Saturday, December 9, 2017

Nairobi, Kenya to Minneapolis, MN: Withdrawal, and then, Not

So it was that I found myself on the property of a mission in Kenya on a Sunday, sleeping in because I don't think I'd done that since leaving Addis Ababa a month ago. Life was starting to get a bit more leisurely, but I wasn't free of responsibility just yet.

On Monday, Jacob and I had to go to Immigration to get our visas. There hadn't been a border post in Todonyang, where we crossed over from Omorate, Ethiopia – just a very friendly police post that said we should get our visas when we could, and a Catholic mission I had mixed feelings about because well... that's another story. We'd tried in Eldoret a few days before, but the office there had been closed for the Presidential inauguration. And then we'd tried on Saturday in Nairobi, but Immigration had been closed because well... it was Saturday.

Much as we love our bikes, we did not want to bike 20 miles one way into Nairobi just to get a stamp in our passports. Fortunately, the mission had planned a shopping trip into town, and there was room for us on the bus. This required attending chapel at 8 in order to get on the bus at 9, which I had mixed feelings about, but I felt it would be respectful to attend since the mission was, after all, doing us a favor.

An hour bus ride into town and we were off with one of the mission leaders, Jackton, through the east side of Nairobi and to the west side. While walking, Jackton made a few jokes about how segregated the eastern and western parts of town were (“The mzungu here are so Westernized, they can't help but live on the west side of town! Get it...!?!”), and well... there was definitely a moment when everything changed. Cross a few streets, and the buildings became nicer, the sidewalks paved instead of dirt, the trash cans had sorting bins for recycling, the cars were nice, and everybody was dressed business casual instead of... just casual. People spoke on smartphones instead of satellite or dumb phones. It was night and day.

Immigration was fairly simple compared to how bad government office workings can be, I was told, but I haven't had too many horror experiences to compare to. We talked to 5 people, had to make photocopies of a form they only had one copy of, paid $50 each (actually, 5300 KSH, a little over $50. They wanted USD, but I had accidentally withdrawn $300 instead of $30 at the last ATM, so I was trying to get rid of it), and got our visas and entry stamps. All in all, it took a little less than an hour.

Then we were off for lunch – Jacob and I were craving pizza again, and there was a Domino's just a few blocks from Immigration. It was clean and spacious, the walls were plastered with finely fonted yet subtly colored advertising lingo and silhouettes of ingredients, and there was a TV telling you the status of your order (or, I suspected, counting down a timer that started when you placed your order – not telling you the actual status). Jackton was baffled: “I didn't know that places like this existed,” he said. We told him yes, most restaurants in the US were like that... but they were also just as expensive. This was a special treat. For guiding us to and from Immigration that day I gladly split my pizza with him. We also ended up passing a good looking cake place where a huge slice of cake was only $2. When we stopped at the grocery store, I bought him some chocolate. I guess I was feeling really grateful... my excitement about almost being home probably had something to do with it, and knowing I wasn't going to get pulled off the plane for not having an entry stamp was exciting, too.

On the way back to the bus we went through a part of town where “everything was made.” There seemed to be areas for every craft – a few blocks of metalworking where the sound of hammers filled your ears, workers filling every nook and cranny banging on everything from cooking pots to car frames; blocks of carpentry shops lined with half-finished couches and bed frames; then, the whirring of sewing machines and industrial sergers became almost overwhelming as the floor changed from rock and dirt and and exposed sewage to a three-inch thick coat of denim scraps, black from dirt and years of being walked on. We frequently had to stop in the narrow walkway to let by stacks of clothes, or cloth, or parts of a bed frame, or to wait to go around one of many food vendors stocking just three cobs of corn on their makeshift grill. Every now and then, a seemingly random pool or fusball table would appear. It was one of the most interesting and surreal places I'd ever walked through.

We made it back to the bus, and after being stuck in traffic and sun for an hour, made it back to the mission after another hour of driving. Jacob and I returned to the 2nd floor of the water tower we'd been offered, both wiped from walking around all day, and watched Logan. I was pleasantly surprised. Definitely worth a watch, even if you're not an X-men fan. There is some violence but the story and character development is very poignant.

Since we didn't want to cuddle under one mosquito net, I got about 15 new mosquito bites, but we were told the malaria parasite couldn't survive in mosquitoes at Nairobi's altitude so... my fingers were crossed. I still planned to take home some malaria medication, since it cost $4 there and getting hospitalized in the US would probably be upwards of $2000, or $8000 if I stayed overnight. I wondered: if I lost my meds on the plane, could I order more on Amazon? It's too bad the US cares more about making money than having affordable healthcare.

The next day – my last in Kenya, for the time being – I knocked out the entire box of cereal I'd bought the day before for breakfast, and again, we'd been asked to attend chapel to say a few words about our trip. Charles, preaching that day, also spun our trips as demonstrations of what it means to be a man – the guys at the mission were about to read the book Wild at Heart, and the girls Captivating, as models for each of their genders. I don't feel it's my place to comment on gender norms here, but I was happy to talk about the trip as a thank-you for letting us stay at the mission.

After chapel Jacob and I went to Charles and Darlene's to work on our bikes: me, to pack mine for the flight, and Jacob, to fix his flats and change his chain so as to not wear down the cogs too much. Darlene ended up cooking lunch for us, which was very welcome. I easily fit the bike into the box I'd gotten at the bike shop on Saturday, and Charles gave me a suitcase for everything else, for which I was most grateful. Afterwards, I went back to the tower to shower and finish packing, and Jacob went to one of the mission's skills buildings to get one of his bags serged – he'd been fixing it often, sometimes daily, since leaving Addis, and was grateful that I knew he needed to get it serged instead of just sewn. He'd made it himself before reaching Addis but hadn't known about serging, so the seams had been constantly fraying.

At 5 we returned to Charles and Darlene's where the cab Jackton had called me was already waiting and already had my bike in the back. Jacob and I said goodbye -- hopefully not for the last time -- I thanked Charles for everything, and then I was really on my way home. The cab driver was stellar, except that when he quoted 2500 KSH and I said “yes” he thought that's because 2500 was too low and tried to up-sell me. Can't the price just be the price? Not being on guard about prices: something I looked forward to back in the US.

I ended up paying him 2600 and a porter 200 to carry my bike to security, so the trip to the airport came out to 2800, about $28. The airline representative had never checked a bike before, so after waiting 20 minutes, calling the manager, checking the computer multiple times, and finally, calling Shanghai, where apparently the airline's headquarters was (German airline...), they checked the bike. On the phone with Shanghai, she rang a charge but never asked me for payment and I never mentioned it so... free checked bike! The website said it would be $150. Don't ask, don't tell...

Having time to kill and only my carry-on, I decided to go back out of security to the coffee shop in the next terminal. That ended up being a good choice – it was American fare at Kenyan prices, and since the tables were full, I was joined by a delightful group of people traveling back to the US as well. We had a great dinner together – I got a blue cheese burger with fries, a mocha, and a surprisingly good 6” apple pie, all for $15 – and then I stopped at the gift shop to buy postcards. They were an outrageous $3 each, so I opted not to get the 15 I was supposed to send from Nairobi – just two, for a host and a donor who I know will really appreciate them.

Still with time to kill, I went back through security, changed my remaining KSH to USD, and wandered all the stores, looking for cheap postcards or that perfect souvenir... I discovered Masai belts, which I had seen before, but not up close. The prices made me wish I'd paid more attention out in the real world: in the airport, they were anywhere from $50 to $130. Later, at home, I'd end up buying one I really liked on Etsy for about $40. But, it's truly my style – $40 for something awesome from Kenya that I'll wear often and possibly for the rest of my life is worth it to me.

My flight departed at 11 PM and they served an excellent dinner shortly after takeoff. The choices were chicken or beef, so I was skeptical, but it was actually the best beef I'd had since getting to Africa. Airline food can be good – who knew? (Thanks, Lufthansa). I stayed up as late as I could to start fighting the jetlag, including watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I had no idea what to expect since the trailer had no hint of a plot, but I found it to be quite enjoyable, even if part of it felt like the typical guy-needs-to-win-girl that's abused in every movie ever made ever. But it does pass the Bechdel test, if only just, and the female lead has a personality, so props there. A Bailey's on the rocks, and I was out (International flights: free movies and alcohol! At least until capitalism ruins that, too).

The airport in Germany was very... German. Security personnel and all the clerks were subtly rigid – that's the best way I can describe it. We had to have a mini interview about where we were coming from and if anyone put anything in our bags – “Just see my associate. It's no big deal,” said the clerk. The flight to Chicago was a United flight, and I immediately began questioning my return to the US when the flight attendant started BS'ing someone on why they couldn't move up one seat. Apparently, it would upset the weight distribution of the plane – a huge 3-4-3 seater. The flight attendant begrudgingly got out her touchpad and informed him it would be $139 to put the change through. He declined. And the food... it wasn't Lufthansa food.

Back to the US... the land of BS: caring more about rules and profit than happy customers.

In Chicago, I visited a sushi restaurant I like to visit on my way home from international flights. It was more expensive and not as good as I remember, and the waiter was very nervous about upsetting me, even though I was wearing a t-shirt and a fleece. I told him to relax and tipped him 50%, which didn't even begin to cover the tips I didn't give overseas (they don't tip much in restaurants outside the US, they just “believe in paying a living wage,” I'd been told over and over. Yes, back in the US, where wages are low, but CEOs live in castles...). The people-watching was sub-par – interesting as patrons sat, absorbed their surroundings, and interacted with the waitstaff, but once they ordered, they became just a bunch of individuals spaced one seat apart all staring at their phones. Welcome home.

Wanting to fight the jetlag, I walked by 3 Starbucks contemplating if I wanted to spend $6 on coffee. Two hours later, my eyes drooping at the past-midnight time in Kenya, I decided I did.

A lot of Americanisms were occurring to me at this time. The US is expensive – in just three hours I'd spent more than I'd spent in three days in Kenya. We pay our employees shit and our CEOs take home the difference (on average 312x more than their employees), and then we whine about taxing the rich because “they earned it.” How someone can work 312x harder than someone else, I don't know. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Everybody's afraid of offending each other, because if there's one place you can sue someone for upsetting you, or get fired for being honest, it's America. And the people here are so... Americanized. I can't describe it beyond that. Europe is more diverse, the clothes they wear aren't so branded, the language not so singular, the mindset not so “make money buy stuff,” the demeanor not so closed off and “let me just scroll through my news feed in peace.” In Europe people actually seem like individuals, not a nondescript blob of amoeba robots all sitting one seat apart, staring at their phones, drinking $6 lattes, trying to remember to smile.

I was definitely going through withdrawal.

Anyways, after a 1.5 hour flight to Minneapolis, I finally got to see my mom again for the first time in 8 months. Tears were shed. We loaded up my bike and went to Panera for that salad I'd been craving for weeks, driving through the snow and 15 F weather to get there. And then, we went home.

The past few days have been a bit of a blur. I still haven't unpacked – not that I need to since what you need to live on a bike and in a house are drastically different. So there's a small pile of stuff sitting in the living room that's everything I've needed for the past 8 months, and then there's my desk, among other things bigger than that pile, that I'm going to get out of storage tomorrow, because apparently, it will make my static life easier.

There's my mom's dog who always wants to play Bite the Head, every golden retriever's favorite game. There's my mom, of course, and her cooking, which I missed dearly. There's my oldest, bestest friend, Nic, who has had me laughing harder than I've laughed in a long time. There's thick, creamy yogurt, and ripe berries, and drip coffee, and OJ that's not watery. And there's blueberry pancakes.


There's YouTube, and fast internet, and touchscreen phones. I've already applied for a job, signed up for health insurance (sadly, even if I stay only three months in the US, it's arguably necessary to do this – if my appendix bursts and I'm not insured it could cost $25,000 or more. Bye-bye, grad school!) and am considering buying a fat bike for riding through the snow. I've also started a few design projects for myself and some friends.

It's been three days and life is already drifting back to the way it was. On the plane from Frankfurt and during my layover in O'Hare, I was worried I'd be stuck in withdrawal forever, wanting nothing more than to go back to Turkey to bike to India. Having been home a few days, I'm not worried anymore. That's still on my to-do list, and I still can't predict how I'll feel in three months, but for now, I'm glad to be home – to feel at home. I can live without the technology and the desk and maybe even the food, but seeing my mom, and her dog, and my oldest bestest friend has been priceless. Feeling like I have meaningful things to do, besides just riding and sleeping and trying not to get pissed when people ask me for money, has been priceless. And in the next month, I'll get to see many more friends and have many more adventures. If there's one thing this trip has taught me, it's that I can live without all the conveniences we have in America. I can definitely live without America. What truly makes me happy is creating beautiful things with, creating memories with, and spending time with the people I love.

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