Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Letter to Spring 2009 Students

One of my final tasks this semester was to write a letter to the next semester's participants to be put in their program packet, a task that was delegated to me, for some reason, by the rest of the group. It was actually pretty reflective of our experiences here as a whole, so I decided to post it. Here it is!

Dear Spring 2009 AU Abroad student,

Karibu Kenya! We’re all very excited that you’ve made the first step to an amazing experience, a step that most people will never take. Your fellow program participants all share one thing in common with you: they’ve chosen study abroad path that is anything but ordinary. We have a semester’s worth of advice to give you, but in reality it’s your individual imperative to create your own, unique experience in one of the greatest cities in Africa.

We could try to predict what your experience will be like, to get you ready, but every semester is different. So instead, we’re just going to tell you what we felt. We’ve discovered that Nairobi is a moody city, and there are days when we came home hating everyone and everything, and there were days when we came home never wanting to leave this place. We realized that this is a hard place to live, but that it made the rewards even greater and the memories even sweeter. We grew tough skin, laughed at things we couldn’t change, and fell in love with Nairobi and the people that live here. For the most part, we didn’t go to the gym enough, ate too much starchy Kenyan food, and didn’t call our parents enough, preferring instead to spend our time making the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

So here’s our best attempt at giving advice for you: Dive in, immediately. It gets busy later on in the semester, and you’ll regret it if you spent the first month you were here watching Oprah reruns. Travel soon and often, even it means a two-day trip to Nakuru by matatu. Just get used to the dirt covering your feet everyday, it’s not going away. Use each other as resources; talking and even complaining is a way to process what you just saw. Expect bad days, they will come. At the end of those bad days, make brownies and eat the entire pan (calories don’t count when you’re studying abroad). Meet people, and realize that sometimes the people coming from the opposite backgrounds as you make the best friends. Laugh at the frustrating things, it makes life easier. Blog, or journal as often as possible. Be culturally sensitive, but remember that you can defend yourself, where you’re from, and what you believe in... it’ll make for great conversation!

Good luck and we wish you the best in your adventure,

- Girls of Fall 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Coastal Love

I finished my finals about a week ago, and my entire program went on a weeklong “end-of-program retreat” to Mombasa, Watamu, and Malindi. Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya (not much competition when there are three cities total in the entire country). It’s on the coast of the Indian Ocean, and is a completely different city from Nairobi. While Nairobi is fast-paced, developed, and dry, Mombasa is languid, less developed, and more humid than Missouri in August. This is where the original Swahili culture still exists, which is a mixture of Central African and Arab. This is a very Muslim city and there are mosques everywhere. We spent our time in the city center, where we stayed in a nice hotel with air conditioning. Air conditioning. I didn’t realize this until that moment when I felt the first blast of cold air, but I had not felt any air conditioning this entire semester, despite living in perpetual equatorial summer. It was a very foreign feeling. Most of us, including me, got congested sinuses and sore throats from the AC.
Overall Mombasa is a very cool city, one that is most easier to “handle” than Nairobi. You can smell the ocean everywhere you go (which offsets the smell of sweat and garbage normally found in African cities), the people are friendly and less opportunistic, and the city even had an Old Town, which was filled with adorable old crumbly houses that is more reminiscent of Europe. One night we went on a dhou (traditional Swahili boat) ride on the ocean and ate dinner under the stars, which you could actually see. Beautiful.
Despite Mombasa being a pleasant place, we were all ready to hit the beach and relax after a very intense semester! This was to take place in Watamu, a small city directly on the ocean, where we stayed in an all-inclusive (read: all meals, drinks, and water equipment) resort. It was absolutely gorgeous; the Indian Ocean was warm and very pleasant, we spend afternoons playing beach volleyball and evenings walking down the beach. There were, however, a lot of white people there, mostly British and Italian. It was uncomfortable for all of us; it’s a very weird sensation, not being the only white person among a city of Africans. It’ll be interesting to be back in the Midwest, that’s for sure. Also, over half the girls on our program had, to put it nicely, stomach problems because we were eating Western style food again. I haven’t had any processed foods in four months, so it takes a while for the stomach to get used to it.
This trip was fantastic and a wonderful way to end the program. I’m now in Nairobi until Thursday, after which it takes me five days and six flights to get home. Yay

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Nile High Club

I’m back! I’m safe!
For all of you who are hopelessly unaware about the events of my life, I spent my self-created (read: skipping class) Thanksgiving break in Uganda with five friends, rafting the Nile.
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my short life. It took us about 26 hours to get there because we went with the safe route, taking an overnight, 15-hour train ($9 for a private sleeper) to Kisumu (home of Obama!, according to the locals). From there we peered at Lake Victoria and hopped on a matatu to the Kenya-Uganda border. After walking through the border and paying the very high white people visa price, we got on another matutu to Jinga, Uganda.
After a Thanksgiving Dinner of pizza and beer on a patio overlooking the Nile, we stayed the night at the rafting company’s river camp. The next morning bright and early we hit the water, taking a raft through Class 4 and 5 rapids all day (craziest experience ever). That night we relaxed by the campfire and ended up sleeping outside because the bunks were too hot. The next morning we went through more insane rapids, ate lunch on a rock, and then spent the afternoon river surfing, which is where you take a raft or boogie board into a rapid that constantly circulates and surf until it decides to suck you in and spit you out. There were crocs in the same river I was swimming in, a concept I still can’t quite get over. The rapids were so scary, but we couldn’t get enough of them. Also, there were several Ugandans in kayaks following us down the river to fish us out, find our oars, etc.
Then when we got back, because that wasn’t quite thrilling enough, I went bungee jumping over the Nile.
What a weekend.
Overall, I loved Uganda as a country. It’s being torn up with a terrible civil war to the north right now, but where we were it was gorgeous. Despite being much poorer than Kenya, the wealth disparity is much much smaller (no Nairobi equivalent to suck out all the wealth), the people there were much better off. I loved the place, I miss it even though I was only there for four days. If I come back to East Africa, I’ll come in the Nairobi airport... and then immediately bus out of it. :-)
We then took a overnight bus back to Nairobi to make it back in times for finals. In retrospect, that was probably much more dangerous than the rafting or the bungee jumping. We slept in shifts and were careful, but there was some hijacking risk (we had a police escort the whole time). Probably not going to do that again.
I’m trying to download the video of the bungee jump but my internet’s too slow. I’ll keep trying and post it when I get it!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

-I like to ride my bicycle-

It has been a while since I’ve updated, pole sana.

Today was wonderful. We went to Naivasha for the day (about one hour outside of Nairobi), to a cute little lakeside restaurant right on Lake Naivasha. We spent the day relaxing, and a several of us rented bikes for an hour and went off roading past donkeys and bathing children and fisherman to get a great view of the lake. It felt so good to get on a bike again, and it was beautiful! After a picnic lunch we all went on a boat into the lake, in which we saw several hippos. Unfortunately, we got sprayed with the lake water because of choppy waves, so here’s to hoping we don’t have bilharsia, a parasite that is in all fresh still water in East Africa and burrows into your skin, enters your blood stream, and sets up shop in your liver. Yay! :-)

Otherwise, I’ve been more stressed in the last week or two than I have been in my entire college career. Not that the work is harder than AU, but being in Kenya makes every simple process ten times harder than it should be. It takes me three hours daily to travel to and from school or work, and two days out of the week I don’t get home until 9pm, after leaving the house at 7am. And being in Town during rush hour sucks the life out of you, so by the time you get home you just want to watch some West Wing, drink some chai, and fall asleep. So I’ve been miserably stressed the last fortnight, and it looks like it’s not slowing down before I leave for travel.

There are some great travel plans in the making though! Next week from Thursday to Sunday I plan on going to Uganda, where I will be white water rafting Level 4 and 5 rapids on the Nile. Ahh! Me and five other girls are going over our self-created Thanksgiving Break—we only get Friday off, but we got excused from USIU by explaining that this holiday held “very important cultural meaning” to us. Then after finals the entire program is hopping on a train to Mombasa, the second biggest city in Kenya that is on the coast of the Indian Ocean. We will be staying for a week in a resort and finally being using those shorts we packed! Finally, after Mombasa I will be heading down to Tanzania with a couple of friends, where I will be spending a couple of days in Arusha. And no, I will have absolutely no money when I return to the States.

On the whole, this blog has been very positive about my experience here. And that’s because, on the whole, I’ve loved being here. But I think it’s important, since this is something I can look back on after I’m back, to record the frustrations I’ve been feeling. So here they are! I’m tired of being a mzungu, being a money sign, being a sex symbol. I want to walk down a street and just be Erin, or at least just be a person walking down the street. I’m tired of the rude gestures and comments that I experience almost everyday.
Also, I’m getting really really tired of the anti-Americanism. Now, I’ve never been much of a patriot, and there are plenty of reasons to dislike U.S. foreign policy. But I’m tired of being told I have no culture. I was in fact told this last week by a fellow intern who is French. She said this while listening to American rap music, a distinctly American cultural movement and followed up by saying that she really wanted to go to Canada. Also, Kenyans are outraged that America put a travel advisory (read: warning) on Kenya following the post-election violence. They think it’s because we hate Kenya. Actually, it’s because over 2,000 Kenyans were being slaughtered by their neighbors and police force. But I’m being sensitive at this point. Grr.
I’m tired of being in a place that doesn’t work. And it doesn’t. Development is never going to fully work and people are never going to escape poverty as long as there is no revolution here. The government is horrible, full of bribes and people that don’t give a shit about what happens to their people. People are resigned to it, there is no fighting spirit left in the population. Nairobi hasn’t had an urban growth plan in 30 years, and is growing at a rate too fast for any city services to function. When I return people will tell me I’m pessimistic, but this is reality, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Development is not what they teach in classes or put on TV. And I’m glad I know that even if it means I’m more cynical, because now I will approach development in a realistic way that might actually help some people.

West Wing time!

Friday, November 7, 2008

We are sisters now?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions regarding my election experience here in Kenya, so here it is...

Kenyans are the most politically aware people I’ve ever seen. It’s sadly ironic, considering that such an engaged and active population is stuck with such an unresponsive, old, and bigoted government. Kenyans don’t believe in their system anymore (how can you when people sell their vote for loaf of bread so that they can feed their children?), so they’ve been focusing all of their excitement on the U.S. election. To have a black man running the U.S., much less a ½ Kenyan, is the most exciting thing that’s happened here in decades!

For election day the students in my program were invited to the U.S. ambassador’s house, where he was having a huge party starting at 5am on Thursday (note time difference). They set up huge TVs all over the place and had food, drinks, and a mock election. We camped out in front of a TV and watched the results come in while explaining to the Kenyans sitting next to us what the electoral college is and what happens if there’s a tie. When Obama was announced the winner, everyone went crazy, shouting and jumping and hugging, Kenyans, Europeans, and Americans alike. As he gave his acceptance speech, we were crying. (Kudos for McCain’s classy concession speech, btw). Exhausted from staying up all night, we went for a nice American breakfast; as we walked through Nairobi, people cheered as we passed and shouted Obama! That night, we went out to celebrate, all wearing red, white, and blue. Anyone else who has lived abroad can understand how crazy that is; before that day, one would never ever even consider doing that. How freeing.

As I was walking to my internship later that day, an old Kenyan woman approached me, a “mama” as we call them. She quietly said Obama!, and I responded Obama! She smiled, held my hand, and said, “We are sisters now”, and walked away.

Yesterday was National Obama Day, so there was no work or school. Only in Kenya, seriously.

While I’m so happy that this barrier to understanding has dropped here in Africa, I’m quickly tiring of Kenyan’s narrow minded support of Obama. In reality, they would hate him if he wasn’t African. Most Kenyans think that gayness is an American disease and doesn’t deserve the time of day in politics, and that they don’t deserve rights (there’s an 8 year prison sentence for being gay here!). Obama disagrees. Most Kenyans don’t believe in abortion, and several thousand women die here every year due to poorly performed illegal abortions. Obama disagrees. It’s obviously so important for them symbolically, but I’ll be curious how they feel two years down the road when they realize he’s pro gay and women’s rights and when they realize he’s American first, not Kenyan. We’ll see.

In conclusion, this was an amazing experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. I’m so glad I decided to peace out of D.C. for the semester and have this once-in-a-lifetime event. And I’ll be back for inauguration in the spring yay!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Procrastination = Blog Post

I should be doing the following things instead of updating my blog: finding a job for next semester, finding an apartment for next semester, writing e-mails to women’s rights NGOs in Nariobi, or reading my book for a paper (“The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State”). But instead I’m writing, so feel lucky. :-) Thoughts:

1) I hope Obama wins. Regardless of how I voted, the rest of my stay in Kenya will be much more pleasant if he wins. If he loses, I will probably be stoned... just kidding. Kind of. It’s crazy, because Obama’s father came from Kenya, people here consider him “Kenya’s Son”. In a tribal mindset, it makes sense. If someone comes from your village, you are “related”. Therefore, Obama comes from the “village” of Kenya, and is directly connected to the people of Kenya. The less-educated of the bunch even think that Obama will solve all of their problems, because he will somehow care more about Kenya and give them money.
Regardless, it’s a conversation that comes up several times a day for me. They ask who I’m voting for, and insist that I tell them. Once I do, I get a broad smile, handshake, or even hug. Sometimes people don’t even call us “mzungus” on the street anymore, but just yell out “Obama!” as we pass.
It’s amazing to see how excited people are about him. And it’s not just because he’s Kenyan. I’ve had numerous people tell me that if even America elected a black man, then maybe there was hope. Hope. Even an ocean away, there’s hope that black skin will no longer prevent people from having chance at greatness.

2) It’s so shocking how self-aware advertising is here. I just came from the mall, and in that 10 minutes I saw two ads that made me stop in my tracks and stare incredulously. The first one had a picture of a lighter skinned African male. It said in huge letters, “For Men Who Want to Go Farther.” It was an ad for skin-lightening cream. It’s horrifying to me that anyone would want to lighten their beautiful deep brown skin, but it’s true. Men who are lighter to go farther.
The second ad was on television, and had an African woman walking through a village with a basket on her head. As the commercial went on, she moved through different backgrounds and ended up in a European looking city... with a cell phone in her hand. Interesting insights into the development equals modernity mindset, eh?

3) Other random things: My nose piercing got infected because of the water in Kitui. I’m registering for classes for next semester on Wednesday. I think I’m going to Nakuru this weekend, where I can see Lake Nakuru (flamingos!), Thompson’s Falls, and the Equator. It’s rainy season here, which means it rains every afternoon for an hour or so (less dust, tons of mud). I went to a children’s home with Jess this weekend for AIDs orphans who are also HIV positive, held an HIV+ baby, and didn’t get sad about it until hours later. I eat toast for almost all of my meals that aren’t out; I should work on that.

Comment and let me know how you’re doing!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Nyumbani Village and Other Interesting Tidbits

It’s been a while. Life has been heating up, and I often find myself without the energy to cook real meals (yay bananas and peanut butter), much less write a coherent blog entry.

Today is Kenyatta Day, so our program took Friday off and went on a four day trip to Kitui, a rural district about 3 hours outside of the city. Kenya has two very distinct cultures, urban and rural. Each has a separate way of speaking, dressing, cooking, and living. Most people living in Nairobi grew up in their rural village (“upcountry”) and moved to the city for opportunities and to see the world. So we spent four days experiencing how the other half of the country lives!

We stayed in a place called Nyumbani Village, which is best described as an experiment in rural development. A Kenyan NGO started this village, which is completely comprised of grandparents and grandchildren. Sadly enough, most of the middle generation of parents have died due to HIV/AIDs, so this community takes the parenting skills of dedicated grandparents, gives them a well built house, land to farm, and clean water to drink, and groups them with ten “grandchildren” (real or adopted orphans with no real grandparents) to raise. It works. There are 27 grandmothers and 2 grandfathers and they work the land with their grandchildren, who are all going to a school in the village. This village is also sustainable, in that it is 100% organic and grows most of the food it eats. An amazing sight of people working together to erase the scars of a missing generation.

As for my personal experience, I took bucket baths (I did it wrong and had to be told how to do it properly), went to the bathroom in squat toilets (think latrine with no lid or seat), and ate nothing but beans, chapati and rice. I never considered myself incapable of living in a rural area, but man was it an eye opener to experience the sheer work it took in keeping yourself clean, eating, etc. when there’s no electricity. A fun fun experience, but not something I could do for long! This really isn’t nearly enough to describe my experience, but it’s the best I can do for now.

In other news, I’ve started to go into the slums with my internship, and I’m having a blast. I can’t really help it. I love seeing the women in their houses, conducting their own meetings, and really trying to change their own lives. The slums are hard, so hard, so desperate. But I can’t get one experience out of my head. I was walking through the slum Kiambiu as the sun was beginning to set. The children were coming home from school in their uniforms, mamas were cooking dinner, and babies were playing on blankets. And despite the fact that I was stepping over sewage pits and experiencing every sign of extreme poverty, it was home. Not for me, but for the people surrounding me. It felt like community and home I feel in the States. Heartbreaking, but so amazingly empowering at the same time.

That’s about it for now! I just had some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life at an Indian place we found down the street, and discovered that there’s a place in D.C. that sells Tusker, so I’m pretty happy.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ninapenda Kusafari!

So I’m back! Well, I’ve been back for like a week now, but there have been internet/laziness complications, so here it is. It's a bit long, but deal with it, it's been a while.

To be short, the safari was amazing. One of the best weekends of my life, I would say. It was more refreshing then I can convey to my devoted readers to be out of the city for the weekend. I spent the entire time breathing as much crisp clean air as possible. I spent nights next to a bonfire and the little spare time I had in the afternoon napping on an overstuffed couch on a porch looking over the Mara. The stars were breathtaking. Being near the Equator and miles upon miles from any civilization I could see more stars than I’ve seen in years.

The game drives were so much fun. We were in converted minibuses that had no ceiling so that we could stand up and see everything around us. We went on three game drives, two afternoons and one early morning. We saw four out of the Big 5 animals which was impressive! The Big 5, with it’s origins in big game hunting, are the lion, the elephant, the water buffalo, the rhino, and the leopard. We saw all of the them but the rhino, which are almost non-existent nowadays. Seeing the leopard was a very rare sighting, so we were excited! It was napping, then it woke up and walked around a bit, looking very grumpy. It then plopped back down in the grass and went back to sleep. Otherwise, we came across a whole pride of lions eating a freshly killed wildebeest, which was so gross but even for my vegetarian self was so cool. We also saw warthogs, two cheetahs, hippos, impalas, thompson’s gazelles and tons of baby goats and cows (herded by the Masasii people). Let me tell you, seeing these things in their natural environment is about 100x cooler than seeing them in the zoo.

So check out the pictures in the link below! The place we stayed at was absolutely gorgeous and had the most luxurious “tents” I’ve ever seen.... So if you ever want to safari in East Africa, let me know and I’ll hook you up :-).

Otherwise, there has been a bit of a power issue here, i.e. a city wide crazy intense power shortage. For the last 7 days the electricity has gone out at least once an evening, usually for at least an hour. The last few days have been bad, with us having no power for hours and hours (up to 12 or 14) at a time. This is a big deal when you have reading to do for classes and can't do it, or can't boil water so that you can drink it, or cook dinner, or charge your phone. We've also been having brown-outs, which is when the government intentionally cuts the energy output in half, so that the lights are kind of on, but the microwave, stove, and water heater/boiler still don't work. I will never take having consistent electricity for granted again.

On Saturday I went to a fashion show/beauty pageant called Mr. and Ms. Kibera, which takes place and is for the biggest slum in Nairobi. It was pretty amazing, the girls and guys were all beautiful, even walking around a rickety half-stage in the middle a gigantic mud field in the middle of the slum.

Alas, I am too tired to go on. For two mornings in a row now, the homeless man that lives outside of my apartment building has decided it was a good idea to bang rocks together. This morning he started at 6:15am.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Random Thoughts from the Dark Continent

Hello loved ones! I don’t really have a cohesive theme for this one; eventually I will do a “Day in the Life of...” post like twin did but today I just have random thoughts. There are as follows!

1. I’m going on safari this weekend!! Like, a legitimate drive-around-in-a-safari-truck-and-take-pictures-of-large-kitties safari. I’m so super excited. This will be my first real trip outside of Nairobi, which I’m also excited about because while Nairobi is cool and all, it’s really not what comes to mind when one thinks of Kenya. While not part of the program, I will be going with most of the girls in my program (14 of us total). We are going on a 3-day, 2-night trip to Masaii Mara, which involves a six hour drive through the Rift Valley to get there. This very famous nature reserve is home to the equally famous Masaii people, who are the ones you see in the documentaries with super stretched out ears or drinking cow blood or wearing blankets. We are going during the time of the wildebeest migration across Kenya, which is supposed to be an amazing sight. I plan on stocking up on lots of AA batteries, so be ready for pictures!

2. The people of Kenya have a very short national memory. It shocks me because there are pretty high levels of anti-Americanism here (towards government policy towards Africa, not me), but they are just peachy with the British, who colonized the Kenyan people and brutalized them for decades while they were at it. While I understand that Africa has a lot of reasons to not like American foreign policy, I can honestly not understand why the Kenyans positively love British people, television, and universities. Kenya’s population is very young, so most the people alive today are already 2 generations removed from any experience with colonialism. But still, you would think that there would be some bitterness? I can’t help but think it’s a little unfair...

3. It’s really funny the stuff I end up missing while I’m here, especially when it comes to food. Most food here is insanely cheap, but food that can’t be imported from Africa or Asia is so expensive or just non-existent. I miss olive oil, cream cheese, honey roasted peanuts and every type of sour candy. I don’t even eat any of these things with any regularity, but now that I can’t have them it’s driving me crazy. I’m lucky though, my roommate Dana is obsessed with Diet Coke and they don’t have that hear at all (Coke Light isn’t the same, so don’t suggest it).
I also miss wearing shorts and tank tops. I’m going to come back from Africa paler than ever, because I’m always covering up. I can technically wear shorts or flip fops (“shower shoes” is what those are considered here), as a lot of mzungus do, but I get stared at enough on the streets without showing more skin than absolutely necessary. Dressing like a Kenyan at least gets a little more respect.

That’s about it! I’ve been here over a month now, and I’m getting into the swing of things. The epic adventure called going to school doesn’t kill me now, I’ve gotten a haircut from an African with no problems, I am getting a basic grasp of Kiswahili grammar. So far so good! I don’t think my poor dirty feet will ever be the same after this...

Monday, September 15, 2008

A life of contrasts.

Today was a breakthrough day for me in Kenya. I went through my entire day without once feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. I traveled by myself to a place I had never been before, spent the day at an amazing internship talking to some fascinating Kenyans, made my way through the jam by myself back to Westlands, and going grocery shopping with friends. A good day, and a day that proves that I will get used to this, and the bad times will eventually disappear and become more days to enjoy this amazing place.

On my internship. I am now the new intern at Action Now Kenya (ANK). Right on the edge of the slum Kibera, ANK is a non-profit that provides micro-financing to women of various slums around Nairobi. To non-econ people, this means that ANK gives out small loans to women in order to expand their small businesses within their communities. These loans are paid back in increments with very low interest. Through this loan program they can also obtain information on HIV and financial leadership training. These women, being in informal slums and not even technically counted as part of Nairobi population, would never ever have a chance at a loan at a bank, so this is their only chance to expand their business. I spent today reading the profiles and stories of all of the women who receive loans. There are some amazing stories out there. In the slums of Nairobi, a $100 loan can mean the difference, literally, of live and death for a business or even a family. I read a story of a woman widowed by HIV who is supporting her seven children and five nieces/nephews (orphaned by HIV) with a small candlemaking store in Kibera. Amazing stories. The greatest part of this internship is that I get to meet these women. I will be working with the Community Mobilizer, which means I will be going into the slums and talking these women. I will be interviewing them before the loan to get their story, which I will then send into Kiva, the funder of the loans. After they get the loan, I will be visiting them to see what impact the micro-loan made on the business and if the funds are being used correctly. I’m pretty excited.

I’m getting used to this place. I can greet people without offending them, I can ride matatus without fear, I can talk politics with the old lady sitting next to me on the bus. When I first drove through Nairobi, I thought I would never understand the jumbled mess that was this urban infrastructure. Now, when I ride through, I not only know where I am and where I’m going; I also know the names of several streets, roundabouts, and important buildings. I walk through the streets as a white woman and only feel minorly out of place. I can even deal with crazy shop owners who try to pull you in their shops. This might all sound very simplistic and rudimentary for someone who’s been somewhere for three weeks now, but it’s an entirely different story south of the Sahara, so I feel proud of myself.

Before coming here, I knew conceptually where I was going. I knew, in theory, that the third world would be completely different from what I was used to. But theory and reality are such different things. Being here has already completely altered, forever, my view of the world: how it works, and how it should work. Living in Njema Court makes it possible to escape, but only for so long. I’ve been painting a happy picture of Nairobi, mostly because I like it a lot. But it’s hard. The electricity goes out almost everyday, sometimes for several hours. If you drink the water without boiling it, you will probably get typhoid at some point. Even if you boil the water, something will give you the stomach bug several times while you’re here. Your feet are black, literally, every night from the dust and pollution. You are faced everyday with the apathy of the police and the frantic failings of the government. And this is when you’re white. Everyday I live a life of contrasts, going between Njema Court where I have a toilet and hot water to places that have one toilet for every 200 people. I personally witness the struggle for life that goes on everyday, and then return here to type on my Mac every night. The contrast is hardest for me. It’s something that will stay with me forever.

Also, sorry for everyone who has emailed me and have not received an email back yet. I've been super busy or exhausted, but you will be contacted back shortly!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Picture time!



These pictures are from the first couple of weeks of Africa. It involves orientation, going out to a Jazz Night at a Kenyan club, and cooking a Kenyan meal for all of us.

My goal is to get many more pictures of my actual experience, but it is very very difficult to do because a) it's risky to travel with cameras given the crime rate here, b) taking out cameras to take pictures is even riskier to the level of stupidity, and c) some people think that taking pictures of someone steals that person's soul. It happens. So I will certainly try later on, but not now! I will take pictures of the apartment, university, etc. later.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

On Mzungus and Matatus.

My grasp of Swahili is not very strong; we don’t start Kiswahili classes until next Tuesday, so my understanding of Swahili extends to Habari, Mzuri, Pesa ngapi, etc. (How are you, I’m fine, How much does it cost, etc.). One word, however, that I was bombarded with as soon as I got off the plane was mzungu. The word mzungu is technically translated into “foreigner”, but in my opinion the more accurate translation is “whitey”. As a whitey, I am constantly overrun with people shouting mzungu! mzungu! Sometimes they want to sell me something, sometimes they just think it’s hilarious that a whitey is walking through their neighborhood, sometimes they just want to find out why on earth I’m in Kenya.

I must say, it’s one of the strangest experiences in the world to walk down a street and have everyone stare at you. Everywhere I go, I make a scene. The other day I was walking down the street in a neighborhood that rarely sees white people. This little Somali boy was playing in a front yard, and as I passed his eyes got alarmingly wide. He screamed “Moooooooom” as he ran into the house, presumably to show his mom the mzungu walking down the street. Again, odd. We (the girls in the program) have made a joke about it and whisper “look, a mzungu!” if we see another whitey in town.

The language barrier is a very interesting experience in this city. For the most part, people can speak English and a lot of the signs are in English. They learn English in school, and several people I’ve met prefer writing and reading in English, even if their first and spoken language in Kiswahili (what the language of Swahili is actually called). The form of slang used by youth, called Sheng, is a combination of Kiswahili, English, and tribal languages. Oddly enough, I can almost always understand people’s accents on the street, even in the slums, but have a very hard time understanding professionals, such as my professors or actors in a play I saw. Regardless of the area, if you speak a little Kiswahili you will immediately separate yourself from the safari tourists and will almost certainly get much better prices or services.

On to matatus. Matatus are the main form of public transportation in and around Nairobi. They are usually very old, very beat up 14-passenger vans. They are notorious for breaking down or running out of gas in the middle of a ride. They are very very cheap (about 30 cents per ride), so most of the lower and middle class use them to get to work. Matatus are also well known for their designs. Most of them are covered on the outside in pictures of the most random pop cultural icons or phrases. I’ve seen ones with pictures of Obama (with the words “Time for REAL Change”), Timbaland, Jesus, Osama bin Laden and Britney Spears on the same van, and Bow Wow. They are hilarious. Most of them are blasting very loud hip hop, and some of the nicer ones are even equipped with DVD players! A lot of them, though, are in really poor conditions, with seats not anchored to the ground or broken windows.

Mzungus almost never ride on matatus, as they have bad reputations for theft and other crime. Mzungus generally take cabs or even the busses. Not us. We use matatus to get to school and internships everyday, and to get anywhere else we go during the day. If you’re smart about it, they really aren’t dangerous. At night though, we are required to take taxis (understandably; you would have to be stupid to take a matatu at night). We actually aren’t even allowed to outside after dark, so we often have to “chase the sun” to get back inside before darkness falls. Amazingly enough, despite there almost never being mzungus on the matatus, I never get comments or even second glance when I board. And a couple of stern words to the tot (the conductor, whose job it is to get people onto the matatu and collect fares) will lower the price to what the Kenyans are paying.

Well that’s all for now! On a final note, Anjali and I had some fantastic Indian food last night in a pure vegetarian, South Indian restaurant called Chowpaty. There is a very large Indian population here, so I’m looking forward to a semester full of amazing Indian food!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mambo Nairobi...

I’ve been in Kenya for about a week and a half now. I’ve been putting off this first blog entry because, frankly, I don’t really know what to say. I’ve seen and done so much that I feel like I’ve been here for a month already. But, for everyone’s sake including my own, I need to document this experience. So here it goes!

Nairobi as a city is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is loud, dusty, and packed with both cars and people zooming by at an alarming speed. The city centre is considered to be very “developed” by most third world standards, with skyscrapers, fast food chains, and businessmen on cell phones. The surrounding areas are absolutely covered in informal settlements (slums), markets, ritzy neighborhoods, and everything in between. Nairobi is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, so it’s in a constant state of frenzy, with an overwhelmed infrastructure. Despite the fact that is by far the dirtiest place I’ve ever spent time in, it is also gorgeous. The city is covered in parks and trees, making for a very sharp contrast between brown and green. This city is so disorganized and crazy, but it’s also why I love it. Everything is haphazard but it all works somehow. It’s endlessly entertaining.

The area that I’m staying in, called the Westlands, in very nice. The way the class division works in Kenya is that the rich are wealthy enough to afford guards, gates, and electric fences to keep out the desperate and therefore dangerous poor. It’s very sad, but true. The apartment that I am living in is by far the nicest and biggest apartment I have ever come across; at a rent of about 1,200 dollars a month, we have a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment with wood floors, a patio, a fully furnished living room/dining room, a full kitchen, and a laundry room. Included in the rent is 24 hour guards at the gate, gym access, and a housekeeper that does our dishes and cleans the apartment everyday. We also have someone who does our laundry everyday. This is typical of the uppercrust of Kenyan society, and I must say I’m enjoying it quite a bit! It does create a fairly shaking contrast when I leave my gated community to go into the city and view the poorest of the poor firsthand. In fact, right outside my apartment window, outside of the gate, there are two men living against a wall. I watch them sit there, day after day, and it’s a true experience of culture shock.

This experience has been absolutely amazing so far though. It’s impossible to go through the “honeymoon” stage in Nairobi; I can’t put it on a pedestal when I see directly huge disparities that exists. But I really feel like I’m part of a city that is going somewhere, part of a city full of residents who are determined to empower their own population, part of a city full of unique ideas. When people find out I just arrived in Kenya, the most common response is a broad smile and “you’ll love it here. Kenyans are a good people, and Kenya is a good place”. And I tend to agree.

I started my classes at USIU on Tuesday. It takes about two hours to get to school and at least two hours to get back, so taking two classes turns out to be quite an endeavor. The classes don’t seem to be on the same standard as what I’m used to at AU; however, just being in a classroom with all African classmates and an African professor will teach me quite a bit. I was in my Politics of Africa course, and the professor asked the class to call out what they thought of when they thought of Africa. Students immediately began to offer up their opinions, and I was treated, for the first time, to a first hand account of what Africans thought of Africa. That alone is an experience I can take back to my life back home.

I’ve been spending most of the last week getting settled into the apartment, getting food, and getting to know my fellow program mates (all girls). Even getting food at the market can be a several hour trek. My program director advised us that we should schedule one thing for the morning, and one thing for the afternoon, and if we did more we’d just be stressed. I think she’s right. Still, I’ve managed to find everything I need, including a towel, hangers, and a delicious looking pineapple.

Well, there it is, my first attempt at defining my Kenyan experience. I will try to start updating more often so that I can cover more adventures!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rome Alone.

(The preceding title is accredited to Veronica Castro. Please send all the book deals to her. She is in Cairo.)

So as the title indicates, I am on the last leg of my journey in Europe. I am in Rome, alone, and spending one night in a scary hostel before beginning my 24 hour journey that lands me in Nairobi. The trip to Rome was interesting, involving 17 hours of train travel, almost being fined for somehow ending up in Switzerland, and an old German lady offering me carbonated apple juice.

Traveling alone has been a very mixed experience for me. Until this point, even my more daring adventures have been with at least one other person (namely my twin). I can now say, traveling alone is a whole different ball game. On one hand, it is insanely frustrating. There is no one to vent to, to help you, or provide the much needed safety of numbers. Being alone and female has lead to two scam attempts and three inappropriate comments... in the few hours I've been here.
However, it is so rewarding. Even little things like getting a vegetarian sandwich from someone that doesn't share a common lanuage, or finding your hostel with two bags (and lugging them up 7 flights of stairs) makes you so proud of yourself.

I have been spending the last few days trying to mentally wrap up my time in Europe and prepare for the journey ahead. It hasn't been easy, and this post is an attempt to help the process. So, for everyone traveling in the near future (which is like 90% of my friends) or ever, here's my advice:

List O' Practical Advice
1. Bring a Tide to Go pen. Or seven. Seriously, they saved the day on more than one occasion when lasagna, gelato, or wine went flying.
2. Pack all of your clothes in zip lock bags. They compact your clothes, allowing you to squeeze one more article of clothing in there, like...
3. Underwear. Pack what you think you need, then pack 5 more pairs. Honestly, you can wear the same pair of paints, tanktops, etc. for a week if needed but one pair of underwear only lasts like three days (just kidding... I think).
4. If you have a Eurail pass, which you should, then get reservations. That means when you arrive in a city, go find the tickets desk and get a train booked for when you leave. Yes it costs a few euros, but if you don't you'll likely incur bigger charges when 2nd class fills up. Also, read the fine print on those suckers.
5. Bring a guide book for each country (Okay, Dad, you were right all these years). We didn't because they are heavy, but I would have gotten so much more out of everything I saw if I had information, as most touristy things here don't have convenient, English descriptions with them. Get one with a phrase book in the back.
6. Rent or buy a cell phone for the time your abroad. Seriously. It was a trip saver on more than one occasion.

List O' Not As Practical Thoughts
1. I really enjoyed everyone who went on this trip (7 total), but I think the majority of the stress we experienced was at least in part do to the number of people. Bring 4 or less, it'll decrease the arguments over food, waking up, what to see, etc.
2. In some ways I liked the change of scenery by moving from country to country (leaving Italy, for example, was a bit of a relief), but in others ways I really liked spending so much time in Germany, giving me a feeling of knowing the country.
3. The stupid America tourist stereotype is sometimes justified, and sometimes it's just a way for mean people to be mean to other people that have taken an interest in their culture. Try to be as unobtrusive as possible, but remember that you are not being inherently obnoxious by visiting a country, even if you don't know the language.

That's it. My next post, whenever that is, will be from Kenya! Stay safe, and good luck for all of you who are starting work or classes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Don't be dismayed at goodbyes...

I am currently in a McDonalds in downtown Paris, on my own (!!) computer using free (!!) wireless. The McDonalds is currently playing "Soldja Boy" on the speakers, which I think a few of my AU girls might find humorous.

I said goodbye to Andrew and Jan an hour ago on a dirty, crowded Parisian street. I say goodbye to Bethany in less than an hour. Today is not going to be a fun day. I'm in transition now, kind of in between my Europe travels and my African studies. It's relaxing, but I'm ready to be somewhere to stay.

Now, the story about my camera. As some of you know, I have a pretty awesome Kodak camera given to me by a person whom I am very fond of. It was innocently dropped near the Eiffel Tower and no longer functioned. In retrospect, it was actually kind of nice to see Europe NOT through the lense of a camera. But, for Africa, I decided that a camera was not optional. So in Frankfurt I tracked down a camera store and negotiated, in German, the purchase of a fairly nice but fairly inexpensive digital camera. I was content. The NEXT MORNING, I'm packing and decide for kicks and giggles to try turning on my broken camera. It works. Perfectly. Someone upstairs clearly is having a laugh at me and my wallet's expense.

Oh, and my glasses have broken in half.

Otherwise, life is good!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Amsterdam, a city of drugs, prostitutes, and... lots of kittys.

One thing that has surprised me about this trip is how much these cities live up to their stereotypes. Now, don´t get me wrong, I have been surprised throughout this trip by certain aspects of Europe, but for the most part, they are what they are supposed to be. French people are actually rude, Venice actually has a ton of gigantic canals and gondolas, and Amsterdam actually is full of drugs and prostitutes. Given that all of the cities I have seen depend on tourism, the cynical part of me thinks that these cities have no cultural freedom, but rather have to be what we want them to be. Thoughts?

On a lighter note, I really did like Amsterdam. It was quirky and very open. It was refreshing to see drug policy and sex worker policy enacted in a way that didn´t fill prisons with people who have almost no negative impact on society. Maybe the people that insist that arresting working women every other night while the johns go gree is a good idea should check out Amsterdam, where the women are healthy and earning a living wage, and society hasn´t collapsed around them.

Our hostel was right at the entrance of the red light district, so we really didn´t see much beyond that. We did take a walking tour that included the Old Church, Anne Franks house, etc. Other than that, I ate a lot of Chinese food and falafal and spent a lot of time wandering around, marveling at the reality of Amsterdam. Oh, and there were kittys everywhere!! There are a lot of mice in Amsterdam, so every hostel, business, and even restaurants have at least one resident cat. The one in our hostel was named Micky, was pure white and liked to sleep on the stairs.

I am now in Frankfurt, spending a bit more time with Andrew before leaving for four months. Given that I chose this and want this, I almost feel like I´m not allowed to be sad. But I am. So deal. We haven´t really seen much of Frankfurt, we´ve mostly been relaxing, eating, and watching movies. Nice after such a long trip.

I got my schedule for Nairobi! For those of you who don´t know, I will be taking two classes at the United States International University, which is an African university, taught by Africans, with African classmates. For those two classes I will be taking Politics in Africa and International Organizazions. Two times a week, for an hour and forty minutes each time, on Tuesday and Thursday. Very excited! For my other two classes I will be taking intensive Swahili and The Politics of Culture in Kenya with other AU students. My last three credits will be an internship with a non profit based in Nairobi.

Geez this is long, but the internet was cheap so I must take advantage!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner?

Hallo! I've spent the last four days in Berlin, and I must say it has been one of my favorite cities so far. I loved speaking the language, and I loved the city itself. Berlin is not really the traditional German city at all. It's a city of the world, very clearly. I think it's accurate the say that Berliners consider themselves Europeans first, and Germans second. This made the vibe of the city to be very forward thinking and exciting. I think I could definitely live here someday.

Another interesting thing about Berlin is the effects that World War II had on the city. The vast majority of the city was bombed to smitherings by the Allies during the war, so they're STILL rebuilding a lot of buildings! The combined stress of the Berline Wall/Communist occupation and the Nazis has made the attitude of the city to be a very regretful one. These Germans are determined to be progressive and move forward in peace without forgetting what their history was; there are memorials and remenants of the past purposely left all over the place. German pride is also an issue; I have only seen one German flag the entire time I've been here, and that was on the parliment building.

We took a walking tour of the city, and therefore saw a lot of things, including the place that Hitler commited suicide, the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and sections of the Berlin Wall. We even went up to the top the Parliment building and walked on the glass roof.

In other news, Andrew and I have found the cheapest hostels to be in Frankfurt, and so we're heading there very soon! A few of us are heading to Cologne after that. Thanks for all of the suggestions!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Women from Prague look like models, and men from Prauge look like hair band members.

Prague was an interesting experience. I loved crossing the line between West and East Europe, the imaginary line that meant the difference between learning about it during school and not. Prauge, being the most "Western" city in Eastern Europe, was pretty developed and definitely had the food, squares, and nightlife typical of other cities that I have visited.

There were, however, several notable differences between Prague and other more visited countries:
1. The language. While I didn't know French, Italian, or Spanish, I at least could read the letters and make a stab at pronouncing a street name when asking a poor local where I was. Czech, not so much. This made navigating the metro or even reading the Czech map a rather entertaining disaster.
2. The money. No Euro! At first we were excited about this, but quickly realizing that dividing everything by 15.5 to turn Korunas into Dollars was no fun. It also wasn't nearly as cheap as we were expecting. Still, an adventure.
3. The people. While this is stereotypical, Eastern Europeans really seemed to be a darker, less smiley, more Iron-Maideny version of their Western counterparts. We went dancing, and the club attendees ranged from honest to god Czech models to men that looked like greasy hair band members. Weird.

Otherwise, we saw where the Velvet Revolution started, checked out the Communist Museum, and walked across the Charles Bridge. A super cool experience that I would recommend to anyone looking for a different European adventure while wanting to stay on the less risky side of things.

In other news, Veronica has joined us! It's really nice seeing a fresh face after a few weeks of the same (beautiful, of course) faces. She also still has the "we're in Europe!" mood to her, which is a refreshing reminder that despite being tired this is still super cool!

I hope everyone is prepping for the new year, and getting lots of yummy sleep and free refills.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A post on Italy... and Gelato.

Alright, so it has been a while since I last posted, so I'm going to do a super post for all of Italy for my adoring readers. I'm currently in an internet cafe in Milan, and am hungry for cheap pizza. But, first, a post.

What to say about Rome? We spent 4 days there, and it can pretty much be describe with any adjective that comes to mind. It was loud, exciting, dirty, hot, ancient, disorganized, and overall a lot of fun. We saw all of the basics, including the Colosseum and Roman Forum. After my rather powerful feminist upchuck reflex eventually subsided, I actually enjoyed the Vatican as well.
Two things I loved about Rome were the huge numbers of motorized scooters, and of course, the Gelati. The Roman streets are covered, in a very literal sense, in every type of scooter you can imagine. From brand new classically red Vespas to beat up, taped together who-knows-what, every Italian had one and knew how to aggressively veer past the poor souls who were in cars. I loved, and plan to get one as soon as I get back to DC when I can afford one, so future apartmentmates beware.
This brings me to gelati (this, as I learned, is plural for gelato). This delicious Italian treat was served at every single street corner in Rome and Venice in "Gelatirias". We ate several scoops after every single meal, and it was epic. My favorite flavor (after sampling about a dozen) is pineapple and lemon, although not together.

This city delighted me. While Rome is ancient and full of interesting things to do, Venice held the charm and vibe that I expected from an Italian city. It is easily the most humid place I have every been to, and I don't think I'll ever dry off. This humidity combined with age means that the paint is peeling from every building and gives off a lazy feeling from the buildings and streets themselves. The canals stank, but we bought a day pass for the city water bus system and spent much time enjoying the cool breeze as we puttered through the city. There are no cars in Venice, which I didn't realize for a long time and kept on wondering why I felt so peaceful. We used the water busses to boat to two islands off of Venice, Murano and Burano, famous for glass blowing and lace, respectively. These islands were Italian Fire Islands, honestly.
Our lodging was in the country about 30 minutes outside of the city. It was a little creepy, being in the middle of a corn field and all, but our place to stay was actually a little cottage which was very charming and private and... attached to a pizzaria with the best pizza I've had in Italy and a cat named Amore. Sweet.

In an unexpected side tour, I am now in Milan before jetting off to Prague tomorrow afternoon. We have about 24 hours here, and we are taking it easy before the last leg of the trip (Prague, Berlin, and Amsterdam). The Last Supper is here, but you have to book a ticket about three months in advance to see it, so we are just soaking up the vibe and relaxing. It is a very Italian city, not nearly as touristy as Rome or even Venice. Our English is only getting us so far here! I will be very relieved when I get to Germany and can finally speak the language of the culture I am visiting. And I'm super excited to see Eastern Europe!

Overall, we are becoming experts in navigating train stations and metro stations in foreign cities and finding reasonably cheap food on a very expensive Euro. Our sign language for "how much is the Coke?" and "where the heck am I?" is improving as well. It's an empowering experience, dealing with problems independently and traveling in a way that doesn't break the bank or offend the people we are visiting. This trip is great preparation for Africa, and it only makes me more excited for the next several months! I miss you all though, so e-mails would be greatly appreciated!

At the end of this trip, I will be taking a side trip with Andrew for a few days before heading off the Africa. Any suggestions as to where to go? Your options are: any town in Germany, Belgium, or northern France. Go.

Oh, and happy birthday Dad!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Madrid: The city that only sleeps between one and four... in the afternoon.

My, my, was Madrid a completely different experience than Paris. I guess that is kind of the point, right? Paris was fast-paced, expensive, and full of sights to see; Madrid was slow, cheap, and time was spent not at tourist attractions but rather in parks or plazas.

After a very late night the night before spent experiencing Madrid's nightlife (yay dancing!), we took our siesta in the morning and didn't get out into Madrid into much later than one is used to while traveling. Madrid has a small, personal vibe to it, where almost everything is walkable and pretty easy to find. Once again, we mastered a strange city's metro system. Unlike Paris, however, we stopped in the evening to relax with sangria and headed back to the hostel.

Yesterday was one of my favorite days in Europe so far. After yet another late start (Madrid's lazy atmosphere is contagious!), we went to the biggest park I've ever seen, rented rowboats, and spent a lazy hour floating around on a lake sorrounded by statues. We then wandered over to a shady patch of grass and napped. Oh, this is the life.

I am actually typing this from Rome, where I have been for only about an hour after (amazingly enough) a problem-free morning of travel! I will update this later in the week with my observations on Roma, which should be pretty intense.

Comment and let me know how you are doing!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

An American in Paris

We made it! A combination of delayed flights, lost luggage, and a foreign language that none of us can speak has made this an interesting start to our adventures. But we are all here and stuffed with all of the fresh bread and cheese you can imagine!

This post is very brief, as my internet is almost out and this keyboard is way too complicated for my qwerty trained brain.

We have spent the last few days mastering the Parisian metro, sampling crepes from all sections of Paris, and, of course, seeing all of attractions. Our hostel is in a grungy, wonderful part of Paris. Our jetlag has made so we are awake and out in Paris late into the night and it has certainly been an experience!

To combat said jet lag, we have been exploring in the morning and early afternoon, taking a siesta in the late afternoon, and then heading back out for the evening and night. Interestingly enough, this nap and rest time has made up some of my favorite times in Paris. Our rooms have gigantic windows that open fully onto the Paris streets below, so I drift into a light sleep to the sounds of Vespas driving by and Parisians talking excitedly on the street below. It has been intoxicating, really.

My dad will be vindicated to hear, however, that we have encountered several very rude French people. Americans and (hopefully!) other Europeans are far more welcoming to visitors to their country, even those who do not speak the language well. However, we have also met many helpful Parisians and even a traveling Croation who have been generous with their time and information.

Tonight we are taking the overnight train to Madrid!! I will post from there in a few days. :-) Feel free to e-mail with info about back in the States (or Australia, for that matter).

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

So I realize Lao Tzu was probably being a bit more literal when he wrote those words, but please excuse the slight misapplication of his work for the broader idea- I'm almost ready to go! That single step has taken about a month of preparation to be ready for. I'm going to miss everyone and all, but I'm ready to just go out and do things, instead of all of this planning!

This blog, as you've probably already realized, is to document my travels. Ideally, this won't be a "I did this, and then I said this, and then I ate this" blog, but rather focus on broader reflections of the journey. As an American student in Europe and then later Africa, I'm sure I'll have plenty of insights to share!

First stop is Paris, so you all will hopefully hear from me from a Parisian internet cafe later this week! Please leave comments, as I will be missing all of you and would love to hear your reactions, comments, and updates.