In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Ms. Bitter von Barren? Party of One?"

So here’s the thing. If you’re expecting one of my typical mildly sarcastic yet often insightful, nay, borderline inspirational blog posts, you might want to check back some other time. At the moment, I’m writing this missive while seated in “Aerogare Deux, ‘all Eff” of Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. It is 8PM on Wednesday.....just about the time I was supposed to be making my descent into Jomo Kenyatta Airport outside Nairobi.

Instead, because of the pin-headed incompetence of Northwest KLM staff at Dulles Airport, I missed the connecting flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi this morning. Apparently, some folks who had checked in for my flight didn’t show up, but two other folks who hadn’t checked in did, and they couldn’t decide whose luggage to remove and whose to keep. Two hours later, we finally pulled out onto the runway, where one of the plane's computer systems failed to boot. So we had to pull back into the gate and get that taken care of. An hour later, we were finally underway.

By that point I pretty much knew I’d miss my connecting flight out of Amsterdam. We had been scheduled to land at 7:30 AM on Tuesday and my Nairobi flight was supposed to leave at 10:30 AM. Even with all the excellent headwinds the sniveling,lying weasel of a head flight attendant promised, sure enough, the Nairobi flight had departed 10 minutes before our plane touched down. This was more than a little irritating, even BEFORE the blatant disrepect that immediately followed.

First, one of KLM’s European branch of the Pinhead Employees Local 101 suggested that instead of staying at the gate to re-ticket, where I was about 6th or 7th in line, I should walk over to gate T-9 for immediate service. Of course I got to T-9 and the line stretched almost to the Basque Separatist region of Spain.

Stalking back over to where I began in the first place, I fought back an overwhelming urge to just fling down my backpack and start kicking and howling like a sleep deprived 2 year old. Why had I listened to that Teutonic twit rather than trusting my own instincts and staying put?? And why couldn’t I have gotten the 7 hour layover returning from the US that I’d had going??

Instead, I steeled myself to wait for an evening flight to Nairobi. By the time I got back to the gate, I even brightened a bit, because the two older, smartly dressed French women right in front of me had just received 50 Euro travel vouchers for their inconvenience, and they’d been on the same flight as me. Hey, in this totally fucked global economy, 50 Euros ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

So imagine my surprise when, after requesting rebooking on the next Nairobi flight, a tall blond young Dutch woman looked up from her computer, gave me what had to be Amsterdam's version of the stinkeye, and asked why I had missed the connection.

At first, I thought maybe there was some sort of language barrier or something. How many people willingly miss a leg of long-haul international travel? It’s a good bet that 8 out of 10 times, a person misses a connection because their flight was delayed. And besides, I had the sneaking suspicion that the two French women hadn’t been asked why they had missed their flight.

My next thought was, "Oh no this heifer did NOT just ask me that!" My jaws were already tight, but my neck was getting ready to start pivoting like a ball in a socket joint when the agent punched in a few codes and came up with another flight for me. OUT OF FUCKING PARIS. WHICH I JUST FUCKING FLEW OVER TO GET TO FUCKING AMSTERDAM. Again, exerting astounding self-control, I resigned myself to yet another delay. And I waited. For a "Thank you for your patience." For a travel voucher and an apology for my inconvenience. What I got was a 5 minute phone card good only for use in Schiphol airport, a 10 Euro voucher that would buy me an espresso and maybe half a sandwich, and a totally dismissive glance as the agent reached around me to try and help the next person in line.

To the bottom of my toes, I KNOW Black Americans are often perceived as being too sensitive about race, and that nothing in the above described scenario automatically indicated racist intent by the harried ticket agent. But I am equally convinced that the only reason that woman treated me with such brusque contempt was because I was black. And by that point, I was a Black Bitch about to set it OFF up in Schiphol Airport.

I channeled my crispest NPR tones when I asked, “Excuse me, but where is your manager?” As she stuttered and tried to come up with some other dismissive reply, I barked, “Get him or her over here NOW!” The girl finally sensed the roiling hormonal stew that was about to scald her ass with toxic venom and scooted away to find a supervisor.

When that woman arrived, I explained the situation calmly yet authoritatively, and ended by asking them how else was I suppose to interpret two white women on the same plane as me getting travel vouchers for missing their plane and me pretty much being urged to “Be gone, dusky wench?”

Once again, more murmuring and “Well, umm, Madam" 's,” and by that point I knew there was a good chance this scenario would end with me being arrested for creating an international incident, so I just walked away. The ONLY bright spot of my entire day so far occurred when the same rude young counter agent came running up behind me with a 50 Euro travel voucher. I summoned the grace to thank her, but why did it have to get to that point?

I mean, what else can I conclude when I know Africans are pretty much roundly reviled in many European countries, and I’m sure that with my funny hair and dark skin, I was just getting a dose of what they endure on a daily basis. Was I expecting too much to think that my American accent would absolve me from that?

Even though my head was throbbing by that point, I managed a few fitful hours sleep in one of Schiphol’s surprisingly comfortable long haul loungechairs before heading to the Paris departure gate. That’s where I was told there was only a 40 minute window between my arrival in Paris and the departure of the Nairobi plane. Fortunately, when I got to Paris, the plane had been delayed.

Unfortunately, that didn’t really matter because it was nearly full, and all they could do was put me on Stand-By. No guarantee of a seat, no priority waiting list. If I don’t get on this plane, I’ll have to cop a squat on some hard-assed bench and wait til tomorrow morning to leave.

You know, come to think of it, maybe I brought all this bad travel Karma onto myself. It could have started Monday afternoon at the spankin’ new Safeway store next to the NPR building in DC. It was about 2:30 PM, and I was ordering one last Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte for the road. I’d strolled down the wide, clean, familiar store aisles, marveling at how many chemical additives Americans can cram into a wide variety of foodstuffs. But mostly, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia and sadness, ‘cause I was leaving “home” once again.

I was also looking for dried mushrooms to take back to Nairobi, because other than your basic button or occasional Portobello, you just don’t get much multiculti-mushroom action over there. But it turns out they were way too expensive to make it worth the effort, so I took a pass. While I stood at the Starbucks counter, these two women queued up behind me. They were both in their early 30’s, I’d say, and one was pushing a wagon with this teensy, “fresh out the oven” infant squirming in a safety seat. The other woman had had her baby 6 months ago, and so they were trading new mother stories, laughing and giggling and sharing knowing intimacies as only smug-assed breeders with supportive, loving husbands can do.

And there I stood, a dried up old maid looking for dried mushrooms to take on her 8,000 mile journey away from all that’s familiar and comforting and soothing, and where she not only won’t ever conceive a child, but there’s a deadlock certainty that for the next 8 months of her fellowship, she won’t even get laid, and she’ll be lonely most of the time, and mosquito-bitten and hot flash-y for most of the rest of the time, and WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE???

I mean, journalistic fulfillment is one thing, but what about "the rest of the story"????

You know, the most amazing part of this screed is that I'm not even P-M-S-ing. Anyway, my battery's running out. Let's hope I get on this plane, or you'll probably be seeing me on CNN soon.

Monday, October 27, 2008

I Voted [X]

I am beyond exhausted. I only have about 18 more hours in DC, and though I've gotten a few things accomplished, there's just so much more I wanted to do.

And I'm battling the worst cold I've had in years. I kind of expected that the change in temps might be a bit unsettling, but I'm honking like a goose, people. Which should make my two 8 hour flights tomorrow and Wednesday quite memorable.


Anyway, the thing I regret most is that I had wanted to roll with my crew at NPR, this group of amazing women whom I've laughed and cried and laughed til I cried with. They had my back through so much drama and pain over these past 5 years in particular, and I wish I could at least get a hug from them while I'm here.

"Big Shout Out to my girls Sharahn and Muthoni and Allison and Sarah and Anne and Wilma and Brenda and Gisele and Kitty and Sue and Julie and Teshima and Deb, and Susan who's in from al!!!"

Hey, you do what you can do, and that's all you can do, I guess. At least I accomplished the thing I've been visualizing pretty solidly for the past month or so.....I filled out my ballot for the Nov. 4th Presidential Election, placed it in an envelope and slipped it into the cheesily official red white and blue ballot box at the DC Board of Election Headquarters.

It felt really, really great. Besides, while I was in New York, my friend Marcy had told me about her 5 year old niece Isabella, who voted in her kindergarten class election. She went home that afternoon and told her mother she had voted for "Orock Bama."

That has to be the cutest thing I've heard in ages! And if a 5 year old can meet her civic obligations, then I sure as hell can. Even if I am feelin' tore up from the floor up.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It's a Wrap

My relentless sarcasm will one day spell my doom. After last Friday, I'm completely convinced of that fact.

I was wandering through Times Square that evening when I came across these two guys standing near the corner of 43rd and Broadway shouting, "Obama, McCain and Sarah Palin Condoms....Either Way, You're Screwed."

At first, I was a bit offended that Obama was included in that slogan, but after 3 months of observing the mindless machinations of Kenyan politics, I've lost every drop of naive hope that any politician can make meaningful positive change. Let's face it...6 months from now, whoever's in the White House will be up to his eyebrows in serious, intractable problems.

But the gimmick made me laugh, so I walked up to one of the guys and asked how much the 3 condoms cost. He said 10 dollars. Without missing a beat, I replied, "Ten Dollars??? Is the d**k included?"

It must have been the combination of jet-lag and fatigue. Yeah, that's it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Olivier and Me

It's 4:42 AM, and I'm wide awake, trying to carefully plot out my strategy for the next 36 hours in New York.

So far, my time here has been absolutely amazing. As I've told several people, after spending 3 months living in Nairobi, for the first time in my life I could see myself living in Manhattan. The barely controlled chaos in Kenya's capital makes New York seem incredibly manageable. In Nairobi, climbing into a taxi requires making peace with your Lord and Savior as a prerequisite. You have to accept, even embrace the possibility that this will probably be the last thing you ever do on Earth.

There appear to be no traffic rules in Nairobi, and even if there were, there are too many cars on the poorly designed roads to make them effective. There are more traffic circles on Nairobi roadways than any major city I've ever visited, but nary a drop of the milk of human kindness flowing near any of them, because you could lose your will to live waiting for any of the cars flying past to let you enter the flow of traffic.

And the Matatus. THE MATATUS!! As you may know from earlier postings, these large passenger vans that have been retro-fitted to transport more people than the QE2 are the menace of all African highways. I call them the rolling convection ovens of death, because at least a couple of times a month, a rogue matatu will try to pass on a blind curve and smash head on into another vehicle, engulfing at least a dozen people in an oily fireball of excruciating agony. They weave in and out of traffic like crazed weasels, cutting cars off, intimidating other vehicles that aren't moving fast enough for their psychotic operators' tastes. During the myriad traffic jams that occur daily, if a matatu driver decides he's done with waiting, he'll just jerk the wheel, lean on the horn to scatter the throngs of people actually trying to obey the law, and then hurtle along the sidewalk till the traffic starts moving again.

So after 3 months of this harrowing daily travel routine, being in New York traffic has felt like a trip to the spa. The wide, unformly smooth roadways seem dream-like, the working traffic lights otherworldly, the lack of noxious diesel fumes medicinal, the absence of matatus a heavenly dispensation. That's why last night, after my Foundation Board dinner ended and I couldn't find taxi near Grand Central Station, I gladly hitched a ride with a young man named Olivier, who was furiously pedaling in my direction.

Even though it's downright chilly in New York, hopping onto the back of Olivier's open air pedicar seemed a sensible thing to do. A pedicar is like a large tricycle with a hooded passenger seat, and you really gotta give props to these young men who hump their way through the streets ferrying tourists from place to place. Olivier is a 25 year old immigrant from Burkina Faso who's been in the US two years now, and he's been driving a pedicar for half of that time.

I tell you, the 20 bucks I paid him seems like slave wages for the effort this kid exerted, weaving in and out of New York traffic while dragging me and that pedicar behind him. Still, having spent about a year living in Africa between the Uganda and Kenya stints, I know what hard work for little or no pay really is. I suspect that Olivier is absolutely thrilled to be a pedicab driver in Manhattan, as opposed to, say, desperately poor and unemployed in Burkina Faso.

In fact, over the past few days, it seems everything is encouraging me to keep a proper perspective on life, and making me think hard and long about my a woman, as a a journalist, and as an American living abroad in a developing country. I've been eating like food is going out of style, so grateful to be back home among familiar tastes and textures. And I've found myself whining about how hard it is to find good flour, or cheddar cheese that isn't rank, or decent wine in Kenya. It's actually kind of embarassing how much I've obsessed over my lack of access to these things while I've been away, and why I've managed to give Manhattan's economy a badly-needed shot in the arm while shopping for things I "NEED" back in Nairobi.

Next, during my meetings with the Board of Directors at the Foundation (Remember? That's actually why I'm here, as opposed to simply eating and shopping), I was forced to confront the realities of having to start writing the next chapter of my life, and whether I'll spend it somewhere in Africa doing the same kind of work, or whether I'll return to the States and focus on making money and creating a comfortable life for myself.....and maybe for this mythical child I've been threatening to adopt for the past 7 years. I mean, when the fellowship ends next Summer, what goal am I working toward? What will it wind up meaning that I spent nearly 2 years training African journalists how to be better reporters? Will it improve coverage of critical issues........or just provide me with a nice downpayment on a condo?

Do NOT get me started, puh-LEEEEZE......

Anyway, the pedicar ride was one of the highlights of the trip so far. And the only thing more invigorating than riding in a pedicar along Park Avenue on a brisk October night would have been riding in a pedicar on a brisk October night necking furiously with a hot guy. But that's another discussion for another time. I'm actually finishing up this posting while riding the Bolt Bus from New York to DC. I'll spend three frantic days trying to take care of business before heading back to Nairobi, and I'll also try to get caught up on some postings.

I think the next one will be about condoms in Times Square. But it's NOT what you're thinking, trust me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Obama Girl

I've been in New York for two days, and all I can say is the highlight of my trip was receiving a handful of red, white and blue Obama dog collars from my friend Barbara tonight. Folks in Nairobi asked me to bring back some fun and funky campaign items, but this is really a coup.

Along with the surprisingly high quality 5 dollar baseball caps I bought from a guy down near Union Square yesterday, I'lll be able to launch my own very lucrative sideline in Obama merchandise when I get back. Granted, the value of said items could plummet preciptiously on November 5th, despite an almost overwhelming belief that Fate will NOT be denied.

It has been absolutely marvelous to be back in the US, during one of the more tumultuous, exciting times in my recent memory. And I knew it would be this way, from the time I boarded the plane in Nairobi Monday night. During my round of seating, this white haired older woman standing in line behind me said, "I LOVE your hat!" pointing to the black Obama baseball cap I was wearing at the time. I smiled and gave her a thumbs up, happy to have connected with a fellow American traveler.

Walking down the aisle toward my seat, quite a few other passengers smiled and nodded. Though I didn't ask, I'm thinking they probably weren't all American. They're just people who are giddy about the prospects of what the day after November 4th could mean for the whole world.

After I settled into my window seat, the American woman who had complimented my baseball cap walked up to my seat, looked at the number over my chair and said, "Well, it looks like I'm seated next to the Obama Girl."

I just laughed out loud, happy that at 47, somebody was still referring to me as a girl. My seatmate was returning to Wisconsin from a trip to Malawi to visit her daughter, who worked in an orphanage there. Apparently, her daughter and all of her friends were ardent Obama supporters who were planning an impromptu post election celebration in the remote Malawian village, so certain are they of victory.

But, just like everybody I'm interacting with here in New York, my plane buddy shared her deep-rooted anxieties about Election Day, and the possibility that things won't go as expected. With less than 2 weeks to go, it's tempting to think that all the recent polls are right, and it's pretty much a lock for Obama.

I just know I'm happy I've been able to come back and soak up some of the energy and excitement. It is such a kick being home.

Monday, October 20, 2008

When I Think of Home....

It's actually kinda funny that in 6 hours, I'll be starting a 7,000 mile journey from Kenya to wind up in a place called the Hotel Giraffe.

But tomorrow at around this time Eastern Time, I'll be touching down in New York City, to start a 7-day journey in New York and DC. I've been so preoccupied lately that I've only started to get really excited in the past couple of hours.

I'm being considered as a board member for a major foundation that focuses on children's issues. One of my mentors, an amazing woman named Ruby, is the foundation's president, and I consider it a tremendous honor that she thinks I'm worthy of service. I'll attend the foundation's Annual Meeting and dinner on Thursday and then meet with board members members on Friday.

I sure hope drinking 4 or 5 Venti espressos every day will get me through foundation activities. On the other hand, thinking positively, I'll have a good excuse for drooling and slurring my words during meetings, cuz jet-lag ain't no joke. During the past few years, these long haul trips have totally knocked me for a loop.

Even so, I'm totally excited about seeing friends, eating pastrami at Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side, and briefly riding the crest of the wave of pre-election mania. It's felt really strange being so far away during the one of the most pivotal elections in American history--but then again, I've had the unique privilege of observing the action in Kenya. I think most people here are incredibly excited about the possibilities of an American president of Kenyan descent. But they're equally incredibly skeptical. In other words, there will be massive celebrations if Obama wins, the kind of vociferous joy and pride that will go a long way in mitigating some of the pain and bitterness of the post-election violence earlier this year.

But there'll be equally massive "I told you so's" if he loses. Most people I talk to here are firmly convinced America is far too racist to let a man with even a drop of African blood run the country.

Admittedly, I've followed the campaign far less closely than I might have under different circumstances. Say, if I'd actually been in the U.S., or if I hadn't been preoccupied by a major emotional watershed that just passed yesterday. But I have my moments when I completely agree with the Kenyan zeitgeist. You know, a black American can actually forget about "Racism, American-Style" while living an African country, because you can go days without seeing more than a handful of white people.

Don't get me's not like class-ism is a breath of fresh air, and there's plenty of that over here. But you can actually forget that people could automatically consider you less intelligent, qualified, or worthy of respect based solely on the color of your skin when EVERYBODY has the same color of skin as you do.

I guess that's why a lot of people are so excited about the possibilities of this election. It would certainly send an astounding message to the rest of the world that America has done some hard thinking about race. I'm not saying we're all going to start holding hands if Obama is elected, and I don't pretend to expect to experience miraculous occurrences like being being treated civilly in upscale department stores after an Obama victory.

America still has WAAAYYY too much psychosocial baggage to unpack for stuff like seeing past racial stereotypes to start kickin' in any time soon.

But it's still AMERICA. I ain't gon' lie here and say I won't be really sad if Obama doesn't win, because I think it would be an enormous missed opportunity. But it's still my homeland, for better or worse. Truth be told, the more I travel, the more I'm focused on the better, and the more my pulse races whenever I realize it's time to head West again.

Even if only for a week.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Promise Kept

I started today humming Elton John's song, "Sad Songs." I know that sounds like a horribly macabre way to mark the one year anniversary of your sister's death, but it was actually a victory celebration of sorts.

My brother-in-law Ron had sent me an e-mail describing how that song came on the radio just as he was turning into the cemetery to visit Julie's grave yesterday. We've both been bracing ourselves for this day, and looking for every possible sign from Julie that she still has our backs, and that we'll make it through.

If you know the song, you know it's kinda weird how Elton and Bernie matched such sad lyrics with such upbeat music. But it works....."When all hope is gone, why don't you tune in and turn them on......"

It's almost like the song is saying that sad songs can act as a receptacle for grief, and make you feel less lonely. "Sad songs they say....soooo much..." When somebody else takes time out from suffering long enough to write down what they're going through, it serves to validate what anybody else who hears that song might be enduring. It's actually a very generous gesture, when you think about it.

Anyway, I found myself singing those lyrics as I got ready to go out with a friend this morning. For some reason, I was able to focus on the fact that today means Julie has been free from excruciating pain for exactly one year. Even in my darkest moments since last October, I remember how much she pain she struggled with every second, and I realize how selfish it is to wish I could still be with her even though she was in such constant agony.

And I think I got another of the signs from Julie that have kept me from hurtling over the edge of deep sorrow. I was at Nairobi National Museum with my friend (whose name, by the way, is Juliette....) when my Blackberry phone started buzzing. Now, I don't use the Blackberry over here, because it's locked for international use, and it would cost a pound of flesh for every phone call anyway. But I dug it out yesterday to get it charged to take back when I head to New York City tomorrow evening. I also decided to take it with me to the Museum with me today, in case I wanted to take pictures.

Anyway, I was standing in front of a display case when the buzzing starts, and when I pushed the button to retrieve the message. It read, "The Anniversary of Julie's Homegoing." I know, that's a rather corny and prosaic term, but that's not the point. You see, I truly don't even remember putting that reminder on the phone calendar! Obviously I must have, though I can't imagine why I would have felt the need to remind myself of the occasion!!

Now, If I hadn't been heading to the US tomorrow, the phone wouldn't have been charged and I wouldn't have heard it. If I had been sitting at home by myself, drowning in sorrow, and that phone had started buzzing, I probably would have tossed it out the window! But I forced myself to go out today, with a young woman whose name means "Little Julie", and my phone reminded me that Julie didn't die, she just went home.

THAT'S when I knew that Julie had kept her promise to me. That promise came in the form of a rainbow that appeared in the skies over Northern Uganda, about a month after she passed. I had just returned and was heading from Kampala to Gulu when I rounded a bend and saw the rainbow in the picture at the top of this posting. I'd written earlier about how I'd never seen a rainbow during my time in Uganda, even though it often rained during bright, sunny days.

Rainbows had always been my lucky sign, and I'd desperately needed to see one before I headed back to Julie's bedside at the end. So it seemed a bit ironic to finally see one after she was gone. But when I saw this particular rainbow, I knew it was a sign from Julie that I would be alright, and her beloved husband Ron would be alright, and you know what?

She kept her promise.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Anno Domini

Even though I'm a die-hard fan of black and white movies from the 30's and 40's, every now and then a modern film will pack a punch just as laden with pathos as some of those old barn-burners.

In the past decade, a cinematic moment that sticks with me, for reasons that will soon be obvious, is from the 2001 drama "In The Bedroom." It's the scene just after a husband learns that his only child has been brutally murdered, and he has to go break the news to his wife.

Actor Tom Wilkinson beautifully conveyed the searing pain mixed with stoicism that most men wind up adopting in those situations, during that long walk down a high school hallway. He's headed to where his wife, played by Sissy Spacek, is leading a group of choir girls at the end of their practice. The husband winds up just outside her classroom door as the girls finish their last note, and Sissy Spacek lowers her baton with a nurturing smile and nod, pleased with their effort, blissfully unaware that every ounce of positive emotion and meaning in her life up to that moment is about become irrevocably null and void.

What she's about to learn will replace her entire life's history with the ashes and dust of profound agony and emptiness. Nothing will ever feel the same as it did before she absorbs her husband's news. She can choose to kill herself, or spend the rest of her life depressed and bitter, or figure out a way to keep going with some semblance of functioning, but she will never be the woman who stood in that classroom fulfilled by her own efforts and energized by the accomplishments of her young charges in those seconds before receiving that devastating news.

I thought that was a brilliant scene, and it instantly resonated with me. And that was 6 years before I had the exquisitely painful task of closing my sister's eyelids just seconds after her soul rose heavenward last October. In the year since that moment, I think I've made the right choice about how to spend the rest of my emotional life. Happily, I didn't crumble under the weight of such unspeakable pain.

But I'm not the same person as, say, the woman in the picture at the top of this posting, taken on July 7th of last year--7/7/07, the so-called "cosmically lucky day." My smile will never be as open and unfraught as this one was, or my eyes as clear. I will never get the same measure of fulfillment out of doing this kind of work as I did before last October. I will never ever experience satisfaction in the same way. I will never laugh as deeply, or cry without remembering the piercing, soul-wrenching sobs I now know I'm capable of emitting.

And like Sissy Spacek's character, I've accepted the fact that even if I were to live another 100 years, there won't be a single cell in my body that won't retain the memory of just how much I've lost. This doesn't mean I won't ever feel happy, or find peace. It's just that the heart will feel what it feels, both good and bad, and without a full-frontal lobotomy or a round-the-clock IV drip filled with liquid crack, there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

Oh, well. I just have to get through the next few days. I'm even expecting Julie's spirit to find a way to break me off a big-assed reward for surviving for one whole year after she passed.

Hell, I might even be able to lighten up in these blogposts! Imagine that.....

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Diani Detour

You know, I've been feeling so weird lately, my expectation of any imminent joy has dwindled dramatically.

This doesn't mean I've been walking around with a vial of arsenic in my purse or anything. Actually, I guess I've just been kinda bummed that for the rest of my life, my birthday month of October will always dredge up memories of death and dying.

Not that I've ever had a lot of stock invested in formal celebrations of my birthday. Being born to Jehovah's Witness parents pretty much screws that pursuit up real bad. Back in Cairo, I was the kid who sat in the hallway when the other kids had classroom birthday parties. Actually, it worked out pretty well in hindsight, because I was too poor to pitch in for cake or buy any presents for other kids anyway. Religious convictions were the perfect cover for harsh poverty.

My very first birthday party happened when I was 19, in a dorm room at Northwestern. I can still see the look of abject horror mixed with bottomless pity on my best friend Faith's face when I told her I'd never had one. She organized a really nice party, and I remember feeling really special, yet somehow still slightly wary. I don't know if I expected a bolt of lightning to singe my newly-pagan ass, but I got over it eventually.

Almost 30 years later I guess I'm just experiencing an overall "Autumn Blues" scenario. After all, I'm entering the Autumn of my life, and the requisite, "What-Do-I-Have-To-Show-For-It-Except-A-Pretty-Impressive-Passport" thing that's starting to kick in these days.

This is definitely different from my generic, ever-present menopausal angst. That's more focused on how in hell you can completely lose all control over your internal thermostat and your moods without being convicted of Capital Murder. But if you're lucky, the aforementioned Passport Pity Party is more about how you can find yourself whining about what you don't have when you've been blessed with such an amazing, interesting life.

In the past five years alone, I've traveled to 6 African countries, and actually lived in two of them. I've been to Iceland, for God's sake...I've toured Relais and Chateaux properties across southeastern France, watched lithe young men do capoeira in Salvador da Bahia, strolled the beach in Puerto Vallarta, gone on Safari in South Africa, viewed the spectacular Fontana di Trevi in Rome at nightfall....I'm forgetting half the amazing travel I've done in my life.

Just last week, I took a long walk on breathtaking Diani Beach, on Kenya's south coast. Dipping my toes into the Indian Ocean, I couldn't help marvelling over how blessed I am to see the places I've seen, meet the people I've met, and learn the things I've learned.

But all that great good fortune went swirling down the drain today, when a young woman in the newsroom viewed me with another stare mixed with abject horror and bottomless pity. I've always thought this particular editor was only about 21 or 22 because she looks so young. But she's in her early 30's and married with two adorable little boys she's cradling joyfully on her beautiful new screensaver. This afternoon, she asked me how many kids I have.

In the U.S., the answer "none" doesn't automatically elicit glassy-eyed shock. And it came without her knowing how old I actually am, because I suspect she thinks I'm still in my 30's. But her reaction told me that she can't begin to understand how a woman could get to be my age and not have any kids. I know a lot of that is just the difference between African culture and American....although now that I think about it, plenty of folks in the U.S. have wondered the same thing about me.

So, how do I move forward? I'm not sure. I thought I was fine with the status quo, but lately I'm feeling completely out of sorts. But one thing has helped. I just made the picture at the top of this posting my new screensaver. Maybe it'll help remind me to keep my life in perspective.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Visitor

So, I know I've been conspicuously quiet since my birthday. I headed to Mombasa a few days afterward, and meant to do a few postings while I was on the road, but Internet access was spotty. I was exhausted when I got back to Nairobi on Thursday, but then had to do a quick turnaround in time for the pasta party I threw for some friends Saturday night.

Maybe it's because I drank more that night than I had in the previous month. Or maybe it's because while I was in Mombasa, I had called my best friend Faith on the one year anniversary of her mother's death, just to check up on her. Or maybe it's because I just knew it would happen eventually.

Anyway, I dreamed about my sister Julie the night after the dinner party. The funny thing is, I couldn't really see her face. But it was her, all right. I could hear her voice, and she was in a wheelchair, but she sounded so strong. She had hair, though, which definitely not the case during the last year or so of her life. She wore two thick braids, and there was a lot of gray at her temples.

Anyway, in the dream, Julie had been invited to participate in some meeting in Arizona next August. I could actually read the letter inviting her on the trip, but I culdn't tell who it was from. Probably the National Education Association; she worked so hard for them during her final years. Anyway,between travel and the actual meeting, the trip would take up the entire month. She asked me if I'd take time off to travel with her.

Even in a dream, Julie should have known better. I'd quit my job and ride a Greyhound bus from Nairobi to Arizona for just one more chance to see her, to hug her, to help take care of her.

Anyway, on Sunday afternoon, during a much deserved nap after polishing off the leftover porcini penne, I dreamed about Julie again. This time, we were visiting my friends Veronica and David, and their adorable little daughter August. In the dream, Julie was so excited to meet August, and I watched them giggle and laugh and play together. Julie loved children so much.

This coming Sunday is the one year anniversary of Julie's passing, so, I guess I knew this would start happening. I'm kinda looking forward to seeing her again really soon.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Food for Thought

I just came home from trying to eat the some of worst Italian food ever wrought upon humanity, but it was one of the best evenings I've had since landing in Nairobi three months ago!

A group of friends had planned a dinner for tonight, and it happened to coincide with my b-day. Ruth and Juliette are scientists, Jeff and his wife Meredith are PR consultants, Grace is a media coordinator for an agricultural research institute...and I'm old enough to have given birth to each one of them.

That nasty bit of reality aside, tonight was so much fun! That is, when we weren't gagging over my steaming plate of swill that passed for lasagna, and Grace's salmon with the sickly aftertaste, and the Jeff's pork chop that must have come from a pig with full-blown cholera.

When we weren't laughing so hard we were about to do spit-takes, we were fighting to get half-way decent service. We ultimately wound up sending back three of the dishes, canceling a fourth order, and then scrounging around the remaining plates with haunted looks in our eyes.

When the manager came over to ask what was wrong with the food, I barely knew where to start. "Well, first, there's no flavor to the lasagna, I couldn't find any meat, and it just looked nasty," I snapped, while Juliette almost fell off the chair from a mixture of laughter and mortification. The manager said, "Well, that's how my mother makes it," and I caught myself before hissing, "Well, I hope you were adopted."

We eventually managed to make a meal of a couple of pizzas and the so-called caesar salad Jeff had ordered, and then we had to threaten to leave before they finally brought us the bill. It seemed quite unfair to have to pay for that level of culinary abuse, but we DID have booze, after all.

Anyway, Jeff suggested we go to this OTHER Italian restaurant for dessert. But by that time, I was ready to strangle Jeff anyway, because he and Meredith had picked the first place without ever going there before...whereas they'd been to the second place frequently and KNEW it had good food. I'm like, "Why did I have to be the canary in the coal mine, on my birthday of all days???" But hell, it was worth it for some of the best laughter I've had in ages.

At the next stop, which boasts an absolutely delightful candle-lit outdoor setting, we were waiting for our dessert and coffee when his canned music starts blaring, and a waiter headed in our direction holding a plate with a candle stuck in the middle. I was actually sitting there thinking, "I wonder what sucker is going to have to suffer through another corny birthday ritual?" when said waiter placed the plate in front of me.

Suddenly, the key to life became crystal clear. Surround yourself with good friends and laugh your ass off as much as possible, and you'll get through just fine.

I Spy With My Half-Blind Eye

You know, until about 2 hours ago, being 47 felt really smokin' hot.

I mean, I ain't tryin' to front, or nothin', but I KNOW I look good. I may feel like a soggy mass of Kleenex during half of each waking moment, but after I've mopped the sweat from my brow, I can still represent in the looks department.

But why, oh WHY did I have to have an eye exam during my lunch break today?? Even taking into consideration that the well-meaning young woman in the optical shop downtown was using Flinstones era tools, I am virtually "blind in one eye and cain't see out the other" these days.

Sure, half of what most optometrists are pushing is pure sales pitch, but there was no faking the concerned demeanor of this particular eyeball urchin, who kept saying, "Is THIS any better?? Are you SURE you can't see the letters clearly?"

Then she asked for my current glasses, which I only use for distance vision. I had told her I was having trouble focusing on road signs and such, and she offered to examine. "Your vision has changed a lot since these were made," she said. "I can see why you are having trouble."

Oh, good, I mumbled to myself. At least somebody can see. Bee YOTCH!

Anyway, the baby eye doc tried to sell me on some new lenses, which would cost about $100...probably half what I'd pay in the US. Still, I made a point of saying I'd "think about it," and stumbled blindly back out the door. Just like occasionally "forgetting" to take my blood pressure medication, I must jealously guard my self-image as a young woman by ignoring necessary adjustments for the passing of the years.

Look, I may have a massive stroke right before I walk in front of a bus one day soon, but it is better to LOOK good than to FEEL good, eh?


Hippo Birdie Deer Me

I woke up 90 minutes ago so busy baying for blood during the VP debates, I almost forgot that today is my birthday. Maybe that's a good thing for now.

It's a cool, still morning in least now that I've turned the TV off. As I lie here in bed staring at this computer screen, there's time to remember where I was a year ago today, and what I was bracing myself for.

I am so grateful to be where I am at this moment. I'm so glad I wanted to keep going.

So I think I'll send myself the same birthday greeting I sent to the Archangel Julie on August 17. After all, she's the one who's propping me up these days.

Hippo birdie to me,
Hippo birdie to me,
Hippo birdie deer Rachel,
Hippo birdie to me!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Upward Bound

When last we communicated, dear readers, I was affirming my intention to lift myself out of the self-imposed rut I had fallen in. Well, I'm pleased to report that only today, I put myself out there twice doing things that, a mere 6 months ago, you probably couldn't have paid me to do.

Now, don't let your mind go there. I'm about as risque as a cold glass of lemonade, so don't expect any juicy revelations. I merely mean to say I did two things that I might not have found appealing a while back. First, I spent my lunchbreak today with members of the Rotary Club of Nairobi. My best friend Faith is a Rotarian, but even though she doesn't exhibit the slightest hint of zombie zealotry, I've always been slightly suspicious about Rotary. I was worried that there was some pagan ritual involved that might bind me to Satan in this life and the next.

But the people I met today were quite normal. I didn't have to bite the head off a chicken or anything. I made some good contacts for possible health stories, and left feeling glad I'd reached outside of my routine to make some social connections.

This evening, I attended a cultural evening focused on the works of Giuseppe Verdi, Italy's legendary operatic genius. Again, while I acknowledge peeking out the corner of one eye to see if there were any potential male conquests, I wound up being completely fascinated by Verdi's life story and astonishing talent. It was an evening well spent.

I'm looking forward to doing a lot more of this kind of thing.