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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Maybe I'm Amazed

So I'm just sitting here on the couch on a dazzlingly bright Sunday afternoon in Nairobi, waiting for my lap to start ringing.

I wish that were as exciting as it might sound in the properly warped brain. It just means I'm waiting for a Skype call from my best friend, Faith. These days, both our schedules are so insanely busy, it takes focused mindfulness, and the actual setting of a specific time, for us to connect. But this time, there's a critically important task at hand--bidding a formal good riddance to October.

Don't misunderstand me...October is my birthday month, in which I generally seek every excuse to treat myself more like an Empress than a Princess. See something I like and don't need? "Buy it, it's your birthday present to yourself." A waiter proffers a dessert menu? "Order something, already, this is YOUR month!!" All told, except for the existential mindfuck that was my Twisted Tent Retreat in the Mara, I've had a really good run of it these past 31 days.

But, as I've mentioned before, October is also one of my tough months, and ironically, it's the same for Faith. As long as I LIVE, I'll never forget calling her one afternoon 3 years ago, to wail about being totally stressed out helping Ron care for Julie when most of my siblings weren't around, and it felt like nobody cared. She was so patient and soothing, and then she asked if she could call back later because she was on her way home from her mother's memorial service.

I knew her mother had been hospitalized. I knew she was gravely ill, and I knew she was near death. I'd just been so caught up with my own stuff, I wasn't aware she had died. Of course that tripled my anguish, but again, I'll also never forget how instantaneously Faith forgave me for not knowing. for not acknowledging the the passing, because she knew what I was going through.

Stuff like that can really cement a relationship. It's tough being so far away from your dear friends, but there's also a great deal of comfort in knowing that they ARE your friends, and that when the technology cooperates, you can still bitch and moan from 8,000 miles away. I think today's main focus of conversation will be amazement. We're both pretty shocked and proud that we've managed to soldier forth as well as we have since that dire October three years ago. We're both pretty hopeful and excited about what this next chapter in our lives will bring.

In fact, we're cooking up a plan that at some point during our Golden Jubilee next year--hers in April, mine in October--we'll mark the occasion during a safari somewhere in the East African Region. Now, here's a tip you don't want to ignore: if most of my ramblings on this blog don't exactly score high marks on the old "Entertain-O-Meter," I
PROMISE you won't want to miss the Hilarious Adventures of Faith and Rachel on the African Savanna." I'm already astonished by the mere concept of such a journey....

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I LOVE MY HAIR!!!!!

Okay, I already know my brother-in-law Ron is going to look at this photo and say, "What an amazing likeness!!" So let me just beat him to it so I can get on with this danged post!!!

It is so
crazy that the day I first learned about the new Sesame Street video featuring little black female Muppets singing the praises of their natural hair, I was obsessing over how dry my own locs are. Oh, I LOVE everything else about the uniqueness and freedom of non-chemically straightened locs (almost everything...there IS the fact that mine are growing so fast, I can't keep up with keeping the gray roots covered!!), but what bugs me is how dry they sometimes feel!

I've always been told that you're not really supposed to put a lot of gunk on the locs themselves; maybe a hot-oil deep conditioner every six weeks or so, and of course you need to keep your scalp moisturized. But in this intense African sun, keeping the color/conditioning ratio together is giving me a headache. Sometimes, it feels like I'm walking around with a scalp full of shredded wheat.

In fact, I was sitting in a Nairobi salon waiting to get re-twisted the other day when I saw a BlackBerry email from my friend Jamila, asking if I'd seen the video. I hadn't even
heard about it, no less seen it, so I checked it out once I got home. I'm sorry, but Muppets always make me smile, no matter what they're doing. If there was a video of a Muppet involved in a violent armed robbery, I'd still giggle at it.

But this one touched my heart for so many reasons. I remember when "Sesame Street" premiered, about a month after I'd turned 8 years old. I already adored puppets of any kind at that point, so whenever the local TV stations aired it, I was all up in the TV. And because I was living in one of the most racially tense towns and eras, I think I was also savvy enough to notice that Muppets weren't white or black, per se. They could be orange, or blue or green, or furry, or curly, or whatever. Muppets could just
BE, without anybody making a big deal about it.

Growing up has never dulled my enjoyment of Muppets. I watched the prime time "Muppet Show" religiously. I've seen most of the Muppet feature movies. If I could get catch "Sesame Street" over here in Kenya, I'd watch it every day (albeit with the volume turned down low, in case the neighbors questioned my sanity.) And I've appreciated how through the years, that the show's producers made an effort to create patently African American and Hispanic and Asian puppets. Sure, they still come in all the assorted kooky colors like blue and purple, but "Sesame Street" embraced diversity a long time before most other sectors did....and quite a few that still haven't.

So watching little brown female Muppets bouncing around proclaiming their pride and joy about their natural hair was just
too sweet! And it's fascinating that the man behind the video, Sesame Street head writer Joey Mazzarino, is white. He and his wife (also white) adopted an Ethiopian baby, and the idea for the song came when she was about 3 and started asking to get her hair straightened. They worried that she was already being harmed by the prevailing American cultural message: Skinny, white, with long, straight blonde hair is the ideal. Kinky-haired and brown-skinned is far from it.

You'd be crazy not to acknowledge the enormous power of "Sesame Street" and other PBS programming to sear positive messages onto tiny brains. Many a grown-assed American can still recite the mantras and songs from "Sesame Street," "The Electric Company," "Zoom," "School House Rock," etc. ("Conjunction Junction, What's Your Function?"). I feel very happy, nay, even Muppet-y, when I visualize little black girls singing along with that video.

Makes me wish I could have seen it 40 years ago, when I was watching TV back in Cairo. Maybe I wouldn't be so worried that my locs sometimes don't feel soft and flowing...it's probably just the last remnants of memory of those old shampoo commercials with white women and their silky blonde tresses blowing in the breeze, with the guy off to the side just panting to run his fingers through those buttery tendrils...

ANY-hoo, since I just mentioned Cairo..........

Hometown Hero!!

.....the young man I met when he was about five and came bouncing into the office at Cairo High School wearing a little blue and white sailor suit, and who is now a Broadway Star/Singer/Composer, co-wrote the Sesame Street "I Love My Hair" song!!!

Whenever I think I couldn't
possibly get any prouder of Christopher Jackson, he goes and does something else fantastic!!! My sister Julie and I had the incredible privilege of seeing him on Broadway shortly after he landed the role of the adult Simba in "The Lion King." I've seen him twice as one of the leads in the Broadway musical "In the Heights." He's a proud papa of an adorable boy and girl, and he married one of his beautiful "Heights" co-stars.

AND his first album is about to drop. He's been trying to send me some zip files via email, but given the technological "challenges" of life abroad, I'll probably have to wait and have someone bring the CD over when they visit.

I'm
so thrilled to be able to call this guy my friend! One thing I hve always noticed about spending time with Chris is that we absolutely, instantaneously revert to our roots after the initial hug. I can just be that gal from Cairo, and he can be that guy, and we "Keeps It Real." And I can guarantee that no matter HOW famous he's going to eventually become, Chris would move Heaven and Earth to get me tickets to see him at the Grammys. Or the Tonys. Or the Oscars. Or all three, if I asked. Which I may have to over the next few years, given how things are going with his career.

As we usually wind up admonishing each other when we part, "Do Yo'
Thang, Homey!"

Friday, October 22, 2010

"It Ain't Rocket Science!!!'

How many researchers does it take to switch on the "lightbulb" of insight about the benefits of learning to talk to reporters?

About 20. And it really helps when one of them is the lead researcher on the Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine Impact Study (PCVIS), Dr. Anthony Scott.

“Picture it: October 2010, a small conference room at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi.” (And yes, I was just channeling Sophia Petrillo for a minute.) I’m about to start my Power Point Presentation, Communicating Research Through the Media: It Ain’t Rocket Science! when I realized I could use a photo to illustrate a blog post about the event.

When the guy sitting in the chair beside my backpack graciously offered to help, I smiled and introduced myself while proffering my trusty little pink point-and-shoot camera. When he told me his name, I literally had stop myself from shouting, “NO WAY!”! I had been trying to connect with Anthony Scott for at least the past month and a half, ever since I’d learned that the pneumococcal vaccine developed at KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Kilifi was scheduled to be officially released in January 2011.

I learned that fact at about the same time I received the Wellcome Trust Public Engagement grant for the Kenyan Alliance of Health And Science Reporters project. That coincidence offered the perfect opportunity to use this important research milestone as a training tool. I quickly decided that the first KAHSR week-long workshop should be held in Kilifi, and it should focus on the PCVIS process.

What a terrific opportunity for an immersion training that would also prepare Kenyan reporters to authoritatively cover the official vaccine release! If only I could snag just a few minutes on Dr. Scott's incredibly busy schedule, to learn more about the project and get his feedback on possible workshop sessions!

(“And I’d just shoved my trusty little pink point-and-shoot camera in his face! ARRRRGGGHHH!”)

Fortunately, Dr. Scott seems like a really nice guy who wasn’t fazed by my stunningly informal introduction. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the presentation, and is quite eager to help me develop the workshop program, scheduled for the end of November.

It will help Kenyan print reporters understand why the Government agreed to work with KEMRI-Wellcome Trust researchers to monitor the effectiveness of the Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine over the past four years. It targets the "pneumococcus" bacterium that causes pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis in children.

Even before I knew just HOW big a deal this vaccine launch is, I somehow understood the enormous opportunity it presents. It offers a chance to teach reporters about the process of research—what’s a randomized clinical trial? How do you convince an illiterate, impoverished mother to let you jab her baby with an alien substance? How did the official pneumoccal disease burden in Kenya convince the Government that this research project was worth supporting?

So I’m glad I was bold enough to shove my trusty little pink point-and-shoot at one of those researchers who'd taken time to flip that mental switch. It could light the path toward more and better communication between journalists and scientists. As with most “rocket science,” the only way forward is upward.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In The Pink

Okay, this'll have to be a quick one, because I'm sitting in the radiology department of Nairobi Hospital at the moment, about to be called in for my yearly mammogram.

Like I wrote last week, my Nairobi doctor wants to get the results before she'll start me on HRT. I purposely chose today to have it done, because it's the third anniversary of my sister Julie's passing. And though she died from colon cancer, you gotta keep track of "The Big C" whenever and WHERE-ever it might develop.

There are so many signs that my decision to take control of my physical and mental health by choosing this path is the right one. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and of course the pink ribbon is the international symbol. And I chose this image because it was taken with my trusty little pink point-and-shoot camera nearly a month after Julie passed, and I had somehow managed to pull myself together and return to my cozy little cottage in Gulu, Uganda, to
get on with life by any means necessary.

It's the rainbow I'll always have, just like I'll always have Julie's spirit with me. I've made it the screensaver for my new Kenyan Alliance of Health and Science Reporters laptop, which is basically chained to my hip these days as I try and get things rolling. This rainbow reminds me that Julie would have done--DID do--whatever it took to get on with her life. She was the toughest person I've ever known. That's why I know I'm doing the right thing.

And that she's smiling down on me today for being the Grown-Assed-Woman she always knew I could be.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Yet Another Perspective

See, THIS is what is so infuriating about dealing with hormonal issues. One day, you're ready to read the riot act, and the next day, you can be major-ly mellow. One day you can feel like you are going batshit insane, and then the next day, you can sit with your feet propped up, watching sailboats float by on a brilliantly sunny day on the coast of Kenya, and you can find yourself utterly convinced that everything is really gonna be okay.

If you have to spend most of the weekend working, this would be the place to do it. And I made the most of the fresh air, and the cool breezes, and the sheer beauty of the Mnarani Beach Club in Kilifi. I got exfoliated and facial-ed, and massaged. Heck, I didn't even get upset when after I stepped away from my breakfast this morning for a refill of mango juice, a rogue monkey snuck up and stole my slice of freshly-baked bread!

(The little bastard....)

Anyway, in between peering into my MacBook screen, I took deep, gulping breaths, and I thought really, really, REALLY hard about my life. The past 49 years have been this maddeningly exciting, against-all-odds, adventurous, largely solo expedition--so far. And in most ways, it just keeps on getting more exciting and adventurous.

I guess what I need to do is visualize this picture with another pair of feet beside mine. Because that's really the only thing that's missing in my life right now. Sure, it's a fairly significant thing, but it doesn't mean that all the rest of the picture is meaningless and not as beautiful as my eyes are telling me it is.

So even when my brain is addled, and I'm feeling like someone turned on the internal microwave, I've gotta stay Kool Moe Dee about it. (Good Lord, forget the hot flashes...I really just showed my age with that reference!! But it just popped into my head, and it feels okay that I know who he is. I've earned every second of these 49 years, and I'm gonna thoroughly enjoy whatever's left!)

"I'm just Sayin', Dawg...." Part 24

Dang it!!!!! WHEN am I ever gonna learn that to successfully navigate expat life, whenever you see a salty, greasy or sugar-y snack treat from home, you need to snatch up every bag or box of it on the shelf???

I snarfed down most of my Bugles while I was on the Coast, and now I just know when I go back to the store, they'll all be gone!

All I can say is that the rest of the 40 million plus people in Kenya at the moment better stay the heck outta my way until I can find a bag of Ruffles...or some Ho' Ho's...or it's gon' be....

"ON AND CRACK-A-LACKIN'!!!"

"I'm just sayin', dawg...."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Salt, Grease and Sugar

Meet my three best friends these days...Salt, Grease and Sugar.

It is absolutely TRAGIC how giddy the sight of these two snack food items from home made me feel this afternoon!! Granted, that was mostly because I had just come from the doctor's office, where I'd almost groveled at her feet for help in ending the lingering remnants of madness and dysfunction that are the hallmarks of "The Change of Life."

You may have noticed I haven't written much about hot flashes and night sweats in recent months, because for the longest time, I wasn't having any. I was blissfully, deliriously symptom-free. I felt normal for so long, I forgot what feeling miserable was like!

But apparently, that vicious bitch called Fertility just won't stay gone. She showed up again a few months ago, after a 6 month absence, and it's like I've been trapped in a 2-month bout of PMS. Like, 2 months of the worse case I've EVER had. I'm tense, snappish, argumentative, and ready to either curse you out or wail like a lost 3-year-old at the mall if you look at me funny.

ALL THE TIME. Now, I realize a lot of this might be aggravated by the stress of starting my new journalism project. It's also October, which is one of my "tough months" each year, so maybe that's why. All I really knew yesterday, when I made an appointment with my local internist, is that I was near the end of my rope. And that rope is caked with salt, grease and sugar.

THESE are the only things that give me comfort these days. THESE are what make me smile and stop obsessing about who I can hiss at for being a complete idiot!!!! And the worst part of it is that I was lying on the couch the other day with the MacBook nestled on my bloated stomach, eating salted banana chips while working on my expense forms with the TV on for background "company," when a movie came on that completely "outed" me.

All is revealed in the next posting!

Beauty and The Bitch

Obviously in this photo, my dream lover Idris Elba is the beauty. I've stumbled across the 2007 movie "Daddy's Little Girls" at various points in recent years, but couldn't bring myself to watch it all the way through. Gabrielle Union is just too damned dimply and pretty, and Idris Elba is just too damned HAWT to watch for extended periods without major retinal scorching.

But I knew it was about a successful professional Black American woman who eventually gives her heart to the smokin' fine chauffer with three sassy young Bolddaughters and a psycho-hoochie ex-wife. On Sunday afternoon, I decided what the hell, I'll watch it. (Plus, I didn't feel like moving from the couch to find the remote.)

Anyway, even though I'm about 11 years older--and though not unattractive, nowhere near the blinding dazzler that Gabrielle Union is--for the first half hour or so of the movie, I was looking at myself. Bee-YOTCH to the max! Snappish and rude and petty and like a shark in the water, seeking the blood of the weak and wounded. Just butt-ugly on the inside, no matter how poised and polished on the outside.

I can't really tell you much about the movie's plot, because like most Tyler Perry productions, it was a lightweight confection, usually forgotten about 30 minutes after the credits roll. But I'm still thinking about Gabrielle's cartoonish, one-dimensional portrayal of the "Uptight Black Super Bitch" who gets saved by the love (and sundry physical gifts) of a "Strong Black Yet Poor Stud God."

I'm still thinking about it because today at the doctor's office, I could tell she wanted to write me a prescription for something you can't get at the drugstore. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.....

"Doctor, Doctor, Give Me The News....|

"...You got a bad case of parts unused..."

Or at least that's what I heard my local, Australian doctor thinking to herself today during my appointment. That is, after she pointedly mentioned it had been almost a YEAR since my last appointment. I mumbled something about travel and the new project, and then cut straight to the chase..I'm about to lose my damned MIND, and am ready to roll the dice.

Bring on the Hormone Replacement Therapy, dammit! We all gotta die from something, but if I can get a couple of sane, hot-flash free years under my belt before my boobs fall off and my ovaries calcify, it'll be worth the gamble. We had actually talked about this during one of my last visits, and I remember her saying how much her own sister had benefited from HRT. It had literally changed her life, from misery and rage to energy and optimism. So though a DC endocrinologist had discouraged me from going that route, the Nairobi doc was trying to convince me that relief from severe symptoms could outweigh the risk.

But before she'd sign off on HRT, she wanted to monitor my blood pressure and cholesterol, and insisted I get another mammogram before starting the regimen. And then, she paused and decided to do some more thorough probing.

"So, how long have you lived in Nairobi?" "About two years and 3 months." "Did you move here just for this job?" "Yes." "Did you have any family here?" "No, I'm American." "Are you married?" "No, single, never-married." "Do you have a partner or companion?" "No."

(Doctor pauses to peer at patient over the top of her glasses.) "Do you live alone?" "Yes." "What about your social networks? Do you have friends and acquaintances you spend time with regularly?" "Well...er... no, I mean,... (defensively) ...I have people over for dinner, and quite a few expat acquaintances, but the friend I was closest to here just left for the UK."

The momentary silence was deafening. I didn't need a teleprompter to read what was on her mind. "This chick just needs to get some regularly, and all her physical and emotional problems would probably vanish."

Like I said, I'm still embarrassed just thinking about that little exchange. Oh, she's still willing to start me on the HRT after my mammogram results are in, but I could see her biting her lip to keep from saying,

"You're virtually a freakin' workaholic hermit, for Chrissakes! Get a life, not a prescription!!"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"I'm Not A Doctor, But I Play One in East Africa..."

Okay, things REALLY got nutty yesterday morning, when I was standing by the elevator at Nation Centre and this polite young woman approached me and asked, "Dr. Jones? Do you remember me?"

And you best believe me when I say that things over here have been seriously out of control ever since August 12th, when I received an email from the UK worth about $45,000. And no, it wasn't from some Nigerian scammer sitting in a smoky London cyber cafe. That email came from the Wellcome Trust, an international medical/science/research charity with a strong focus on improving public access to health and science information.

That August email informed me that the funding application I'd submitted back in April, to create a brand new journalism training and mentoring organization in Kenya, had been approved. I'm telling ya, peeps, it was a classic case of "OMG, now what am I supposed to do??" Okay, I've been working in East Africa almost 3 years, which makes me more than qualified to assess the skills of local journalists, and to propose strategies to improve those skills. That insight shaped the proposal I wrote, to establish a series of regional journalist briefings around health and science topics, and quarterly training workshops at the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Wellcome Trust Research Programmes in Nairobi and Kilifi.

Basically, after all these years, I know what the heck I'm doing over here. I'm actually extremely good at what I do, and I say that without a hint of reservation or ego. It's just the way it is. But when somebody hands you a pot of money to actually put up or shut up, that's when the rubber meets the road (which is the polite way of saying that's when you wake up in the middle of the night grinding your teeth with a fine sheen of sweat on your forehead and your stomach in knots and you go, "Oh, shit!!")

Actually, 5 days out of 7, I'm pretty cool about this new juncture in my career. I've pretty much been on autopilot since that August day, just plowing through what I have to do to get this project started without allowing myself too much time to whine about how much I have to do, and how unfair it is that I have to do it mostly by myself, and how in GAWD's name could anybody do it in the first place??? The good news is that I now have an assistant named Sarah who's an environment reporter and who also has lots of great administrative experience. She started on Monday of this week, and my gut tells me she's going to be really good.

But back to the main point of this posting, the whole "doctor" angle. You see, that August email from the Wellcome Trust addressed me as follows,

"Dear Dr. Jones," blah, blah, blah. Seriously, at first I thought it was clearly the right letter sent to the wrong person! I've referred to myself as a PhD in the past, but I claimed it stood for "Pretty Hot Diva," and THAT was mostly because of my hot flashes. When I finally absorbed the reality that they were actually awarding me a grant, I realized the mistake must have been because most people who apply for these kinds of grants are PhD researchers and scientists. So the person who formatted my letter must have assumed I was a PhD, too.

And then the girl by the elevator yesterday goes and plunges me right back into the "nutty zone" with her formal introduction!! I was, like, "What the...why are you calling me 'Dr.' ??? And how do you even know who I am???" Turns out she had seen me speak at one of the local universities, and once again assumed that I must be some outrageously learned-type person.

Sheesh, when are people gonna accept that I am merely Princess Rachella, the small and meek girl from Cairo, trying to make a difference in this crazy world before my weary bones settle that one last time--about 40 or so years from now.

But hang on...'alf a mo'....come to think of it, " 'Doctor Jones' does have a certain ring to it..." Oh, heck!!! It all reminds me of that wacky 70's comedian with his "Mr. Johnson" shtick..

"Now, you can call me Rach, or you can call me Rachel. Or you can call me Jones, or you can call me Jonesy. Or you can call me Miss Rachel, or you can call me Ms. Jones. Or you can call me RJ, or you can call me RLJ...."

"But you dasn't have to call me Dr. Jones!"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Divine Do-over in Dar!

Fortunately, the Universe frequently finds a way to initiate fairly prompt corrective measures for the endless loop of hilarious hijinks that comprise the bulk of my life.

I'm posting this from what I think is one of the finest hotels in East Africa: The Kilimanjaro Kempinski in Dar es Salaam. Here's the view from the chaise lounge in my "deluxe, ocean view room." Now, THIS is luxury!!! You should see the total art-deco bathtub, and the groov-acious furnishings! And the air-conditioning was already cranked when I got there! That taupe tarp tent I was rockin' this past weekend seems like a bad gin and tonic hangover nightmare!!

"Princess Rachella is restored to her greatness at last!!!"

And get this: right after I'd checked in and was waiting to board the elevator, the doors slid open, and there stood 5 of the yummiest looking male humanoids I've seen in quite some time. It seems the Moroccan National Football Team is also in residence at the Kempinski, for a match this weekend. And even though the lint in the bottom of my purse is older than most of those studs....hey, I'll be needing a hip replacement in a decade or so anyway, so why not do some damage this weekend??

"Ma fĂȘte d'anniversaire se poursuit!"

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Bench to Damascus

THIS is where I spent most of the past two days. I highly recommend this spot, or one like it. The view from here was of the Mara River, which of course is the main reason people from around the world travel to the visually-stunning Maasai Mara region.

But at one point during my perch on this bench, I remembered that the word “mara” is almost the same as the Hebrew word for “bitter"- "marah." That occurred to me at an appropriate moment, because the thoughts I had while sitting on that bench were pretty brutal at various points. Yet each and every one was necessary for me to unpack, turn over in my hands and examine from every angle, and then name 'em and claim 'em.

More later. Maybe. For now, here are the blogposts I wrote over the past few days but couldn’t post because I was out in the eerily peaceful yet freakin’ back of beyond. (NOTE TO SELF: From now on, your mantra must of necessity be, “Nature Ain’t Natural if there Ain’t No ‘Net.”)

"Dem Bones, Dem Bones.."

Here’s what every woman who has sunk a bundle of cash on a birthday weekend "back-to-nature excursion" to ponder almost turning 50 wants to be greeted with upon her arrival at said destination.

A pile of dried-out bones.

YOU do the math.

"What a Ma-ROON!'

I’m about to start an international campaign banning the use of the word “luxury” on any property that does NOT have air-conditioning, an on-site masseuse and 24-hour room service. Violators of said campaign should be hanged, or at least forced to spend Eternity living on that property, instead of jetting in a couple of times a year from Europe to ride herd on the underpaid and overworked local staff.

I spent my birthday weekend in a TENT, people. And contrary to the slick brochure, it was not luxurious. Oh, there was a flush toilet, but I had that in my Gilligan-style thatched-roof hut on Lamu Island last year. This joint had no running water, and you could shower twice a day…once in the freezing-ass morning, and again in the evening after you get back from the game drive so covered with dust, you’ll scrape a handful from your asscrack.

But at least the water was nice and hot. I must confess it reminded me to focus on the simple things in life. That post-game drive shower felt GLORIOUS. Still, if I had to describe the overall environment (red ants and roving, wild-eyed baboon all-inclusive), I kinda felt like this fire extinguisher: a total Nimrod. Probably should have headed to the beach.

Creature Feature

I wound up only doing one game drive out of the four included in my travel package this time. Seen one lioness, you’ve seen ‘em all.

And I bet she was lying there thinking, “What is up with these humans??? They spend millions of dollars to drive by and watch me digest the warthog I just brutally murdered and devoured.

SUCKAS!”

Rachella's Secret

My buddy Juliette is gonna KILL me when she learns that I found her copy of “The Secret” at about exactly the same time she was heading to the airport for her trip to London, to start grad school! Don’t know when I’ll see her again, so I brought it along to the Mara this weekend, to see if it’ll unlock the door to hidden mental, spiritual and emotional treasures within.

Or at least get me laid before I croak.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Happy Birthday to Ewe..."

This is the first thing I saw the moment I unzipped my tent and headed out to greet my birthday morn. (Okay, so it’s not a ewe, but work with me on this, people…)

Transcendence

What a great way to start my 49th year.....

"Deer Archangel..."

…that is, until a few hours later, when this pesky eland started getting on my damn nerves and following me around everywhere. I mean, there I sat on my rust-colored bench, trying to think my weighty thoughts, which might have included discovering the key to World Peace, and here comes this Clarice-lookin’ critter wanting to nibble on my umbrella (FYI, Clarice was Rudolph’s reindeer girlfriend).

But I guess she helped lift my mood a bit. Actually, just before she showed up I’d been sitting there on that bench crying my eyes out, remembering where I was 3 years ago today. Carbondale Memorial Hospital. And it was on that day that I finally accepted that my sister Julie wasn’t going to pull through that last joust with death. But as the clouds started building and the sky turned grayer and grayer, and my mood sank lower and lower, I finally got the message I’ve been seeking for quite some time now.

The Rest of the Rainbow

Before you even go there, I KNOW you can’t see a rainbow in this picture. I can barely make out the faint outline near the center myself, and that’s only if I angle my head and turn the laptop in just the right position, in the right lighting.

You’ll have to take my word that just a few minutes after Clarice showed up, a rainbow began to form in the middle of an almost slate grey patch of sky. I gasped, and my entire body felt like I’d just been struck by lightning. Through my tears, only minutes earlier, I had challenged the Archangel Julie to send me a rainbow. It was gonna be the only way I’d walk away from that bench without heading back to my tent to wallow in self-pity.

And she did. Luckily, I had my new obscenely expensive Canon 550D in the backpack right beside me, so I whipped that sucker out and started snapping. Or I should say, I started squeezing the shutter button like it was the last slice of lime at a Gin and Tonic party. Nothing happened. The lens made a weak attempt to focus, but the image wasn’t captured.

Frantically, I made a split-second decision. I’d brought my little pink point and shoot along as back-up, but unfortunately, it wasn’t in the backpack. I made a mad dash back to my tent, getting snagged in a big clump of thorny branches along the way, snatched the camera and ran back to the bench, cursing myself for spending so much money on my so-called “Grown-Up Girl Camera” which had failed me when I needed it most.

Like I said, I know you may not believe it based on this picture, but there was a spectacular rainbow in the dark, gloomy sky on my birthday in the Maasai Mara, and it made me unbearably happy. And that experience also taught me another important lesson. After the sky had cleared up and the last vestiges of the rainbow vanished, I felt something in my left pants pocket. It was the spare Canon camera battery I’d made a point of bringing along on the trip.

THAT’S when I figured out why the camera hadn’t worked, why the flash had refused to budge. THAT’S when I realized that I’d had the power I needed all along. Hope I’ll remember that more often in my life.

"Hello?"

Here's one more thing my time in the Mara helped me grapple with. I was bouncing around in the back of a suburban Nairobi taxi last Thursday, looking for the workshop of the most clueless Ethiopian tailor I've ever had the misfortune of placing a clothing order with, when "IT" suddenly hit me, like 49 tons of bricks:

I am in love. Deeply, profoundly in love. With a man I've never slept with, only been out with a few times. A man I barely know, and what little I DO know should send me scrambling for the hills. A man who will probably never know that I love him. Like most of the men I've relentlessly pursued in the past few decades, he is unavailable. Emotionally, and this time "legally"...inasmuch as Kenyan men ever consider the laws of holy matrimony when it comes to pursuing women besides their wives.

I surrendered to that reality when one of the most corny yet achingly beautiful songs ever written seeped through the speakers in the back of that aimlessly roving taxi. Say what you will about Lionel Richie, but 30 years later, his lyrics can still hit a home run. And he nailed what's been going on in my heart and mind over the past year, in a way that may have never happened if I hadn't heard that song in that precise moment.

“I've been alone with you inside my mind

And in my dreams I've kissed your lips a thousand times.

I sometimes see you pass outside my door.

Hello, is it me you're looking for?

I can see it in your eyes,

I can see it in your smile.

You're all I've ever wanted,

And my arms are open wide.

'Cause you know just what to say,

And you know just what to do.

And I want to tell you so much,

“I love you.”

I long to see the sunlight in your hair,

And tell you time and time again how much I care.

Sometimes I feel my heart will overflow.

Hello, I've just got to let you know.

'Cause I wonder where you are,

And I wonder what you do.

Are you somewhere feeling lonely,

Or is someone loving you?

Tell me how to win your heart,

For I haven't got a clue.

But let me start by saying,

“I love you.”

Hello, is it me you're looking for?

'Cause I wonder where you are,

And I wonder what you do.

Are you somewhere feeling lonely,

Or is someone loving you?

Tell me how to win your heart,

For I haven't got a clue.

But let me start by saying,

“I love you.”

The only way you will ever even come within 20 MILES of finding out who I'm talking about, and how this drama eventually ends, is if I get my very first book published. You see, I've decided to start writing it today, while I'm in this amazing setting of the Maasai Mara. I've also decided to do as much international exploring as I possibly can over the next 12 months, before I turn 50. Now, you might think I'm trying to cash in on the whole "Eat, Pray, Love" hype, but trust me, that's not the motive. Mostly because within American publishing circles, Black women don't have “interior lives.”

There's no emotional, intellectual nuance to our existence. We're either popping our fingers, popping our hips, or popping out babies. We're Nell Carter sassy, or Oprah-esque nurturers, “Phenomenal” Poetic Divas like Maya or Alice, or Caramel Sex Goddesses like Halle or Vanessa, or curlers-and-houseshoe-wearing Welfare Queens, or just blinged-out Hip-Hop Hoes. But we don't go on adventures to try and discover why we came to this Earth and what we might have to offer the world. (Like I've been doing the past three years). We don’t possess quirky neuroticism, or sardonic wit, or hormone-fueled reveries.

“We just ain’t that deep.”

For my part, it’s not for want of trying. Hell, back in March, I even submitted a rough book proposal about my African sojourns to a DC literary agent I’d met in the US over the Christmas holidays. Her assistant replied, saying she had read some of my blogposts and found them funny and extremely well-written, but that there was no interest within publishing circles in a manuscript about expat life.

Which is precisely what "Eat, Pray, Love" was all about. I just picked the wrong continent...AND the wrong skin color.

So, no, I'm not trying to be the Black Elizabeth Gilbert, or the Black Bridget Jones, for that matter. I just wanna write about who I am and where I am, emotionally and spiritually, in this year before I turn 50. It’s something I never really expected to do, for a whole raft of reasons. I want to poke and probe and unearth and vent and expunge in ways I simply can't do on this blog.

And one of the things I'll explore is why for the first time in my life, I may be in love with the wrong man for all the right reasons, and why embracing it and moving through it just might take me to the next level! Now, PLEASE don’t worry that I’m over here depressed, or pining away like some lovesick calf. I am 98 percent certain that nothing will ever occur with this guy, yet it actually feels like a victory!!!!!

I’m in such a great place right now about my prospects of finding my Divine Right Partner! And this “Unattainable Man” is taking me there. Because if this insane level of physical attraction had been dangled in front of me 5 years ago, I’d have dived in head first and worried about the collateral damage later. I’d have been cookin’ and waxin’ and Vicky’s Secret shoppin’ and cyberstalkin’ until I bludgeoned him into submission—while he waited for who he REALLY wanted to show up.

At age 49, I’ve learned that I can be in this moment about this man, but remember that throughout my entire life, ALL of the career-related opportunities and gifts that were meant for me came without being forced, as well all the beautiful friendships I’ve been blessed with. My life has proven that what is meant for me cannot be withheld from me, ever. Which means he’s not mine because he isn’t trying to be, and therefore this experience is not meant for me.

This is an EXTRAORDINARY revelation! It’s the Nobel Prize of Emotional Maturity! It can’t help but prepare me for the man who IS mine!

Like I said, I'll explore it in more depth and more often in my book, which should be available by 2012. If I finish writing it. And if I find an agent. And if it gets published.

After all, who in their right mind would believe a story about a 50-Year-Old African American Princess and her Magical Journeys in Far Off Lands?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"And Then The Day Came...."

"...when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

That's a quote from 20th Century author and Uber Feminist Anais Nin, whose pithy sayings I've been using as Facebook status updates all this past week. Until recently, I had vowed not to obsess over the run-up to the Big 5-0. I was determined to treat turning 49 as no different than turning 39, or 43, for that matter. Age ain't nuthin' but a number, and all that rot.

But for some reason, this last year of my forties is starting to feel ominous--in a good way, if that's even possible. Or maybe I mean "momentous." After all, even though I think I'm still in great shape for "my age," the last pretense of chronological youth gets obliterated when you enter your fifties. There's no denying half a century. "Young at Heart" and "Old at Ass" do NOT mix.

So, the reason that Anais Nin quote seemed appropriate this morning is that in about 3 hours, I'm heading to the Maasai Mara. I have lived in Kenya more than 2 years, and never been to this internationally-renowned tourist destination, where the splendor of nature overwhelms most visitors. I've listened to at least several dozen tales of expat visitors' incredible trips there, but never made the effort to go myself. (One new Canadian acquaintance has lived here 5 months, and been to the Mara three times...and is going twice more before the end of the year!!) That's partly because of work distractions, but there've been too many empty weekends to make that a completely credible excuse.

Full disclosure: The main reason I haven't been is because I haven't had anybody to go with. Seriously, it seems like the kind of thing you'd want to experience with a close friend, or ideally, a lover. God, I've travelled to so, so many amazing places by myself, mostly for work-related reasons, and I guess I was resisting doing the Mara out of some deeply-rooted hope that I'd meet an amazing guy and we'd go together.

But with another birthday comes another possibility that tomorrow is not promised. Yeah, I know that sounds kind of maudlin, but really all I'm saying is if I wait for the perfect time and the perfect conditions to witness the spectacle of the Maasai Mara, I could miss out Big Time. Hell, if nothing else, my contract here could run out and I could find myself back in the States sitting behind a desk and wondering how the HELL I lived in Kenya 3 years without visiting the Mara, when a dozen of my US friends and acquaintances have been!

And so as much as I really, really don't like to take vacations by myself, I'm taking the plunge. After all, when you think about it, life really is sort of like this picture of the Wildebeest crossing in the Mara. A lot of thunderous, clattering migration towards...a cliff you plunge into and can't get out of. Ergo, "death." But until that day, if you can make the journey interesting, you've accomplished a great deal.