letters from nairobi

Stranger in a Strange Land
February 28, 2012, 13:19
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I wholeheartedly believe that every person should travel alone at least once. Not just solo in transit – although navigating foreign bus terminals and customs forms present their own set of challenges – but to a destination where there is nobody waiting to pick you up, where nobody anticipates (or cares about) your arrival, or whether you have a place to stay or food to eat. Where you are, essentially and necessarily, on your own.

Experiences like this show us who we really are, illuminating all our strengths and weaknesses in stark detail.

On Sunday morning, I flew north to Samburu on a tiny, ten-seat airplane that mimicked the rhythm of a mutatu, stopping four times along the way to pick up and discharge passengers, in order to reach the village of Umoja (the setting for an article I am writing). Attempting to make plans in advance was useless, since the only person I was able to contact in the village spoke almost no English. My only choice was to get there and figure out what to do next.

When I climbed out of the tiny airplane, there was no one to meet me. No one who knew – or cared – that I had arrived. And that was the beginning of the adventure.

Over the next 24 hours – which spanned an eternity – I encountered a series of challenges, the boundaries and contours of which were fluid and ever-changing. Every attempt I made to plan even the simplest things – what to eat for dinner, for example, or how to find a taxi – stretched and twisted and bent in shape as a series of complications arose.

There was no choice but to surrender, be patient, and take deep breaths.

Meeting the women of Umoja – the subject of the forthcoming article – was an incredible experience in and of itself. It was the purpose of the trip. But what surprised me were all of the other moments that I will remember: getting into a shouting match with a park ranger with bloodshot eyes, who told me I was the rudest person he had ever met (“And I’ve worked here since 1973!”) because I refused to pay the $70 park entrance fee where the plane landed; bouncing and rattling through the semi-arid park – a climate I had never seen before, filled with fiery brush and craggy, twisting branches scalded by the hot sun; drinking beer at sunset in the village, watching a shepherd guide his herd of plodding cattle across a river where children bathed and somersaulted into the cool waters; riding on the back of a motorbike in the darkness under a sky filled with stars; being the only mzungu at a Kenyan bar, talking to professors and park rangers and mothers about life in Africa and beyond; sleeping in a wasp-filled hut and using a restroom that consisted of a hole in the ground where cockroaches skittered along the walls; waking up to the sounds of crocodiles splashing in the nearby river; birdsong and music.

But I’m not intending to romanticize the experience. For every moment of excitement, of starry night skies and golden sunsets, there were three moments of stress and worry. I was appalled at the prices I was being charged for every tiny thing and spent a good deal of time fighting against the incessant fees. I bankrupted my checking account in no time. My translator and guide, who promised me a ride back to the air strip in the morning, got drunk and passed out, leaving me to ride around on the back of a motorbike through the nearby town, frantically trying to find transportation before my flight – the only one that day – departed. My every need – food, sleep, transportation, translation – was subordinate to the whims of others, which is a particularly frustrating form of powerlessness. In the end, if one of a million things went wrong – I got injured, or the mutatu taking me to the air strip broke down and I missed my flight, or I was bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion in the brush, or I was detained by a police officer for not having the “right paperwork” – in the end, it was only me who would be truly affected, who would have to face the consequences. It’s a position both liberating and terrifying.

Merely navigating the logistics of the situation, let alone accomplishing the work I needed for the article, was a trying experience. But when I boarded the tiny plane back to Nairobi, hair filled with dust and arms streaked with dirt, and leaned back in the beige leather seat, I let out a breath I had been holding since dawn the previous day.

Everyone should have one day like that. It makes coming home feel like a triumph.


Ahoy Matey
February 28, 2012, 10:51
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Yesterday, the internet was down for longer than usual — all day, in fact.

As it turns out, a ship dropped anchor off of the Mombasa coast — directly onto undersea fiber optic cables that power the majority of East Africa’s internet connectivity.

Thankfully, everything seems to be back up and running here in Nairobi. But it is a reminder that I’m not in Kansas anymore — or any landlocked ground, for that matter.

P.S. Real post coming soon.

Why I Read Books
February 22, 2012, 11:28
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Lately, I’ve found myself playing a role I never thought I would: Luddite.

It’s not that I am fearful of change, or adamantly anti-technology – I love my gadgets, think that the interconnectivity that the Internet provides is the single most important technological development in centuries, and Spotify, Facebook, and Photoshop my way through each day. I am shamelessly plugged in.

Except when it comes to one thing: reading.

The other night, over a boat of sashimi and clinking bottles of Tusker Lite, I found myself defending a position whose contours I’ve come to know intimately, almost mindlessly. The subject, as always, was e-readers, and their arguable superiority to traditional print.

The problem with engaging in this discussion is that my stance, like that of so many supposed luddites, is intangible. Opinions from both sides twist and curl in their own air currents, rising like smoke. There is no overlap; the dialects are unintelligible to each other.

Yes, e-readers are more convenient. They’re portable, lightweight, and provide access to an infinite amount of content. Yes, it’s easier to travel with one than lugging around a stack of books. Yes, it’s much simpler to share what you’re reading with others. Yes. Yes.

But, I find myself spluttering, it’s not the same. E-readers are, quite literally, blank tablets. Words appear and disappear like phantoms, all a uniform color of washed-out grey against grey. Nothing is weighted. Books become one endless scroll – there are no beautiful covers, no collection that exists in the world, no pages of fixed type that stand immobile, immovable.

And there’s no scent. Just cold, indifferent circuits, blinking beneath plastic.

As dedicated as I am to my yellowing, musty novels with their curling pages and technicolor spines, I realize that it is only a matter of time before my loyalty becomes eccentricity, and then archaic nostalgia.

A short article in the Atlantic, “How Tech Is Making Us More Aware of the Ways We Read,” considers how technology like e-readers and tablets are prompting people to re-examine not only what but how they read. The recent explosion of reading memoirs, the piece argues, points to a collective recognition that the act of reading is undergoing a profound change:

“…when we embrace a new medium, or new technology, we begin the process of understanding the one it replaces or supplants. We didn’t really grasp what theatrical moviegoing is like until it became common to watch movies at home, where we can move about, where we can pause the movie whenever we wish. What was truly distinctive about humans’ relations with horses didn’t emerge until people began traveling by train and then automobile.

Similarly, we began to be truly reflective about reading — people started writing books about its history, scholars banded together to study it — when it seemed that television would render reading obsolete. And now that reading is happening in new media, we reflect on the long history of the codex.”

This is not to say that there isn’t value in how we interacted with What Came Before – it may be more convenient to pause a film to answer a telephone or refill a bowl of popcorn at home but there isn’t a moment of shared laughter, or fear, with a roomful of strangers sitting in the dark. And while it’s much more efficient to drive to the office, an automobile is just a hunk of metal, not a living, breathing animal. We lose as much as we gain as lungs are replaced by exhaust pipes and hearts by fuel injectors.

So when I hold onto boxes filled to the brim with my faded novels, mildewed and crumbling, it’s not that I don’t comprehend why you prefer your slick plastic e-reader with its infinite words and scrollable pages. I get it.

But can you understand what is lost?

Letter to the Editor
February 21, 2012, 11:48
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This is completely unrelated to living in Kenya, which is the ostensible if scattered focus of this blog, but it’s a Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post I wrote a couple of days ago from my apartment in response to this article — so, technically, it’s a “letter from Nairobi.”

Potato, potahto.

For your reading enjoyment, the letter, which ran in yesterday’s print edition — including a grammatically-incorrect title and all:

What the Auschwitz barracks means to a survivor, and his grandchild

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming (read: dog antics and photos of baby elephants).


An Appeal to Avian Aficionados
February 15, 2012, 11:22
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Calling all avian aficionados —

Last week, I bought a birdfeeder and hung it on my balcony like so:

I tried filling it with granola, to no avail, and then sunflower seeds, which I bought at the grocery store:

Since the sunflower seeds were the only birdseed available, I assume(d) that they would attract the local bird population.

So far, I have yet to see one bird avail himself of the free buffet. There are birds everywhere in my apartment complex — hopping among tree branches, taking fluttery baths in the swimming pool, perching on rooftops. But not one willing to drop by for a delicious snack.

The irony of the situation is that I don’t particularly care for birds. But, now that I’ve set my sights on sitting on the balcony in the sunshine, watching a pretty little iridescent friend munch happily on some seeds, I am determined to make this vision a reality.

So, I appeal to you, friends wise in the ways of birding: what am I missing? How can I make my feathered friends feel welcome? Advertise a two-for-one special? Happy hour?

Elephants on Parade
February 13, 2012, 13:34
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There are few moments in life when one can stop, look around, and think, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”

On Saturday afternoon, I experienced one of those moments: standing in a field of red clay, under the shining African sun, surrounded by a pack of baby elephants drinking out of oversize milk bottles.

Thanks to a friend of ours who arranged the outing, a group of us were able to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust on a weekend afternoon to witness the elephants’ mid-afternoon feeding and interact with them.

The Trust, which does amazing work with animal conservation, fostering, and community outreach, runs a program that saves the lives of dozens of elephants and rhinos who have been abandoned at an early age. The reasons for abandonment are many: poaching, drought, parental death, and “man-made” interference, to name just a few.

At the time of our visit, the Trust was caring for fifteen baby elephants and a six-year-old blind black rhino named Maxwell. The elephants ranged in age from three months to two-and-a-half years – when an elephant reaches the age of three, he is moved to Tsavo National Park where he’s gradually rehabilitated back into the wild elephant community over a period of eight to ten years. As one of the keepers told me, a young elephant will venture out of the shelter for days, weeks, and then months at a time with the pack. One day, he just doesn’t return.

After playing with the elephant orphans, who were surprisingly gentle, affectionate, and gassy, N. and I decided to sponsor one of the young babies. Our donation allows us to visit the Trust any evening when the elephants are being tucked into bed – each one has his own stable, complete with a blanket, a bunk bed for the keeper, and a steady supply of milk.

I asked, half-jokingly, if I could spend the night with my new friend. The initial answer was no – but if at first you don’t succeed…

Below, some photos from our visit to the Trust, including a photo of Orwa, the one-year-old we sponsored:

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It was a day I’ll never forget.

February 10, 2012, 11:31
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Belated Christmas gift from N.’s parents. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but sunlight streams through the glass like rainbows.

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