Morning Commute

When the sun peeks out over the horizon, it is with squinted eyes; sleep still dripping from the edges, much like mine. She is blue when she wakes up, a bit sad but ready to do her duty all the same. Much like me.

I leave my house each morning with childish things in my heart and a 20 shilling coin in my pocket, knowing that I must protect this treasure until steady hands ask for it.

The smell of meat is always the first greeting of my day as I pass by the butcher and on lucky days it is followed by a waft from the bakery across the street. A freshly lit cigarette followed by not so freshly thrown trash.

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A sunset view from my roommate’s window overlooking the Central Business District (CBD) of Nairobi. Follow me on Instagram: ChristenaDowsett

It is a short walk to the bus. I have learned to time my pace to that of oncoming movements. Some days they barely stop to collect me and my body is thrown up the steps as the vehicle continues to lurch forward. These are my favorite days, when I know that I slide into this life and its patterns. A seat opens up at the next stop and I replace their body with mine, pulling the precious from my pocket.

I observe, for the millionth time, the quiet conversations held by eyes and hands as money is exchanged. Coins collectively jingle, a quick reminder of services being rendered. One person signaling that they are paying for the person behind them, another one complaining that they haven’t received change yet. All without words. It’s a dance that I enjoy seeing played out before me and revel when I can seamlessly chime in.

The bus arrives at the final stop. “Mwisho, mwisho. Fasta, Fasta!” he says with a cadence that pushes you out the door from behind. A few feet away I make my first encounter of the morning. A man gently grabs my arm and fans his peacock feathers while using words to express his interest. He is soft so I leave my anger for another day and simply walk on.

I zig-zag through town. One day this way, the next, that. A woman sings “Hand-ker-chief! Hand-ker-chief.” We make eye contact most days and we both smile and greet each other with eyebrows thrown to the sky. We both know, but we have never spoken. A small man with a large head sets up his books to sell. He has never acknowledged me, which draws me to him all the more.

A homeless man with crippled legs waits for me to pass. He smiles. We shake hands. I ask how he is. He says fine. He asks how I am. I say fine. In the beginning he used to ask for money with his hands, and then his words. Now he knows and we are content to see each other and let go. He is handsome and kind. I like him.

Miles to go, I carry on. Step by step. Weaving through human traffic like a video game. I pass some of the same people every day. A Rastafarian with a shower cap covering his dreads. We notice each other but never at the same time. A dainty Muslim woman who wears the brightest outfits and always matches perfectly. I don’t think she has ever seen me.

On the next corner where I merge with the main highway, a Maasai man stands, picturesque. Sometimes preaching nonsense. Sometimes stoically in statued silence. He sees me but he does not react. He clutches a metal scepter made of pipe with a curved red tip at the end. Over the weekend I saw him on the other side of town pushing a cart. I wondered what he does all day. Where his mind goes.

I walk. Up and down hills. Across plains. Fielding stares and stolen glances. Heads turned. Eyes wide open. I feel the extra parts of me move on their own and try not to notice. Today I don’t mind. They are free to pass judgment and I claim my freedom not to receive it.

As the final climb starts, I jump over railroad tracks, careful to check first for oncoming traffic. Early on, a train passed behind me a little too close for comfort. On the other side I am welcomed with kind words by my motorcycle friends. I walk between them processional style, several on either side, and offer fist bumps and morning greetings.

They once caught me catching a ride from a motorcycle that was not one of them and responded with, “Why didn’t you call us? You know we love you and have to take care of you.”

Halfway up a steep hill, sweat finally starts to pour from my forehead and I struggle to wipe it away before it returns. Chris, the guard, opens the gate and extends an excited handshake. The other guard, whose name I have forgotten, tells me in Swahili that I am looking very healthy. We smile.

At the office I high-five the secretary, Ann, and hug my office mate, John.

Ann asks me why I am so happy today and I tell her that I don’t know.

But I do.

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Morning Commute

Bag-less Lady

It was the same weather on both ends. When I left Dallas on Mother’s day there were tornados circling us like a pack of wild dogs. At least for the morning hours… which was enough to throw the whole airport into utter chaos. I was lucky enough to get a direct flight from Dallas to Paris instead trying catch a connecting flight through Chicago as originally planned.

“If you don’t find your bag when you get to Paris, file a complaint first thing, okay? I can’t guarantee where this thing will end up.” The stewardess at the counter told me.

True to her word when I got to the baggage claim area I heard my name being called over the loud speaker. A few no-problem-at-all’s and I-thought-this-might-happen’s and some paperwork and I was out of there.

So the first two days in Paris were spent in sweatpants. Not that I care that much but they get old after awhile. And in Paris no less. Not where you want your inner redneck to shine.

“Madame Dowsett, your bag is here, we are delivering it to you in a few hours,” my new friend Lucie from CDG airport told me.

Many more than a few hours later the delivery guy shows up with a huge smile on his face. An internal frown washed over me when I realized that no, sorry, that is not my bag. He tried to convince me that it was my bag, and when that failed he proceeded to hit on me. Great.

Several more days and phone calls later when I was about to leave Angers, France (1.5 hours train ride from Paris) after visiting friends there – I get news that somehow my bag is in the town of Le Mans. A town that our train would be passing through.

And then I found out that our train did not actually stop there.

Glorious theatrical feats ran through my head as I pictured the perfect timing of someone throwing the bag from the platform while the train was moving as the whole station cheered in excitement and awe that my bag was finally back in my loving arms.

The reality was that the train slowed to an overly dramatic crawl as we passed through Le Mans and I was forced to stare longing out the window, knowing that my bag was out there, somewhere, all alone and possibly lost forever.

The next plan of action was to send the bag to Nairobi. I knew this sounded like a horrible idea, but there were no other options now. I wrote down my address and how to get to my address (ie: go to that one bank next to that one market in that one part of town and take your first right). I also resigned myself to never seeing my clothes or cherished items again.

You see the problem is not that my clothes were missing really. Or that my suitcase was gone. The problem is that when you only have one bag of clothes in the world, you realize just how specialized your life has become. I have spent the last three years whittling down my life to fit in one such bag. All the necessities for me to live anywhere in the world well are in that bag. And to recreate what’s inside that bag might also take years.

When I reached Nairobi I soberly walked through customs. No one even batted an eye at me.

“This girl has a backpack and a messenger bag. She has nothing to declare.” They thought.

But for the next two weeks I declared almost daily how much I missed my clothes and my ice pack and my belt and my sandals and my purse. Declarations galore. Much to the patience of my roommates ears.

The saga continued every two days for two weeks when the baggage claim guys in Paris would email or call and say my bag was on the next flight to Nairobi. Out to the airport I would truck, sign all the paperwork, hand search through lost luggage, only to confirm that again, it was not there. Call Paris back. Oops, sorry, your bag got kicked off the flight. At one point the bag was lost completely but found again three days later in Amsterdam.

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I started having dreams of blasting social media with me and my suitcase. “Last seen on mothers day” with this endearing picture of us together. A lost puppy, a lost suitcase.

Now we come to last night. A surprise phone call from the airport at JKIA in Nairobi saying that my bag was found. Three hours of driving to the airport. Ten minutes searching for it. And at last. We were reunited. I will not lie that I almost started crying. Peace.

The final round of comic relief found us outside the terminal when it started raining. I was waiting for my friend to circle around and pick us up when the skies opened up and drenched us.

I stared blankly at the bag, blinked and then chuckled to myself.

After three weeks of separation, it’s so sweet to wear my own jeans again.  I do not take this victory lightly.

The End.

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Bag-less Lady

From Within: Westgate

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As seen in the September 23rd edition of the Texarkana Gazette:

The last time we talked, she was giving me dating advice. She told me that hers is a love story unlike any other and that I should be patient for the right guy to fall hopelessly in love with me—not the other way around.

Salons and barbershops are second only to bars (and therapists) in solving the trickiest of life’s situations. And Selinah Kioko definitely ranks with the plethora of bartenders and therapists I’ve poured out my problems to over the years.

“We’ve known each other most of our lives,” she told me in between ripping layers of hot wax and hair from my legs. “So just be patient. Love takes time.”

Selinah works at Westgate shopping mall, some 10 minutes away from my fourth-floor apartment on the outskirts of Nairobi city center. Saturday morning, my roommate had an appointment with her and I was planning to accompany and get some work done at one of the cafés on the ground floor.

“We were supposed to be there,” I thought as I fired off a frantic text to Selinah on Saturday afternoon. “Please tell me you are okay?”

“Am okay but scared sooo much! We are now hostages!” She replied a few moments later. I told her what little I could think of—stay calm and be smart. Not that anything one says in such situations will hold weight in someone else’s mind.

“We were supposed to be there.” The phrase keeps circling, even now, to the middle of my head, where one’s heart and soul meet, where the weight of the world sits.

“The only reason we didn’t go is because my roommate has malaria and canceled the appointment? Really?” I play back the butterfly effect over and over again. All the “whys” and “why nots” tumble over each other.

Sunday afternoon, I appeared on Selinah’s doorstep, chocolate and tea in hand, and enveloped her with what peace I could muster.

“Then I heard the bang,” she recalled to me from the safety of her apartment. “It was too loud. … My head was just spinning. Then there were gun shots.”

For around five hours, she was trapped inside the salon she works at in Westgate shopping mall while a group of al-Shabab terrorists took control of the building. She escaped with others from the shop when police canvassed the second floor and escorted them to safety. Today, the death toll is 68 and still climbing.

“After some time, they started shooting again … shooting, shooting … so then people started peeping outside (the shop). … They looked and then we saw three guys. At that time, one was not dead, because he was moving his feet a little bit.”

She continued to recount to me, story after story, of colleagues who were injured, of what other people heard the attackers say.

“You can’t really be happy, because you’re seeing people dead,” She said after giving thanks for still being alive. “You’re imagining, ‘I could have been one of them. What is so special with me?’ And that’s what I kept on asking myself. … It could have been my kids asking where is my mom. It could have been my husband wondering where is my wife.”

“We were supposed to be there, you know,” I tell her, sheepishly bowing my head. “Who knew you could be thankful for malaria?”

Before meeting with Selinah, I went into town to donate blood. The streets were eerily empty, even for a Sunday morning. I was alone with my thoughts until I reached the Kencom bus stage, where a makeshift blood donation center had been set up by Kenya Red Cross. People were already lined up by the hundreds ready to give. I took my place in line. We were supposed to be there.

A media outlet called and asked me to head to Westgate and camp out the rest of the day for coverage, but I told them I can’t. Not this time. “It’s just too close to home,” I told them. “Physically and metaphorically.” With six tattoos and an equal number of piercings, one would think I don’t mind being pricked with needles. I hate it. But it’s nothing compared to the price many others have paid the last few days. It’s all I have to give. So I did.

Maybe it was just dizziness, or maybe it was one of those truly profound moments in life, but when I stood up after donating, I was shocked to see people by the thousands surrounding me. Pamoja. Together. As one.

After the post-election violence that swept Kenya like a plague in 2007-08, truly something beautiful has come from this whole situation—I watched as tribal lines not just blurred but completely disappeared.

In the same way that terrorist attacks brought America together in 2001, the same will be said of Kenya after this. I wasn’t there on Saturday, but I could have been. And with this knowledge comes the great responsibility to once again rise up and make every moment of the rest of my life count for something. My blood and prayers go out to all those personally affected by this horrible tragedy. May we all learn to live and learn to love.

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From Within: Westgate