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!