Of eagles and flying to new places

The hoarse cry of an eagle stops me halfway down the road to work, and I curiously peer into the grove of trees where the bird is hidden. As I walk further an unnamed, long-tailed songbird alights from its perch on the telephone wires. Right outside my workplace two ibises stride calmly across the green, sliding their curved beaks elegantly into the sheath of the red earth.

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Being rather practical, I didn’t expect giraffes to be walking in the streets or lions stalking cars when I set out for Nairobi a month ago. It is true, however, that in some areas of Nairobi National Park the hazy outlines of high rises create a quirky backdrop for the ostriches, gazelles, rhinos and the myriad of other creatures grazing on the plains. This handsome fellow to the right was kind enough to pose with the buildings in the background.

And so were these fellows, though they're not supposed to be in the park:

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Meanwhile my mother fretted, forbidding me to go to expat hangouts or places abundant with embassies in case of a terrorist attack. The fact is, however, that I live in a staunchly mzungu (foreigner) part of the city. It is a convenient 20 minute walk to work, past an expatriate paradise of European coffee shops and retail stores, meandering through a myriad of large houses and—to my mother’s consternation—skipping cheerfully past the U.S. embassy, which looks a bit like a prison and has its most important offices underground for fear of an attack.

But I shoved the possible fear away in the back of my mind, determined not to let the bombings of more than a decade ago affect my stay here.

Traffic is notoriously bad in some parts of Nairobi, and the matatus—small, feisty vans that serve as the city’s main public transportation—hurl dangerously down the streets with at least five extra people stuffed into the limited seats. They account for the majority of the traffic accidents in Nairobi.

I finally decided to go on an adventure in one of them, sometime in the second or third week of my stay here. And, it was actually really fun. Sure, you get bounced around. Sure, you’re squished between a man who could use a shower and a woman eating a mandazi. Sure, the guy rounding up the fare tries to keep 50 extra shillings and you have to pointedly ask him for your change.

But this mzungu can procure said change, making the guy smile sheepishly, and then proceed to cross the busy street without even blinking (thank you, street-crossing training in China). A minor triumph.

And of course, the usual litany of crime and warnings to keep your belongings safe, to avoid walking alone at night, to keep your car doors locked in case someone opens the door and grabs your purse, or worse, sit down and rob you blind before forcing you to drive to an abandoned place at gunpoint and taking your car.

Worse-case scenarios. Admonitions to put away your valuables, to be aware. We covered it all during our orientation in the first week. Together, the list sounds terrifying.

But as the man conducting our introduction said, a foreigner’s impression of Nairobi is like the weather here. In the morning, it tends to be cloudy and cold and miserable, prompting you to bring a jumper and an umbrella for protection. You walk quickly to work in the wary haze of groggy consciousness. The buildings are grey and unfriendly.

By late afternoon, however, you’re strolling slowly back home, jacket thrown over your shoulder and sleeves rolled up, the sun shining fiercely in an azure sky with dramatic brushstrokes of white cloud. If you stare at the cornfields in the abandoned lots, it’s like a photographer has fiddled with the focus of the camera. Everything is sharp, clear, vivid.

I nod to the group of local workers passing by, smiling slightly and responding, “Mzouri-sana” to their greetings. Three women, noticing my badge, ask me how to obtain work at my organization. I stop and advise them how to ask. A matatu screeches to a halt beside me, and a guy shouts, “Get on!” I shake my head politely, sliding past it and safely arriving on the other side of the road. My feet drag through the red dust, and my brow creases under a sheen of sweat. Eight hours of work has left me exhausted and I want no more than to collapse in bed—

I stop a moment, and shield my eyes from the sun to trace the circles of a pair of eagles in the cerulean ether.

And I remember, through the fatigue and the lurking caution—it is absolutely incredible that I am here.


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