Saturday, November 29, 2008


Par for the course in a constant stream of amazement, today was more or less like any other day in my life here. In some ways, it was totally exhausting – I was going to the UN Environmental Program library (UNEP) to try and find materials for my upcoming term papers, and needed to take two matatus to get there. For those who are still unclear about the matatu system, this blog has included Lonely Planet's "Guide to surviving a matatu." I was thinking the other day of how to convey just how rattling it is relying on a public transport system that’s based on independent contractors whose take-home pay depends on how many passengers and routes they can get in during the course of the day (rather than a scheduled time table). Every time you go to catch a bus or matatu, it is at a frantic pace in which any baggy clothing or hanging bags/jewelry can be a downright threat to your safety (or it’s own existence if God forbid you drop something) as you scramble into extremely cramped seats. My book bag has likely done more damage to others than it’s experienced itself as I make my way down narrow rows that barely accommodate my curves, let alone whatever books I am carting around on a given day.

After two sets of directions and a walk across the part of town where I am the only muzungu* I see (and where in my second week I had a guy punch me in the neck trying to grab the gold cross I’d stupidly worn for my first day of school), I found my second matatu. I should note that matatu conductors are notorious for tricking passengers as matatus won’t leave a stage until they are full, but they are highly skilled at getting people into an empty one with promises of “leaving right now right now right now boss/madam. Rrrrrrright now.” Today, however, both of the collectors I had went out of their way to get me to where I needed to be as I’d never been to either place before. One actually got me out of the matatu while we were stopped in a traffic jam and tried to get me into another that would take me to the next stage, but it didn’t work out so we hopped back into the first one as everyone started to move. I finally arrived at the UNEP stage and after passing through security found myself in one of the most pristine complexes I’ve been in since arriving. I guess if you’re interested in international anything, the UN just has an aura of magic around it, and I was a bit giddy as I wandered the complex, passing foreign dignitaries in their national dress (the Nigerians are just stunning) and an incredible diversity of staff. I spent a couple of hours at the library, very excited about the… BOOKS!...and an online database that directed me to…BOOKS!...that were actually on the shelves…in order! And then, as if the heavens wanted to smile on me, a photocopier that I get to use for FREE. Seriously – this is a grad student in a developing country’s dream. Oh, and fast internet, that I wasn’t supposed to use for email, but that let me get some pictures sent home before I found out the rules.

After checking out some books under a friend’s name (she is running the UN Billion Tree campaign – check it out!) we headed for lunch in a lovely dining area with four different vendors that felt like I was back at eBay or in the midst of any major American corporate campus. Part of why today was so fun was because I heard from a number of random friends I’ve met in town, on the bus or out and about and I ended up having two lunches (second lunch being second only to second breakfast). I was invited for Nyama Choma by a guy I’ve bought kangas from, for Ethiopian by a native son that I met on the bus last week, for coffee by the Sudanese friend I mentioned in a previous post, for lunch by my friend Esteban who I met my first week here when I realized he spoke Spanish (he’s an attaché for the Mexican embassy - when you're surrounded by a language you don't speak it's very gratifying finding someone who speaks the second language you keep attempting to communicate with) and finally, for pizza (it’s 2x1 Friday!) by Sanjay, my trustee mobile phone dealer. I decided to visit Sanjay as he was closest to my bus home and after enjoying some veggie pizza (ham and pineapple) I finally had the chance to visit his house and meet his 28 day daughter and his first born daughter who is about 15 months. This entailed yet another walk across town, this time in a different direction that gave me my first view of one of the dumps right outside of city center. It’s amazing how a few blocks in any direction can place you in a completely new arena. When we got to Sanjay’s apartment the courtyard was filled with Indian women in saris, seated on the ground sifting what looked like corn. I was amazed to have touched down in the midst of such a different community than I’ve been exposed to here.

After, I trekked back through the city, passing two traditionally dressed samburu (I think!) men, their colorful red fabric, beads and leather gladiator-like sandals snapping me out of grays and browns of the dirt, dust and exhaust that I tend to notice only when I’m tired and walking on sore feet. I had to walk a long way to a bus stop as it was too late to catch my bus where I normally do (all full) but I enjoyed the walk accompanied by the sounds of the new ipod shuffle my parents sent me (thanks guys!) as an early Christmas present. My days here rarely turn out as I plan (I was supposed to spend all afternoon at a coffee shop doing reading) but I find great joy in letting go of expectations, even if it’s challenging to juggle all the opportunities that present themselves socially, educationally, Rotary-related and work wise with matatu commutes and navigating down town by foot. But of course, it's half the fun!

*Muzungu means ‘white person,’ though not in a derogatory way. You’d be surprised at how friendly it sounds when someone exclaims “muzungu!” when you walk by and catch them by surprise ☺

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