Posted by: Mark | April 7, 2011

Time Travel

We left Kenya in the middle of the night. Our plane rose into the air at 3am. We fell asleep and woke up in Istanbul…a new destination, a new continent, and as I grew to appreciate, a new time period.

Kenya, like much of Africa, has been unfairly left behind much of the developed world in terms of its basic infrastructure. I have seen my fair share of developing countries, but Kenya, the only African country I have visited for an extensive period of time, has stood out. Even the nice places in Kenya are antiquated, and I don’t mean that in the way that charming medieval churches are antiquated. I mean it in that electricity is unreliable and there is no clean drinking water. That kind of antiquated.

To further explain myself: there are only three building materials that you’ll see in Kenya—dirt, wood, and stone. You have to dig deep into the fancy heart of Nairobi to find steel and drywall. We spent the bulk of our time on Daraja’s campus in one of the many volunteer bands (circular huts) which have been designed to accommodate mzungu visitors. We had a western toiled that didn’t flush, but at least we could sit down. Our shower water was a bit murky since it was pumped from the river, but at least we didn’t have to walk down to the river with our buckets to gather our daily ration of water. We only had electricity for 4 hours a day, but at least we didn’t have to spend the day looking for firewood to light our home at night.

I make these comparisons because the latter is how many rural Kenyans live. It feel like life is out of a different century. With the exception of a few modern conveniences, like overcrowded matatus (mini-vans) and cell phones, the lives are Kenyans are from a bygone era.

There is the obvious unfairness to point out in all of this, and the profound question of “How has humanity gone so far astray that we force so many people to live like this?” On the other hand, there is the temptation to romanticize the poverty, to say cheerfully that the Kenyans smiles through their woes, and only if only us over-fed and over-stimulated Americans could be so happy and grateful. Both of these are interesting strains of thought to pursue, but I’m not going to follow them to their conclusions. I’m more interested in time travel.

When we woke up in Istanbul, it really felt like we had traveled through time. We got used to our Kenyan life. And life in Istanbul felt decades if not centuries ahead.

In Istanbul, we were re-absorbed by the 21st century as we stayed with our friends Goknur and Orhan, an infinitely cool couple. We got to their cozy apartment and they were playing cool music. They both have cool jobs, and take cool pictures of each other, and talk about cool things. I noticed out on the streets of the city that smartphones were ubiquitous. We had good, reliable WiFi and a hot shower whenever we wanted them. In fact, on one night Giulia and I did what I think many 21st century-ites do with increasing regularity: we watching a movie while we played on our phones. Multi-screening at its finest.

The differences were very real, but I don’t mean to disparage Kenya. I absolutely loved it there. I had the time and peace to put serious emphasis on the development of my personal spirituality. The month at Daraja almost became a retreat for me, and the girls nurtured my searching through their examples of staunch faith. A stand-out moment was when we all interrupted class to pray, and then dance, when rain started falling. It was the first rain in 3 months, offering relief from an increasingly challenging drought, and we rejoiced together. I’ve never felt so grateful for rain before.

I don’t know in which century to classify Kenya—18th? Early 19th?—but it is a time dedicated to the spirit. School and family are important pursuits, but everything is trumped by God. Live gracefully, love fully, and praise God endlessly. When you drive through the country, you see countless trucks with bible quotes emblazoned on their rigs. The girls’ biblical knowledge is staggering, far surpassing my own, and I’m a guy who takes a bit of pride in my biblical knowledge.

The 21st century, by comparison—in Istanbul, Manhattan, San Francisco, and everywhere else—seems to me to be dedicated to creativity and personal expression. Technology has unleashed our dependency upon memorizing, which is still greatly emphasized in Kenyan education where Google is very, very far from the students’ fingertips, and has democratized creativity. We all can publish. We all can share pictures. We all can reach an audience. And so we do.

The guidebook says you only need about 45 minutes to fully explore the Hagia Sophia. Orhan, Goknur, Giulia, and I spent a solid 2 hours there, each of us pursuing our own independent artistic expression of our experience. The building was built for the enjoyment of a very privileged few, and it was alive and teeming with optimistic artists, each hoping to capture the mood as it struck them.

I think above all else, putting the pro’s and con’s of the material comforts aside, this is the most striking difference between these two places and times. One focuses on the spirit; the other focuses on creativity. Both are noble pursuits. And of course, both can be found in other places as well. I am painting in broad strokes and making sweeping generalizations, but I find them to be mostly true. The Old World is for the soul, and the New World is for the creative spark.

It has me wondering. How many artists have been left unexplored and undiscovered simply because of access? Have we buried Kenya’s Picasso under the rubble of inopportunity? And on the other hand, how many present-day Thomas Aquaineses have ignored their spiritual thirst because of modernity?

As a history teacher, I sometimes dream of visiting other time periods. For example, I would love to have seen 12th century Toledo, a hodge podge of trade, intellect, and religious diversity. But I can’t tell which era I actually want to be in, and not just visit, like Bill and Ted did in their time-travelling phone booth.

Of course, as the Flaming Lips would say…”All we have is now. All we ever have is now.” Point taken. I guess it’s up to me to decipher what now means, both spiritually and creatively.



  1. Can’t believe this trip is reaching the end…what will I read when I have papers to write?!

    I think it’s fascinating that you chose to write about Istanbul here. I visited a couple years ago and was struck by the harsh juxtaposition of the old and the new – not as old as Kenya, of course, but it’s so fascinating to see buildings like the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and to go steps away and find streets jammed with designer stores and Hilton Business hotels and ugly modern apartments stacked sky-high. Is it possible for a country like that to move forward and still maintain it’s incredible history? How will this manifest itself when countries like Kenya get the opportunity to advance? Such an interesting dilemma, and you and Giulia are lucky to get to see it unfolding.

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