Archive for July, 2011

Away From Africa And Still Dreaming

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills….” These are the first lines of the Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) great book OUT OF AFRICA; and it is strange because with only a slight change it is now a sentence I can say about myself.

I spent a summer on a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. I spent a summer walking the magnificent landscape of red dirt and flat topped acacia trees. I breathed in the high altitude air so close to the equator and felt the heat of the day dissolve into cold nights. One night upon this farm in Africa I even watched the movie OUT OF AFRICA with my Kenyan family and my roommate. My French roommate and I were giddy and excited when the film began and we understood the first word spoken in dialogue “kuja hapa” – “come here” in Kiswahili. Our family on the other hand was excited moments later when they started singing a Kikuyu song, and our family started to sing along with the familiar lyrics. My roommate and I were swept away by the romantic tale and always thrilled to recognize a place or moment in the film, while our family was moved by a story based so close to their home.

OUT OF AFRICA goes on to describe life so beautifully, and it is hard to believe I lived such a life, “…The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility…in the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.” And for more than a month that is how I felt, this is where I ought to be, this is where I am, and this is where I have dreamt someday of being. It was not luxurious, I need not say that here but it was real, it was authentic, it was open and willing to share itself with me.

I saw in a country so many people fantasize about a truth and a depth beyond romantic ideals. I had conversations with cab drivers about the troubles afflicting the country I was visiting and the one I come from. I sang songs in English, Kiswahili, and my favorite deserving a post to itself, in Kikuyu for our President; I danced a lot; I ate more carbs in a month than I do in most of the rest of the year; I sadly fought and struggled with some of the heartbreaking circumstances I saw. I, in the most honest use of the word, LIVED. My last day in Nairobi I had breakfast at one of my favorite cafés with a friend and as we parted on Kenyatta Ave along Moi, I said to her “I don’t feel like I have visited Kenya, I feel like I have lived here.” And I do, I feel I was welcomed with such wide and expansive arms by a country, more than one family, and a kaleidoscope of cultures.

I came face to face with the magnificence of nature; I slept with the whooping howls of hyenas outside my tent (not to worry, when we checked into the camp they told us never to leave our tent should we hear animals past when the generators were turned off; we were also told to always find an askaris/soldier to escort us to our tent after dark). I had my first kiss from a giraffe.

I have been back from Kenya for just over a week and yet the distance that separates the life I lived there and the one I live here is more extensive than the 7,360 miles (11845km) or the ocean and continent that span the physical distance. I have found it as hard to return as I did to arrive in Kenya, but in a very different way. To experience life in the developing world is to see a world that is at once apart and yet more entwined with the daily life in the developed world. I imagined the shock I felt at missing a toilet would be met upon returning with relief at the amenities I have on a daily basis. But I have found upon being back in this life that is so comfortable, and truthfully it is COMFORTABLE, that there is something missing. Once I saw past the comforts I was living without on this farm in Kenya I started to see the endless bounties of gifts this life had to offer – people who were willing to share whatever (however small or large) they had; an openness and honest exchange of thoughts, concepts, and dreams; and a genuine world view of different cultures collaborating and trying to understand one another. It happened in the simple way the family would ask as I very poorly washed my clothes by hand, if I had a machine to do this at home, why yes I do; or it could have been the day I was invited to a dowry party and I very innocently asked the family what kind of gift one should bring…a goat? I was glad they didn’t understand the question and answered with the appropriate gift, dishes if you were wondering from Nakumatt, the Kenyan version of Wal-Mart.

To travel in the developing world is to see how much we have in the developed world, perhaps too much, I counted over 63 different kinds of cereal in the store. I have found difficulty in seeing how lucky and fortunate I am not only to visit the developing world, but more to be able to leave it just as easily. To travel through parts of the world that are still finding ways to pave their roads, this was a debate in the village I lived in; and carrying water in plastic buckets and wood to burn on their backs, makes one realize how much we have at our fingertips and do not realize. But there is also so much gained from spending time in this part of the world, passed gratitude there is a broader experience that tells stories and carries deep emotion.

Without the questions of which of the 63 cereals or equally abundant breads, dish soaps, and other goods we have so easily available there is space; there is time; and there is an unfiltered interest in connection, in people, in trying to bridge the if not physical then mental distance between the worlds. The last night I spent with my Kenyan family, I sat with the two children and the house keeper/caregiver in the front yard. We sat on the multi-colored buckets used for a myriad of chores and we delicately sucked on long blades of grass in the late afternoon amber light. We sat and talked about our time together, we lamented my departure, we sang our song about Barack Obama; and Naomi the 5 year old completely serious turned to me with a long green blade of grass between her teeth and said “I will remember your name always.” And I told her I would do the same.

I am still dreaming of the farm I lived on in Africa, of the uneven path to the house, of the trees that dotted the view from the front door, of the family that took me in as a new member, of the children in the orphanage. I am endlessly enriched for having spent time there.

I have added some pictures to all of the posts from the time I was away; if you haven’t already you can go back and take a visual tour from this remarkable journey. And if you are interested in the music that is playing in my mind whenever I think back on Kenya, here are a few songs to use as a soundtrack to the photos – 15 This Little Light Of Mine by Elizabeth Mitchell in both English and Kiswahili, 13 Africa Dream Again by Youssou N’Dour, any Bob Marley, 01 Is This Love, and my favorite the #1 song in Kenya right now kigeugeu-jaguar!

Asante Sana,

Ramona

 

25

07 2011

Safari Into The Soul

Visions that are almost like a dream but appear real before me. We had been driving all day, my butt was sore from the bumpy unpaved roads we had spent the better part of the previous 5 days riding along. It was a Monday night and we were arriving later than expected due to the traffic in Nairobi. Dusk moved fast in Kenya, the sun would start to slip into its nightly rest and within 15 minutes blackness enveloped the world. We were driving along in the last moments before darkness, the sky was a light shade of midnight but still whispering of the day that had passed, and under the first stars in the sky and a suggestion of a moon, it happened. We were driving fast and kicking up red dust and stones along the way, and then we came to a sudden stop. Out of the periphery of the road lumbered a large elegant elephant just feet in front of our van. It crossed the road paying no attention to us and the dust of the night, but to me it stopped more than the car, it stopped the moment and my breath.

I spent my last week in Kenya on a Safari. I hadn’t originally planned to take a safari on this trip but life expanded to meet me on some pretty remarkable roads. When I first came up with the idea of the RAvolution I only saw myself volunteering in Kenya and not staying longer, the idea of the quintessential “safari” in a van with an elevated roof didn’t occur to me. But from the first time I mentioned the RAvolution to my 93-year-old grandfather he kept asking, “when will you go on safari?” It felt too confusing to explain to him that I wasn’t so I would play it in to the dates in Southeast Asia or Africa. But it just so happens that my grandfather is a very wise, perhaps wiser than he even thinks, man. I have learned the literal translation of the Kiswahili word safari is in fact journey. And indeed from the stone structures of Angkor Wat, to the streets of Hanoi and Nairobi, to a small African village, I have been on a journey or a safari these past months that have brought me further than just these far flung and different shores. I have marveled at history, at landscapes, at cultures, at people; but mostly I have been on a safari deep into my heart and soul. I have discovered ways in which I continue to learn, I have studied my insecurities and ways I try to cover them; I have met new friends, and found a way to live with grief.

From the start my grandfather was right, I was going on a safari only not the kind he might have been thinking of. Then I decided in the end to take the kind of safari we are all familiar with at least from TV, magazines, books, and the imagination. To live a life that allows one to have the experiences encountered on a true African Safari is a  gift, no more a blessing that one treasures for a lifetime.

I traveled from the urban jungle of Nairobi into the vast rolling savannah grasslands of the Masai Mara along the Tanzanian and Serengeti border. I saw more animals up close than I ever imagined possible. I was very fortunate to be in the area at the start of the wildebeest migration, and to say it is a spectacle is to belittle one of the most magnificent experiences in the natural world. At first we saw a few groups of these creatures and snapped our photos from just feet away, and then we crested a hill and lying below us was a vast sea of wildebeest and zebras. Every July through October they make the harrowing journey/safari up from the Serengeti to find greener pastures in the Mara. They risk lives and many die as they cross rivers and are succumbed to alligators and lions. It is nature and life in its fullest moments and glory.

We saw a lion family eating a newly killed buffalo by morning’s early light.

 

We saw every imaginable creature; my favorites were zebras and giraffes. The intricate markings show some of the most awe inspiring and gifted creativity in the natural world. The way their basic black and white or brown spots seem to change according to the green and golden landscape that serves as their stunning backgrounds.

We got stuck in some very deep mud and were pulled out by some very nice strangers.

I danced with Masai by flickers of light and with strings of beads and necklaces hanging heavy around my neck.

I spent a day in Lake Nakuru where I woke to animals directly outside my window and feet from my bed.

I had a monkey get trapped in a car with me and I was pretty sure I might be patient one in the next OUTBREAK movie. The photos didn’t come out because the monkey bounced around jumping from seat to seat so fast, and well, I was a little freaked out. It happened twice – who could imagine!

I stared at the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and wondered how the world could hold so much beauty.

However, I did not find it all easy and fun. Having spent more than a month with a Kenyan family, that I missed dearly this week, I found hardship amongst the entire plushness of a modified Kenyan experience. I felt frustration at many of the people I encountered who chose to experience Kenya from behind the safe windows of a van or land rover. I was perplexed by so many who come such a great distance and the extent of their experience in this confounding, charismatic, engaging, diverse, and stunning country is limited to a few parks. They snap photos of animals and people from a moving van. The only way I could compare this experience is to say it would be like visiting the US and only seeing and spending time in the comforting confounds of Disneyworld!

But enough from the soap box of Ramona. More about the tremendous power of nature and magnitude of these incredible landscapes. I started this story with the end of the trip in Amboseli National Park at sunset, and the only fitting way to finish is at the start of the trip and sunrise in Masai Mara.

We drove into the National Park our last day in the Mara as the sun had yet to rise, but its rays already started to streak the sky with promising light. We drove across the rolling hills as a giant orange sun crested the horizon and spread its warm rays across the rolling green grasses of the savannah below. The creatures started to wake and roam. The heat of the sun warmed my cheeks and I began to cry. It was the real life version of the opening song CIRCLE OF LIFE from LION KING, and some how I was living it for myself.

When the movie of the LION KING first came out I went to see it with my sister, my step father, and my mother; at the end of the opening number as the red cartoon sun rose and the music crescendo I looked over and noticed my mother was crying. I was young and I made fun of my mother’s easy movement to emotion, I didn’t understand in those moments life and what she felt. But as I drove through the real life landscape and felt the day come to life once again, I found myself like my mother moved so easily to tears. I wept silently in reverie for how much larger life is than me. How it is a more intricate and balanced existence than any human mind could begin to comprehend or explain. I wept for thinking my mother was once silly, and for now missing her so much. I wept because I knew that somehow life continues on past each of us. The sun warmed my tears. The family of lions feasted on their kill before me and the cubs played. Life woke up the same way it did on September 13th and the same way it will for years to come.

I have always been a naturalist, a wonderer of nature, a hugger of trees (very literally as a child I hugged trees); but for anyone who is not, I challenge you to go on safari, both one of the soul and into the vast wilderness of Africa and not want to protect, honor, treasure, and bow at the greatness of the natural world.

In reverie and respect,

Naturalist Ra

 

12

07 2011