The White Rabbit of Lamu and Time Marches On

I originally wrote this as a meandering Facebook post a year ago. When it came up in my Facebook memories, I wanted to save it and elaborate. Because there are always these little moments in your life that you keep returning to, little nuggets of time that are nothing more than freeze-dried moments that, if you blink, you miss. And yet, for some reason they stay with you forever and keep drifting back in the most unlikely of moments.

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Whispers Cafe, Lamu, Kenya

I was just falling asleep when I thought again of the white rabbit.

Not the one from the song or the one who was friends with Alice. I thought of my white rabbit, the one who appeared from nowhere to join us at a reading by Catherine Bush on Lamu Island off the coast of Kenya.

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The White Rabbit of Lamu

There’s a tiny bistro on the island of Lamu called Whispers. Its name is as silent as its seeming unassumingness. I say seeming because until you dig a little deeper and discover it’s a series of tiny buildings and outbuildings and breezeways and gardens, you really do think it’s just a tiny bistro.

Some of the hidden treasure of Whispers – Beyond the Cafe

When you walk through the labyrinthine part of the cafe for the first time, after spending several days in the un-secreted tiny dining space, you can’t believe your eyes. Fountains and porticoes and statuary and gardens and alcoves…yes, the alcoves. And then, after the last archway, the prettiest of gardens. And when you all gather there to hear the words of a great writer, and you sit in the grass, and on the steps, and in the chairs, and on the blankets, the world outside of Whispers dissipates and there are only words and listening. And then, out of the ethereal moment in which you find yourself, enters the white rabbit.

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Catherine Bush, Canadian Writer and Summer Literary Seminars Writing Instructor – Kenya, 2009

And you know now, after nine years and more, that the poor white thing has long since passed. But that white rabbit will never die, because in the silence of the words and the listening, in your memory, it’ll scurry in… and perhaps you alone will notice the moment it stops chomping away at the grass and flowers because it hears a voice. Only you will remember the way it looked up at the reader in awe and listened. Only you will hear the Whispers it sends back up to the reader who has so enthralled it and made it pause from its nightly moonlight meal. Memory has a way of always bringing back that white rabbit. I so look forward to those future moments of silence into which it slithers…a gift, an oasis, an elegy of itself, whispering, “REMEMBER ME, REMEMBER ME, I’M THE WHITE RABBIT. I EXISTED. I LIVED. I LOVED!”

It’s been almost nine years since Kenya. Hard to believe it was so long ago. I look forward to a future with many visits from that white rabbit. His visitation gifts bring me back to the smells and the colors and vibes and textures and light of that beautiful island. Madonna was wrong. Time doesn’t go by so slowly. It marches on like a freight train. Hold on to your white rabbits…

“And if you go chasing rabbits…”

 

Kenya, Six Years On…Life Itself Is a Moveable Feast!

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast” in his Paris memoir A MOVEABLE FEAST.

moveable feast

He was right. By God, was he right. But he also touched on something with that now famous quote…something in my soul. A truth. He was right in saying PARIS was a moveable feast. It is a rich city of love and light. It has come to represent the beauty of life itself. That’s why those cowardly inhuman bastards who like to think of themselves as a STATE (which is so completely laughable) took aim on our (the world’s) city. Those creatures are the least of the least…pathetic losers. Call them DAESH…because they hate the derogatory term. Don’t call them ISIL or ISIS. That’s what they want. They are DIRT. They are less than dirt. They are heathens and unholy dirtbags who are attempting to hijack a religion and destroy the world and the love within the world. Call them Daesh or call them nothing. I should not compare them to anything…because whatever I could possibly compare them to is BETTER than them. The puckered asshole on the back-end of NOTHING is better than these cowardly nothing pieces of shit (Oops…shit is miles above these creatures). What they don’t know is that the whole world is laughing at their sad pathetic asses and their attempts to destroy the love and joy and peace they can’t begin to understand. They are uncouth imbeciles, from the leader to the smallest of them. Religion?! Ha. Mayhem, destruction, apocalypse whores with Daddy issues. Losers.

OOPS! Me and my tangents. That’s not even where I was going. I didn’t mean to write that. I guess there’s no denying the fact that I have so much disgust for these creatures…as I love life and they abhor it. I think I’m just gonna leave that here. NOW…where was I?

Hemingway said that Paris was a moveable feast…but the more countries I’m fortunate enough to explore, the more I realize that the world in its entirety is a moveable feast. There is beauty in every corner. There are beautiful people in every corner.

It was six years ago today that I boarded a plane and took off for Kenya. I fell instantly in love with the country. It’s hard to believe it was six years ago. Hard to believe in a SIX WHOLE YEARS sort of way AND a ONLY SIX YEARS sort of way. I may have discovered a host of things in Kenya, but I think one of the most important things I stumbled upon while I was there was myself.

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Masai Market – Lamu Island (December, 2009)

From Nairobi to Lamu…from Ngong Hills to Masai Mara…the country took my breath away. Its beauty and its people.

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Captured while sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Lamu Island.

I went there with Summer Literary Seminars and I studied writing while simultaneously discovering the country.

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I was fortunate enough to take a safari in Masai Mara, while staying at Keekorok Lodge.

I met amazing people, saw incredible things. I even kissed a giraffe.

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Seeing Kenya made clear Hemingway’s words well before I stepped foot on the sacred soil of his beloved Paris. Everywhere we go, if we look, we will find a lovely and breathtaking moveable feast. The more we love, the more we take back the world from those who seek only to destroy it. For evil lurks in dark places…but love…love can be found everywhere. Love itself is a moveable feast…

When is a Poet Not a Poet?

No. It’s not a riddle. I’m not very good at riddles.

I have just been doing a lot of wondering lately on my status as a poet. It’s been a while since I’ve felt like one. Can you keep calling yourself a poet when you have abandoned poetry? I used to write it every day. I feel now as though I have forgotten how to write it. I think the last poem I had published is this one: WHEN VENUS TAKES A RIDE and I wrote it in December, 2009. That’s a long dry spell.

When is a poet knot a poet?

Okay, that’s knot funny.

I’ve been thinking about getting back into the habit of writing a poem every morning before I start prose writing. It really does seem to free something inside the creative mind. I used to write a poem before tackling ANY writing project. I called it WORD CALISTHENICS. It really did loosen the old word muscles too. But I let it slide. It takes 21 days to form a habit…but a lot less to break it.

So, I am publicly setting a challenge for myself. Write one poem every day. I’m not going to hold myself to any length, style, theme, etc. Just one poem a day. That should be easy enough…right?

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a blog post I created over a year ago now to keep track of my published poetry. Now that’s strange…I used to have publications coming out all the time. Not that I submitted everything I wrote. When you write poetry every day, though, the poems tend to pile up. I cannot remember the last time I submitted a poem somewhere. Now that’s sad.

PREVIOUS BLOG POST WITH PUBLISHED POETRY LINKS

Does a poet ever become Not Poet? Again, not a riddle. I think the answer is no. I think a poet sees the world as a collection of words. Whether or not he/she is writing…I guess that just depends on the way the words fall on any given day. This year has been a year of changes for me. I think my world of words has been in a bit of a windstorm. But I feel the storm is settling. Time to pluck those words from the whirlwind of chaos and start putting them into some sort of semblance of order.

From the website of the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada:

When Venus Takes a Ride
~For the Poet, Venus Thrash, who took a ride~

When the donkeys moan
and screech at night
I think of Venus shining bright,
her smile a child
cast in this strange exotic place.
Her eyes, like her namesake,
glowing in the dark canvas
of a rural midnight sky,
flush with constellations taking flight.

When the brays reach my sleepless sleep,
wake me from my Shangri-La dreams
of Lamu’s narrow streets,
it is Venus that I see,
sitting proud,
riding through the welcome arch,
swaying to the public square
and Lamu Fort.

When Venus takes a ride
we follow,
a parade of weary travelers,
wondering if this poet
donkey-slung
is in a way our Mecca bright,
our Venus star in a midday sky.

When delivered to the square,
she dismounts her burdened beast
and mouths her tiny Venus prayers
as sleek and quiet
we slip inside the marketplace
and disappear into magic Lamu night.

Masai Dance at the Masai Market – Lamu, Kenya – Dec. 24, 2009

Masai Dance at the Masai Market – Lamu, Kenya – Dec. 24, 2009.

Today, I just wanted to share an old post from my Kenya blog. Every time I think of the Maasai of Kenya it makes my heart hurt a bit. Seeing them dance was a euphoric experience that will stay with me forever. I WILL GO BACK TO KENYA!

No ranting today. No talk of writing. Just the sweet sound of Maasais dancing to the beat of their own music…under the beautiful African sun on the most gorgeous island on the planet.

Back to Africa – When Reality Becomes Fiction

I’ve been working on a new project lately. I say new, but what I mean is old. With a new twist. In 2007 I wrote a short novel called Sebastian’s Poet. I have to be honest, I’m dead critical of all my writing. I don’t usually see good in my words. And when I do, I immediately begin to feel guilty about it. And then Sebastian’s Poet happened.

I wrote SP during my first Muskoka Novel Marathon. I did the 48 hour session that year, and it totally emotionally exhausted me. I LIVED that story as I wrote it. It was pure catharsis. As I wrote down the entire last chapter, I was holding back tears…and occasionally wiping them. That chapter was very lively with celebration. My main character, Sebastian (Sebby) was just home from France with his new caregiver, Teal. Teal was taking to the stage with Gordon Lightfoot and the crowd was going crazy. That chapter was the sweet sigh after my denouement. It made me feel higher than a kite in autumn.

I can’t tell you how many times I went back to SP to try to expand upon it. It was only 42K words when done. I loved it, but I tried extremely hard to find a good home for it. To no avail. Having had other successes that I didn’t believe in as much as I believe in SP, I never really understood how this one kept getting rejected.

Nairobi SkylineThe Beautiful Staircase at the Nairobi National Museum

Well, then I went toAfrica. Kenya, to be exact. The second I touched down inNairobi, a kernel of an idea came to me. I thought, “Teal is here.” And that feeling never truly left me. As a writer, you have to listen to those urges and feelings that speak to you. Well, I do, anyway. I can’t ignore the voices in my head. And the loudest one was telling me Teal came to Africa…to die.

Rift Valley – KenyaGetting a Giraffe Kiss in Kenya!
Safari vehicles chasing the elusive cheetah!
A Lion in the Mara – Masai Mara, Kenya

Teal Landen was my main character’s idol and, eventually, caregiver. The story was set in the Beaches district of Toronto in the 70s-80s. But my mind kept telling me there was something missing. Then it hit me, the story begins inAfrica…in 2009. Teal is escaping the limelight to deal with cancer…and the uncertain future before him. But not only does he escape the limelight, he hides away from Sebby and his brother Renee. And that’s where I get to find out what kind of adults Sebby and Renee eventually became. I have them tracking Teal to a tiny little island off the coast ofKenya. Lamu…the place I fell so in love with, I had its coordinates tattooed on my back. (-:

Taking a dhow ride in the waters off of Lamu Island.
Manda Duty Free – Manda Airport, Kenya
The beautiful baobab tree!The Mangrove Super-Highway on the way to Takwa Ruins

Writers have to pay attention. When they travel, they need to listen to the places that speak to them. I’ve been to other places, but none have screamed that they wanted to become a part of my fictional world likeKenyahas. So, I went back toAfrica…in my imagination. I placed three of my all-time favourite characters of my own fiction into the beautiful setting I fell in love with. Teal disappeared off the face of the earth and my boys set out to bring him home.

A Dhow Sail – Lamu, Kenya

Use what you have. And when you’re finished with it, use it again. There is a whole universe in our memories. The places we’ve been, the people we’ve met, the events we’ve witnessed. Everything is up for grabs. Nothing is sacred. I knew, as soon as my feet touched the tarmac in Nairobi, I would return to Kenya. I knew it would become a setting for my future fiction, and I knew I would one day return in person. It’s in my heart. And now, it holds a place in Sebby’s heart too. And I have Teal to thank for that. He spoke to me in that deep burned out folksinger’s voice of his. As I was staring in wild wonder at my new surroundings, jet-lagged and nervous, I heard him say, “I’ve come back to Africa!” And being his creator, I had to make it so. I had to listen until he told me what happened to him in that land. And when I listened, it just all fell into place. Sebastian’s Poet wasn’t finished yet.

The End.

Lamu Town

(Originally appeared as PART THREE in a THREE PART SERIES in the WORDWEAVER.)

As our plane landed at the Manda Island airstrip, I was crazy with anticipation. Out the window, I had glimpses of the Indian Ocean and the tiny Arabic/Swahili island of Lamu!

Our first dhow (a traditional Arab sailing vessel) ride took us to Lamu Island. I didn’t know then that I would spend much of the upcoming week aboard these beautiful boats. We climbed from the dhow onto cement stairs that ascended right up out of the water. Lamu Town!

We arrived on a very special day: Islamic New Year, 1430—a day of festivities: donkey races, dhow races, dancing in the streets and vibrant reverent prayer. I was enamoured with everything I saw. Fellow traveller Venus Thrash was
offered a donkey ride upon our arrival. We followed her through the narrow streets of Lamu Town as she was escorted, like visiting royalty, to Lamu Fort and the town square. We were swept up and fully embraced in their celebration!

I woke the next morning at 4 a.m. to the gorgeous sound of Muslim prayer. It was so beautiful, I didn’t care about the early hour. I had too much to take in to waste time sleeping. The weekend was free time and only half of our group had arrived in Lamu. Eight of us had arranged for a special day trip with one of the dhow captains.

The dhow crew took us to Manda Beach, where we swam in the ocean while they made us a meal of fresh fish, coconut rice and tantalizing curry. After the meal, which was served under the shade of an acacia tree on beach sand-raked smooth by the crew, we lazed around while the crew cleaned up. Later, we piled into the dhow and made our way through an intricate mangrove forest waterway. As the path narrowed, we had to step out into the black waters and walk among the ancient mangroves to the entrance of the 15th-century Swahili trading town of Takwa. We walked the ruins with mouths agape. Crumbling walls of an ancient mosque, dinosaur baobab trees, wells, homes, a withering school and the burial site of a revered Imam…it all fascinated us. The air of Takwa was alive, abuzz—either with the voices of long dead ghosts or a mass of unseen insects. We didn’t know which. We only knew the peace of being there…the sacredness of the island.

Unfortunately, we only had half an hour in Takwa. Any longer and the waterway leading to the island would vanish. We’d be forced to spend the night within the island’s sacred hum. As much as we loved the ruins, we didn’t have to be told twice when it was time to leave.

One last surprise for the day… we emerged from the mangrove forest at the precise moment the sun touched the horizon and melted into the Indian Ocean. Perfect timing! We watched the sun melt into the ocean as we ate freshly cut fruit served to us by the crew.

That was just the first full day on Lamu. Every day was the same: perfection. We had our writing classes on the rooftop terrace of a hotel in the centre of town—a terrace with a 360 degree view of Lamu Town and the ocean surrounding it. We had sun, donkeys, dhows, sharks, weddings, Masai dancers, poetry readings on the beach, Imams, absolute joy in the face of abject poverty, a dancing/singing festive Kiswahili Christmas Eve mass in a tiny Catholic church, Rastafarians, children playing soccer, hennaed hands and so much more.

What a perfect place to end our Kenyan trip. I will never forget the people of Lamu. Their joy has changed me. Their remarkable radiance is something we could all aspire to. And writing. Ah, yes. I was there for the love of writing. My passion for words has never been stronger. The beauty of the world classroom…what a perfect place to dance with one’s muse!

September – ALWAYS a busy month! (Updates)

I don’t remember a September that wasn’t action-packed. Historically, it just seems like one of those months where everything happens at once. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! This September is no exception. Things started to roll today, and it’s looking like yet another exciting September for me.

September 1st – My poem WHEN VENUS TAKES A RIDE was posted on the website of the Parliamentary Poet Laureate. It was chosen as the Poem of the Month by the Parliamentary Poet Laureate, Pierre DesRuisseaux. It will be featured for the month of September, and archived on the site for two years. I wrote this poem after my first day on the island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya. I went there this past December with the Summer Literary Seminars, as part of their Kenya writing program. We took a plane to Manda Island from Nairobi and then hopped a dhow over to the island of Lamu. Once there, the group was given a walking tour of Lamu Town. During this tour, one of the poets in the group, Venus Thrash, was given a ride on a donkey (there are no cars on Lamu, but there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of donkeys). The poem is about that experience.

September 11 – Just like the second Saturday of every month (except for August), the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR) hosts it’s monthly Breakfast Meeting. If you’re a writer in OR NEAR the Durham Region, these are NOT to be missed. The September Breakfast Meeting speaker is Neil Crone. Personally, I think he’s one of the funniest people in Canada. It’s a DON’T-MISS month! Neil will be talking about writing humour.

September 24-25Uxbridge Celebration of the Arts. It’s a 25-year anniversary celebration of the vibrant artistic community of Uxbridge, Ontario. And when I say vibrant, I mean electrifying. I’m constantly amazed by the artistic community in this small town just west of Port Perry, Ontario. I’ve been drawn there on several occasions for BIG TIME artistic endeavors. This time, I’m partaking in the fun. I’ve been chosen to be the playwright for the 25-year anniversary celebration. On the 24th of September I will be given a prompt and I will have 25 hours not only to write a one-act play, but to send it off to my director, Jessica Outram, have her run through rehearsals with the actors AND have it performed live on stage at the Uxbridge Music Hall at the 25th hour. So I’m giving myself about 5-6 of those 25 hours to actually pen the script…as I think they’ll need the bulk of the hours to rehearse. This is the kind of thing I absolutely love! I was fortunate enough to do this type of playwriting on two other occasions, for Driftwood Theatre, as one of the playwrights for their 2009 and 2010 Trafalgar24 Play Creation Festival. I can’t wait to find out what I will be writing about! AND…the best part…watching it come to life just a few hours after it’s written. I am constantly amazed by the talent of the directors and actors that I am fortunate enough to work with!

September 26th– I will be MUSKOKA BOUND! It’s the wrap party for the 2010 Muskoka Novel Marathon. This event, held every July, has quickly become one of my favourite writing related activities! You sit in a building with approximately 30 other writers and you write a novel—in either 48 or 72 hours. How amazing is that! It was a great group this year (as it is every year). We had a lot of fun, and it’s hard to believe at the end of the weekend that there was actually time to put together a manuscript between the fun. I wrote a Young Adult novel this year – HALF DEAD AND FULLY BROKEN. I’ve been editing it since July. The wrap party is on the 26th…all the writers regroup and award trophies for various different things–BIC AWARD for Bum in Chair, Most Prolific Writer, Spirit Award, Rookie of the Year Award and the Remy Award for most money raised. Most money raised, you ask? The marathon is a double-edged sword. It is a huge benefit to those writers brave enough to participate, but it’s also a marathon of hope. Each writer raises funs for the Muskoka Literacy Council…it’s writers helping readers. The marathon raises funds and awareness for the council—it helps them to spread the joy of literacy. Another prize awarded at the wrap party is the BEST NOVEL AWARD—awarded, actually, in different categories—Best Adult Novel, Best Young Adult Novel and Best Children’s Novel. The manuscripts are sent to 6 industry judges immediately following the marathon…and they read and judge them over the summer. The winning novels get sent to participating publishers for consideration. The benefits of this event are just neverending! I have my eye on the hands on favourite for Best YA this year—I’m not going to name names (she will not be mentioned here!), but I had the opportunity to read one of the manuscripts and I found it STELLAR. We will see what the Wrap Party brings us. I consider this wrap party the official end of summer, even though Huntsville is already quite in bloom with turned foilage by the time it rolls around.

Month EndMuseitup Publishing is preparing to launch! My Young Adult novel SUMMER ON FIRE will be published by Muse in July, 2011…but the publisher is launching in October. We’ve been talking excitedly about this launch behind the scenes. September is bound to thrive with chatter between publisher and cover artists and editors and writers. It’s a great family to be a part of! I’m really excited about the launch…and can feel the tsunami of its approach! September is THE month to be a Museitup member!

Not to mention! September is another month of busy planning for the 2011 ONTARIO WRITERS’ CONFERENCE. This is an ongoing labour of love that factors into every month on the calendar. We want to organize the best conference every year. To do this, we must be dedicated to putting in a lot of volunteer hours. It’s worth it, though…so rewarding to see the happy faces of writers on the day of the conference!

And I’m certain there will be more excitement along the way. Like maybe a reading from author friend Karen Cole  somewhere in Uxbridge, maybe! Or maybe some poetry read by friend Barbara Hunt!  (-;

2011 SLS Unified Literary Contest Announced!

The 2011 Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest is now open!

What’s in it for you?

FIRST PLACE WINNERS from each category – FICTION or POETRY – will have their work featured online in Canada’s premiere literary magazine, THE WALRUS…as well as published in print in a TBA American Literary Journal.

They will also have the choice of attending (airfare, tuition, and housing included) any one of the SLS 2011 programs – in Montreal, Quebec (June 12 – 25); Vilnius, Lithuania (August); or Nairobi-Lamu, Kenya (December).

This is a HUGE prize! And a huge opportunity.

SECOND PLACE WINNERS will receive a full tuition waiver for the program of their choice.

THIRD PLACE WINNERS will receive a 50% tuition waiver for the program of their choice.

ALSO – A number of select contest participants, based on the overall strength of their work, will be offered tuition scholarships applicable to the SLS 2011 programs.

FOR FULL CONTEST DETAILS, VISIT THE SLS CONTEST PAGE

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE SLS WRITING PROGRAMS

As a past participant in SLS Kenya, I can guarantee you’ll thoroughly enjoy the program.

Contest Entry Fee: $20

Contest Deadline: FEBRUARY 15, 2011

Finding Focus in Nairobi

Nairobi

(The following piece originally appeared in WORD WEAVER.)

FINDING FOCUS IN NAIROBI – Part II of III

Polepole (rhymes with—and means—slowly, slowly). This is the method by which Kenya moves. I first experienced this when I boarded the 12‐seater for my return to Nairobi. The pilot promised a non‐stop flight. Ten minutes in, however, he announced a change of plans. He said those three words no airsick mini‐aircraft; neophyte passenger wants to hear: “We’re going down!”

Our Plane, Landed on the Siana Airstrip

It was Independence Day in Kenya. The celebratory air show at the Nairobi airport meant “no fly zone” for us. We had to land at Siana Airstrip and stay grounded for an hour. As we touched down, I saw a herd of gazelle leaping across the runway, mere feet from the plane’s nose! It was a horrifying, heartbreakingly beautiful sight. After narrowly avoiding the herd, our pilot assured us we could have safely crash‐landed to the side, if need be.

As a peppering of Masai emerged from the surrounding trees, I forgave the air show that kept us from our destiny. We were having a moment! Every day in Kenya carries with it a magical moment. To see it, all you have to do is surrender to the beat. Pole, pole.

After an hour of sharing stories with the generous Masai, it was almost painful re-boarding the plane. But we said our goodbyes and took to the air once again.

Navigating the country on my own was wonderful, but I was excited to be back in Nairobi. It was time to meet my fellow writers and begin the SLS fiction program.

My instructor, Catherine Bush, made me realize the importance of focus in storyline, something I never contemplated while writing. She broke down the process and explained how the writer should consider the reader’s expectations. If you give them one strong thread to follow, they see that thread as your storyline…throw in too many and confusion ensues.

Catherine assured me I could do this and carry on writing in the freefall style that I love. I was afraid I would have to sacrifice my “NO OUTLINING” rule but all was good. With her guidance, specific to my own manuscript, I was able to retackle my story, find the strongest thread—the story’s essence—and run with it. Catherine equipped me with the tools to help me do this. It was as though she came into my windowless house, created windows and then helped me to fling them wide open.

Our classes were held on the outside patio of a hotel in the heart of Nairobi…with fragrant breezes swishing our pages and intoxicating our lungs. If Nirvana is a place, it’s filled with writers, acacias and yes, even shouting taxi drivers. The outdoor classroom had its limitations, but they only added to the vibrant atmosphere.

You can live concurrent lives in Kenya. We were steeped in words but we also inexplicably saw everything in and around Nairobi. We took in the Rift Valley, the Ngong Hills, the Giraffe Centre (complete with sloppy giraffe kisses), an elephant orphanage, a reading by some of Kenya’s top literati, a chaotic downtown Nairobi Masai market, museums, parties and barnyards.

Daisy, the giraffe. Kisses were free!
Nairobi
The Beautiful Ngong Hills – Outside of Nairobi at a lookout on Uhuru Highway

I cried while our bus travelled the Uhuru Highway en route to the nearby Ngong Hills, as I watched a shanty-town blur by. Children played in the dirt, inches from our tires as we whizzed by at 100km per hour; goats bleated; vegetables collected poisons from black exhaust bursting from every vehicle; thousands of rusted ‘n shacks—strung with uncountable lines of miraculously pristine laundry—crowded together like rotten teeth in a mouth too small to hold them.

My sadness at seeing the crumbling shantytown was double-edged, though. Every face held a smile, every life a beat you could feel. My heart ached during the entire trip…but with what? I couldn’t quite place it. The melancholy I felt…was it for the people of Kenya or for myself and the people back home? People who have not yet surrendered to the comfort of a ‘me no clock could hold. Polepole…slowly, slowly.

After a long week of writing craft and exploration, we were ready for the last leg of our journey…Lamu Island. I couldn’t imagine it topping Nairobi…but I was about to discover there were no limits in Kenya.

Kenya and Writing: A Perfect Fit

(Originally appeared in The Word Weaver)

Before I left for my recent trip to Kenya, my only thought was writing. I was going to AFRICA and I only allowed myself to think of one thing: WRITING. How pathetic is that? I was so anal about attending my first writing program, I allowed it to overshadow the fact I was going to the most beautiful place in the world.

Thankfully, I came to my senses the moment the plane landed in the mossy sweet heat of Nairobi.

Joseph, from Wonders of Africa, picked me up at Jomo Kenyatta. His kamikaze driving was all that stood between me and certain death. The streets and roundabouts of Nairobi are the most beautiful arteries of controlled chaos I’ve ever been thrown into.

Joseph dropped me off at the Kivi Milimani Hotel. The Summer Literary Seminars organizers were there to greet me but in my post-flight zombiehaze, I only wanted to crawl upstairs to my room and sleep.

Day 1. 6 a.m. Woke up, packed, ran downstairs and met up with Joseph. We hit Nairobi’s death-defying streets again for a trip to Wilson Airport for my flight to Masai Mara.

After four take-offs, five landings and much retching, I was ready for solid ground! Another capable Joseph, my safari guide for the next two days, greeted our 16-seater at Keekorok Airstrip.

Wilson Airport - Nairobi, Kenya

Before the safari, however, I detoured to Keekorok’s backyard hippo pool—home to 39 hippos! I watched as they frolicked and I stared in awe at the elephants and giraffes roaming the nearby hills. I attempted to be a poet but discovered I would rather eat the dirt…jump into the hippo pool, shoot its mud into my veins. I was in Africa—the future home of my heart. It was already happening.

Safari time! But after a full day in the acacia-dotted Masai Mara savannah, it was the Masai people I first wrote about when I made it back to my Keekorok room.

A journal entry: The Masai warriors almost made me forget the safari. The most amazingly beautiful sight. Hearing their singing makes you want to burst into tears. It’s guttural and filled with haunting. Longing. Joy. Goosebumps. Their shouts seemed random, mixed in song, but each one was perfectly timed. The rhythm matches something inside you. Shatters it. Latches on. Takes you with it. Such an incredible experience! You can feel them in your chest as they lift miraculously in dance. They had my heart!

Masai Dancers at Keekorok Lodge - Masai Mara, Kenya

 

A journal entry: Elephants/1, Lions/3, Giraffes/2. There was folly in this menagerie inventory system. After these first sightings it was on to a pride of 13 lionesses and cubs. A herd of zebra, not a mile away, grazing with elands. Bones and skulls everywhere, beacons in the vast open plains. When I spotted a cheetah, Joseph yelled, “Duma! Duma!” and called the other groups on his CB radio. Their trucks soon converged on our paradise, photo lenses extending to capture a mother cheetah with her cubs as they chased a herd of gazelle. Two hundred gazelle moving in perfect unison, nature’s finely tuned miracle engine in motion. Traps your breath! This is where God is. Hundreds of buffalo, beautiful birds riding their massive haunches…ready to steal the bounty of insects their shuffling feet lift from the browned savannah grasses. A warthog. A herd of eight elephants. Giraffes can kill a lion with their hind legs…one swift kick!

But majestic beauty as they dine upon the upper leaves of trees, unconcerned with the killer beasts at their heels. Wildebeests. In the distance, Tanzania. 8km away. The Masai hills in the background—named for their similarity to a lying-down Masai warrior.

Lion on the Masai Mara Savannah - Masai Mara, Kenya

My safari was over but my adventures were just beginning. It was only day two. I had a writing program to attend in Nairobi and Lamu. Kenya had begun to enter my bloodstream. I was going to allow myself to make this about Kenya first—writing second. It was the only way to take Kenya home with me…so I could write about it later.

Back to Nairobi.