I had a breakdown in Nairobi. Like full-on heaving sobs, snotty tears and all.
Don’t be alarmed. I do this at least once every time I travel overseas. I love traveling. I love seeing new parts of the world and meeting new people and learning and appreciating new cultures. As long as I am able, I will get on a plane regularly and go see some world. But there’s stress that comes with being far out of your comfort zone, especially when you’re solo, as I was my final day in Kenya.
Solo at home, you can operate on auto-pilot. You know the rhythm of “your” world. Abroad, you don’t. And as a result, you’re hyper-aware, operating with all senses (if you’re smart). There’s the realization that there are thousands of miles between you and the next person who personally gives a damn if something goes wrong. You are all you’ve got. That means you’ve got to be over sensitive about looking right to cross the street, your surroundings, your purse, your cash flow (because credit cards are iffy, as are ATMs) and the battery life on your phone, a savior for its GPS and list of places to go, as much as it is an emergency lifeline to you and home.
Taking off the blinders and living completely is the thrill- and occasional trigger- of traveling. This caused my flip out. Allow me to explain.
I had a lot on my plate that day. Getting back to Brooklyn, required a plane ride back to Nairobi, a 9 hour layover in the city, then a 8 hour plane to Heathrow, a 3 hour layover there, then another 8 hour flight to JFK. It’s all minor when it’s broken down. But combined it’s an (lengthy) ordeal.
The plane back to Nairobi was one of those 8 seaters where you feel every bump in the air. I hate little planes (mostly because of Aaliyah). I sang gospel songs softly the entire ride. The driver who was arranged to meet me at the airport didn’t make it. The cab driver who took me to the hotel couldn’t find it. The hotel- though safe and secure- wasn’t at all like it was advertised.
I navigated the city just fine. I walked around sucking up the energy and people watching. Nairobi’s Central Business District is more vibrant and alive than even Times Square. I had lunch by the rooftop pool of a swanky hotel, then headed to the city market to pick up last minute souvenirs for friends and family. I haggled for bracelets and stuffed animals and a belt for my husband just fine. “We are not arguing, my Sister,” the vendor, a woman, said. “Just discussing what’s fair for us.” It’s a great line. I was overcharged, of course, but I didn’t feel ripped off.
I left her stall with my gifts in tow, and wandered toward the exit. On a wall, I spotted a print of Maasai warriors similar to one I’d admired in the hotel room I’d just left. The woman, older and who reminded me of my deceased maternal grandmother, saw me looking and quoted a price. Too much. “I have more for you,” she said. “Come…” So I followed her into the stall.
She’s got a pile of 200 paintings and she’s flipping. And I want to take home half of them. Two, I just couldn’t leave behind.
The walls of my apartment are like an art gallery (they’re blank on The Show because the network won’t pay for clearance, and blurring the art out looks weird on camera). I’ve made a habit to pick up a painting (and/or jewelry) in every country I visit.
Years ago, I went to the summer home of [name redacted so as not to name drop] a well-known magazine editor who I (and my mother) admire. Her house was like an art gallery too, with sculptures and paintings collected during her travels. I complimented a piece of jewelry she wore that day. She told me she’d picked it up in another country and it was years was before I was born. I admired her lifestyle too. I committed to creating an art gallery and jewelry box reflecting my travels.
So, at the stall in Nairobi, I got a painting for me, and one for my mama/parents house. My mom is no fan of my travels to anywhere in Africa and will likely not see the continent herself. But she will have a piece of the continent in her dressing room.
I didn’t have enough money for the purchase, so I offered to go to an ATM, and return. Or, I had American dollars at my hotel close by. I could go and come back. The woman suggested I take the paintings and her husband would walk with me to my hotel to collect the money.
Her husband, the splitting image of my (also deceased) maternal grandfather, walks up. He’s an older man, in his 70s, he’ll tell me later, on our walk. I ask how long they’ve been married. He smiles. His upper row is perfectly straight on the left side, entirely missing on the right. If he had his full teeth, he would have had my grandfather’s smile too. He says, “oh, a long time.”
So we walk to the hotel, 3 blocks away. He, Mr. Geoffrey, tells me he was born near Mount Kenya. He had 2 sisters and 6 brothers. One sister is gone, 2 brothers died. They were all over 100 when they passed. He, in his 70s, is the baby of the family. He doesn’t go back to his birthplace because he doesn’t like it there. He and his wife have a house in the Nairobi suburbs. They’ve had their current business for 10 years. He asks where I’m from, if I have family, if I like Kenya. He tells me he’s worked in the stall for 10 years and never walks this way.
At the hotel, he waits while I run up to grab the money. We exchange money for posters in the lobby, and I offer to walk with him back to the market. He smiles and looks at me incredulously. “I am fine. You don’t need to walk with me,” he says. I tell him I have to go back out, and that way, as I need an ATM. I don’t have money for the cab to the airport.
He says he’ll walk with me to find one. I insist I’ll be fine. He tells me that the area is fine during the day, but can be seedy at night. They call Nairobi, “Nai-robbery” sometimes and it’s not always safe after dark, he says. Dusk is coming. I don’t see any harm in accepting his chivalry. I relent.
So we walk, and he asks me if it’s my first trip to Kenya. And he asks if I’m married and have family. And if I like Kenya. And he says he’s worked in the stall for 10 years and he’s never walked this way before. And I assume he wasn’t paying attention earlier because he was making small talk with a stranger. And then we find an ATM and it doesn’t accept my card.
So we start walking again and he asks if it’s my first trip to Kenya and if I enjoyed it, and if I’m married and have a family. And I answer the third time just like it’s the first as I realize something is wrong.
He stops to ask a security guard in Swahili where there’s an ATM, and the man points inside a building and it turns out it’s a money exchange, but no ATM. As we walk out, he cautions me to slow down. I apologize. I walk fast even when I’m trying to walk slow, and I’ve inconvenienced my elder. He says, no, he’s worried about me. The sidewalks aren’t always smooth and he doesn’t want me to fall. He’s fine*.
So we walk again, slowly for my own good, searching. And Mr. Geoffrey tells me that he hasn’t walked these streets in awhile and he and his wife have worked at the market for 10 years. And then he asks if it’s my first trip to Kenya and if I have a husband and family. And then I realize he has Alzheimer’s.
My grandmother had it. And she did the same thing. She would get stuck in a train of thought and just loop the same conversation over and over and over. And I feel… sad. And vulnerable. Like, this old man who looks lke my grandfather saw me, and saw my vulnerability as a “stranger in a strange land” and he wanted to look after me, and he may or may not know that he’s the one that needs looking after.
We find a Barclays ATM. My card works. I can get to the airport just fine, assuming I can find a cab, but the hotel should be able to call me one.
On the walk back to the hotel, he asks if it’s my first time in Kenya, and if I liked it, and if I have a husband and family, and this time he asks if I’ll come back to Kenya. I say that I will and I will come with my husband. He invites me to stay with him and his wife as they have a house outside of the city. We could come and stay for one or two days. I tell him I will take his information and I would love that. He tells me that he’s worked in the stall for 10 years, he and his wife, and he hasn’t walked this way before. My eyes begin to well up with tears.
He is a very kind man, who looks like my grandfather (except shorter) and reminds me of my grandmother. And for whatever reason he has taken a liking to me and wanted to keep me safe, though it’s debate-able whether I needed it or not, and what could a 70 year old man do if harm came anyway? But it was a kind gesture and it eased my anxiety. And it also made me feel extra vulnerable as this very vulnerable person sees me as the one in need of help. And now I’m emotionally rattled, even more vulnerable. And trying to hide it from Mr. Geoffrey.
I also wonder if his wife knows he has Alzheimer’s. She has to know he’s forgetting things. But does she know how bad this gets? We (my family) knew my grandmother couldn’t remember things the same and would get stuck in a loop. But she was otherwise fine and doctors said there wasn’t anything we could do. The loops weren’t so bad and were pretty harmless. So we paid a bit more attention and more or less let her be.
But then one day she told her husband she was going to the grocery store and didn’t come back. Hours later, someone called my mom and described my grandmother to her and asked if she knew her. Grandma had gone to the grocery store, come out to the parking lot after shopping and couldn’t find her car. She was looking for a vehicle she had when I was growing up, not the current one. She’s been walking around the parking lot aimlessly until the woman spotted her, stopped her, and found my Mom’s number in my grandmother’s purse.
At the hotel, Mr. Geoffrey scribbles his name and mobile number on a piece of paper and I sniff back tears. The desk attendant notices something is wrong and offers me a bottle of water. I take the water and the paper and thank Mr. Geoffery again and ask him to thank his wife and say goodbye to her. And I ask if he remembers how to get back to the market, and he looks at me like I’m stupid. Then he offers to give me his number so I can come visit him and his wife when I come back to Kenya.
I show him the number he just gave me. He smiles and shakes my hand and I thank him as he waves goodbye and walks out. I follow him to the sidewalk and watch him walk to the corner. He turns left in the direction of the market three blocks down.
I go back in the hotel, round the corner for the stairs to my room and COMPLETELY LOSE IT, like fat tears, and spit and bent over heaving sobs. I’ve done this twice before in my life. One, I don’t really talk about (I was barefoot in the middle of the street, but it’s the reason I left the Hamptons in Season One of “The Show” and I won’t talk about it publicly as along as my father is alive out of respect.) The other time was when my grandfather died.
I’d gone to the nursing home where he lived with my grandmother. Their room had twin beds, and his was made up and empty like he had never been there. My grandmother and parents were in the room, and my grandmother kept asking, “where’s my Honey?”, her name for my grandfather.
She had Alzheimer’s so she couldn’t remember he was dead. The fist two times she asked, we told her he’d died. And we watched twice as she absorbed that traumatic shock of finding out her husband of 60+ years was never coming back, then promptly forgot. After that when she asked, we lied and said he was on his way back to the room. I held it together until my parents and I had to leave her to go to the funeral home and see the body. I walked out the room, turned the corner, leaned against the wall and lost my entire sh- (just like I did in that Nairobi stairwell) as my parents stared at me wide-eyed.
So I go up to my shabby room and sit on the edge of the bed and sob and snot, and tears and spit get on my dress, and then I call CBW, one of only four people in the world (other than my parents) who can calm me down when I’m like this. I tell him the whole story and then apologize for scaring him because, you know, your wife calls you from the other side of the world crying uncontrollably, the first thing you think is that she’s been raped or robbed. And really she’s just upset because she misses her grandparents and feels helpless. He talks me off my ledge and tells me it’s okay and because he said it is, it is.
After I get off the phone, I wash my face, gather my sh-, and hop in a cab to go meet a reader (and new friend) who lives in Kenya. It’s my last night in Nairobi and I want to make the most of it and keep building memories, even if the man who just triggered so many probably already doesn’t remember me.
*Kenyans be walking. Like I walk fast, just because. But when I was out for my morning walk in Diani, I was hoofing, and this guy pushing a wheel barrow of old electronics came up from behind me out of nowhere and outpaced me… barefoot. And did not break a sweat.