Sunday, July 22, 2012

Out of 'The Heart of Darkness'

It already feels like a dream. Ten days on a different continent meeting new people, seeing new things, and learning new bits about life and myself... here I am sitting on my bed in my temporary home doing my best to relive each experience, to remember, to carve each moment into reminiscent stone. 

Arriving at the airport completely unsure of myself and surroundings, I quickly found my friend and we took a taxi to where he lives. Guess what? He doesn't live in a mud hut. He lives in a beautiful well-lit house shared with 3 other wonderful people. Exhausted after over 20 hours of travel, I went to sleep fairly early. Over the course of the week I walked the chaotic (sometimes unnerving) dusty crowded streets in Nairobi, camped under a majestic tree in Naivasha, biked through Hell's Gate while watching zebra, antelope, warthogs, baboons, and other wild animals sprint across the land, rode in sardine packed janky matatus (minibuses), swam and lounged on the beach in Diani, feasted on fresh fish prepared by new found friends, and gazed into an endless spectacular star-filled night sky while listening to jazz and drinking whisky with unforgettable people. 

the tree we camped under

in hell's gate

diani beach upon early morning arrival

In so many instances I found myself wishing the moment would never end. Among all of the incredible things to remember, the one that stands out the most was the absolutely sublime night sky. Like an addict, I felt obsessively compelled to partake in its depth whenever I thought of it and it was available for the viewing. I felt so indescribably full of contentment, peace, and joy I wished I could take off and be a part of the endlessness of the brilliantly lit darkness. 

There was virtually not a single other place I would have rather been. I experienced eternity in those precious moments- complete and utter presence in the one and only moment that mattered- the one I was in. 

"If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." 

I know a lot of people wouldn't have chosen Africa as a place to visit, but I'm finding the majority of the places I want to go aren't on most people's list of desirable places to visit. I want to see as much as I can in the time I have- I don't just want a comfortable novelty; I want the down and dirty of just how different life can be. 

On the flip side of the beautiful paradise like experiences, there was the dirty, chaotic, unnerving, and heartbreaking- every reason why I was warned not to go. I had to be mindful to not drink any water save what I saw properly filtered, boiled, or came in a well sealed bottle. I squatted to pee in holes in the dirt, thankful there were at least walls around it. Walking through the streets would frequently evoke racist slurs yelled at me- much like here, many seemed to think I was Chinese- and it was not well received. I did my best to brush it off and joke that it was like being at home (which, to some degree, it was), but it's off setting to be violently misjudged based on something on which I have zero control. Nairobi at night was scary and I would never walk the swarming streets alone. My friend's bag was skillfully stolen from right beside him at dinner- thankfully it was nothing expensive or irreplaceable, though I was reminded to be grateful for my friend's reminder to hold onto my things before I left. I saw structures that our homeless here wouldn't touch, inhabited by families- small children outside playing with random pieces of plastic in the dirt. Everywhere people were aggressively trying to sell things, to cheat and trick, to make the most money they possibly could to make a living. 

Before arriving at our beach house, we stopped at the police station to report the stolen bag. While sitting in the taxi waiting for our friends, we saw a man wander out of the station crying with blood pouring from a huge gash in his head- our driver explained that 4 men had beaten him. I watched helplessly as he climbed into the police vehicle and was taken to the hospital. 

 I could completely see and understand why so many people would never make the trip to this place that could be so hard, but I never once regretted my decision. The thing I think we tend to forget is that we have our own set of chaotic, unnerving, and heartbreaking situations and circumstances here too, though we are often unaware of how frequently they occur. For whatever reason, it seems to be all many focus on, not just in Kenya, but the entire continent of Africa. Am I saying our situation is the same here as it is there? No. By nature, by location, by resource, by so many variables we are different and we are lucky. But, by that same token, what so many see as a pit of hopeless destitute disease-ridden poverty and corruption is not all there is to the story.

I really barely even got a taste of Kenya in the short time I was there. From the little I saw, I can say there is so much more there than the average U.S. citizen is typically aware of- beyond the hardship, homelessness, AIDS, carnivorous animals, and mud huts there is growing opportunity, people working for a better life and world, friendship, hospitality, innovation, talent- in what has been labeled the heart of darkness, there is light. 

Remember when judging other people, a country, an entire continent that what you know is, likely, not all there is to the story. Novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, reminds us in her speech, 'The danger of a single story', "Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to disposes and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of the people but stories can also repair that broken dignity... When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise."

Kenya opened a new world to me- it, like every other place, contains its own versions of heaven and hell. In everything you do, in every person and place you hear about, find the other stories. It will transform how you think of them. It will also transform how you think of yourself. 

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