Category Archives: EverydayLiving

Life back at home

Hm, re-entry back to life in the United States, and San Francisco, has been more turbulent than I was expecting.  There was the first week where I needed to hide away from the over-marketed, over-televised, over-gaudy society that is the American Christmas season. That and everyone’s obsession with the traffic and the weather. And then a week spent in New York City exploring and visiting friends, and imagining if I could be happy living there. Christmas with my family. And now I’ve returned to San Francisco, where I’m trying to figure out the plot twists in my next chapter of life.

For a three-week stretch in November and December, I slept in nine different places. I’ve now spent three weeks sleeping in one place – a home in SF full of friends – and that has been great – but until I get a new job, I will be firmly engaged in a gypsy life, floating from friend to friend, and couch to couch. And that is a very strange, and very new, feeling for me.

It’s been six weeks since I arrived back home to this country – and I’ve been struggling to define “home” ever since. I no longer have my own apartment; I no longer have a job to give me a defined purpose and way to focus my days; I graduated from my Masters program; most friends are hibernating during January, so my usual social scene is very slow right now. And, perhaps most importantly, I got very comfortable with the slower pace of life in Kenya, and a more homey existence, complete with helpful neighbors and boisterous kids next-door. I realize now that I want my next home to include other people – no more studio living for me. Having a cluster of wonderful friends that are part of my daily life, creating deeper connections, that’s what will make me feel more connected and at home.

How do you define home?

 

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A Capital Time

I promised you a post about Nairobi a while back didn’t I?  I haven’t forgotten.  Everything you read about Nairobi mentions how it’s referred to as ‘Nairobbery,’ and that you should take taxis everywhere at all costs and never walk around at night. I was therefore both cautious and extremely curious about what it really was like.  I ended up being incredibly surprised by Nairobi, for many reasons. The Nairobi I saw was a pleasant, cultured, courteous and safe one.  Maybe I was just lucky, or blessed by guardian angels, but it felt like a nice city, except for the truly disgusting level of pollution in the air.  The traffic is intense and the smog and dust and construction dirt and soot from industry means that on arrival you immediately start sneezing, coughing, and making your handkerchief black – that is the gross part of Nairobi.

I traveled there with my Director Gabi for a 3day weekend back at the end of September. We left 10pm Friday on an overnight bus.  We splurged a bit and got tickets on the nice bus, which was comfy, spacious, and came with snacks even.  The road between Mombasa and Nairobi is in notoriously bad shape though (and dangerous, so many accidents), and it seemed like the bus had to go off-roading, um, the whole trip. So there was a ton of turbulence whenever I tried to nod off, and I didn’t sleep a whole lot. We arrived about 5am, and waited for our friends Nikki and Nick to come collect us from the bus stage on the side of the road.  It was here that began our weekend of guardian angels.  A pikipiki (motorbike) driver stood with us, very much standing guard, not taking any passengers until our hosts showed up and we were secure.  We walked to their apartment and fell into sleep.  The next day we spent recovering from the journey, and helping prepare the apartment for a party Nikki was hosting that evening. We hung out with a bunch of Kenyans in the NGO and tech scene at this party, making new friends and connections. Possibly the biggest surprise for me about this city was that everyone speaks English to each other! Such a change from life on the Coast, where everyone speaks Kiswahili, and English is not guaranteed. The people of Nairobi are a mix of not just internationals, but of so many Kenyan tribes too. Each of these tribes has its own mother tongue, so Engish IS the common language here. And we were hanging out with a well-educated bunch too. All the same, it was a welcome relief to be sitting in a room full of Kenyans, and understanding the conversation for once. I also met someone who’d just moved to San Francisco, and was working for Samasource, a friend’s former employer. It’s fun to say “small world!” when you actually are on the other side of the world.  🙂

On Sunday we met with and interviewed a Kenyan girl who’d applied for an internship with us.  She was very impressive and has now been a great addition to our office the past three weeks. We then headed towards Impala Park, to check out a “Classical Fusion” concert we’d seen advertised. A string quartet from South Africa was headlining, and we’d missed the Mombasa show, so we decided not to miss it twice. It was such an unexpected experience!

Immediately after walking through the gate, the classical music, not-crowded grounds, and the atmosphere of the event made for a pleasantly abrupt change from the matatus and traffic-heavy road just outside. I was blown away by how familiar and normal everything and everyone inside was – from the picnic baskets and box-wine to the kids playing in the bouncy castle and the teenagers looking impressively stylish and hipster-like for their age. Just like home! The only difference was that ~97% of the people there were African. All ages, all styles, but definitely most all were in the upper middle class, happily enjoying this outdoor concert on a hot summer day. Like I said, unexpected! The music too: it was definitely “fusion” – I think they intended that to mean a combination of Classical and African beats… but it felt more like Irish folk music!! Seriously. The entire crowd got up on their feet and danced when asked to by the band.  And they stayed dancing, everyone, until the end, which was capped off by fireworks no less, in front of a brilliant sunset.  Really such a fantastic time.

We then went off in pursuit of Thai food.  I’d read that there were quite a few restaurants in the city and I had to get some tasty Thai, my favorite, while I had the opportunity.  After a trio of matatus across town, and a few more guardian angels helping us find our way, (even accompanying us out of their way a few times!) we made it to Westlands and a Thai restaurant – oh no it was closed on Sundays!  But thankfully, there was another one in the building that was open! Oh the magnificent options of a real city, how I miss thee. We enjoyed a very delicious meal, and not just because we were in Kenya. It stood on its own as really delicious, and I made note to attempt some Thai cooking back in Likoni, to diversify the options for my tastebuds. (See: Thai cooking post) We headed back to Nikki’s, enjoying two more matatu rides (gasp, at night!). Not once did we take a taxi, our entire time in Nairobi. So there, Lonely Planet!

On Monday we went to the Tarehe School for Boys to visit their library and take notes, as we were organizing our own community to get our library completed. The school and library were clean, orderly, impressive. Freshly inspired, we were to then meet with Gabi’s friend who works at a school in Kibera. She had to cancel, so I called a friend of a friend, and we met up with him for lunch instead. He is building schools throughout the slums of Nairobi, and meeting with great success using a corporate model (Bridge Academies – the site is pretty empty though!). The nicest part about meeting Jay was talking to someone about our mutual friends, while also about development topics and issues on a professional level. I want more of that in my life! I’m eager for more of my socializing to be with people in my chosen career world. That might mean leaving all of my loved ones in San Francisco for a while. I found the immense size of Nairobi comfortable and exciting, and it made me wonder if New York might be the place I want to live next. I’m applying for jobs all over the country, we’ll see where the winds blow me…

We parted ways with Jay and headed to a second-hand clothes market for some shopping.  Even though I don’t really enjoy bartering at all (I’ve found that I miss pricetags so much – don’t ask me what I want to pay, just tell me how much it is!), we managed to get some good deals, and some cute new items.  We went back into town, met up with a coworker’s sister for a drink, and then went to another place to get some burgers.  Nikki and Nick met us there after a bit, and Gabi and I intentionally drank our beers quickly so that we’d sleep well on the late bus home. It worked! I managed to sleep, and we got into Mombasa just about sunrise. Our words were few and our eyelids heavy, but a satisfying and fun time was had. I was glad to leave before something happened to sour my experience!

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Adding some spice

When I visited Nairobi at the end of September, I insisted on going out to a Thai restaurant.  It was surprisingly delicious, and not just because we were in Kenya!  I will write more about Nairobi soon – but I was inspired to try out some Thai cooking myself.  I began cooking my own dinners a few weeks back.  Spaghetti pasta with butter, salt and pepper, tossed with some cut-up tomatoes and avocados.  Simple, tasty, healthy, and oh it made me happy.  I have always been too busy to cook my own meals back in SF, and I’m finding that I really enjoy it, especially with fresh vegetables so available!  I stepped it up a notch this Monday though, and I went to Nakumatt’s exotic foods aisle and found some green curry paste.  I am now making some seriously good food over here, people!  Green curry eggplant and spinach with pan-fried noodles.  Oh the new taste sensation is magnificent manna to my mouth!

Next concoction for my menu: Sauteed spinach with Thai pepper sauce!

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Excess

Living here in a land of meager means has made me realize just how easily we let ourselves consume to excess back at home.  Some examples:

1.     I’ve been taking “bucket baths” here instead of showers.  You have a large bucket of water, and you use a small pail to scoop some up and pour it over yourself.  Repeat.  It’s very effective, and efficient.  Occasionally I will travel and stay at a hotel, and then, taking a shower feels like such luxury, but it’s also a bit unsettling because I’m so conscious of how much water I’m using, and wasting.  It’s the soap that does the cleaning, not the water.  So you really just need enough water to lather, and then rinse it off.  I thought I was being good before by turning off the shower while I shaved my legs, but going back to using gallons of water every time will be a shock!

2.     I was pleasantly surprised by how tasty the food was in the Coast region of Kenya.  Previous visitors to NW Kenya had warned me of severe blandness.  But here, there is a mix of cultures that make the Swahili cuisine something different from the rest of the country.  However, there are about five main dishes in this cuisine.  And they’re all starch-heavy and salt-low and begin to taste the same.  And no one ever makes anything else.  Especially in Likoni – it’s all the same, everywhere you go.  Every restaurant has literally the same exact menu.  So, despite the pleasant tastes, I got very tired of the food, very quickly.  I adjusted to smaller portions, and ate only enough to satisfy my hunger.  I think I have eaten until the point where you feel achingly full maybe five times in Kenya.  This is of course the healthiest way to eat, but it is hardly the norm in the developed world, where delicious, eclectic tasty food is readily available, and lots of it is served to you in every portion.  Now that I’ve gotten into the habit of eating so little (and seeing the benefits!) I’m a little wary of returning to the US (oh no especially during the holidays!), and facing the piles of delicious we so eagerly present to loved ones and customers.

3.     Soda here is served with a straw, every single time.  You rarely see someone drinking directly from the bottle.  This is for two reasons.  1 – the bottles are returned to the shop, and then returned to the bottler, and used again.  So the lip of the bottle might end up chipped or have a rusty cap on it… it’s easy to wipe the lip, but it’s also easy to just avoid it and use a straw.  2 – The other reason though is that the straw makes you take small sips of the bubbly, sugary treat.  Straw-sips let you get the taste without having to pour it into your mouth.  You can make it last much, much longer, allowing you to savor the unnecessary food item that you decided to purchase anyway.  I’m not much of a soda drinker, but sometimes I will get a Stoney’s (mm, ginger beer), and I can really appreciate the slow, savoring method of drinking.

I’m no ascetic saint though, I won’t lie – as soon as I get to a country with potable water (the Istanbul airport?) I plan on parking myself at the water fountain and drinking from the tap until my bladder bursts.  As soon as I get home, I plan on soaking in the tub until all the grime on the bottom of my feet, that bucket baths just won’t cleanse, finally comes off.  And I am looking so forward to a sushi feast, and rushing to a Thai restaurant in SF for duck curry, that I will probably start having dreams about it soon.

But as the holidays approach, and as the new year begins, I hope both you and I remember to savor our bounty, every bite, and every sip.

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A Typical Day in the Life of My Stomach/Wallet (in Kenya)

1 = hamri >1= mahamri

Breakfast:

  • Hamri (pastry) – 10 Ksh
  • Banana – 5 Ksh
  • Tea with milk – 10 Ksh

o   Total: 25 Ksh

Lunch

  • Omelette (2 eggs) – 20 Ksh
  • Chapati (tortilla-like pastry) – 10 Ksh

o   Total: 30 Ksh

Dinner

  • ¼ chicken, grilled – 100 Ksh
  • rice, with sliced tomatoes – 30 Ksh
  • Sukuma (Kale) – 15 Ksh

o   Total: 145 Ksh

Grand Total: 200 Kenyan shillings

Grand Total (USD): $2.50

Sometimes it’s good to remind myself that occasionally splurging on the grilled chicken is OK for me to do.  Thankfully, in other stomach news, I remain completely healthy and have not been waylaid by any stomach issues so far.  All of this biking and walking around is also trimming me down a bit!  I hope my final 10 weeks here will also be illness-free, cross your fingers for me  🙂

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My own place

On a more personal note, I also moved into my own 2-room apartment on Sept 1 – here everyone calls it shifting places.  I then immediately spent five days with my friends Heidi and Joe, who were visiting Kenya and came to Mombasa to see me and my life here.  We had a great time, and they got to meet my hostmama and hostsister, and to hang out with the kids at Twaayf and Madaraka, and we all worked on our tans. 🙂  So then I spent last weekend nesting a bit and getting used to the place.  After 2+ months of living with 4-7 other people in my host family’s house, being back in an apartment with just me and no TV was so quiet.  Luckily, everyone else in the building makes up for that.  Music and TV are on loudly a lot, but I really don’t mind.  I usually need to be up by 8am anyway, it’s cool.

Here’s a picture of me in my new apartment, and a picture of all of the plastic crap that I had to buy for it.  The red wrinkly floor is included in that category, by the way.  It’s what’s called “PVC carpeting” and it’s covering the floors in both of my rooms because new concrete floors soak up a lot of moisture from the ground and make the floor very damp at night.  It eventually lays flat, and adheres thanks to this moisture.

My apartment is in a neighborhood of Likoni called Majengo Mapya (which translates to New Buildings).  This whole area has been populated just within the past ten or so years I’ve been told – one person was given a huge tract of land by someone in the government, and eventually locals stepped in and took the land back and started building.  Something like that.  Houses are being built at a very fast rate here, and I wake up to hammers quite a bit.  Though I now live very close to a mosque, so the call to prayer wakes me up even more – I’m getting used to it though.  I’m very happy now that Ramadan is wrapping up, as that means shorter and fewer calls over the megaphones.  The 5am one will be there every day though.  I’m getting better at falling back asleep after it wakes me up…

Here’s a map of Likoni.  You can see the ferry at the northern edge, just south of the island part of Mombasa.  The green arrow is the Hatua Likoni office, the yellow arrow is my host family’s house, and the orange arrow is my new apartment.  It takes me about 25minutes to walk across to the office now, and it took me 5min to walk from the other house, to give you perspective of scale.  Most of my coworkers live on this side of Likoni, and you also see how much closer the beach is now, and those are 2 big pluses.  The Likoni-Ukunda Road that is yellow and snakes around the edge of the map is the only paved road in all of Likoni.  I can also walk to ferry easily. I just got a bicycle, and biked to work today for the first time, which was great!  The roads are definitely very bumpy, and plagued by sharp coral-rocks, but I’ll go slowly and hopefully avoid punctures.  I’m excited to explore more of the area – having my own means of locomotion always makes me a much happier monkey.

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