Monday, December 10, 2007

10 December 2007

We had a fantastic week in Kenya, fitting in three dives, a safari, a visit to a local school-slash-orphanage to drop off some toys and supplies, and lots of lounging around in the pool. Kenya is many things that Switzerland is not– hot, sunny, and full of friendly people who told us that we should stay in Kenya forever. As with all countries, however, the positives come with some downsides, as well – the tap water isn’t even safe enough to rinse your toothbrush, the mosquitoes tend to spread malaria, and the roads are rather bumpy, even when they happen to be paved.

The population of Kenya is, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly black. We were tourists, though, and therefore came across a fair number of other tourists, but they were almost all white. I didn’t see a single other Asian person in a week of traveling until we were in the Nairobi airport on the way back. It’s really rather shocking to go to a tourist destination and not see a single Asian person (other than myself) taking pictures of everything that moves.

This unfamiliarity with Asians led to some interesting exchanges. Locals repeatedly asked the three of us (two blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasians and one Asian) if we were siblings. I’ve spent most of my life being mistaken for my sister, or as a sibling of Asian friends, due to the fact that to non-Asian eyes, “all Asians look the same.” I suppose that to African eyes, all non-Africans look the same. One day, I was walking by myself, and a Kenyan asked me, based purely on appearance (since I hadn’t spoken) if I were Russian. Huh?!

Kenyans are exceedingly friendly. Children will stop their games upon seeing a van bearing foreigners and delightedly scream, “Jambo!” which is Swahili for “Hello.” Upon seeing me, however, they would get up and run towards the van, pointing and yelling, “Wachina!” which is Swahili for “Chinese.” I had to laugh, because that was pretty much our reaction when we were on safari, excitedly calling out, “Giraffe! Zebra! Oryx!”

Due to the existence of anti-American sentiment in many places, when asked, we generally said that we lived in Switzerland, which often prompted Kenyans to tell us that our English was very good, and which sometimes led down rather awkward conversation paths about how long we studied English. When bargaining for various knickknacks (no one can leave Africa without buying at least one wood carving, and no one can buy a wood carving without haggling), in the interest of appearing less prosperous, we were a bit vague about our professions – two of us are lawyers, and the third is an engineer for a company that manufactures electrical devices, which we turned into “I work in an office,” and “I work in a light switch factory.” I don’t think we fooled the salesmen at all.

It was a shock to come back to Switzerland – a week of wearing nothing but copious quantities of sunscreen, t-shirts, and shorts does not segue well into cold, wind, and rain. It is a relief, however, to be able to brush your teeth without fear of parasites, and to live mosquito-free.

This past weekend was spent with a friend in Amsterdam, where it is similarly cold and rainy. Next weekend, we’re heading for the mountains, where the cold rain will perhaps be cold snow, instead, and I can go skiing for the first time in fifteen years. Yes, I’ve been here for over three years and haven’t managed to muster up the motivation to go skiing. For shame.