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, 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.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Travellin' Shoes

I Think I've finally figured out why older women LOVE red shoes.

You could spend most of your day sweatin' like a broke-back mule, juggling 20 tasks at once, tired and grumpy and sleep-deprived and itchin' to pimp-slap the next simple-assed so-and-so who tries to wreck your last nerve...

...But when you're wearing red shoes, all it takes is one look down to reconnect with your Inner Princess. Red shoes make you feel like you're 4 years old again, and it's Easter Sunday. You feel flirty and fashionable and fun. Footloose. Fancy. Free.

I meant to pack these very shoes to bring along on my latest journey. In fact, it's already begun. I'm typing this posting in Schiphol Airport, where I just finished an 8-hour flight from Nairobi, and now there's a 10-hour one ahead. This time, I'm by-passing the East Coast and getting to the heart of the matter--Chi-town, Cairo and St. Louis--before heading further west.

Oh, here's another reason it's taken 3 weeks and being trapped in an airport and letting my laptop recharge to update this blog! So much has happened, I don't really have time to share it, but I should probably tell you about one really serious incident, which involves my feet. I think I almost killed them during a quick jaunt to Vienna, Austria in mid-May.

In just four days there, I made an immediate connection with the one TRUE "Love of My Life": Pork. One bite of a Kasse Kreiner, and I thought I would go mad with sheer bliss! For better or wurst, in Vienna I realized that the only thing I will NOT eat on a pig are its thoughts, ambitions and deepest anxieties.

But somewhere in that swine and swag-fueled frenzy of shopping and eating in that glorious city, I about wrecked my feet. They haven't really felt the same since. Seriously, the first few days back in Nairobi, I could barely walk. I soaked them in Epsom Salts 2 or 3 times, but they were still on fire. I'm talking throbbing corns, the whole nine.

In fact, I was just about ready to risk needing to get 'em amputated eventually by going to a Nairobi podiatrist when they finally calmed down. That may be due to the fervent prayers I sent heavenward, vowing to be a good girl the rest of my life if God would just make the fire go away! And of course to prepare for today's journey, I had these puppies pedicured and massaged. Oh, and I'm wearing the obscenely expensive MBT "toning" sneakers I bought while I was still in Gulu, which offer a surprising amount of support. (It's been so long since I wore them, I forgot how much. Nairobi is definitely not a walking city, and I was too busy trying to look cute to think to pack them for my Vienna trip.)

In just 24 hours, I'll be back in my homeland. Feet, don't fail me now.

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg..." Part 29

I'm not sure what it is about this time of year that makes me purchase biblical footwear, but if you'll recall a posting from last June (that is, if you haven't completely given up on my flighty blogging of late...), I allowed myself to get sucked into the vortex of ridiculously over-priced high-end shoe shopping during a jaunt in Georgetown, and just because some guy at a pretentious feng-shui boutique on M Street looooooved NPR, and thought I was a righteous humanitarian for working in Kenya.

He reduced the price of a pair of Givenchy sandals by a third--but they were STILL three times more than what I paid for these bad boys. Remember how I just wrote that my feet were hurting so bad during my Vienna jaunt, I thought I'd wrecked them? Well, how 'bout these mugs for solving the problem???

By the end of the third day of endlessly fascinating wandering, I ducked into a Nike store on Mariahhilferstrasse (Don't EVEN ask...) fully intending to find a pair of sturdy, stolid sneakers. Oh, I peeped these black gladiators out the corner of my eye, but as the young salesman kept insisting I try them on, I scoffed. Sure, they're funky and fun-looking, but I needed arch support. "Structural Heel"-ing, so to speak.

Half an hour later and "BAM!" I was half-gliding, half-limping towards the nearest Bratwurst stand. After all, "It is better to LOOK good than to feel good, no?"

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