letters from nairobi

on time
December 9, 2011, 14:08
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

As of tomorrow night, I will have been living in Nairobi for one month.

The way time moves when one relocates abroad is peculiar. I remember experiencing the same warping and stretching of the days when I moved to Peru and, a few years later, Nicaragua.

The first hours are a blur. Jetlagged and weary of waiting in lines (at the airport, on the plane, in customs, through passport control), you are grateful simply to have arrived at your destination. The scent of the air is different, you notice, but before long, you’re in the backseat of someone’s taxi, watching the scenery roll by as if fixed on a looping cartoon background. I’m here, you think. And that’s enough.

You wake up in an unfamiliar bed to unfamiliar sounds. All your senses are heightened, and you’re overwhelmed with one thought: not home.

The first few days are when time slows most dramatically. Every minute is new and shining; moments become Polaroid snapshots, the mundane as striking as the exceptional. Later, you will remember the strangest details: the color of the earth, the froth on a beer being poured, a barefoot boy dragging a stick through the dirt. There is no hierarchy: a lilting birdsong holds equal place with your new house. Everything is illuminated by the fact of its mere existence.

Hours stretch impossibly long in those first few days; the time between daybreak and dusk spans eras.

You begin, slowly, to orient yourself by recognizing a few fixed details: the billboard of two young women laughing, holding yogurt spoons; the bend in the road that follows the river; the light switch in the hallway; the stray cat that spends its days curled up on the grass in the sun. These things become landmarks, as unchanging as the slope of the hills or the position of the stars.

Later, when the billboard changes, or the cat finds another patch of grass, you will feel an inexplicable sense of betrayal.

As weeks pass, the hours begin to contract. At this early point, though, they are still elastic. A new experience – walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood, learning the names of the children playing in the courtyard, sipping the juice of a fruit you’ve never tasted – will cause time to stretch, coming to a standstill to engrave the snapshot on your memory. A lightbulb in a darkened shack, Madeline and Jennifer, tangysweet. You will remember these moments.

The days will begin to move more quickly as your surroundings become familiar and recognizable. You will stop noticing how purple the bougainvillea flowers are, the shrill sounds of circling hawks calling to one another, the way dusk casts a pinkish glow over the acacia trees. These things have become part of the background of daily life. Now, you notice only what deviates from the norm – a new neighbor, a sudden rainstorm, a missing tree branch.

It is close to one month after arriving in a new country when you realize that time has begun passing swiftly once again, the hours blurring into days and the days into weeks. What did I eat for dinner last night? you ask yourself. Did I visit that neighborhood yesterday – or was it the day before?

When’s the last time I bought milk?

There is no way that I know of to alter this process, to make time stretch and bend at will. I believe it’s necessary that the days begin to pass as before – it would be maddening to live each day as if it was your first, with nothing recognizable to anchor you.

At the same time, the space between familiarity and monotony is small, and it’s only a matter of time before the comforts of home become stale and colorless. And then what? There’s only one solution:



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It would no doubt be chalked up to parental pride if I remarked that this is beautiful and profound, so I won’t.

Comment by Richard Rubenstein

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