Sunday, July 24, 2011

Traveling In and Through Solitude

Think he ever thinks
about being lonely?
Contradictory to the weather report it is a beautiful Sunday morning in Nairobi.  I am sitting outside my flat on a little bench surrounded by greenery, and I begin this post with the realization that I haven't had a conversation of more than two sentences since Friday.  Traveling is a funny thing.  It is at once a hectic interview with humankind and a quiet introspective journey.  What I have seen and felt over the past 7 weeks can't truly be described in a blog, but I will admit a little something to you: amidst unpredictable magic and proud accomplishments, my summer has also been challenging and lonely.

Most of the people I met in Ghana were expats who shrugged their shoulders when I suggested it must be hard to uproot a comfortable life at home to adjust to the craziness of Accra.  Surrounded by people who embraced life in Africa so naturally made my challenges with mosquitos and power outages seem silly and childish.  But along with lizards and bugs, loneliness eventually crept into my apartment and made those trivial trials even harder to bear.  Read a book, play an instrument, ride a bike, visit a sight, sit with a stranger...sometimes these are things you have to force yourself to do to forget that not a single familiar face is within 3,000 miles of you.  In those moments, the tiniest gestures saved me.  On a particularly rough day in Accra, a taxi driver laughed so heartily when I told him I loved the hiplife song playing on the radio and asked him to turn it up.  So we danced in our seats to a shared love of music for the remainder of the ride, and that taxi driver, who I will never see again, saved me that day.

I am not granted many opportunities in Nairobi to meet people outside the office or to explore the city.  What a disappointment to the fun-seeking adolescent within me!  I want to dance with strangers to ridiculous pop music until 5 in the morning, I want to bike around the streets to hollers of "white girl! how are you?", I want to befriend someone who will remain a lifelong souvenir of my time here.  Not all trips are adventures, though.  My priority here is to help Grameen establish a strong presence here, not to have all my touristic desires fulfilled.  So I spend most of my time here alone - attempting to cook edible meals with a pot and a table knife, avoiding the temptation to throw things when my internet goes out, and aggressively pursuing conversations with taxi drivers, the only locals I have contact with.

I think of my dad who traveled weekly for business for over a decade.  To this day I still get teary when I see a man with a mustache eating alone in a restaurant. How hard it must have been for him to eat meal after meal without his family, or even any companion, all those times.  I'm missing home.  My apartment, the ability to walk around with navigational confidence, cheap burritos, my hairdryer...The hardest part is knowing that when I arrive back home, I'll find myself missing precious alone time, chats with foreign strangers, Tusker beer and the smells of Africa.  Oh, the contradiction.

Oh look! It's a picture I took of myself.
Opportunists make the best travelers.  Those who are willing to say yes to even the most bizarre circumstances will be invited into stories they will tell for a lifetime.  At every moment possible I have tried to be this person, and while it has led me to the best parts of my trip, going with the flow can be incredibly exhausting.  And then there's patience, the necessity of which pops up almost everywhere.  Even yesterday, as my driver and I sat waiting in silence feet away from a lion buried in the grass to stand up, I got bored after about 10 minutes and insisted we drive on.  What a mistake that would have been.  The lion eventually stood up for a brief majestic moment when a herd of buffalo passed by.  That's right, I saw a lion yesterday, and here I sit blabbering like a kid writing a letter home from some third-rate summer camp.

A double G&T at Lord Delamere's Terrace in Nairobi.
Traveling alone is largely learning how to be patient with yourself, for not understanding the language, for not knowing your way, for wanting to be somewhere else when most people would give anything to switch places with you.  You're a different version of yourself, changing from moment to moment to survive whatever you're given.  From day to day, I am shy/outspoken, funny/offensive, professional/drunk, respectful/respectfully yelling at a taxi driver.  In those introspective moments that have punctuated every day of my summer, I find myself questioning which versions make up the real person that is me.

Naturally, I appreciate the romance of it all.  I get a kick out of being alone at fancy hotel bars and local food spots.  I imagine (quite narcissistically) that amidst the multilingual buzz of fellow foreigners, they all take turns speculating about that girl sitting in the corner reading a book and sipping on a G&T. I only wish my suitcase had been big enough to fit in accompanying costumes - I could have been a photographer on an urban stopover before the next safari, or an over-worked World Bank employee, or a Western trophy wife tired of the developing world.  Alas, I'm left with just me.

The lesson in it all, I believe, is learning to trust the unexpected.  When I left for work on Friday morning, two staff members rushed to me to give me hugs because I was wearing a blazer and heels (quite the departure from my usual sloppy flip flops and wet hair).  They gushed over me!  Their brief hugs were sweeter than the Berkeley ice cream sandwiches I'm craving, and I squeezed them back so tight my shoulder bag fell onto the ground.  I don't know their names - I haven't even met one of them before - but it was their surprising and affectionate acknowledgement of me that made me feel like a real person again.

Of course, the most unexpected delight of it all is learning to trust the unexpected within yourself, and watching that shy outspoken funny offensive professional drunk get through it all somehow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Worship at a Nairobi Gym

Watching the World Cup Final at the airport gate
It certainly takes leaving a place to appreciate the beauty of it.  While I was in Ghana I daydreamed of the magic of Oakland (three words you won't find together often), and ever since my departure out of Kotoka airport on Sunday, I have found myself counting all the things I miss about Ghana.  Even those little nuisances that tested me daily have somehow formed a big cloud of nostalgia for a place I know I can't visit again easily.

I remember feeling exactly this way last time, and trying to commit to memory every Ghanaian acquaintance of my five senses: the sour smell of my kitchen, the particular call of a bird that was always outside my bedroom window, the infectious smile of my security guard Adams, the men peeing with abandon on the streets, the ever present "you are welcome!" when entering a restaurant or shop or home.  As I write this I am actually trying to imitate the sound that Ghanaians make to emphasize a point or to indicate that they understand.  It's something like "eh-heeeeeh."  Not quite the same in a conversation with yourself in a Nairobi office.

The driveway to my apartment in Nairobi
I arrived here bright and early on Monday morning and was taken by a nice but quiet taxi driver to my flat and then the Grameen Foundation office.  Like a character from a Pinter play who has just woken from a coma, I am trying to remember everything I see in order to understand this new world around me.  I live in Rosslyn Hill, I work in Kileleshwa.  I'm not allowed to cross the street while talking on my phone, but drivers are allowed to talk while driving.  Illegality doesn't stop street vendors from selling papers and baskets and puppies on the median.  There is no shortage of malls or vegetables or foreigners.  A devastating famine is taking place not too far from here.  Hosts on the radio banter about sex and play songs with profanity at 8:30am. This is what I know of Nairobi so far.

I have three short weeks in which to understand how microfinance is working in Kenya and what challenges MFIs have in delivering their services, and what companies and organizations are engaging their employees in skilled volunteer work.  A pleasant discovery was that most microfinance institutions actually have websites here - quite a change from Ghana - and I am taking it as an initial indication that this region is ripe for Bankers without Borders.

Mosquito Bites:  No fresh ones, only scars.  Thank you, high altitude.
Best "only in Kenya" sight this week:  I began my temporary membership to the health club near my place by attending an aerobics class.  Once you've been traveling for awhile you get used to expecting anything, but always with questions in the back of your mind about what awaits you. Would the class be packed? Would it be difficult? Will people stare at me?  I opened the door after the class had started but the class continued without so much as a glance in my direction. Which was surprising, considering the tiny size of both the room and class.  Three Kenyans were bouncing around to the commands of an instructor wearing khaki shorts, Converse and some t-shirt saying something about X-rated. We lifted weights, marched around, threw our hands in the air, kicked our legs up, and groaned through ab exercises for an hour while we listened to techno gospel music.  Pumping my arms to "I will worship you" and "your Kingdom is worthy" was definitely a first for me.  I will absolutely be heading back tonight.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The New Adventures of Old Tamale

On the road to Tamale
I’ve been counting down the days to this.  Not that thunderstorms, tigernut cocktails and weekend stays at oceanside eco lodges haven’t kept me busy – my stay in Ghana has been a fascinating combination of experiences both new (opening a coconut with a machete) and surprisingly normal (watching too many episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine while dogsitting for a friend).  But I’m not here just to drive around with locals to chop bars with dancehall music blaring out the open windows to join in the cacophony of Accra streets.  Certainly part of the fun, but not the goal.

I’ve been talking up the Bankers without Borders program to MFIs across Accra, and this is finally my chance to watch it in action.  The Grameen Foundation asked me to shadow a BwB project for a partner MFI called Grameen Ghana in the northern city of Tamale (surprisingly no affiliation despite the shared namesake.)  A volunteer from an investment bank in NYC, Noah, is delivering training on a new financial model over a 4-day assignment.  This is only the second time this Grameen Foundation model has been passed on to another MFI, but BwB hopes this will eventually lead to a standard for financial projections across the industry.
Donkey by the Swimming Pool -
 now the working title of my first novel.

My role on the project varies depending on who you talk to.  BwB would like me to evaluate the project from both volunteer and client perspectives with an objective third eye.  Not having a chance to introduce myself during the kick-off meeting with the MFI, however, gave the director the opportunity to task me with a different role.  “And Noah has brought this pretty woman”, he announced to the team, “so everything we do will be prettier”.  Challenge accepted.

Tamale is a wonderland of NGOs, motorbikes and donkeys.  Okay, I’ve just seen the one donkey, but stumbling upon him and a massive turkey lounging near the swimming pool as I walked to my “hotel room” was noteworthy.  Londoners and New Yorkers would immediately understand what it’s like to leave the stress of Accra and feel the welcoming arms of the countryside.  The sky is bigger, the air easier to breathe, the day easier to enjoy.  The Northern region is predominantly Muslim and host to over 30 different ethnic groups, yet Tamale easily maintains the friendly and laidback life so characteristic of Ghana.

Four days is a short amount of time for a complex project like this, especially when the employees gleaned that Noah is a goldmine of information and asked him question after question about Excel.  While Noah was showing them a few shortcuts, I felt like I was at a party watching the popular guy do card tricks. You really don't hear “oohs” and “aahs” or laughter during Excel presentations at home. Early tomorrow morning we will travel three hours north to Bimbilla to meet with Grameen Ghana borrowers in the field.  Apparently the distance is only an hour’s drive, but the potholes really slow you down.  It will undoubtedly be an incredible day, even if my butt is bruised at the end of it.

As I write this, I’m watching the donkey from my little hut.  He’s using one of the pool umbrellas to scratch his head, making it look a bit like he’s wearing the umbrella as a hat.  It’s 5:30 in the morning, the sun is coming up and I can hear trucks and motorbikes passing by on the road from Kumasi.  I keep asking myself: in a few weeks’ time, will I believe I was ever here?

Mosquito bites: Still in the twenties.  Got a nice fresh set of 9 up and down my back.   Seems I'm single-handedly feeding the population here.
Waiting 10 hours for the flight to take off was surprisingly fun.
Best "only in Ghana: sight this week:  I showed up for my Antrak flight to Tamale at 4:30am as I was warned that the 6am departure could actually mean 5:30 (perpetually late Ghanaians manage to get flights off the ground EARLY??).  Sat in the departure lounge until about 5:30 when we were all shuffled through security (the pat down was so thorough I blushed).  After about half an hour in the gate, a man in a neon vest announced to the group that the flight had been delayed until about 1pm because of storms in Tamale.  Noah and I headed back to town, got some breakfast, went to the mall, and got back to the airport around noon.  We had a quick beer at the airport bar but made sure to get back to the gate in time for departure. An hour passed in the departure lounge. Then another.  Around 2:30pm, like sweaty cattle, we all made our way through security to the gate.  And sat for another hour.  Finally around 4pm, almost 12 hours after the departure time, we took off.  The most amazing thing about this whole process is that apart from the announcement I mentioned, not a word was said.  Noah and I were cued only by the sudden rush of people from one place to another.  How did they know?  What did I miss?  The views from the flight, however, were stunning.  Felt like I was in the back of Denys Finch Hatton's plane, looking down on the glorious greenery.