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Friday, July 23, 2010

"We Love You So So Much"

Four days on a beach in Mombasa leads back to Njabini and Flying Kites.  Only this time, we’re prepared for the Gimwa, our home away from home.  We’re not surprised when it takes two hours to check in, or when the shower drips on our head in the middle of the night while using the toilet.  The very damp towels we’re supposed to use to dry off no longer annoy us and we anticipate the cacophony of early morning roosters and wild dogs.  We even look forward to the curdled skin floating on the chai tea in the cafĂ©; we know the line dancing music videos that repeat on the one snowy Gimwa television channel, and we’ve come to terms with the fact that Ruth and Mary, the Gimwa servers, aren’t at all happy to see us. 

But the children are.  And that’s all that matters.  They clamor for our attention as soon as we arrive back on site.  Some remember us, some don’t, but they love us just the same.  Before long, we’re trading stories about the mountain, playing nail salon or kicking soccer goals in tribute to the ongoing World Cup.  Ah, welcome back!

There’s a different vibe on this visit.  All of the Kilimanjaro climbers have gone home, a number of volunteers have completed their stays, and Kites founders Leila and Justine have made their way back to Newport.  Even the in-country directors are off-site, pushing forward with a local program called Oasis in Nairobi to unite the surrounding orphanages in practice and standards.  I imagine this is what regular days feel like at Flying Kites.  Lazy, organized, quiet.  The eighteen boarders have all of our attention today—Sunday.  They come out to greet us one by one—Rahab, Moses, James, John, Mary, Benson, Joseph, Sara, Lucy, Lucy Obama, Miriam, Hannah, Ann, Alex, Isaac, Daniel, Rose, and the newest alum, Eve*.

In the month since we’ve been away, a lot has happened.  Eve is now in temporary Kites custody.  The chief of Njabini stepped in on her behalf; her family didn’t put up a fight.  It took a little getting used to, seeing Eve in clean jeans and a baby blue fleece.  No more filthy school uniform, no more cowering in corners along the main Njabini road.  Her smile spoke volumes but it was plain to see that life, albeit a past life, had taken its toll.  In the period of an hour, Eve could go through any range of emotions, usually unprovoked.  She might be happy and giddy, then argumentative and belligerent.  She pushes and she yells.  Then, she cries.  There’s a lot of distrust in Eve’s eyes, but she’s figuring out how to get along with the others.  You can see that she wants to learn; her English is fantastic.  Thinking about how little language she had when we met her in Njabini speaks to her desire to fit in, to learn, and to grow.  I shudder to think of what would’ve happened to Eve had Darryl and I not come to Kenya.  It gets me every time.

As we’re laying on blankets in the sun after lunch Ann, a stunning beauty of eleven years old who has been braiding my hair turns to me and says:

“What did you do to your legs?”
I look down at my legs, unsure of Ann’s meaning.
“My legs?  Why?”
“They don’t look like regular mzungu (white person) legs.”
Bashfully, she gestures to the fair-skinned Bethany.  Then, her gaze turns to Darryl.  I laugh.  
“I went in the sun and I got a tan at the beach.”
“Oh,” she says but she looks confused. 
“What’s tan?” she asks.
I realize she’s never seen a beach and I feel guilty.

When she sees me writing the conversation down, she asks if I’m writing what she said to remember her.  Yes, I say.  I want to remember you forever.  Slowly, she takes my pen and asks to write in my book.  Then, she proceeds to write the rest of our conversation.

“What’s your favorite colour?”
“My favorite colour is red,” I reply.
“What’s your favorite color, Ann?”
“I said magenta,” she writes.
“I want to remember you forever, too.”
I turn away because there are tears in my eyes and I don’t want to have to explain.

Seeing Ann write in my notebook prompts Lucy Obama to beg a turn with my pen.  Daniel has my camera, Eve has my sunglasses, Alex has my sneakers, and now Lucy has my notebook.  It’s hard to keep track.  After scribbling behind the shield of her elbow, Lucy’s head pops back up.

“I wrote you a letter, do you want to hear it?”
“Yes, of course, Lucy Obama!”

She reads:
“Dear Marie and Aunty (I assume this is Darryl)
My name is Lucy.  I live in Flying Kites.  I love you so much.
Baboons.  Warthogs.  Giraffes. 
Dik dik.  Cheetah.  Elephant.  Impala.  Zebras.”

Huh?  Confused, I take my book back.  Lucy is giggling uncontrollably.  She has written on a page opposite my safari notes.  She’s copied all the animals, and all my notes, into her “letter.”  Then, she grabs the book back.  “I love you,” she writes again.  As Rahab takes a turn in my notebook, Daniel shows me the 100 photographs he’s taken during our writing session.  Daniel might have a career as a photographer; his montage of a Flying Kites Sunday evokes the freedom and playfulness of being a kid.  So many years past my own childhood, it was wonderful to see myself through childhood’s lens.  Especially the lens of these children: the beautiful children of Flying Kites.

Rabab keeps it simple.

My name is Rahab.
I am seven years old.

I don’t want to leave. 

We may have been prepared for the Gimwa, but saying goodbye to these sweet, little faces isn’t something I’m ready to face.  “It’s so sad, when everyone leaves,” says Ann, eyes turned toward the ground.  Rose is hysterical, Daniel won’t meet my eye; Eve is visibly upset.  The children who have spent more time at Kites seem used to the transition, but it doesn’t make it easier on Darryl and me.  “We love you so so much, we love you so so much!” sing their little voices in song as we pull away in the Flying Kites vehicle. 

I only hope they know how much we love them in return.

*Name has been changed.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sun, Sand, Israelis

A rainbow of bluesmarine, turquoise, sea foam, sky, and royalundulate gently to meet the reef.  Defunct rowboats idle along shore.  A concentration of tin-roofed houses opens onto vibrant jungle as you fly north.  From air, Zanzibar’s electric blue border evokes memories of my favorite island: Bora Bora.  I take that as a very good sign.

Haji, our hotel’s driver, meets us at Zanzibar’s small, tropical airstrip.  He’s reminiscent of Popeye, albeit with crystal blue eyes and curious shocks of wiry blond hair crawling up his arms.  After a 35-minute drive through poverty stricken city limit cum lush countryside, Haji turns abruptly onto a dirt road that seems arbitrary.  Next Paradise, an intimate boutique hotel filled with oceanfront palm gardens, oversized pillow chairs, and open-air common spaces, beckons.  As we assess our oceanfront digs, it appears Darryl and I have entered the honeymoon phase of our trip.

Darryl: “You’re going to flip when you meet our new neighbors.”
Me: “Why?”
Darryl: “Um…they have a baby.”

Anyone who has listened to my trials of living next door to a rowdy French family in New York can appreciate this wicked twist of international fate.  On their 10th anniversary, Jagger (from Bethesda, MD of all places) has surprised Melissa (and their 1-year old) with a trip to Zanzibar.  Two nights with earplugs spent praying for a new-neighbor-miracle elicits response.  Allah, it seems, has answered my Muslim SOS.  In the Jagger family’s stead, he sends Daniel and Shira, an Israeli couple celebrating their five-year anniversary.  He surprised her, too.  Are you sensing a pattern?  Only this time, there’s no child, lots of laughs, and lots of, ahem, “cigarettes.”  Shira and Daniel know how to kick back.  The perfect yin and yang, Daniel is the mayor of Zanzibaralways talking to someone, shaking down facts, compiling relevant informationShira, on the other hand, just wants to be still or dance to Darryl’s iPod.  By the second day, we’re not only sharing a porch with the Israelis, we’re sharing our trip.

“People must think we’re gay,” we muse openly to Shira and Daniel.
“Well, for a minute,” says Shira. 
“But then I watch you and…no.  Not gay.  I know this.” 
She states this so matter-of-factly that we can’t help but laugh.

Like Zanzibar, Daniel and Shira are easy-going and full of life.  We love their relationship: they ride each other gently; they’re affectionate at the right times without being over-the-top. Darryl and I hope to emulate what they have in our own lives.  Only separately.  With men.  Good-looking, smart, funny men.

Relaxation is at a premium at Next Paradise.  Our days consist of lying out, reading, and taking runs on the beaches to the delight of the local boys.  They tail us and push us harder, giggling in Swahili when we speak to them in English.  After the safari downtime, it feels good to get moving, even if it’s only for daily runs. 

For lunch, we venture into the surrounding village, a simple collection of mud houses.  A Muslim society, men greet us while women workcleaning, cooking, building houses, and childrearing.  From the village’s only kiosk we dine on 30¢ cassava (yucca) and fritters, doused in a simmered chili sauce.  We’re given the one china bowl (everyone else eats out of plastic tubs) and a rickety bench is hauled out of a corner and dusted off.  “Sit, sit,” our vendor gestures.  We’ve been invited to join the group…a true compliment.  Ducks and dogs roam freely around us, begging scraps.  Men in prayer shawls and Muslim caps chat us up politely.  We look at each other and smile before we buy some papaya and bananas for the road.  Nothing beats this.  Nothing.

Our nights are filled with amazing seafood dinnerslobster, shrimp, fresh crab, and octopushouse made lasagna, and fresh coconut ice cream.  After World Cup, we head back to the communal porch for capfuls of duty-free Finlandia, “smokes,” and good conversation.  Darryl and I realize we’ve made our first travel friends, and damn, we’ve done good…

If I had issues on mountain high, Darryl has the issues at sea level.  The mosquitoes on the coast are insatiable.  Malaria looms large.  I’ve become virtual insect food; my body is alive with hives.  And if I have it bad, Darryl awoke to an Independence Day like no other.  It was my turn to warn her off facing her mirror image.  Her face is awash in red dots, ala Strawberry Shortcake.  Mosquito bites on steroids.  Everyone from our scuba instructor to our server asked what happened.  When she stepped on a sea urchin later that day, we had to throw up our hands in surrender.  In Africa, Mother Nature has proven herself one vicious broad.  “A lo-pard,” as our safari guide, Rajai would say.  Women, especially the vindictive kind, are called leopards in Tanzania.  And the hookers, you ask? Mosquitos.  Quite appropriately.

Zanzibar is best known for its abundance of spices, hence the popularity of the Spice Tour.  Assuming this would be a wasted hour, the spice tour turned into something of a highlight.  From cloves to cinnamon, nutmeg to turmeric, pepper to vanilla, we played a game of what’s what with the plants, stopping for the requisite haggle and purchase of indigenous spices at the end of the ride.  I have the makings of a mean curry on my return.  My place, bring wine, who’s in? 

Onto Stone Town, a small city that looks like my imagined version of Morocco: white-washed buildings, stained glass detailing, elaborate wooden doors and archways.  Against the sterile background Stone Town was a kaleidoscope of color.  Even the women got in on the action, covering their bodies in silk shocks of bright colored robes and scarves: chartreuse, fuschia, tangerine orange, and banana yellow. 

Haji drops us at the food market, a bazaar of vendors selling one of three productsassorted seafood, vegetarian patties, cakes, and breads, or sugar cane juice.  After Darryl gets ripped off by 500% for a sugar cane juice, I get myself into deeper trouble.  In Africa, they take you at your word.  So when I tell a food vendor his seafood is “making me hungry,” he proceeds to follow me around the market yelling when don’t buy anything.  His deep-set eyes are menacing, and he hits me repeatedly with the paper plate that was supposed to hold my food selection.  “You say you are hungry.  You lie to me.  I am not a player boy.  Fuck you, lady,” he rants.  He hits me again with the plate.  When he pushes my shoulder, I find my voice.  We’re now exchanging “compliments,” garnering the eyes of passerby, and when I am able to slip away, it’s with the raised middle finger of an angry vendor following.  An hour later, I see him having the same tantrum with someone else, and can’t help but feel slightly relieved.  We haven’t encountered any ill will on our travels and I would hate for this jackass to muck up our karma.

As we gather ourselves on our final morning in Zanzibar, we’re sad to go.  Like Bora Bora, there’s an idyllic quality to this place.  Zanzibar’s people have a friendly spirit; the island exudes a gentle loveliness that is hard to come by.  Had we known, we might have extended our time to match the Israelis who have another five days to enjoy.

Alas, onward. 
To Mombasa, Kenya. 
Which, all things considered, ain’t too shabby …