Still going through "Customs," (Sans Bags) and finding our "Pack." Aug 4, 2008. Nairobi
Words fascinate me. Dissecting their elemental and duplistic meanings. Especially semantic puns whose dual-meanings are disparate but strangely connected. For example, the word I used at the beginning of the last sentence, "especially," whose root lies in special... actually it might not be a good example for you, but for me, whenever I use the word "special" I think of the word "species," a word I'm quite fond of. I don't have a thesaurus or dictionary of word origins in front of me (gave such things up to come here), or even access to the internet, but I think I've looked it up before and there is no etymological connection between species and special. The reason I don't have internet or an etymologosaurus (did I just make that up?) is because we've been displaced.
To continue where I left off at the end of the last post, we are still Baggageless in Nairobi. I am still jet-lagged. I've been lying awake in bed for hours, processing the events of yesterday, our first day here in Nairobi, and thinking about the deeper meaning of words that keep bubbling to the surface in my head like sheep jumping over a fence. Words like "pack." It's not a word I've taken too much interest in, for example I've never been crazy about the name Green Bay Packers. But thinking about it now, I've developed a newfound respect for the word pack. Maybe I'll write a book and call it just, Pack. Maybe I'll just keep writing the word Pack, in italics and bold, over and over, and put pack in the title of this post so if you google the word "pack" you might stumble across this and go WTF? What is this? What isn't this? Is this blogging? Is this a word study? Is this creative non-fiction or even fiction? Is it a chronicle or journal entry? It's a sketch, I think. It's an attempt to regurgitate in words the thoughts being processed in my head laying awake because I'm jet-lagged and displaced and baggageless. I didn't get up at the time because it was cold and dark and it was warm in our bed. Who would've thunk living on the equator could be this cold? People told me so, but I couldn't fathom it, especially coming from a sweaty New York City summer. But now I get it. It's cold when you are not prepared for it.
Anyway. This is the morning of our second day in Nairobi. Monday. On the outside, not a lot happened yesterday. If you are talking about events. I already talked about our lost baggage woes. The saga continues. It's a good context though, in which to learn the system. How things work around here. The reason the word "pack" comes to mind is because not only was I thinking about it in the context of baggage, but in the context of, say, a pack of wolves. There was a moment yesterday, when they dynamics of our new living situation came to fruition. We spent our first day in Nairobi looking at it through the eyes of our new landlord, who has made quite an impression on me. In a nutshell, he is a bad-ass Sikh who gets shit done. Not only has he opened his home to us, but he took the day to help us get situated and deal with our lost baggage. It is a strange and perhaps biased introduction to Nairobi, but it is ours to embrace. Our landlord is a landlord in the ultimate sense of the word. Driving around with him it is incredible how much influence he has had, how many houses and buildings he has built all over Nairobi. To an unknowing outsider, these dynamics, the discrepancy between rich and poor seemingly built along racial lines, might be hard to swallow. Especially for, say, a liberal Americano. There are things we are having a hard time grappling with. Getting "accustomed" to. There's another dual-meaning word: "Customs." We haven't gone through customs yet because we never received our baggage. As our bad-ass Sikh landlord Mr R. says, "he knows everyone in customs." Although the words might sound arrogant, he is not arrogant. He is confident, yes. And his posture is proud, bringing to mind, especially when capped with a majestic turban, the image of a lion. It's no wonder all Sikhs have the name Singh in their names. It is sanskrit for lion, I think (I'm driving internetless). Which brings me to the word "pride". Strange that it can be a noun for proud and also a pack of lions.
Which brings me back to pack, and the moment when the dynamics or our new pack came to light for me. We literally live with a pack of dogs. Five dogs (I can't help but to think of Krishna's chariot pulled by five horses in the Gita, and the 5 senses for which this blog is named after). One dog is named Fluffy, which pretty much summarizes him up. Fluffy is deaf and he is a small white fluffy dog that is given free reign over the house and yard during the day. I'll have more to say about Fluffy later. There are four other dogs that are not allowed out during the day. They are big dogs, two are white and two are black. All males. Mr R described the two white dogs as friendly labs, one of the black dogs as old, and the other younger black dog is the one he warned us about. Said we needed to be introduced gradually to this dog. He also said that the two black ones were rottweilers, but I don't think the one we are supposed to be worried about is... maybe he is part rottweiler, and part black lab and part something else demonic. I think Jess is afraid of this black dog without even knowing it, based on Mr R's warning. It has barked outside our door at night and it sounds scary. While Fluffy is given reign during the day, from 6 PM to 6 AM the four night dogs are given complete reign to lord over the property and fend off trespassers. To summarize, there is one fluffy and deaf day dog, and 4 big night dogs, two of which are white, one that is black and old and another that is young, mean and black. I would love to see Cesar Millan tackle this one. As Cesar Millan points out, the issue is usually with the humans, not the dogs. Not that there is an issue, unless you count this fear of the mean black dog, but the dynamics are revealing. I guess you could call our accustomization an issue. There are customs here we are not accustomed to. The racial discrepancy between rich and poor for one. Having servants for two. And dogs kept in kennels for three. These are not customs we are accustomed to. Though our baggage has not cleared customs yet. Who knows where our baggage is. Probably in Heathrow, or sent to some other country with different customs. There are 3-4 "servants" in our new home, two of which are guards. One is a gardener/day guard, the other is a night guard. Both are also delegated dog whisperers, pack leaders (though nowhere near the caliber of Cesar). While it is hard to live with such subservience and having to be "guarded," it is also comforting to know we are safe, and this is just the custom here, and that it provides jobs. It's like having virus software. We went to go be introduced to the dogs. The day guard (subservient beta male, but alpha male to the dogs) got his stick out and entered the kennel. He let the two white "friendly" dogs out, but not the black dogs as they would eat Fluffy (Gamma male?). The white dogs (beta males?) were not too interested in Fluffy, or me (definitely a beta, if not delta male). Or Mr R (the landlord alpha male) or the day guard. They went to Jessica (unassuming alpha female), tails wagging. In an event that Mr R describes as taking place in slow motion, the big white dog jumped up on Jess. Jess was laughing but at the same time reeling backwards and got knocked down into some bushes, laughing the whole while. The hits just keep coming for poor Jess. On top of it all, she has a sty in her eye. Says it feels like she was punched in the eyeball. Anyway, that's the dog situation. I don't think we'll be throwing a goat into the mix anytime soon.
It's getting light out. Looking out the window I see the same iridescent brown bird I saw yesterday, with the long proboscis pecking on the lawn. The dog whisperer is scooping up the big "jobs," as Mr R calls them, off the Bermuda grass. I'm still not sure of our place. It is all very foreign. Foreign is good. I know my place in the order. In the evening last night, Mr R invited us over for whiskey. His house is amazing, full of interesting stuff that he built our designed. An intricately carved table with elephant tusk inlay that his father built. His family has been here since the 1920s. After whiskey, he took us to this Indian restaurant that was fantastic. I can't remember the name off hand, but I'm sure we'll be back there. Then we went to the airport as the guy told me with 100% certainty that the bags would be there, "there's no reason to believe they wouldn't be." Of course they weren't. There was a line of about 50 angry people that I was told to stand in the back of for assistance. There was no point. But Mr R wouldn't have it and talked to the customs people and went to the front of the line. But there's nothing to do if the bags aren't there. Mr R is an alpha male of imposing will, but he is not a magician. He can't make our lost baggage materialize out of thin air. Interesting contrast to the American "alpha males," the rich men. They are usually either assholes or pathetic beta males that somehow came to be holding the purse strings, but completely ineffective in the ways of the street. Mr R has a commanding presence and will. And he doesn't take shit. And he drinks whiskey like a Detroit river fish. Every sentence he says ends in "isn't it?" That's common here, people say "is it?" a lot, like Americans might say, "right?" or "you think?" In Argentina they end sentences with a, "no?" The Indians here seem to say "isn't it?" more than "is it?" If you think about it, "isn't it," or "is not it?" is a funny thing to say, because if you agree, you agree to disagree. It's a bit passive digressive if taken literally. I think from now on I'll answer "isn't it?" with an affirmative no in the name of grammar. Someone said something to Mr. R in Swahili that I'm sure wasn't nice and Mr R ripped into him, not in an angry way, though I heard the word motherfucker thrown in there, but in a way that caused the man to laugh nervously and back away. Human nature is definitely distilled down to basic tenets here, and I can't help to think of wolves and packs. Maybe it's the dogs howling like wolves outside our window, each jockeying for their own place. What is my place in this scheme? I am definitely the delta male, no longer even the breadwinner. I have no propensity to insert my will, only to observe and document. Isn't it?
Still Hanging Off the Grid. Aug 5.
On top of not having our bags, we are also still living off the grid, not wired in. There's a lag in these postings. Isn't it? We are still jetlagged, waking up at 4 a.m. every morning. Then fluffy wakes us up before 6 a.m., before it is even light. At first I thought it was because he heard me milling about so would start barking, but he is deaf. It's not really barking, but this strange howling like how whales seemingly make noise into the empty expanse of the sea. Isn't it? It almost sounds like a whale with dog vocal cords. We're not really getting into a routine, but patterns are starting to form. Yesterday I went with Jess on her first day at work. Set up a bank account. I got a blackberry. I'm supposed to be able to use my blackberry as a modem for my mac, that would be cool if so. Went to Kenya Airlines to nag them about our bags. The phone numbers they gave us don't even work, so we had the guy at Kenya airlines try it over and over, speed dialing on multiple phones simultaneously and finally someone picked up. Our bags are still lost, the only hopeful news is that there is a whole bunch of bags lost, they just need to figure out where the lost batch of bags went. We also got Jess some clothes in case it's weeks before we see our bags, if at all. Here's what she looks like getting ready for her second day of work decked in Kenyan clothes all the way down to the sandals, although the bag is covering up her new skirt.
Eating Blackberries with Blue Teeth and other Kenyan Nodal Product Placements. Aug 6.
Yesterday I went with Jess to work and asked the people there about importing a car. Evidently ICRAF workers get this deal where they don't have to pay import tax on cars, which is very significant (72% of the price). Decided to get some sort of Toyota Platz thing. Funny thing is they call regular cars (what Americans might call compact) "saloon cars". We are getting a saloon car. Thing is we will have to wait six weeks to get it. It's really hard to get around here without a car. Isn't it? I walked to the Village Market. Even walking is weird. Isn't it? It's like doing everything in the mirror. Look right first instead of left. Probably a good thing that we are getting used to it before we start driving. And the drivers here are insane. Isn't it?
I tried to troubleshoot my blackberry/blue tooth problem with the Safaricom people to no avail. Went to an internet cafe to research how to use a blackberry as a tethered modem using bluetooth and catch up on email. Then I went to Kenya Airways to keep riding them. I just sat at the guys desk until he got a hold of a supervisor and had the supervisor find out what the deal was with our bags. After a few hours, finally got through. The bags arrived. They weren't sure if ours were there, but she positively identified one. Jess got us a ride to the airport. The baggage morgue is becoming familiar territory. Identified one of our duffels wrapped in duct tape! Then another. Then a third. We were so relieved. Until we couldn't find the last one. Searched everywhere amidst displaced and dead and dying baggage to no avail. Finally, someone found it hidden under a pile of bags under a stairwell. Phew! Isn't it? Finally. We went back to Runda, but it was rush hour and took us over 2 hours. At one point a cop pounded on the side of our car with a billy club so we had to turn right, and saw a part of the city we hadn't seen before. I realized I hadn't been taking pictures so I snapped these as we were gridlocked.
This morning I went back on my mission to tap back into the grid. Went to another Safaricom place at the Sarit center that gave me a different story. They said it wasn't possible. Isn't it? Went to a Mac store that gave me another story, thinking it was possible, but I had to get some sort of script. She sent me to this random office in Peponi plaza to talk to some guy named Simon who was some sort of Mac expert. Customer Service is strange here. Isn't it? There's all these people available to help you even if you didn't buy something from them, and they help you for free. They are very willing to help and most of the time pretty savvy and friendly. But nobody could figure this out, not even Simon. We found ways to do it with other Blackberry models as tethered modems using bluetooth, but couldn't figure out how to do it for my 7130 Smartphone. So finally broke down and got this "bumper net" thing which is a mobile pay as you go modem. All the technology here is weird. Isn't it? There was an article about it in the NY Times right before I left here that sums it up. Everyone here is pinged in with their cell phones, but there is no DSL or cable. Everything is wireless. Isn't it? There's Safaricom offices everywhere and every little kiosk or store has signs to "top up". It's all about topping up. All walks of life queue up to buy these scratch and sniff cards that reveal these numbers that you key in to buy more minutes or Gigabytes. Whereas America is based on subscription models, strapping you on credit, everywhere here works by pre-paying, on debit. I don't think you could use a credit card if you wanted to. They have this payment system called M-Pesa that is tied in with cell phones. Reading now, Kenya is the first country in the world to use such a system. When you get your scratch and sniff lottery card, you get the digits and text it to certain numbers to top up. You can even buy mangos from a roadside vendor using M-Pesa, you'd simply transfer the credit from your phone to theirs. It's quite the phenomena here. Isn't it? Maybe this is all going on in the States and I've just suppressed it in my hatred of cell phones, but learning to use your thumbs to text is a requirement to be embraced here. It's the new universal lexicon, or at least the means to it. Isn't it?
The city is also wired like a circuit. It's not a grid, but a random network of sparse and well-traveled roads leading between jungly gullies that lead to nodes, which I guess you could call malls, but I think they are more akin to nodes. Isn't it? Some resemble conventional malls, others look more like nondescript office buildings chock full of useful shit. The node closest to us goes by Village Market. The word village is also differently here, it's used more generally, like if someone is from the village, they are from the country. I went to the Sarit center, which is in Westlands, to deal with my Safaricom woes. The Sarit center is really part of a cluster of nodes. Near the Sarit center is the Peponi Plaza node, where I met with Simon. Near there is the Westgate node, which is the mother of all nodes. Isn't it? It is newer, and like a mall you'd find in America. There was a "media store" with all sorts of random media (CDs, DVDs, books, cellphones, computers, etc.) jumbled together. I got some of the newer Kwani? publications. I was geeked out finding these, but then later when I was at another food market, I saw a Kwani stand mixed in with the fruits and vegetables! No shit. Isn't it? Another funny thing I saw at Westgate was the locals using the escalator. Half of them obviously had never set foot on an escalator before, it was pretty funny. If you didn't grow up with escalators, I guess they could fuck with your mind. I feel like my mind is being rewired in many ways. Isn't it? I'm thinking more with my left hand when walking or in a car. Nairobi is not nearly as linear as NYC, definitely non-linear in the chaotic sense of the word. Getting back on the "grid" is more like hot-wiring yourself into the node system and memorizing what trails go where by trail and error and without an umbilical cord to ground you. Isn't it?
Another funny thing is that electricity is not a given. It's sporadic at best. Isn't it? It went on and off a few times while I was troubleshooting stuff at these computer kiosks in the nodes. Nobody blinked an eye. Electricity doesn't effect cell phones and laptops. It went off while I was shopping at some weird supermart, which was funny. Everyone carried on in complete darkness. I was having my vegetables weighed, so had to wait. The power would go on and he would quickly weigh them, and the power would go back off. Cashing out was the most problematic as it took a long time for them to reboot the registers, and then the power would go off again just when they were up. People just stood around nonchalantly like it happened every day. And if you have ten items and the person behind you has 3, they will ask if they can go in front of you since they have less items. Shopping was a mindfuck too. Everything in unfamiliar packaging. Isn't it?
We'll have to change our ways for sure. It's all about adaptation. I haven't seen black beans or tortillas here, our two biggest staples. At least I have all the fixings to make salsa. We'll just have to put our salsa on something else. We made the mistake of buying some mozzarella cheese and olives another night, at a high price. Neither were even edible. We need to adapt or die. I've been swallowing small mouthfuls of water when I brush my teeth, getting myself used to the tap water here.
(c) 2008 Derek White