Your Bad Day Means Nothing ~ Finding Yourself in Africa

Hi everyone! Please check out my new article posted on Global Glam Magazine!

You can find it here:

http://www.globalglam.com/kibera-slums-africa/

Please comment and I hope you enjoy!

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Finding Myself in Africa- Chapter 13

I didn’t sleep well last night. As a result of seeing the cockroach I had constant, vivid nightmares; I woke up throughout the night terrified that bugs were crawling all over me. After a restless night’s sleep I wake up to Rose turning on the lights, talking in the room, being in and out and leaving the door open so I can hear the music from the kitchen loud and clear. I am beginning to put her on the same level as the rooster.

It’s an easy day at school today, as me and the girls have decided to leave early, around 1 p.m. to take a short trip into the city. We are plus 1 today as we received a new volunteer from Ireland last night. So it goes like this, I finish taking my shower and come into the living room to find our new volunteer looking roughly 20-years-old sitting on the couch that no one ever sits on. I say hello, take my seat and pull out my book. Its Jane Eyre I’m reading this week, but I can’t focus because he is asking me 20 questions; none of which I can fully remember because his accent had me stunned. Having never heard an Irish accent before I am floored, and that doesn’t happen often. But after my childhood obsession with Harry Potter, this is really no surprise.

Our trip into the city is fairly quiet with the exception that we can’t stop talking. Everyone wants to know about the new kid. In order take the bus into the city it costs 50 shillings which is equivalent to 50 cents; everything is so much cheaper here for us. I saw laptops today selling for 18,000 shillings which is 180 USD.

After an hour ride, we are finally in the city. We do a lot of walking around and are supposed to go to the masai market, but after finding out it’s only open on the weekends, we settle for walking around and looking at the shops.

The city is much cleaner than in Kibera where we live. The sidewalks are not ideal with potholes scattered throughout and the pavement risen in places and after my third time tripping Ian smirks at me and tells me I’m about as graceful as a Giselle.

We walk along the streets and look through the windows on the right while on our left people are lining the sidewalks selling all things from jewelry to books to fruit. People shout at us to buy their products and at one point my hand is grabbed by several men and I have to pull away to get them to let go; shortly after that Lydia, Virginia and myself are whistled at. I guess they are trying to make us feel right at home.

It’s lunchtime in the city and I am relieved to have so many options that don’t consist of rice, ugali or cabbage.

After lunch Lydia and Virginia declare they need to go to the store, so we walk in a massive grocery store that is four levels tall. There are no escalators, only ramps to get from one floor to the next.

Back outside there are bookstands laid out every half block, it is a bookworms dream. And for those of you who know me, yes, your suspicions are correct, I bought a book. I couldn’t help it. Yes, I know I have an illness; because who goes to Africa and buys a book? Oh yea, I do.

The way home is quite eventful as I get to know the new volunteer. I am getting to learn a little about Ireland and he asks plenty of questions about America, (Its surprising how similar our countries are) and we start to swap embarrassing stories. It soon becomes a competition of who can level the playing field with the more embarrassing story. At one point I mention my record player and Polaroid camera and he starts laughing and tells me I am a hipster. I begin to argue that I am definitely not, but I think I am losing this argument. I tell him, “I just appreciate older things and don’t conform to mainstream technology and everything.” He starts laughing and says “you literally just explained what a hipster is!” Apparently all that combined with my love of travel, used bookstores and writing a blog make me a hipster.

Two hours later we finally stop in Kibera and get off the bus. Realizing my shoe is untied I step off to the side to tie it. People skirt around me and without paying much attention to where I am walking, I stand up and take one step forward before slipping and landing right in the deep puddle I was trying to avoid. Dirt, water, and I’m sure some diseases shoot up my leg covering me in this smelly substance. Ian shakes his head and starts laughing “Like I said, graceful as a Giselle” he says. What a fabulous end to the day.

Finding Myself in Africa-Chapter 3

Chapter 3

After what seems like forever the plane finally touches down in Kenya. “I can’t believe I am actually in another country, on another continent!” The thought scares and excites me, I’ve never been this far away from home and I immediately get worried. The ‘what if’s’ that I didn’t think about before now surface as I step off the plane into the muggy airport. It’s smaller than I expected, there is no security as I step off the plan and through the gates, I look around and see empty walls, noting that this part of the airport hasn’t seen it’s days of glory in a very long time.

I immediately run to the restroom where I notice there is a working toilet and with a surreal sense of understanding, I have to remind myself that this might be the last time I use plumbing for the next three months.

As I exit the stall the worrying thoughts fill my mind once more. I begin to be afraid that no one will be there to pick me up and I am about to go against everything my mother once told me, “don’t get in the car with strangers.” I laugh a little to myself as I think that is exactly what I am about to do. I wonder if my mom is nervous for me, I know I am.

There is a small queue to pass through “security” which consists of haphazard guards checking to make sure you have a visa. I get nervous, as anyone would, when coming up to the guards. What if they don’t let me through. My worries are needless though as they barely glance at my passport and wave me through.

Once past security I am outside, the arriving area is set up similar to a metro station with no doors on once side, it is completely open. I stop and look around, I feel very out of place with my London Fog suitcase and wish I had packed lighter. My eyes scan the crowd looking for Barnabas but my eyes land instead on a dark skinned man. He is hard to see except for the whites of his eyes and his white teeth that reveal a big smile. He is holding up a sign for Nikki Main and I walk over thinking he looks nothing like Barnabas.

I am instantly shy, which anyone who knows me would find it hard to believe, as he holds out his hand and introduces himself as Jackson, he works for Barnabas. He tells me in a thick Kenyan accent to follow him and we walk down the parking lot to see Barnabas leaning against the wall waiting for us.

He welcomes me to Kenya and says he hopes I enjoy myself and guides me through the parking lot to their car. It is surprising to note that all of the cars in the parking lot are brand new, similar to the cars back in the States, even the car Jackson is driving sparkles. I am shocked, as we leave the parking lot and drive onto the highway I begin to notice all of the signs are in English, there are palm trees lining the road and there seems to be no speeding laws at all. We speed down the highway, all the while Jackson and Barnabas talk freely in Swahili in the front seat and soft Kenyan music plays in the background.

I am beginning to get optimistic about the living conditions, “this may not be so bad,” I think to myself…until we turn onto the road to the slums.

Finding Myself In Africa – Chapter Two

Chapter Two

It was a cold winter night when I decided to pay a visit to my parent’s house. After a couple weeks of contemplating my future, I decided it was time to share my plans. I sat at the kitchen counter sipping hot coffee and I looked at my family laughing and relating the news of their day. I took a deep breath before telling them I had something we needed to talk about. I’m almost positive they prepared for the worst, as is natural with parents, when your 23-year-old says “I need to tell you something” your mind most likely does not go to bright and shiny places. Their expressions grew somber as they asked me what I had to tell them. I then proceeded to ask them if they remembered the book I had loved as a kid, Angel of Hope. I shared the premise of the book with them and I could see it all come flooding back as they realized what I was planning to do. I calmly told them that instead of looking for a job, I would spend the next eight months saving and preparing to go to Africa and do volunteer work.

I was surprised at the responses I got from my parents. I expected, being daddy’s little girl, that my father would be nervous and tell me absolutely not. But my dad was incredibly supportive, he told me if that’s what makes me happy then I should do it. My mom on the other hand, instantly tried to talk me out of it, she worried about the dangers, so much could happen there. It is a dangerous place. The government is corrupt, kidnappings happen all the time. She was right, of course, but I needed to see for myself. I still felt the desire to be inspired, and in my heart I knew that going to Africa was the right thing to do. Have you ever just had a moment, you were coming to a decision but didn’t know what to do? Finally, you just went with your gut and once you chose you knew deep down that was the right decision? That’s how I felt once I made the decision to volunteer.

The next day I started saving money. I took a Folgers can and determined that would be my private stash, I had received my tax return consisting of a few thousand dollars and knew that would be a good starting point, so I set it aside. Every time I picked up a shift, it went in the jar, every time I made more than 100 dollars the extra went in the jar. You’d be surprised how quickly money accumulates when you remove the ability to spend it. First I applied through the Institute for Field Research and Expeditions (IFRE), then I paid for the insurance and the housing fees. I did my research and after a few weeks comparing poverty level, climate and price, I decided that Kenya had the best program for me. After paying the initial fees I bought my plane ticket and my visa. Once the big fees were covered, I began saving for the shots I needed to stay healthy in a third-world country.
While all of this sounds very tedious, it is meant as encouragement, that if I can do it, anyone can. It’s amazing how hard you work when you really are invested in something. Two months before I left I got hit with a massive bill, my car needed a lot of work done and it required most of my savings to fix it. Two thousand dollars went to fix my car that month and suddenly I had no idea how I was going to go to Africa. I had spent the rest of my money preparing for this trip, and now I had nothing for while I was there. I considered selling the car until I found out that what it was worth, was less than it cost to fix it. Like I said though, anything worth having is worth the obstacles you have to overcome to get there.

Before I knew it, it was October 1 and I was moving out of my apartment; then I blinked and it is November 1 and I am leaving for Nairobi.

I wake up that morning with butterflies in my stomach and for the first time second guess myself. Should I be doing this? Am I crazy to be doing this?

I push those thoughts away as I pack up my room. The usually cluttered area has now been stuffed into various boxes. I take one final look around, close the door and mentally prepare myself to leave for a trip I am certain will change my life. After a brief nap on the clean, soft, leather couch in my parent’s living room I wake up to realize it is 4 p.m., time to go.

My dad helps carry my over-sized suitcase holding three months’ worth of clothes, toiletries and medicines to my mom’s red Mercedes Benz. Once in the car it is unusually silent, the 45-minute  drive to Baltimore-Washington International Airport suddenly feels endless. As we coast along I-695 taking the ramp toward Baltimore my mom turns around in her seat to tell me, “You don’t have to go you know. You can back out.” It takes a moment or two for her words to sink in. I sit in stunned silence before exclaiming “You say that now, on our way to the airport? Of course I’m going.” She slowly turns around and I hear her softly sigh and say, “I just want you to know you don’t have to do this.” I quietly sit in the backseat and glance out the window.

I know she has been through a lot, it was only two weeks ago that my mom lost her mother and it was only a week after that when my brother left for the Marine Corps. Now, only a week after my brother, my mom is driving me to the airport where I will get on a plane and journey 7,400 miles to a country known for it’s poverty, disease and crime.

As we pull up to the curb and I unload my bags there doesn’t seem to be a grandiose farewell; I hug my parents and my mom tells to be safe. Mom pulled out her camera and tearfully took a few photos, excluding herself from the camera’s lens. But mom has always been like that, always behind the camera, never in front of it. I say goodbye and give one final hug before walking through the doors to the airport. I glance back quickly to say goodbye one more time, but they are already in the car and pulling away from the drop off zone.

“Great,” I think to myself as I proceed through the entrance and follow signs to check my suitcase. I am completely alone, this is the first thing I have ever done truly on my own and if we’re being honest, I am incredibly scared. With all the research I’ve done I know nothing is going to prepare me for the things I’m going to see, and I begin to worry. What if my suitcase gets lost? What if I get on the wrong flight? What if the family that is supposed to be picking me up in Nairobi isn’t who I think they are and I end up on the news “Girl Goes Missing in Africa.” I am a worst case scenario thinker; I start to wonder if I am prepared.

I walk my suitcase to the counter and the woman tells me to lift my bag onto the scale. After some struggling with the 60 pound bag that is nearly the size of me I finally get it on the belt when she tells me it will be one hundred dollars. My heart stops in my chest. A hundred dollars to put a suitcase on an airplane! This is ridiculous, I think, as I hand over the money. I already have limited funds and now I have to waste it on a bag.

Next, I make my way over to customs, security isn’t as bad as I thought it would be with all of the violence going on in the world, but then again, I’m leaving the country, not trying to get back into it. Now it’s time to wait, I sit in the terminal and text my mom for what I think will be the final time before arriving in Africa. We download Whatsapp to stay in contact, just in case I will have service. Finally, I hear the boarding call and slowly make my way over to the line. “This is it,” I think, as I walk through the gate.

The first flight to Heathrow International Airport is eight hours, I have brought five books in my carry on, I have my journal, headphones, an Ipod and there is a personal television on the flight. “I can do this,” I think as I begin to look up the films listed.

Once in Heathrow I am thankful for the one hour layover, because it takes me that long to get from one terminal to another which actually requires transportation via bus. Feeling overly thrilled that I am able to find my way from one terminal to another without getting lost I pull out my phone to make a very important call home. At this point it is one in the morning back home but my mom answers anyway. I get a very sleepy “hello” before letting her know that I am in London, safe and sound, waiting for my next flight. We talk for a few minutes when I hear the boarding call. I tell her I love her and if I can, I’ll call when I arrive in Nairobi. The phone goes dead as she hangs up and I realize this is the furthest away from my family that I’ve ever been. I take a deep breath and join the line for the flight to Jomo-Kenyatta Airport.

2 November 2015

I can’t believe it. I am 40 minutes away from Nairobi. I am so excited for this experience; I can’t help but wonder if I am crazy for doing this. Everyone says I’m brave but I’m not so sure. I’ve been told I inspire people and they are so proud of me. The thing is, it was only a dream that I knew I had to see through. How could I pass this up? I have no idea what to expect, I have absolutely no money, but somehow that doesn’t matter. This will be extraordinary and I can’t wait. I’m fairly certain though that I am definitely crazy for doing this.

Finding Myself in Africa

Dear Readers,

Less than a year ago, I embarked on a 4-week trip that would change my life. As many of you know I posted a daily blog indicating my experiences, and as life changing as they were, I want to share those experiences with more people than just those following my blog. I am writing a book and will be posting daily on here. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Chapter 1

I am sitting on the floor of an already empty apartment. Once the space of so many fond memories, of parties with friends, family dinners, late night talks and secrets shared under the cover of moonlight; now just another space for another family to create new opportunities. I should thank this place, I think to myself as I look at the boxes stacked one on top of the other filled to the brim with books I have collected over the past two years. I glance in the corner of the room where I remember sitting in a desk chair at four in the morning wondering if I was crazy to move in with someone I had only dated for a few months. It isn’t hard for girls my age to empathize with the coming-of-age right of passage every mother and daughter goes through that signifies the end of their ability to live in such close confines with one another.

That first week after we moved in was difficult for me, I was on my own, figuring out how I would graduate from college and pay my bills. I knew I would never be able to go to my father and tell him I had failed, that was simply not an option. For two years I worked forty hours a week as a waitress in a local Applebees in a small town in Carroll County, Maryland. It is the kind of place where you see the same faces every day. Glancing around the small, mundane bar and grill, I watch Carroll County residents squeeze into their chairs to enjoy a talk with the bartender they are accustomed to seeing every day. These customers, or guests as the establishment wants us to call them, are the symbol of what our restaurant is to this town. It represents a place where the guests form bonds with the servers, bartenders and managers.

On the eve of moving out I have been working at this restaurant for 3 long years. In those years I fell for a coworker, moved in with him, and lived in the same apartment as him for a year after we broke up. So many people ask me how I did it, how did I live with someone I used to be in a relationship with? The answer isn’t simple, and it definitely wasn’t easy. But that’s a story for another time.

It’s always been incredible to me how people live the same mundane life day after day, but that’s what I was doing. I woke up, went to work, came home, went to bed and did it all over again the next day. I was like those people meandering through life never realized you need and want something more until finally the light turns on, you find your way out and are miraculously free.

It was December 2014 when I came up with the idea. I looked at my formal acceptance into the Mass Communications program at Towson University and the email informing me that I would be graduating in the spring of 2015 and I began wondering what I would do after graduation. I didn’t have a job lined up, I hadn’t even begun looking; what would I do? I have always been an enthusiast of travel, never having done any myself I only knew what I had learned in books. It was at this point that I remembered a dream I had always wanted to accomplish, but had never had the opportunity.

As a child growing up, I was an avid reader. Every night for as long as I can remember I sat up late reading any book I could get my hands on. With only a sliver of light shining through a crack in the closet I read about places I could only dream of. I traveled to Hogwarts and had my first Potions Class, fought a Basilisk, discovered Horcruxes and defeated Voldemort. From the comforts of my bed I learned about love, life and friendship. I got to see different points of view, learn what it might be like to fall in love, or more often fall out of love. I learned about sacrifice and loyalty. And one day, I learned about the rewards of volunteer work.

I was 12-years-old, reading a book my mom had just bought me titled Angel of Hope by Lurlene McDaniel. I was inspired by the story of a girl who was only a few years older than me, who went to Africa in the place of her sick sister. She went to Uganda with her mom and I watched her transform from a stubborn, selfish 17-year-old to the kind of girl who sacrificed her life to save someone else. I saw through her eyes the difference one person could make and the struggles and poverty that are faced in other countries, countries we seldom think about. The last page of the book had a very important message, if you want to volunteer contact Youths with a Mission. My mind expanded, opportunities like that were real? I could actually go to a third world country and make a difference

I immediately ran to my dad and told him I wanted to go on a mission trip to Africa. He laughed and told me I was too young and to ask him again when I was 16. Sure enough, my sixteenth birthday finally approached and I asked my dad again, could I go volunteer in Africa? Once again he placated me with the short response that I was still too young and to ask again when I was 18. Anyone who asks my father about these responses will get the same answer, “I didn’t think she would be so persistent.” As an 18-year-old about to graduate from high school, still a child but very much wanting to be a woman I approached my dad once again, asking him if I could go to Africa. His answer this time was a little different, his shock that after 6 years I still showed a desire for volunteer work was apparent on his face as he said, “You’re 18 now, you can go if you can figure out how to pay for it.”

That was the last time I mentioned Africa for 6 years, until my graduation date from Towson University approached.

Easing Back Into American Life

Back by popular demand I have decided to write a final blog about the transition to life back home. 4 weeks in another country may not seem like a very long time to some people, but for the traveler there is a noticeable difference between the person I was when I left, and the person who came home. It is nearly impossible to travel and not come home different, inherently I am the same, but the changes are on a level only I can see.

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Adjusting to life stateside has been easy, like people continuously point out, I wasn’t gone that long, but the way I think and how I feel is different. 100_1542Most of all I miss the children, I miss the teachers, I miss the culture and the volunteers; it’s a sad kind of surreal to go back to work and the mundane monotony of every day life. My morning runs have become a reflection period, I can revisit the days I spent in Kenya, I can see the poverty stricken streets of Kibera swimming before my eyes. eed5eb72-32cc-4013-a0f1-1d2e517b0544Those runs are probably the best part of my day, I find a silly sort of smile break across my face as I think about everything that happened while I was there, I’ve developed an urge to go back and relive every day I spent in Kibera.

My appreciation for life here is at an all-time high, the first thing I was grateful for was a shower that worked properly. I almost felt guilty as I took a half hour shower when I’ve become accustomed to showering in five minutes.

100_1520Putting on makeup is a chore, I looked in the mirror at work yesterday and almost didn’t recognize my face. It felt like goo was piled on my eyes, and keep in mind, I don’t wear much makeup to begin with. The night of my families’ ugly sweater Christmas party I ran upstairs to wash off my makeup as soon as everyone left, it feels strange to be trying so hard to look nice just because it is socially expected.

Eating has become an interesting challenge since I arrived home, my body is not reacting well to American food and causes me to become very sick. Sunday I spent sleeping and lying on the couch because the food I consumed all week had finally caught up with me and my stomach was rebelling. I guess living on ugali, spinach, cabbage and rice for 4 weeks and then coming home to the rich, processed American food will cause anyone’s body to go into shock. After being sick all day Sunday I determined I never want to feel that way again, so it’s back to the basics. I’m now only consuming food similar to what I was eating in Kenya and slowly I have to ease myself back to normal food.

I am lucky though, at least I have food to eat when I know so many in 100_1399.JPGKibera at this moment are lying in bed with empty bellies, wondering how they will eat in the morning, knowing they will have to put aside their pride and rummage through the piles of garbage lining the streets for their breakfast. I think of them every time I eat, I think of them at work when I see people throw away half eaten plates of food and STILL order dessert. 20151107_102924I am amazed when I go out to eat. The other night a couple was sitting at a table next to me and got up to leave, I looked over and saw the girl had barely touched her food but didn’t get a box to go. That food could have fed four or five children but instead it’s just going to get thrown out; or at The Cheesecake Factory where I ordered chicken and they gave me enough food for four grown people. Why is that necessary? It is an excessive amount of food that no one person could eat, yet it was sitting in front of me and I had to immediately box most of it up. It makes me sad how little everyone is aware of the things we use in excess that could be used instead to make someone’s life elsewhere just a little better. It’s frustrating to want to do something about it, but the problem is so grandiose, where do I start?

I know there is a problem with poverty in America, but you haven’t seen 100_1398.JPGanything until you’ve seen garbage piled in small mountains on the side of the road, and people pulling carts like a human pack mule because they can’t afford a truck to do it for them. Or children peeing on the side of the road because their home doesn’t have a toilet.100_1497.JPG Or even children piling into a small room the size of a closet to go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground. These are the things I see when I close my eyes, and these are the things I see when I look around at the large homes and neatly manicured lawns. I see Christmas decorations lining the streets and think about my host family, whose Christmas will consist of simply spending time with family. No presents, no big meal meant to gorge us and put us in a food coma. It is a simple life and I wish we could learn more from them. One day maybe I’ll go back, but for now I’ll settle for remembering the kids with fondness and hoping that their futures are infinitely better than their pasts.100_1613

Day 29
It is so strange to me that I am leaving to go back home. Has it really been four weeks already? It’s strange that this is the last time I will be waking up in Kenya, the last time I will sleep in this bed. I almost want to walk up to the Nakumat one more time to take everything in.
Every time I think of the month I’ve spent here I smile. I have to many good memories to bring home with me and I can replay the trip over and over again in my mind and see how this beautiful, amazing country changed my outlook, my appreciation and myself. When I arrived I felt very much like a child, even at 24, I didn’t feel like I was making progress. But after four weeks, I don’t feel as though I am the same person I was when I arrived.
I’ve learned to be grateful for all that I have, I’ve watched children with absolutely nothing be ten times happier than children at home who have everything they could possibly want. I’ve seen poverty in its truest and most heartbreaking form. I used to think seeing a person begging on the side of the road was sad, and it is. But you don’t understand the extremity of poverty until you see children using piles of trash as their playground or watching twenty people rummage through those same piles of trash at 8 in the morning to ensure they get the best options.
I’ve had the opportunity to teach children who live in shacks without a bathroom, without running waters sometimes without even a place to sleep and watched them be the happiest kids I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I then was lucky to grow close enough that I developed a special place in my heart for each and every one of them. I know I will keep that with me forever.
Here in Kenya it is a different world, a simple world. Aside from the rooster waking me every morning at 6 a.m., it is incredibly quiet and serene here. The people take their time, they are never in a rush and I believe they are happier for it. Kenyans often don’t keep Time, 10 a.m. can mean 1 p.m. and it is just accepted. Its something we can learn from them, why is the westernized world always in such a rush to go nowhere?
And I dare every woman to go a month without wearing make up, without doing your hair, without dressing perfect all the time. It is a guarantee that you will discover your self worth.
Looking back on this trip I have no regrets, I immersed myself in a new country, I ate new and different food, met new and interesting people, I learned to take a five minute shower (which was more like a sponge bath), I learned to navigate the streets of Kibera, ride on a matatu and find my way into the city.
Coming to Africa has been something I have wanted to do since I was 10-years-old. Over half my life it has been my dream to come here and make a difference. 14 years later I finally achieved my dream and it is bittersweet.
But the best part of fulfilling a dream….now I get to go out and find a new one which will consist of backpacking through Europe. Stay tuned.