Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rwanda, Part 1

I landed in Kigali the day before Rwanda’s election with only the faintest idea of what I was going to do. I had been emailing some contacts there about getting a press pass and calling some journalist friends of friends; I wanted to do some sort of radio thing if I could swing it, and the guy at the media office had made it seem like getting press credentials would be a cinch.

Apparently, however, even in distant Rwanda people have somehow cottoned onto the New York City News Service, and they weren’t impressed with my press pass. I couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone as to whether credentials were necessary to do any reporting, period, or just necessary to get access to the big election events. Since I didn’t want to get arrested or deported and thus banned from covering events in Rwanda for life, and seeing as none of the media organizations I had contacted seemed interested in a story AND since I was stupid with exhaustion after three of the last four nights spent more or less sleeplessly nights on buses, I decided to let myself off the hook and just enjoy witnessing the day.

This being election day, everything was closed. The genocide memorial museum, all government buildings, even most restaurants. BUT! Hotels are always open, and so I suggested checking out Hotel des Mille Collines – better known to most people in the wider world as Hotel Rwanda.

So while Rwandans were lining up to cast their ballots all around the country, I found myself sipping a beer with a couple of friends by the pool of the swanky hotel where Paul Rusesabagina famously smooth-talked the Interahamwe, bribed them with top-shelf liquor, and generally bad-assed them into sparing the lives of more than a thousand Rwandans during the genocide. It was all kinds of surreal, watching the smartly-dressed waiters serve chilled lagers to pasty foreigners while children laughed and paddled in the bright blue serene water, all the while wondering what the scene might have looked like fifteen years ago to the man with fierce facial scars who gave me my change.

After a delicious dinner of Indian food at the first open restaurant we were able to find, my new friend Elizabeth (who I met at the hostel where we were staying) and I hopped motorbikes to head uphill to the national stadium, where I estimate at least 20,000 Rwandans had gathered to watch the election returns come in.

It was huge. In between massive cheers as the regional results were announced, people went nuts for what seemed like every DJ and musician of note in Rwanda or Burundi, and save for the podium of journalists near the stage, we were two out of maybe four wazungu amid the thousands of people on the stadium floor. It was fantastic. Rwandans seemed nearly as elated to see us there as they were about the election. It was great to really engage with people and hear what they had to say about Kagame and the election. It’s fascinating to me how, with everything that’s been in the news lately about the regime (slightly sinister assassinations, brooking no opposition, etc.) a massive majority of people truly do seem to genuinely like, even love, their president. When he finally came out, the screams reminded me of being at Invesco in Denver when Obama made his entrance.

I’m also pretty sure I’ve never been groped so much in my life. C’est la vie.

We called it a night then, but not before Elizabeth had provided me with a business card whose value over the next few days I cannot possibly overstate, because that’s how we met Emmanuel: scrappy Congolese fixer, connected-up-the-wazoo tour operator, and general go-to badass extraordinaire – all five feet zero inches of him.

Next up: GORILLAS!

Friday, August 13, 2010

I spent 100 hours...

...pretty much exactly like this over the last three weeks.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Back to Arusha

Two days later…

Arusha wasn’t quite as surreal this time around; it’s taken on a homey, oh-yeah-I-know-this-place-now, comfortable kind of vibe for me. I visited Bangata again and was gutted to discover that Mama was again away visiting Pili. I had another nice visit with Baba and Farajah, but I’m determined to one day see Mama again. Just another reason I need to come back to East Africa again.

I also went to a school on the outskirts of town with my friend Sam where his friend used to teach and is now helping to support with Kipepeo Clothing, a T-shirt line he created that showcases drawings by the kids – rhinos, airplanes, whatever they feel like drawing. They’re great shirts and the friend sends all of the proceeds to the school. I got the grand tour and saw the kitchen and bathrooms the school is hoping to improve – it was cool knowing exactly what the money would be going to. We brought pens and sketch paper for the kids to do some more pictures as well as some candy and a soccer ball as gifts. It was nice to get away from the pure tourist track, as much fun as that was to do in Jinja.

Now, we’re off to Rwanda! Forty hours on a bus. And one big election to cover. Hooo boy.

A Four Lines Feelings Check On A Bus In Uganda

This one’s for the Open Sky crew.


I’m sweaty, I have to pee, and my calf is throbbing where I burned it against the exhaust pipe of the boda boda (motorbike) that took me to the taxi (Ugandan matatu) from my friend Laurie’s place this morning. There are little raised bumps and scratches all over my right forearm where her adorable but bitey puppy Kit used me as a chew toy last night. I’m a little sunburned, especially on the tops of my knees. I have that slightly hollow feeling that comes with being a bit hungover. I’m thirsty and hungry. There’s a wonderfully cool breeze blowing in my face from the window and I’m being bounced around as I watch the little farms just outside Kampala speed by, all red earth and big green leaves and rolling hills divided into neat fields. My ass, already tender from horseback riding yesterday, is not pleased. My shoulders are sore from paddling the Nile the day before and my hips are still a bit out of joint from bungee jumping. I hear people having low conversations in Luganda in front of me and behind me. I’m listening to “Tabasamu.” I smell exhaust and ME, and I’m not sure which is gnarlier.


I’m wishing I could drink the bottle of Rwenzori water sitting so invitingly in the seat pocket in front of me, but I already have to pee, we just left Kampala, and I have no idea how far out our first stop will be. I’m wondering what ungodly hour it will be when we get into Arusha and if it’ll be late enough to skip getting a room somewhere… but I’m also in dire need of a shower. I’m marveling at the beauty of the landscape. I’m hoping that Mama Pili will be home this time when I go to Bangata. I’m thinking about last night’s hilarious escapades and already planning on trying to make a “Rolex” when I get home – essentially a Ugandan breakfast burrito with eggs rolled up in a chapatti (think “roll-eggs). Because it was AMAZING.


Nervous, elated, amused, giddy about all of the above. A little irritated that my phone continues to function only when the mood strikes. Relieved as hell that I made the Akamba bus with zero minutes to spare after a mad boda boda ride through Kampala’s insane traffic. Missing my friend Eva, who I left behind in Jinja and is the best travel buddy anyone could ask for, but happily anticipating meeting up with the next friend in Arusha.


When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom just like a wavin’ flag.

Happiness hit her like a train on a track. The dog days are over. The dog days are done.

I followed you into the park through the jungle, through the dark. Moats and boats and waterfalls alley ways and pay phone calls, I’ve been everywhere with you. Laugh until we think we’ll die, on that summer night  everything is sweeter when with you. and in the streets we’re running free like it’s only you and me, the truth is you’re something to see. Home, let me come home. Home is wherever I’m with you.


Turns out I’m in effing Nairobi again. When I bought the bus ticket, they neglected to mention that it wasn’t a direct trip. It’s 4:16 am and I’m sitting groggily in the 24-hour restaurant above the Akamba station learning the hard way that just because it’s open all hours doesn’t mean it actually has food that whole time. My visions of a hot, hearty breakfast spread (“Spanish omelette with chapatti and beans, please?”) got a rude awakening in the form of a samosa and chapatti made somewhere back around Nam, a hard-boiled egg, and instant coffee with no milk.

I’ve got two hours and change before my connecting bus to Arusha gets here. It’s cold as balls out – I’m already nostalgic for nice, warm Uganda – and the bathroom in the restaurant is locked. Oh, travel. You’re a little brat, but you’re MY little brat and I love you.

Written in Jinja on Wednesday

I would just like to state for the record that Eva and I are the dream team of travel buddies. Together, our halfway decent Swahili becomes pretty damn good Swahili. We are amazing at charming bartenders. One of us will have a good idea, and the other will add another layer that makes it GREAT.

I love her. That’s all.

Monday, August 2, 2010

I'm pretty sure...

...that heaven looks a lot like sunset motorcycle rides through Ugandan villages, smashing down Silverback rapid on the Nile, and cute Australian bungee jumping instructors calling me "sweetheart."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Life, you beauty

I’m a happy kind of girl. Unless there is something pretty painful that I’m grappling with, cheeriness and optimism are my default state. This past year in New York has been a good one. I’ve made fantastic friends, I’ve gotten to know one of the greatest cities in the world, and I’ve been learning a lot in an intense but rewarding program. School drove me a bit insane at times, of course, but the madness just made all of us closer and I always managed to have fun.

But this past week, I have felt

for the first time in a long time.

I skinny-dipped by moonlight in the Indian Ocean. I danced with abandon till 3am with people I’d known only a few days but already loved to pieces. I wandered around deliciously sandy and salty and just feeling the sun on my face was enough to make me wriggle with joy. I slept in odd places and at odd hours: on couches and buses, under palm trees. I met someone from Durango halfway around the world. I ate a coconut straight from the tree. I spent several nights singing karaoke, strolling the dusky streets of Nairobi, and overlooking the cityscape from the rooftop while soaking up the company of some really special travelers whose paths all overlapped for a stolen few days. And when you meet a like-minded person on the road, the usual boundaries don't apply. Friendships are near instantaneous, deepest wishes are shared, spontaneous travel plans are made together, next week and two years from now, and you totally mean it.

Being here, meeting other people who love to explore… it’s scratched that itch in a big way. It’s funny how single-minded I’ve been about working in East Africa. I said something recently in my post about going back to Tanzania that I’ve been thinking about a lot: how maybe your first adventure is always the one you fall in love with. I love it here. I truly do. But I wonder if I’ve been so set on coming back here and working long-term because my time in Tanzania was the coolest thing I’d ever done and I wanted to recapture that feeling - and now that I'm here, it feels silly to have ever thought this was the only place I could find what I was looking for.

So… I still want to come back and work here. But probably not for a hard news organization like AP, and probably not for as long as I had planned. I was so gung ho about really immersing myself in the culture for a few years, minimum. Now, I could see myself coming back to work on a documentary, freelancing some radio stories, and then... leaving. What a marvelous concept.

Because, the thing is, there are just so many more places out there.

It’s incredibly liberating. I'm looking at the world today and it all seems tinged with the fire of an Australian sunset, I'm gulping the air down like I'm in the highest reaches of the Andes, each gust of wind feels like a road trip with the windows down.

I’m thinking about going to Paris for a fourth semester. Paris! Then maybe I'll work at a winery/hostel in Spain next summer and go to a tomato-throwing festival in Valencia. Then Australia to find a job with a radio station and learn how to surf. Then who knows? Not this girl!

All I know is it could be anything. And that is exhilarating.

The more experiences I have, the more I realize that what I really want out of life is just to live it. I’d still love to work for National Geographic some day, but I don’t want to make that the main focus of my existence. I’d rather build a life than a resume for something that may or may not work out. It’s like the state forcing elementary teachers to teach to standardized tests. Sure, you may have gotten the end result you were hoping for, but what did you miss along the way?

I have skills now that I can take with me wherever I go. I can shoot and edit video, write and produce a radio story, take photos good enough to sell. I may have lost a camera this summer, but I can't wait to find out what sights the future cameras will capture in my hands. I know wherever I go and whatever I do, I’ll do good work, and I’ll wind up somewhere beautiful.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


About a week ago, two sisters from Nigeria began occupying the bunk bed next to mine. We introduced ourselves and chatted as people do when they’re sharing a very small space. One day, the younger of the two, Anita (who speaks the most English) asked if they could use my toothpaste. I told her they could help themselves.

“You are very kind,” she said. She exchanged a look with her sister that was laden with meaning. “We have a brother who is staying here, too. You should meet him.”

A little while later, she asked me for my number. Thinking it only natural that as roommates we should exchange our contact info – maybe we could hang out some evening – I gave it to her. She and her sister proceeded to giggle a great deal, and she made a phone call. I couldn’t understand what she said, but I heard my name. She hung up. A moment later, my phone rang.

I answered it with a sinking feeling. “Hello?”

“Hello. This is Austine, Anita’s brother.”

Good grief. My roommates were pimping me out.

I told Austine as nicely as possible that I was going to sleep and that I was sure I would see him around the hostel, but in the space of thirty seconds he managed to ask for my email address and tell me that he was sure we were going to be “special friends.” When I hung up, the girls were looking at me expectantly.

I didn’t have the heart to lecture them about privacy and courtesy, so I made hasty reference to my imaginary boyfriend/fiancĂ©/husband, who I’ve been talking about so much lately that he’s started to develop a distinct personality, mostly invented on the spur of the moment in answer to the probing questions of Kenyan men who suspect I’m full of shit.

We met at school, naturally. He’s a photographer. He’s coming to visit me in a few weeks. His name is Daniel. And – because hearing that I have a boyfriend does nothing to dissuade persistent would-be suitors who will not be satisfied until I have a Kenyan boyfriend, too – he’s black. That is, Kenyan, actually! What are the odds?

It would appear that Anita didn’t pass on anything to her brother about my lovely fake Daniel, because the next day, Austine called me fifteen times. At least. From no fewer than three different numbers – hoping, no doubt, to catch me unawares if I was screening his calls. I sat at a cafĂ© with a friend, the both of us watching in mixed amusement and horror as my phone lit up again, and again, and again.

Then he sent me a text message saying he was trying to reach Anita and asking me to tell her to call him. I held fast. If her phone wasn’t working, I wouldn’t be able to reach her either, and I was miles from the hostel on my way to see a movie with a friend. Then, another text. “Please help me out, it’s urgent.”

Against my better judgment but unable to ignore it just in case, I called him to ask what was the matter and if Anita was okay. I couldn’t make out everything he said, but I’m sure of two things: 1) he didn’t answer my question and 2) he professed his love for me.

All this before we’ve even met in person! Whenever I leave the room now, I half expect him to be standing outside my door in a tux with a ringbearer and a preacher at the ready.

Up next: Baby elephants!

The correct answer was...

e) all of the above.

Let's start with the balls, shall we?

I have a friend from college who used to live in Kenya (hi, Dan!) and he told me years ago that if I was ever in Nairobi, I needed to go to Carnivore. It's one of the most famous restaurants in Africa, if not the world. Once upon a time (in the good old days) apparently you could get any kind of bush meat there, likely including but not limited to endangered species, but these days there are game laws in place that prevent you from serving lion to tourists. Still, they manage to provide a pretty impressive selection including ostrich, crocodile, and the aforementioned nicely seasoned testicles.

I'd been dying to go for weeks, but couldn't talk anyone into going with me because of the price tag. It's true that for the cost of one dinner at Carnivore, I could get three week's worth of rice and bean dinners at the hostel. But! I'd heard it was as much about the experience as it was the food. And I wanted to eat some MEAT.

On Friday night, I was tired from the week and treated myself to a light but tasty dinner of fish with salad and chips instead of my usual lentils or beans. I went back to the hostel intending to crash early - was actually in my pajamas, reading in bed, when in walked an English girl I'd met in the dorm the week before when she was on her way to dinner at Carnivore. I'd already had dinner, so I regretfully told her to have fun.

This time, we hailed each other cheerfully, I asked how her safari had gone, blah blah blah, and oh! Turns out she was going to Carnivore again with some friends. And again I'd already had dinner.

This time, however, I said, "Screw it!" and got dressed.

Carnivore, located a 15-minute drive from the city center, is more of a sprawling compound than a restaurant. There's a gift shop, a bar with a dance floor (the famous Simba Saloon), an outdoor patio full of tables where morbidly obese cats prowl for scraps, a vast hall with yet more tables, and a grill with the diameter of a redwood tree.

I found myself at one of the patio tables with a cheery crew of eight British university students who seemed totally cool with a random American chick tagging along. The servers brought around bread, salad, and potato and leek soup. It was all delicious, but we tried to resist in order to save room for the main event. Next, we each received a heavy cast iron plate where the servers could rest the tips of the swords they had loaded up with fat haunches of meat as they came around every few minutes.

My favorites were the ostrich, which was served in tender meatballs, and the ribs, because come on, they were ribs. The croc was a bit fishy and gristly, but somehow I kind of liked it. I had ox liver and it was the first time I'd ever really liked liver - very well-seasoned and less organ-y in texture than I remembered. The balls were actually somewhat similar in texture, with the exception of the skin, which was oddly rubbery. They also had beef, sausage, lamb, chicken, and - if we'd come just a little bit earlier before they ran out - camel.

Every table was given a white flag, which we were meant to leave out until we "surrendered" and took it down as a signal that we'd finished. Let the record show that I kept up with the boys and only bowed out one round before the last man standing.

Then there was dessert, drinks, and dancing. At one point I believe I was the only mzungu on the dance floor. It was awesome.

All in all, a night to remember.

Up next: Stalker!

Monday, July 19, 2010

I'll give you one guess

Hellooooo, all! In the days since my last update, I have:

a) befriended a would-be mugger.
b) petted baby elephants.
c) acquired a stalker… without ever actually meeting him.
d) eaten ox balls.
e) all of the above.

Details to follow...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In Memoriam

R.I.P. Ethel

May 5, 2010 - July 7, 2010

Ethel on her birthday with her proud mama.

Message from an old friend

Kidogo changu pokea na dua njema nakuombea.
(Please accept this little from me, along with my prayers.)

It is the smell of the rain on a dirt road after a Kenyan thunder storm, it is the deep reds and violets of a bizarrely beautiful sunset over the Masai Mara, it is the smell of Diesel and wood smoke and the salty, warm sea breeze of Nungwi Zanzibar. It's the sound of young children playing soccer with hand crafted balls in the streets or on the beach, stopping to laugh and yell "Jambo" in your direction. It is the taste of burnt coffee on Kilimanjaro, it's a celebratory toast with a cold Tusker. It is the fear and excitement of not knowing what will happen, and the opportunities that are, therefore, endless. It is a place of togetherness with the 'Spirit of a Great Heart'. But most of all, it is one of the few place on Earth where I felt truly passionate about life every single day. 

I hope you are soaking it up! 


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Remember that time...?

Okay. Here goes. The post you've all been waiting for:


If you know about this blog, you probably also know that I was mugged a few days ago. 

In broad daylight. On the city bus, on my way to work. And the bastards stole my camera. Not just a dinky little camera for tourist snaps, but a cherished investment I recently made in my journalism career.

While I admit to several hours of blinding, stupefying rage on Wednesday, I think I’m doing pretty well seeing this in perspective. I knew this was a risk when I bought it right before a trip to “Nairobbery,” and I’m still obviously really glad I came. There are several silver linings that I am trying to focus on. One, I could have been badly hurt, and I escaped with just a bruise on my arm. Two, they could have gotten my MacBook Pro, a Marantz 660 on loan from CUNY, and an external hard drive. They didn’t.

And three, I get to tell the story of how I was mugged in Nairobi for the rest of my life. Even though a ripping good story is basically what I live for, the loss of the camera I affectionately called “Ethel” is still a little too raw for this to be a whole lot of comfort. So you'd better believe I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth.

The time: late morning. The place: a leafy road northwest of downtown Nairobi, on board a blue bus belching foul black smoke. I’m reading a book with one hand, as always, on my camera.

A man walks up and down the aisle with an official air. “Seatbelts, please,” he says loudly, for the whole bus to hear. “Seatbelts, everyone!”

Huh? I think. No one’s ever told me to put on my seatbelt on the bus before. I look for mine and find it to be broken, useless. I decide I don’t care and go back to my book.

A young man sits next to me. “You’re supposed to put your safety belt on,” he says. “I guess they’re cracking down.”

“It’s broken,” I say.

“Let me help you,” he says, leaning over me and scrabbling for the belt with his hand. He’s really crowding me, a lot of his weight on my shoulder. The first warning bell goes off in my mind.

This is too weird, I think. I shake him off and move to a different seat.

The same thing happens in this seat. It’s a different guy, insistent that I put my belt on. “Stop it,” I say loudly, clearly, holding my camera and my bag protectively. “I don’t need help. Get away. I’m moving.”

The only seats available at this point are in the back of the bus. I sit, and right then, when I am cornered, that’s when they make their move, the both of them. One leans heavily right across my lap, dragging a coat over me. The other is right behind him, backing him up as – yelling now, furiously shouting “GET OFF ME!” – I try and push them away. It was the only time I took my hands away from my camera, a few seconds at most. It’s all the time the first guy needs to unzip the camera case under his coat and pass it off to his buddy, unseen.

The evil chill I felt when I reached again for my camera case and felt it open and empty – let us never speak of it again.

Suffice it to say that I gave a yell that rattled the roof of that rickety bus, the sort of scream that makes every head turn and a hush fall over any crowd. “SOMEONE STOLE MY F$@!ING CAMERA! THIEF!” (Sorry, Mom and Dad, but if ever there was a moment when this type of language was entirely appropriate…)

The guy, still on top of me, looked into my blistering glare with a carefully neutral expression. I swept my gaze up and down his frame; he didn’t have it.

This is where my memory gets fuzzy. I think the bus was just starting to move after its most recent stop because it seemed a perfectly valid thing for a concerned onlooker (in retrospect, a guy who was planted specifically for this moment) to point out the window and say, “There he goes!”

In retrospect, jumping off the bus may be the dumbest thing I have ever done.

But! I was in a panic, and I’d been told, again and again, how much Kenyans hate thieves. “If you’re ever robbed,” some old Nairobi hand told me shortly after I got here, “make a stink, and people will go after the guy.” So I was reasonably sure that after all the screaming I’d just done, someone – surely someone! – back on the bus would apprehend the guy who had been assaulting me. And I yelled for the driver to wait as I flew down the stairs.

The moment I hit the ground and turned to look up the road for a fleeing figure, the door closed and the bus drove away.

Noooooo! No no no no no! Shit!

With this latest calamity, I think I lost my mind a little bit. There was no one on the road running away, but I thought – maybe, just maybe, grasping at straws – one young man up ahead walking away from the scene could have been the one. It would make sense for him to walk, so as not to attract attention, right? And so – get this – I ran after this random dude, (who if not decoy, was just some innocent pedestrian walking around probably thinking about what he wanted to have for lunch), swearing all the way – and frisked him.

Yep. I patted down a strange man on the street.

He gave me a confused look and said something in Swahili that I couldn’t comprehend in the state I was in. Upon discovering that he didn’t have anything under his billowy shirt, I told him “I’m sorry” in English and walked away dazedly. He probably thought I was hitting on him.

So... yeah. Oh my God, guys! Remember that time I got mugged in Nairobi, and what a crazy good story that was?

I'm sorry, Ethel! I tried to stop them!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Conversations with new friends

These messages from some of the people I've met while in Kenya are making me smile:


I MISS YOU MY DEAREST. Hey my friend,i ave to confess that it wasn't easy to part with you swilly ,it was such a short time having known u Emilly,but honestly its like years.i miss you so much and am lookng to see you again,u were nice to me.and incase i ave ever b offend you, (unknowngly)l pray 4 yr forgiveness,i was mad when ghana was bitten bt they left me with no choice bt to lose hope with soccer.i arrivd safely,and you?love M


hey hey emily...

how you keeping... its been a bit of a frenzy last week... just landed back in town this evening and luckly found out that my flight is at 8am tomorrow morning and not 11pm as i had thought... was planning to give you a call for a quick drink before i rumbled but alas my confused head and disorganisation cut that out....

so.... its a bad way to say goodbye.... though i do believe there is no such thing as a goodbye, just a pause to the next hello...

ok... time to run off into the wind and learn how to dance like a cheetah.....

chat to you soon..
mangos and magic buttons



Hi, hw r u doing, hop u r okay. We really appreciated for ur kindness and trust even though u didnt knw us. To us u were an Angel from heaven. We r so glad we met u. Wen can u come n say hi to us n see more of kenya? We would really love that. Can u pls send me the rest of the pictures if its possible. Thanx in advance. Do have an enjoyable day.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Back to Bangata

On the Fourth of July, hours before most people back home stirred themselves for a day of barbeques and sprinklers and fireworks, I squinted up into the midday sun and began walking up a muddy, bumpy road lined with banana trees.

I shifted a little bag of groceries from hand to hand as I passed a busy street market with fruits and vegetables of every color spread out on the earth, women fanning small fires as they grilled ears of corn, dogs sleeping in patches of sun with their noses twitching under the flies, bridges and small houses and a church where voices rang out in song.

My heart was beating a little faster than the long walk up Mount Meru’s lower slopes demanded. I scanned the shady road for familiar landmarks. This little patch, here, with the path running several feet above street level – I definitely remembered it. And the one and only fork in the road. Take the left one, I remembered, and you’re in Bangata.

The village hadn’t changed much to my eye, if it all. I passed the school where I spent two weeks studying Swahili all day, every day and felt a little shiver of anticipation. I was almost there – just ten minutes more. I stopped to buy a few glass bottles of passion fruit Fanta. Was three enough? Would they be home? Would they remember me?

Finally, I stood where the path ran off to the left, and paused a moment to collect myself. A little girl approached me shyly and asked what I was doing. I said, “I’m here to visit Mama and Baba Pili. Are they here?”

She nodded and beckoned me down the path. We rounded the corner and there was the house, looking exactly the same with its neat lawn and flat stone walls and cozy little front door. I walked up and knocked.

No answer. I glanced over my shoulder and saw the girl racing around to the backyard. I followed quickly, smiling a little, sure that Mama was in the kitchen in the backyard, not wanting the girl to ruin the surprise.

But she wasn’t there. The kitchen was empty. Two more little girls looked at me in surprise, and I asked if Mama Pili was home, knowing she was most likely to be the one home during the day. One of the girls said, “Hapana. Amesafiri.” No. She is traveling.

The expression “my heart sank” is really a very accurate description. I swear I felt it thud somewhere around my toes.

But one of the girls ran inside, and I heard voices. Very clearly, I heard her say “mzungu.” I edged inside, glanced down the hallway, and saw a middle-aged man, slightly stooped, shuffling toward me with a confused expression.

“Baba Pili!” I said, “Mimi ni Emily, nimerudi!” It’s Emily, I’ve come back!

And he just lit up like Christmas. He gave a loud shout, something wordless, and pulled me into a hug, and we just stood there laughing and hugging and thumping each other on the back for at least a minute. Tears prickled my eyes. This was awesome. Even if I don’t sell a story the whole time I’m here, this moment alone made the summer worth it.

I took out the food I’d brought as a gift (just in case they asked me to stay for supper, I didn’t want to arrive empty-handed). We sat, we poured the Fanta, and with Baba's little bit of English and my little bit of Swahili we started catching up. Mama was gone because she was off visiting Pili – their oldest, a daughter who is exactly my age – who is a teacher now a few hours away and who just had a baby! Fredie, the middle child, is about 21 now and at college in the capital city of Dar es Salaam. And the youngest, Farajah, who was an undersized 13-year-old when I last saw him?

He came ambling in, looking almost as small as before, but narrower and taller like he’d been stretched a few inches. He grinned at me shyly and came in for a hug. We spent the next hour, hour and a half taking pictures and reminiscing a little. The coffee table book about Cape Cod that I brought them as a gift last time was on their mantelpiece, dusty and beginning to weather, proudly open to a picture of some salt marshes. The two little girls (who turned out to be Baba’s daughters from another mother – not entirely sure what the story is there) loved the camera and once I showed them how to work it, they got a couple of really great shots (only one of which, sadly, survives for me to show you today). 

I was only there a couple of hours, tops, but man! I walked back down the road from there as giddy as I’ve ever been, escorted by my little entourage until we reached the edge of the village.

“Nitarudi tena!” I promised as I hugged them one last time and set off. Back to Arusha. Back to Nairobi.

I will come back again!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On borders

I know this is a little out of sequence, but bear with me... I'll get to visiting my homestay family soon.


I hate borders.

That’s not an existential commentary on the arbitrary divisions of our world (that’s a whole other post); it’s just a gut-level truth. Borders scare me to death. I have PTSD from a certain incident at the Montana/Alberta border in early 2008, and now, every time I approach a border or a customs official, I come over all clammy and jumpy, convinced they're going to reject me out of hand.

It doesn’t help that most officials at borders tend to be brusque at best and Grade-A douchebags at worst. From the perspective of someone who derives a disproportionate amount of happiness in life from crossing borders, these power-tripping mouth-breathers - who can decide my immediate future on a whim - are pretty much Public Enemy #1.

The result of this paranoia is that when I disembarked in Nairobi a month ago and approached the customs official to get my visa, I was a bundle of guilty-looking tension, all forced cheeriness and eye-averting nerves. Partly this was because I was planning to come in on a tourist visa instead of a work or journalist visa, and I was sure the guy knew I was hiding something. He was not disarmed by my chipper attempt at a Swahili greeting, instead gazing black holes of suspicion into my soul. He grilled me about where I’d be staying, what organizations I’d be affiliated with (“Who is Salim Amin?” “Oh, I might do some volunteering with him before I go on safari…” And the thought bubble over my head read, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE LET ME IN!)

He eventually stamped my passport, of course, and I slumped with relief. Reprieved… until the next border crossing, three days ago, into Tanzania.

I was dreading this one for the usual reasons, but because I was coming by bus I also wondered how it would work if I was denied. The bus would continue on without me, and what, I’d just cool my heels until another bus passed by, heading back to Nairobi? It was a weekend, and my bus was packed. What if there wasn’t an open seat until Monday? Maybe I could hitch a ride with someone. Maybe a Maasai family would adopt me.

There was a cruel fake-out before we got to the border. We stopped and a guy in an official-looking uniform boarded the bus and took a cursory stroll up and down the aisle. I tried to blend in. (Mental image: me and twenty-nine Kenyans. Which of these is not like the others?) He left without looking at me twice and I allowed myself to hope that maybe this was just how it was done on the road border. Maybe I wouldn’t even have to pay the obscene visa fee.

Twenty minutes later, we reached the real border, and it was just as massive and imposing as the prison-like Albertan facility where the mustachio’d asshole with the Napoleon complex rejected me two and a half years ago. It was also swarming with con artists and taxi drivers and old Maasai women aggressively hawking jewelry. Here, sister, special price for you. You need to use the bathroom? Here, my friend, I will show you! And oh, by the way, that’ll be a hundred shillings. Zip up and pay up.

After getting my exit stamp on the Kenyan side, the actual border was alarmingly unsupervised. There was just a gate, and the Tanzanian customs office fifty yards away on the other side. I sidled through, kicking up a cloud of red dust and looking around in confusion, waiting for someone to swoop down and arrest me.

But nothing happened. I wandered into the Tanzanian office to get my visa, cautiously elated. The woman behind the desk asked me the purpose of my visit, and I replied in Swahili, “I stayed with a family in Tanzania four years ago, and I’ve come back to visit.”

Money exchanged hands. I waited on tenterhooks. A stamp stamped.

I was in!

The rest of the drive passed in a bumpy haze of glee (and dust… a lot more dust). I spotted white-topped Kilimanjaro in the distance. We sped past Maasai villages and lonely tall narrow figures stilting by in their crimson and purple shukas. My grin got bigger as I watched Mount Meru get closer.  

At last… back where it all started.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

In which I am gobsmacked

Memory is a funny thing.

Being back  in Arusha is  all  kinds of bizarre. Maybe it's just  because your first adventure is always the one you fall in love with, but Tanzania was so huge for me in so many fundamental ways that I've spent the last four years thinking back on it so much that my memories had taken on a bigger-than-life dreamlike quality. So when I found myself yesterday walking up the steps the Meru House Inn, sitting down for a coffee at the Patisserie, and rounding a corner to see the clock tower, I kind of couldn't believe it was real.

There were all sorts of little details that came flooding back to me that I hadn't realized I remembered. The way the windows of some  of  the rooms at the inn look awkwardly out on the courtyard walkway. The little  Indian restaurant underneath that served me that one salad I later regretted. The road to the SIT office. On my way to the Phillips daladala stop, I was nervous I wouldn't remember how to get there. But just like how sometimes you can't remember a  locker combination until the  lock is right in front of you, or how now that I'm using Swahili again words sometimes present themselves to me out of nowhere - a lightbulb went on as soon as I saw the row of  gates, with our little blue and white one down at the end.

Baba Jack wasn't there; he's in the States now  that it's SIT's off-season. But I met Doreen, the new assistant, who was really friendly and helpful and who seems to be the go-to person if you need to get hold of anyone at the office (cough cough Baba Jack). There was a student from this past semester still hanging around, fresh off one last visit with his host family in  Bangata and literally on his way to the airport when I got there. I asked  him how the semester was and he shook his head with a look I  recognized.

"Oh, amazing," he said, grimacing like he wanted to say more but really, even if he had more time, how do  you explain it?

There seem to be more wazungu around Arusha than there are  in Nairobi, although maybe that's because in Nairobi they're all hiding in the suburbs. There's certainly a LOT more Swahili  spoken here; it's  been a bit jarring but also refreshing that when my language skills desert me I don't have the safety net of resorting immediately to English; I have to make it work.

The amount of nostalgia I feel is out of control. I think back to the 20-year-old me, flushed with every new sight and smell and just beside myself with the freedom I felt here, glowing everyday with the sense that I was finally getting to be the person I'd always known I could be. You know. Intrepid, confident, blah blah blah. Every blond ponytail I saw yesterday, I thought for a half second was Caty or Katie from my old group. I kept thinking of all the SITers who I wished I could share this craziness with, because they're the only ones who could really get it.

Most of my old group knew that I was coming here from messages on Facebook and such, but it struck me yesterday that there was another SIT Tanzania alum who I should have contacted: Matt, who did the program the year after me and who I met through a random twist of fate when he turned up in Durango two years ago working for Mark Udall's campaign while I was volunteering with the Obama campaign. What WAS his last name? Matt... Something-With-An-R. That was so random, I remember how astonished I was when he said "SIT Tanzania, yeah,with Baba Jack." And then there was his partner in crime, Mike Kenney, who left Durango after the election and now lives just a few minutes away from me in Williamsburg. Life is funny.

So I was back at the hotel last night, brushing my teeth in the communal sink that's situated rather oddly out in the hallway, and the door across the hall from my room opened. A tall mzungu guy stepped out. With my mouth full of toothpaste, I glanced over to give my neighbor that half smile of acknowledgment, and almost choked, because it was Matt Something-With-An R.

In reality I think I spat out my toothpaste in  the sink before yelping, "No.Way. NO (expletive deleted) WAY!" But I was very close to spraying it all over him, so great was my astonishment. Probably the most accurate word to describe it is "gobsmacked." I was gobsmacked, gaping at him, and meanwhile Matt Something-With-An-R is giving me this helpless, shocked look, like he KNOWS he knows me but we're so far from the context of where he knows me from, and I'm no help, freaking out and gasping incoherent things like "I can't believe this, this is too much, holy crap..." and finally he says, pleadingly,"You're going to have to help me out," and I'm able to collect myself enough to sputter, "Durango. SIT. Emily!" And he goes, "Ohhhhhhhhhh!" but he's still not nearly shocked enough to do justice to the ridiculousness of this moment.

And I mean, okay. It's not so weird that an old SIT student would come back to work here for awhile, and  it's only natural that he would stay at the Meru House Inn; it's cheap, and it's where most of us stayed when we were here. But the room across the hall from me? The same day I was trying to remember his last name? Really?

Anyway, we met up later when I was able to form complete sentences again to watch Spain play Paraguay and caught up a little. It was good to have an old friend to talk to.

Okay, time's almost up on this internet cafe computer and I have a host family to visit.

Happy Fourth!

Phillips daladala stop and Mount Meru.

The clock tower got an upgrade.

The Patisserie... or the Hot Bread Shop, as it's apparently known now.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In which I get a little sappy

I'm a little homesick. It's taken me by surprise. I knew I loved my New York friends, but I wasn't really aware of myself falling hard for the city itself. There were definitely some moments when I realized that I loved it, like late nights on the subway when everyone's a little drunk and their hard New York edges have gone soft and people smile at each other and each musician playing on the platform seems put there specially to make your heart go all warm and fuzzy. But I didn't realize it felt like home until I left it.

Being away from New York has also, interestingly, made me homesick for Durango in a really intense way. I've lived in a lot of places by now and I've put down some roots in all of them, but the only places that have really felt like home are Mattapoisett (as complicated as my relationship with that town has been at times, and as strange as it feels to go back sometimes, as long as my family is there, it's home), Durango, and now New York. And maybe Tanzania - it's funny, I was there for less than four months and never had a consistent address - and yet somehow I spent parts of the last four years missing it as fiercely as I've ever missed a place. But then time doesn't mean much. I lived at Bucknell second longest of anywhere, and I've barely looked back at it since I left; only once or twice have I even had an urge to visit.

I suppose that being sort of a nomad means that I'll spend my life missing someone or some place constantly. That's a little sad. But it's okay. Smile, the Chinese girl staying in my dorm at the hostel, has a little trouble with English but a wonderful ability to capture a lot of complicated things in very few words. The other day, when she talked about how traveling a lot makes her "noleny" (lonely) sometimes, she said she thinks of her friends back home who settled down young and started accumulating cars and homes.

"I'd rather be noleny," she said, "than boring."

So anyway, I'm alternating between "Empire State of Mind" and "Wagon Wheel" on my iTunes playlist. You know what, let's throw in a little "African Queen," too.

The songs that will always be my anthems for the places I'm missing:

Edited to add two things.

1) "African Queen" just came on the radio, just two minutes after I posted this - the first time I've heard it played since I got here!

2) I was telling my friend and coworker Wanjiru that I hadn't realized how much I would miss New York, and she said, "Like yesterday, when you were gone." (I was out at museums all day trying to get some interviews for my current project.) "You're one of us now - people kept coming in and saying, 'Where is she?'"

Looks like there's one more place I'll be missing after this summer. Awww.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Where was I?

Continuing where I left off:

I went back to the hostel, where I was met by my Swedish friends to go watch the later game downtown. I only stayed a little while, though, because I was waiting on a call from my new lawyer friend, who texted me with the time and location of the press conference: 2:00 Sunday at the Serena Hotel. I went home to the hostel rooftop before midnight and fired off a round of emails to NPR, BBC, and a few other publications to see if they’d be interested in the story.

I got there an hour early – never really necessary here, of course, because start times are generally more like guidelines than actual rules – but hey, I’m a baby journalist and I was covering East Africa’s biggest story of the day (for American audiences at least) so I was an eager little beaver. The hotel was super swanky and full of Western tourists in spotless new safari gear. I ended up waiting around for an hour and a half, befriending the AP photographer Azim and eventually the bureau chief, Jason Straziuso, with whom I had exchanged emails in the spring (I almost interned there; he said they’d be happy to have me if my schedule didn’t overlap with that of the intern they already had; unfortunately, it did). He was full of good suggestions for me – pitch the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for one, because Erlinder is a professor at a school in St. Paul.

It felt really nice to be out in the field reporting after two weeks sitting in the Camerapix archive. When it started, I was busily snapping photos and checking my sound levels, wondering how much of an amateur I looked to the seasoned journalists around me with their bigger, more professional cameras and microphones. Whatever; it was fun.

Rwanda’s in an interesting and somewhat scary place right now, leading up to the election in August. On the surface it’s progressed amazingly; the economy is growing fast and relations between people are remarkably civil considering it’s only been 16 years since the genocide. But that’s also because Kagame brooks no opposition and the official position is to sweep any and all ethnic distinctions under the rug.  I get the sense that the current stability is a spring being smushed flat by two strong hands that are starting to tire.

Erlinder – who was representing the would-be opposition leader and has talked at length about how the Tutsis were hardly blameless in the conflict – was detained for three weeks for denying the genocide and was released on bail for health reasons. He was very well-spoken; he credited his lawyers with saving his life and teared up when he said they had risked arrest themselves by coming to his aid.

Anyway, it being Sunday, no one at any of the organizations I was contacting could be reached. I wasn’t able to sell the story, but it was still well worth going. In addition to meeting some hotshot journalists, I cold-called the New York Times to see if they would be interested in the story because I hadn’t seen their man, Jeffrey Gettleman, at the presser. The woman I spoke with at the foreign desk said they don’t accept stories from people they haven’t thoroughly vetted… BUT.

“But I like the fact that you picked up the phone and called,” she said. “Let me get your contact information and I’ll give it to our guy in Nairobi.”


So that was last weekend. This past week, this went up on the A24 site, edited by yours truly:


Other than that, it was a pretty uneventful week. Ghana vs. USA tonight!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Zen and the art of giraffe kisses

Hey everyone! I've been bad about posting, but I actually had a pretty eventful weekend. Saturday, I went to the open-air Maasai market in downtown Nairobi. These craft markets, I remembered from Arusha, are always fun if you go into them in the right frame of mind: game for a laugh, patient, and ready to bargain like crazy. Otherwise, the slick salespeople ready to descend on all the wazungu who pass through might drive you a little nuts.

Luckily, I always manage to have fun. It was a blast talking and laughing with the vendors, many of whom enjoyed mugging for the camera - and I got my first Kenyan marriage proposal.

This was my suitor. We're thinking a spring wedding.

The jewelry here is SO my style... it's all I can do not to buy every pair of earrings I see.

Next, I headed out to the suburb of Karen, so named because of Danish adventurer and writer Karen Blixen (aka Meryl Streep in Out of Africa), whose beautiful colonial farm is now a museum. I checked it out. It was pretty cool, though overpriced.

I also visited this sweet giraffe breeding center not too far from the museum. There are at least three full-grown adults there and the staff gives visitors pellets of food to feed them. It was shamelessly touristy, and I loved every second of it.

From the giraffe center, I needed to get back to the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden to watch Cameroon vs. Denmark, so I hopped on the back of one of the many motorbikes that seem to be the preferred means of getting around in the suburbs. Less than two bucks for a 20-minute ride, and man! I was so utterly happy, speeding through the shady back roads. I'm in Africa! I was thinking, and I'm on a motorcycle! This is AWESOME!

The Coffee Garden was a sweet place to watch the game. Karen is kind of this bizarro land, though; it's where all the white people are hiding. There were a ton of them at the bar. It was a little weird. I struck up a conversation with some folks at the bar, one old guy who used to live in the Bronx and was very mysterious about why he came back to Kenya, and another, younger man who turned out to be a lawyer for none other than Peter Erlinder, the American attorney who was jailed for three weeks in Rwanda, and who, it turned out, was flying into Nairobi as we spoke.

And that's how East Africa's biggest story of the day dropped into my lap. This post is already too long, so I'll just say, to be continued...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Celtics love, no matter what

I had my fingers crossed all the way into work on the matatu this morning, thinking, "People in Boston are either really really happy right now, or really really not." As soon as I got in, I opened my computer and saw Kobe's smug little mug on ESPN's home page and said, aloud, "Ah, NO!"

I got some sympathy from the small group of people who work in or next to the archive room who I'm becoming pretty friendly with. Once they discovered that I speak a little Swahili, they were pretty stoked, and they've been speaking it with me more and more. It's good to practice - I was really, really rusty.

There's David, who's obsessed with rugby and constantly Twittering about sports from his BlackBerry; there's Wanjiru (her first name is Becky, but everyone calls her Wanjiru), a photo editor who's really talkative and hilarious; there's Abdul, who was Mohamed Amin's sound man back in the day and who is unexpectedly funny under his grave demeanor; there's Zaidi, a quiet, older man who spends most of his time sorting through slides of old pictures; and there's Moses, a goofy guy who is constantly telling me Wanjiru is his girlfriend, eliciting only eye rolls from the would-be object of his affections.

Beautiful Wanjiru!

Photo evidence for the eventual lawsuit.

Moses being Moses. Abdul is not sure what is going on here. Neither am I.

Coming to work has gotten better and better as I've started joking around with these guys. Yay friends!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Welcome and unwelcome visitors

I made a new friend yesterday, an Australian journalist who was passing through Nairobi on her way back to Uganda, where she lives. We went to this sweet pub called Sippers that is rapidly becoming one of my favorite places in Nairobi - it has an outdoor patio with a flat screen TV. I went there Monday night to watch Italy vs. Paraguay with fellow New York grad student Sam (who, as a big fan of Italy, was furious at the 1-1 draw), and last night, we watched Uruguay absolutely destroy poor, sad little South Africa.

Life's been pretty quiet, which I think I needed after the insanity of the semester, but it felt great to be out and about with an awesome new friend. And Laurie and I didn't have to pay for a single drink! I'm planning on visiting her in August when I travel through Uganda, and she's going to hook me up with some interesting people in Nairobi who can help me find stories and freelance.

In the wake of my suspicion-leaning-towards-certainty that there are bedbugs in my bunk, chance encounters like this are a good reason to suck it up, buy some new blankets, and stick it out at the hostel.

Side note: I am not alone in experiencing disbelief from Africans that I don't iron my clothes. According to Laurie, not only has she gotten blank stares in the past because of that very thing, but some of the people she works with are so fastidious that they'll miss work or school to go home and change their pants if they get mud on the hem. Often, they just won't leave the house at all until it dries.

Home sweet hostel

Nice, right? Too bad about the bed bugs...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fun facts

The first time I took a matatu, it got in an accident. Just a minor bump, not even any damage. But still.

I don't carry a purse. I keep my money in my bra. It can be a little awkward when I go digging for it.

I met another western journalist staying at the hostel. She lives in Uganda. We're getting together tonight to pick each other's brains.

A co-founder of Kenya Breweries was killed by an elephant in 1923. The lager he helped create was named "Tusker" in his memory. And I believe I said something to this effect already, but Tusker is the best beer ever. Also, the other night  I had some Amarula for old time's sake. Delicious.

Last but not least... BEAT L.A.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wildlife Alert

Just saw some monkeys on the A24 roof - vervets, to be specific. A mother, her baby (looked like a newborn), and another juvenile. A very welcome dose of East African wildlife!

Unfortunately, I didn't bring my camera into work today, but I'll try and get a shot of them if they come back another day. For now, though, they look like this:


Gah! I woke up with a gnarly rash all over my arms, legs, stomach, and hands. Did the allergies strike again? Or do I have bedbugs? We don't know.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Most Kenyans seem to take a lot of pride in their clothing and their appearance. On the bus in the morning, the businessmen and businesswomen in their suits wear the crispest, most starched shirts I've ever seen. The women who live in the dorm with me iron their outfits every day.

Cut to me rummaging through my backpack yesterday and throwing on a white sun shirt whose wrinkles had wrinkles. When one of my dormmates, Cecilia, got a load of my ensemble, she looked horrified.

"Emily, do you want to use the iron?" she asked.

I looked down at my shirt. Ironing is not something that really ever enters into my consciousness, and I figured in an hour or so the worst of the wrinkles would start to sort themselves out anyway. I briefly considered launching into an explanation of the word "crunchy," but she seemed so distressed that I decided to try ironing, just this once.

I gave it my best shot, really I did. But there was some weird melty black stuff on the iron that started to get on the bright white shirt, and I was having issues with the settings and may have slightly singed one of the sleeves. I didn't want to do any more damage, so I decided that half done would have to be good enough. The back was more or less wrinkle-free, but the sleeves still looked like the skin of a Shar-Pei puppy. I told Cecilia, somewhat guiltily, of my difficulties, and she gave me a disappointed look. When I ran into her again later in the day, though, she smiled.

"Ah!" she said. "It has ironed itself!" (It didn't look perfectly pressed or anything, but the wrinkles had relaxed into the crumpled-casual look I go for most of the time anyway.)

I feel like I should extrapolate some deep meaning from this story. Take your pick: Some people just shouldn't iron! Embrace your wrinkles! Have faith that things will work themselves out! But only if you're wearing synthetic fabrics!

Saturday, June 12, 2010


People here are sooo pumped for the World Cup. It's not like I really follow soccer, so I am admittedly the most bandwagony of bandwagon fans - but man! It's so infectious! I watched the beginning of the S.A./Mexico game with some of the A24 team last night and even though I was on my way home when that first goal was scored, I had a feeling because I could hear the vuvuzelas going nuts from my seat on the bus. Their loud fart-wails were echoing out through the Nairobi evening breeze till all hours last night.

And of course, it's not as much about the soccer as it is about the excitement of being on this continent for a moment that is so epic for Africans. The Kenyans I've spoken with have such a huge amount of pride that the Cup is happening here for the first time. I'd root for Ivory Coast over the U.S., to be honest. In a heartbeat. Who would it mean more to? The U.S. only cares about soccer once every four years. (Though I'll be pulling hard for us to destroy England tonight.)

Speaking of our lack of interest in soccer - why is that? Why do we only care about domestic sports? Every time I go abroad, there's always soccer, cricket, or rugby on TV with matchups like Romania vs. Cameroon or Australia vs. Brazil. It's like this giant worldwide party that we're not invited to. I want in!

In other news, I thought my allergies were slowly getting better, but they worsened with a vengeance day before yesterday. I've come to the conclusion that I'm mostly allergic to my bed, because I'm fine when I'm out and about during the day, and the seeming improvement happened when I had adjusted to the jet lag and was spending less time sleeping. The only thing I can think of is that the nights have been a little cooler so I've started sleeping with two blankets. Double the allergens, double the fun? Anyway, I went to a "chemist" today and bought some drops (for about 85 cents) that I sprinkled liberally into my eyes and nose, and my life just got a little bit better. When you can barely see for sneezing, it's hard to focus on anything else. Phew.