I am writing this from the balcony of the apartment I am staying at taking in the sounds of Nairobi – the honking, the street sweeping, the yells in Swahili (I love the sing-songy language) and a rooster crowing (even though it is afternoon?).
As soon as I stepped off the plane I was immediately hit with the smell of burning which to me is the smell of Nairobi. The visceral reminder made me smile. The airport I was walking through was not familiar since a few days after I left in 2013 the airport burned down. This airport seemed new and modern.
When I walked out of the airport there was a swarm of men holding up signs for people they were picking up. I stood across the street staring and trying to find David. I couldn’t find him so kind of weaved through the crowd with my suitcase and quietly calling “David” like a little kid who lost her mom. I called him and then located him holding a big sign with my name on it.
We walked towards his car and I couldn’t be happier to see he has the same blue minivan. It immediately felt comfortable being back. David chatted with me a bit and I forgot that he has a strong accent so I yelled “what?” several times from the backseat. Or occasionally I was too tired to ask for clarification so I just laughed along. I love the accents here, but I am hoping to get used to David’s in the next few days so I don’t have to always be yelling what to him. He seemed happy to see me again and keeps asking me if Nairobi seems different. I can’t tell what seems different or what I just didn’t remember.
This morning I woke up to some exotic sounding bird squawking outside my window. I clawed out of the massive mosquito net I slept under and felt comfortable and happy waking up here.
I went out to do things I needed to do to get settled and tried to re-familiarize myself with the city. I went to get a SIM card at a mall type place and noticed the increased level of security with not only having our car searched upon entrance, but also walking through a metal detector and being searched again at the cell phone store. I felt uneasy being there, but then realized that people continue to live their lives and go to malls (because that’s where a lot of necessary stores are located). We didn’t stop going to the marathon in Boston just because of the Marathon Bombing. I kept calm while getting my phone reminding myself of the rational facts, but, I felt relieved walking out.
I then went to an outdoor strip mall type place and exchanged money and then sat down to lunch at a place advertising its “Artisan Pizza.” I was reminded again about Nairobi as a city of contrasts. People who have never been probably picture this remote or not modern city, but the city is extremely cosmopolitan and modern and continues to remind me that in all sorts of ways– like the fact that the girl I am staying with here goes to barre class, or the nice nail salon I passed on the way to the cafe, or the three men at the table next to me at lunch who look like they came from Nantucket. I have mixed feelings about seeing groups like that because I want to believe they can’t belong here (with what seemed like entitled attitudes and overly styled outfits), but at the same time it makes me laugh when people worry about me in an exotic place when there are these men occupying the same space. I ordered a chicken club and another sign with avocado aioli (yet another sign I am not roughing here).
After lunch I went to the grocery store which I think is always a fun cultural experience in another country. One grocery store in the complex was all produce and had a juice bar that looked like it could have been in whole foods. I navigated buying a few groceries, but was fading quickly. The challenge of trying to do everyday things and feeling awkward and unsure of how the simplest things work is tiring (Do I bag the groceries myself? Do I put them on the scale? Did I count out the money right?). It makes me feel compassion for people I see trying to run errands in the U.S. who I might be tempted to roll my eyes at for holding up lines, but who are trying to navigate these new spaces.
On the way home David pointed out that we were driving by the office I worked out of every day I was here last time. I was so excited to see it and it made me so happy to remember that experience. I am not sure if I love Nairobi or love remembering the experiences I have had here, but either way – I am happy to be back.