Sunday, January 17, 2016

Heinekens and Mutatus

As I sit here writing this late Sunday afternoon, it is surreal and humbling that just three days ago I was with my mother at SeaTac airport on a cold Seattle morning, sleepy, nervous and excited, arms overflowing with baggage and backpacks and completely unaware of what awaited me in the days ahead.

Unlike the rest of my New England friends, I flew directly to our connecting flight in Amsterdam from Seattle, while they took a group flight from JFK. The 20 of them arrived three hours earlier than me and set off to explore the city for our twelve hour layover. I was expecting I would be unable to find them due to our inability to text one another, so instead I happily grabbed my camera and a journal, and took a train from the airport with the intention of exploring the city alone. Luckily, I was able to get a wifi connection at the airport while one of my friends was in an internet cafe, and met up with four of my St. Lawrence classmates at the Royal Plaza.

There we spent the day wandering the rainy streets while dodging the many bicyclists, drinking espressos in small cafes, and like any college students would do, touring the Heineken brewing factory. If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam, I highly suggest visiting the Heineken headquarters: between the disco rooms, brewing tours, and free beers, it is definitely worth the admission price. The city was rainy but I was happy. Like a true Pacific Northwestern-er, I find a strange sense of calm from damp sidewalks and gloomy skies, as if the looming clouds are a protective blanket. And a belly full of Heinekens made that even better.

Eventually, we made our way back to the airport for our 8 pm flight. There we found the rest of the SLU students at the terminal, all exhausted from the red-eye the night before and excited for our final destination after our next flight. We all passed out immediately once we got in our seats, and I can say I don't think I have ever slept so soundly on a flight with so much turbulence. My eyelids felt weighted, and I could not help falling asleep even while the passenger next to me began to introduce herself. One minute she was talking, the next we were soon to be landing.

Once we arrived in Nairobi, we all went through customs together. Our professor and program leader Matt Carentuto was waiting for us outside the gate, causing us to collectively yell his name in joy as we exited the sliding doors, elated with the comfort of seeing a familiar face in a strange place. We then all loaded our belongings on our large and dusty program bus, and started the journey to the compound where we would be living the next semester.

There is no better welcome to Kenya than a drive in a mutatu, or the Swahili word for bus. Our driver pointed to giraffes grazing in the park to the left of us as we sped down the road exiting the airport, not avoiding other cars but bumping them in the other direction when he wanted to move lanes. Everyone was walking. The sides of the roads were filled with pedestrians journeying somewhere, like they were marbles dropped from a box onto the floor. Even on the highway, from the side of the road to as far as I could see in either direction people were walking. As I peered out the window, I could see hundreds of Kenyans traveling to work, the cakey dirt under their shoes bright red as if stained with blood, and the trees overhanging the road a bright and polished green. This entire world was green.

After a 25 minute of so drive, we made it to our home in Karen, a lush, leafy, and wealthy suburb to the West of the city. Our campus was gated, as we were told was the norm in this area due to theft and other petty crimes. Once inside our compound, I was struck again by the extreme inequality I had seen in Kenya. While only a few moments ago we drove by Kenyans who were walking miles to factory jobs, our 5 acre compound was as beautiful as a tropical resort. There was so much vegetation and bright green grass, a beautiful student center and library, and even a volleyball net and basketball court.

The view from my window

We spent the day learning about the compound we would be living in, meeting the staff who worked there, and exploring the other facilities. We played volleyball and cards, and went to eat the food already prepared for us when the lunch bell was rung. The whole day felt oddly reminiscent of summer camp, and it was strange to think that in a few days we would start classes and actual school together as well.

After a wonderful night of sleep, we woke up early the next morning to explore Nairobi. To get to Nairobi, we took mutatus so as to learn the local public transportation system. Nairobi is a vastly growing city without the necessary infrastructure to support the population growth, making driving nearly impossible and busses the optimal transportation option. We split into groups of six and ventured down the road to the nearest bus stop.

To ride a mutatu, you hail a bus speeding down the road, and the driver will tell you if there is enough room and what the going rate is (usually 75 cents to a dollar). If there is room, you can find a seat, but for us, as I hear is common, the driver sped off before we had done so, causing us to grasp the seats so as not to fall down on nearby passengers. Music blared on the speakers, and pictures of Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Lopez covered the walls. We bounded off of bumps in the road, and I had to grab the rail in front of me so I did not completely fly off the seat. Passengers exited and entered the bus so quickly, I am amazed the driver was able to keep track of everyone's fares. Needless to say, by the end of the ride, I felt like I was getting off of a roller coaster.

Once we made it to Nairobi, my small group of six and our leader, our professor Matt, got of in the financial district and explored the city. We were told prior to our trip that one of the most dangerous aspects of being in Nairboi is getting hit by a car, and being in the city today I completely understood why. Cars sped wildly down the road without any apparent concern for hitting wandering pedestrians. They do not have the right of way in Nairobi. Instead, you have to be aggressive and cross the street when you have time, aware that even when the sign is flashing you are not safe from a oncoming vehicle.

Getting curry at a local restaurant

The view from our eating spot
I was glad for my experience living in a city while being in Nairobi, something many of my classmates who are largely from small towns in New Hampshire and Vermont have not had as much of. Especially after living in San Francisco, I feel comfortable being in cities by myself and navigating my way. Still, I was not fully prepared for what it would feel like to be in Nairobi. While I was aware that the city was cosmopolitan while also being in a developing country, I was not fully prepared for the children who would ask you for money with a bottle of glue held to their nose, the drug the only way the could deal with their hunger. My heart ached for them as they followed us, tapping my shoulder and completely stoned, asking for money as you had to look at your feet and continue on. I was not fully prepared for the intense inequality I saw. For the businesses all protected by armed guards, as starving beggars sat on the sidewalk in front of them. Wealth seemed so gated in Kenya. While this is the case in the United States as well, it was made even more intense in this country by the fact that it seemed almost all spaces for those with money were separated by electric fences like our compound was, and almost always by men with machine guns. The message was clear: this is a space you only are welcome to if you belong.

After exploring the city for a few hours, we met up with the rest of our program and saw where we would be taking classes at the University of Nairobi in a few short days. Then we had the chance to visit a lookout on our way back to the compound, and snap a few pictures of the Nairobi skyline.

Now I am back at our compound once again writing this, still very jet lagged but so exited to be here. In a couple days we leave for our rural home-stay, a weeklong trip to a farming community in Northern Kenya where we will all be living with separate families who largely do not speak any English. I am excited to see the world of the Kikuyu people which is so vastly different to life in Nairobi, but also nervous as well. Being without technology or anyone I know for seven days is something I have never done before. But I am sure it will be rewarding.

Here is a poem I wrote last night on my first night in Nairobi, completely sleep deprived but with the burning need to put thoughts to paper. Heres to the first days in Kenya, and the journey that awaits in the weeks ahead!

So I saw my first slum today.
Almost as important as
your profile picture with nameless children
at that hospital
is the moment you see poverty
so violently different from the
kind you know that

Life experiences are different
than reading about things in books
they say
and I wonder as we listen to Adele
in our bus, pointing out the windows
at the tragedy:
blood stained dust, tin roof worlds,
Aquafina bottles floating in murky puddles,
children in Seahawks sweatshirts
(the same one I own)
sitting behind real and metaphorical walls
watching us drive by
if we or they
will say
this place
changed them more.

SLU Kenya Semester program Spring 2016!

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