Friday, August 29, 2014

somewhere in the middle of nowhere

on the drive out to Masai land

"You drive out to the middle of nowhere, and then end up somewhere."
- Jeff, Alabaster teammate, reflecting on what it felt like to be in Masai land

I wish you could have made the trip with us.

From Nairobi it was a six hour van drive, they said. So when we agreed to leave at 10am, I figured we'd make it there by 4pm, or maybe 5 to account for a lunch or potty stop. Though we'd just arrived in Kenya, I'd already heard some of my teammates who'd been on this trip before use the phrase "TIA" (this is Africa) to explain the unexpected and out of the ordinary that seemed to be very expected and ordinary here. But I wasn't yet applying it like I should have. Meaning, I ought to have known a 6 hour van ride was not a 6 hour van ride.

Before we left Nairobi, we all got out of the van and crammed into the tiny chemist (pharmicist) to pick up and repack more vaccines for the Masai clinics. Next we stopped at the Girl Child Network (GCN) office. This is the nonprofit we partnered with on the ground. All out of the van again and standing around in a circle, we met a few more of the staff, including the deputy director, which led to the first of many spontaneous conversations I wished I'd been ready to record (more on that later). Then back into the van and to the mall to pick up some food and snacks.

It was about 1pm, and finally we were on our way out of Nairobi.

At first the road was smooth, though there was traffic to navigate and the smell of exhaust to bear with. We all happily dug into our lunch and snacks, Shannon passing out freshly-fried samosas we'd bought at the mall. I opened a bag of chips and a coke, not realizing this would be my last cold drink for a few days (and not realizing that I would care). About an hour into the drive, the rode turned more narrow, more curvy and, eventually, filled with potholes. Chris, our driver from GCN, swerved all over the road and off the road to avoid them, but bumps and jerks were unavoidable. It reminded me of the drive to Hana when I was in Maui last summer, and the landscape, quickly transitioning from green hills to flatter arid land, was similar, too. This was part adventure, and part understanding: this is the way to the people who are in need.

Another hour or two, and we were in Magadi. This small town was built around a salt lake that an Indian soda company now owned. Buildings that looked like dorms were clustered together, and I assumed that's where the workers lived. We pulled up next to a canteen with a swimming pool and all got out of the van for our first potty break (read: the first of many holes I peed in). When we left, two Masai men jumped on top of our luggage that was piled into the back of a truck to make the rest of the journey with us. I don't remember if they were with us at clinic or if they just needed a ride, my mind so full of new ideas and details by that point in the day.

The next leg of the journey turned from potholed roads to off-roading. Evenutally what lie ahead and behind and to both sides all looked the same: brown dusty ground pocked by low, brown trees or bushes. No roads or paths or distinguishing features. I couldn't be sure how Chris knew the way, but I trusted he did. We looked eagerly out the windows for animals: a heard of zebras ran off in the distance, and we scared a pair of ostriches from behind and saw them run off in different directions.

Another stop in Kiserian to pick up a teacher for our clinic. Then another in Oloika, where we learned there was a dispensary. The clinic worker was coming with us, we also learned. Our team wanted to see the clinic, so out of the van again, and again another conversation - about government funding for the clinic and what kinds of needs they're able to meet - that I wish I could have recorded.

By now it was getting dark, which meant it was probably close to 7pm. We had added four people to our traveling group. Only about 30 more minutes of driving out in the middle of nowhere until we arrived. I felt lost with no road signs telling me how many km until the town we were headed for and no other markers to suggest any kind of life besides the animals we'd seen.

Like most things in the bush, eventually it just appeared: there was the small school building where we'd hold our first clinic the next day. Now it was dark, and we were tired from the 6 hour van ride that had turned into a full-day adventure. New solar panels on the school provided light for us to set up our tent, and a little while later Albert and Chris called us to the fire pit for our first dinner of rice with cabbage and carrots. Afterwards Veena and I peed into the dirt by the light of our headlamps, then wiped down with baby wipes and changed for bed. Even after such a full day, once we settled into our tent I couldn't fall asleep. Jetlag, excitement, disorientation kept me awake most of the night.

Do you understand now? Have I been able to tell you what it was like to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere? I'm still not sure I understand myself.

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