Monday, August 31

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Chinese Restaurant

For a belated birthday celebration, Demetra took me out to one of the nicer restaurants in the city for lunch last Monday, Nakuru's downtown Chinese restaurant, Ming Yue. I was excited.

I don't think I've ever visited any restaurant one could remotely claim was authentically Chinese except once in San Francisco, but that's beside the point. Chinese food is nearly as ubiquitous as McDonald's, and except maybe for Panda Express, this global infiltration has not been carried out by international chains but immigrant families who realize that everyone wants a taste of the exotic. What's so fascinating is that these families always accommodate for the national palette. It's a delicate balance between offering meals that your customers have never seen before but also making them familiar enough that they won't outright reject them. Pairing pineapple and chicken may be prima facie a wacky idea for most Americans, but the flavor is still sticky sweet and not so foreign as one might expect. Thus, no matter where you are in the States, a land of sugar, you can find cream cheese wontons, but these are totally unknown in Germany where a heartier fare is preferred.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Paradoxically, if you want to really discover the culinary identity of a nation, you need to visit its Chinese restaurants. I've defended McDonald's on these grounds before. Don't go to the locally-owned-and-operated bakeries and cafés if you want to know what the people really eat. It will be too much. You will drown in the flood of new flavors and styles. Instead, go where you think you know what to expect. Go to McDonald's and the Chinese restaurants. There will be similarities, yes, but the differences will stand out all the more. Whatever those are will be the soul of the people's diet. The Germans may pass over the egg foo young, but they cannot fill their plates with enough sausages with the Szechuan spices.

Which made it all the more of a surprise to discover that Ming Yue was about as American as you could get in its food. The vegetable lo mein and ma poe bean curd would not have been out of place in Baudette's The Oriental Wok. Kind of a disappointing, yes, but the closest thing I've had to a taste of home since coming here, and that has its own pleasures.

Maybe I'll have better luck with the Bamboo Hut, Nakuru's second Chinese restaurant. Maybe they'll drizzle sweet and sour sauce over ugali and list General Tso's goat on the menu.

Friday, August 28

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: A favorite picture

Sorry for the drought in posts this week, and I may have to apologize in advance for the drought continuing for the next week or two. Please accept this brief analysis of how this picture has become my favorite of the children as a more concrete apology.

I like this picture for a number of reasons. First, it's an absolutely honest portrayal of the children. Not a single one of them is camera. They love to mug and rush into the picture no matter where I point my Nikon. The boys also love to wrestle. This picture captures both elements. The boys are literally fighting for position within the frame.

Second, the lines of this, from those on their bodies to those in their clothes are so powerful. With all of the faces turned away or otherwise obscured, the picture becomes abstract as the lines become the focus. In this, it reminds me strongly of the picture of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, especially the child in the lower-left corner. But mine is better. Why? Because it wasn't staged.

If you enjoyed this picture and would like to see others like it though not nearly so good, check out my Picasa album.

Monday, August 24

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: A nice surprise

Something unexpected but rather nice happened late Saturday afternoon. The senior director, Naomi, expected it, but she had neglected to mention anything before leaving to spend the day in Nairobi with Demetra and to teach her how to deal with public transportation and get to the airport and what not in the capital.

I had just begun revising a 186-page draft of the manual which describes in detail most every possible aspect of the Foundation when one of the guards came down to tell me that there were visitors at the gate. I was expecting a hopeful looking to apply for a job. Instead I found some 200 children in paper crowns sitting on the slope that leads down from our barbed wire fence singing a hymn led by a man whose black sport jacket hardly had time to settle against his body before he spun again. Our children sat facing them, about eight meters away, more than a little cowed by the crowd. I could have dealt with a job seeker. I would have politely accepted their CV or suggested they apply online. I had no idea how to deal with this and stood far to the side with my thumbs in my pockets. Were they looking for converts? I hoped not. The Foundation's policy is a free exercise of all faiths without compulsion in any direction. I didn't like my odds of escorting all the children and their teachers out if they started asking our children if they were saved.

By that point, one of our older children introduced me to the woman directing the whole affair. She finally explained that it was the final day of their vacation Bible school, (ironically appropriate as it was the first day of Ramadhan) and they had been collecting change in small, plastic Bottles of Love. Now they had combined it all into one massive Bottle of Love and wanted to present it to us. The woman made a small speech, the exuberant man read a Bible verse, the kids sang another song, and there were pictures as a small girl passed the bottle to me with our children standing tight behind me. Then I made a small speech of thanks. Mostly it was me saying thank you, but the kids seemed impressed that I knew enough Kiswahili to even say asante sana. As the teachers herded the children out, they mobbed me to shake my hand. I felt like a candidate for president. There were too many of them and not enough time to give each hand a proper shake. All I could do was thrust my arm out and give about three hands a single squeeze at the same time. They loved it when one passed me his baby blue crown, and I tossed it atop my mess of hair.

Like, I said it was nice. The money wasn't much. A bit over 1000 shillings, a bit under 15 dollars. It'll pay for maybe half our monthly water bill. Still, to be recognized within the community as a deserving organization and receive donations from people who have bills of their own to pay and not much money of their own to pay with, it feels good. A reminder that other people think we're doing a good thing, I guess.

The greatest irony of the whole thing? Just before reminding all the children why they were there and what they had accomplished, she asked me if I had heard of some city in Mexico. It wasn't Mexico City, Tijuana or Cuernavaca, so I hadn't. I missed the explanation, but it sounded like they were maybe the first choice for receiving the Bottle of Love and something went wrong and our center was the second choice. I feel really bad for Mexico now. These kids live in a slum in a country with a government so corrupt that every candidate for major office makes stamping it out a key part of their platform, are facing the fifth year of a regional drought and lived through a month of near civil war almost two year ago, and they felt sorry enough for the Mexicans to want to donate their money to them.

Thursday, August 20

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Running

Coming in, I had few dreams of adventure in Kenya. A professor and aunt had suggested I visit Lamu Island, an early Islamic trade port where most all modern technologies are now forbidden. That sounded fun but was the extent of my plans for travel. I had little interest in a safari, the ultimate in cliché tourist activities in Africa beside contracting malaria and being the object of severely marked up prices at the street market. Beside, I had come here to work. Travel would have to come second to my obligations to the Foundation, and in all honesty, simply being in Africa for the first time and within in a foreign culture and new environment would be adventure enough for me.

Well, that and running. Come on, what runner wouldn't feel their pulse quicken by the opportunity to run in Kenya? The nation which has given birth to some of the greatest long-distance runners in the world? The vistas of the Rift Valley? A country whose people actually cared about runners? Kenyan victories at the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin this week have made the front page of The Daily Naiton, Kenya's national newspaper, every day, and its sports pages were dominated by previews and profiles in the weeks leading up to the meet. How many other countries can claim this same respect and passion for professional running? Maybe Jamaica, but Usiah Bolt is a special case. Everyone loves him. For funsies, Kenyan coaches and long-distance runners respect opponents from Ethiopia and Tanzania first and Morocco and Mozambique second. I don't think any other nation can field a team worth being concerned about.

Even with all my hopes and dreams of running here, it was nearly a month before I tied my Mizunas tight for the first time. It took two weeks to find a route that didn't go through the slums or into the heart of the city and another week after that for my work schedule to settle down enough that I had time in the morning to run. The route is really quite nice. It's just outside the city and follows the trails and side roads which run parallel to the Nairobi-Nakuru highway. There are some gradual uphills and downhills, and rolling hills to the sides offer wonderful panoramas. I have no idea how long it is, just that it takes about an hour to complete. After that first outing, the truth of running in Kenya became apparent to me though there were plenty of hints before.

The truth is that the States have a better running culture than Kenya. In a single hour of running on Centennial Trail in Spokane, no matter the time of day, I could see more runners than I have in all my weeks in Kenya. No exaggeration. The runners here may be faster and more focused than the average American, but they are severely outnumbered.

The truth is that running is totally middle class, a privilege of those with money. It's odd to read, I'm sure. When I became aware of it, I thought it was utterly bizarre. How could running possibly be middle class? It's one of the most fundamental actions in the world. The first man ran down his prey, and modern man runs to his appointments. Once a child learns to walk, running isn't far behind. It's fundamental. How could running ever be considered a privilege?

What we neglect to recall, I believe, is the most common reason for running: our health. I fully acknowledge that there are other reasons to run. I, for example, like to think I run for the joy of the movement and release of energy, but shedding a few pounds or toning our legs is always a part of our motivation. Ultimately, most of us run because we enjoy access to more food than we need. Not so much the case for those who don't live a Western middle-class life. There may be no famine in Nakuru, but there is a five-year drought. Food is expensive, and wages aren't particularly high. Running means investing a few hundred more shillings into food every week to maintain a healthy weight, and not everyone can afford it. And, when you don't have the cash to spare, you walk everywhere, and that is more than enough to stave off excess weight for most.

It doesn't mean I'll stop running. That wouldn't change anything. Beside, I like the release of energy. I am, however, a bit more aware of the stares of those I pass and realize that there may be more there than surprise at seeing a really white guy pass in silver shorts and a yellow tank-top when the Kenyan runners prefer full track suits and caps when early morning temperatures are in the low 60's.

Tuesday, August 18

Reflections on the House of Charity: Crime and punishment or lack thereof

Like every institution, the House of Charity has rules. To assure the fair and equal distribution of limited donations, you can only go through the lunch line again after seconds have been called and you are only allowed in the clothing room once a week. To make sure there is space for everyone who needed it, you can only keep two bags, both under 35 pounds, in the storage closet at any one time. To protect the other clients, absolutely no alcohol or drugs are allowed on the premise. To protect the staff, their directions must be followed at all times. To protect everyone, weapons and fighting are never permitted.

Punishment is simple. If you break a rule, you have to leave. There are no time outs, and revoking privileges is rare. When you break a rule, your case is brought before the weekly sanctions council, and they determine the length of your punishment according to your history and the circumstances of the latest. A night or day for a minor infraction. A few weeks or months if you are a repeat offender or the first offense is severe enough. A year or permanent if your very presence is a threat to everyone at the House.

Staff broke and ignored this rule all the time. Infractions wouldn't be recorded, and clients would be let off with a warning. Men could come in with full beer cans falling out of their jacket and be sloshed that someone literally had to drag them into bed, but the next day no one would say anything when they came down for coffee and doughnuts. Another woman could spend 30 minutes roundly cursing out anyone who came near her and screaming that there was a conspiracy against her, and nothing would be done except, maybe, trying to calm her down.

There were reasons for this, good reasons I like to think. Like I wrote, many rules were in place to to protect the resources and the staff. When it came down to it, though, we were there to serve and protect our clients. If we weren't doing that, we weren't doing our job, no matter how many official, written rules we could hide behind. Sending someone out from the House and onto the streets was a serious decision. The streets at night carry a host of dangers. Thieves and drunks looking for a cheap thrill could roll you. Opportunistic diseases could have their chance. Exposure to the cold and elements are constant threats. No one wants to have a client's death on their conscience after they kicked them out for sneaking in a beer. Not that the consequences were always so severe. Sometimes it was as simple as grabbing someone a sandwich when they missed dinner or pulling a coat out of the clothing room for someone else who had forgotten that it was only open in the morning.

Making exceptions could quickly become exhausting. You want to believe that when you're doing them, you're helping whatever poor soul just come through the door, but it gets hard to see how that's happening when you make a special trip into the clothing room for that one particular man for the third time that day. Even if you have no other work and would otherwise be just leaning against the counter, you begin to ask yourself at what point you're no longer helping and just feeding their mental illness or addiction or whatever.

There was one client, severely mentally ill, who would literally come in every day to ask for a new T-shirt. Sometimes it was honestly dirty, as though he had rolled in the dirt with it. Other times you would be hard pressed to tell what the problem was. You couldn't reason with him or suggest that he wash it. He was single minded in his pursuit. If we didn't get a new shirt for him in due time, he would stuff the old one into the nearest garbage can. It was rare that we didn't give in. There may have been plans to present a united front and force him to take more responsibility or at least keep a shirt for a week, but I can't recall them ever working. Another man had a ban of indeterminate length from every possible service for refusing to work with our case manager. He could only move with a walker and desperately needed hip surgery, and he knew it. Every morning he would come in and demand attention at that exact moment. She could never help him then, and he would leave because he couldn't go longer than an hour without a beer. I felt for him. Really. He was in an impossible situation. No surgeon would operate on him until he underwent a full and complete medical detox. That wouldn't happen until he was cleared by Spokane Mental Health, and they refused to work with him until he had the surgery. He could have been a character in a Joseph Heller novel. Then again, the man was a pain of the worst sort. After dealing with him, I would need time alone in the back hallway to calm down. Our staff did everything for him. They cleaned him and gave him new clothes when he soiled himself, which was about every other day by my count. Our case manager spent hours trying to get someone to bend and get the surgery started. But he would still only stick around just long enough to be noticed before leaving to get loaded again. I've been out of touch with the House for over a month now. I hope something has changed.

I spoke with the House's assistant director about this after one particularly trying episode. I could hardly even sit down to talk with him. I wanted to pace the three steps across the width of his office until my hands stopped shaking. When I finally said it with the words rushing over each other, halting every ten seconds as I realized I was descending into rant, he told me I was acting as Christ would when I made exceptions and that was my job. The permanent staff in the back had agencies to liaise with and reports to file. If they made exceptions, they would never get to their real work. The AmeriCorps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corp, the Gonzaga work studies were all there to make the exceptions when the others couldn't.

It wasn't what I wanted to hear then. I wanted him to tell me to throw the bum out on his rear with the walker following soon after. I wanted to hear that it was alright to not care about him. But it was reassuring. Our job remained to help and care for those who received nothing from anyone else. That's how we earned our pay on the front desk.

Sunday, August 16

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The book list

Of the many hypothetical questions one can pose to learn more of another, from “If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?” to “Would you rather have a razor slid under each of your fingernails or have the nails on your two largest toes ripped clean off?”, there are very few that personally intrigue me and cause me to put real thought into the answer.

One of these is the classic “If you were stuck on a desert island for eternity, what books would you bring along?” While pondering, it's a chance to show off your literary chops by name dropping the big ones and a few unknowns, but it also leads you to really consider what the most important books in your life have been.

This time in Kenya is a little like that hypothetical made real. A reading culture simply does not exist here. There are more than a few bookstores, but far and away, these are stocked with class textbooks, dry things on the fundamentals of biology and chemistry. For those owners adventurous enough to display works one might actually want to read in their free time, the selection is limited to Joel Osteen's latest and books with titles like Why do you choose to be poor when there is so much money out there?

I guess Kenyans can't get enough of improving themselves, but that's not my cup of darjeeling. I prefer fiction and have essentially been limited in my choices to what Demetra and I brought. Good thing I expected this and didn't just pack a book or two to read on the flight over. I ultimately settled on seven books and two poetry collections, excluding a Swahili dictionary and Teach Yourself Swahili. Choosing them, however, was a bit of an ordeal. These books would have to sustain me for at least a year. I couldn't depend on length alone to get me through, but works that I would willingly and eagerly race back to, fiction that could not be exhausted no matter how many times I read it. Another rule was a focus on short story collections. If I really want to be a writer, I need to know the best of the form and its masters.

Thus, the following list. Naturally, it is too late now to take suggestions, but go ahead and make them. I may have a chance to replenish my supply this January.

They Come Back Singing by Fr. Gary Smith.

Ironically, this book was the last brought but the first read. A gift from a good man who volunteered at the House of Charity, it was too appropriate to my upcoming my year to not bring. If you would like to see my further thoughts on it, I've already written a post on this journal of Fr. Smith's experiences while serving Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda.

Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories by Thomas Mann

I read Mann's The True Confession of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, a few summers back on a suggestion from my grandfather. I was torn in my response. The language was extraordinary with a richness that is never seen in contemporary literature, but it could be a slog, especially considering Mann's penchant for spending at least a page physically describing every character with a single line of dialogue. But I came back for more, so I guess it's clear which way I was finally torn. And the man won a Novel Prize for Literature. A master for sure. Unfortunately not in the original German, but I fear, rightly, that his prose is well beyond my comprehension.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

The woman won most nearly every award and received most every honor the American literary community could bestow in her too brief lifetime. Seems as though I could learn a little something from her. Since I didn't bring a Bible either, it seemed like I could do worse in my source of daily source of spirituality.

Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges

I picked this up according to my rule of three. A friend mentioned that one of my stories reminded him of Borges, I read an essay online comparing The Dark Knight to “The Three Versions of Judas,” and the same friend wrote an essay considering Borges' approach to death. I haven't been disappointed. Not quite stories in the traditional sense, Borges writes ideas in such a way that you have to totally reconsider what literature can be.

The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff

I first read “Smorgasbord” in a collection of short stories accompanied by interviews with their authors. I was blown away by the tightness of the prose and force of the ending. Then I read “Powder” and “Bullet in the Brain,” which combined aren't enough half the length of “Smorgasbord,” in another collection and was knocked back even harder. I read this collection before coming but couldn't bear to leave it behind.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

I picked this up a few months after Wallace's suicide and the accompanying accolades and read it shortly thereafter. Not quite as singular in my adulation of his work as Wolff, but there is some good stuff in here that bears further thought and time, both, fortunately, available in spades here in Nakuru. The man's style is something else entirely, but the important question is whether it is the surface for something important or just a clever mask.

Über Deutschland by Heinrich Heine

I had to take something to keep my German up. I would have preferred a collection of Schiller or Heine's poetry, but this is what Auntie's had.

Four Quartets and The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

A dedicated year probably wouldn't be enough for The Waste Land, but this will have to suffice.

Then Demetra brought along Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, David James Duncan's The Brothers K, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams. I think I'll be alright until next summer.

Monday, August 10

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: One month anniversary

Today marks the one month anniversary of my arrival in Nakuru. Even though we left from the States on July 8, the plane didn't land in Nairobi until the 9, and by the time we picked up our luggage and got out of the airport, it was too late to catch a bus or matatu into Nakuru. Thus, my lighthouse of explanation to penetrate the coastal fog of confusion which may have set upon any who knew our itinerary intimately.

For the rest, this anniversary provides a nice opportunity to pause and look back on those things I miss most and least back in America.

Chairs with backs Without a doubt, before anything else, these would be the first things I would import into Kenya. I have only found chairs with adequate backs in two places in Nakuru: the pews in the Catholic church and the easy chairs in the office of the center's lawyer. Everywhere else the backs are either broken or non-existent. My lower back will never take them for granted again.

Movie theaters Yes, the bootleg DVD market in Nakuru is flourishing. The turnaround from premiere in the United States to the main streets of Nakuru on a $3 disc with at least two other movies is under three weeks for most, but I do miss the full immersion offered by a proper theater with surround sound and the works. Something about a much smaller screen sapped of all color that occasionally goes out of focus just doesn't do it for me.

Wireless Internet from home Not so much in and of itself as that I have learned to absolutely abhor Internet cafés. They're slow, you can't take a quick break to relax your eyes because there's a line ten-people deep to take your spot and five different viruses minimum load onto your flash drive every time you plug it into the USB port. I read an article in the Kenyan national newspaper about café owners being concerned about losing business since high-speed cables were finally being laid and made available to home users. I just couldn't find it in myself to care.

Cheese I haven't had any cheese since coming here. It won't be long before I begin to crave something that comes vacuum sealed in plastic. Not yet singles, but those can't be far behind.

Western-style toilets I get ridiculously excited about these now. I keep a running list in my mind of all those I've found in town because they beat, hands down, squatting over a hole in the concrete every day. Especially when your flexibility is limited and you have to hold on to a crossbar on the door to balance.

Television There are only two or three shows that I try to keep up with and, even then, mostly when the seasons come out on DVD, but the house I lived in for the two months before leaving had a nearly complete cable package. It had only two of five possible movie packages, but that was still about 600 more channels than I had ever had before. Add in high definition channels and a DVR, and I always had something to turn to for distraction when I was the least bit bored. Now I find myself, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, with more time to read and write even with a much more demanding job.

American soda I hardly ever drink the stuff in the States. It's too sweet for my tongue, but they actually seem to care about taste here. The superiority of every flavor Fanta in any country not commonly referred to by a three-letter acronym that doesn't end in Emirates is already well known, but there's more. The Coca-Cola here is a bit more orange and a bit less dark than the American incarnation. Not exactly better or worse but different and worth a try. The Stoney Tangawizi is where it's at though. Imagine a grape ginger ale followed up by a sharp sour sarsaparilla kicker. Now that's a mouth full of flavor. Don't ever try Krest Bitter Lemon, though. It's like quinine with a splash of lemon juice.

Friday, August 7

Official Photographer

On our journey into Pokot two weekends back, I was called to fill a particular role for the first time: that of official photographer. It was my duty to move about and take pictures of the tribal people as we delivered bags of cabbage and maize flour to them, as we bought and shared goats and cows and camels. These pictures would then be included in messages to all those sponsors who had made the donations possible.

Like I wrote, this was my first time in the role, and it felt odd. My favorite photographers include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans, and their most renowned pictures are candid shots of life in progress. To the best of my abilities, I have tried to imitate their approach and create something reminiscent of them. Being an official photographer seems to run counter to this. I tried to remain on the periphery but was invited in. Chiefs would move their people out of the way so that I could have a better shot of the main action. People no longer shirked from my lens. They knew I was there. They knew by my presence that this was an event, something worth recording and sharing. They wanted to be a part of it.

It was not exactly unpleasant. I am far from a forceful person and probably would have never been close enough to capture the men pouring out buckets of flour into the bags of the waiting without the aid of those in charge. I don't think this work was necessarily antithetical to that of my favorites either. Much of their best was part of a long, intense process. They embedded themselves in their communities until the people were no longer self-conscious about their cameras. The people came to accept and expect that they would take pictures. The Famine Feed and Survival programs have been going on for years. By this point, the Pokot expect photographers at them. I just benefited from all those who came before me and prepared them.

But there is an important distinction here between my work and theirs that does bother me on a personal level. Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz and Evans earned their positions within the community through long stays. They had become members of the communities in their own way. In the parlance of sociologists, they were insiders. I just showed up in Pokot in a truck one hot July afternoon. In no way could I have been confused as a member of the tribe. What concerns me still more is that the camera may have pushed me farther still into the margins. I was just the observer and recorder. They would tolerate me for this time but could not accept me.

While I must accept that there are very real limitations to how much I will ever be accepted over the course of these brief, monthly visits, I do hope for something a little deeper than photographer/photographed to emerge during the coming year.

Wednesday, August 5

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Getting around

The U.S. State Department offers potential visitors to Kenya the following warning about driving:

“Excessive speed, unpredictable local driving habits and manners, poor vehicle maintenance, bumpy, potholed and unpaved roads, and the lack of basic safety equipment on many vehicles are daily hazards on Kenyan roads. When there is a heavy traffic jam either due to rush hour or because of an accident, drivers will drive across the median strip and drive directly toward oncoming traffic. There are often fatal accidents involving long-distance, inter-city buses, or local buses called “matatus.” Matatus are known to be the greatest danger to other vehicles or pedestrians on the road. They are typically driven too fast and erratically.”

Had I bothered to read this or anything the State Department wrote regarding Kenya before making my decision about this year, I would have been a touch more wary about coming. Had I known that the matatus would be our basic form of transportation, I would have been straight up terrified. Good thing I didn't. I guess.

For what it's worth, it's all true. The driving habits are unpredictable, the vehicles are poorly maintained, the roads are in worse condition still and probably the only thing keeping there from being too much excessive speeding is the aforementioned poor vehicle maintenance. When a student protest outside the local university shut down part of the highway, our matatu driver had no problem pulling a U-turn across the median to avoid waiting for police to break them up. There must be a shortage of blinker fluid, too, as I can't recall the last time I saw a turn signal used. As a three-and-a-half week resident of the Republic of Kenya, I find no exaggeration in this piece.

But that's part of the fun. You never know what to expect. The delay in getting from Point A to Point B is no longer a necessary evil but an adventure.

Consider the matatu. It's a hollowed-out van with room only for rows of seating that would be more appropriate in a school bus. They are used for everything from long-distance inter-city travel to getting around town. There are defined routes, thankfully, but they pass through erratically. Even when you see one, it's not guaranteed that you will get a ride as they can only carry 14 passengers and fill quickly. The only schedule the drivers follow is leaving from the lot, an ocean of matatus packed as tight as possible at every conceivable angle, once they're full. There are no prescribed stops either. When you want to get on, you raise your hand. When you want to get off, you tap the conductor on the shoulder.

In spite of their omnipresence in Kenya, or possible because of it, every matatu is a world unto itself. Drivers seem free to decorate their vehicle in whatever way they see fit. I have ridden in matatus which are miniature shrines to the Sacred Heart and others devoted to Arsenal. Walking through the lot, I pass back windshields with room only for portraits of 2-Pac or Bob Marley or Christina Aguilera. Matatus at night are obvious. They're the ones with undercarriage and flashing lights all over the exterior. The seats may be covered in material better suited to curtains or in vinyl printed with a grossly pixelated flock of flamingos. Catching a ride back from a farm outside of town, the mutatu had the most terrible, most amateur music video I had ever seen on loop. Do not ever search for Rose Muhando on YouTube lest you see it yourself.

Yes, they are dangerous. I haven't seen a seatbelt yet, and conductors have no trouble throwing open the sliding door and hopping out while the matatus still in motion in order to move passengers in and out faster. Still,they're better than any of the other options. I haven't yet had the courage to hail a motorcycle or boda boda, a bicycle outfitted with a passenger seat, neither of which offer a helmet. And the matatu is a far sight faster and safer than walking. On the totem pole of priority on the streets, pedestrians come in dead last. It's their duty to jump out of the way when matatus, cars, motorcycles, tuk tuks and boda bodas come down the street, and pedestrians spend a lot of time on the streets as the sidewalks are overcrowded with vendors of newspapers and bootleg DVDs of movies released last week. Crosswalks would probably strike most Kenyans as a funny idea, too. If you want to cross the street, you take a hard turn, look right and left and go if no one is too close.

Kenya's principal source of tourism is the safari, promises of adventure on the savanna and in the wild. The tourism board may as well admit that getting to your hotel will be adventure enough for most.