that day.

Simon points to the service station 500 meters up the road, turns to the boys in the car and says “You’ll give me a push?” They, in turn, convince him that pushing a car that far, in stop and go traffic, is out of the question, but do agree to push the car to the side of the road and stand with it while Simon walks to the gas station and returns with enough fuel to take us home.

To make a long story short, a car full of wazungu (white people), stopped dead in the middle of Nairobi’s busiest road will attract a lot of attention and soon we found ourselves surrounded by people peddling everything from advice to sunglasses to machetes and hedge clippers. Simon eventually returned, and we did make it home safely, but this is not an experience I am keen to repeat.

Gabriel

In addition to enough gas, sobriety of the driver is another important feature when shopping for a cab. Though Gabriel had plenty of gas, he was sorely lacking in the sobriety department, something we didn’t realize until he almost ran over a pedestrian on the way out of our office parking lot.

Since it’s too late to bail out of the ride, we buckle our seat belts, a rarity in Kenya, and venture into the gridlock on Mombasa Rd. At this point, we realize Gabriel is listening to what must be the Kenyan version of “Loveline.” It turns out, there is very little censorship on Kenyan radio, and some English words transcend any sort of language barrier that might exist. Also, if you are a woman who cheats on her husband because he is bad in bed, you probably shouldn’t discuss your affair on a show that plays during rush hour in a city of three million people, but who am I to judge?

I spend the rest of the cab ride stifling giggles like a middle schooler while Gabriel weaves in and out of traffic, before depositing us safely at our guest house.

“Squee-rils” and Other Things that Don’t Exist

A “squee-ril”

I don’t write much about work.

I make it a point not to because, for four years, I had a job that consumed nearly every waking moment, haunted my dreams and kept me awake with anxiety. My job now is intense, the hours are long, the commute is horrendous and the stakes are just as high as they were when I was running a classroom. But, this job is nowhere near as stressful as teaching.

Until last week, I could leave work at work. I could shut my laptop, board a matatu and be done with Bridge for the day.

And then, squirrels came to Kenya.

“Squee-rils,” as they are known here, have been occupying my every moment at work and haunting my dreams. They have not, however, been keeping me awake at night. That honor belongs to the cats who are mating below my apartment building.

These are not, of course, real “squee-rils.” Those don’t exist in Kenya. Nor do raccoons, moose, Legos, vacuum cleaners or the idea of pets as part of the family. Rather, “squee-rils” are an apt metaphor for the cultural mismatch that happens when you, an American, are supervising middle-class Kenyans, who are writing curriculum, in English and Kiswahili, for Kenyan children who live in the slums, none of whom speak either of those languages as their mother tongue, to be read by teachers who cannot deviate from the script, using plans that were written by people in the US and India who have spent little to no time in Kenya. Confused yet? So am I.

That, my friends, is why 4,000 children across Kenya will now know what “squee-rils” are.

Reflections on a week in Nairobi

I want this blog to be an honest reflection of this experience, and there are definitely things I don’t like about Nairobi, but, at this point, the things I do enjoy far outweigh those that I don’t enjoy.

Dislikes:
1.The traffic is terrible. Many roads are stop and go at all times of the day and night, except for Sunday mornings when 1/2 of Nairobi seems to be at church. Unlike in the US, I’ve heard that Saturday is actually the worst day of the week for traffic, due to weddings, funerals and other special events. Sitting in traffic for a couple of hours a day requires exceptional patience and lungs of steel.

2.Since the traffic is terrible, the air quality is also really bad. For the first week, every time I blew my nose, my snot was black. In the mornings, a thick smog hangs in the air, especially near the factories where a lot of the schools I work in are located. In addition, the streets are very dusty, which consequently means my clothes, my shoes and my person are always covered in dust. I’m still trying to find an effective way to combat this.

3.The food. This should really be counted as somewhere between a like and a dislike, since I really like the food that is available here and there seems to be a great variety of it. What I dislike is that almost every time I eat, no matter what or how much I eat, I feel sick or get sick later in the day. I will adjust eventually, but this has definitely been the low light of my experience thusfar and I look forward to the day when I can eat without fear of illness.

One of the few things I ate this week that did not make me feel ill.

Likes:

1.No Sunday dread. One definite perk of working in an office is that I can leave work at work. I don’t have to think about lesson plans or grading or calling parents or any of those other things that consume the life of a teacher outside of school. Sunday nights are peaceful and not filled with anxiety about the coming week.

2.Nairobians are friendly. As a “mzungu,” I stand out quite a bit. I stand out even more because, for the past week, I have been going everywhere with a pack of “wazungu.” Even so, most of the people I have met have been exceedingly friendly and willing to help me find whatever I need or to help me get wherever I am going. This is helpful in a huge city where people rely on landmarks and not street names to find things.

3.Nairobi makes me feel alive. There are always people in the streets, music blaring, people selling their wares and bright colors everywhere. The sunrise, when you can see it through the smog, is absolutely gorgeous. There is so much hustle, bustle and activity all the time that I sometimes look up and don’t realize that I’m halfway around the world from everything that is familiar.

Kenyans aren’t too big on pets, so I get really excited when I see domesticated animals anywhere. This is a cat in front of a shop in a neighborhood where one of our schools is located.

Sally Ports and How to Survive a Kidnapping

Nairobi is a city of great contrasts. There is extreme wealth and a multitude of conveniences to suit Westerners and Kenya’s burgeoning middle class, but it is also home to the largest slum in East Africa and the income gap between the haves and have nots is growing. People are more likely to be driven to extreme measures of violence and disparity when their children are starving, and there are plenty of kids (and adults) in Nairobi who don’t have their basic needs met. To a tourist or an expat, 100 shillings (about $1.10) is very little money, but to many people in Nairobi, this amount of money means the difference between a family eating and a family going hungry. Perspective is always important.
One of the most important things I learned in Nairobi is that security is something that is to be taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that my company invited the services of a former Navy Seal to brief us on security during our first week in the city. He arrived at a posh restaurant in Westlands, printed Power Point in hand, and proceeded to first regale us with stories of his time doing missions and hostage rescue for the US government and then to watch as our eyes grew wider while he briefed us on how to deal with anything from simple muggings to terrorist bombings, all of which I witnessed directly, dealt with the aftermath of, or had happen to someone close to me during my time living in Nairobi.
Here are the most salient pieces of advice I received:
1. If you are a man, it’s a good idea to keep a fake wallet with 200 shillings (less than $3) in it. This way, if you get mugged, you will have something to give the thief, but you won’t lose everything you have. This advice doesn’t work as well for women, as someone is much more likely to notice you carrying two purses.

2. The most secure houses have sally ports and electrified wire. To those who don’t live in places where extreme wealth abuts extreme poverty, a sally port means your house has two gates and two guards. Most car jackings happen when people are waiting to enter the gate to their compound or while they are sitting in standstill traffic. A sally port helps keep you safe because any potential thief is likely to get trapped between the two gates.

3.In the event that you are kidnapped, try to keep your original clothes. This way, when the hostage negotiation goes down, you will be less likely to be confused with the people who kidnapped you. Also, you should never refuse food and should talk to your kidnappers and learn as much about them as you can.

4.In the event of a bombing, open your mouth and cover your head. Place your feet toward the blast. Opening your mouth lessens the chance of your eardrums bursting.

This is not intended to alarm anyone or cause undue worry. While it is true that Nairobi can be unsafe, especially since Kenya’s conflict with Al-Shabaab began and given the upcoming elections, Nairobi is also a vibrant city, full of color, full of life and full of people with interesting stories. A little common sense goes a long way.

Getting Lost in the Riviera

Note: I have since returned from Italy, but am posting little vignettes about the places I went for those who want to hear about my trip.
Cinque Terre (June 10-19)
My blog and I fell off the face of the planet when I wandered into a magical place known as Cinque Terre. Almost as soon as I got there, I was so taken by the beauty of the mountains and the ocean that I literally forgot the outside world existed. I knew as soon as I stepped out of the train station tunnel and was literally blown into the tiny town of Riomaggiore by the wind created by a passing train that I would be staying longer than I planned to. I ended up spending 10 days here. I filled my days with hikes, the beach, copious amounts of red wine and a healthy dose of World Cup soccer.
The region is full of tourists, and I’m sure that the character of the place has changed markedly since every American who picked up Rick Steves’ book decided they needed to come here, but I will say this is the only place in Italy where I met and had sustained conversations with actual Italians and other locals. I think it’s precisely because, by the standards of most places in Europe, there isn’t much to do. To travel here, you have to slow down and appreciate the subtleties of life.
There are no “must see” places to shuffle yourself between. There are no major works of art to queue up for hours to see. Nightlife consists of sipping red wine on a terrace at the one bar in town. My days were filled with beautiful hikes and lazy afternoons on the beach. The biggest attraction here is the place itself and the natural beauty that is constantly visible. I had a lot of hours alone with my thoughts and while, under normal circumstances, the mere thought of this is enough to give me heart palpitations, I left this place with a clearer head than I’ve had in years.

Riomaggiore from the harbor