I'm increasingly thankful for the little things that are harder to come by now...
Like toilet paper in bathrooms. Hell, even toilets that have seats. Hot (or warm, or tepid) showers. Seeing other white people. Meeting local men that don't ask for money or my number. Laundry facilities that don't utilize the DIY model: a basin and a bar of soap. Being alone. Having access to a kitchen. Being able to order things off Amazon. Mirrors.
...and very thankful for the new things that have become common-place.
Like skin color and race not being a sensitive topic. Gorgeous color-streaked sunsets every night. Racing over dirt roads on the back of a motorbike. Impressing locals by confidently spouting off the three words I know in Swahili. Fresh grilled fish. Eating avocados so big they barely fit in my hand. Being in the middle of a culture that moves slowly and that loves to laugh and joke with each other. And the satisfaction, after killing three other mosquitos like a ninja, of finally getting that one mosquito that bursts with blood: the tell-tale sign that this, THIS is the one that has been feasting on you for the past twenty minutes.
My daily personal care routine has hit an all-time high on the "low-maintenance" scale.
Most days, only my toothbrush, deodorant, and sunscreen get used. No mess, no fuss. I don't spend much money on products, and I don't spend much time getting ready. While my cold evening shower does tend to be the highlight of my day just to wash off all the sweat and dust that inevitably accumulates, I only shave my legs and wash my hair once a week. The only person that seemed to care was a young boy I was playing with at the school I volunteered at in Nairobi. He was rolling around on the floor laughing, and as I stepped over him, he reached out and grabbed both my ankles. After momentary shock, he quickly recoiled his hands and nested them under his chin in tight fists, looking at me with dismay and horror. I ran to tell Alice who said that most Kenyan women don't have hair on their legs since it usually gets burned off from sitting so close to the small charcoal fires they use to cook every day. We could not stop laughing.
Oh, and ladies, commuting via motorbike and buses with windows that don't latch shut gives your hair FABULOUS volume! Also, the dirt and dust that settles everywhere acts as a great dry shampoo. #ladytraveltips
My body now talks to me like a Tamagochi. Every day. At the same time every day.
*beep* I'm hungry! *beep* Time to stretch! *beep* Too much sun! *beep* I need to poop...NOW!!
You and your body get reeeeally close when traveling like this; I've become so much more aware of the relationship between my inside world and my outside world in the past 107 days. I can tell a few minutes after I eat something if I need to take probiotics in order to quell the dance party that will hit my stomach in ...3...2...1. I can feel an individual pore clog now. I've stopped drinking beer & mixed drinks because I don't like the way they taste or make me feel (also, saves money and dignity!!). Processed sugar gives me an instant headache. Fried food turns me into a grouchy greasy zombie. Don't get me wrong, I'll still eat anything that's put in front of me; I haven't changed THAT much. And I still make it a point to try all the local candy bars. My analysis: they're terrible--there's a reason Kenya isn't known for their sweets, or their cuisine in general, for that matter.
While I'm increasingly more thankful for being a healthy mobile creature, I'm also more terrified of getting hurt and sick. Especially in Africa, one small cut can easily become a terrible infection that sends me home. One unwashed fruit can do my intestines in with cholera. One mosquito bite can knock me over with malaria (for those of you wondering--no, I'm not taking antimalarials. I understand the risks of that, but I'm not willing to undergo the infamous side-effects of the medication. Instead, I've opted for malaria treatment medication that I take immediately if I feel achy/feverish to treat the illness until I can get to a doctor). I'm up and ready to go every day in thankfulness that all systems are in good working condition. And when they aren't, time to rest & complain about it. Previous U.S.-life worries definitely lose importance when your health trumps them all.
So far, I've only suffered through two colds (one from a sick kid, one from Nairobi air pollution), and a wound from burning my leg on a motorbike silencer that took almost three weeks to heal. Every time I hop on a motorbike, the two-inch scar on my calf still tingles with the memory of the searing pain and the reminder to always mount and dismount from the left side.
I have a new-found respect for Kenyan dancing.
The clubbing scene in Nairobi is carnal. Voluptuous women wearing tight short dresses and stilettos, bent over at the waist holding on to a table or chair, the men grabbing hold and dancing behind them, the couple grinding themselves almost into a trance. It's mesmerizing to watch. They're not doing it for show, it's just how everyone dances. When everything rolls together under the dim lights with loud music in a language I can't understand, under the haze of cigarette smoke, intoxicated by the smell of spilled drinks and the distinct pungent, almost sweet-smelling Kenyan body odor, it's hypnotic.
In Lamu, the floating bar is the place to party. The dancing there is still sexual, although not as overt, but with more of a Latin feel to it. When we were there one evening enjoying the sunset, one very inebriated woman grabbed me to dance with her as I walked by on the otherwise empty patio. She grabbed my hips and pulled me in as I struggled like a true white girl to keep up with her gyrating figure-eight movements. "Yoo have too lahrn how too mooove," she said, stretching out words as she pushed me back and forth. "Yoo haaave too be flex-i-ble foh da boyzzz. Yoo gottah shake what ya mama gave ya!" Later, one of the beach boys in the group of locals we became friends with added the addendum: "Shake it, but don't break it!"
Kenyans are comfortable with their bodies and the movement of their bodies unlike anywhere else I've been. Even while singing gospel songs in church, children and adults alike will shake their hips in a way that would make any gentle Southern Baptist blush. It's nice that the men are all respectful and understanding if you make it clear you don't want to dance that way; yeah, they wouldn't mind some action, but they're also happy just dancing, so they don't seem to come off as being creepy. But you know the best part? Everywhere in Kenya, the men are always the first to hit the dance floor. They dance by themselves and they dance with each other. And they give it their all. And they're really good.
I've developed a fierce intolerance for a few things.
These are things I've previously laughed at or let slide, but for various reasons, they now cause a strong negative emotional reaction to bubble over that ends up being released either by walking away or by verbally snapping at the offender (not that I'm proud of that):
Cat calling. Dirty jokes. Sexist jokes. Pressure to drink. Nicholas Sparks books & movies. Unnecessary profanity. Degrading generalizations about Americans (I honestly have never felt more patriotic in my life than I do now). Actually, degrading generalizations about any culture/ethnic group. Yes, there are negative patterns and tendencies in every group, but at least tip your hat to the reasons they are the way they are; be diplomatic and educated about it. It should be a conversation, not just a comment.
While the daily cat calling and barking and whistling and "Hey, beautiful lady!"-ing drives me up the wall, I'm actually surprised that hawkers and beach boys and aggressive merchants don't get under my skin as much. They need to make a living, and if I want to get irritated at anyone for their behavior, I'll get mad at the last tourist that handed out free money on the street, making people believe that if you bother them enough, other tourists will do the same. Seriously, don't give begging kids anywhere candy or money, neither is helping their bodies or behavior. If you want to give them something, opt for high-caloric nutritious food or water.
I've learned the art of self-soothing.
Whose fault is it if I have a bad day? Mine. Who controls my mindset, my optimism, my frustration, my sadness? Me.
It's been 107 days of highs and lows, of crushing fear, of triumphs, of personal failures, of laughter and late nights. In this environment where I overwhelmingly have almost no control over anything, I've unintentionally made myself feel secure by turning into a Machiavellian dictator, ruling over my emotions. I can't control the situation, but I can definitely control how I feel about it. While I give myself time to be angry and pessimistic and hopeless, I make a conscious effort to put a timer on it and not let it affect the rest of my day. There are a few things that get me in an emotional funk every time I think about them, though, like having to remind myself to use past tense when I talk about Mabel. Sometimes it makes me feel like a robot. A happy optimistic robot!! But a robot nonetheless.
I've learned to be intentional about spending time with God every day.
The third and fourth week in Kenya were my lowest points. I was in a rural village experiencing extreme culture shock and trying to fend off the spiritual manipulation and constant pandering for money that was coming from the host family. With limited internet access and barely enough electricity to charge my laptop, I felt so alone and terrified and fearful. My first evening at their house, I forced the words "God, you've got this" to course through my thoughts over and over again until they felt like blood being pumped through every vein. If this is what needed to happen in order for me to realize how much I needed to have a regular conversation with God, then so be it. He's always been in my life, but I haven't always been the most inviting.
Now, I don't know how I survived this long without this routine. My day feels off if I don't read my devotional and Bible and then journal about everything. Yes, God is my life companion, but I've never thought of Him as a travel companion before, and He's perfect at it. I complain to Him a lot, but I also don't have to explain myself or be ashamed when I can't rationalize or control my emotions. He'll still love me when I make mistakes and won't judge me when I need to mentally escape everything. It's been a wonderful journey becoming more in touch with the fire that fuels everything I do.
If I could visit myself 107 days ago, before I left, before I packed up the last box and hugged the last person, I would gently hold myself by the shoulders, give myself a little shake, and say "You have NO idea what you're in for." Then I would send me on my way.
A few people that had been to Africa had essentially said this to me, and I naively smiled at them and nodded. They knowingly smiled back and wished me the best of luck. No advice, no anecdote, no words of wisdom could have ever prepared me for this; it just had to unfold on its own. Apparently everyone knew I was going to change, except me.
I know the "me" tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, will look back on the "me" now with fondness, crying and laughing about the things I hadn't yet seen, the people I hadn't yet loved, and the things I didn't yet know; how right when I thought I had the eyes to see and the ears to hear, I was struck so deaf and blind it knocked me off my feet. And how my pride and confidence will repeat their mistakes, and how I'll do it all again.