Nothing Out of The Ordinary

On this trip, there have been a lot of things I have seen or experienced that seem unusual or out of the ordinary to me. Moments when I think to myself, “wow I wish someone from home could see this.” Each moment like that I usually have a poker face and pretend that it’s nothing I haven’t seen before when really, I am documenting it in my head. I am not sure where the instinct comes from to pretend it is not unique to me. Maybe it is so I don’t appear to be judging or maybe so I don’t stand out even more than I do already. However, there have been several moments, sites, or events that have seemed quite unique to me.

When I say I am going to Africa people expect that I will see a lot of animals. The animals they are thinking of are exotic animals like monkeys, zebras, or giraffes. What I have seen instead is a a lot of what we would think of as farm animals – goats, cows, and especially chickens – roaming everywhere. When a colleague of mine wanted to buy a chicken for an upcoming dinner a man stood at the side of the road holding the live chicken upside down and she felt it assessing how meaty it was. I was hoping that she wouldn’t pick this chicken to buy and it wouldn’t be riding in the car back to town with us. Instead it seemed that wasn’t her chicken. I have done several interviews with chickens present. One interview I thought I heard noises and looked down at my feet and there was a large chicken in a box next to me. In another interview, half way through the interview a woman’s son brought in four baby chicks chirping away. While there was a moment I thought they were cute once they started flapping their wings and pooping all over the small room we were in I felt myself unable to concentrate on the interview. I don’t generally like birds and don’t have a specific grudge against chickens, but I haven’t been this up close and personal with chicks since I did that project in 4th grade where the class incubates eggs.

It hasn’t been all farm animals though. When I got to a new hotel in a lake town closer to the airport the woman showing me my room told me to lock the porch door and not leave the screen open. I nodded trying to move the tour along because all I wanted to do was lie down. She said, “please follow this rule. The monkeys around here want to come into the rooms and they can open the screen door.” My face must have looked slightly alarmed because she said, “are you afraid of monkeys?” I thought to myself, “no, but I’d prefer to not think about them trying to break into my room in the middle of the night.” Instead I said, “no I am fine thank you.”

Related to farm animals, I am pretty open when it comes to food. I had goat stew and enjoyed it. I will try most things. If it is something I am nervous about I will just try a little bit of it figuring if I only have a small piece it probably won’t harm me. However, in one of my last meetings with a respected elder his wife brought over what looked like juice (just as I thought our two-hour meeting was coming to an end). I was a little nervous drinking homemade juice since I don’t know if it was mixed with water I couldn’t drink. But I went with my “just try a little bit” rule. I took a sip and it was extremely sour. The man explained he was in the process of making his own fruit wine. That is where I had to draw the line for so many reasons – I had interviews to do the rest of the day and bootleg wine might actually kill me. My colleague who is from close by and had an established relationship with this man felt out of respect she had to drink all of her wine (especially because I wasn’t). She really took one for our team. The man noticed I wasn’t drinking and asked, “Do you not drink alcohol?” This would have been a perfect out, maybe I could have had some story about that, perhaps I was just like the missionaries in the town. I felt like I couldn’t completely lie so I replied with, “not really.” His response was, “me neither,” as he continued to drink his wine. While I usually try to go with the flow in that moment I decided we all are entitled to have limits.

There has also been a lot of talk about spirits and witch doctors in my interviews. As someone who has been to a naturopath doctor, reads self-help books like The Universe Has Your Back, and did some pretty out there things in yoga teacher training, I really was in no place to judge. People spoke so much about dreams and I have had so many dreams while here. I started wondering what the interpretation would be of them and about what kind of natural remedies I might need for all of my ailments. I didn’t let myself go too deep down this road though because I could just see myself getting stopped at customs with bags of natural medicinal herbs.

Small talk is especially hard when you have different cultural reference points. During one long silence a colleague said, “wow there is so much sugar cane there” as we passed a field. I said, “Yeaahhhh” as in all knowing me was comparing it to how little there was last year or something more insightful. There are a few tricks I have developed for these awkward small talk moments. First, the absolute best way to get over any awkwardness is with the presence of children. In many of my interviews the woman I was interviewing had a child on her lap or there were children briefly interrupting our interviews. Children are particularly captivated with me here, not because of my particular gift with children that I would humbly argue I have in the U.S., but because of the color of my skin. They stare at me and yell, “hi!” practicing their English words. Kids are the same everywhere. They like peek-a-boo, waving and smiling, drawing, and attention. I had to stop my instinct to behave like an American with a child. We were sitting around talking at one rural site and a little two-year-old was sitting with us. The people hosting us brought over ground nuts they cultivated (almost exactly like peanuts) and the two-year-old put a whole one (shell and all) into his mouth. Immediately my instinct (that I resisted) was to grab it out of his mouth, but I did make a little concerned noise. I noticed no one seemed the slightest bit concerned. He kind of chewed the whole thing in his mouth for awhile, then spit it out, and we started opening up the shells for him so he could eat the little ground nuts. I could not imagine this happening with a two-year-old in the U.S., but he seemed to be doing just fine.

My other tool for making connections is language. In Kenya and Uganda, I found especially eager language tutors in my drivers. In Uganda, this trip my driver wanted to teach me a few new words in Acholi each day. I tried to start all my interviews with saying “my name is Phoebe” in Acholi, but I think my pronunciation was so bad my colleague had to translate it anyway. I know one word well that is almost like “aloha.” It seems to serve as “nice to meet you” “thank you” and general greetings. It is apowo (pronounced aphoyo). I think I said that word more in the past few days than any other word. I said it at the start of the interview, throughout the interview, and several times as we were leaving. Perhaps I went overboard, but I had no other way to express my gratitude in my own words.

Today is my last day in Africa for what I think will be a long time. I am cataloguing all of the things that I thought were unique or different to remember when I am living my ordinary life in the states. I may have particular flashbacks when I eat chicken.

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Ground nuts

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One of my favorite unique things to watch – woman can carry almost anything on their heads

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Ungracefully Phoebs: Oh the places I’ve peed!

Two Phoebe characteristics are that I need to eat frequently and I pee a lot. I have had difficulties doing both of those while in Uganda. Each day I spend some time worrying about when I might eat (in the U.S. I can’t go more than 3 hours without eating) and where I might be able to pee. At the start of each day I don’t drink any water because I am too afraid of having to pee a lot (another Phoebe characteristics is that I am always drinking water).

The past few days we have been in a few different villages and each day I have had a nerve wracking experience trying to find somewhere to pee without embarrassing myself too much.

Yesterday after hours of conducting interviews I asked someone I was working with where I could go to the bathroom (which I am always kind of embarrassed to ask for some reason). She asked, “will it be a short visit?” I replied “yes” and thought to myself “thank god!” She took me a very short distance away from where lots of kids and a few adults where hanging out and near the straw home where we were doing our research. There was a little tee-pee (pun not intended but have been wracking my brain for a way to describe, if only I had a picture…) stick structure covered on the sides by white plastic. The structure was open on top and only went up to my chest and was just used to enclose a small patch of dirt presumably where everyone peed. I saw a small tarp hanging across and mumbled about how to open it but my guide had already walked away. I decided my goal should be to be as fast and inconspicuous as possible because I felt close to people and right by other straw homes. I tried to pull the tarp across the structure as a door and it stayed up for one second and then just kind of fell on my back right as I started pulling my pants down. So, I squatted down in an open little dirt area with a tarp on my back pretending like no one could see me. One of my best skills is I am a fast peer so I decided to just go for it, finish peeing, ducked as I pulled my pants up, and stood up with the thought “nothing to see here.” I hung up the tarp and ran back to our interview location not even looking to see if anyone saw me. This time desperately pretending to be invisible.

Today I found a relatively okay bathroom (or hole in the ground) near a sub-county office in the village. Due to my fear of being locked in a bathroom, the heat and smell I always try to leave the door slightly open. When I walked into this one it was filled with flies. Not just the occasional few but so many I questioned whether it was safe to pull my pants down. I thought carefully about whether a fly could fly up my butt. I decided I was already in there and again peed super fast.

Later today, we were eating at a shack type place on the side of the road. One of the people I was with used the bathroom and returned saying she was surprised that the bathroom wasn’t too bad there. I felt slightly pleased that she also cared about this and it wasn’t just my cushy American concerns. The rest of the group I was with headed to the car and when I asked my friend where the bathroom was she pointed in a general direction behind the restaurant without other directions. I ended up in a courtyard with two cows and chickens (I didn’t eat any meat that meal but at least I would have known it was fresh). I saw doorways with curtains on them, but I was afraid of entering the wrong one and walking into someone’s home. I asked someone working in the kitchen who spoke no English where the toilet was and finally we used enough hand signals and I found a bathroom/hole in the ground across from the area the little cows were resting. The cows seemed perturbed by my presence. Again, I peed with the door slightly open with the hope only the cows could see me. As I speedily peed I could hear what to me sounded like irritated mooing. As I left the bathroom the cows started to get up and I again ran out of the courtyard trying to not disturb any person or animal.

I will never complain about a dirty gas st

Visibility

I wish I could take pictures and capture all of the things I have seen on my trips to Africa. But I know I am not a photojournalist, nor a tourist. My role here is as a researcher and part of being a researcher is about blending in and not disrupting the environment you are in.

I try to use this blog and my journal to describe what I see instead of the pictures, but as someone who loves taking photos I ache to capture the amazing images I witness. I see women walking down the street balancing objects on their head ranging from a large postal box to a pink patent leather purse. I want to capture the expanse of land with crops from sorghum to millet. The dirt road that seems like it goes to nowhere but somehow we bump along and pass several straw huts down narrow winding roads before arriving at the specific hut for our interview. The cows, goats (especially the teeny kid grazing on the side of the road), roosters and chickens I see everywhere. The color of the dirt here that is unlike any other color in the U.S. – a deep red rust. I sneak a few photos in solo moments, but mostly I try to be invisible and blend into the scenery, not attracting additional attention.

However, being invisible is especially hard because of the color of my skin. When we stopped at a gas station (on our road trip to the north of Uganda) so I could run out and pee a group of teenagers yelled mzungu mzungu at me (white person). Other younger kids stare and when I meet their eye and wave they smirk. I am very aware of being stared at and the fact that here I won’t ever blend in whether I take photos or not.

I feel invisible when it comes to language. I know one word in the local language. When the research assistant and driver I work with are chatting and laughing I stare out the window wishing I could participate or at least laugh at appropriate times. When I hear someone answering my interview question with emotion I wait anxiously for the translation and try not to let my mind wander while I guess what they might be saying.

I know I won’t always be in this role and I remind myself it is a privilege. It is a privilege to be welcomed into people’s homes, work places, communities, and have them tell their personal stories to a stranger. One day I will be a tourist again and be visible in the way tourists are, but for now I will have to be the invisible/visible white woman.

And in the meantime, here are the few photos I snuck in today.

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Phoebe’s Travel Essentials

By the end of 2017 I will have completed six solo international trips (London, Kenya x 4, and Uganda). I love reading other people’s travel tips, but I have found that 1) they are usually written for men (see Tim Ferriss travel advice including recommendations for men’s underwear or clothing and advice on couch surfing) or 2) are in fashion magazines for glamorous women who always bring their $300 La Mer face cream on the plane. I wanted to write a guide for a young solo traveler going somewhere a little bit off the beaten path. This is part packing list, part to-do list, and part mental health list. These are some of the tips I have learned (and am still practicing) over the past year.

Packing:

  • Download a comfort show (i.e., “Friends,” “Sex and The City,” “Seinfeld,” “Parks and Recreation”), you know yours. That way wherever you are you have your built-in friends and a predictable distraction. Don’t rely on wifi for your entertainment because other countries have unexpected power outages.
  • Download books in advance (if you use an e-reader) and lots of podcasts. It is especially fun to read travel books while traveling. I just read this one.
  • A good meditation app. Even better if it is one you have used before. I don’t tend to meditate as much abroad as I do at home, but I do always use an app to fall asleep. It makes a sketchy hotel room feel way more comfortable. I like the app, “Relax” by Andrew Johnson.
  • Travel noise machine because white noise is more comforting than listening to unfamiliar sounds as you try to fall asleep and you never know what noises you will be dealing with (there are guard dogs next door to my current hotel and they have been barking at each other at random hours throughout the night)
  • Travel yoga mat – This is a new purchase for me but it is because I recently became obsessed with this online yoga video series called “Yoga with Adriene.” It is helpful to stay active and mindful wherever you are. I also use the “falling asleep” video from this series when jetlag wakes me in the middle of the night.
  • Mini flashlight (again power outages)
  • Converter for multiple countries in one (this is helpful in case you have a layover in a place that has a different outlet type than your final destination)
  • Neck pillow (I just started using this one instead of the traditional u shaped one)
  • Converters
  • Door stop (in case your hotel door doesn’t have a lock)
  • Something that smells like home. I bring a lavender spray that I always use before bed at home. It is relaxing, reminds me of home, and is useful in case there is a weird smell in the place you are staying.
  • Bring a bag that you can carry close to your body that has multiple zipped pockets to prevent pick pocketing.
  • Pack lots of snacks! I also like to pack ginger chews and stomach teas.

 

To do list:

  • A note about jet lag – my latest trick is to not drink any alcohol while traveling. I do take something to help with sleep, but I find that alcohol makes me feel terrible during the trip and after. It is tempting, but it is just not worth it. Keep yourself hydrated before and after the flight(s).
  • Write a detailed agenda and share with a few select people – for me it goes to my mom, my husband, and sometimes professors (depending on the security situation and if it would be useful to have them know my plans). In this plan include your flight information, hotel information, passport number, health insurance information, and phone numbers of U.S. embassy, local hospital, and local police.
  • Plan how you are going to communicate with others – whether it’s what’s app, email, imessage, try to figure out in advance what might work for you. In Africa since I am 7 hours ahead of my family I always write them a morning email and it is nice to look forward to their emails early afternoon my time. It is important to have a person who is your daily check-in who always knows where you are, etc.
  • Check-in with your primary care doctor at least a month before your trip. Some vaccines require time before they are effective. Get required medication as well as GI medicine and extra prescriptions for illnesses you commonly get (i.e. UTI). Bring lots of over the counter medicines (cold medicine, advil, etc.) because many countries don’t have the same recognizable medicines as the U.S.
  • Get some good non-refrigeration required probiotics
  • Register with the U.S. embassy and follow the embassy and other local security services, news outlets, on twitter.
  • Make several copies of your passport and keep them in different places
  • Check visa requirements for where you are going. More places are requiring travelers to get visas in advance and even if a place doesn’t require it, it can save a lot of time once you arrive.
  • Take out cash and store it in different places. I keep some in my wallet, some in an envelope inside a notebook that I keep in another bag, and sometimes even put a little bit in my checked bag. I usually don’t exchange it all at once because it can be useful in certain places to hold onto American cash.
  • Set-up travel alerts on your credit card company
  • Even if you don’t plan to use your phone for calling while abroad check-in with your cellular provider so that in case of emergency you could use your phone. On that note if you are going to be in a place for a long time it can be convenient to bring an old phone and get a sim card with a local number.
  • Know how you are going to get picked up from the airport. Don’t assume there will be cabs there and that it is safe to get into any cab. Also,s depending on what type of hotel you are staying at if you are arriving late make sure there will be someone to check you in.
  • Do your research. Before I go on a big trip I love the ritual of ordering the Lonely Planet book for that country. I find it very useful because it has so much information in one place and while it is kind of old school (now that all of this information is online) you won’t have internet everywhere you are. If you are going on a weekend trip and don’t want to take the whole book with you sometimes I will cut out a section. If you don’t buy the lonely planet do your research on local customs, security risks, and top attractions. You can also crowd source information. I love following the itinerary of friends when I got to the same place they have been.

Once you arrive:

  • If you can, find routines or familiar things in the place you are going to. Even if you are only somewhere for a short time you can find “your things” there. Since I have been to Kenya several times over the years my routines are,
    • Use my same driver who I have known for four years
    • Read my favorite daily Kenyan newspaper
    • Get Dawa (ginger lemon tea) at the coffee shop chains around the city
    • Go to the same Indian and Ethiopian restaurants every time I am here
  • Learn a few words in the local language and ask people to teach you more. It is a fun way to connect with people and locals often appreciate it. Similarly, you could listen to local music or read a book by a local author. These things will help you feel more connected to a place and engage with locals.
  • Meet up with everyone you even slightly know or knows someone you know in the place you are going. Traveling can be lonely and it is always comforting to connect with someone familiar. It also gives you a chance to try a new restaurant and get a read on the city. It might be awkward for a minute, but I promise it is worth it.

Mental state:

  • Depending on where you are going you might feel exhausted and disoriented for several days from jet lag. I also never sleep to through the night with jet lag (I am writing this a 3:30am). I think the only option is to accept you will just feel tired for a few days and try your best to push through and carry on with whatever you need to be doing.
  • Feel advanced nostalgia – every time I am in Nairobi I feel a special connection to the city and its quirks. I think about how I will feel nostalgic for it when I am at home which does happen to me. If you can feel that nostalgia before you leave a place it is a form of gratitude.
  • You will probably feel lonely. Plan for that and accept it. It is part of the experience.
  • Reach out to people at home when you do feel lonely. Technology and social media can make you feel so connected to people even when you are so far away. Also, your friends and family will like to be a part of your adventure.
  • Treat yo self” –massages are usually cheaper outside the U.S./Europe so get a massage, take yourself out to a nice dinner, or buy yourself a present. Even if you are on a budget, when you are in a challenging place, or just exhausted from traveling, it is important to take care of yourself and indulge.
  • Talk to local people and appreciate the uniqueness of where you are. Be as present as possible – smell the smells; listen to the birds, the language, the local noises; people watch; observe everything; try new foods. And my favorite, ask about local political or societal traditions.
  • As someone told me recently “remember you don’t get these moments back.” For some reason that really struck a nerve with me. We don’t get any moments back in our life so yes we should appreciate them all, but travel moments are especially unique. If you are lost in your own head and not appreciating something beautiful or magical you don’t get a re-do of that moment. Each moment can be something to appreciate (even the tough ones or as Cheryl Strayed wrote especially the tough ones). The scary times or the lonely times or the bored times or the exhausted times are all part of the experience. Sometimes I think, “how will I feel about this experience five years from now?” The answer usually is, “I will be so thrilled I did it” or “I will feel so proud” or “I will look back on it with fondness.” I also like to think when I am scared about things going wrong or things have gone wrong, “well that will make a good story.”
  • Everything feels scarier, lonelier, and sadder at night. Remember morning light changes EVERYTHING. If you tell yourself you can just get through the night it feels more manageable. Also with time difference it is often a great time to text friends or family for a reality check and reminder that you aren’t totally alone.
  • I used to feel like a poser when people would say things like, “you are so brave” or “your life is so exciting.” I felt like I was lying because they didn’t know about the anxiety I felt before each trip questioning whether I wanted to go. They didn’t know the moments I longed for home and cursed myself for being away. But these feelings don’t negate their comments. I am learning to accept those comments with a thank you and realize I would probably see someone else who was doing things like me in a similar way. At the same time, I deeply believe you don’t have to sugar coat things. I want to be grateful, but I also like to share with people when I am nervous before a trip or tell them about some of the more challenging moments on the trip. None of us are helping each other by making our lives look exciting, perfect, easy, fill in the blank. Deep power can come from vulnerability (see work by Brene Brown). I am practicing being vulnerable, but also not discounting someone’s comments. Yes. my life is exciting even if the excitement involves anxiety or fear!

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.

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

Both

“both.

i want to stay.

i want to leave.

i am three oceans away from my soul.”

-lost

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.

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

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My lunch of traditional Kenyan food