Monday, September 2, 2013

Crash Landing

Remember when you were on the last day of a long trip and your head was full of thoughts about things to do, places and people to see once you got back home?  Remember how your tummy would do little flips of excitement as you mulled each of these thoughts over trying to decide what to do first when you got back?  The anticipation, longing and mystery of being home again?

I didn't have any of these.  I was just desperately sad. I had constant thoughts of how quiet it would be at home.  Two days before my flight home Steph called to say my Dad was in the hospital with pneumonia.  He wasn't doing well.  Wham! Another shot to the gut.  I was actually more concerned about my Mom who vacillated between good and bad days and now this.  Jeez. I said my silent prayers for him to just hold on.  I was on my way.  My niece skyped me that during her visit with him she told him I was coming to see him, he opened his eyes to make sure he heard the message, and then drifted back into sleepy silence.

I didn't make it in time.  After Steph greeted me at the airport with a mega "welcome home Mom" sign she told me Grandpa had died while I was enroute.  Crash landing.  I choose to think that he was well aware of the discord in his large group of younguns and that is why he opted for cremation with no ceremony.  And the claws and talons had already been bared so no reason to rush home to North Carolina.

Since I had told only Steph and my friend Bender of my return, arriving at my itty bitty home was eerily quiet.  They lugged my bags upstairs and I just plopped down on the chaise.  Everything looked the same, smelled the same but didn't feel the same.  Soon the sad, sad tears were flowing silently down my cheeks as Steph just hugged me.  They knew I was feeling the loneliness of missing my boys and my Dad.  And thankfully they knew I just needed to be in that moment, sit with it, feel it.  I just needed to be.  After a couple of hours of small talk, I just wanted my own private space and they left me in my quiet.  And I just sat in it.  For many, many hours. I just wanted to crawl into a tight ball and continue crying.

Fortunately I had made spa appointments for the next day or I know I would have never left my house for days.  But that would happen anyway.  Driving to my appointment I felt disoriented in the traffic and barely drove the speed limit. Things were moving just waaaay too fast and it was making me anxious.  When I arrived at the spa, everyone knew me and rushed to say welcome home. Then tons of questions. "Was it fabulous?"  "Did you have a great time?"  "Was it exciting?"  I really struggled not to break into a huge blubbering, crying jag.  I explained that those are not the words I would use to describe my last two years.  Instead, I tell everyone it was "humbling."

And it was.  And that is truly the only word I can use that may give someone pause to stop mid sentence and ponder what I meant.   I was humbled by the experience and now contemplate how it will fit into my old world thoughts and actions.  I'm still mulling that over.

But there are some interesting readjustments.  I will forget to flush the toilet sometimes.  I do think the colors on the tv are too bright.  I forget I have meat in the fridge I can cook for dinner.  I get anxious in noisy, crowded, bustling places. And I am freezing cold--all the time.  I laugh at myself when I grab a sweater to go out remembering how odd I thought it was that Kenyans wore a coat on the hottest day.  Jokes on me now.

My spa day was my only day outside for almost three weeks.  I really wanted to just be in my own quiet space, cocoon a bit.  Fortunately Bender had stocked my fridge with every possible food item.  So I just hunkered down.  I sent an email letting people know I was in my cave and why.  I really did not want to be the debbie downer when they were all so excited to see me again.  I would emerge slowly, in my own time.

After a week, I unpacked my suitcases and when I opened my bureau to put things away, I was suddenly struck by all the "stuff."  For real!  Who needs all those nighties, socks, leggings or shoes?  More "stuff" than we ever wear!  I began purging every single drawer in every single cabinet in the house.  I packed it all in boxes to give away.  I had lived for two years with 5 pairs of pants, five skirts, two pairs of shoes, three sweaters and rotated 10 t-shirts.  I have just discovered change #1.

By the end of my second week home, with my house thoroughly purged, I'm still having crying jags but have moved on to making lists. Bender had done an amazing job caring for my place so it was just the little upkeep and maintenance things that were now on my mind.  Get the a/c serviced, recaulk the tub, toss the rotted balcony chairs and replant the flower boxes.  More heady items were also on the list but I kept pushing them to the bottom.  Some days I would look at the lists and have a goal to accomplish just one.  Then I would crawl back in the bed having done nothing.  Note to self:  You have a shower and can use it any time you like.  You don't even have to heat the water in a pot on the stove.

By the third week I was thinking I might be ready to venture my big toe outside.  I had avoided walking down to the new waterfront park because I knew it would be too sad to be there without my pups.  Some people had called and I let it go to the machine.  My friend Jim had maintained my Kennedy Center subscription for me and said we had tickets for a play.  Okay.  I can do that.  So I thought.  As it got closer to the time to leave, I told him I was feeling very anxious and might have to bail if it continued.  We had a low key dinner out and proceeded to the play.  I did have a few moments of claustrophobia as we walked to our seats but powered on.  By intermission I was antsy.  When it was over I bolted.  I wanted my quiet again.  No after theater cocktails.  Get me home.

At week four, I have now begun to reach out to close friends, had a few doctors appointments and struggled with a nasty sinus infection.  I surmise having so many plants, flowers and trees again has ravaged my sinuses.  Didn't have those in Kenya.  They had all been hewn to make firewood or charcoal.  I actually returned for another show but still wanted to be back in my cocoon immediately afterward.  Maybe change #2? Not quite sure yet.  I know I am still grieving.

I need to have another dog.  That's what's missing.  Some unconditional love.  A doting companion. So I found Rocky now renamed CoKa in honor of my former boys.  I rescued him from a Cocker shelter.  He really is the best of both my former loves.  He looks like Cognac and has the quiet nature of Kahlua.  He's eight, loving and docile.  I wasn't sure he could bark until he let out a little "arf" at the mailman.  Now he and I relish the park with its water feature and he has made many new human and doggie friends.  Going outside is now something we both look forward to.

And I do miss Kenya.  I hear from Pastor that Sukari is happy but still looking for me when the gate squeaks, and my friends there have sent loving emails and even called.  Mostly I miss the quiet.  And the inky, black of night so dark you can't find your hand in front of you.  The stars twinkling like embers from fireworks in the equatorial sky.  And the smiles on the faces of my dear friends there that made you feel like you were the sunshine in their world.

So I had a crash landing after a humbling two year journey.  And now a new journey begins.  One of new discoveries that will be just as monumental in ways I have yet to identify.  I will keep you posted...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tears for Kenya

I am  now officially a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) in government speak.  After 24 hours of travel I will once again plop my feet on US soil for the first time in two years.  I am finishing my service a bit early because there are quite a few things at home that now need my immediate attention.

So what am I feeling right now?  Hmmmm?  Kinda like I'm in a state of suspended animation.  I know in the past two years I have changed, you have changed and the world has changed.  I also know navigating those changes will be a new challenge as I start to consider what lies next for me.  There are sooooo many things I will not miss about Kenya but then it's like being in labor.  Once the baby is born, you forget about all the discomfort and focus on that pretty new life.  And those are the deeply heartfelt memories of the people, places, customs and experiences that will warm my heart with tenderness forever.

And those are the things that cause me to shed tears for Kenya.

I had been contemplating my return home for a few months but as the time drew to within a week, I found myself teary eyed as I encountered all the friends, colleagues, children in my village and elsewhere.  I had told no one yet.  Mainly because I did not want a splashy goodbye that I knew would happen, but also I didn't want my house robbed until Pastor's family could come to claim everything I was leaving behind.  I was just going to walk out the door with enough clothes to last me three days and everything else is theirs.
This is Pastor's oldest daughter Esther, age 8 and she is a love.  I took her to Eldoret with me recently and she slept at my house, ate microwave popcorn, watched Lion King and slept in what will now be her new bed without her brothers' feet in her face.

Mama Monicah will have a new gas cooker, dishes, cupboard and wardrobe. And she is so excited about not having to cook outside in the rain anymore and safely store her food and dishes without the worry of critters.  She's not sure she can remember all I told her about the microwave and toaster but knows she will enjoy having a fridge now too.

Pastor has a new canvas timbuktu to carry the word of God and other papers safely from the weather as he travels the outlying villages to minister to his flock.  The boys are thrilled to have new shirts to wear.  Doesn't even matter if they are ladies.

I really did spring my leaving on them. Literally.  Came for tea with Sukari and dropped the bomb that I was going in the morning.  The night before I had a crying jag in my bed just thinking about it, head smashed into the pillow to keep the sound from echoing thru the compound.  It scared Sukari and she jumped off the bed and hid.  So I knew I had to pull myself together if I was going to have a last night cuddle with her.

So it was very, very painful to say goodbye to people who have loved you, cared about you, cared for you and included you in every moment of their life.  They had become my family.
I enjoyed laughing with Monicah and adorable baby Joy--six months old now.
Isn't she just the cutest!!!!  And she loves Sukari and it is mutual.  Sukari is not only the family dog but the protector of this cutie and her family.  No one goes near her when she naps because Sukari is laying watch under the bed and will growl.
And Sukari loves her new job.  Joy is the only one who can pull her tail or ears. And Sukari will nuzzle Joy at diaper level to elicit the sweetest giggle ever.

Sukari knew I was leaving because she was very clingy with me during our visit.  And when I hugged and kissed her goodbye, she had that look of knowing and didn't try to follow me out.  She is now part of a new family to whom she was promised.  And I keep my promises--or try to.  Like promising to return for a visit when Sukari becomes a Mom.  That won't happen for at least 18 months because I just gave her a birth control shot last week.  She will be an awesome Mama dog!

The next morning my trusted taxi driver Kim took me to the matatu stage--almost.  He ran out of gas for the fourth time one block away.  Not wanting to have to see him struggle with my heavy bags, I told him I would push him into the petrol station at the other end of the block.  " No Madam" he insisted but I pushed anyway and he rolled in next to the pump.  I was teasing him about it being the 4th time while he insisted it was only the 3rd.  Instead of paying him 100 shillings for the ride I paid the 300 for the petrol.  He just looked at me quietly.  I put my now dusty, dirty, bruised self back in the car to drive up the hill to the matatu and Kim says"Madam, you really love me don't you?"  "Yes, Kim."  He loaded my bags into the vehicle and for the first time ever, came and gave me a big hug and looked sweetly in my face.  No words.  Like Sukari, he knew I was leaving for good.

So it's time to come back to my home.  I'm overjoyed just thinking about seeing family and friends.  But also very saddened knowing how quiet my little place will be without my two boys to go on walks, cuddle and provide me sloppy kisses when needed.  Kahlua's sudden death a week ago is still such a shock. He just missed me and Cognac too much and let go.

So at this moment there are tears for Kenya and will probably be many more.  And then home will bring new tears for what I left behind and what will also lie ahead.  Here's to soft landings for the future.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Zanzibar--Two Thumbs Down

Looks beautiful from up here!  White powdery sand, aqua beaches...

Even the hotel is lovely.  Though why you would want an indoor pool at the beach escapes me?

So what's the story.  Well, I'm sure it is distinctly clouded by our experience at the hotel.  Yes, it was nice enough, people were friendly, but the food SUCKED!  I mean we're at the ocean for christsakes--where's the seafood?????  The menu was short but sweet.  But everything we asked for was unavailable.  They couldn't even do breakfast decently.  The place was nearly vacant--only 4 other people there.  Thank God we made friends with Francine from NYC so we could whine together.  During our five days there we only had one good meal and that was seafood on seafood night.  The rest of the food was a real mystery.
At least the cocktails were good and free and we made the most of the liquid diet.

The beach was deserted and during low tide you could walk almost a mile out into the ocean to a reef.  We attempted it one morning and were given rubber shoes to wear.  Now I know why.  It was impossible without them as there were hidden coral colonies at high tide that now made the trek very treacherous.  Not to mention the anemones in droves just waiting for a misstep to render a blow.  Shockingly we encountered local women with hand made spears walking barefoot spearing fish and shrimp along the route which they deposited into burlap bags.  They were singing and laughing and we had a nice chat with them.  It was so difficult to maneuver the coral that we never made it to the reef before the tide started coming back.  Forget this!

After a couple of days of lazy sun, Steph got overdone so the next morning with Francine in tow, we headed for a Spice Farm Tour and to visit the ancient Stone Town.
There a lots of spice tours available and when you drive back into the forest you would be clueless of what awaits.  Under the canopy of trees it is cool, buggy and very aromatic.  Our guide proceeded to show us the wonders.
Can you guess?  This is cinnamon.  Never had any idea it was a tree.  They slice the bark and then let it dry.  It curls on its own as the moisture evaporates.
Yep.  A freshly picked cluster of lichee nuts.  And he was right.  They are the sweetest I have ever tasted.
And madame Steph is sporting a freshly sliced star fruit.  Very sappy and sweet--both of them!
And here we have cloves.  Would have walked right by and missed them.  Our guide walked around for a bit with one stuffed in his nose since he said he had a cold.  Looked like a green bugger--gross.
And these are nutmeg pods.  The nutmeg falls to the ground when it is ripe.
Beats me what this is, especially since you have to pry open the husk like a clam.
And then it is revealed--the lipstick plant as he demonstrates.  Very creamy kernels with a nice, gentle aroma.  It is actually used for lipstick and the locals use it au naturale.
And this monster they call a cotton tree.  It actually grows these huge whisps that then fall to the ground.  Thought I might try a few hair extensions.
At the end of the tour we were all crowned queens--for a price of course.  They wanted to seriously overcharge us for these freshly woven palm frond hats and specs.  No thanks.  We did do some hard bargaining for some spices before we left to visit Stone Town.

Probably another reason Zanzibar was not a fave was our location way up on the north coast.  It was 45 minutes into town!  Then in town it stunk horrifically!!!  I know, lots of places stink but this really was the worst.
Probably had something to do with the seafood market.  Finally found seafood!
Fresh octopus anyone?  Steph and Francine were gagging by now so we exited back to the street before they started to hurl.
As it was midday, most people were out of the sun having lunch somewhere.  Looks, feels and smells like any other coastal town.  But I would take Lamu any day over this.  Just didn't like the vibe here.  It wasn't welcoming.
I had read that this was a great foodie place with awesome coffee.
Once you cross the lush courtyard, you enter the hotel area.  Then you walk up seven flights of stairs to the rooftop restaurant. Going back down was much less effort.

The view across the roofs to the ocean was spectacular!
And the menu was quite interesting.  Of course we have to try the coffee and it did not disappoint.  Lunch?  That was a different thing altogether.  Steph and I ordered the fish of the day and Francine craved a steak.  After 30 minutes Steph got raw fish but mine was ok.  She sent hers back. I ate mine.  Francine waited.  After another 30 minutes, Steph got her fish and Francine got her steak.  Fish works but the steak is shoe leather.  Back it goes and we wait.  After another 30 minutes there is quite a commotion in the kitchen behind us, the chef runs out, the manager is yelling at him and the waiters scatter.  Francine gives up.  Francine wanted to treat us but when she went to use her credit card there was no power.  So we all scrounged up enough cash to pay the tab and left.
We walked along the docks, by the olde cannons that formerly protected this colony.  In this ocean square they have seafood festivals at night but we didn't want to make another expensive 45minute ride into town that night.  Instead we sat enjoying the sun and breeze.  At least for a bit.  We were accosted by a very drunk local trying to sell us trinkets.  When we tried to shoo him away, he started screaming 'fuck you' over and over.  Our guide finally ran him off, thankfully, and we headed back to the crappy food hotel.
Dear Francine left us in the morning and we left our temporary imprint on the powdery sand on our last day.  In the morning it is back to Nairobi and Steph's last day here.
Where did the three weeks go???
 I decided to give Steph a work out so she would sleep well on her flight home.  So we headed to Hell's Gate National Park to spend the day.  It takes about 2 hours to get there.  I had intended for us to ride bikes thru the park but I soon realized it would be a bit taxing in the heat and they had no maps and we had not packed a lunch.  So Caesar drove us along the dirt roads where we saw many groups that had camped overnight and were proceeding to rappel the cliffs and rocks.  We decided to hire a guide (required) and tour the gorge.  We opted for the two hour hike.
Well.  It was more than a hike.  It was a workout!  And yes, you did need to hold on when climbing up and down the sheer rocky faces.
Yes, we did climb down this to walk along the dry riverbed.  Scary.  Steph had to be coaxed and our skinny Masaai guide showed her he really was a strong dude.
Some areas are not so dry as they are fed by underground springs, both hot and cold.  Last year in this spot a sudden rain storm created a flash flood that washed 30 school children down stream killing 7.  It is closed off now until they replace the surrounding walkways.

And then the day was done.  Back to the skeeter motel to grab our bags after a bite to eat and somehow it was almost 10pm liftoff time.  We dashed to the airport to find Steph's flight boarding so we didn't have time for our usual slobbery, crying, snotty nose farewells.  We actually missed that, we both agreed.

So she was gone.  February flew by somehow but not without reminders of Zanzibar.  I contracted malaria and spent most of February in bed.  Feels like the worst flu you ever had.  Another reason not to like Zanzibar. And then in March we were consolidated for the Kenyan elections for 10 days.  It was fun to spend time with the other 115 volunteers but after about 7 days we all found we missed the quiet of our own villages and routines.  And then we endured the wait for the official declaration.  It was like the hanging chad, Blagoyovich and Supreme Court all rolled into one!!  What a stressful time not knowing if and when there would be violence.  But it's done now and the countdown is here for all of us to return to the good ole U. S. of A.  Only a few more months now and I am soooooooooo ready!  We start doing our paperwork and have our final medical exams next month in preparation.

I'll close this tome by thanking Steph again for being such a love to my boy Cognac.  I appreciate everyone's prayers but his brain tumor was not going to allow him to have a happy ending.  It was his time.  So Steph kindly put him to sleep for me before she visited and we both cried over him when she arrived.  Happy trails sweet boy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Steph Lives My Life

Caesar drove us to my town, Kabarnet, and now Steph gets to rough it with me for four days.

The view across the mountains is amazing!
And then we walk into my 'compound' down the rocky area, dodging cow pies and chickens.
And arrive at my front door. I'm pleased to see Eric has kept my lettuce and parsley alive.  We drop our bags and Steph needs a bathroom break.
Twas a really rough initiation!  Steph actually stepped out and dry heaved for about five minutes.  She finally made it with a bandanna tied around her nose and mouth. After a couple of days she had mastered holding her breath and didn't even pee on her shoes!  Good job girlie girl!

Being away for a couple of weeks, we needed to head out for food and of course everyone wanted to meet her.
We headed to the market for fresh fruit and veggies and to meet my market 'Mama's.'
Mama Essie has fresh kale and began chopping it for us while we chatted. She has since rented her space to someone else because she got an office job she has been waiting for three years to land.
Mama Kelvin (you are addressed by the name of your first born child) sells dried beans.  Sometimes I buy them from her and then give them away.  My tummy can't take beans any more.  Mama Kelvin calls me 'Mama Sukari' because she can never remember Stephanie.  Quite a few Mamas do this.  Works for me just fine.
Mama Mary didn't want to be in the picture but I buy most of my needs from her.  She always throws extra into each bag.

After we lug our purchases home, we head to Pastor's house to collect Sukari.His family is very excited to meet Steph and invites us for Sunday supper after attending his church service, of course.  Steph is winded from hiking up the rocky terrain to their house and of course being called muzungu by about 50 kids running from all directions.

We taxi back to my place, unpack a bit and I whip up some dinner before it gets too dark and the power goes out.
Sukari takes up her position in the 'queen's' chair to  check out this new person that has invaded her space.  She and Steph are soon fast friends and she love, love, loves all the belly rubs and head scratches.  She even starts talking to Steph in her doggie lingo.

Saturday we are up early meet our taxi driver and head to Eldoret for some supermarket shopping.  I didn't want to subject Steph to local market meat because I didn't want to hear her gag at every meal.  We stopped and viewed the Keriyo Gorge along the way, even saw hang gliders from Iten floating among the mountain tops and returned before dark.

Sunday was to be a big day as we were going to Pastor's church for service.  I had never gone before and he was all excited to have us visit.  Services usually begin at 10am and go until 2pm.  I knew we would never last that long so we hiked over to arrive around noon.
Pastor has the largest church and congregation in town and he is the only full time pastor, meaning he has no other job outside his church.  It is an AIC church (African Inland Church) which isn't the bible thumping, rocking and screaming type--hallelujah!  And it was packed!!!!  There were easily 1000 people there with kids running around on the lawn out front.  Of course we were escorted right up to the front pew to sit with Pastor and his family.  It was a lovely, entertaining service which he conducted both in English and Kiswahili for our benefit.  Lots of youth groups took to the altar to sing their ensembles and one young lad of about 10 really rocked it!  All newcomers have to stand in front, introduce themselves and say a few words.  I forgot to tell Steph about this part but she did just fine.

The service ended around 2ish and after a 30 minute break, it was back inside for me to lead a meeting about a local program I am starting here and to introduce another local organization that educates about HIV/AIDS.  Jeepers!  It took forever.  I don't know why I thought it would be any different that any other meeting.  We had about 300 people that stayed to hear our program and once again Steph and I were asked to speak, this time in more depth.  It was very touching when Steph was asked to talk about what it meant for her to visit her Mom in Kenya.

We finally finished up around 4:30 and Pastor said to come to his house around 6 for supper with the family.
Pastor has four children of his own and has taken in two more that are relatives.
This is baby Joy.  She was born Christmas Day and is doted on by everyone.

They had prepared a quite tasty chicken dish with vegetables and we talked and laughed until around 10pm.  They really thought we would stay the night!!  It took quite some doing to get a taxi to come for us as most don't work on Sunday and when we returned home we were wiped out.

The next day I took Steph to see the demonstration garden that is one of my projects.  I had not seen it since it was planted just before Christmas.
Wow!! We were impressed.  It was now abloom and ready for harvesting.  This is the spinach, kale and spring onions.  It has since become quite a controversy.  The so called 'volunteers' that were tending it in exchange for free food demanded to be paid for their work too. So Madame Roseline paid them and chased them away--no free food here.  We now have to rethink how we do this project.

After lunch in town and back at my place, Steph wanted to milk one of the cows.
Eric showed her the basics and then she stepped right up.  I only knew about this later or I certainly would have snapped that shot.  She said the udders were greasy--duh.  If you had someone yanking on you several times a day, you would want a lubricant too.  Okay all you sickos--get your mind out of the gutter.

Steph had been helping me out with heating water, hauling water, cleaning house etc.  Now it was time to purify some water.
Time to roll up your sleeves and get to it.  This is the same bandana that she had previously used as a toilet face mask.
After you fill this 20 liter container, you add several packets of purifying powder, stir for five minutes, wait 20 minutes for it to settle and then strain.  And this is the gunk.  Can you imagine drinking it without this process??  It took us most of the day to do 40 liters that will last me for about 10 days.  I use the clean water for drinking and cooking but the nasty stuff to bathe and clean the floors.  Though recently I began using the clean water to wash my face since it seems to constantly look like an everything pizza.  My face that is.

When we finished all the chores, Steph remarked "Mom this is a hard life. I don't know if I could do this."
So we decided to play another game of Bananagrams.  It is the standard entertainment.

The next morning is ta-ta to Kabarnet and back to Nairobi to head to Zanzibar.
Steph wasn't as ruffled catching a matatu this time since everyone here knows me and doesn't cause such a furor.  Mama Gladys was there to sell us our tickets and see us off.

Ohhhhhhh to head to the ocean, have hot showers and good food.  Zanzibar here we come!