I wake up to a knock on my door. Either “Wake up Paul!” or “Paul go to sleep!” is shouted at me by my five-year old “brother” whose English is good for his age, but who occasionally mixes up the two phrases. “OK” I say back, not moving from underneath my pea-green mosquito net. It’s 6:30. I usually spend my emerging-from-REM time staring at my Bugs Bunny fitted sheets, trying to figure out where the fabric pattern repeats itself. After five or so minutes of this I emerge in my pajamas to see the house in full swing: the TV blasting “Baby’s Day Out” in its PAL VHS glory, children scattered around, and my breakfast waiting for me. That has to wait, though, as I step outside and slip into my pink choo slippers (sandals) and head to the outdoor toilet. The word “toilet” is indeed used here, and the deaf children often shake around the handshaped letter “t” to indicate it, but it bears no resemblance to toilets as I knew them in America. Usually the hut has a lock on the inside and the outside. “Locked on the outside” means “vacant,” unless the victim of a cruel trick is stuck in there. I unlock and enter, swinging the makeshift wooden structure’s door closed behind me. Inside, a roughly 8”x8” square hole, cut into the cement, awaits me. A nail sticks out from the wall precariously, with newspaper hanging from it. It’s a “short call” in the morning, so no need to use the headlines.
Back inside I grab my toothbrush from my room and get to work on my teeth. Like all trips to my room, this involves unlocking the door upon entry and locking upon exit, to prevent my brother from finding and turning on all my torches (my flashlights, headlamps, and booklight). Toothbrush in mouth, I walk into the indoor bathroom, a luxury for most in the town, and I spit into the drain. The bathroom has the same dimensions as the choo. The only difference is that there is no square hole– just a drain for water in the corner. I go back into my room and trade my toothbrush for my soap and towel (unlock, lock) and then I head back to take my bath. The baths here are of the “bucket” variety, although it’s not truly a bucket… more of a wide, shallow, plastic basin. It’s not so bad— if I really wanted to, I could contort my body to sit in it, feet and all, although I worry about getting stuck when I try. The water has already been heated, but because I’m usually running late I don’t need to dilute it with cold water, kept in a yellow bucket in the corner. Five minutes of splashing later, I wash my pants (underwear) in the basin, dump the leftover water on my head, dry off, wrap my towel around my waste, don my PJ t-shirt, and head back to my room (unlock, lock) where I change into my clothes for the day. I favor my lightweight camping trousers because the walk is so muddy and I hate having to get the dirt out of the heavier materials. I wear a collared shirt every weekday but I don’t shave— I save that for Sundays.
Breakfast is quite possibly my favorite meal of the deal, especially if it’s pancakes. “Pancakes” here are more like crepes, really, and that’s to their benefit. Pancakes are usually served with bananas, which I cut up with a spoon and lay on the pancake, which I fold in half. Other mornings I might have two fried eggs with sliced tomato and cucumber, or an omelet. On those mornings I also have a slice of untoasted bread with margarine and plum jam. I also have “chai,” which in my home here is a general term reserved for any hot milk-based drink as well as its corresponding food. I usually take my milk with powdered Cadburry chocolate and sugar, although sometimes I put in instant coffee.
I eat quickly because I’m late, step outside, and slip on either my brown hiking shoes or boots, depending on how cloudy it looks. I check my pockets for all the necessary items for the day: notebook, pen, wallet, camera, umbrella, keys. OK, safe to proceed.
It’s about thirty paces to the front gate of the yard. The gates here are solid steel and high enough to be used in prisons. For a culture that has no concept of alone time, they take their fences very seriously. I wonder whether the giant gates keep the elephants out during the dry season. As soon as I step out of the gate, I see green and brown everywhere. Rows of low crops pepper the ground and the rolling hills in every direction for miles (kilometers, to be more locally correct). Mt. Kilamanjaro watches me from my left. I check to see how much snow has appeared due to yesterday’s rains and I turn right to head to my first stop: my friendly neighborhood Peace Corps trainee. She is already outside, of course, because I am late, and I don’t even stop as I walk by… she simply joins me as we try to make good time. The first fifteen minutes take us through a narrow path that cuts through people’s yards and shambas (farms).
We are terribly novel. The shouts of “How are YOU?” (said more quickly than normal) reach us from the distant shambas, where the inquisitive children can be seen only as small dots, if at all. Children we pass on the path ask us this question at the same volume, and it is not so much that they are curious about our well being, but more that it is the only English phrase they know, and it is taught instead of “Hello,” I think, because it more closely matches the Swahili greeting, “Habari” (Ha-BODD-ie), which cannot be repeated in response; rather, “nzuri” (Nuh (or Muh)-ZOO-dee) must be responded. It’s a one-way greeting, unlike “Hi,” and it can be tiring because nearly all adults will greet us as we walk, and if they beat me to the first greeting, I have to change gears and remember the second phrase. Keep in mind that I’m not learning Swahili so far– only sign language.
The children do seem to know at least one other English phrase here, although I don’t hear it nearly as often– it’s normally spoken quietly and at close range… “Give me your money.” It’s disquieting to hear, and it represents so much more than the children intend, and because it’s usually not pursued further I’m not sure how well the children understand the meaning of the words. Suffice to say that we do not give them our money, and a suitable response is yet to be crafted.
In the first part of the walk we only have to dodge one or two motorbikes, which share the narrow paths with us, often rolling down hills with the engine off to save petrol, moving at deadly speeds but making no sound as they whiz by. There are private motorbike owners, but usually what we see are the “pickie-pickies,” or bike taxis, which take people to and from town. Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to ride motorbikes, which in Loitokitok are the only form of public transport. Hence the walking. After we cross a small bridge at the most picturesque junction of the walk, we reach a car-accessible road. The roads here, I must emphasize, are not paved. They are clay dirt with the occasional giant man-eating puddle.
It is here that we meet the other trainee that will join us for the walk. We pass an orphanage and a tall sign that tells us that OPEC is sponsoring the road-paving project here. We quickly reach customs, at which point the road is paved just long enough for a few cars to be parked on it while they wait for the police to ask them questions. Remember, we are near the Tanzania border here. People and motorbikes do not stop at customs, and people carry machetes through with no trouble. We single-file our way through the opening to the side of the gate and follow the road for quite a while before we approach Loitokitok’s downtown. The closer we get to town, the smaller the shambas get. The next road is particularly trecherous, with narrow, slippery strips of mud serving as the only alternative to swimming in many cases. Jacaranda trees shed their wilted purple flowers as we walk, creating soft violet shadows underneath themselves. They look peaceful and I want to sleep under them.
We merge with the main road at the top of a hill from which we can see town. The sound of spinning sawblades here is loud as entire furniture sets are constructed and upholstered from scratch over the course of the day. We will see what today’s project is when we return in the afternoon. We walk downhill past the resident beggar and we wind through town, dodging motorbikes and the occasional car. Car, trucks, and vans here often have names emblazoned on them, much like one expects of seafaring vessels, except instead of having reminiscently feminine titles, they have names like “Secret Admirer” or “Why Poison?” Diesel smokes belches out of them in gag-inducing quantities, even as the machines idle, albeit roughly. On the other side of town we pass the local loon who tries to “show us his papers,” and who shouts obscenities when we refuse. We head uphill to our destination, the local primary school, where we will be spending the day for training.