The excitement that had been building as the ride was ending took a big hit when I called my couch-surfing (C.S.) contact and was informed that he had no money for a bus ticket to come up and get me. His request was that I get a bus down to where he was. No big deal I thought....
Wait, yes it was. Crap. Um ok how about a cab. Ya...i’ll take a cab. After 2 discussions with drivers I agreed on 1500 Kenyan shillings. Thats $17. Grrrr. Not cool. So we drive....and drive....and drive....and drive some more. As we venture further to the South, thats the direction the quality of life goes also. South. Where the heck are we going? No worries. Hamna shida, “no problem” in Kiswahili. After about 6 phone calls between my driver and my C.S. contact, direction inquiries from almost a dozen locals, and multiple u-turns, I had given up on time and caring. Its been at least an hour.....probably 1.5 hours. At this point I’m glad for a fixed cab fare and not a running meter. We finally pull into one of the neighborhoods...can I call it that? Its the quality of the remote villages in Tanzania where I've spent the past 2 weeks. Except its twice as cramped, triple the people, and theres 2-5 story “projects” style housing everywhere. Really? This is the place?? Huh....whatever. “Roll w/ it Von.”
We park...in the middle of the street no less. Wait a few minutes and BAM! In pops this head saying hi through my open window. This must be the C.S. guy. So I pay and get out.
Our walk down the trash lined street is soon traded for a trash covered narrow alleyway that runs along and in between multi-floor half finished concrete buildings. We turn and go through a rod iron safety door that looks like it belongs in a Martha Stewart commissioned jail. We climb stairs that are made of half broken cement and I’m told their apartment is at the end of the building on the 2nd floor. I can see the feet of another guy sticking out of the doorway as we make our way down the walkway. Staring through the doorway I see two padded lounging chairs up against the wall, side by side. Opposite of them is the matching couch. None have cushions, rather folded material to sit on and some extra pieces draped over the arm rests and chair back to liven up the decor. I side shuffle in, because the chairs cover all but about 6 inches of the doorway. Reggae music is blaring and I now feel that these guys are the self appointed DJ’s of this cell block. One friend is sleeping on the couch, and 2 others double up the occupancy of the other chair so as for me to have one. All people introduce themselves to me, are super polite and hospitable, and speak good English. Yet somehow, I'm not in my comfort zone, or so far out of my element that I’m just...not really enjoying the moment.
The sporadic come-and-go typical conversation that accompanies a newcomer is for the most part overshadowed by the blaring reggae fest that is going on in this 8’ x 8’ living room. Which apparently is not affecting the sleeper on the couch, yet I can’t hear any of the questions when they’re asked to me.
I’m invited outside to the walkway where the options are to sit on a bucket, stand, or lean over the railing. The view from the second floor is of roosters crowing and chickens pecking, dogs barking, and many mirrored illusions of this exact building. Almost every one a photocopy of the previous. People are stacked upon people: wet hanging clothes out to dry on sagging ropes, babies crying, kids throwing sticks and trash, and people shouting or talking. I can count half a dozen leaning telephone poles that are carrying 4 times their weight in wire and would make quite the payday for a copper thief in America.
Welcome. Welcome to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.
I have, at this point, thought of 3 friends.
- Alex Harrison. Alex loves reggae music and would probably be loving this. I consider myself mostly laid back, but still occasionally feel the need for first world amenities. He on the other hand, would be standing, dancing, and probably wearing some sort of single piece shirt/robe thing that he picked up in Thailand or India.
- Chris Thomas. Chris is often my inspiration when I find myself being scared, insecure, or too closed minded to fully appreciate the situation. He's the voice on my shoulder that says, “Suck it up Von.”
- Phil Leal. Phil is on the other side, aiding sometimes in my “ummm, maybe I shouldn't do this” feeling. I feel like I am to him what Chris is to me, which isn't a bad thing. Balance is good, always. Phil is just more cautious and reserved than I am I think.
I kind of think Phil would have seen the place and not even exited the cab. And Alex, well he would have had his head out of the window smiling, like a dog in the wind. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m conflicted and don't know what to do. I came to Nairobi with no plans, and said I was open to anything. But am I open to this? This might be a little extreme. I tell myself to ride it out. After all, “Travel is truly experiencing other cultures and lands - embedding yourself in them, participating, living.” At least, thats what I keep telling myself.
So afternoon turns into evening, and evening into dusk. We’re still on the porch/walkway...whatever...and I get passed a bag of leaves.
“Do you chew?” Kennedy asks.
“Huh?” I say, “Tobacco? No.”
“No, Khat.” He says, while I'm holding the bag.
He reaches in and gets a pinch and bites off the leaves and says, “See?”
Yes I see, I think to myself but I'm not eating leaves. You're crazy.
He says, “Its stimulus, it keeps you productive, plus it helps us not sleep much. Maybe like 2 hours a night.”
I smile as I think, “Ya, umm...I’m not going to chew on organic green leafy Kenyan speed. No thanks.” Well, Kennedy says its not drugs and it wont hurt me and that it tastes sweet. I’m still holding the bag and realizing now I'm really in the ghetto. Realizing my backpack is inside full of electronics, and that I have the equivalent of 2 months wages in my pocket, I feel like my bargaining position is somewhat limited. Am I in a scene from a undercover cop movie where the kingpin is testing my allegiance to his cartel? I spot a single leaf and continue to bite it off and chew. (Sorry mom.) And what do ya know...it tastes like a leaf. Imagine that. They smile: test passed. They can rest assured though that that is the end of my induction test. I’m partial to my leaves in a bowl with Italian dressing on them.
It gets dark and chilly so we go inside. All 5 of them, ranging from 23-32 are surprisingly politically savvy. They want to watch the news. Were going to pause Reggae Fest 2012?? Awesome. Well, half way through the power goes out. Apparently this is common. Does this mean I’ll get to sleep in silence tonight? After about 15 minutes we decide to go buy food. Food? Here? “Mmmmm suck it up Von.” - Thanks Chris. Be where you are, I remind myself. So we walk from stall to stall, each illuminated by propane torches or candles, and me shelling out the cash for dinner. Kennedy is going to make fish stew. So we buy the chopped up bone in tilapia, and several veggies and make our way back to the flat. Still no power anywhere. Kennedy goes in to start cooking, and by go I mean use the mini table that is beside the 1 bed in the 1 room that I guess I'll be sleeping on. Am I finally traveling?? Because this....now.....is truly a new experience. I’m certain.
I'm tired and fall asleep in the chair. I don’t how, but I do. I’m awoken by Kennedy and am a bit disoriented. Its made worse buy my contacts. Things are blurry. I regain my thoughts and am given hot hot stew and maize bread. A pitcher of water and bowl to wash my hands in, and oh ya....no eating utensils. We’re taking the hands on approach I see. I give a silent prayer for the safety of my stomach and the soon to be contents there in and go to town. Oh how I hate picking out fish bones. I finish and we’re one-third of the way through an old American movie when I realize its Jaws, but it’s not the original. Maybe 2, 7 or 49.... I don't know. Killer sharks invade fresh water somewhere up the Bayou. I’m quite tired again, and by the time the credits roll, I'm ready for some sleep. Even though I'm not too keen on the arrangements, I'm going to attempt the bed. I request the mosquito net, grab my mobile and headphones, and lay down. Using the White Noise app on my phone, the oscillating fan drowns out the reggae and I'm left to think and sleep.
Laying there wanting to sleep, I am again, thinking of adjusting my length of stay in Nairobi. I don't know what I THOUGHT it’d be like or how I expected to get around, but this is not holding my interest. Upon arrival I had decided to go back on Friday and not Saturday, and now I'm scheming up a way to leave even earlier yet preserve my good standing with my new housemates. I guess this is where my inability to be straight with someone/them shows through and I like the idea of telling a lie better. I decide that if I am awake to take the 8:00 bus I will, and if not I'll opt for the afternoon choice. Proud? No. Relieved? Yes. Disappointed in my weakness? Getting there....
I wake up to movement on the bed and what do you know? It’s 6.33 a.m. Lets do this. Mission: Migraine is ready to start. I hesitate, as I do with almost everything, then get up. Check the time again and open the room door. I realize the movement I felt is the addition of 2 more people to my bed. I almost step on another guy sleeping on the floor. A bit of sadness and remorse for them, the situation, and what I'm about to do, but I battle on. I wake up the guy laying on the couch and ask where Kennedy is. Out pops his head from under the sheet on the floor. He is right under me. Given the amount of “Khat” (green leaves) they’ve chewed I'm a little surprised to see anyone sleeping at all. Equally surprising is that they sleep with the music off. So I start off my story about my migraine and that I might just need to go home. I explain I've been trying to sleep for the past hour and its not helping. They ask what pills I take and I say I don't know the name. “They’re yellow capsules.” (What!? Why am I compounding this lie!?!? What an amateur....) And as luck would have it...James says, “Oh! I have some of those. Kennedy they’re on the shelf. Go get them.” Great....This is karma. Out pops the pack of pills and THANKFULLY they’re red and yellow. I politely decline and say that mine are all yellow and I should probably wait until I get home.
The driver comes at 6:55 and in hop me and Kennedy to start my second $20 cab ride. Well, again I'm thankful for a fixed fare because we ask no less than 15 people for directions on where this bus station is, and by the time we arrive, it is 9:00. An hour late for taking the bus. But at this rate, I don't care. I’m glad to be in a place that I can walk around independently, and I'm over the awkwardness. Frankly I don't care if they see through my lie...I can handle it from here. I settle the fare and off they go. I get my bus ticket for 2:00 p.m. and set out to find the locally famous and tourist spot Java House. I’m in need of some first world flair.
It is now 12:15 and I’ve been here in the coffee shop writing and reading and eating for the better part of 3 hours. I've had ample time to reflect on my decisions as well as the past 24 hours. I had battled through the questionable and concerning situations. No sickness from food or drink. I’m alive and still have not been mugged. The earlier situation I found myself in was different, new, and locally authentic. Completely. Why then, this morning, did I jump ship? Did I jump ship? While I ended my stay and Kenyan trip a day early, I still gained a new perspective and experienced a different culture. Did I attempt and fail or did I just finish early?
I am not opposed to challenging myself. I am not opposed to risk or (a little) pain for the opportunity of a unique experience. I am, after all, the same person who lived out of a pick-up truck for 4 months in L.A. and told only one person. I’m also the same person who has swam with sharks without a cage, ridden real bulls, and battled altitude sickness to climb Kilimanjaro. It is pushing your personal boundaries and extending your comfort zones that make you remember how many millions of ways are available for you to experience life, to explore the fringes of my physical and emotional perception. It is good for me. It is good for everybody. In the end, it is usually the mental barriers we place on ourselves that do most of the fencing in. So did I leave because I was finished and ready to move on or because there was no king size bed, crystal glasses, and personal shower at my disposal....
It's now 2:00 pm and time for my return to Tanzania. I'm at the bus early and get to choose my seat. My legs are already thanking me for my choice. I spend the next 30 minutes or so analyzing my decisions in my paranoid mind and watching the sporadic wildlife out my bus window as we cruise through the Kenyan countryside. I look back and see that the 2 Italians have a Kenya and Tanzania Lonely Planet book. I ask if they’re first timers or returning and that question was the catalyst for the next 5 hours of great conversation. After discussing my upcoming European plans, I was invited (an Italian demand) to come visit. They live in Bologna and guarantee that I'll have an unforgettable time. They were shocked that Italy wasn't already on my list, and now that I know people, I would not be allowed to pass up their country.
So before I was able to complete an opinion of my Kenyan accommodations, I was given the opportunity to make more friends and experiences. And it is only now that I conclude my Kenyan experience might not have been an open and closed independent trip, but more of a prelude and facilitator of future travels. So again, I'm reminded to chill out, and take things as they come. It pays to remember that every journey is a story, and every story is an experience, and now I have experienced Kenya.