Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sweet Kenyan Nothings

Part of the reason it's taken me so long to write another blog post is I feel like nothing significant has happened.  We've been in Lamu for a month and the days have all oozed together into this single, indiscernible blob of time.  I lose track of the hours and minutes as we wake up every morning and slowly let the day unfold into whatever it holds; most often a lazy saunter to the beach, getting lost in the pages of a book, playing cards, racking our brains over crossword puzzles, or sitting at a cafe enjoying our favorite Arabic-infuenced chai tea.  Between my part-time job on the computer and the occasional dhow trip or excursion to the floating bar, we slide around against the movement of the sun as clocks and calendars cease to hold significance.  The only thing that keeps the day moving forward is the Muslim prayers that are broadcast five times a day from the mosques that are scattered throughout the town.  I've measured out the month in fingernail clippings as I'm continually surprised that my nails need attention again; they looked fine yesterday, or what seemed like yesterday...

This town is intoxicating.  The high narrow passageways beckon you to meander through them aimlessly, every turn and doorstep holding another hidden treasure: beautifully carved wooden doors, stray cats feasting on discarded fish heads, the brief flutter of a hijab as a woman disappears around another corner, the glint of cassette tape film as children leap through the streets yelling with glee as their long black streamers drag behind them long after the runner disappears down a corridor.

The ghosts here are ancient and strong; everything your eyes touch and your fingers graze holds the breath of a people who came here centuries ago from across every sea and refused to give up their own ways of life.  My mind wanders as I smell incense wafting from an open door.  My neck cramps as I crane my head to listen to children in Islamic schools sing gently but perfectly in Arabic. I've never seen them; we're always separated by the thick concrete walls of their school, but I think I prefer it that way.  Their soft voices always stop me in my tracks as I turn a corner to suddenly hear them and tears well up as I think about how reverent and innocent their hearts must be as they sing to God in this strange, beautiful language.

When people hear that I'm in Africa, they expect to hear about the exciting stuff: the safaris, the sweltering heat and humidity, the poverty, the Maasai tribes, the Nairobi matatu drivers.  It's harder to communicate to friends and family back home about the day-to-day things that really make their mark, the sweet nothings that we all experience as humans and that travelers often cling to to avoid feeling the emotional exhaustion that the backpacking lifestyle brings.

A few nights ago, I spent twenty minutes on the rooftop terrace watching a neighbor go through his prayer routine before slowly standing up, reaching toward the heavens one last time, bending over to roll up his prayer rug, and finally settling down to sleep on a thin mattress.  I spent more time another afternoon watching a mother donkey and her foal.  After the foal was done nursing, they wrapped their necks around each other and nibbled on each others' flanks in the same spot for a long time.  I felt like an ass for intruding on such a sweet and tender moment, but I was amazed at how intentional and consistent they both were in this action. They both stopped at exactly the same moment and continued to graze.

As wonderful and enchanting as this Moroccan Venice is, I've also been afraid of writing another post because it forces me to sit down and articulate those big questions that constantly plague me.  Every day is another existential crisis and I struggle to make sense of my place within the $1-a-day poverty that we're still living amongst on this island.  What do you do when your companion has a bone sticking out of their arm and all you have are band-aids?

I'm so glad to get a break from volunteering, but I'm also scared to bear that weight again once I get back on the road.  I feel an extra duty as an American and as a Christian to contribute, but how can I do that sustainably and intelligently?  I try to follow the "don't give anything away for free" philosophy, especially when this side of the world has received so much aid from the West that it's caused their work ethic and motivation to crumble.  I knew I would run into this issue, but it's still hard to face this Goliath with nothing but my faith in God to keep me from crumbling under the weight of it all.  I'm naturally a problem-solver, but these problems are so big and so far out of my grasp and comprehension.

Yes, world travelers get to do cool things and meet cool people and take amazing photographs to post on Facebook, but not many full-time travelers talk about the emotional burden of global awareness that you inherit when you buy that plane ticket to a developing country.  I didn't do anything to deserve my global privilege: I was born into it.  I feel like a phony, toting my white skin and Apple products around telling these people that I want to volunteer and learn how they live.  But they always seem to give me more than I can give back to them.  Handing out Bibles or money or food won't solve things in the long-run.  Those are band-aids.  Useful and needed, but band-aids nonetheless.

I'm afraid of what the world will show me as it slowly unfolds in front of my wandering feet.  But I'm also afraid of recognizing and accepting my place and responsibility in it.  Will it be in a suburb in the U.S. where I rush from my 9-to-5 job to get my kids to soccer practice, where my memories from this trip will be the occasional ones gleaned from glancing at a photograph hanging in the hallway?  Or will it be living in a remote village in Burundi without plumbing or power as I work to equip farmers with the skills to financially manage their farms more efficiently? There is no "right" scenario.

Every day when I think about these issues, I cling even harder to things that comfort me:

My backpack is my home, my turtle shell, my companion that holds everything I have and hugs my body as I hop in and out of buses and planes.  If I choose to reject every other responsibility in life, I'll always have my backpack to escape into as I lose myself in aimless, wandering travel.

I love my laptop and my phone: with just the slightest tap of a finger, I can have conversations with the dearest of people scattered all over the world.  I haven't felt lonely yet because all of you are just a message away.

I love the fleeting friendships that form with other travelers as we whiz by each other.  The good ones are often brief but intimate and memorable.

I love these daily details that don't mean much to anyone but myself: the people, the donkeys, the way the rain whispers, beckoning everyone to shuffle indoors and under awnings until there's nothing but silence and stillness in the damp streets.

And I love being on the road.  I don't rely on much and I'm continually reminded that my current knowledge and experiences pale in comparison to everything I have yet to learn.  I love the challenges, the failures, the successes, the struggles, the hospitality of strangers, the humor that transcends language barriers.  I wish that time would slow down so I can enjoy this ocean breeze forever, but I also can't wait to see what lies ahead, however difficult it may be.  I'm up for the challenge.

But today, my nails need a little tending to.


  1. you are fabulous and your writing takes me back to fez in my memories and then to lamu with you - beautiful!

    1. You'd really love it here! And here's to many more years exploring different corners of the world, can't wait to see where our next joint adventure takes us!

  2. This is my favorite post yet I think. You're touching the heart of what it means to travel at all in my humblest of opinions. There was something special in every paragraph, I want to share this post!

    1. Share away, my dear! Thank you ever so much for being such a sturdy sounding board for all of this, I don't know how I'd be able to process any of it without you.