On the eve of my 51st birthday I booked our family on a trip to Kenya, where I turned 21 in 1987. A country in which, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I learned far more than I taught.
If you want to know just how much bigger the world is than you, then go to Africa. Because even if you happen to be a hotshot American swimmer, you will return to America a humbled girlchild. It’s a lesson you will still be learning 30 years later as a middle-aged mama: We are not the center the of universe. But Kenya may very well be, considering that mankind crawled out of the Rift Valley about 4 million years ago.
We leave on March 5 — aka 67 days, 13 hours, 41 minutes and 20 seconds from now. First stop is the Maasai Mara for a safari, something I did with my father and stepmother 30 years ago. It was an unforgettable trip, featuring a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti during the Great Wildebeest Migration.
Hard to believe that in less than three months, David and Allan will experience zebra, giraffe, elephant, hippos, rhinos, cheetah, lion and leopard in the wild before we head out to another area of the country that still has my heart in a vice grip to this day: Lake Victoria, best known as the source of the Nile. But also a source of great inspiration for me.
I lived and worked at school about 30 kilometers from the Lake in a town called Maragoli, at which time was the most densely populated place on the planet. I was the only white person and little children would cry when they saw me. Was I ghost?
On weekends, I’d go down to the Sunset Hotel in Kisumu and do laps in the pool. I met a lot of fascinating people there — including a Jesuit Priest, who tried to save my soul while I tried to damn his; and, a number of Kenyan services workers, some of whom taught me to eat live termites as they sprung from the ground.
I also danced my swimmer’s legs off at the Octopus Club, even placing in the top three in a huge dance contest at the quirky venue. A quick search on Google tells me that the club is still in operation. You better believe we’ll be stopping by the venue and requesting a Prince song.
We’ll be sure to spend some time in Nairobi at the Norfolk Hotel too, where I met Grace Arap Moi — the president’s neice — and partied at her apartment with my pals. All of us dancing the night away to George Michael songs on MTV.
These stories, and many more, including a crazy week in Tanzania with a wild Turkish man — who now lives in Kenya and is my Facebook friend — appear in my upcoming memoir, “Dryland.”
I spent most of last year writing the book (which is about swimming, drinking and traveling overseas) and found myself yearning for Kenya as if the country were a long-lost friend. Our trip is a homecoming of sorts, and an unexpected gift to me from a most unlikely source.
I really never thought going back was in the cards. There’s no inexpensive or quick way to get from Burlington, Vermont to Nairobi, Kenya. Even when we lived in Abu Dhabi, we just couldn’t make it happen — choosing to explore the Middle East and North Africa over longer, more complicated trips. I pushed Kenya to the very recesses of my mind, figuring I’d never return again. But I’d spent a year there in 80s, more than a fair share for any one person.
Then a very strange thing happened in the summer of 2016. We woke up one morning to learn that the Burlington Airport was buying homes in the surrounding area, including ours, to make way for some very big and very noisy jets. It felt like bad news: our sole asset in the world might be rendered worthless, except to the FAA. Would they actually follow through on their purchase? And if so, when? If not, we’d be screwed.
We entered into a waiting game to see what would happen. In the end, we were more than fairly compensated and even though the process was very beurocratic, it didn’t take longer than a few months. By Thanksgiving, we were able to purchase a wonderful new home AND……by the eve of my 51st year, last night, we also realized that we were able to afford three plane tickets to NBO.
After 8 hours (no exaggeration) of searching for the best airfare and shortest possible layovers, I hit the purchase button at 8 p.m. last night. We’re headed to the center of the universe to celebrate the ever-changing tides of life, which by then will include two years of sobriety for me.
I woke up this morning, on my birthday, with a feeling of being reborn. Through a crazy twist of fate, I get to experience Kenya — as well as my own existence — twice in one lifetime.
I went back to Kenya in 1989 for a few weeks after a longish stint in Korea — a time that is difficult to remember for all sorts of reasons. In fact, I was in Mombasa when I learned (via letter) of the full circumstances surrounding my colleague’s 1988 murder in Seoul.
That’s Kenya — the very picture of life and death. I never imagined I’d live long enough to journey to the center of the universe once again.
Happy birthday to me.