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.


  1. I swear to God I've never felt as related to somebody else's piece. The fact that you can express exactly what you've been going through makes this a great read. Thanks a lot for rekindling my vagabond instincts.

  2. I don't know if I've taken the time to understand where I've been or what I've done. But the truth is I've been on my own finding it. And now to read the truth, from the woman who knows me best proves that what we "do" is something extraordinary. Thank you.

  3. Kim, have you ever thought of taking up writing as a career? I know I'm biased (!) but you have such a wonderful way of expressing yourself that I am taken along on the same tide of emotions that you are feeling. It's even better than being there with you - it's like being inside your head! Thanks for being you in all your amazing diversity!