musafir, pirates, ship, kenya, africa, travel, distant relatives
Adventure, Africa, Nomadism

The Floating Pirate Community you always wanted to Join is Real… & it has a Name

Musafir is more than a ship. She’s an ideal—a vision and symbol of another way of life.

Those who built her and those who meet her find themselves swept up by the singularity of her story.

Musafir—or Msafr in Ki-Swahili—is Arabic for traveler. And indeed, the soul of the 70-foot (21-meter) dhow is travel. When I met her in early 2015, she lay at anchor in Kilifi Creek, on the North Coast of Kenya. Just 3.6 degrees south of the equator, Kilifi rests in equal proximity to the chaos of Mombasa to the south and the ancient port town of Lamu to the north, yet remains utterly tranquil.

During my two months in Kilifi, I visited the nearly-finished vessel often.

sailboat, dhow, musafir, distant relatives, toby israel

The approach to Musafir required a two-minute swim, or a one-minute kayak ride, through calm saltwater. At the boat’s hull, the water glowed a brilliant green as though illuminated by the vessel itself.

Louis, a 30-year-old Frenchman from Burgundy who arrived in Kenya in September 2011, rested on board, a feather in his dreadlocks and a worn pair of shorts around his narrow hips. He had been building the Musafir for three and a half years.

Work on the deck had begun only a week prior to my arrival, and a jumble of boards—some secure, others less so—sprawled before him. From several beams a collection of items hung: one hammock; woven baskets; a blue glass evil eye; a shard of mirror; solar lights; and a Kenyan flag.

The mirror reflected the bright afternoon sun as Louis spoke:

“It was the idea of freedom that called to me. The idea of doing something else. That’s why I started traveling, because I saw that this life that was suggested to me was not exciting. I think with this vehicle [Musafir] we can send a message somehow to the world. Not screaming it loud, you know, but by touching people pole pole [slowly in Ki-Swahili], showing that another way is possible. And if you follow your dream, even if you think “no, it’s impossible,” it’s possible.”

Louis, along with an Italian man named Paolo, is one of the project’s “initiators.”

kenya, sailing, dhow, kilifi, musafir, numundo, transformational travel

In theory, however, “the boat belongs to whoever is on board.”

He laughs and adds, “Me I’m just the Chai Wallah. My job on board will be to make chai and coffee. Just now, you know there are so many other jobs to do and no one else is around to do them.”

The project relies on donations, crowdfunding, and—above all—the resources of those who have devoted their lives to actualizing it. Louis, Paolo and many volunteers repeatedly poured their savings into building costs.

Historians differ on the exact origins of the dhow (a broad category encompassing many particular models). Some declare it Arab in origin, while others trace its roots as far as ancient China. A lateen sail and long, narrow hull differentiated the dhow from its Mediterranean kin. Many were constructed in Kerala, South India, known for the quality of its timber. Until Vasco da Gama’s arrival to Africa in the 15th century, wooden pegs and coconut rope—not nails—held the vessels together.

Kipini has long been a notorious hub of expert Swahili construction, and thus a natural, far-off-the-beaten-path starting point. Musafir made its maiden voyage from Kipini to Kilifi (more accessible and less isolated) in November of 2014. In four days, she traveled 75 nautical miles, carrying fifteen passengers, a goat who would not see the end of the journey, and several chickens who would.

Musafir, which, more precisely, is a jahazi (a Lamu-style dhow), is held together by copper nails rather than coconut rope. A few power tools for sanding and drilling assisted her construction, and she will eventually have an engine, too. However, Badi (the fundi, or master ship-builder), largely employed traditional techniques.

Cotton canvas sail; old wood from Kipini; axes and sweat.

musafir, boat, dhow, sailing, kenya, africa, adventure travel

Building a boat of this size by hand is an endeavor few would undertake, but those involved agree that their labor adds inimitable depth.

Louis elaborates, “Does it have soul? Does it have a special energy added to it? I think it does… Day after day of work, you start to know every piece, every nail. It makes it totally unique. You can be sure there won’t be two dhows like this in the world.”

Dhows once traversed the Indian Ocean, sailing along the Arabian and East African coasts, and following the monsoon winds all the way to India and back. They carried dates from Basra, curved daggers from Muscat, gold and ivory, carved chests, spices and mangrove poles—and ideas. The dhow enabled the exchange of languages, people and ideas as well as goods.

Likewise, Musafir will transport stories, goodwill, and possibly trade items. When the traveler and its travelers make port, “the vision is to have this exchange of culture—learning from communities and doing what we can to fill any specific needs.”

Louis, Paolo and others made an exceptional effort to integrate into their temporary homes. They learned Ki-Swahili and befriended the Kilifi men who spend vast swathes of time cleaning the nearby beach. They drank mnazi (coconut palm wine) and worked closely with local experts.

Cross-cultural understanding, they have understood, is an integral component of modern-day travel. Along the Swahili Coast—a vibrant blending of deep Islamic roots and centuries of Bantu, Arab and Indian influence—such insight requires time and complex awareness.

musafir, distant relatives, pirates, community, travel, africa, toby israel

What could inspire a group of unconnected people from around the globe to live and work together towards a common goal? It’s not the physical ship, though many involved love to be at sea. More than anything, it is the promise of freedom.
Dario, a volunteer from Sicily, explained,

“I think it appeals to people who are curious, adventurous… and who have a little craziness around, because it’s not a safe environment. I fell in love with the idea. To travel, to have access to any country. There are no roads, you know; you are just thinking where to go and you go.”

Travel represents both a means and an end. For these Musafiri, there is no “after” in sight—only oceans and journeys to discover.

Dario peeled a mango with a recycled blade and spoke over the snapping of the green tarp overhead as the wind churned and the light became hazy with the setting sun.

“Musafir is about traveling,” he says. “It’s about life. It’s about getting to know new cultures, new people. It’s about growing, because while you travel across the globe you’re able to learn many, many things that can be illuminating. It’s about helping out as well. It’s an idea that can amuse people, because if you think about building a 70-foot sailing boat in order to travel around the world, wow, it’s a bit of a crazy idea. But eventually… You’re sitting on it. The boat floats. We’re here talking about it. So it’s a project that shows that if you really want something, you can do it.”

To leave the ship, I could either climb down the rope ladder on her port side or jump into the warm waters of Kilifi Creek. The inimitable Distant Relatives Ecolodge was only a five-minute walk away. Their eclectic blend of earthy vibes and tropical hospitality served as a base for the Musafir team, as well as myself, for some time.

musafir, kenya, kilifi, distant relatives, transformational travel


When Louis and Paolo first arrived in Kipini, many of the villagers regarded them with suspicion.

Why did they live in poverty while spending large sums on Musafir’s construction? Why wouldn’t they use the finished ship to turn a profit? With their long hair and beards, the villagers concluded, the men must be undercover Mossad or CIA agents come to spy on them.

The answer to these questions, however, was and is simple:

Musafir is not a business. She is a message.

Dario concluded, “It’s important as well to come down here and understand what it means to take part in such a big project. It’s very challenging, and it’s wonderful in itself. It teaches you a lot—shows you great beauty.”

For those who dreamt her into being, Musafir is a message of freedom and unity. She is a lesson in perseverance and an example of a way of life not yet lost to the world.

When she sets sail, a traveler’s soul will go with her.

Anyone inspired by this project has several options. One can, if the fit is right, sign on as a volunteer for several months. Alternately, one may support the project financially by donating here.

Originally published on NuMundo’s Transformational Times. 

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10 Hours in Nairobi (Airport!)

Final Destination: Jinja, Uganda—the mouth of the Nile

Tuesday, 12 April, 2016—Nairobi, Kenya

The New York Times may have all the tips for how to spend your 36-hour weekend in Nairobi, but you only need 10 hours to enjoy all the delights of the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport!

It’s going to be a long day, so wear comfortable shoes. The following is only a sample itinerary—feel free to craft your own.
5:50 a.m. Early bird gets the worm and all that. Arrive at Nairobi airport from whatever your previous port of embarkment may be. Drink in the fresh morning air (but please, not the water) and stumble toward your connecting flight. 
(Note: This is best enjoyed on minimal rest, so try not to sleep too much on your red eye.)
7:15 a.m. Pole pole (slowly), friends. Delays are normal, especially with Kenya Airways. The Avanti Cafe on the ground floor has reasonably priced tea and friendly and sympathetic staff. (They’ve heard your story before; don’t bother.)
Savor your mediocre latte and partake of the only free wifi in NBO. Don’t miss the sights: Watching disgruntled tourists aimlessly milling about in growing impatience is one of the unique pleasures of the airport experience.
8:15 a.m. Board your flight and prepare for take-off. Don’t worry, your day’s not over that quickly—we’re just going for a quick aerial tour of the beautiful city of Nairobi.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the view on your 10-minute cruise above Kenya. “Technical issues” are just an official way of saying, “please don’t leave yet, Nairobi airport has so much more to offer.” 
9:35 a.m. Make good use of an hour on the ground before deplaning, and get to know your fellow adventurers. Enjoy a stale, rubbery apology croissant, courtesy of the airline, too. You’ll need your fuel; we still have 6 hours to go! You may also like to observe the unloading of your luggage, which was heading toward your final destination just minutes before.
10:50 a.m. Experience extreme disorganization first-hand. Join the pack, and wander confusedly from gate to gate, really getting to know the twists and turns of the Nairobi airport. Intimate knowledge like this is rare for the average tourist; you may even have time to peruse the least authentic curio shops in all of Kenya.
11:25 a.m. Head to Table 49 for a classic airport dining experience. As you sample your chocolate-cardboard muffin and piping hot tea, you may appreciate the opportunity to practice your Italian, French, Swahili or German language skills with some of the other diners—this is an international airport, after all.
12:10 p.m. Wave goodbye to some of your new friends as they head to the next (now fully booked) flight, then get to know some of the airline staff as they place you on the next one—5 hours later.

12:45 p.m. Why not head back to the unsurpassed Avanti Cafe for another visit? After all, no one has given you any free water, and you’re probably thirsty. Browse through Facebook, and daydream about arriving at your destination before dark.

1:25 p.m. Stroll upstairs to Table 49 for another complimentary meal. Totally edible chicken, rice and spinach, and a bottle of water to boot! Enjoy getting to know the remaining stranded passengers from the morning, and observe the effect that sleep deprivation may have on your conversational skills (hint: they improve).
2:55 p.m. Meander down those gray, expressionless airport terminal hallways one last time before you have to leave. Join the desperate crowd at gate 15, and since you’re early, why not finish up your conversations with your new friends.
3:50 p.m. Get on that plane, friends, it’s time to fly. Cross your fingers that your checked baggage makes it on with you, and settle in for a nap—you’ll need it. Safari njema (safe travels)!

In complete seriousness, as desperately long and painfully disorganized as my unplanned, extended layover in Nairobi was, I don’t think I’ve ever had as many conversations, in as many languages, with as many strangers, in one day. We were all looking out for each other, united in common misfortune and misery—which, miserable as it was, was also pretty cool.
And, it’s always better to laugh. Running on 3 hours of sleep and very disappointed to be spending my day off in an airport—instead of with friends in Uganda—I quickly found the entire situation completely absurd, and I had to laugh.
You have to laugh.
Frustration is useless, especially in airports, and a bit of humor can make a bleak day far more bearable.

So, enjoy your next visit to the Nairobi Airport, and let me know if you want any more tips—I’m probably an expert now.


Update: In Jinja, Uganda now, visiting some friends I haven’t seen since a year ago in Kenya, and enjoying some much-needed R and R. My checked luggage, if you were wondering, miraculously made it here, too!


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Africa, Culture

“Hakuna Matata”

Photo Credit: Flickr

“Hakuna Matata! It means no worries…”

I’m sure everyone can finish that sentence–especially those who, like me, grew up on The Lion King and other Disney movies.

Except, did you know “hakuna matata” actually does mean “no worries” in Ki-Swahili? Maybe I’m the odd one out, but I didn’t!

Hakuna, “there are no,” matata, “problems” (or worries, colloquially).

Incidentally, Simba, our favorite main character’s name, means “lion,” Rafiki, our favorite supporting monkey, means “friend,” and Nala means “gift.” The list actually goes on and on, fatally crushing my (totally baseless) childhood assumption that Disney had made it all up. That I can recall, no credit was given. Classic.

What I find really fascinating is the way the phrase “Hakuna Matata” has come to define tourism along the Swahili Coast in many ways.

The following are my observations and hypotheses only, and in no way represent a comprehensive study or survey of tourism in the region. With that caveat in mind, I think we have some good old-fashioned Orientalism at play here.

Very briefly put, “Orientalism” describes a process (first laid out by Edward Said in his 1978 book by the same name) by which Western, largely fictional accounts of an exotic, Eastern “Other” serve to reinforce existing cultural stereotypes. This “knowledge” is then internalized by those “Others” when they observe themselves through Western lenses and reflected back to Western observers as reality. The original sense of Orientalism was limited to academia and a particular corner of the globe; however, the concept can have far-reaching applications.

When it comes to the phrase “Hakuna Matata,” Disney’s The Lion King effectively fed generations of Americans (and others) a heavily fictionalized and distorted portrait of Swahili culture without our realizing it.

Now, in the parts of Tanzania and Kenya I have visited, it’s a catchphrase for rastas on the beach, shopkeepers, souvenirs (T-shirts, pottery, paintings, postcards, keychains, sarongs, and every form of kitsch) and tourism.

Photo Credit: The Hunt

It has managed to insinuate itself into the most mundane of daily interactions between tourists and locals: “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine.” “Everything good? Hakuna Matata?” Or: “Coconut oil? Bracelet? Sister, you want something?” “No, thank you brother, I’m okay.” “Okay. Hakuna matata.”

And even in intrusive non-interactions: “Wei (You)! Where are you going? Just walking? Very good, Hakuna Matata.” Or muttered, half-interactions: “Helloooo.” “Hi.” “Jambooo. Helooo. Hakuna Matata…”

I don’t know what role those words played pre-Lion King and multi-million dollar tourism industry, but I doubt they were quite so widespread. Now, for the tourist world and the people that cater to it, those words are everything. I’ve started thinking of this as the “Hakuna Matata Complex,” though perhaps that’s undeserved.

My point is, whatever the initial impetus (did tourists’ expectations start the trend? did an enterprising salesman realize the opportunity for profit? I don’t know.), Hakuna Matata has become more than a catchy phrase to print on souvenirs.

It’s an identity and a brand. The East African coast seems to be turning into a caricature of itself—or, at least the face it presents to tourists is:

The carefree, “no worries” attitudes of the young men who roam the beach offering boat rides, bracelets and (sometimes) romantic flings. The escapist, happy-go-lucky language covering hotel brochures and tourism websites. The one-dimensional, highly stereotypical idea of a culture that is packaged, sold and summed up in two words: Hakuna Matata.

Most interesting are the many manners in which our favorite Swahili-turned-Disney slogan is used. Sometimes there is irony, and a look that I interpret as, “I am making a lot of money off your daft willingness to believe my culture boils down to two silly words, so I’ll follow the script.” Sometimes I read eagerness and sincerity: “Welcome to the land of Hakuna Matata. Really.” And sometimes I perceive something like resentment, which, considering the veritable flood of foreigners, would be understandable.

Sometimes, when I’ve heard “Hakuna Matata” for the thirtieth time that day, I want to tear someone’s Hakuna Matata T-shirt to shreds. I don’t. I just file it away in the Hakuna Matata compartment in my brain and keep walking… at some point, I will open that box and sort out what I’ve collected there. (This is a first attempt.)

I wonder: How many tourists go home thinking, “This is East Africa”?

I don’t know.

How many of the young men on the beach present this idea of themselves with sincerity, and genuinely identify with the Hakuna Matata Africa of brochures and T-shirts?

I don’t know. If they do, though, then these old and tired cultural stereotypes have triumphed, and indeed a limiting caricature has been made reality.

Or. Or maybe the joke is on us. Maybe there is more self-awareness and agency than I can observe from my position as an outsider. Maybe it’s not tourist demand driving Hakuna Matata supply, but a cheeky, ironic or simply pragmatic internal effort to determine how and by whose terms outsiders may experience Swahili culture.

I draw no conclusions as of yet, and only offer my working theories as food for thought. If anyone has been to this region and has a different perspective to share, I would love to hear it.

One thing is certain: It’s a wonderful phrase!

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Lamu, Kiwayu and the Danger of Playing it Safe

For those of you who have been following recent events in Garissa, Kenya, and who were aware of the proximity of Lamu and Kiwayu Island (my location this past week) to the Somali border, you will be happy to know that I am back safe in Kilifi, several hundred kilometers away.
As events progressed and the news of Al Shabab’s brutal attack on Garissa University broke, sitting on a bus for eight hours while following updates on Twitter, stopping at multiple police checkpoints and traveling with a police escort could have been a nerve-wracking experience, but with the company of my three travel mates and the shaky consolation that lightening rarely strikes twice, we managed to comfortably ride out the journey.
I don’t want to write about Garissa today, though. (I’ve done that already here.) I want to share a little about the gorgeous regions in the north of Kenya devastated not just by attacks, but also by foreign travel advisories. 
At 7:30am on Friday, March 27th, three friends and I boarded a bus bound for Lamu, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the north coast of Kenya accessible only by boat.
Well, to be exact, we waited at the bus stop for three hours first, bags baking in the sun, and then boarded…
Day 1: Friday
At 3:00pm, we pull off the road and wait a couple hours more for an armed convoy to escort us and the other buses of the afternoon through the more forested area north of Garsen. The roads become increasingly rough as the buses continually race past one another for no apparent reason.
We arrive at Mokoi Port around 7:30pm and crowd into an already packed ferry. The stars grin overhead as we move towards Lamu Island, and I trail my fingers in the dark water.
After a quick meal of the best nyama choma (grilled kebabs) I have yet tasted in Kenya, I sleep heavily.
Day 2: Saturday
I rise at dawn in order to wander the alleys of Lamu before the town and the sun are fully awake. 
Winding stone pathways tinted with just the slightest bit of tension (or perhaps desperation would be more precise) speak eloquently of Lamu’s prosperous past as a key Swahili port. The sunlight glows on the waterfront, casting in shadow the men who accumulate around boats and food stalls, hoping for better business. 
We are the only tourists in sight so far. Gorgeous old houses filled with guest rooms stand empty.
At 6pm, we learn that the dhow (boat) that should have carried us on to Kiwayu Island (originally at noon, then at 7pm) will not leave until the next day. We make a split-second decision to take a speed boat instead, and are spirited away in the night to an even more remote location. We hurriedly load water, produce and other supplies for 5 days and head out into open water.
The stars are bright bright and curved around the sky like a snow globe.
Around 9pm, we arrive at Champali (a luxury camp made available to us four grateful travelers through family connections). My room is quintessential island paradise in one room-sized package: big bed, balcony overlooking the ocean, woven mats and open windows on all sides.
Day 3: Sunday
I wake again at dawn in a pool of light, the soft sounds of birds and water lapping at the shore welcoming me into the day. I move slowly, from morning yoga to a brief walk away from the camp, to cooking breakfast.
We play cards and lounge for a while, then make the fifteen-minute “trek” to the other side of the island and eight kilometers of wild, empty beach. Strewn with seaweed, backed by sand dunes and with an unobstructed view of the Indian Ocean, this beach is the definition of remote. My definition, anyways. You would never guess, to stand there, that several hundred people inhabit the island, residing largely in two villages.
The cicadas in the trees here are terrifyingly loud at times, their buzzing so pervasive it seems to be coming from inside my own head. A noise like that could drive you crazy if you were stuck in a tree with it for long enough.
Day 4: Monday
This time we bring boogey boards to the other beach, and for the first time I really understand why people find this activity fun. The waves are just big enough to carry me all the way to shore when I catch them right. I stand up dripping seaweed and sand, and feel decidedly like a six-year-old mermaid version of myself.
A walk into the village later in the afternoon reveals the hub of human activity that the exterior of the island obscures. The women are beautiful, dressed in a style that looks almost Indian to me, and the children are utterly enthralled by our appearance, trailing behind our small group as we wander a web of thatch-roofed homes and dirt paths speckled with shells—remnants of an aquatic time long past.
As the sun begins to set we start for Champali, stopping at a beach along the way to watch the color show.
Day 5: Tuesday
We all wake up before dawn to race to the top of “Conical Hill,” the tallest point on the island, in time for sunrise.
Afterwards, we visit Mike and his camp a long walk further down the beach. He, like Kenya’s tourist economy, is struggling. Since two English tourists were kidnapped in 2011, Kiwayu has hardly been a popular destination. All of Lamu region, really, has suffered.
Gorgeous island getaways stare out at a magnificent ocean view, empty and waiting to be filled again.
That afternoon, I return to the village and a local woman covers my left arm—from fingers to shoulder—with bold henna designs.
Day 6: Wednesday
I wake up slowly, recovering from the long day on Tuesday, luxuriating in the comfort of my big bed. We savor our last hours on Kiwayu, knowing that we will leave at 4am the next day.
We sit on my balcony to watch one more sunset, the day fading from yellow to orange to dark.
Day 7: Thursday
Our boat is late bringing us back to Lamu. We leave at 5:30 instead of 4:30. When we sit down at La Banda, a reasonably priced restaurant overlooking the water, for breakfast, the first news on the Garissa attacks plays on a television at the back of the room.
The bus ride back to Kilifi is as long and dusty as the first. I feel refreshed and content, though—despite the danger, despite the unrest, I feel secure…


I describe my trip in such detail not to brag, but rather to make a point.

I almost didn’t go.
When Earl backed out days before our planned departure, I considered doing the same and making the trip another time. Finally though, despite increased travel advisories, Kiwayu’s proximity to Somalia, and the general tone of fear set by foreign governments, international media and even some locals, I decided to go.
I do not believe I put myself in any serious danger, but I certainly did not “play it safe” according to the conventional wisdom of travel. As more and more tourists opt to visit Tanzania rather than Kenya (playing it safe), unemployment rates here continue to rise (48% for Kenyan youth). These are not conditions for recovery, stability or growth. There is a serious danger there.
The region of Kenya I just returned from is among the most beautiful areas I have ever visited… the whole coast of Kenya is, in fact. Following yesterday’s events, this hardly seems the moment to encourage anyone to visit, and yet, I want to remind you that there is more here than what you see on the news. That is true everywhere—everything is more than what you hear secondhand.

Everything you see is certainly true, but it is only one piece of a 1,000-piece puzzle.


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Africa, Nature, Poetry & Fiction

Before the Rains

We are at the very edge of the rainy season here in Kenya… This is what it feels like. (All photos taken yesterday at the Gede Ruins and nearby beach in Watamu.)


Before the rains come, the air grows thick—
Cough syrup thick
Wool hat thick
Toffee thick—
and clings to me like an extra layer of skin.

The heat becomes heavy—
Oppressive like chains
Lethargic like city traffic in the summertime
Slow like the honey melting of sunset—
Fattening itself on the waterless days, weeks and months.

Before the rains come, the animals appear—
One by one
Two by two—
Frogs and lizards, ants and spiders, and all manner of creatures seek shelter,
Dragging the storms behind them.

Palm fronds and mangrove branches sigh a warning in the waning breeze:
The rains will come
The skies will clear
The world will turn to water overnight.
These are the rains in which some civilizations have crumbled and others have risen, they murmur.

Before the rains come, the clouds gather to promise change—
Air thick like honey
Heat heavy like wool—

We hold our breath to hear them, hovering in wait for the gift of a new season.
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Africa, Travel Advice

Why Travel Should Be Stressful

The journey from Diani Beach (South Coast, Kenya) to Kilifi (North Coast) by public transport is long, sweaty and chaotic. (Indeed, going just about anywhere in Kenya is all of these things.)

It involves a matatu(bus) to the main road, and another to almost-Mombasa. Each is filled to capacity, quite likely blaring rap music or Kenyan pop, and located only by navigating an insistent throng of taxi drivers, hangers-on of indeterminate employment and buses bound for every direction.

A ferry packed end-to-end crosses into Mombasa proper—a sort-of island linked on most sides by bridges–and then, with luck, a coach bus may be waiting at the other side, saving an extra ride to the station. A man stands at the top of the ramp from the water shouting, “,Malindi-Kilifi-Malindi-Kilifi-Malindi-Kilifi,”without pause. In the crush of the crowd, one could hardly understand him.

And it’s not over yet. The bus will let off in Kilifi Town, a 15+ minute tuk tuk ride from the Creek, and the Distant Relatives Ecolodge.

We made this journey just over a month ago, and I have since settled into the easy tranquility of the lodge, the nearby beach and the comfortable isolation of the place. When I do go into town—relatively laid back when compared to Nairobi—I am thrown off by the sudden return to chaos, stares, noise and confusion.

Thinking back to that trip from Diani, as well as the much longer odyssey from Western Kenya, I recall the sweat trickling down my spine as I sat wedged between two ample-sized women in the back row of a matatu, the weight of my purse on my thighs an added layer of heat. I remember the stillness of the air on the coach bus waiting for traffic to clear, the noise of the speakers just above my head, the inescapable midday sun over the ferry and the coating of grime that covered my skin by the time we reached Kilifi. And that was only a few hours.

But that is, I believe, an essential part of travel.

Comfortably ensconced in the coastal paradise I currently call home, I feel a decided aversion to the unpleasant harassment and disorder of going into town. I contemplate another day of bus journeys, sweat-soaked clothing and dirt-covered hair with reluctance. I am loathe to invite back the arguments and anxiety that naturally accompany reams of buses, unfamiliar routes and missed stops.

But, if I left all that out of the equation, where would the challenge be?

Stress has always, always been an inconsequential—yet, paradoxically, fundamental—footnote to my travels. Bumbling through Italy with my family—utterly lost; wandering the streets of Istanbul with my best friend, utterly lost; scouring Kolkata for a guest house alone, utterly lost. Anxiously running to catch trains; bartering for taxis, tuk tuks, motorcycles, often walking instead in stubborn frustration; searching for addresses, waiting for rides or fruitlessly seeking a quiet corner to regroup—stress and adrenaline saturating my blood.

None of it is fun, and most of it gets pushed to the sidelines of our and rose-toned memories of voyages and adventures. But it is all travel.

That stress means I am stretching the limits of my comfort zone, crossing boundaries and pushing myself to be both stronger and more pliant. No, I don’t like it, and sometimes I allow it to get the best of me, but stress should be a (manageable, eventually forgettable) part of travel.

If travel isn’t just a little stressful at times, and all-out infuriating at others, then what is it? Because if it’s too easy, then it isn’t challenging; and if it isn’t challenging, then I’m not learning or growing as much as I could.

I’ll take sweat, stress and anxious searching over stagnation any day… When’s my next bus ride?

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Making Art

I love when people ask me, “Are you an artist?”

These days, it happens often as guests and staff at the Distant Relatives Ecolodge in Kilifi pass by my public work spaces: an outdoor pizza oven and a formerly-blank wall in the communal kitchen. Someone will stop, watch me work for a while, and then ask: “Are you an artist?”

It strikes me as a particularly odd question in this context, since I am, quite obviously, making art.

Photo Credit: Ivan Ziccardi Brogna

And I don’t know how to answer. Only in the last year have I begun to identify as “A Writer,” and that is an occupation in which I have a lot more confidence. But artist? My grades in High School Art were middling, and I haven’t taken a class since. Maybe because of that, or maybe because I could never draw with the easy accuracy of my desk-mates, I have never thought of myself as a “Good Artist.”

Yet there I am, very clearly and very boldly creating massive pieces of art. Are we what we do and make, then, or are we only our self-professed identities?

Usually I answer evasively, saying, “Well, I’m creative, and I like to make things… no, not exactly, but if you give me a blank wall and free reign I will definitely paint on it…”

Maybe I should just say yes, though.

Look what happened when I started calling myself a writer. Nothing changed—I wrote before, and I continued to write after—but I began to identify more deeply with my work, and take more pride in it, too. My words are not merely something I produce; they are a part of me. I am a writer.

That is a powerful shift.

If I am what I create, and I find myself making art, then what stops me from calling myself an artist? High School? If I followed that logic, there are many things I would not be today.

So. Here I am, making art. I am an artist. The plums and ochres and teals and terracottas I mix are a part of me—as I am a part of them. The broken glass I piece together, too—bottle green and cobalt seeping into my thoughts. I stand for hours a day with my face inches from a bursting array of hues. I spend longer meditating on color than I do meditating on my mat, and with fuller concentration to boot! I am utterly absorbed in this work.

I am creating something that will remain here long after I have moved on. That feeling is immensely satisfying.

So. Here I am, a writer and an artist—and a dancer, too—inking my inner world on paper and canvas, by pen and brush and keyboard and broken glass.


Now that is a story for another day…

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Kilifi in Words

[“Kilifi in Pictures” coming soon!]

I have been in Kilifi, Kenya now for over 3 weeks. I think some (word) snapshots are overdue…

Kilifi lies 3.6 degrees south of the equator on the north coast of Kenya. Despite what the U.S. and other governments would have you think, most of the coast here is very safe and very calm—even though it is majority Muslim (Sarcasm. Please catch the sarcasm.)—statistically much safer than Nairobi.

Sunrise and sunset both occur sometime around seven o’clock. I only seem to hear the call to prayer at four in the afternoon, though I know it happens five times a day. Most mornings at seven an outraged cacophony of clucking erupts from one of the bird pens; the dogs, too, rise to a frenzy at the taunting of crows.

The roots of mangroves along Kilifi Creek are as so many riddles, twisted mysteries temporarily revealed at low tide. The crabs seem at home there in their world of slick sideways and salt-cured dark.

The water is brine-y and calm. Everything about Kilifi, in fact, seems quieter than Diani. The dogs more mellow; the beach less windy; the locals who spend time there less aggressive. The Distant Relatives Ecolodge is a lush experiment in permaculture and sustainability. Sawdust composting toilets and resident chickens immediately show that this is not your typical backpackers.

The fingers of my right hand sport small gashes from my daily work on a recycled glass mosaic on the outdoor pizza oven. Tired of smashing glass and working with cement, I will switch to painting an indoor mural tomorrow.

Pineapple juice drips down my arms as I lounge on Musafir’s (a traditional Arabic/Swahili ship) unfinished deck. A volunteer sings in Italian as he empties buckets of water overboard—a twice-weekly task, as cotton fills the gaps between boards. We are far enough from shore that no flies would dream of making the journey out. The tide rises, approaching the roots of the first mangrove trees on shore.

I come to the beach often to write, resting in the welcoming arms of one of the trees. Kilifi inspires peace and creativity, movement and poetry… that, I believe, is plenty.

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Africa, Culture

Embracing Syncretism

When I first encountered the concept of cultural immersion, it sounded something like this:

To understand—to truly understand—another place and people, you must eat, sleep, dress, breathe and speak like the locals.

The Anthropological principle of “participant observation” essentially takes the same tact.
And it’s simple, right? Not easy, but simple:

When in Nepal, eat dal bhat, sleep on wooden pallets topped by thin thin cushions, wear salwar kameez, learn Nepali—or, in my case, attempt to learn Tibetan—take the bus and wear a mask against air pollution. When in Italy, eat pasta with bread to fare la scarpetta, speak Italian, ride scooters and dress… however it is Italian women dress. When in Kenya… need I go on?

Except, no. It’s not that simple.
First of all, unless you’re a linguistic genius, you can’t possibly learn all of the languages, and if you want to travel to many places, your communication skills will suffer in the balance. More than two months in Kenya, and I have yet to muster the energy to tackle Ki-Swahili. (I will though… I will.)
And then, what is “Italian” in the patchwork of dialects that is Italy? In Nepal, a country of at least fifteen distinct ethnic/cultural/linguistic groups, what language should you learn?
What is “traditional dress” when every other “modern Indian woman” opts for blue jeans?
What is local food? Sure, staff meal might be rice and beans, but those who can afford it sup on steak frites or pasta marinara. Valid or non-valid dimension of a “local” experience?
The answer, of course, is valid. It’s all valid. Local ≠ traditional ≠ authentic. We attach far too many judgments of value, ignorant assumptions and foreign stereotypes to these words (as I have, doubtless, asserted many, many times already…).
Local, at this moment in Kilifi, Kenya, means teaching yoga and tango at a four-day milonga event. The absolute last thing I expected to find here, and I could not be more pleased.
At this moment, local means dancing five hours a day and creating lesson plans with my new Italian dance partner, so that we can teach foreigners and Kenyans alike about connecting to their bodies and one another through Tango.
Local means ordering grilled cheese and butternut squash soup for lunch because it’s f*cking delicious and I have no desire to eat rice and stew every day.

I no longer wish to limit my experience to what is appropriately immersive. Not, I hope, at the expense of learning (I really need to get it together and study Ki-Swahili), but in the interest of embracing reality in all its syncretic, contradictory beauty.
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The Dhow

[The following is an adaptation of a piece I recently published at elephant journal, “Facing Fear in Handstand.” Or maybe the piece in elephant is an adaptation of this, as this is a near exact excerpt from my travel journal. Either way, enjoy!]


I swim to the Dhow—a traditional Arab/East African (/originally Chinese?!) sailing vessel—anchored in Kilifi Creek. I alternate between front and back crawl, and though it only takes a couple minutes, it feels much longer, as is always the case with swimming.

The Dhow (named musafir, Arabic for traveller) is unfinished. Three years in the making, the boat has a bit of work remaining. The deck boards wobble and gape in places.

The ship’s builder, a Frenchman with a feather in his dreads, is leaving when I arrive. I hoist myself up the rope ladder that dangles into the water, then he lets himself down into a waiting dingy.

Alone now, save for a snoozing workman at the bow, I make my way to a single plank of wood jutting out at the back of the boat and sit down. The four o’clock sun is still hot on my skin; it dries the seawater on my arms, leaving a salty film.

I think about jumping into the water, but delay a while yet. I watch, fascinated, the journey of a single fish. He looks like a seahorse stretched out flat: long, pointy snout, eyes on the side of his equestrian head, mint green and brown body, undersized blue tail fin. He plies the water two meters below my feet.

A dog barks from shore and reminds me I have something to do.

I probably stand on that wooden plank a full five minutes thinking. Thinking how I could just climb back down the rope ladder, but I won’t. Because I have something to prove. Not to anyone else—the small beach is deserted—but to myself. Thinking how I feel the need to jump off boats and bridges precisely because it scares me so.

Some people will always turn back to the rope ladder, but I am no longer one of them, I think. I have decided to be “fearless.” A better word, however, might be “fear-defying.” I refuse to abide by my fears.

I am thinking how fearlessness, or courage, rather, is not the absence of fear. It is doing things anyway. I hope I always will.

And I jump, of course. The water is warm-cool after the heat of the sun, and it rearranges itself effortlessly around my body.

And of course, the jump is a non-event. Nothing of note has happened, and yet I am pleased enough to write all about it. I swim back to shore with a smile on my face. It’s the little things, after all…

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