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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100 Posts

It’s been 3 years since I started this blog. When I began, I had never visited Sub-Sahara Africa. I had never even worked in a real job. This is now my 100th post and so much has happened since. I want to make sure I reflect on these experiences so that I learn from them and I pass them on.

I was supposed to come to Kenya for just 6 months. Working for The Paradigm Project, I researched energy-efficient cookstoves around East Africa. After writing about infrastructure development in the Congo for my senior thesis project, I had to put my money where my mouth was and get involved. In reality though, I saw my experience as an extended working holiday, something adventurous I could do before getting on with the rest of my life. I didn’t imagine I would get committed.

This reminds me of my parents’ approach towards Japan: for the 16 years we lived there, we were always supposedly leaving in 2 years. You could use this as an excuse to remain uninvolved (they did not), but at some point, I think they woke up and realized that this far away land had become home – leaving was harder than returning “home”. It certainly was for my siblings and I, who knew no other home. Although my African experience is far from 16 years, I see how it happens. People in the States say they can’t imagine living here, but I’ve learned that life becomes normal wherever you live.

After working for another company in Kenya that sold energy-efficient household goods such as solar lights, water filters, and cookstoves, I decided it was time to return to the US. I had no idea what awaited me, but wanted to entertain any possibility. Somehow that opportunity again came in the form of Kenya, (among coaching high school tennis and becoming a Japanese-speaking tour guide) this time starting an aquaponics pilot project in Nairobi. If you’re interested, read more about our project at The Food Source. A year after leaving “forever”, here I am again. Life in Africa is a constant concoction of loving and hating the place, yet it’s also true that somehow it gets under your skin.

Besides work, there were so many personal life experiences that I will never forget. I got into a riot in downtown Nairobi, rocks and teargas from mobs and police flying in every direction as I sat helpless in traffic. One time I had a bathroom emergency and used the toilet paper-less ladies room, only to have a crowd waiting outside by the time I finished. I got conned and robbed at least once each. I took buses from Nairobi to Johannesburg, stopping to volunteer along the way and see incredible places like Victoria Falls. I was denied entry into a particular country and subsequently interrogated thoroughly every time I returned to the United States.

I’ve done a lot over this time, and although I often wanted to leave, I’m thankful I stuck it out. I am a different person as a result. Earlier I talked about being involved vs. being committed. As Martina Navratilova says, “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved: the ham is committed.” Likewise, changing a place like Kenya – even a little bit – takes sweat equity, blood and tears, a living sacrifice. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s challenging and it’s long. Sadly, I’m not sure I lived in Kenya long enough or worked hard enough to change anything significant. Just like short-term mission trips, this experience was probably more about me than the people I came to help. Although Kenya will probably never be my “home”, I now know what it takes to make a difference, wherever that may be. Here’s to always being committed to enact positive change through our lives. And another 100 blog posts…

Bridging the Gap: An Influential Professor from my days at Azusa Pacific

Bridging the Gap: An Influential Professor of mine, Matthew Browning, from my days at Azusa Pacific when I knew absolutely nothing!

Project Update

My time in Kenya has dwindled down to less than two weeks. It’s been a crazy adventure, full of tragedy, challenges and triumphs. At first, it felt like my trip would continue forever. But as the cliché goes, time flies and I’m left with many things still to accomplish. I also felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of our project, but realized that there is no other way than to take things one step at a time. As we’ve faced difficult times and challenges, I have often been reminded of Cormack McCarthy’s quote about writing. “I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide seems hardly worth doing.”

As you might know, I am here in Kenya starting an aquaponics farming business at a church/school property in urban Nairobi. Calling it Uzima Farm (Life in Swahili), we are attempting to create something green and healthy and profitable in a Nairobi slum community, introducing a new technology and employing locals in the process. Hence the overwhelming magnitude of our project.

Our greenhouse and aquaponics system has been built, despite a weeklong setback when our greenhouse manager’s wife suddenly passed away. Today, we finished putting the pond liner in our grow bed and added water. After that, we will add catfish and be ready to start growing food. We also have a soil farming section, where we have laid drip irrigation lines and mixed soil with manure. I apologize for being a bit technical – basically we are encouraged by our progress and hopeful about the possibilities.

Filling up the Grow Bed

Filling up the Grow Bed

There is, however, still much work to be done. The real proof of our concept is whether my business partner Jacquie and I can remotely help locals manage the aquaponics farm, grow healthy organic food and make money. We don’t want to be another non-profit project in Africa: we want to be a business that creates jobs, grows food and restores dignity to places where before, there was only charity. We don’t see Kenyans as helpless victims to be saved, but as intelligent, hard-working individuals to be trained and given the opportunity to prosper.

It’s funny, 3 years ago as a Senior in college I wrote about building infrastructure rather than giving food aid to increase prosperity in Africa. See my article in the Other Writings section of this blog. Through this journey, I feel that God has brought me full circle, making me put my money where my mouth is and testing to see if I am really committed to creating change. It has been much more difficult than writing a paper. I don’t know about the outcome of our project, heck I don’t even know when I will return to Africa, but I’m glad I stayed the course and saw this through. I leave you with some wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Thanks for reading and joining us on this adventure at The Food Source. To read more and receive email updates, please click on the “subscribe” button on the right side of this page.