Soft

I’ve been getting soft lately, in the sense that I’ve been failing to bargain effectively or at all, really. To illustrate this, I can tell you that there’s one particular guy who sells cards of drawings that he does, and I actually really like them, but he counts on my buying them so steadily that he waits for me in the same spot or just randomly shows up by my side as I’m walking through town, very frequently now. He recently had typhoid, and I was seriously worried about him when he was gone for a week, came back and told me about the typhoid, and then disappeared again. His drawings are, in fact, really nice, in very colorful pencil, and a totally different style from the usual “man walking in the sunset with a spear” scenes you get here. They are mostly of animals, and there is something about the animals that is somehow funny or poignant—I don’t know, but I really like them, so I buy his cards from time to time.   Despite his randomly showing up these days, asking me to save his sinking ship (Swahili metaphor) by buying cards, which is a little intense, his personality is strikingly calm and different. A lot of the guys selling things near the market are really intense—but this guy, Anthony, is really softspoken and easy to talk to. So I like him, and I worry about him when he’s gone for a week and then I probably spend too much money on his cards.

Then there’s the fact that I found a guy selling dvds who was able to get me a ripped copy of Grey’s Anatomy, which was good news for me, but also led me to meet the overly enthusiastic cd seller who set up shop next to him today. He insisted that he would find me something I would like, first showing me a Dolly Parton cd (okay, I have to admit that he was spot on there) and then Kenyan gospel music, and then a Looney Tunes dvd. Then, seeing that I needed a new wallet, he told me he would go find me one—as that actually seemed useful, I thought about it and told him I would come back later, asking, a wallet made for women? It will be nice? Seriously, I’m getting soft…

I also really let this guy rip me off when I took a motorbike to a village outside of town the other day, feeling somehow bad since he drove around a bit, not totally knowing where we were going, asking several times for directions, and it was quite far. But he probably charged me a little less than double of what he should have, and by that time, I was so stressed about being late, and the sun, and just not in the mood to fight him on it. So I exlaimed like I normally do, “… shilingi??? Ni ghali!” but gave it to him anyway.

I may have turned this softness around today when I asked a boda driver how much he would charge me to get to a certain building in town and then just walked away when he told me the price, saying, “It’s too expensive!” So he followed me up the hill, saying, “It’s a business, we can negotiate!”

But overall, it’s hard to nail down what makes me negotiate or not. An exorbitantly high starting price usually makes me frustrated enough to bargain or walk away. Yet, at the same time, the other day in the slums, watching an impromptu skit on the importance of washing your hands and drinking clean water, one of the actors interjected reasonably, “But what if I don’t have any water???” The skit was overall very engaging and direct, but afterwards the public health officials who had organized it ended up in a conversation with the community members, the community asking for new toilets, which makes you wonder how you practically do a skit on sanitation when the facilities and resources are so lacking. Standing there, in the sun, in the village, basically slums, I was struck again by the extent of poverty in some places here. Feeling a little aggressive, or something, for bargaining over twenty shillings or ignoring a kid who asks me to buy him chai when just the other day I gave the really goofy, smiley kid by the Tuskys near my apartment, who probably knew he was going to break me one day, two bananas. I don’t know what the real difference is, or what made me give that kid bananas and basically ignore the other one, other than maybe proximity, repeated interactions, the tiny bit of a relationship not gone bad, facility. (Ugh, there is research on this; research that will either further cloud or clarify those nuances…)

But being struck by that level of poverty can lead me to feel like a real a-hole when I bargain over ten or twenty or even thirty shillings, wondering sometimes if I’m asking for below the market price. Though I’m pretty sure that rarely happens. Probably the easiest thing, or the practical thing, or the neutral thing, is just to have a flat price in your head that you can use as a point of reference, so you don’t get the tourist price, so that you can live on a budget here. And then I think, “Who cares? This world is too crazy.” Being “neutral” is obviously not a possible thing.

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Vignettes

1. The cold

The weather has changed, and now it is “winter.”  Of course, it’s not that cold, and during the day the sun still blazes–right now it is 73 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not so bad except for “jua kali” or “harsh sun,” which I envision as an angry sun personified, wearing too cool for school shades and indifferent to our plight.  But it’s also the rainy season, and  early in the morning, or mid-breeze, and especially at night, it feels cold, or at least “chilly.”  These days, when I get to the pool, I spend at least five minutes trying to soak in some sun before I manage to jump in.  Unfortunately, the hotter it is outside, the colder the pool water.  One day during the past few weeks, two guys were at the pool on a Saturday, and having jumped in before me, one decided to adjust to the cold by running through the water and flapping his arms around, saying a lot of hilarious things.  Then he looked to me and said, “You can come in now.  I have warmed the water for you.”  Please let him go into comedy; Kenya needs you, bwana.

There were also two kids playing in the small, slightly heated pool on the edge of the large pool.  Their mom announced that she was going into the big pool, and her son responded, fearfully, “But mom, you will die!”  To which she responded something like, “My son, I will not die!”

Anyway, the water is quite cold for the first two minutes or so.

2. The mannequins

At the Tuskys near my house and, let’s be honest, all over town, there are these really creepy-looking white mannequins.  I would do a photo post of them, but it’s just not worth it.  I don’t want to get creeped out all over again.  Anyway, the other day, I was consulting with the Safaricom agent over faulty credit I’d purchased–she was very helpful, but these things take forever to deal with–Safaricom must be notified, plus the manager, plus the president, etc.  So I was at least amused by watching these two little kids suspiciously walk up to the mannequins and touch their hands and clothes, and then jump back, as if those creepy white mannequins would bite.

A few minutes later, an older man walked by–he looked totally peaceful and in his head, just drifting, and he, too, seemed mesmerized by the mannequins, especially the male mannequin’s blazer.  He touched their hands slightly, examined the blazer’s buttons, and then slowly walked away

3. These pictures are very good

Thanks to my dear aunt and my friend Vinita, I am now in good supply of three American magazines, one of which has a very sexy picture of Serena Williams on the front cover.  Brother John was in my apartment, dealing with some thing, like clothes washing or gas borrowing, and he picked up the magazine when I was out of the room, saying, “These pictures are very good…”  This was followed, days later, by his flipping through my dvd case, asking, “What is…Gilmore Girls?”

These days, thinking of America, it can be hard to pinpoint what I miss until it floats back into view, but these things are certain:  I miss toast, oven-roasted vegetables, my own homemade smoothies, familiarity, and so many things.  It sounds superficial, but I think when the longing is so deep, it comes down to those concrete, seemingly superficial things.

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Mixed messages

For some reason or “somehow,” the very plain but also my favorite Weetabix cereal has disappeared from every store I frequent (not to mention these imported Italian whole wheat crackers which are only available at the Nakumatt on the west side of town).  Is Kenya trying to tell me something?  It’s such a common cereal that I’m surprised.  I ended up buying an expensive, imported honey almond cereal, a choice which I probably should amend before it becomes a habit.

Still, the message is mixed—the other day, when I was walking past the hotel where I swim to reach the pool, the concierge and hotel manager both ran out of the lobby, telling me the pool was under renovation so I couldn’t swim, the manager apologizing profusely.  It seemed funny, since they must have noticed by now that I come so frequently.   So I don’t think Kenya is trying to kick me out yet.  At least it wants me to swim here (but not on my back—too much hip extension?).

I also discovered a few new favorite things.  One being ginger lemon tea with honey, which is so delightfully gingery and lemony, you have to drink it quite slowly.  It would be perfect to soothe a sore throat, but it’s also nice just to calm your nerves, when a latte is just a little too much.

I also found goat’s milk yogurt at the store, and based on my love for goat’s cheese, decided to check it out.  I loaded it with diced pineapple and mango, cashews and peanuts, and drizzled honey on top.  So delicious!!!  Eating full fat yogurt is really just “fun,” you know???

My dear friend Vinita also mailed me some chocolate covered almonds (and a magnesium supplement), so if nothing carries me through to August 2, those certainly will.

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A Homemade Life

These past few days, fried, sleeping restlessly, sometimes in pain, spending much more time than I want glued to my chair, churning through data, I’ve been more likely to scroll through the “diversions” content of my news reader (all food blogs) with my morning coffee than content on policy or ‘Africa news,’ which fortunately led me to this interview with Molly Wizenberg, which led me to her blog (which has me thoroughly bashful about my food photos, though okay, I wasn’t necessarily trying to impress), which led me to her first book, A Homemade Life.  It’s a sort of autobiography/collage/essays on recipes and pretty much what I was looking to read at this time, and somehow her ginger chocolate banana breads and cookies and slow-roasted tomatoes and all things requiring ovens isn’t making me angry, just a little hungry and trying to figure out how I can better put to use my little gas jiko.  Mostly, I love the connection of food with feeling (in a way that’s a little more sober than, say, Like Water for Chocolate) and memory.  It’s totally calming to me.  Because I feel a lot of the time that food or drink, but usually food, is one of the few things that can bring me to the present or bring the present in focus as it connects so concretely to each moment and changes each moment completely; although I do tend to race through eating and sometimes cooking food, needing to get back to whatever work I’m doing or needing/wanting to put something in my stomach, I enjoy the details of cooking and eating, and for once it helps to move slowly, with precision.

I remember one day a few years ago, resolving to be more slow about how I do things in the kitchen, because it’s so important, not wanting to burn the garlic or overcook the meat, which is so easy to do and because the simplicity of things coming together in the right way is so satisfying.  But equally needing to resolve to eat slowly, because I somehow have this habit of picking up my plate as I take my last bite and bringing it to the kitchen.  (Partly because the aesthetic of an empty plate is just too horrendous to deal with most of the time, UGH.)

In any case, the food/life writing has calmed me down a little bit.  I’ve been pretty abrupt in my conversations lately, wanting to mostly get out from under them–partly because I’ve been having a lot of nerve pain, and when I combine that with people it doesn’t always go that well.  Especially when I’m disembarking from the bus in town and am met with the immediate Where are you going, madam???  Are you going to Kisumu??? (I assume there are three ? attached to that statement), or trying to sell clothes (I’ve really never met an aggressive fruit/vegetable seller?), sometimes grabbing my arm, and my patience totally evaporates and I’m on the defensive until I get away from the noise.  But at least I’ve been a little slower in my conversations, like with Brother John and Wambui and the waiter at Java who likes to ask me about my research.  And even I was really happy to see my usual fruit supplier in a different location on Monday and I had the chance for once to say “umepotea!”–you’ve been lost! or really “where have you been?” when I am usually on the receiving end of that statement, having not gone to a particular grocery store for a week.

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Walang Hanggan

Today I had the opportunity to meet with a very active member of Kenyan civil society, who was very knowledgable about Kenya’s political history and painted a picture for me of youth involvement in politics that I probably won’t get from anyone else, starting with the Mau Mau movement.  The one problem was that, throughout most of our interview, the soap opera that Nawal loved so much in Zanzibar, and that we watched weekly in her aunt’s living room, Walang Hanggan (My Eternal) was playing on a tv in the corner of his office.  And I was, admittedly, distracted from time to time, by sweet-looking Daniel (why was he in a poker tournament???) and his mom and grandmother up to whatever (why was she examining all of her toiletries in the bathroom???).  Also in the back of my mind was the theme song playing that I would jokingly sing to Nawal at times.  I did search the KTN schedule to see whether Walang Hangaan or Ina Kapitad Anak is playing, and am happy to now know that not only does IKA come on regularly (though I have no idea where they are in the season), but Legally Blonde (one) will also be showing tomorrow night…

Luckily, when my computer battery died, I changed chairs to plug it in, so the distraction was no longer an issue.  But I still wonder about all these people…

 

Walang Hanggan

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Food, installment one

Cooking for one, there is of course the glam of making anything you want, i.e., cereal for dinner, spaghetti carbonara (though really I only ever think about doing this), pancakes with a side dish of spinach…but as I tend to labor over my food or at least my food choices and wake thinking about what I will have for dinner, I like at least the idea of sharing it.

So maybe this is what happens when you live alone in a developing country, I don’t know, but this is my attempt to digitally share my meals for one. As a caveat, some of these “dishes” are not particularly fascinating or complex, just what I cooked. I also want to chronicle food more generally, like what is available here (since the sweet potatoes and greens are so beautiful), not just what I cooked.  These days, too, with cooking (plus swimming) I can punctuate the day; between running around town or sitting, working on my project here to finishing my thesis, I’m tired, and I easily look forward to cutting vegetables and listening to the previous day’s news (leading me to be always confused about what’s happening in Ukraine). Ideally, I can prepare something, rest for a moment, eat chocolate, and then start work again. Though hopefully there are only a few more weeks of this madness left…

In other news, I now have a strawberry supplier (or maybe two); all of the paint is falling off one spot of my wall (and the response is, this is normal, it’s just the cold! which reminds me of when the internet would fail in Köppenich and we were told it was “wegen der Nebel,” because of the fog); last night, I suffered a kumbi kumbi invasion (even when I was like, kumbi kumbi, y’all need to go; need to go!; they still didn’t leave—rude.); and I still live next to the loudest church in Nakuru county. But my food is still good—come visit!

Sweet potato quesadilla with cilantro and cumin fried egg; Recipe courtesy: Caroline Wright at Food52

Sweet potato quesadilla with cilantro and cumin fried egg (though my fried eggs get kind of airy here); Recipe credit: Caroline Wright at Food52

Boring pasta dish!

Boring pasta dish!

Beautiful spinach

Beautiful spinach

Aesthetic fruit

Aesthetic fruit

Orange passion fruit is still weird; but I'll eat it as dessert!

Orange passion fruit is still weird; but I’ll eat it as dessert!

Black bean soup/stew with peppers and cilantro; recipe credit: Pioneer Woman

Black bean soup/stew with peppers and cilantro; recipe credit: Pioneer Woman

Too much cabbage; recipe credit: Purity in Meru (do you add salt?  just KIDOGO!; do you add oil? just KIDOGO!: do you heat it? just KIDOGO!)

Too much cabbage; recipe credit: Purity in Meru (do you add salt? just KIDOGO!; do you add oil? just KIDOGO!: do you heat it? just KIDOGO!)

Penne with chicken, spinach, and tomatoes in white wine "sauce" and with tons of parm; Recipe credit: Pioneer Woman again!

Penne with chicken, spinach, and tomatoes in white wine “sauce” and an inappropriate amount of parm (or appropriate since it was the most expensive ingredient); Recipe credit: Pioneer Woman again!

Where all the magic happens

Where all the magic happens

 

Food I didn't make; the occasional trip to Java

Food I didn’t make; the occasional trip to Java during which I get too excited to photograph my food (who does that anyway?) before I eat it

And once a week (or sometimes twice) latte

And once a week (or sometimes twice a week) latte

I’ve also been known to pair beer with chocolate, chocolate with ice cream, ice cream with cookies, and yoga before dinner.

I’d also welcome any suggestions about what to cook with the ingredients (a lot of veggies, sweet potato, cilantro, greens, fresh fruit, beans, chapati, and the oddball Western ingredients like parmesan cheese and pesto) and lack of stove that I have!

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only time

I don’t know that I’ll ever adjust to time here, feeling I have it figured out and then realizing, no.  In Kenya, you can plan for meetings that never happen or happen an hour later, in stereotypical but true fashion.  And no one really denies this.  It can be common to arrive 30 minutes to an hour late, but at other times, the one time you rely on this non-law, the person you are supposed to meet calls you early.

This morning, for example, someone told me that he would be coming in “five minutes”; having waited the previous evening for someone who kept telling me they were “just around the corner” for about an hour, sitting outside fumbling with my phone, I went inside to have a cup of coffee, thinking, yes, this is smart!  It will be at least ten minutes.  But alas, my friend arrived within probably three minutes, which is to say that I really haven’t figured it out, except to just arrive on time or only a few minutes late, and maybe bring a book with me.

One slightly malleable rule may be that for anyone working in grassroots politics here or in the NGO world, things move a little faster.  In Uganda, I experienced this as well.  If you want something done, you often do it in that moment–which is at times startling to me, since I move slowly; I prefer to make appointments, make plans to do other things and make other plans so it’s all done in a certain way.  Getting a call to meet someone important, someone’s boss or a government official, in town “right now,” having not prepared myself, can bring me to frustrated tears, if the circumstances are right and other non-perfect things are accumulating, internal fist shaking, ugly face making as I metaphorically gather my skirt and run.  But the proactive, in-the-moment attitude here is helpful too since it’s true that you might not know when you’ll see a certain person again or be able to reach a certain place.  You “just adjust.”

I felt this again today too; as I followed my friend who was taking me around to different government offices to “make myself known” within county government, he took the stairs two at a time, reminding me of a man I met yesterday, who agreed to meet me for an interview.  He was one of those people who seems to fly from place to place; he too was on time, calling me at 10:02 when I had not arrived at our designated meeting spot by 10:00, having been misdirected by a security guard.  Graciously, he guided me to a café where we talked about his work with civil society, painting a sweeping macro picture for me, and almost as quickly he flew out again.  Today I saw him again, running to another place.

These people who fly around, who work at the micro level but tend to think and talk macro, taking the stairs two at a time, remind me I’m not really like that, though I admire it.  But I feel my goal is to take a backseat to it, watch it unfold, observe it, and write it.  My skill is doing things slowly; there is a process, and it’s careful, of putting on a band-aid or packing my bags or stretching my hip, feeling the nuance there.  The irony to this is that I never seem to give myself enough time to do things in the full way I want to do them.  I keep thinking it’s a thing that will change, though maybe it’s changing slowly, as I try to both fly through things and give myself enough time to do them thoroughly.

But at night, by the time the day seems stacked, I know I won’t do certain things unless I do them without thinking, without much of a process, so I tend to rush into them that way, washing the dishes, boiling an egg, calling someone I am anxious about calling.  I barrel into it almost, and then have to sit in the action once it has unfolded, a dam gate opened.  But in most moments, from day to day, I usually feel a little behind, leaving the room last, entering last, though I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, just a thing I notice and have to tamper with from time to time, trying to find a source of energy that compels me do things without thinking as hard, which a lot of the time is love.

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