The Merits of Being a Tourist

I usually hate the idea of being a tourist. The standard I try to avoid is the stereotypical Asian tourist: whirlwind travel of as many places as they can cram into an itinerary, awkward bulges created by fanny packs in bad places, cameras slung around their necks incessantly snapping every angle while forgetting to really take anything in. You’ve seen them. Ironically, I now herd these people around, although I try to have a positive influence by helping them see much more than big mountains or famous sites. Travel should change you. Helping people be affected by the places they experience is my mission as a tour guide.

That’s why my last day in Kenya was a strange experience. Over the last two months, I felt I had become a local, even on “the other side of town” where I lived and worked on our project. Although I rarely saw another white person and am under no illusion that I would ever fit in, I knew the routines and was comfortable enough following them. I had an informed opinion on Kenyan politics. I could speak enough Swahili to differentiate myself from the common muzungu. I knew the matatu routes. Besides the color of my skin, I was on my way to becoming a local.

Then a big group of muzungus came from the US and disrupted my world. We overlapped for only one day before I left Kenya, but in that day I experienced many things I hadn’t since I first arrived, almost 3 years ago. All of the sudden, I was no different from any of them, a tourist. During our overlapping day, each class at the school where I worked recited a poem or sang a song in honor of the visitors in a huge gathering. Afterwards, we stood in a line and hi-fived kids for a good 30 minutes before dishing up rice and beans for lunch. Later, we visited an orphanage where kids sang more songs and performed dances. In letting life become normal in Kenya, I had not made time for simple things like hanging out with these kids. It took the mission trip mentality to get me to do that.

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

Presenting Poems and Songs to the Muzungus

The wonder and curiosity of being a tourist is something I want to capture and incorporate into my every day life. Why is it that wherever we live, we often stop experiencing new things? Life becomes routine and monotonous, when every place has so many things to keep us growing and learning for a lifetime.

That’s why when I had a 20-hour layover in Montreal, I decided to go experience something. After watching The Netherlands’ 5-1 spanking of Spain, all I really wanted to do was sleep but I rallied, walking somewhere – anywhere. I started out from my hotel until a bus pulled up next to me. Naturally, I entered, having no idea where it was going. Not knowing how to pay for the ticket either, the bus driver and I stared at each other for a good 5 seconds before I just sat down without saying anything. When the bus reached its final destination, I asked the driver how I should pay and he responded by giving me a free ticket – just for being a visitor. Since the bus ended at a metro station, I obviously had to see where it would take me. I picked a station that sounded nice (everything was in French) and got off, walking around for a while before eating fried rice at a cheap Chinese restaurant. As I looked out the window of the restaurant, I listened to Montrealers talk about playing bridge with their friends and different tax laws in Canada and the US.

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

Discovering a Secret Garden in Montreal

I did make it back to the hotel, and although I was tired I’m glad I became a tourist in Montreal. It won’t be a major event in my life: it’s the attitude that’s important. Wherever we go and whatever we do, sometimes it’s important to be a tourist. You might feel out of place and it requires some effort, but it’s usually worth it.

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Matatu Fight

Matatus (minibuses) are an essential part of Kenyan culture, albeit a constant source of personal consternation and bewilderment. Some of my most “Nairobi” experiences have taken place while riding matatus, like last year when I saw a matatu conductor fighting a dude on roller blades, the guy skating away while avoiding buses and cars flying towards him on one of the busiest roads in the city. Check out the story at “Stories from Africa”.

Last week I got into a fight of my own. Going home from downtown Nairobi, the matatu fare is always 80 Kenyan Shillings (I know this because I’ve ridden that road in traffic far too many times). I get into the vehicle without asking the price, and when payment time comes, the conductor (assistant who collects the money) says it’s 150 shillings. Now 150 shillings is not a lot of money, less than $2, but it’s the principle of the matter. Arguing over principles will always get you into trouble in Africa.

Thinking this guy was charging me the muzungu (foreigner) price, I asked why the fare had doubled since the day before. Glaring at me with bloodshot evil eyes (I think he was drunk), the conductor philosophically stated that “things change,” turning back dramatically. Not satisfied, I retaliated by asking the other passengers for the real price. Apparently he had charged them the same high price, and although I could no longer pull the racist card, I suddenly became either the voice of discontent or the laughing stock (I’m not sure which) of the entire vehicle.

Now hearing complaints from other passengers as a result of my rebellion, the conductor stared me down again and came up with an even deeper truism to shut me up.

“I just want to tell you one thing white man. Mind your P’s and Q’s.”

Of all the foul language I expected to hear, I was taken by surprise by this proper British scolding and I actually burst out laughing. This made the situation worse and we descended into shouting about something or other, I honestly can’t remember. I know at one point he told me I should have paid him in dollars. This continued for a while, other passengers chiming in on both sides and telling me to calm down. Preferring to walk rather than continue this awkward trip, I jumped out of the bus as quickly as I could and tried to disappear.

Being almost the only white person on my side of town, this obviously never happens. After a few hundred meters, the matatu caught up with me and the conductor sarcastically asked if I wanted to get back in. Holding my head down, I ignored the taunting as the matatu sped past, leaving only a trail of dust and diesel fumes in its wake.

Now I can’t say I’m particularly proud of my actions. I became the ugly American by complaining about a few cents in front of people who have far less than I do. Strangely enough though, I felt extremely relieved after the incident. My drunk matatu conductor ended up helping me relieve some stress and acted as my verbal punching bag. And fighting with a complete stranger means you don’t have to deal with any of the consequences! I’m not saying what I did was right, but for better or for worse I did feel better…

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Walking the Gauntlet

Most days I walk back and forth from the church property where we’re building our greenhouse. The sights and smells are powerful and memorable, if not always pleasant.

First I walk past the woman frying whole tilapia on the side of the road. I want to try one sometime but I’m calculating the risk of food poisoning… Then there is the Nairobi River, its’ black stench rising up to the road as I hold my breath and walk across the bridge. I think about how much money you would have to pay me just to stick my pinky toe in that river. As I ponder this, a bus roars past, billowing black smoke at me as I again try to hold my breath.

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Then I jump on the side road where the church is located. It rained yesterday so I must tiptoe around mud holes in the middle of the road filled with banana peels, sugar cane stalks, plastic bags, and a plethora of other garbage. A herd of cows nibbles at the garbage as they take up the entire road – makes me want to become a vegetarian. Now I’m dodging cow horns, carts, people, bicycles, buses and mud (at least I hope it’s mud).

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Most noticeable are the people… noticing me. I try to count how many times I hear the word muzungu. 5, 6, 7, I lose track after that. I also hear shouts of “Hey John” (apparently all white men are named John), “How are you?” and even one “buy me lunch”! I pretend not to hear any of it and continue walking, smiling and waving at children who say hello. I am conspicuously conscious of the color of my skin; I haven’t seen another white person in this part of town since I arrived two weeks ago.

And as I soak everything in, I am reminded that there are two distinct Nairobis. I’m more comfortable in the other one where there are shopping malls and movie theatres, where people have gardens in their back yards and maids to cook them dinner. That Kenya is comfortable and nice and clean and I know it well.

This Kenya is difficult. It’s dirty. Traffic is even worse. I can’t breathe. But I think about the fact that these people go through the same thing I do every day and don’t have the option of leaving. I suppose I didn’t come for those nice things. I’m glad I’m here, doing what I’m doing. It’s difficult, abnormal, possibly crazy and sometimes I don’t have a good attitude about it, but I’m thankful that God has given me experiences like this to stretch my world.

To find out more about what I’m doing, see The Food Source and follow my blog or subscribe by to receive e-mail updates!Image.