MEDITATION ON TRAVEL
Here’s the low-equatorial bright that ripples like white Cetus stars on the surface of water. The white glimmer that resembles coins. Then the navy channel; all day dhow boats named Salwah, Ashid, Angela drift slow in a canvas line, head east toward a slit that opens into the Indian Ocean and a great azure sky. The sun gleams white, bends into the small Kenyan island, Lamu.
On land, slow moving Muslim men in long, taupe linen line two miles of pier. Like their ancestors, they take dusty flip-flopped steps alongside branded donkeys; breathe in a hot breeze, palpable with the smell of manure; heave rubble into straw sacks on the animals’ backs, rope steel wires into the side sacks. Today they command animals to walk to the island’s latest project, a seafood restaurant just a few yards from the dock.
We tourists watch carelessly in shorts; clutch our cameras and canvas totes like we’re supposed to; forget life back west for a moment. Here’s the new ethereal happiness; the glimmer on the island. Here’s the lack of satisfaction—awe isn’t tactile; it’s simply not enough. We want a takeaway for the sake of having something to show, so we take and take from hagglers surrounding us: hand-carved wooden cats, photographs, fabrics patterned with African faces, long dresses, oil paintings in the color of sky, all sorts of fresh foods. Not too far off in the future, though, there’s the inevitable refraction from this place; the return from jaw-dropped gaping; the return to home. Then what?
But now these men go back to their stoops outside of shops on the main drag, near-glitterati-like coral and shell restaurants and hotels, near almost-built stores framed with jacaranda, or they go down the drag outside of the donkey sanctuary, unenclosed, stinking like excrement and worn-out bodies, or down the drag further to Lamu Hotel filled with marble and granite and canvases with jeweled hearts, or in front of the Lamu Museum, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, or further into narrow streets and an open-air septic system, crowds, signs, Gallery Baraka, Whispers Café, past conversations in English, Arabic, Swahili, past the wide town square with a sixteenth-century mosque, more glitterati walls, broken clay walls, cracked grounds, then a fruit stand, wafts of ripe citrus, a trinket stand, a vegetable stand, mosquitoes, flies, feces, hungry cats, and further into high-stacked rice shops spilling out life-long Lamu friends, bakeries, bodegas that sell water for less than a dime, imported sugar wafers for less than a nickel, batteries, flashlights held together by masking tape; and further in, past a one-room school house and a chalkboard that reads, “Being lazy will make you poor, but hard work will make you rich and prosperous,” past trash heaps, past rows of houses like clapboard projects, broken clapboards on the dirt, past open doors with old tables, broken chairs, and people sitting, laughing, waving, laughing, past women and babies, past tourists snapping pics of women and babies, more women and babies, all covered in beige or black, smelling like Saudi perfume, sweet, until a clearing—a long stretch of dirt littered with plastic baggies, needles, scraps of paper, a single donkey that pokes into an ash-plumed fire pit, feral cats that scream like the white hot sun, the white hot sun, the sky.
Here’s delusion, constructed like plaster to cement. I’m on a couch inside La Pizzeria at the bottom of La Palace Hotel. Servers are there to make sure tourists like me are happy; they bring trays of flatbread pizza to the steady influx seated at patio tables. From inside, I watch the curtains do their familiar twists and turns against paisley bars, and listen to my mind as it clanks in a swirling passageway of fear.
Here are the worries, framed. This trip, which is supposed to materialize a new view of life in exchange for my own personal growth and several thousand dollars, has gifted me with the “what ifs” – a strange paranoia surrounding unpredictable diseases, chance encounters with pick pockets, rats, sharks, or whatever dangerous else that could possibly arise from out of nowhere. So all I really know is I’m shillingless and unable to see beyond my sight so I sit here stupidly asking no one in particular, how is it possible to have an authentic experience? That’s what I came here for and that’s what I want to get.
I’ve been in Lamu for three days and I most certainly have swine flu at this point. If not swine flu, then something more exotically toxic–Chikungunya Virus (CHIKV), which affected 75 percent of residents in 2004; cholera, which killed eight people, including three children, just two months ago; or perhaps a staph infection, which, as evidenced through a real-life scenario involving my fellow traveler and an irretrievable white pus on her forehead, could easily be obtained through fecal water on the streets, in the ocean, or in the shower. To say nothing of the traveler who got bit in the shin by a monkey.
All of my money has been spent on samosas, Internet access, alcohol, and bartered wares including giraffe-handled kitchen tongs, a lion’s tooth, and a wooden cat toy. It just occurred to me that five seconds ago I screamed “Fuck” at several juggernaut flies who have been pricking my exposed skin for the last three hours. Then one second ago, after one more juggernaut quickly decided to bite into my eyelid, I involuntarily let loose, “Jesus!”. Now people—customers, waiters, children and the like—stare vacantly at me, affording me the opportunity to decipher their thoughts: I am a creep. I am an ass. I am pathetic. Fuck Jesus; it’s Christmas Day. I should be home. I try to breathe in this elegantly Eastern motif on a single six-foot persimmon pillow framed in thick jacaranda wood, speckled with gold fabric, which I found upon my immediate arrival in Lamu after several glasses of Tuskers en route to the lav, but all I feel is myself. Surely all of this is delusion—so why travel?
Here is the moral obligation. Why aren’t I capable of more, like contributing to the eradication of village-wide health epidemics or poverty, which I imagine could be chipped away at through the purchasing of many locally-made goods? Instead my efforts go toward responding to hagglers regarding trinkets and finding the most comfortable seat in all of Lamu.
Here are the reflections. It is worth noting that this couch is the kind that beckons tourists. Anyone in any developed country might see it at Pier 1 Imports, however this one is authentic—not imported, topped with the cleanest of tufted pillows in pinks, persimmons, saffrons, berries, purples—all perhaps stitched together by the tailor down the street who I met earlier this week with another student while she arranged for him to make a one-of-a-kind dress for her for less than ten dollars. He works against a compressed white wall and a single florescent bulb, uses an old-fashioned sewing machine and lines up his fabrics with an eye that is permanently crossed inward most likely due to long hours compounded by many years tending to his livelihood.
This couch, possibly his couch, bears no resemblance to the chair in my own room at Yumbe House, which is in the center of town; nor my bed, which is covered by a holy mosquito net. By holy, I do not mean it relates to Jesus, Allah, or Buddha. I do not mean that this torn up swath of pathetic fabric, which is aged like a yellowing veil and blasphemous like a contorted burqa of the wrong color, can offer hope, respect for life, or a sense of community the way the 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. Muslim chants on the Lamu-wide loudspeaker do, or the way the annual Koran trivia contests at the mosque do (winner receives $1,500 and a round-trip plane ticket). What I mean is that the netting is filled with holes; deep, gaping ones filled with dozens of these “what ifs” that penetrate me and bring to my surface the most painful boils—infected characteristics of myself: anxious, cowardly, pathetic; sores that imagine the worst in every possible situation, that see bug fragments on a net as a condemnation of culture and an invitation to death. I should feel happy to have it draped over me every night, and I should feel happy to have my room, as my roof is sealed completely to a six-foot high wall, while another tourist’s across the hall is thatched and disconnected, which enables bats and hard-backed bugs of all sorts to enter at their leisure.
Here’s the comfort, meandering.
My door, five cylindrical slabs of finished wood nailed together, both shuts and locks, and since I closed all of the windows, I hear little if any noise from outside, aside from babies crying and mumbling voices which both typically stop at the first sign of night—this is luxury, according to some travel companions, who say they awake daily to the chants. That is not to say I’ve had no real dangerous encounters. On my first night at my hotel, I sat zazen on my bed in the mosquito net, hoping to slow or at least notice my swirling thoughts, but while gazing 45 degrees ahead I came across a tawdry lizard, to whom I yelled, “How am I supposed to concentrate?!”
I am unable to keep my mind in what the locals call polle-polle, or slowed time, which can be evidenced in the absence of cars, in lingering conversations, in long waits for Tuskers and meals, and in bodies: sandaled people who don’t budge from low cement slabs outside of their shops, sale caws to tourists for dhow boat rides and trinkets, giggling children playing barefoot all daylight alongside heaps of trash in tucked away corners of the town, tender voices that shout hands-out, “shillings for our picture.”
Surely this idea of polle-polle is delusion as well. My mind still swirls non-stop with that idea and dozens of scenarios that involve brushes with death, barring and boxing me in despite all of the goings-on outside where there is so much to see and buy, so much that I should want, so much that the others have bought in troves that I cannot have.
Here’s the observation, wisdom in a box.
In my sitting meditation, I imagined bed bugs crawled up from their places in the mattress, gnawed at my legs, back, shoulders, until they slowly circled around to my snout and mangy hair, all of which were covered in a brittle crust of 100 percent deet that resembled camel hair—and yet some how, some way, regardless of the deet, in this particular scenario the bugs managed to eat away at me anyway. In another scenario, a fat and rabid rat lurked under the bed; it kept quiet until I turned off the light and fell asleep, at which point he lurched at me through the mosquito net, went straight for my face, fanged and hissing—I put my arms up to stop him and stopped imagining after that. This is what happens to me when I am awake. I sleep with the lights on. My dreams are more vivid because of my malaria pills and I’ve been murdered on several occasions in my sleep.
In another one, a woman offered up her children to my friend. This was real. It took place in one brick room that was divided into sections. It stank of sweat and must. There was a woven bed in the hallway, broken furniture, and three stones for balancing a pot to cook. The mother, husband, four children, aunts, uncles and grandparents were all there. The next night over Tuskers on the patio at La Pizzeria, a tourist, who has children and grandchildren of her own, said to me, “I was photographing the mom as she applied henna to some customers and we were talking about Obama. She said she thought I was his mother.”
I had to laugh.
“As we spoke it came about that I lived in America. And that's when she said, ‘Can I give you my daughter to take back to America so she can go to school?’
‘She doesn't have a passport.’
‘I'll get her one.’
‘You'd miss her.’
‘When she is older she'll come see me and take care of me.’
‘You love her—you'll miss her.’
“She looked up from the henna, said very matter of factly and said, ‘You'll love her like I love her.’
“When I told her I can't take her girl, she said, ‘Will you take my son?’”
The tourist recollects, shakes her head back and forth as we sip our beers. In a couple of days, we’ll be so far from this that all it will be another inevitable memory. She’ll have her pictures. I’ll write about our conversation. Eventually, though, we’ll put this in the back of our minds; then one day perhaps we’ll have forgotten this completely.
Here’s the moment: priceless.
Now children spill out of La Pizzeria’s entrance like trinkets on a table. Now I’m more jaundiced than anything, unable to detach myself from a mother I never met, unrelated, and unable to help. Now twenty wide-eyed heads circle around an electronic Santa Clause next to Christmas lights, evergreen garland, and pretty beads in American gold and red. Clause wiggles every few minutes to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” at which point the children all chuckle near-unending. They point, shake their hips, scream in Swahili, then wait barefoot in dirty dresses zipped half-way up in the back for the next jig. They remind me their friends who walk around shoeless beside piles of shit and rubble, soiled, wide-eyed, smiling; and curious—the way I was one morning walking way, way away from the main drag, down where tourists don’t usually play.
Now here’s the predictable moment when the children turn and reach out to tourists for money, or they’ll simply say “Jambo,” because that’s the friendly thing to do. Now I ask no one in particular, what is the correct way to view this?
Here’s the victim, played fast on repeat.
Now near the kitchen, a break from my understanding of revulsion, all wooden and jagged. My waiters’ gaze—each look is a closer look, the right view. It refracts from his shirt, lean arms and shoulders, then bends wide orange and breathy onto my flecked chest like the now sun and taupe hennaed skin. Now I’m to blame.
I almost confess to him my blind ignorance about the dress code; I almost say I’m sorry in an old tank with my cleavage bursting out, but it’s better to keep my mouth shut. Here are the sins, covered in my body—white, Western, wrong—viewing, thinking, looking, all wrong. But he is still at fault because at least to me he to me is disrespectful. I don’t apologize or mention it because after all, this is vacation. Instead, we say, “Jambo, Jambo.” And now the dance; the jig we’ve been doing the entire week. The friendly thing to do.
My waiter and I could be friends. Maybe he, like all of the locals, could be my authentic entry into Lamu beyond my pathetic view. If I can speak to him, I can learn a little bit more, see the world in a different light—this is why I wanted to come to Lamu in the first place, which is really to obtain more than what I had before. This will make my experience more valuable. This will make me more authentic and somehow more alive and certain that I will get my money’s worth.
Here’s irascible, near-unending.
He watches my shoulders. I watch his shirt, perfectly pressed; his face, clean shaven; his shoes, sparkling black. I wonder where he sleeps or if this is all for show. He’s told me before that his days at the restaurant are long. Now his mouth opens wide and smile-like and I like this because his mouth is not like mine; his eyes are meeting mine and softening; so I say thick-accented and buck-toothed something insignificant and he wants to know if I am happy. He asks me if I want the cappuccino again today. I lie, my mouth gaping, my hooves tapping, myself bursting with guilt because I have no intentions to buy, because I have no idea where he sleeps, and my cleavage is everywhere. He tells me I can sit here as long as I want—here’s the kindness—his hands unfurling, his bottom lip upcurling, his arms lifting up as if he were taking off his shirt or as if he were composing a decent human gesture, him saying, “Hakuna Matata.” Now it’s still too hot for my sweater beside me so I can’t put it on.
Here’s a lack of understanding, no connection.
My family: father, mother, brothers, sister-in-laws, aunt, uncle, cousins, new baby cousin, niece, nephew, are all wearing sweaters right now celebrating Christmas together. We could all be together wearing sweaters in a circle in the living room, all unwrapping gifts, hee-ing and ha-awing like donkeys, freshly scrubbed, shiny and clean. Robert, my cat, would be there, plopped against the fireplace, wagging his tail back and forth, his stomach plump and superb.
Cats are everywhere in Lamu. Yesterday on a walk back from Shela Beach, with my camera on movie mode, I watched six of them jump out of a pile of jacaranda and a single old urinal, then waif around waiting for a fisherman to slice the head off a fresh catch of fat tuna. The cats edged the shore unabashedly, scar-faced like the Masaai warriors from last night’s tourist dinner at Diamond Beach’s Christmas Eve Spectacular who performed a traditional dance like Western live entertainment in exchange for money. (Last night I was the fish, all gaping and severed, opening my mouth in an exchange that, to me (and others?), involved flesh, noise, the temporary ceasing of flickering desires, and of course money.) The cats did a dance of sorts around the fish, jumping at it one by one, retreating back, racketeering, dangerously thin. For they were merely trying to feed themselves, I reassured myself, watching them inhale small scraps of pink flesh the way I do when Maasai warriors put away their Blackberries and walk real close selling me wares made of dead animals on the street: bracelets made of giraffe tails, cups made of hooves, donkey-engraved plates, stomach-length necklaces decadent with tiny primary colored beads; lions teeth (I will give one to my brother) individually sold (250 shillings o/b/o), rings made of ivory, wine glasses carved from coconuts, troves of them. But to see them bounce really was a treat—gazelle like, prowling, pitching high meows and long, drawn-out caws, all disjointed, all of it alarmingly indigestible (I will email the video to cousin Rachael who loves cats, she won’t know whether to laugh or cry).
Here’s trying to calculate the value.
Now outside, the patio is empty except for the boat boys who are docked in a line on the waters edge outside of La Pizzeria, all smiling, happy and friendly, all Hankuna Matata-ing and Jambo-Jambo-ing to the tourists; ready to lead an adventure for the right price. For 1000 shillings, or eighteen dollars, I took an hour ride two days ago with three students over to Diamond Beach across from Lamu, led by Captain Dolphin, a man as lean as my waiter; unabashed with the skin of God. He sang about happiness, lent us snorkels, made us lunch on the sand with jasmine rice, fish, fresh mangoes and coconuts and passion fruit, and asked us over and over, “Are you happy?” Yes, I tell him, responding as I’ve done to so many other locals this week.
Here’s kitsch: trying to get the most of your time before it is too late.
Now maybe I will get up and sniff out a new thing. Maybe I will go for a walk, look at trinkets, snap pics at every person or animal or trinket I see or record another movie or eat rocks and papers from the ground like the donkeys. Maybe I will sniff around for more tourists, then we’ll look at more trinkets. Maybe all of this won’t lead to regret. But now I will regret—sitting here pathetic on a couch (and before, walking, snapping pics, buying), unable to see Lamu clearly because of my origin, ailed by “what ifs,” occasionally counting down the days until I leave. Now I will regret that I am an ass, a toy, and a gaping, severed fish. Now I will regret that I objectify my waiter and every thing I see. For that much, I will be grateful when I am home.
Here’s the reflection, forgotten.
I will be so grateful I won’t mail out trinkets to some family. I will have forgotten to get stamps and won’t want to drive to the post office. The trinkets will sit in my living room in a plastic bag. I will send them in a couple of days, maybe when it stops raining. The tooth from the lion will sit inside newspaper scraps and then it will chip at the tip. My brother will wonder where his gift is. The hand-carved ear on the cat toy that I gave to my nephew will break. He will put it in a big toy bin with the rest of his toys like he is supposed to. A Lego will accidentally knock into it and scratch it. He will put a toy truck over it because he is told to and the cat will fall to the bottom of the bin. On the bottom of the bin, it will get wedged between small shreds of toy fabrics and papers; dust will accumulate on it; it will start to smell like plastic from the bin. He will buy more trucks and action figures like military men or Transformers and he will put them away. He won’t remember that the cat is there.
Here’s the take away.
I will think about all of this and will put all of this including the regret in the back of my mind after I put it on a Word document and cut it into a narrative the way a warrior cuts up a lion and sells its pieces or the way I’m making impossible cut-outs of bodies: sandaled people who don’t budge from low cement slabs outside of their shops, sale caws to tourists for dhow boat rides and trinkets, giggling children playing barefoot all daylight alongside heaps of trash in tucked away corners of the town, tender voices that shout hands-out, “shillings for our picture”; cats, warriors, donkeys, giggling men in lingering gazes and days, my self, this idea of traveling as something valuable; and then I will plaster all of this with ocean, azure skies, canvas sails, long, drawn-out streets that run into a clearing and the sun, the sun; and then I will save what used to be all of “this” but is now “it” because it is just plaster, like a memory or an arced story, to a folder that is in a folder that is in a folder on my computer that I am getting rid of soon because it is old. There it will be forgotten.
Here’s what’s left.
Further into the future, it will reappear in a moment of conversation when a friend says, “Lamu sounds wonderful. Africa; how exotic. I’ve always wanted to travel there.” And I will smile white, glimmer-cheeked, and still dumb. Scraps will be on my plate. I will have ivory around my neck and a ring. I will pick up my coconut cup and drink from it as if I were drinking fresh blood or cold water from the faucet or swallowing bags of groceries or necklaces or trinkets. I will reply like I have Lamu’s authentic experience in my body, like I possess a clear understanding of it or of myself. I will say happily, “Yes, it is so unreal.”