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.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg...Part 30"

You know, it's kind of comforting for me to look at this picture and know that even though I'm not wearing a speck of make-up, and I felt like a bloated sow that day, something inside of me radiated happiness. Contentment. OKAY-ness, if you will.

I have spent the past few days in Kilifi, preparing for the next
Kenyan Alliance of Health and Science Reporters workshop. It could be one of the last events of its kind, if the Universe decides it's time for me to move on. Like I said in the last posting, there's a lot about my life that's uncertain at this moment.

But I guess it's because this image was captured on President Barack Obama's 50th birthday that I notice something special about it. Whatever else you think about him, he looks pretty damn fit for a 50-year-old. He's helping me set a new standard for what 50
should feel like.

I guess all I'm saying is that when I look at this picture of me, I detect a bit of contentment, of certainty that no matter what goes down, somehow I'll be okay. There is something inside so strong, so resilient, so able to shake it off or laugh it off, whatever the situation requires, and just keep on keepin' on. There is something so Eloise and Julie-
ish about me; I see both of their faces in this image.

I reckon for the rest of my life, I'll keep seeing them more and more. Knowing that I carry them around inside me, and that I don't really
HAVE to wear make-up to throw some serious inner fire, actually feels really great. After all, I loved them just the way they were.

And I love
me that way, too.

"I'm Just
Sayin', Dawg...."

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Whale of a Decision

I guess I never realized that whales get very little sleep, but I probably should have. I mean, when you're surrounded by salty fluid that could literally suffocate you if too much of it enters your lungs, you kinda have to stay moving and alert at all times to keep from drowning.

Which is a good way of describing my life at the moment. In exactly two months, the main reasons I have spent the past three years in Kenya will be moot. Done. Finito. No more support from afar, in the form of wire transfers and "organizational identity." If I stick around in East Africa beyond that time, it'll be under my own banner. Fueled by "Pure Princess Rachella Power"--that same Teflon-plated will, determination, and utterly naive, borderline reckless ability to step out on Faith with absolutely no visible means of support.

Of course, I'd be rather coy if I didn't also mention that at about that exact same point in time, I will turn 50 years old. Which prolly makes me a bit of a chump to be using a big-assed WHALE as the imagery for this particular turning point in my life! But I realized it was actually the perfect metaphor earlier this week, when my "Daily Om" email message landed in my AOL inbox. The title of that day's inspirational message was "Spirit of the Sea," and it offered the analogy of whales and their underwater existence to transmit a powerful message to me:

"It is through the vibrations of their unique sound that they release ancient wisdom to us. At the same time, their sound carries across such great distances that whales can enter the realm of the future where they can acquire knowledge of what is to come.

"Every whale sings a song, and they never repeat the same pattern when they sing their song. Since whales must be conscious at all times in order to breathe, they cannot afford to fall into an unconscious state for too long. Never completely asleep, their brain has constant access to the collective unconscious where all answers lie. Whales float peacefully, secure in the ocean environment that supports and sustains them."

I guess middle-aged female whales never struggle with menopause, because the cool depths of the ocean must help regulate their body temperatures. DAMN, that sounds fantastic!! Anyway, I totally grooved to the imagery of having constant access to the collective unconscious where all of Life's answers lie. I visualized myself floating peacefully and secure, knowing that my environment would support me and sustain me.

And then I ran the financial numbers and realized that I will be utterly screwed and homeless in no time flat unless I find another job immediately.

But once that temporary freak-out subsided, I went back to "The Whale Place" in my mind. I recalled two other times in the past five years alone when I was told that one job was about to end, and when I walked out the door or hung up the phone and literally articulated that "When one door closes, another one opens."

Without having the slightest idea of what I would do next, both times I just held my nose and stepped off the sheer side of Life's cliff. I did it for the right reasons, I think, because I knew I wanted to keep myself available to do work that mattered, and that would make a difference. And I'm visualizing myself remaining in East Africa a while longer for the same reasons.

But sometimes, I get so down-to-the-bone tired of being constantly on the move like whales. And I could definitely relate to the non-sleeping analogy, because I've battled insomnia over the past decade. I literally cannot remember the last time I slept through an entire night. And when I do wake up in those wee, dark hours, my brain is usually racing. I'm thinking of all the stuff I need to do, should have done, WILL do, can't do, don't want to do, etc.

Whales might be pretty chill about that kind of lifestyle, but it takes a toll on middle-aged humans. I was talking with another female expat last week about this same thing. She's single, never married, about my age, and committed to being here at least another year, but she has an apartment in New York that she would LOVE to go back and settle into.

We both nailed down the biggest hardship of this life we've chosen: the lack of visible support. The cordial, casual, occasional networks we access when we get so bored we think we'll go completely batshit loopy, but the lack of soul-deep, heart-strung connections. We both concluded that the ONLY thing that would keep us here permanently would be to find "The One," but then we also admitted that we'd have just about as much chance of finding him here as we'd have back home. Which wasn't MUCH of a chance, by the way, but at least over there, we'd have our friends, family and other comforts of home
.

So. We keep swimming into the breach, like the aforementioned whales, with no other choice but to keep moving, making a few spectacular leaps every now and then, but mostly just hoping we'll access this alleged submerged, subconscious wisdom that will make it all make sense. I hope I'll be here doing great work for the next few years, but at this very second, I have no idea what I'll be doing next month.

It's a whale of a life, but it's the only one I've got.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Saying "Yes, Yes, Yes" instead of "No, No, No"

Earlier this week, I had the most fun I've had in AGES rocking the house with a couple of 50 and 60-something American expat friends. We were at a Nairobi club known for playing smokin' old-school tunes, the kind that are almost guaranteed to make you squeal "WHOOOOH! That was my JAM!" after the first few chords are played.

This particular night, the anonymous Kenyan DJ was killin' the Otis Redding catalogue. I mean, I thought I knew there was so much more to Otis that the classic "Dock of the Bay," but I was just blown away by the depth and range that brother possessed! Turns out I recognized about half the songs I was hearing, but there were a bunch I'd never heard before. They ALL got me movin' and groovin', in a deep down in your toes kinda flow.

For a while there, though, I was feeling kind of wistful. I mean, admitting you know the lyrics to quite a few early Staxx tunes, and that you know who Sam and Dave were, and that Isaac Hayes did a lot of the back-up horn arrangements on those classic early-mid 60's tunes, can age your ass in a heartbeat. Finally, somebody forced me to sing the lyrics to Joe Tex's "I Gotcha," and all pretense was lost. I was my old-ass self, and lovin' every minute of it.

"You promised me the day that you quit your boyfriend/That' I'd be the next one to ease on in./You promised me it would be just us two,/And I'd be the only man kissin' on you./Now KISS me, hold it a long time, hold it/don't turn it a-loose now, hold it...."

I skerred MYSELF by that point! But hey, when you're almost 50, and you had a lot of older siblings who got off on that Staxx/Motown/R&B groove, ain't no sense in perpetratin'. Anyway, I'm rambling, so let me get to the point. After that recent funk-fest, it felt really hollow and ironic and sad last night when I learned that Amy Winehouse was found dead at 27. I'm not claiming to have been a rabid fan, but I did really, REALLY like "Back to Black." Of the latest crop of British Neo-Soul singers, I personally thought she was the best--or at least had the most potential to become a powerful influence in the musical world.

Sure, I also heard the stories about the drugs and booze and erratic behavior. But I guess my mind always drifted to Whitney Houston, and how somehow SHE managed to survive a severely dark decade or so with drugs and insane behavior. Of course, now it's rumored that she's slipping again, but hey, we can always keep praying.

Come to think of it, I guess most folks didn't consider propping up Amy Winehouse in prayer because she was still so young. Even though her addictions were ravenous, I guess everybody thought it was just her fumbling, stumbling way of coping with enormous fame. We all hoped that once she finally got tired of bad press, bad men--and just plain got sick and tired of being sick and tired--she would pull herself together and fully embrace her god-given talent.

Before the world knows what really went down, all we can do is speculate about what killed Amy Winehouse, based on her past behavior. In a way, it's like she signed her own death warrant by making millions of dollars through publicly admitting her resistance to getting clean. I remember it struck me as a bit skeevy the first time I heard "Rehab;" it was almost like the record company decided, "Well, if she's gonna be a fuck-up, at least let's all get paid from it." But like everybody else, I grooved to the funky rhythm and to her raspy wail.

But now Amy Winehouse is dead. At 27. Getting that news reminded me of last Tuesday night, shakin' my ass in that chair at that Nairobi bar, and also shaking my head at the incredible vocal power and talent of Otis Redding. It just seemed so damned impossible that the guy singing that amazing music had died at 26. It made me wonder if there isn't some immutable "off-switch" that kicks in for some extraordinarily talented musicians and singers at around that age: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison....

But the main thing I take from this week's crazy arc of musical musing is that for the rest of my life, I want to say "Yes, yes, yes" to life, instead of "No, no, no." I want to affirm my power and expertise and energy in positive ways. I want to keep on contributing something worthwhile, and I want to help somebody along the way. I also want to achieve more of my own personal goals, which include finding the man I want to spend the rest of my life laughing, learning and loving with.

I guess all I'm saying is if I had died at 27, I would have missed out on 23 incredibly interesting years. I'm banking on at least 30 more. And I kinda wish Amy Winehouse could have visualized herself as an 80-year-old broad "sangin'" her guts out on a concert stage someday. Instead, my heart seized a bit as I heard Tony Bennett on the BBC describe recording a duet with Amy earlier this year, and recalling that he'd told her she sounded like Dinah Washington. Bennet said she'd been somewhat nervous until that point, but when he gave her that compliment, she instantly relaxed, and lit up like a firefly.

Apparently, poor, tortured Amy wasn't able to close the gap between how the rest of the world saw her and how she saw herself. I mean, if Tony Bennett paid ME a compliment like that, I'd have spent the rest of my life trying to prove he was right, instead of running as fast as I could in the other direction, screeching "No, no, no" all the way.

But don't just take my word for it. Here's one of Amy's other lyrics:

"I cheated myself, Like I knew I would. I told you I was trouble. You know that I'm no good."

I rest my case. Rest In Peace, Amy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

These Boots Were Made for Caulking Creaky Knees

One of my many self-indulgent pursuits during my recent trip back home was the purchase of these supple leather, zip-up-the-back, kitten-heeled boots. Initially, I defended the purchase by declaring them an early 50th birthday present, a visual reminder that turning a half century old doesn't mean you start looking for orthotic inserts in your sensible shoes.

But okay, some of you may be thinking "WTF???? She lives in AFRICA, for Chrissakes...who needs leather boots over there, except maybe for stomping around in muddy forests??"

Well, in my ongoing attempts at promoting Afro-American cross-cultural understanding, please be advised that it is now Winter in Kenya, and of the four such seasons I have experienced so far, it is by far the coldest. OBVIOUSLY, it never gets as cold as, say, the Northeast in the US, or Michigan's Upper Peninsula. To my knowledge, there's never been any snow here. And I don't ever foresee myself investing in a down jacket while I'm on the continent.

But once you've lived in a different climate for a few years, your body recalibrates. Let's forget about my "Change of Life" issues for a minute; I truly believe my blood has thinned. I have been wearing socks to bed just about every night since I returned from the States. Most mornings are chilly and gray, and it's been a real struggle to get out of bed--just like the months of January through April back in DC.

Folks, SAD ain't just an acronym; Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, whether you're in Nyack or Nairobi. I've been plowing through somehow, and the other day I pulled on these puppies with some sexy patterned tights to help jump start the old positive endorphins.

Turns out these boots were a great investment, but sadly, not for the reason you might think. Oh yeah, I was smokin' hot in 'em, but by the end of a cold winter day here, I was forced to acknowledge the REAL reason I'm glad I own them. They covered my achy knees, and kept 'em toasty and snug. Helped cut my dose of Naproxen that day in half.

I swear to the Sweet Thorny-Haired Baby JAY-ZUS, you gotta laugh at this "Getting Older" crap or you woud cut your own throat 5 times every day.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Phenomenally 50--and Friends Forever

Behold 3 of the luckiest half-century old women of African descent to ever walk the face of the Earth.

They are partly responsible for yet another lapse in my blogging routine, because they just left Nairobi last Thursday. They landed here two days after I returned, from 3 of the most fabulous weeks I've had in a very long time. In fact, my recent stint in the US almost...ALMOST...made up for the 8 years of puredee personal and emotional Hell that preceded it. I had such a profoundly healing and joyous time while back in the US, I fully expected to pay for it by being totally depressed right about now.

Fortunately, these two women helped forestall the funk. Meet Faith and Danita, whom I've known since 1979 and 1980 respectively. I met Faith, the one in the middle, during Freshman Week at Northwestern University. She cemented our friendship by dragging my backwards ass out of my room in Allison Hall and insisting that I go to a frat party nearby. I probably expected Satan himself to be taking tickets at the door, and that I would get pregnant if a guy looked too deeply into my eyes. I remember trying to come up with a few excuses to get out of going, but Faith wasn't having it.

She's been all up in my grill ever since. Seriously, Faith is probably the one person who knows my tics and twitches as well as I do, because I've shared them with her ad nauseum. She's enough of a friend to never use them against me per se, but she also won't let me get away with anything. She's my guru; thank God for Skype, because it's kept us in check when necessary over these past few years.

Danita came to Northwestern the year after Faith and I did, and they bonded because they'd both been raised in suburban Cleveland. Danita's an engineer with the most disarmingly friendly, cheerful and personable energy of anyone I've ever known. I've spent more time with Faith over these past few decades, and yet once Danita and I reconnected, it was like we'd never missed a beat.

They spent about 9 days in East Africa recently, and as I told them in an email earlier today, "The Oasis of Graciousness" never felt more like home. Their being here reminded me of one of the biggest challenges of expat life: that missing sense of "family" and deep, knowing friendship.

There is something about being around people who've known you for decades, and who CHOOSE to travel thousands of miles to be with you, that is truly comforting. You laugh in ways you don't get to laugh with your expat friends. You don't have to explain stuff, and yes, you "exhale" in different ways. You're not always on high alert and with your guard up. You're more at home inside yourself.

That's also a pretty good way of describing turning 50. Faith accepted that glorious mantle in April; I'm next up in October, Danita's turn comes next year. And I think our African sojourn cemented something very important: We are blessed and highly favored. We have lives our own mothers didn't even imagine for us. We have professional role models like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey to help us carry ourselves in the world in ways most women of African descent in the diaspora can never even pretend to imagine. We can set goals and dream dreams and take chances and say yes--or shout "NO!"--in ways our mothers couldn't.

So even though at one point these two innocent looking women did something so diabolical and treacherous to me that I can never fully disclose the details, they also helped ease my reentry into the Kooky Carnival that is life in Nairobi. They reminded me once again that true love and friendship don't fade across the miles and years, and that getting older really IS getting better, if you keep yourself surrounded by really great people.

Fair Weather Friends, That Is....

I think I've finally figured the secret to enjoying life fully:

Live in a dwelling with a balcony. And invite people you like to come over and sit on it and drink elixirs like apple martinis when it's mild and sunny and pleasant outside. And then, if they piss you off or betray you, you can push them over the edge of said balcony.

I mean, come on: LOOK at these two faces!!! Smiling like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths!! Who knew the depths of evil those smiles concealed???

Sukuma Wicked

...But then, I probably should have seen it coming. Especially when Faith pulled a knife on me. Well, not exactly, but it just sounds kinda edgy to make that sort of allegation.

Actually, though, I should have had more decency than to enlist their help in pulling off another of my legendary dinner parties. I made another of my batches of sukuma wiki, or Kenyan collards, and Faith and Danita helped carefully wash the greens...

With the emphasis on "carefully." I was, like, "What the HELL, girls??? It usually takes me about 30 minutes to get through the same batch it took THEM an hour and a half to clean. Granted, a forensic examination of my cleaned greens would probably reveal a few less than spotless surfaces, but all I can say is it's a good thing I don't have a separate water bill.

And oh, wait...THEN there was the "Croissant Conundrum"....

Croissant Conundrum

Girlfriend took, like, 5 HOURS to tear 5 croissants into little pieces for my Sweet Potato Bread Pudding Recipe! Danita and I had fun teasing her about it, though.

Like I said, in hindsight, what eventually happened was probably just Karma biting me in the ass for that harassment. But before I reveal the details of that fateful event, let me share a few more highlights from their visit....

Hiking Hotties


We actually had a great time doing a short hike in the Great Rift Valley, near Mt. Longonot.

Thumbs Up!


I mean, really, REALLY GREAT!

Lodge Pudge

We even stopped at the Great Rift Valley Lodge everybody's been raving about since I arrived in Kenya. The trip probably rearranged my spinal column a bit, the roads were so bad, but at least I can say I've been there.

And notice how I've angled myself in this shot, to make up for the fact that the entire time Faith and Danita were in Kenya, I felt like a dumpy Munchkin.

Further Proof...


"See what I mean?"

Rotary Rendezvous


Anyhoo, the girls also got to visit a local Rotary Club................

The Other Side of the Tracks

......And tour Kibera, one of the largest and most infamous slum communities on the African continent, through one of the community groups I've worked with there.

I believe Faith and Danita got to see Africa in a way most Americans never will...as diverse, vibrant and complex, not just as an extended safari tour with giraffes walking up and down the streets and people wearing banana leaf skirts. It's a tragedy, but a lot of people simply can't picture a city with skyscrapers and highways and restaurants and malls in Africa--at least outside of Johannesburg or Cape Town, that is.

The experience left them pretty pretty sober. Speaking of sobriety.....that's where all the trouble began....

Bewitched, Bothered and Blackmailed

It was in a setting not unlike this one that the "Ultimate Betrayal" occurred.

Wait, it was in this setting, to be specific. This shot was taken at one of my legendary dinner parties, possibly one of the top 3 I've thrown since I landed in Kenya. It was partly in honor of Faith and Danita, partly to mark my 3rd anniversary in Nairobi, and partly to test drive the recipe for Muddled Ginger Martinis that I got from my friend Veronica while I was in Chicago.

Maybe Faith and Danita decided it was also their best opportunity to make me pay for working them like field hands with pre-party cooking and cleaning. Hey, I've acknowledged that was probably a mistake. But did they REALLY have to stage a photo of me passed out on the couch with a mostly empty martini pitcher and a glass near my head???

I managed to secure a copy of that photo, in case any further doctoring occurs down the line. And yes, I was SLEEPING in that photo, but not because I'd consumed too many alcoholic beverages!! I was still battling jet lag, and had spent most of the prior few days prepping for the party and running around town with the girls...and hey, I ain't as young as I used to be!!!

Anyway, it really opens your eyes when your friends set you up, and then laugh like crazed loons about it while you cringe. But come to think of it, if you ever got to see that picture, you'd laugh, too. Not that you ever will. But if you DO, I'll know why and who's responsible.

Oh, I wouldn't do anything about it except laugh my ass off, too. After all, one of the best things about getting older is that ability to own every aspect of yourself, warts and all. And to be able to trust your friends when they say their blackmail demands will be reasonable and infrequent.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

First Class Tastes... On a Steerage Budget

I am finally resuming my Stateside blogging while sitting in a Seattle hotel room tonight as scores of other attendees from the Pacific Health Summit are schmoozing and making merry at the city's tourist "Mecca," the Space Needle. I have wanted to visit the Space Needle for decades, and so it is taking every ounce of my virtually non-existent self-control to NOT ignore the horrific amount of work I must complete-- before I leave this continent at 4:20 PM on Friday--and throw on some glad rags before bookin' my way to the par-tay.

You see, tonight is gonna HAVE to count as my paltry penance for all the eating and shopping and meandering and networking and pontificatin' I've done the past two and a half weeks. I have had the most amazing, energizing, gratifying, nourishing time of the past decade, and I'm not exaggerating. But now it's time to pay the piper. I gotta mail a package of expense reports and receipts from THIS continent, and now is the first time I've been willing to confront the task, so...

"Boo-frakkin'-HOO to little old me for missing out on the free booze and tasty snacks and high-profile networking!" Actually, I've already logged quite a bit of face time over the past day and a half since the Summit began. It's a gathering of most of the leading vaccine-related international researchers, advocates and business leaders, and it's extremely impressive. The main reason I'm here is because of the special Outlook Section in the East African newsweekly I managed to coordinate and get published back in mid-February--the week after I learned my brother Fred had died of a massive stroke in my hometown of Cairo.

Speaking of which, I am so far behind on this blog that I haven't even mentioned the fact that I got to spend 3 wonderful days in Cairo hanging out with family and seeing friends. But I will. Oh, and I haven't told you how divine it was to spend a day and a half getting caught up with my Nu Alpha Pi (NAP--get it???) defense attorney gal pal Felecia Jones from my Northwestern era, who lives with her guy in University City, Missouri. But I will.

I haven't told you how thrilled I am with the new hair color Felecia helped me choose, but I will. I haven't told you how utterly empowered and powerful I felt chatting with people at the Weber Shandwick PR firm's Seattle office about my work in Kenya, but I will. I also haven't told you how nurtured and loved and well-fed I was at my friends Lisa and Drew's house in Portland, OR, and how much fun it was seeing how little goddaughter Rachel is growing like a saucy little weed! (Or how her mother tricked me into going to a nekkid massage spa while I was there...but I will...)

And finally, I haven't told you how confident and relaxed and downright HAPPY
I have felt the past few days in Seattle. I've participated in sessions, solidified my "brand"...oh, and I've handed out copies of the lastest special East African Outlook Section I helped edit and coordinate, and which was published on Sunday. I'll tell you about that later, too.

I guess I just wanna say that from the moment on June 14th when I realized that I had been upgraded from Coach to First Class for my flights from St. Louis to Seattle, I swear I felt a bit of a cosmic shift. I somehow knew that things were starting to fall into place for me, internally. I could feel that I'd reached a place where I know what I know, and that's all I need to know, and I also know that other people feel a strong positive vibe from people who carry themselves that way in the world. Organically and intrinsically, I knew that it means that in this 50th year of my life, I'm about to move from Coach into First Class emotionally, too.

Now, if only we can get my bank account to follow suit. But something tells me that's a part of this process, too.

Hell, it BETTER be!!!!!!!!

The Bridge To ME

I guess what they say is true...when you finally accept who you are and where you come from, things fall into place. This is where I'm from, and in so many ways, good and bad, THIS is who I am.

And I'm totally okay with that, even though one way or the other, every time I go back, my heart breaks just a little bit more.

The Long View

During my return visit to my hometown, I wanted to recreate a picture I'd used for one of my recent blogposts. It was of a boy standing on these same metal stairs, peering over the emergency Ohio River levee wall at the rising flood waters.

They removed that emergency barrier a few days before I arrived. But I wanted to climb those stairs and see what that boy saw, more figuratively than literally. I wanted to stare at the bridge to Kentucky like I used to do all those years ago, hoping it would somehow give me a clue about the path my life would take.

I hope that kid develops the ability and willingness to dream big and take risks, just like I did. I hope he's willing to at least try to climb over every wall Life builds in his path. I hope he's smart enough to take the long view of all of his challenges, and remember that just as with the temporary levee barrier, sometimes walls can be dismantled, if we don't give in to fear. No matter how high the waters might climb, you can stand your ground and be a tree standing strong in the middle of a mighty river, rather than be a leaf tossed around by every current......

The Heart of the City

....but after all that Oprah-esque, "can-do" twaddle, I turned around and took a look at what USED to be downtown Cairo, and it gave me chills. It looks like somebody dropped a bombed. This used to be one of the busiest street corners in town, 8th and Commercial. First National Bank was there, and any number of other businesses. Now it looks like an abandoned movie set.

There's definitely no blood pumping through this worn-out heart. So I really hope all the people who all those years ago decided they'd rather shut Cairo down than integrate are happy. Mission Accomplished, Dudes. I hope you're proud of yourselves.

That's What I Said.....

The view in another direction points to the Hi Rise, Cairo's tallest building. It's primarily senior housing, but since I have a hard time thinking of any of my older siblings as "seniors," I really didn't consider that when I heard my brother Fred had moved into the Hi Rise a few years ago.

This is where they found him on Feb. 7th, dead in his chair. That's all I want to say about it now.

Whod'a Thunk????

If you'd told me nearly 4 years ago that one day my brother-in-law Ron and I would stand in the beautiful kitchen my sister Julie so lovingly redecorated and even pretend to smile, I'd have probably punched you in the snout.

Especially since in that same beautiful, sunlight-flooded kitchen, stuck to the refrigerator door, there is one of those magnetic noteboards bearing the fluid, lovely handwriting of my beloved sister declaring her everlasting love for Ron.

If ANYTHING was going to make me fall down on the ground crying and screaming and snorfling snot bubbles during my return trip home, it was gonna be that. At one point, I thought about taking a picture. Then I thought about stealing it and having it laminated, but I knew that if ANYTHING would make Ron get on a plane to come to Nairobi to kick my natural ass, it would be that.

Surprisingly, my heart didn't burst during my time in Cairo. But it did remind me that even though Nelson Mandela is still my all time living hero, Ron has quickly assumed the Number 2 position for carrying on each day with all the potent reminders of the incredible life force who still swirls around us. I guess that's WHY he can keep going, because we both do feel Miss Winky is still with us.

Looks like we've made it!

Numero Uno

My brother John is still lookin' good. Still could pass for 10 years younger than he is. Still kickin' it and enjoying being retired after 30 years. I especially wanted to see how he's doing, because it has to occur to him that, so far, he's the only Jones sibling who's lived past 60.

He's going strong. And even though we spent part of the time laughing and joking about our twitches and pains and medications, I think he's doing okay. He's "holdin' it down" as the Number One Jones. I'm proud of him.

Saab Story

I actually miss driving SOOOOO much. As I've told many people, I have no desire to drive in Kenya, because most Kenyans think rules are for suckers with no high-placed connections. They don't give right of way, they don't obey the scant few traffic lights that exist, and if they get tired of waiting, they'll just drive up on the sidewalk and try to pass you.

Most days it is all I can do to huddle in the backseat of a taxi and pray to the Sweet, Thorny-Haired Baby Jesus to get me where I'm going with most of my internal organs intact. But I do so miss my sah-WEET 2002 Saab hatchback, which remarkably only has about 65,000 miles on it, and which has received loving care from my brother-in-law Ron. I used to think the main reason I wanted to come back to America was for regular access to Wendy's. But now I know, it's for regular access to my beloved Fifi Le Saab.

At least until I can afford trade up on her.

That Sinking Feeling

THIS is the pothole every news organization in America points its camera at every time the rivers rise in Cairo. It's like a metaphor for my poor little hometown's sinking prospects, bottomless troubles, and rocky future.

But trust me on this, I see bigger potholes than this every time I read about America's War on Civility and Sanity, and how the Conservative Teabagger Movement is trying to steer us towards each others' throats to fight over "scraps" like decent healthcare and affordable housing, while their "leaders" laugh all the way to the bank.

In fact, ever since I was a little girl, I remember thinking that all of Cairo's problems were basically the prelude for what would happen to the rest of America if we didn't learn to play nicely together and stop fighting all the time.

Even though I've had an absolute BALL these past few weeks in my homeland, I still feel the same way. And sometimes it seems like the hole in our hearts just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Coastal Cutie!

This is another member of the Mommy/Daughter Tag Teams I had fun shopping for as I was preparing to leave Kenya. Little Miss Talia Hicks is a total spark plug, so I thought I'd better get her a dress that reflects her personality.

The vivid Khanga, Kitenge and Kikoy cloth of Kenya always captivates ME, so I picked out this dress for Talia. This particular style of cloth is common on the Coast of Kenya, and in Tanzania, and on Zanzibar. Her mom Joyce also informed me that Talia's favorite color is yellow, so I found a little simple yellow beaded bracelet I thought she'd like.

Mission accomplished!

Reverse Coastal Cutie!

And the thing is, I didn't even realize that Talia's dress was reversible!! Guess my Shopping Karma is better than I expected!!!

Monday, June 13, 2011

C'est Magnifique!!!!

Post Chi-Town Update: I'm in St. Louis at the moment, getting my hair "did," and it's the first time in a week I've been motionless and relatively clear-headed, so I figured I'd take the opportunity to update the blog.

I am SOOOO glad I started this journey in Chicago! It was far too long since I'd been, and I had almost forgotten just how SPECTACULAR that city is. I love the Magnificent Mile, the sky-scrapers, and the attitude and the pace, and State Street, and the Chicago River, and the El, and...

Oh, just everything. In fact, I realized I love Chicago so much, it makes my teeth ache. But then, that could just be the 3-month supply of Garrett's Popcorn I ate while I was there.

City With the Big Shoulders...and the Big-Assed Green Hat

There is so much that I ADORE about America going on in this photo that I just had to write about it! First, I'm standing on a street corner waiting for a form of public transportation that has a more than 90 percent chance of arriving on time and getting me to my desired destination without killing me. After 4 years of living in East Africa, that is a thrilling experience. That and the fact that my lungs are not choked with diesel fumes.

Next, the McDonald's ad on the bus shelter is a righteous hoot! I mean, I may have lived outside of America for a few years, but the day I believe that anything produced by Mickey D's can elicit "delicious harmony" will be the day I'm ready for a straitjacket or assisted living. In my next life, I wanna come back as an advertising exec, so I can sit around all day laffing my ASS off making up bullshit campaigns that bear no semblance of truth but which make me a freakin' MINT.

Now let us now ponder the brother about board the reliable, clean, efficient CTA bus. WTF??? I mean, he's wearing serious Asian headgear of some sort, a manpurse and a wifebeater. I could only chalk his appearance up to the extreme heatwave gripping the city that day. Dude was delusional if he looked into the mirror that morning on his way out the crib and saw anything but HEE-lariousness!

I saved the best focal point in this picture for last. Peep the sister in the funky floral print dress leaning against the bus shelter. I first noticed her from behind because of her green sun hat, which happened to be my favorite shade of vivid, chartreuse-y green. It reminded me that I should have been wearing some kind of hat myself that day, because it felt like the sun was hovering about a half inch above my head.

As you can see from the photo, girlfriend was looking kinda fly. Tall, trim physique, and even from behind, you could tell she carried herself with serious 'tude. But when she turned to face me at one point, I was slightly startled. She was impeccably made up, and she was clearly in her 60's, possibly even early 70s. Now, I don't know why I was surprised that an "older" woman could look so bangin', but I was. And I instantly vowed to be just like her 15, 20 years from now.

In this one moment, everything that makes me feel so American, so different during my travels in Africa became so utterly clear. There are just some things you don't "get" unless you're American. There are some experiences that are uniquely American. And of all the developed nations, I believe America is the safest, most welcoming place for a 65-year-old woman to proudly strut her Inner Hottie.

I swear to GOD, this time i'm gonna Miss America so much more than I ever thought possible after I return to Nairobi, mostly because of this particular street corner reverie.

Recital Reverie

Here's my latest "Favorite Picture of Myself EVER." It was taken after my friend Veronica's daughter's Spring Recital at the University of Chicago Lab School, the day after I landed.

August is this coltish, funny, brilliant, kinda shy 8 year old kid who loves pink, and dogs, and princesses, and all the things a 8 year old should like. But she also gets really nervous before she has to do things like speak before crowds or do any kind of performance. A few times before the recital, when she almost broke down in tears because she was convinced she couldn't play the piano, it almost broke my heart.

So when she made it through her two songs, I wanted to sprint up to the stage and burst into tears, I was so happy for her! And this is a picture of me trying with all my might to will into this beautiful little black girl, through sheer force of osmosis, the ability to relax and KNOW you're perfectly fine, just the way you are. I was also praying it wouldn't take her another 40 years to feel that way, like it took me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Daughters of the Diaspora

I love coming home for many reasons, but the main one is re-connecting with friends and family. This time the focus is the Heartland, and I've spent the past few days in Chicago with these two dazzling Daughters of the Diaspora.

I've known Veronica almost exactly 20 years now. We met at the Chicago Reporter, where I was the first Robert McCormick Tribune Foundation Fellow. I was instantly impressed with Veronica's "backstory." She had left a cushy job with a book publisher to go back to journalism grad school, after which her first job was at The Reporter, a monthly newsletter focusing on race and poverty issues.

Clearly, the sista had guts, and I think that cemented our friendship fairly quickly. By the way, this is also the woman I toured France with in May 2000, mostly on Relais and Chateaux's nickel. I swear, we both still remember those glorious Southeast France vistas, and the beautiful hotels, and the amazing meals we ate, as if they'd just happened yesterday. Of course, some of the chocolate mousse from that trip is still trapped in my left buttcheek, so that helps with the whole memory thing, too.

Anyway, the last time I saw Veronica's adorable daughter August, she was about 3, I guess, and it was in DC, right before I headed to Gulu. Now, August is all tall and thin--and at 8 years old, she's talking like a grown woman! I swear, you need a playbook to keep up with these kids today!

In this shot, Veronica and August are wearing some of the Afro goodies I brought them. I'll be mailing other packages today for various "Mommy and Daughter Combos" I know and love tomorrow. Can't be everywhere at once, and give them all the hugs and kisses they can stand while I'm on this Homeland Tour, but at least I'm on the same continent. And I hope they can all feel the love from Auntie Rachel!

"If It's Worth It, Let Me Work It..." The Postscript

I'm SO glad I asked Veronica to take this picture of me this morning! It reminds me of another image from Nov. 2009, on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal.

I'd shoved the camera at a nearby hapless tourist and asked him to capture me staring down the passageway leading to the "Door of No Return," that dank portal to waiting slave ships where so many African American ancestors began their grueling Atlantic Ocean journeys hundreds of years ago. Ironically, once I saw that picture, all I noticed was how huge my butt looked.

Anyway, this morning I wanted proof that for the first time ever, I think, instead of lying around moaning about how hard jet-lag was hitting me, I actually completed a 3-mile walk with Veronica! In fact, we've been walking on Lake Michigan every morning since I arrived. The first two mornings were cool and overcast, which was a blessing. But today was wicked hot. I mean, sweat was pouring off me like the fountain at Millennium Park. My hips hurt. My ankle's still slowly recovering from my "Vienna Vicissitudes." My lower back is still twinge-ing from the "Central Kenya Matatu Massacre."

In medical terms, I believe my overall condition could be classified as "Tore Up from the Floor Up."

But I did it!!!! I kept up with Veronica, and I came out of this tunnel on the other end with most of my lung capacity intact. And I like how this picture is sort of washed in the rays of the sun..."Light at the End of the Tunnel" metaphor, and all the rot. A perfect bookend for the Goree Island shot--like I made safely it across the Atlantic, and I am HOME.

Oh, and I also like how you can't see my butt in this shot.