Smiling my way across Kenya

I have the opposite of a resting bitch face. My default expression, through no effort of my own, is a smile. When stressed, I often smile more without knowing it. There are plenty of times this is a problem, like every incident of corporate layoffs in which I was ever involved. Trust me, there is no role during such an event in which a smile is appropriate.
It has been an advantage at times, though, yielding me more tips as a waitress, better treatment at airline counters, and dozens of compliments on my good attitude even when my attitude sucked. But no where does this quirk affect me more than when I travel. The further from home I go, the more I smile. Sometimes the expression is genuine, because I love being on the road. Sometimes, I don’t even know I am doing it.
I’ve just returned from one of my furthest journeys ever, a trip to Kenya which got me thinking. What do people do here in the US when you smile at them?
1. They smile back
2. They say hi and maybe try to talk to you.
3. They try to sell you some thing or some idea. Depending on circumstances, that might include the idea of hooking up with them.
4. They take it as an invitation to do harm, attempting to scam or rob you.
I think we can all agree that the first is rather nice. The Kenyans smile back, too, and I carried home the images of hundreds of their smiles. It seemed to me that (with some exceptions) their culture encourages smiling, and it was a delight to have women and men, young and old exchange this simple greeting with me.
I’m less comfortable with having strangers talk to me, but luckily one of my travel companions was not. We made a great team. I did the smiling and then she engaged in the ensuing conversions, much to her own delight.
Sales is another matter. My travel group preferred to buy our trinkets in little shops with established prices. I’ve never understood the charm of haggling, and I respond poorly to pushy sales techniques. I found myself forcing a determined pucker when our van slowed to a stop in traffic and the inevitable crowd selling bracelets and fruit approached us.
Then I thought about similar places in the US. Selling anything to stopped cars is illegal back home, but instead we find beggars with signs detailing their woes and girls’ softball teams asking for donations to attend tournaments. Wasn’t this enterprising foot-based sales force far more admirable? I think so.
In fact, I don’t remember seeing a single beggar in all of Kenya. Or a single homeless person. Granted, there were huge swaths of Nairobi which I never entered, but in a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 40%, the major highways are lined with people trying to make a living, not folks asking for a handout. It seems to me that the people of Kenya embody the virtue of self-sufficiency to an admirable extent. You would think that the American Tea Party would love this place, and ought to be praising the people of Kenya as an example to lazy Americans. Why do I get the distinct feeling that few of them have ever traveled this far, or would be impressed if they did?
For all that hundreds of people tried to sell me things, not one tried to sell me their ideas. The Kenyans I met were proud of their indirect association with Barack Obama, but otherwise left their politics and mine out of the conversation, along with religion and philosophy. There was a feeling of acceptance, of you’re-entitled-to-be-you and I’m-entitled-to-be-me that also reminded me of what Americans aspire to, and often fall short of these days.
The most unfortunate result of a resting smile face is that one can inadvertently invite scams and thieves. It was worth noting that in spite of all the warnings I received before I left, I and my party encountered no theft, no unwanted attention, and no attempt to cheat us. While I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen here, a combination of caution and planning seemed sufficient to avoid problems under normal circumstances and most of the Kenyans with whom I interacted made me feel as safe or safer than I feel at home.
This is not to say that poverty is not obvious, even from the road. The average monthly wage in Kenya is under a hundred US dollars, and even though the cost of living is much lower, this little bit doesn’t go far enough. I’m sure there was hunger and disease, hidden from my view.
What was in my view, however, was people who had very little but were not, in general, miserable. There is a difference between poverty and misery, and that is something I think we tend to forget in the US.
What did I see in Kenya? I saw smiles and I saw hard work and I saw people willing to help each other and even a stranger. I saw curiosity and I saw tolerance and I saw people who appeared to be enjoying their lives.
When I arrived in Nairobi, after 36 hours of travel, my face was in its resting smile mode, with me exhausted and grumpy inside. When I left eight days later, the grin on my face was genuine, warmed by the charm of so many people who had smiled back at me.

And that’s the way it was, June 28, 1888

One of my best antidotes for information overload is history. There is something calming about returning to a world devoid of smart phones, cable news and (yes) blogging. Today, I was delighted to learn that exactly 129 years ago Robert Louis Stevenson left San Francisco for the South Seas.

Ah, islands in the Pacific. I am fascinated by that swath of the globe, although I’ve only managed to touch it twice. And Stevenson’s Treasure Island was certainly in the back of my mind when I wrote y1. I suspect that his more famous Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has helped inspire every writer after him who tried to craft a meaningful villain.

But there is more to his story. He was a Scotsman who studied civil engineering and law, and then upset his parents by opting to become a fiction writer instead. (They weren’t too happy when he became an atheist, either. History is silent as to which bothered them the most.)

Then he went and fell in love with an American divorcee, who he married. Although he had lifelong health issues, he traveled widely. He wrote about the importance of finding joy in ones life, even though he found himself at death’s door several times during his journeys.

After 1888, he spent most of his time in the South Pacific, settling with his family in Samoa. He died there and was buried overlooking the sea.

I’ve included a couple of my favorite quotes of his here. He was more of an inspiration than I realized.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 10, 1947, June 15, 1984, June 18, 1972, and June 30, 1940.)

 

 

Caring About Far Away Places

My stories make it obvious that I love places that require a difficult journey to visit. Greenland. Bhutan. Antarctica. Tierra del Fuego. A small village in Nigeria. A lake in the Mountains of Guatemala. If it’s hard to get to from where I am, I love to write about it.

No place is more remote to a Texan that the island nation of Kiribati. This south pacific country of 100,000 people is made up of 33 low-lying coral atolls with a total land area of about 300 square miles. More spectacularly, it is the only nation on earth to set inside of all four hemispheres, and it covers a million square miles on the globe.

The map is from a wonderful website about Kiribati, which I referred to frequently when I was writing y1. Visit JANE’S KIRIBATI HOME PAGE to enjoy this bit of Micronesia.

Someday I hope to visit this place that I spent so much time learning about but I understand that I better not take too long. As the melting icecaps raise global sea level, the low lying atolls of Kiribati are becoming submerged. Leaders of this country have been planning a national exodus for years, seeking asylum for their descendants once the nation is completely under water.

In the meantime, Kiribati and it’s nearby neighbors are doing their best to raise awareness of the drastic effects climate change is having on this part of the world. The well known 2015 Paris Climate Agreement grew out of years of work, shepherded along at yearly United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change. The yearly gathering for 2017 will be hosted by Kiribati’s Melanesian neighbor, Fiji.

In spite of my own country’s lack of recent leadership regarding climate change, I will be cheering on the representatives of Polynesian, Micronesia and Melanesia as they take the world the stage.

As I watch with dismay as the United States turns more towards nationalist politics, I’ve been trying to discern where my own fascination with all the rest of the world began. I have this theory that music is a powerful tool for introducing ideas, and I remembered hearing a particular song as a child. I didn’t think I could find it, but luckily the song title is part of the lyrics and, like almost everything else, there it is on YouTube. Very old fashioned, although the beautiful voice of Sam Cooke brings a magic that transcends the decades.

Imagine yourself on an island in the South Pacific and enjoy!

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door, Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away PlaceAs Far Away Places Edge Closer and The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places.)

It’s an angry world in some places.

I do have fantasies of running away. I want to leave behind my chores, my email, and my sense of obligation to be nice. And more than anything right now, I want to get away from American politics.

I’m traveling abroad and the little news that I’ve gotten this week confirms my worst fears about my country’s current regime change. Identities of incoming cabinet members make it clear that the angry non-professional whites are not going to get a better deal any time soon, and that possibility was the only silver lining to this mess that I saw. No, they will only get poorer as the very rich use their new cabinet positions to find ways to siphon ever more money away from the working class, making them angrier and more disagreeable. Not something to look forward to.

img_3287At the moment, I recognize that I have anger issues of my own. I cannot seem to stop seething at those who made the stupid decision to vote for this man, no matter what their reasoning. I don’t use the word stupid lightly. If I hear one more person make the uninformed claim that “she was just as bad” I fear I may loose my remaining respect for my fellow citizens. Please stop chanting “lock her up” and look what she actually did and did not do, folks. Read the results of unbiased fact checkers about who lied most of the time and who didn’t. Listen carefully to the things your candidate said. And then show some remorse for what you’ve brought on this great nation.

Okay, I admit it, I’m not in a forgiving, let’s all come together kind of mood and it looks like I’m not going to get there for awhile. It is probably a good thing that I got to run away for a week, and that it was all the way to Morocco.

This is an ancient land, but one in transition as well. The internet is everywhere, with satellite dishes decorating the top of most of the roofs inside the Medina, the oldest, walled parts of the city. Leaders have worked hard here to eliminate terrorists from their midst, knowing well that it is the peace loving citizenry of a country that suffer the most from its own radicalism.

img_3318Two of my fellow travelers are gay men, and they are aware that homosexual acts are illegal in this country. As in many other places, no one they encounter goes out of their way to learn more about their relationship. In the city, they share a room and a bed, and the housekeeper drapes it with roses just as, I assume, she does for every other couple.

After a few days we leave the noisy mesmerizing city of Marrakesh for the countryside. Morocco is largely rural, with the kind of conservative beliefs that that remind me of my own roots in Western Kansas. Yes, I know, we were Catholic and they are Muslim, but below that surface is the same innate code that people should dress modestly, talk nicely, and behave well. My travel companions are given a room with twin beds, of course. No one would think they wanted otherwise.

img_3399Then we are on to the desolate Atlantic coast in the southern part of the country, where beer is sold and limbs are shown as people from a whole mix of ethnic origins and beliefs come together to enjoy the sea and the waves. Lodging and food are even less expensive and there is a feel somewhere between hippie and surfer. Our hostel beds are several to a room, and no one cares at all who sleeps where, with who or why.

The writer in me is wide awake, her head full of stories begging to be told. Traveling without my computer for the first time in years has meant writing first drafts by hand, something I have not done for decades. At first it felt awkward as I scratched out words and used circles and arrows to move blocks of text round, but by now it has become fun as I rediscover the joy of making a fancy arrow or giving an extra flourish a the base of a “y”. Writing is once again a visual experience as well as an intellectual one, encouraged by the sight of the beautiful Arabic alphabet that surrounds me here.

Part of me wants to stay on this beach forever, or at least for a few more months. I’ve found Moroccans to be friendly on the whole, and as a woman who made part of this trip alone I’ve had no more problems than I would have expected anywhere. And oh the stories I could write here. But I don’t belong in this place. I have a home, one where I and a whole lot of other people are very angry.

It’s time to board my plane. I linger as everyone else climbs up the steps into the aircraft, thinking how I’m glad that Morocco does not have so many angry people. I appreciate that no one has tried to make trouble for me or my fellow travelers. I wish this country ongoing peace as it makes its way along in a modern world. I vow to take some of that peace with me, as I prepare to head home to deal with all the angry people in my own nation, including myself.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI See Ghosts, My Way, and That’s Why you Make the Trip on my other blogs.)

Eight ideas for joyful journeys

I love going places I’ve never been. Thanks to a  profession that has sent me to four continents,  family that is far-flung well beyond the norm, and a deep wanderlust in my soul, I travel a lot. I was once told to only offer advice under two circumstances. (1) If it is asked for. (2) If it is a life-threatening emergency. Recognizing that this is neither, I am going to break this wise rule. Why? I’ve just gotten back from yet another trip and realized that traveling is something I am rather good at. This is, after all, a blog about being joyful, and a fun trip anywhere is one of the best ways I know of to dance ones life with joy.

towels1. Listen to the wisdom of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and bring  your towel. First, of course, you must figure out what your personal towel is.  Mine is a down pillow that guarantees me a good night sleep anywhere, keeps my feet warm on long flights or cushions that bottle of pinot noir I just have to put in my suitcase. My husband’s towel is a good flashlight. Once you determine yours, don’t leave home without it. While traveling, remind yourself that everything is gong to be okay because you have your towel.

2. Don’t bring other people’s towels with you. They have stores where you are going (probably). You can buy emergency supplies. You can wear clothes more than once. Whatever it takes, don’t leave home with more than you can comfortably run two blocks with. Suitcases on wheels help. Shoes to be worn anywhere but dinner on a cruise ship really ought to pass the two block run test too.

3. Get up fifteen minutes earlier and do what you do. Meditate. Stretch. Pray. Write in a journal. I now do qigong, You should do whatever the thing is that keeps you feeling like you. It’s worth way more than a little sleep.

water4. Put aside fifteen minutes for you know. Your body has a rhythm and it needs a little space and calm to take care of its business. Allow for it and nobody has to listen to stories about how constipated you are. A little attention to your diet before you have a problem helps also.

5. Water. Bottled water if your locations suggests that is wise. Carry it, have extra, and keep drinking it. Not only will it help with item four above, but it will improve your health, keep you from overeating, and mitigate effects of partying. As a corollary, never pass up the chance to pee while traveling. And if you are in bottled water country, be vigilant. Ice, teeth brushing , and freshly washed fruits and vegetables can all negate the precautions you have already taken.

6. Floss. Teeth problems on the road suck.

7. Layers. It’s always unusually hot for this time of year, wherever I go. Except when it’s unusually cold. Most of my travel outfits start with a tank top, and a lightweight down vest lives in the bottom of my travel bag. Comfy people are happy people.

cards8. Have something to amuse yourself with you the whole time. Travel is full of unexpected waits. Unless you are far more patient than I am, a pocket Sudoku book, a well charged phone loaded with games, or a deck of cards can turn “what the hell is wrong with these people” into an instant party or some nice relaxation time.

Enjoy the journey. My sister the travel professional tells me that if folks want things to be exactly like they are at home, then they should stay home. For those of us who won’t stay home, embracing those differences can make all the difference.

One person’s tourist destination is another person’s home …… (thoughts from Bucharest)

bucharest 2The tour bus has been winding through the street of Bucharest Romania for a while now and it is apparent that they are mostly stalling until our hotel accommodations are ready.  We have driven by and photographed the huge parliament building formerly known as the “people’s palace” twice, and passed numerous pretty squares, many statues, and a lovely opera house and huge museum.  We don’t care.  We are tired.  We’ve seen remarkably similar things for the past nine days and we just want to get to our rooms, kick off our shoes and take warm showers.  Such is the life of a group traveler.

I don’t like exploring new places by way of preplanned itineraries and I don’t like having to go everywhere with a group.  I like doing my own thing. But I was offered the opportunity to go with my sister, a small business owner in the travel industry, as she researched a particular tour operator.  See eastern Europe at a wonderful discount. So here I am on a bus in Bucharest, watching twenty or so of my fellow tourists who are from China laugh when they discover that the big exhibit at the museum here features the famous Terracotta warriors from back home.

My sister and I have gotten along well over this trying week of schlepping around on a schedule, but once we get to our room we have a rare argument, and it has to do with looking pretty.  Not us. Romania.

bucharest 1On the endless bus ride around town, we both studied the massive grey condo buildings that house the occupants of Bucharest, many of them erected when the country went rapidly from a mostly agrarian economy in the 1940’s to a largely industrial one under the particularly oppressive communist dictatorship that took root here after WWII. Other older buildings were recycled into condos as these were built. Now all their owners have used their ingenuity and limited resources to improve their lives. Air conditioning units of all shapes and sizes are randomly distributed over the exterior, and the ubiquitous balconies have undergone ad hoc conversions into sun rooms of every imaginable style and color.

To me, it was a riotous explosion  of resourcefulness. Maybe not pretty, but commendable. To my sister, it was a riotous explosion of ugliness, particularly on the many formerly beautiful older converted buildings.  Maybe understandable, but still such a shame.

“What they really need is some sort of home owners association,” she asserts. She clearly has not had the less than pleasant run-ins with a home owners association that I have had.

“Are you kidding? First communism, then home owner’s associations? What have you got against these people?” I ask.

She is thinking of a small historical town she lives near in in western Illinois.  Strict restrictions keep its historical buildings authentic and pretty.  The owners are glad to comply, or they can live elsewhere.  Hordes of visitors from Chicago come every summer weekend to marvel at the quaintness and  bring in tourist dollars. Everyone is happy.

I am thinking of an article I read in a Lonely Planet book bemoaning the disappearance of the cute thatched roofs in Ireland.  The visiting author thought that the transition to more modern but ugly roofs was a shame until he talked to someone who lived there.  Thatched roofs leak.  They are drafty, hard to maintain and harbor mice. If you like them so much, go build your own house with one, a helpful Irishman said. We don’t have any obligation to be uncomfortable just to look cute for you. This is our home.

I side with the local Irishman, although I admit that it is more of a dilemma for a tourist destination like Ireland, a place that makes a good deal of its income from those who come see its cuteness. Bucharest, however, is not a place trying particularly hard to attract tourists. It is simply a city that people call home, filled with folks like me just trying to get by who don’t want to be told how to manage their own living space so that they will look pretty to tourists like me who are merely passing through.

“Fair enough,” my sister concedes.  “They can build their homes any way they want. But I don’t have to drive around the city and look at them.” I agree that she does not. And with that we decide that we are done sightseeing for this trip. Forget the museum, massive parliament building or anything else. We are not going anywhere except to go get lunch. We wander down a side street and settle on a very pretty little café and everybody is happy, including  our waitress.

 

If you would like to read other posts from this trip check out  “That which does not kill us …. thoughts from Budapest” on my blog for the novel x0. Also check out “A lot of pissed-off people ….. thoughts from Belgrade”  on my website for the novel z2.