The Post Card
Part of this story actually stretches back to the summer before eighth grade (can you believe it?). I was really bored, and spent half my time daydreaming about adventuring off to faraway places that I never thought I would ever get a chance to visit. One day I happened upon the big roadmap/atlas my family had stuffed in the family car and started looking through it and realized there was a list of addresses in the index for national parks across the United States. I decided if I couldn’t go anywhere, I’d try and get other places to come to me (in a way), plus I loved getting mail.
I devised a fake summer project for school, and crafted letters to send to national parks across the country asking park rangers to take a picture of what they thought was the most interesting or beautiful place in their park. I must have sent about 25 letters out, and in a few weeks time I started getting things back in the mail. Some parks I never heard back from, but most humored me in some way. I didn’t get any actual photos, but I got a lot of park maps, park newspaper clippings and post cards—many of the postcards I still have to this day! Rocky Mountain National Park, Hawaii Volcano National Park, Glacier National Park, Haleakala National Park, Yellowstone National Park… etc. But one park stood out, because they sent me something unique.
Arches National Park in Utah sent me two postcards… one of the beautiful Delicate Arch and one of Balanced Rock, as well as a commemorative stamp of the Delicate Arch from the park. I was really intrigued by the stamp and the postcards. I’d never seen anything like the towering orange rock… it looked like the surface of Mars to my almost-eighth-grade eyes. Utah might as well have been Mars, it seemed so far away, I never thought I’d actually go there. But I always thought it would be really neat to stand under that arch some day, and I never forgot it.
The Delicate Mzungu
A different kind of “delicate”… trust me, this could be a story all on its own, so I will try to keep it short. I’ve discussed before my love of and interest in Africa, but being a mzungu (the Kiswahili word used in East Africa for “white person”), especially a mzungu of Irish ancestry (as Russell Peters joked, “Irish people are the whitest white people on the planet… so white they are practically translucent!”), doesn’t always mix well with the intense African sun.
While I was in Kenya I was frustrated by the story of the “delicate mzungu.” Every time I wanted to do something I was told that mzungus were very delicate and I should just sit and watch. Living with rural farmers in Western Kenya I wanted to carry buckets of water on my head, and help harvest the crops, and help wash the dishes and laundry in soapy buckets of water in the backyard as chickens ran around my feet. I wanted to experience rural Kenyan life, but I was met with protests… “No, no, it’s okay. Mzungus are delicate. Please, sit, have some biscuits.” I’d protest… “I’m not delicate! Please let me help! I’m here to learn!” and inevitably I’d either mess up (spill all the water), or something odd would happen (randomly get a nose bleed while washing dishes) and this would seem to reinforce their theory of the delicate mzungu—so sit and have some biscuits.
I ran into this “delicate mzungu” theory the whole time I was there, and I kept trying to fight it. I might have been a little more successful, had I been a little smarter.
Fast forward to another point during my stay… now I’m living in hot, arid Southern Kenya… a stone’s throw distance from the Tanzanian border, living with the pastoralist Maasai community. I’d been in the field for about a week and a half, living in tents near several family settlements (“bomas”). Our group had run out of all the water we had brought from the city, and had been relying on local bore-hole water boiled over a campfire. It was cloudy with bits of stuff floating in it, and tasted weird.
I wasn’t the best at drinking water in general, and had suffered a few bouts of minor dehydration earlier in the semester from not giving myself enough bottles throughout the day. Weird tasting bore-hole water wasn’t helping me in the water drinking department. And for some reason I got it in my head that I could do just fine on far less water than any of my comrades, and over the course of about 4 days I had drank no more than about one Nalgene bottle full of water. Couple this with the dry hot heat and the fact that I hadn’t bathed or even touched water for almost two weeks, I’m sure my body was ready for something to tip it over the edge.
Enter stupid delicate mzungu syndrome: The last few days of our field experience we were going to be scattered in various bomas across a wide expanse of land. I was paired with one other student and left with a Maasai family that spoke no English and hardly any Kiswahili to live in their small mud and cow dung huts and sleep on stretched cow hide. We were going to help the family herd their goats and sheep, cook with the family, and help them with their daily routine. However there was a special “age-set graduating ceremony” happening a few miles away, so the family thought it would be fun to take us there.
After a night sitting by the fire under the stars in one of the most remote places I’d ever been, singing songs back and forth with my homestay “mother” who was probably younger than me, I awoke the next morning to a cloudy cooler day. I helped with the goats, then had some tea for breakfast, and then got dressed for the age-set graduating ceremony. I had asked if I could dress like my hosts in traditional Maasai gear… two strips of cloth tied sarong style, a belt and beads (mistake #1: I’d been wearing light-weight long-sleeved billowy cotton shirts to protect my neck, and arms from sun since I don’t like sunscreen so much and a big floppy hat for protection, now I was very exposed. In addition I still didn’t put on sunscreen—it was cloudy in the morning and I wasn’t thinking, and I had only about half a Nalgene worth of water).
I went to the ceremony and my friend and I were the only two mzungus in a sea of about two thousand Maasai so we were quite popular. Little kids stared or cried because they thought there was something wrong with our skin, elders came to meet us, even the chief invited us to his hut as an honor to share a beer (my first ever) with him. I sat in the sweltering mud hut drinking large warm Tuskers with him, my head swimming. Then his son came in—“You honored my father, now honor me… please, have another.” I couldn’t without getting sick, so I settled on a warm bottle of coke. These were only dehydrating me more.
After a full day in the now hot bright sun I knew I was burnt to a crisp, and I was starting to feel a bit woozy. I had been very gracious to my hosts, trying to translate for my friend in Swahili, but I wasn’t feeling good, and eventually someone gave me an umbrella and I sat on the ground hiding beneath it until someone decided to take me home (a few miles walk away). I nearly passed out on the walk, but I chalked my bad mood and queasy feeling up to a bad sunburn.
And when I say bad, I mean, the worst sunburn of my LIFE. I wouldn’t be exaggerating in the slightest if I said that I literally LITERALLY looked like a lobster. That night I was in so much pain trying to sleep on the cow hide mattress. I could barely stand to wear my clothes.
The next morning my professor picked us up and brought us back to camp. As the students slowly filtered back from lots of other settlements people kept asking me if I was okay… and other than a few little bouts of wooziness, and a sore neck and shoulders, I did feel relatively okay. That night our group went out on a night game drive looking for lions, we were all standing on the seats of the Land Rover, our heads popping out the top, excited and singing as the sunset. I felt good, honestly, sunburned but not sick.
Until it hit like a freight train all at once. By then it was dark and we were miles and miles from camp. I instantly became incredibly nauseous, incredibly motion sick, and the world was spinning out of control. After trying to deal with it unsuccessfully, and seriously afraid of getting sick all over the car, I asked the professor if we could turn back. That was the longest, hardest car ride of my life. By the time I got back to the camp site I could barely walk straight. As I was helped out of the car I promptly vomited (the first in a long long night of vomiting), each time I got sick, it made me even more dehydrated.
I was put on a cot outside in the open air, where my professor thought I’d be more comfortable, and he and a friend tried to force me to drink water laced with packets of rehydration salts. It took me four hours to actually drink one small glass. I was feverish, borderline delirious, and kept getting sick. I literally though I was going to die. I’ve never in my life before felt so utterly terrible. I was terrified of the next morning when the sun came up and it would again be so dry and hot. I was convinced that the heat would kill me. I was genuinely terrified.
There was no way for my professor to contact our program compound in Nairobi, we were far beyond cell phone reach, so he had arranged for the camp land rover to take me half way to Nairobi the following morning, calling the other program director in route, and try to meet someone to come pick me up on the side of the road and bring me the rest of the way to the hospital.
By morning I’d gotten a few hours of fitful sleep, and had at least one glass of water in my system. My back had broken out in huge sunburn boils, and I struggled to stand up. The professor loaded me in the car, and again I had a sickening drive back to civilization.
Nairobi Hospital is the fanciest hospital in the country, once called “The European Hospital” during colonial rule, it was the hospital that our program brought students to when we ran into trouble. Most Kenyans dressed up in beautiful outfits to go to Nairobi Hospital and here I was, dragged in fresh from the bush, filthy, dusty, barely able to walk. They did a few tests, and said they had to draw some blood.
Here’s a secret… I’m afraid of needles. It is totally in my head, I understand that, but the thought of getting an injection usually makes me hyperventilate. I rationalized with myself that I didn’t want to be the delicate mzungu freaking out about a routine blood test when there were probably people dying of AIDS in the same hospital, so I took a few deep breaths, and tried to calm my racing heart. I warned the doctors I was a little afraid of needles and braced myself for the prick. It took quite a few rubs of alcohol to get my arm sterile enough. Between embarrassingly apologizing for my filthy appearance, I remember saying to them about the injection, “that wasn’t so bad, I barely felt…” and the next thing I woke up on the floor with nurses staring in my face. “I think you are more than a little afraid” the doctor said, and admitted me to the hospital.
I wound up being in the hospital for four days on a rehydrating IV drip (another needle I didn’t enjoy, but knew it was necessary). I also had to get all the blisters on my back popped with needles. Every time a new nurse came on duty and read my chart that said that a “mzungu dressed like a Maasai was badly sunburned and dehydrated with sun poisoning and heat stroke” they had to drop in and meet the mzungu who would dress up like a Maasai. One look at my burnt back and the black Kenyan nurses usually exclaimed, “The sun can do that to you?”
On the second day I was there the director of the hospital—a big dark Ugandan man, who was a personal friend of the director of our program and one of the urban homestay fathers—came to my room to check in. He looked at my chart, and looked at my back and said, very stoically as he held out his fist, “See this hand? It is a strong African hand, I can put it near fire and it will not burn. But you… you are a delicate mzungu… and you are weak.”
Crushed by the theory of the delicate mzungu! How can I argue with that?
Asking My Father
Last but not least…
On my mom’s side of the family, I’m the eldest cousin, but on my dad’s side I’m the third eldest… meaning my two elder female cousins set the tone a little bit on the protocol for marriage. Both of their significant others first asked the permission (privately) of their dad before they proposed. P knew about this, but found it intimidating. My dad is the big silent type. He doesn’t always say much, and can seem daunting to talk to one-on-one.
“I don’t really have to do that, do I?” P would ask.
“I think you should. It would be nice. Keeping with tradition and all.” I’d say.
“Can I send an email instead? I don’t think I could ask him to his face.”
“An email? That’s kind of impersonal, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know… I don’t like this tradition…”
So hopefully this sets the stage for the second part. Sorry for the length, but hopefully it was interesting.