Dropping the Labels

I was always an anxious child. The kind of kid who you thought would be a fine adult, but who didn’t fit in as a child. I sat up at night worrying and tried to prepare for anything bad that could happen to me during a day. I was clumsy and not athletic and didn’t understand the sense of humor of other children. I idolized my older siblings and couldn’t wait for the next phases off life – to be a teenager; to drive; to be in college. Despite my anxiety and general lack of athletic ability I somehow came up with the idea to go on summer outward bound type trips (not the real outward bound program, but more of an “outward bound light”). Before these trips, I would have stomachaches, sleepless nights, and a sense of dread. I could not remember what motivated me to sign-up for them in the first place. I would be miserable for months leading up to the trip and hated saying the process of leaving, but as soon as I was on my way a new bravery came over me. On these trips, I wasn’t defined by my anxiety, yet was comfortable enough to admit when I was afraid (which were more reasonable fears about rock-climbing instead of nuclear war). I also made immediate friends and the type of friendships I always hoped I would find. Every experience was that much more meaningful because I had fear in anticipation of the experience and then had a fantastic experience anyway. These are still some of my happiest moments from growing up.

The joy and reward I got from overcoming my fear and having beautiful and interesting adventures is the only explanation I have for where I am at in my life today. I will have traveled to Kenya alone five times in 2017 and my friend there says it is my, “second home.” The first time I traveled to Kenya (and Africa in general) was in 2013 and it was for two months. I came back with latent tuberculosis that landed me the nickname TB Phoebe. I thought it was unlikely I would ever return, but four years later I have developed a familiarity with Nairobi. I never thought that “anxious Phoebe” would be the one some people now see as adventurous.

There are times I still feel like that young anxious version of myself. Before I leave, I have that awful uncomfortable feeling and ask myself, “why am I doing this?” Although the amount of time I deal with that discomfort has shortened, so instead of feeling anxious about a trip for weeks, I will only have to deal with it for a few days or even a few hours before I leave. I still have that loneliness I had on nights camping in the national parks in California and call my mom just to feel less alone. I read with a flashlight in bed in Kenya, like I did in tents in Costa Rica, appreciating the companionship and distraction of novels.  I formed a network of friends and professional relationships in Kenya feeling comfort through connecting with others. But, most importantly, I have been trying to appreciate the experiences I am having and the memories I am creating, knowing that this will be an extremely unique year of my life.

Recently, I finally dropped the anxious label in front of my name. I have accepted that despite my image of myself as an anxious person and despite the intense anxiety I feel before trips, I am a person that searches and lives for these experiences (the good and the bad parts). I have never let my anxiety take over and stop me from an experience and I choose the momentary discomfort for the inevitable payoff. The more trips I take the more confident I am knowing that I have a roster of “times I felt miserably anxious and doubted everything and yet it all worked out better than expected.” The anxiety might not ever go away, but I am learning not to take it too seriously. This is uniquely me – not anxious Phoebe, nor necessarily adventurous Phoebe (because plenty of people in my field of study travel to more exotic places with far less fear), but just Phoebe (as I am right now). It is time for me to drop the labels and enjoy the experiences.


1st trip to Nairobi in 2013 showing off my new city




i want to stay.

i want to leave.

i am three oceans away from my soul.”


Nayyirah Waheed

I just participated in a workshop on relationships in conflict and one of the themes was that academics and practitioners needs to stop labeling institutions, people, events, or most things really, “all good” or “all bad.” These labels are not useful and destroy all of the nuance that exists in our complex world. This is a thought pattern I am trying to work on in my own life and is very common with people who struggle with anxiety (which I am increasingly believing is almost everyone I know). According to a website on common cognitive distortions (which is basically our thoughts convincing us of something that isn’t necessarily true) one of the common cognitive distortions is polarized thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking):

“In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations…”

I came across the poem at the beginning of this post on Instagram last night and I think it perfectly describes how I feel about fieldwork. I think it is meant to describe someone who is an immigrant and thinking about their home, but while I am no expert in poetry, I believe one of the purposes is to allow the reader to relate the words to her own context.

Some of the moments I am proudest of and feel most fulfilled are while traveling and doing my research. There are tremendous highs where I overcame something that feared me, feeling like I am connecting with someone I am interviewing, or discovering a new interesting topic. Last time I was in Nairobi I declared that these trips and this research was a huge part of who I am. On the other hand. I have felt some of my loneliness moments while traveling. I started singing in my head the song, “I feel so lonesome I could cry” in a dramatic fashion last night as I cried. Also, while in “the field” I have experienced some of my most exhausted moments, frustrated moments, and times when I have felt most unsure of myself. Last night I said to my mom, “I can’t imagine coming back to do this again.”

Yet I know I will. I know I will come back because that challenge and pain makes the joy and discovery so much more exciting. After a few months at home I will forget the pain (or laugh at it) and remember the joy and pride I feel in my work. This is reminding me of idea of retrospective fun Cheryl Strayed talked about about.

During my trip (and pretty much only at night) I question why I do this when it can be so hard and make me feel so sad. I called Shaun and was getting a bit emotional and I said, “why do I even do this?” and he replied frankly, “well I think you are passionate about it.” I realize the things we are passionate about are usually not the ones that come easy or are the most carefree or comfortable activities. Being passionate about something is when it lights a fire inside of you and fills you with excitement (and probably fear) and as much as I absolutely adore something like laying with my dog on my couch, it is not the same kind of fire lighting activity.

I met my best friend Amanda on one of my early big long adventures filled with loneliness, homesickness, stomach issues, laughter, joy, beauty, adventure, and fun. We met in a study abroad program in Argentina and decided we had to take advantage of that trip to see as much as South America as possible. Today we both have careers that require us to travel a lot which we both like (most of the time) and in addition to work travel we are both constantly planning side trips. However, at the same time our frequent texts explore our conflicted feelings about travel and adventure. When we are on our trips we usually want to be home and when we are home we can’t wait for the next trip. The grass really is always greener – maybe that is another cognitive distortion I can add to that list.

I am sure in a week and a half from now I will miss the pace of life here, the excitement, the constant interaction during the day (which is contrasted with the loneliness at night), and the committed focus on my research. I will be thrilled to be reunited with Shaun and my dog and the comfort of home, but I will also probably  bored with the everyday life of chores, little daily worries that I forget about here, and lonely research in my dark PhD office. Last time I was here in 2013, when I was probably even more homesick since I was gone for six weeks, I put my complex feelings in list form. I wrote a list about the things I would miss in Nairobi and the things I was most looking forward to returning to at home.

Each trip here is slowly teaching me the same lessons that I will practice throughout life – being patient; being okay with being uncomfortable, sad or lonely; being present; and realizing the grass is green enough where I am.

Finally, these trips are realizing that I am both. I am both anxious and adventurous. I both want to be here having this experience and want to be home. I am both independent and in need of my parents, husband, sisters, and friends to comfort me through this process. I am both a good traveler and a bad traveler. I am both someone who likes nice things and comfort and am someone who chooses to go to those places that are not so comfortable and easy. I am both proud of who I am and what I am doing  and I am wishing it didn’t come with loneliness, fear, and insecurity. But, I can’t only get one, everything is both.

Getting Closer to Nairobi

I have drafted three versions of this blog post and most of them were trying to put into words the moments of loneliness that can come from this type of travel. In my usual blog posting style I am sharing the feelings that I think many others feel and am trying to not only present the rosy picture we are used to seeing on social media.

I at first felt like I was at sleep away camp when I arrived. I ended up staying in a different place than I did last time which was unexpected and threw me for a loop. I am someone who makes plans and expect things to go according to them so this was good practice for me in how to adapt. The first few nights I huddled under my mosquito net, like I huddled in my bunk bed with a flashlight, reading and willing anxiety away. Like at sleep away camp I don’t have a way to message people or look at the internet from my room (the wifi doesn’t reach that far) so I am trying to remember the ways to soothe myself. I have a memory of being twelve years old at camp reading A Year in Provence (a book I think I have wrote about before on this blog, but what I think is strange choice for a twelve-year old) and currently I am reading another book about French food called Lunch in Paris. During both experiences, I read between silent small tears and felt a vulnerability and loneliness in a dark room. I am coining a new phrase of the “night time scaries” because, no matter what, things always feel better in the morning, but it is hard to remember that as you try to force yourself into sleep.

But then, just like they did at sleep away camp, things changed as I began to connect with people and feel more at home in Nairobi. My mom, who had dealt with my initial loneliness with patience and kindness, when she got a happier email said, “That’s my Phoebe bouncing back in the best way.”

I use the five Swahili words I know with such pride and ask anyone who is willing to teach me a few more. I was surprised how many people I met last trip who felt like friends who I met up with this time. I was able to break through people’s appearance of looking so comfortable and at home here and find a little more about their vulnerabilities (one of my favorite activities which has led people, mostly men, to stay, “Stop Oprah-ing me,” due to my insistent questioning). The isolation I feel because I can’t just walk out my door to go anywhere, and instead have to call a driver, is something people who are settled here feel as well.

One of my great joys these past few days has been being able to talk like someone who lives here. I know the restaurants people are talking about and can chime in with my own opinions. I return to the same cafes I went to before and the wifi password is already saved on my computer. I am learning that despite the awful Westgate mall attack I can’t be afraid of malls here (because I would never be able to go anywhere as everything is in a mall) and I try to relax as I browse through stores running errands and wasting time before interviews. I will probably never learn the geography of the city (which applies to my experience in most cities I am in), but I have at least heard of the neighborhoods people referred to. With my recent research bringing me into some poorer areas of Nairobi (more on that in another post) I went to neighborhoods some locals never even heard of.

I have also talked with friends about the tough parts of Nairobi. As fancy as the coffee shops, work out options (barre, spinning, and even crossfit), and nail salons can make it seem, there is still a bit of a rough side to the city. There is crime and corruption and it affects people’s lives here. People band together to help when friends or family are affected by these problems and I guess the best anyone can do is prepare for the risk. As I read more and more about the Kenyan elections in August I feel worried for my sometimes home. I don’t want this place I am bonding with to have violence in its communities.

Another great pleasure and learning experience has been getting to spend a lot of time with Africans from across East Africa. I spend most days with my research assistant who is from one of the slums here. He is very smart and he has one of those inspirational stories you read about. He is one of nine children and he was given the opportunity (by foreign donors he met by coincidence) to complete high school and then go to college. He then told me how he fell in love with education (something I can clearly relate to) and got his masters and will be starting a PhD program in September. I asked him whether he thought Nairobi was diverse or whether ex-pats only hung out with each other in specific “ex-pat places.” He said he thought Nairobi was quite diverse and ex-pats fit into the city well. I feel like on the days doing research with him I am experiencing a bit more of the Kenyan version of Nairobi. He took me to a “real” Kenyan restaurant that was huge and packed with people socializing. I had no idea people ate Kenyan foods with their hands, but he made sure to ask our waiter for a fork and knife for me (I thought I would make too much of a mess and end up with food all over my clothes). He got a whole fish and rolled up pieces of ugali (almost impossible to explain but it is like corn meal or polenta) to dip in the coconut sauce with the fish. He ordered more ugali and told me that since ugali is food for the hungry there is some custom that as a tribute to that restaurants don’t charge for the second order. I got some sort of chicken stew that was good, but I couldn’t quite cut it with the fork and knife and mostly ate the chapatti.

Last night at a get together at a friend’s house I was the only person who had no African heritage. I love listening to discussions about how different family relations are in their cultures as they kindly laugh at my responses as “so American.” I get to learn about different how people practice different religions from Orthodox Christian to Islam and while their rituals are unique, it doesn’t sound all that different from friends in the U.S. who give up things on lent or fast on Yom Kippur. I appreciate their openness in discussing it with me and allowing me to learn and watch. It could be easy to be in Nairobi and never hang out with people from here (since there is such a huge ex-pat community) and I fell in that trap the first time I was here four years ago. I am so grateful to have been adopted into a different scene here, even with all my silly American comments.

It was hard to come back so quickly to Nairobi since I just left, but when I got here I realized my interactions with the city felt different. In some ways I don’t have that sense of wonder as much, which makes me a little sad, but in other ways I am starting to feel a deeper connection here. I am no longer just a one-time visitor, but I am building connections here, to places, to people, to a culture, to a language. While Nairobi won’t ever be home, I think it is now becoming one of the many cities I add to my collection of “my places” – flaws and all.

photo 1

One of the many campaign signs I see across Nairobi – taken with the window up for fear of getting phone snatched


My lunch of traditional Kenyan food

Retrospective Fun

I am back from Nairobi and lots of people are asking how the trip was. My instinct is to immediately say, “great!” because overall I really think it was a great trip. It was productive, interesting, and had fun moments as well. However, I do feel just saying “great” disguises the hard times or the moments where I wanted to go home and wasn’t sure what I was doing there (or crying because I was lonely and didn’t have wifi). As I was pondering this idea I just happened to be listening to two of my favorite podcasters talking to each other, Tim Ferriss and Cheryl Strayed. And like many things in life Cheryl Strayed sums it up perfectly. I stopped quickly to write this down because I want to remember it on every journey or adventure I take. (Also, I love a good poop story).

Tim Ferriss asked Cheryl Strayed what advice she would give someone hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (as she wrote about in Wild) who was a third of the way in and wanted to give-up, she replied:

“It is not just long distance hiking…any kind of journey/trip you are going to take, to remember that usually it is not going to be fun all the time, and sometimes it is not going to be fun a lot of the time. Almost always when we are about to go on a trip or a journey…what we are imagining are those postcards scenes that we think we have gone to Bucharest for or the PCT for or whatever and you get there and it is not like that. But…I am a real believer in retrospective fun, and that is the fun that you have remembering the shitty thing that happened you know? If I asked you to tell you about some of your travel experiences I guarantee you the things you remember most acutely are like the time you almost died in Guatemala because you had such terribly diarrhea for a week, the diarrhea stories, they are our best travel stories.”

For the full podcast listen here

Tea Time

As I mentioned in my previous post this trip has been really focused on research and appreciating daily life in Nairobi vs. last time when I went on adventures every weekend. However, last week I posted on an email chain for alumni from my grad school that I was going to this tea farm someone recommended and I asked if anyone wanted to join.

I couldn’t tell if I was bluffing. Would I actually go if no one joined? It wouldn’t be the biggest deal as it is only about 45 minutes outside of the city, but I wasn’t sure if I would go through with it. Would I be utterly humiliated if the email went unanswered? I waited and hoped that people replied.

Within a few days we had a group of four other girls with vague connections to each other who were interested in the excursion. The coordination was fantastic with one person booking a van to take us and another making the reservations at the farm.

One of my favorite things about traveling on my own for longer than just a quick vacation is that you often end up in random groups of people, but the group can easily connect on an adventure. It eases any trace of loneliness to be doing something new with new people. I felt immediately comfortable and excited in this group.

We were a perfect group for this excursion. While others in the bigger tour group seemed to zone out while the British woman (Fiona) giving the tour was speaking we all stood there taking in every word. We quickly became the teacher’s pet with Fiona providing us with anecdotes in between the tour spots. I joked that we were going to pull out our notebooks and start taking notes. I learned more about the tea industry in Kenya and tea in general than I knew there was to learn.

After Fiona gave the official tour about tea a Kenyan man she worked with and her dog were tasked with walking us through the forest preserve that her grandfather bought when he first came to Kenya. The dog was a vital part of the tour and we were told to follow his lead and when he laid down at a spot that meant we should stop there and wait for our tour guide to begin talking. As we walked through the forest we smelled useful medicinal plants (citronella which explained the lack of bugs in the forest) and plants that people used for toothaches, stomach aches, joint problems. This forest could put my natural supplement store in Boston to shame. We came to a pile that looked like a compost heap and the guide explained they left out food for the monkeys in the forest here so that they wouldn’t ram-shack their garden. They also fed bananas to the Colobus monkeys around their property (wasn’t this a cliché that monkeys ate bananas?)

We then finally sat down for the lunch (what I had been waiting for). It felt like being at a vineyard with the beautiful tables set-up across the lawn and courses with soup, bread, rice and meat, cheese, and, my favorite, homemade ice-cream made from the milk of the cows we saw at the beginning of our tour.

After lunch, we wandered into Fiona’s house looking at old wedding photos. It seems like everyone in her family got married at the estate. We purchased tea to take home (which I will never drink in the same way) and headed back to Nairobi. We chatted the whole way home unraveling new layers as we got to know each other better.

That night I came home and felt unbelievably content. I ordered Indian food delivery because I want to savor the amazing Indian food in Nairobi before I leave. As I see the number of malaria pills I have left dwindling I am realizing how quickly this trip will be coming to an end. This last week I am setting up as many meetings as I can, but am not as afraid of the downtime and I am not pressuring myself to meet every last person or do every last thing. I am accepting that this trip will be coming to an end, but a new adventure could be around the corner.




Fiona teaching us about tea



Our guide


“Ice cream makers” as our guide called them


All is Sawa

Last time I was in Kenya I was doing research but it was generally relaxed. I had a regular office I went to and meetings within the office. I had clear questions and most people were really excited to share their opinions on them. So, because of my work was low pressure and because it was my first time in Africa, I really focused on having fun and being a tourist. I was also here for 6 weeks so had lots of weekend getaways. It is nice being back now and able to say I have already done a lot of the touristy things. I realize in retrospect I wasn’t sure what I was thinking when we went to Lamu since employees of  U.S., and until recently UK, governments are not strictly prohibited from traveling there. It makes me feel slightly bad ass in a sea of people who are much more adventurous than me.

This trip is not about being a tourist and seeing Nairobi for the first time. I am here to do exploratory research for my dissertation and this is really the first time I am “in the field” doing my own research. A lot of the work involves keeping track of who I have spoken with, who I have been connected to, and who I have emailed. I have elaborate documents with names of people I am trying to connect with here and when I am scheduling the meeting and then a separate one of people to skype with later. This is the type of task I am good at, but even for a type A organizational expert I am feeling burnt out trying to keep track of names and schedules, and time out meetings across Nairobi.

Once I get a meeting there is this balance in deciding if it will be more of a networking chat (usually happens with most of the meetings over meals) or a more formal interview. In both types of meetings, I am balancing taking detailed notes, asking questions, actively listening, thinking of a good next question, and paying attention to time. It is multi-tasking to the extreme. Additionally, regardless of what type of conversation it is I notice that people really want to feel like they are being helpful. I find myself wanting to reassure people after each meeting that they were helpful and for the most part they all are for different reasons. Additionally, I am bouncing across Nairobi from cafés to office buildings and never quite sure on whether I have timed things out correctly since I am not very good at Nairobi geography or figuring out traffic patterns. I asked David what time was rush hour and he says, “There is no rush hour in Kenya. It’s every hour and then there are just miserable hours.”

I try to use the time in between meetings to take in Nairobi. I “car window shop” looking at the stalls at the side of the road and yesterday asked David if he could remember the location of one I wanted to come back to with cool looking bags. I look at the fashion of Kenyan women and love their colorful skirts and dresses, but know most of them I can’t pull off back home. I saw a young woman wearing a cute skirt that looked like it could work in the U.S. and I had to hold myself back from opening the car window and asking her where it was from. Everywhere you look there is some sort of building being constructed or trees being chopped down (hence why our internet was out for 24 hours). There are piles and piles of red dirt. Yesterday we drove past Uhuru Park which is a sprawling park in the middle of the city. There were big statutes and families out relaxing in the park with the backdrop of a Nairobi skyline. I desperately wanted to take a picture (because I feel like I have had none to share from Nairobi for friends and family back home) so I rolled down my window and realized my immediate error when two people begging for money came over and stood at the window while we were stuck in traffic. One faces the same moral dilemmas of how to deal with this type of situation in the U.S., but I felt stupid for inviting it by opening my window. Most of the time I am sweltering in the back seat of David’s van because due to safety concerns I don’t keep my window open. At least I am not freezing in a Boston blizzard J I am often sounding ridiculous repeating Swahili words David is trying to teach me over and over again not quite getting the sounds and rhythm correct.

Many of my meetings have involved people telling me this research is too difficult to do for my PhD or pointing out the challenges I will face. I try to keep positive, but of course internalize what they are saying. Other meetings I have fantastic conversations and leave feeling intellectually stimulated and curious. The emotional rollercoaster of my day ends up leaving me feeling exhausted.

At the end of the day I come home and frantically write-up all my notes and thank you emails with reminders of who people offered to connect me to. When I get home it is early afternoon in the U.S. so other emails from my home life start coming in.

All this to say is I have lots of emotional and intellectual ups and downs and so most of the time this trip isn’t easy. But what I keep trying to remind myself is that is the point! I have gone to so many research workshops about techniques for field research and challenges for field research and I absorbed them in some abstract way, but now I am living it. Field research isn’t easy and it isn’t supposed to be! Part of the reason I haven’t been connecting lessons from the workshops is because when we think of “the field” most people imagine some rural village and meeting with locals about their experiences. My field research looks like bopping from cafés to offices meeting with people and getting their professional expertise, not usually their first-hand experiences. But it is still fieldwork even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype and involves sitting around and drinking a lot of my favorite new drink “dawa” (hot water with lemon, ginger, and honey).

All this isn’t to say I am not going to find the fun and joy in the experience, but that doesn’t have to be the point! And as I am constantly working on remembering in my life – experiences don’t have to be “perfect” or all fun to be rewarding and important. So for now things are “sawa” (my new favorite Swahili word meaning okay).

Sense of Wonder

I had 24 hours of feeling lonely and unsure of myself in Nairobi and questioning my trip and dissertation. All of the sudden today the fog lifted and I am finding my gratitude again.

I woke up very late (12:30) and rushed off to do a private barre class with my roommate in the outdoor space of someone’s apartment building. As I was lying in the sun pulsing my leg lifted in the air I felt immensely grateful. It felt good to be exercising outside under the warm sun listening to the birds and wind, with a Kenyan instructor, and with a few other girls who are from here or other countries in the region. The Kenyan instructor was great and laughed at us when we complained about the exercises. He told me next time he thinks he could challenge me more and we talked about crossfit after class (I still won’t stop talking about crossfit even in Kenya). They have a crossfit gym here that I might have to try out just for the experience!

On my previous trip to Nairobi I spent most of my social time with groups of ex-pats, but this trip I am really appreciate spending more time with Kenyans or people from other countries in the region who have settled here. Some individuals have lived here their whole lives whereas others lived in the U.S. for a bit and returned here as adults. One man was telling me about his own experience returning to his home country for a few years then having to try to get out quickly because they started forcibly recruiting young men from schools. Most of these individuals are educated and middle class so I know in many ways I am lacking diversity in who I am talking to, but it is interesting to find both the differences and similarities in our life experiences.

After Barre, just like I would with friends in the U.S., we decided to go to a café for brunch. The café was at a mall and it was crowded so I felt hyperaware, but I did my best to relax and just observe the surroundings. When I saw people continuing with their normal lives and enjoying their eggs I decided to trust the women I was with to judge the situation. One of the women works for the UN and told me they are trained to immediately find a place to hide when they arrive somewhere (I jokingly tried to get the bill quickly after this discussion). It felt better to openly talk about security concerns and get a sense of how other people think of the risks. To me it still feels like the city is so fresh after the attack at Westgate, but people are resilient and don’t live their lives in fear. You hear about memorials being made years after attacks or tragedies, but I have never thought about what happens in the in between time. The period when it is not too soon after a tragedy and people are still stunned, but not long enough after a tragedy where it feels removed. We are struggling with the same conversations in Boston with the release of the movie about the Boston Marathon bombing that feels too soon for many people.

On our way home from the café, just as I was really getting into the modern Nairobi life style I look out my window to see a herd of cows being escorted down the road. Not in the middle of the road, but certainly not on a sidewalk. I screamed out in delight while the girl driving and my roommate laughed and said, “Oh yeah that happens. The other day we saw sheep.”

And there it is, the reason I can complain about this city but still feel charmed. As modern as it is the modernness coexists with a man escorting at least ten cows on the side of a trafficy road. I finally woke up from my complaining and remembered my sense of wonder. The rest of the car ride home I looked out my window with a smile on my face wondering what I would see next.