Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Winding Down My Visit to Heaven


Well, it's not exactly heaven here in the U.S., but it's not exactly Kenya, either. I've spent an alarming amount of time using wi-fi all over Northern California, which led me to an upsetting discovery on the Blogger Buzz page: There is a link to another Peace Corps volunteer's blog on there. Excuse me? Why doesn't that link point to my blog? The guy gets like 149 comments on a single post. Does he really need more traffic? On a good day I get 3 comments and 2 of them are nasty bitter bile about some inadvertently insensitive cultural comment I've made about my lovely host country. Sorry about that, Kenya. You really are a wonderful place, really.

Anyway, the problem with having unlimited access to everything in the world here in America is that you can easily find out how people have outdone you in ways that never crossed your mind. Like getting a link on Blogger Buzz. I am NOT jealous.

Well I've been on a whirlwind tour of friends and family in Texas and California, which will come to a sad end in a few days. People keep asking if it feels surreal to be back in a place that's so different from the world I've known the last 20 months, and if the abundance and waste depress me.

Surprisingly, it feels really normal to be back, and more importantly, really good. When I think about Kenya, about the way I live there, and especially the way most Kenyans live, it strikes me as absurd, and slightly heartbreaking. It doesn't make sense why anything is the way it is there, and as many PCVs will tell their friends and family back home, if you try to figure out the answer, it will only drive you crazy.

I don't regret everything I've seen and done, and what I still have to do, but it's Kenya that feels surreal, not the U.S. America is my home, and I've missed it in ways that I never thought possible. In weird ways. I've missed the things that were essentially invisible to me before, because I took them for granted. MapQuest, for example. The overabundance, especially around Christmas, has always disturbed me, and this year was no different. And I couldn't stop staring at that woman in the restroom at the Frankfurt airport, who let perfectly clean, drinkable tap water run on full blast while she scrubbed her face with soap.

But all my time here has been spent appreciating what we have in the U.S. It was easy before I went to Kenya to focus on everything I hated about our culture - the mindless consumerism, my shame and embarrassment over the current administration, the irreconciliable conflict between some elusive notion of spiritual happiness and the realities of bill paying, oversimplified mainstream answers to existential questions, and people who have too much useless crap in their houses, including me.

But despite all it's flaws, the predictability of living in a culture I know is immensely comforting.

You know if you go to a restaurant and ask them to replace pita bread with toast, they'll do it. They won't insist it's not possible, without being able to give a reason.

"It's not possible."
"Why not?"
"It's not possible."
"What's the reason?"
"It's not possible."

You know that if you ask someone for directions, they will use distinct landmarks and street names.

"How do I get to Nakumatt Lifestyle?"
"It's just there."
"Where?"
"Up there."
"Up where?"
"You see that tree? The green one?"

You know that the electricity won't go out. Ever. Unless there's a hurricane, or an earthquake, and then there'll be hell to pay at PG&E, and their stock price will go down. You know that all your friends have flushing toilets that you don't have to wait for 15 minutes to refill between half-hearted flushes. You know that if someone wants to say No, they'll say it to your face, and life goes on. You know that if you ask someone their name, they'll say it in an audible voice. You know that if you ask someone the price of something, they'll tell you the real price, and there's no bargaining allowed (except on cars and mattresses). You know that no one cares whether or not you're in church on Sunday, or whether or not you're really sleeping with your male "roommate." You know that gay people exist, and so does underwear, and it's okay to talk about both, but it's not okay to talk about your diarrhea. You know that someone who gets caught stealing money from their organization will be fired and have a hell of a time getting another job. You know that no one will end an assertion with "God willing."

I know what I'm feeling is different from what I'll be feeling after my close of service in August. Right now I know I'm going back to Kenya soon. I know I'll see all my friends there again. I'll go back to all the things that infuriate me, and all the beautiful invisible things I take for granted that will make me realize, someday, how much Kenya has become another home for me, for better or for worse. Or at least that's my prediction. Returned volunteers tell me they miss Kenya in ways they never imagined. They say the U.S. becomes this empty, unreal place that doesn't understand them or care what they've been through, and they long for their life in Kenya that seems so normal compared to America.

I have no idea what the hell they're talking about. Maybe one day I will.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Kenyan woman who has lived in the States for the past 12 years, I can assure you that there's nothing you'll miss about Kenya. I think it's sentimentality, which borders on the absurd, to think that there's anything meaningful about living a life of depravity and chaos.

Sincerely,
Usually Silent Lurker.

3:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Justina, I recently became an official PC nominee, and I just wanted to leave you a "nice" comment. I have been reading your blog religiously for some time now and I really enjoy everything you write. So thanks for all the humor, info, and candor...who knows, maybe I'll be in kenya this time next year. Happy New Year and good luck in the future. I look forward to more of your stories! Erin - Chicago

7:58 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

Very thoughtful & funny! I have a couple friends who work at PG&E and I'm forwarding your entry to them as it made me chuckle hard. Did you ever get that RIVER TOWN book by Pete Hessler? If not, let me know and I'll send it to you.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Shaela said...

Hi Justina, I as many others I'm sure have been silently stalking you... and want to make up for the 130 or so comments the other guy gets on his blog (one at a time..)! I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoy reading your entries. It's really creative... and hilarious! There have been times when really, I couldn't help but burst out laughing.

I start reading your blogs when my fiance, Chris Raff, left for Kenya to join the Peace Corps in September 2006. Since I did not have contact with him initially, reading your blog and other volunteers' blogs have helped me get an idea of the atmosphere in Kenya which had soothed my worries. Getting information from your blog helped me get an idea of what to expect - and soon enough, he got his cell phone so I've been hearing about his journeys first hand. It's funny when I tell him about facts about Kenyan life from reading your entries, which surprises him because he knows what you're talking about... except it's coming out of my mouth :).

Anyway, I kept up with reading your entries just because they're so entertaining!

12:41 AM  
Anonymous phillippa said...

i left you a comment the other day, but i don't see it here....

are you screening me out?

in short, i ALWAYS read your blog AND i link to it from mine.

i love your honesty, sister. it's refreshing and sometimes appalling at the same time, to hear it all first hand. i remember a late talk about our past and ideals on that first night that we met in borneo. i'm proud of you for all the obstacles hurdled to get to where you are today - especially because i know that the reality of your experience is very different from what you imagined and what we've discussed....

what a way to take charge of your life. how many people can say that they own their lives the way that you have?

XOXOXOXO from paris.

11:51 PM  
Blogger Euro 2007 said...

You must be nominated for the Weblog Awards in the African category.

http://2007.bloggies.com/index.php

I had time to read your blog, scheduleed one too many quality time with the family, some time left between travels and just plain got hooked.

Thanks a bunch for the chuckles and the insight on PCVs and Kenya.

Will keep reading.
A novice blogger.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Justina said...

teWOW! Thanks to everyone for posting comments. I didn't realize I had so many readers! I love hearing different perspectives from Kenyans, Americans and everyone in between. I've just arrived back in Kenya and I'm readjusting to life here, and distributing gifts of chocolate, pens and dollar store calendars. New posts to come soon...Kenyan time.

4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ey, belated welcome back, sister, and belated sayanara. enjoy the woods a while longer - you'll miss it living in the suburbs (remember scenic San Matteas?), driving a minivan and getting old - which is what i'm doing - except swap the van for a folding bike and the subway - colin

9:08 PM  
Blogger jke said...

Naaa..... @the Silent Lurker / 1st comment: As a German man who has lived in Europe for some time and grew up in Kenya and has been pendling between these two worlds all the time, I can assure you that there's a lot you'll miss about Kenya.

And it isn't Nyama Choma or Tusker or whatever some Exilkenianer might miss in the States from home, but instead it's this simple logic that the simple life in a rural area in Kenya with all these simple, but real problems is much more challenging and meaningful than any worries about the overconsumption and waste in the US and Europe or whatever one could worry about over there. It's this energy derived from such problems that kicks you out of bed every morning.

4:50 PM  

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