Monday, June 13, 2016
I was seventeen. I had just moved to Berlin, Germany, from Nairobi, Kenya, right after high school on a German cultural exchange program. As I loved learning languages and especially excelled at German, I decided with the permission of my parents to live in Berlin for about a year to put my language skills to the test while experiencing the culture. This I considered the perfect gap year before I decided what I wanted to do in college.
In more ways than one, this trip was special to me as it was also my very first international trip outside of Africa. I was also traveling all alone. Even though I was going to live with a host family it was very much going to be a new experience for me. And this made it even more exciting. It was everything I loved rolled into one big adventure. Travel. Culture. Language. New places. Meeting new people. What was not to love?
True to my expectations, Berlin was everything I had dreamt it would be. Some kind of utopia. Where everything worked effortlessly. Clean. Extremely Clean. Very well planned and organized. Technology everywhere. Beautiful German machinery on the roads. Great infrastructure. A very modern public transport system with schedules that were always on time. Everything was proper. Like clock work. Very German.
For a young Kenyan/African girl, this was rather a step up from what I was used to. Less than good infrastructure. Not very beautiful, old and mostly Japanese machinery on the roads. Neither a very reliable nor comfortable public transport system. Lots of dust everywhere. I mean everywhere. And not the best planning of anything. But it was home. And it was what I knew. Until this moment. Nevertheless, I did not, would not let it show. In fact I got into the new system rather fast. Like a fish to water I took to everything. I dare say that it would have been hard to pick me out as the new comer had I not been a little more tanned than the locals.
One afternoon, on my way home from my classes, I was seated next to what I assumed was a middle aged woman in the top section of the double decker bus. She had awkwardly been staring at me the whole way probably because I was the only black person I could see in the bus. Or maybe because this particular bus line went towards one of the poshest areas in the city of Berlin. Yes. My host family did pretty well and consequently lived in one of the nicest areas of west Berlin. In the few weeks I had lived there I had not seen another black person in the area where we lived which meant that anytime I walked around alone or with my school friends who were of course white, I stood out easily. But that did not bother me much. I had expected it. After all my mother had always told me that I was quite easy on the eyes. Back to the lady in the bus, presumably when she really could not figure me out, she finally chose to say hello and introduce herself. I responded with a warm African smile and she proceeded to have a conversation. It started off as most regular chats do.
She asked me where I was from and I told her Kenya, adding that I was only a few weeks old in the country. She paused and then with a very puzzled and disbelieving look she asked me a question that I had never imagined I would have to deal with in what seemed at the time like the most sophisticated society I could imagine.
“How did you get here from Kenya? Surely there can’t be planes that actually go there, right?
I paused. And then as if I had not quite understood or heard her question I asked her to repeat it. And she did. Word for word.
I stopped. Hoping that she’d follow through with a laugh and maybe a ‘just kidding’. But she did not. And neither did she flinch. She looked straight at me waiting for my response. No. She was not kidding. Nor was she going to rephrase her question.
I wondered to myself how it was possible that she did not know how one travels from one country to another. Especially over oceans and seas. I wondered if perhaps she had no idea where Kenya was. Which on its own was a big deal to me who knew my atlas impeccably. Wasn’t that a question of mere common sense? How could one live in one of the world’s richest countries and cities, not to mention the poshest areas and still not know or figure out how I had arrived there, from my country? I concluded two things. That she was either being very condescending or very ignorant. I sincerely hoped it was the former.
So I rolled my eyes in a reflex and with obvious disgust. Just as I was beginning to swell with rage and starting to allow my facial expressions to do the talking for me, as I so often had done in situations that called for it, I remembered I was not in Kenya. Not in my dusty comfort zone. In fact I was so far from it, that I was the only person of my color let alone nationality in the bus. I pictured several outcomes that were probable as a result of my next move. And they were neither pretty nor helpful. A few even included never been able to roll my pretty eyes like that again. After all nothing was predictable around me. Not for now.
Obviously sanity prevailed and thankfully I lived to tell the story. But perhaps most critically I began building a new defense mechanism within me, that I did not realize until more than a decade later. A skill that I would very much rely on often than I had expected in the years that followed.
With a little self persuasion my facial expressions bounced right back to normal. A cheeky yet warm expression. And filled with a peace and confidence in my voice I wittily responded to her with a smile.
“I swam all the way here, ma'am.”
She looked at me expectantly waiting for me to say something more. Then she carried on with her offensive.
“Really? Did you really swim here?” She asked seemingly very sorry for me.
“No. Would you swim to Kenya?” I asked with as much tolerance as I could.
Not that I expected her to respond to my question, but when she did not, I figured out what was ailing her and I decided to let her ignorance become her bliss. She appeared to sense my indifference to the conversation and thankfully restrained herself from carrying on. So we both sat in silence until soon I was getting off the bus at my stop and wondering if perhaps I had been too quick to assume that everyone in this beautiful city of technology, was as sophisticated or as informed as I had imagined.
Suddenly I was seeing things differently. No doubt my host family had been nothing but a class act with me. But now I was aware that not everyone was open minded. That there were some that looked at me and immediately chose to think the worst of me or my situation. That they did not see me as the African girl that was visiting Berlin because she loved her German classes so much and excelled at them or the African girl that loved to travel, or the African girl that willingly chose to come and experience German culture for herself at her family’s expense, rather they looked at me and thought ‘I wonder what sort of things she had to do to get herself here’. Or ‘I wonder exactly what it took for her to get here’. They thought the worst.
This was an important lesson for me. I learned that I needed to quickly recognize when I was talking to these kind of people. That I needed to learn how to respond to them. To do it in a subtle manner so that they would realize their own ignorance. Much in the same way I had done with the lady in the bus. Hopefully if nothing else, I had given her a reason to consider the absurdity of her questions to me. Hopefully if she really did not know how an African girl would get from one country to another, now she was going to do some research on it. And if she was just being rude or condescending, then she realized that I was onto her too.
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Friday, June 10, 2016
My middle name Nyaguthii which comes from the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya translates directly to ‘traveler’. And my surname Muchendu pretty much means ‘those who like to move (or travel) often’. With these two names, how could I be anything but passionate about travel?
In my experience, names become who we are and vice versa. My parents, my family and close friends often laugh about how much I have always lived up to my name. And according to my father, so did my late grandmother whom I was named after (a Kikuyu tradition). He notes that as far back as he can recall, she never could sit still. She loved to travel. And even though she never had the same opportunities I have had to travel, as far across the world as I do, she went as far as she could around Kenya. Which was more than her peers did back in that day.
So yes. I am my names. I think in a way we all are.
Even my first name translates to my character in various translations. Please indulge me.
According to Dictionary.com, Caroline relates to Charles I and II of England. A blue blood? I might need to check my gene pool. I could be related to a royal. Jackpot! I wish.
According to sheknows.com, in Italian, Caroline means strong. Then there’s the Urban dictionary which takes it to a whole new level. Frankly I was impressed. Even strangely flattered. Considering I didn’t always like my name. But I digress. Back to the Urban dictionary.
‘Caroline is the definition of sexy’. In fact, they even use it as an adjective. ‘You’re lookin’ Caroline today!’ Really? Yes. I know what you’re thinking. Tooting my own horn. But no. I dare not. It is there in black and white. Google it. And they do not stop defining her there. No.
“She is the most gorgeous woman in the world!..amazingly awesome, funny, intelligent, caring, loving, hot, beautiful...and the most wonderful girlfriend in the world!...” Ha! Ok. I had to cut the rest out. I have a book to write.
While I can’t stop smiling with pride and joy at this obviously very flattering definition of my name, I have to agree with you out there who are thinking, whoever came up with it, must have been trying to impress a Caroline. And boy did he. On behalf of all Caroline’s I say thank you to the fellow at Urban dictionary. I choose to ride this wave. They don't come by easy. Haha. I only hope that every name on Urban Dictionary does not have the very same definition...sigh.
Way before I began traveling internationally, I enjoyed going to new places, and seeing new things, and meeting new people. Long before the class trips to various cities around Kenya and East Africa later in high school, when I was between 5 and 10, I remember dragging my younger sister Ruth to little adventures I created for us around our home. We would wait for my folks to go to work and then we’d pack some food into our little back packs and head out into what was luckily a secure wooded area that had a dam on one end and a river on the other. Basically a little bit of paradise for kids. And we’d walk. Sit for picnics. Lie by the water. Play. Dream. Chat about everything and nothing. And other kids would join us sometimes. As we grew older and my father and his friends took us fishing, we began doing it on our own with little home made fishing rods and we enjoyed it. We lived for our little excursions. We rode our bikes far out into the woods. We traveled. As far as our little creative minds and our permitted radius would let us. And we always yearned to go further. I know I did.
And there began my passion for travel and everything that comes with it. Experiencing new things, new cultures, new foods, new places, new weather, and meeting new people. These are things that make me feel alive. When I can’t travel I feel claustrophobic. Fortunately, I try to do it as often as I can. And it has very much shaped who I have become over the years. Every single experience I have had traveling, positive and negative has taught me something valuable and shaped the way I think. It is one of the things I am most grateful to my parents for giving to me. I dare say that the single most important thing a parent can give their child is the freedom to travel and get out of their comfort zone. It is the beginning of open-mindedness.
What has consistently surprised me in my years of traveling internationally though, is the attitude, the reaction, the level of ignorance and lack of knowledge that so many people outside of Africa have had towards me as a traveling African girl and woman.
The kind of questions I've had to face through out my travels have been hilarious. Shocking. Unbelievable. Unfathomable and sometimes just dumb. Questions that are no doubt a product of ignorance. Or a lack of what should be common knowledge.
Fortunately, experience and a good sense of humor have taught me how to deal with these kind of questions whenever I encounter them. And this is what I want to share in my writing. After all, I’m not going to quit traveling any time soon.
I do hope that in the least my writing will help someone become more open minded and help them think twice before posing ridiculous questions or making assumptions about new people that they meet from all over the world. No matter where we come from, the world is big, beautiful and filled with the wonders of God’s creation. If you're not big on traveling maybe you should give it a try. It'll change your life.
Tuesday, June 7, 2016
In the last few months, I've been on the DL. Yes. I've been up to lots of good. Sorry to disappoint those who thought otherwise. I've been working on a number of things in my life that totally speak to who I am at the core. To my purpose here on earth. To my dreams. To my passions. And creating this blog is only one of my latest endeavors.
When I set out to start on this journey to rediscover myself about a year or so ago, I learnt so much about myself and life. I begun using a totally new lense to view life. And this blog is going to help me share some of the things I have unearthed in this lovely and sometimes difficult but very fulfilling journey that now I recognize will continue for as long as I live.
Why? Because for some reason, when I set out to discover who I really was and why I was placed on this beautiful earth, I half expected to find the answers to my questions and then to get back to my life as I knew it. But alas. I was wrong. Like the very concept of life, it turned out to be an ongoing journey of ups and downs, hills and valleys, oceans and dry land, rain and drought, laughter and tears. Seasons. More than three seasons of being completely unaware of who I truly was. (FYI 1 season = ten years). Yes I said it. I had little or no clue. And to be very honest, many don't.
I feel like I have only begun to figure my life out. I feel like my whole life, I have been navigating through dark and murky waters with no compass at all. Especially each time I try to do things myself. Thankfully I have always been lucky enough to have God, family and a few real friends who I could always count on to come out on the other side unscathed. Or just a little scathed.
Fortunately, very fortunately, this interesting journey has helped me sieve through copious amounts of irrelevant baggage that I have clung to all my life. It's shocking how much lighter one can get in more ways than I can say, once you learn how to let go of so many things we attach too much importance to. Things that weigh you down whether you recognize it or not. In most cases, I have learnt we barely recognize just how much weighs us down to a point of adverse effects on our very prosperity. Both in terms of health and wealth.
Boy, have I learnt to let go. Have I learnt not to dwell. Have I learnt just how little I need to get by.
Be it materials or people. Yeah I said it again.
Welcome to my Blog. I will continue to share what I have unearthed so far in my journey so please oblige me and keep checking my blog out and I promise that you too will discover a thing or two about this thing we call life.
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