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.

Ungracefully Phoebs: No Wifi, Big Problem

This is my first “ungracefully Phoebs” post since being in Nairobi so I am happy that at least my overreacting and loneliness will produce another post in the series!

Our wifi has been out since last night and our power has been going in and out. Now I can hear you all saying “you are in Africa don’t expect wifi,” but as I have written Nairobi is quite a modern city which might be part of the problem. Things almost feel too familiar here at times that I think it makes me feel more homesick. Why spend my time at a big bar with Westerners when I can do the same thing in Boston?

So like any logical 30-year-old on an adventure I turned on my U.S. cell phone and called my mom and started to cry. I am now writing this blog post to pretend that I am not alone and convince myself I am in conversation with someone even if it is just me writing in a word doc that I won’t be able to post until the damn wifi comes back!

It is not just having no wifi it is it that it is night-time and there is no wifi. I will be so happy and sure of myself during the day and as soon as it is night-time I question my decision to be here, my dissertation, and the meaning of life. I keep telling myself that in the morning I will be back to being content and positive Phoebe (which is truly how I have felt most of the time here), but nighttime Phoebe doesn’t quite believe it. I am like a werewolf (or is it a vampire) except instead of an evil side that comes out at night my emotional, homesick, negative, and insecure side comes out.

I am always envious of people who are really good at being alone and who are super independent. Although as I read this over it is pretty damn independent to travel to Kenya by myself, plan my own interviews, and spend my days meeting with strangers. I might incorrectly assume that independent people are not lonely or scared, but maybe I am wrong. Not having wifi means I can’t email or text and have to be alone with myself. This whole trip feels like being alone even when I am around people. I am trying to be “competent researcher” or “good roommate” or “new friend” and haven’t yet let my guard down. I am scared if I become vulnerable here to someone I will look weak or fall apart. I am around people who have lived here for a while and I feel like the new kid at school trying to make friends, look cool, and not reveal how little they know and how nervous they are.

It could be that I am afraid of silence. Even at home in the U.S. when I am alone in the house doing something mundane I have to have a podcast in the background. Am I that afraid of being alone with my thoughts? Well right now I am really absorbing the pseudo silence. I can hear the sink that drips all night and people outside in the courtyard talking loudly and cheerfully to each other. I feel like I can hear my heart pounding but that is probably an overstatement.

I tried to put it off for as long as I could, but I did the thing where I start counting down days until I leave. My friend and I joke that we are obsessed with travel until we actually get there and then we want to go home. A goal before this trip was to really be present and enjoy it and remember that when I am home and when I can’t travel as easily I will be envious of this freedom and this time. So that is in contradiction with having a countdown. Time passes as the same rate whether I count it or not so I might as well try to be in each moment instead of waiting for the next to come.

My mom was comforting me and asking me if I have ever regretted any of my adventures. The answer is without a doubt that I have never ever regretted them. Even though last time I went to Kenya I got TB for 4 months and was miserable –  I still wouldn’t have traded that experience. Even through all the travel annoyances that happen or the loneliness whether in a weird hotel in Germany owned by Russians or a beautiful apartment in Nairobi with no wifi it always seems to be worth it.

I just looked at my phone and had an email from earlier today I decided to open from some spiritual artistic lady. I usually never open these emails, but in my desperate state I figured I would read every email in my inbox. My friend would say the universe was winking at me with this email. I opened it and the first line in big font was, “The capacity to be alone is the capacity to love. – Osho”

Welcome Back

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.



Nairobi Part 2: Coming Around Full Circle

I started this blog almost four years ago when I first traveled to Nairobi for six weeks to do research for an internship

Since that trip I have been to Africa one other time (and two solo research related trips to Europe) so I am slowly starting to build up these travel experiences and find familiarity in the unfamiliar.

I am currently sitting at the airport and reading past posts I wrote for Nairobi. The last I went I wrote about how my pre-trip anxiety wasn’t as bad as expected and I even gave tips on why I thought that was. In preparation for this trip I  didn’t even know the advice I needed to comfort myself was what I wrote years ago.

In advance of the trip I was getting upset at the confusing fact that I am both someone who chooses to take these adventures (and chose a career track that is conducive to it) and someone who has anxiety before adventures. At first I thought I was a masochist and constantly wanted to test myself. Part of that might be true – adventures are rewarding because you have to overcome something. More importantly I realized that these are two pieces of my personality. I do have the anxious side and while I can do therapy and read self-help books to cope with it that will always be part of me. I also have the adventurous side – the wanderlust side, the one who enjoys defying expectations, and who wants to live a more exciting life. For some people taking a trip to Nairobi would be no big deal and I wonder what that kind of freedom feels like. But this is who I am and it is not use wishing I was someone else. For others taking a trip to Nairobi might be too outside their comfort zone they wouldn’t be at all drawn to the option. I think sometimes I forget that extreme – I might be nervous before an adventure, but I am not so nervous to not go.

I had hoped that with each trip I am building up my repertoire and the leaving will become easier because I have gotten used to it. However this time a pre-trip freak out happened at an inconvenient moment in the J-Crew Factory Store dressing room (where all good breakdowns happen). Because yes in addition to being anxious and adventurous I am also the type of person who buys new clothes before a trip to Africa. I was trying on clothes and joked “what screams, don’t mug or kill me?” Shaun told me it wasn’t funny and I got some stares from the employee in charge of the dressing room. I have found more recently that to cope with my fear I say the thing I am scared of in a joking way, as if to show I am thinking about it nonchalantly when really it is anything but casual. I don’t know where this tool comes from, but I don’t think it helps me and my jokes aren’t funny and only scare my husband. As I was trying on clothes and trying to figure out what to wear I felt overwhelmed and scared. I couldn’t articulate it to Shaun because I think there was a part of me that knew it was irrational. I also decided that since I am making this choice to do this kind of work and go on these trips, I wanted to resist asking Shaun to comfort me. He didn’t make this choice and it would probably be easier on him if I wasn’t leaving. I needed to learn to comfort and soothe myself, but I couldn’t find the comforting side of me in that dressing room.

Since that breakdown I felt much better. That is not to say the leaving got easier, but I realized that I had a lot of fear of being afraid. In my mind I make such a big deal of the leaving and prepare myself for it to be this horrible anxiety-filled process, when it is possible that it doesn’t have to be. Maybe I can just let an emotion be an emotion and tolerate it without reading deeply into it. While the repertoire of past trips I am trying to build didn’t prevent the dressing room incident of 2017 it did later remind me of an amazing track record of past trips despite anxiety. I also have learned that the second I am on my way I am always fine. I find that comforting side of myself and the adventurous spirit kicks in once I am off and running.

I was tempted to end this blog post by saying that maybe I will get better at leaving, but maybe I won’t. I think the real challenge is going to be okay with emotions that happen either way and not being afraid of them. To trust my judgement and to remember that the two sides of me work together to plan smart trips and fun adventures. In the meantime will find adventurer Phoebe and be the most present I can in my current adventure.  I am excited to be back and sharing adventures from Nairobi again. I shared some of my happiest memories on this blog and I am so glad I have a record of my first experiences of Nairobi to relive and remember.