Posted by: Mark | March 29, 2011

Where are the lions? Only in Kenya!

We had a fantastic month at Daraja, truly remarkable, so much so that I’ve been intimidated to write about it or take pictures or videos because how do you adequately capture something so magical?

But when you go to Africa, you also have to go on safari, even if you’ve been in Africa primarily to volunteer. and if you’re in Kenya going on safari, the best place to go, hands-down, is the Maasai Mara.

We went with Eliud of Odyssey Safaris, and if you ever go to east Africa and are looking for a guide, book them. They are an awesome company with super-friendly staff, and we could not recommend them more.

Being in nature with wild animals is totally and incredibly awesome. And as a reminder: I shot this video on my Flip HD. So my powers of zoom were extremely limited, but honestly, you don’t really need to zoom when you’ve got animals as close as we had them.

Enjoy!

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Posted by: Giulia | March 28, 2011

The Orphanage that Changed our Lives

Mark and I have known for a long time we wanted to adopt. In the 11 years we have been together we talked and dreamed about having an international family. We also knew we wanted kids with our eyes, our smiles, and a piece of our hearts. But we also wanted to make a difference in a child’s life and have them call us “mama” and “dada” no matter the color of their skin or the country in which they were born. Mind you, this was part of our plan way before Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were even a hot item.

For the month of March we got to live at Daraja. It is a magical secondary school started by our great friends Jenni and Jason. We were lucky to be part of the Board of Directors when the school was first getting on its feet. I fell in love with the girls and I fell in love with Kenya.

My Daraja Girls! Picture taken by my friend Blake.

One March 22nd one of the volunteers named Stephanie was going to a local orphanage to drop off some baby formula. We became fast friends and we spent a lot of time together. I decided to join her on that day.

That is when I met Harriet. She is a 7-month old Kenyan beauty with a smile that melts your heart. She was found on the streets when she was just 2 weeks old. I took her into my arms and never wanted to let her go.

The beautiful Harriet. That day I wore a similar summer dress with flowers. It was meant to be!

Right then and there I made her a promise. I wanted to be a part of her life. Whether it was by visiting her at the orphanage and holding her, or going to drop-off pretty dresses for her to wear, or finding a family that would love her the way she so deserved to be loved.

That night I shared my pictures with Mark and told him about my special day. We decided right then and there to go back to the orphanage together on our last day in Kenya. Mark held Harriet with so much love. He had the biggest smile on his face that I will never forget for the rest of my life.

Mark and Baby Harriet

In the short hours we were with her we realized that our life would be forever changed. Our dreams of adopting a child for so many years, felt real for the first time.

Who knows how long the process of adoption will take and when it will start. Maybe we will already have had our first baby by then. No one knows. All I know is that going to that orphanage in Kenya sparked a light in us that feels just right.

Me and my brother feeding the beautiful baby girls!

Posted by: Mark | March 21, 2011

Me and Gump

Forrest Gump ran across the country. A couple times, at least, but it’s kind of hard to tell exactly how many times based on the movie.

There’s one scene in the running montage that I’ve always liked, in which he runs in front of a towering snow-covered mountain that is serenely reflected into a lake in front of it. As a runner, I’ve been in search of a similar experience, but have never quite found it. I’ve driven cross country and back, twice, but I think being in the car made it hard to replicate. Even in biking down the California coast I never really found that Forrest Gump moment.

Out here on the Laikipia Plateau, I think I’ve found it.

The Laikipia Plateau is a wide expanse in central Kenya that is hot and dry, and sits at around 1500m above sea level. The area was given to the Masaai in a treaty with the British in 1904, as a sort of “thank you” for collaborating to fight against resisting tribes, but the British re-negged the treaty only 7 years later when white settlers began actively craving the plateau for ranchland. So the British took it back. (I learned this in order to teach history over these last few weeks.)

Now, the plateau is sparsely populated by some of Kenya’s more traditional tribes, like the Maasai and the Turkana, and most villages are squatter communities on the remnants of the British ranches.

Daraja is in the heart of the Laikipia Plateau. And for the last three weeks, I have woken at dawn, often before dawn, and set out to run the rocky and hilly roads of the Laikipia Plateau. I run with a headlamp and eventually abandon it when the sun gets bright enough. Daraja is just uphill from a river, and so the morning traffic that I encounter is almost entirely traditionally-dressed women who have to walk many kilometers to get water from the river for their families. I also run by a primary school and get to balance out the strange looks from the water-seeking women with a bunch of stoked looks from the school kids.

And every morning I find my Forrest Gump moment.

The Plateau is absurdly beautiful, a stark and reddish brown of rolling hills, with the ever-present Mt. Kenya looming in the background. When I run I can’t help but to envision a long-distance pan of a movie camera that showcases the dirt road and emphasizes my remarkable smallness amidst this gorgeous landscape. I think that’s why I’ve craved the Forrest Gump moment. I’ve wanted to be acutely aware of my smallness, because I spend so much time feeling self-important and large. There’s no better way to feel small than to get out into the unprotected world at a slow trot and open your eyes.

This past Saturday we all went into Nanyuki and everyone went out partying at a bar at night except for me. I went home after dinner and read about Buddhism and wrote, giving solid evidence to the argument that I am living an increasingly solitary existence of a hermit and am doing a damn good job at focusing on my own personal health but neglecting the health of my relationships. I tucked myself in and set my alarm for 6:30am and after stretching and brushing my teeth, I packed a small backpack with cookies and water, and started running back to Daraja.

My usual morning runs are about an hour long, and are probably between 6-8 miles. Downtown Nanyuki to Daraja is around 28km, or about 17.5 miles, a distance I have not run since I last trained for a marathon in 2005. I had been craving this run since I got here, and I finally went for it.

On an early Sunday morning the road is very quiet. The route is absurdly simple. It’s about 27km along a dead straight road that only has a few bends, and then a right turn across a river and then another right turn onto Daraja’s long driveway, so it’s hard to get lost.

I ran and loved every second of it for about 90 minutes, and then last 50 minutes were much more challenging and pushed me in the way that endurance sports tend to do. I passed Maasai herdsmen who looked at me and I looked at them and I think we both had a lot of questions to ask each other but neither the language nor the circumstances permitted the conversation we yearned for. I ran without earphones and instead listened to the birds and heard the engines of cars in the distance well before I could actually see them. I was stuck repeating in my head the melodies of some the religious songs that the Daraja girls constantly sing, such as “If Jesus says Yes, Nobody can say No.”

As the morning stretched along and the sun warmed everyone up, I started to pass families on their way to church, and kids for some reason could not help but to want to run along with me. Some kids asked if they could run alongside, and others just started running as I passed without asking or explaining or even smiling. One little girl of about 7 ran a solid 2km with me without ever once making eye contact or removing the serious grimace from her face. Another little boy saw me from a distance as I went through a particularly quiet stretch of the road, and sprinted toward me, screaming at the top of his lungs. Once he got close I realized what he was yelling—“chocolate!”—and I regretfully informed him that I did not have any chocolate but I still gave him a cookie from my backpack, without breaking stride.

Only a few kilometers shy of making it to Daraja I once again had new followers who were running behind me, making them my third distinct moment of running with a pack of unexplained followers, and I was feeling even more like Forrest Gump than I had anticipated. I chatted with the kids and asked about school and told them that I started running in Nanyuki, and one of the boys who was only in 5th grade looked at me thoughtfully and said, “So, not only Africans try hard. Mzungus (white people) try hard too.”

I had my Forrest Gump moment over and over again. I saw a pair of female peacocks flying overhead, a fairly rare sight. A few impala grazed quietly across the road from me as I quietly shuffled past. I caused near uproars in the two small towns I jogged through when everyone stopped everything to ask each other what the hell this idiot was doing running on a Sunday morning, so far away from where you might expect to see white people. Rain clouds gathered around me but never actually rained on me, but continually clarified and obscured my views of Mt. Kenya. I felt small in a big, big world.

I got back to Daraja tired, proud, and drenched in sweat. One of the girls saw me walking up to my house and said, “Mark, you are so wet. What were you doing, swimming in the river?”

I just looked at her and smiled and said in my best Forrest Gump impression, “I was running.”

Posted by: Mark | March 15, 2011

A Happy Sad Life

“Mr. Mark, what do you think it means when someone says that they have a happy sad life?”

I was at one of Daraja’s many dinner tables with three Form 3 students (the equivalent of juniors in high school) when one of them asked me this question. Over the last week, the students have grown to call me “Mr. Mark” or even “Teacher Mark” because due to a personnel mix-up, I spent the entire week as a full-time substitute, teaching history, geography, and religion. I will likely continue to teach for my remaining two weeks at Daraja.

“A happy sad life, huh?”

The student chin shrugged in a way that is uniquely Kenyan, a coordinated raising of the eyebrows with the casual chin lift that denotes affirmation, agreement, many things in fact.

“Well, I guess that I’d have to say that a happy sad life is when someone has a sad life, meaning that they come from a difficult upbringing, without a lot of love or support or even possessions, but that person still manages to be happy regardless. Like the opposite would be a sad happy life, when someone comes from all the ingredients that you might think would make you happy, but they still end up sad for some reason.”

She nodded in agreement. “I think it means the same thing.”

“Where did you hear that saying?” I asked her. “It’s very insightful.”

She just smiled shyly. I wonder if she made it up for an assignment.

Daraja is filled with girls who lead happy sad lives. Each story of upbringing that I hear leaves me aghast, stunned that these young women have had to endure such unthinkable travails and horrors, often beginning in early childhood. Lives of abandonment, neglect, abuse, and abject poverty. Stories that prime the pump for a sad life.

Yet this campus is full of happiness. I have never gotten so many hugs in my life as I have in the two weeks I have been at Daraja. I get, on average, about 30 hugs a day, and I’m talking about real hugs, ones that aren’t rushed and end with big smiles.

As I learn about the students of Daraja and encounter their happy sad lives, I often find myself thinking how many times I have encountered the exact opposite, the sad happy lives. The lives of those who are given all but can’t make sense of it to just be happy. I’m reminded of a quote by David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, when Mario Incandenza talks about a bunch of the students in his class. I don’t have the exact quote, so I’ll butcher it, but it’s something like, “Mario didn’t understand why most of the boys started to laugh a lot starting at around age 13, but not real laughter of being happy, but laughter of being uncomfortable.” Sad happy lives.

The inclusion of the second adjective begs the question: where does money actually factor into happiness? It’s obvious that money is neither entirely the provider of happiness, nor the destroyer of happiness, but it dwells somewhere in the middle instead. I will point out that we tend admire those who lead happy sad lives more than those that lead happy happy lives. When someone has a happy happy life, it’s often taken for granted that you basically should live that way because let’s be honest, what complaints do you really have in the first place. The sad lives, now those have some legitimate reasons for sadness.

I know that I come from a happy life, and I strive to make it a happy happy life. I have a loving family, and was able to attend fantastic schools. I’m a lucky one, for sure, and have always tried to make sure that I remember how lucky I am, and to not slip into apathetic ingratitude. But it happens sometimes, more than I’d like.

A former colleague of mine used to talk about what he called the “worry quotient.” Each of us has a quotient for worrying, and in our environments, we fill that quotient with our worries. In some parts of the world, those worries are whether you will make it through the night, or if you will have food for your family. In other areas, those worries are whether you can get the newest Apple product. But the point is, those worries are real for the person doing the worrying. While the content might be different, the worry is still real, no matter how superficial or contrived.

I guess my point is that the struggle for happiness, while it may seem more uphill for those with sad lives, is equally challenging regardless of circumstance. The first adjective is what counts, not the second. This might sound blasphemous to the many good liberal bleeding hearts out there, my own included, but it’s the realization I can’t help but to continually stumble into. We are all endowed with the same capacity for faith, hope, and belief; the question is how much we tap into those capacities, which is as much in our control as it is not.

With that in mind, I have been making serious efforts over the last few weeks to more deliberately cultivate my own happiness, to make sure that the life I live is in fact a happy happy life. I’ve been reading like a fiend while away, and have been particularly inspired by the writing of a few people, namely Robert Persig and his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ken Wilbur and the book Grit and Grace, assorted readings by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister in one of her many prayer books, and finally assorted works by Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner.

In short, I am trying to practice more mindful spirituality and existence. I start my mornings with either a run on the Laikipia Plateau, or else a morning yoga routine. After the exercises, I sit in the stillness outside of our straw roof banda, and ponder two essential questions: what am I going to do for the improvement of my own mind, body and spirit today? and, what am I going to do for the improvement of the mind, body, and spirit of my relationships to others today?

Nothing revolutionary here, far from unique, but this added moment of mindfulness is already starting to feel more fulfilling. Again, not always, but it’s definitely helping. I am already beginning to enjoy the rewards of a more satisfyingly happy happy life. I don’t feel as if I am waiting for happiness to find me. I feel more prepared to find it myself, inside myself as well as in the faces and hearts of others.

Maybe this is the epiphany that I’ve been searching for since I left home, and it came more as a slow realization. Where the Road Meets the Sun. We can always be basking in sunlight. We just need to find it.

And so I leave you to ask yourself. What kind of life do you lead? Happy sad? Happy happy? Sad sad? Sad happy?

But much more importantly, what are you going to do about it?

Sorry in advance for any delays in moderating comments. I’m only checking internet about twice a week, and so I apologize for slow replies.

Posted by: Mark | March 13, 2011

Spiritual Time at Daraja

9am on every Sunday at Daraja is Spiritual Time. Three classrooms become improvised houses of worship—one for Catholics, one for Protestants, and one for Muslims. I remember discussions from almost three years ago in which we wondered how we would accommodate the diverse religious callings of our students. Spiritual Time has become the answer.

I went to the Protestant service because it was the first service I was invited to attend. I plan on going to the Catholic one next week, and the Muslim one the following.

The services are entirely, 100% student run. They pick the hymns, with singing and dancing consuming about 70% of the service, as well as the readings, and even hold an open forum for testimonials.

I picked a seat in the back to stand. I’ve been to an African mass before. I knew to expect the singing, and the dancing, and the intense passion of the worship. I knew I would love it.

But still. This left me breathless.

The music started innocuously enough, with one girl just sort of humming to herself. It soon grew into a frenzy of uniform melodies, with the girls absolutely belting out as loud as their vocal chords permitted, eyes closed praise. On the board, it was written, “Please sing as if you might die the next second. Thank you!”

My jaw has more or less been on the floor during my entire time at Daraja, but most obviously during Spiritual Time. Their unashamed, entirely un-self-consciousness left me enviable. There I was, a privileged white American, a college education and masters degree comfortably under my belt, swaying nervously to the music, and full of envy for impoverished African women who wouldn’t even be at high school if it wasn’t for Daraja. Does suffering afford some special access pass to faith? Because I wanted what they had. I wanted to believe something as much as they believed it, to believe it in my mind and in my heart and in my body and in my soul.

The urban legend goes that the human voice can break glass. As the music swelled to its highest crescendo, the voices broke more than glass. They broke barriers of poverty, hopelessness, drought, chauvinism, and fear.

I am used to seeking silence to find my spirituality. I look for a solitary tree under which I can read or reflect, or some other clichéd location. I like the quiet moments of Catholic mass, and the intimidating, echoed silence of big, empty spaces. Spiritual Time was the antithesis of my spirituality. We packed into the room and girls danced so vigorously that they had to step outside on occasion just to cool down. In truth, they were not girls during Spiritual Time. They weren’t even women. They were sages, ageless and beautiful. I searched their faces as they sang and found joy and suffering in their most pure forms.

I have never felt so in awe. I have never had to fight for so long to hold back tears.

It’s a two-hour service, and the time flew. In the second hour, I stopped analyzing everything because they girls showed me the value of under-analyzing. I’ve said it a hundred times but still struggle to accept it: true faith transcends rationality. It is not exclusive of logic; it instead supercedes it. Their faith was so obviously beyond the limitations imposed by rationality, and as such, was in full bloom. And thankfully, it was contagious. By the end of the service I too had loosened my constraints and was carefree as I belted along to the songs that were easy to long, and followed their dance steps, and greeted their smiles with a smile rather than a nervous smirk.

I had brought my camera to the service but immediately felt ridiculous for doing so. You can’t take pictures of something like that. So please excuse the visual blandness of this post.

If you really need a visual, close your eyes and imagine a miracle. That’s Daraja. Then populate that miracle with other miracles. That’s the teachers, staff, volunteers, and most of all, the students. Then put those miracles into the same room, and turn the lights on, and marvel as they all marvel at how miraculous everything is.

That’s what it looks like.

Posted by: Giulia | March 11, 2011

Finally with My Daraja Girls!

We came to Kenya for one reason only. To meet our 77 girls! Our friends Jenni and Jason had a big dream…to start a secondary school in Kenya for girls who otherwise wouldn’t have the funds to attend. We were fortunate to learn about their project at their first-ever fundraiser three and a half years ago. We loved their goal and mission so soon thereafter they asked us to join the Board of Directors. We couldn’t have been happier. It was a long, tough road. At the beginning we only had funds to get us to the end of the month. We had no savings and it was a scary time. Now, we have a beautiful, functioning campus full of smiling girls.

I came here with Mark and my brother Pietro and his best-friend Sam. While we are at the end of our around-the-world trip, they are just at the beginning. They quit their jobs in NYC in February to come to Kenya and travel throughout South-East Asia. They went to culinary school so they are helping out Ruth in the kitchen. From preparing meals, to assessing the nutrition, to working on improving the food budget, we couldn’t of asked for better assistance!

What I love most about Daraja are the hugs. Anytime a girl sees you, she comes over, smiles, and gives you the biggest, warmest hug. On any given day I must get on average about 50 hugs. It is totally AWESOME. I spent my first week at Daraja attending classes with the girls. Oh boy, are they tough. Some of the math problems are super hard! But the girls are so smart and once you explain it to them once, they totally get it. I also was fortunate enough to lead a Business class with the girls and share my career in Marketing and my studies at Georgetown University with them. They were totally fascinated and asked some great questions.

Mark tutoring! Our girls work so hard.

We have the most amazing Volunteer Coordinator. His name is Andy. He’s a super nice guy and great at his job. The girls and volunteers all love him. One day he planned a wonderful Safari trip for all the volunteers to see the local baboons as well as a short visit to a Masai village nearby campus. We took 100’s of pictures and danced with the women in the village and bought some of their beautiful hand-made jewelry. 10% of the proceeds go to women education, how perfect is that?!

The Babooooons! How cute is this family of three?

This place is magical. I’m so happy to be finally here.

Me and the beautiful Carol. She is a super-star!

 

Posted by: Giulia | March 2, 2011

Tuk Tuking through Bangkok

I spent the last few days tuk tuking through Bangkok with my mama. It was a last minute decision on her part but when she told me her flights were booked and she was going to join our trip, I was ecstatic! She loves Thai food and has always wanted to go to Thailand so this was her perfect chance….and she really really really wanted to visit the Grand Palace.

 

Day 1. Poor Mark stayed in the cool air-conditioned suite since he had some seriously infected cuts from our farm experience in Indonesia. My mom and I had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to roam the streets of Bangkok in a Tuk Tuk together. We were supposed to get a quick ride to the Grand Palace, a series of Buddhist temples and government buildings, but our driver had a whole different set of plans for us in mind. He wanted to stop at a tailor shop so he could get 5 liters of free gasoline. It was easy, quick and a clear win win for both of us. Well, a “quick” stop turned into a full day of shopping.

Day 2. Nothing was going to derail my mom and I from our plan to see the Grand Palace. We got on a Tuk Tuk & a boat. When we get there we were falsely told the Palace is closed on Fridays. We were heart-broken.

Me and my mama. This is just a pretty local temple we walked into. Not to be confused with the entrance-way to the Grand Palace.

Day 3. Mark is feeling better and he decides to join us on our quest to see the Grand Palace. We decide to go to a travel agency and find out that the next tour is in 30 minutes. Then we wait. And wait. And wait….no bus ever comes. My mom who is a very patient person looses her patience after 2 hours. She goes up, asks for our money back and we leave. (That’s the abbreviated version. Let’s just say we had to fight for our refund…)

Day 4. Now it’s our mission, our sole goal in life to get to this Grand Palace. No obstacle will stand in our way. We stopped tuk tuks on the way for a ride but they all asked to make a quick stop on the way. Ohhh, no buddy! We fell for this once, it’s not going to happen again. We decide to pay double so he would drop us off at OUR destination, and not HIS. When we walk through the doors, my mom and I feel victorious. Mark shared his thoughts on the Grand Palace on the previous blog post and I have to say my opinion is quite different from his. I absolutely LOVED it. Maybe it’s because it was so hyped up in my head. Maybe it’s because I mentally convinced myself it was stunning considering that this was our 4th attempt trying to visit this place. But what I know is true is that when I walked through the gold-painted doors, the next 2 hours I couldn’t stop snapping pictures. I was capturing every gold roof, every glass-mirror detail, every hand-painted tile. You can definitely walk in and feel overwhelmed by all this gold and exaggerated architecture. But it was so different than anything that I had ever seen before that I felt like I was in a dream and I was the beautiful princess living there. Thousands of thoughts and ideas were going through my head. I thought about the millions of tourists that have walked through those temples since the 1780’s when it was originally built, the Buddhist monks that come each day to pray, and the thousands of people that worked with their own hands and talents to build each statue and temple, one hand-painted tile at a time. I felt an overwhelming sense of love and connectedness when everyone came together in prayer. Even if I didn’t understand one word, it was truly spectacular to be a part of it.

Posted by: Mark | February 27, 2011

False False Idols

We went to the Grand Palace in Bangkok today. The tourist map says it’s the number one tourist attraction in the city. Built in the 1780s, it is a sprawling complex of pagodas, chapels, and government buildings, all ornately constructed for the glory of Buddha. At least that’s what the guide book says.

The architecture is striking, in the same way that Flava Flav’s absurdly oversized pendants dangling around his neck are striking. It was bling bling on overload.

That’s not a problem in and of itself. People can go bling if they want. I’m ok with bling sometimes. But bling on temples? I have a bit of a harder time with that one, and always have.

Walking through the Grand Palace, I felt like I feel when I visit the Vatican. The opulence is staggering but leaves me feeling spiritually hollow. I believe that temples should elevate one’s sense of spirituality, but grand structures like these instead anesthetize my deeper pinings. They lock the divine behind golden doors that visitors are not allowed to traverse. The hapless visitors, shuffled around like a herd, instead resort to snapping photo after photo, and dutifully check their glorious awe at the ticket counter.

To draw an analogy: I love weddings. I love the celebration of love, the joining of families. At the same time, I hate the posed photos that predictably occur right after the ceremony. To me, they break with the deep and real appreciation for love that is otherwise in every part of a wedding. We line up in order and smile fake smiles over and over again as the sweat drips down our backs, and we wait to smile real smiles again, like we did the whole ceremony, and will the whole rest of the reception.

The Grand Temple felt like the organized photos at a wedding. Sure, it looked nice, but it felt like a distraction from what is supposed to be the main event. And you spend almost the whole time worrying that you’re getting in someone else’s picture.

The visit wasn’t totally bereft of inspiration. We found a little corner of the grounds where a prayer service was occurring. A monk led a chant over a microphone, and countless old ladies (Thank God for the pious old ladies who pick up for our spiritual slack) chanted along while in lotus position. The official prayer area was sanctioned off from tourists by a rope. Most tourists buzzed through that area, “Nothing to see here.” We sat and observed the ceremony for about 20 minutes, and I loved it. The temple was being treated like a temple.

Having traveled a fair share in my life, I am struck by how consistently humankind seems to have gotten the fundamental message of religion wrong. When did Buddha ask to be draped in gold? Or Christ, for that matter? And yet throughout the world and throughout history, humans have invested countless hours and resources to do just that. To create what I would go so far as to call false idols. Not the golden calf exactly, but variations of it.

I found more of the divine in the dirt permanently wedged underneath Ketut’s fingernails than I did in the Golden Temple. I found it under a massive tree in the hills by Portibi Farms. I find it and rediscover it in the face of the friends we meet on the trip, the people who open their doors to us with grand smiles and generous hearts.

I think it was fitting to go to the Grand Temple on our last full day in Southeast Asia, because our next step is Kenya, to spend a month at the Daraja Academy. I have been to Daraja before, but it was an empty campus then, as school had yet to open. Truth is, when I visited, the financial future of the school was uncertain, but I still invested myself into the dream of the school.

On this visit, which starts tomorrow, we are going with the school in its third year of operation, and we will get to meet 78 amazing Kenya students who otherwise would not be afford high school. We will bond with our good friends Jason and Jenni, the founders of the school, whom we rarely get to see since having moved to Kenya. I will re-connect with the staff I fell in love with my first time around, and look forward to making new connections with the constantly expanding support staff. We will marvel in the majesty of Mt. Kenya as well explore the parched Laikipia Plateau.

And we will be utterly drenched with divinity, saturated to the core. Schools have a funny way of doing that…Daraja does in particular, a school sustained by miracles.

When we were leaving the Grand Palace, above the din of the chattery tourists and the ever-present click of cameras, I heard a slight chiming. Looking up, I realized that many of the buildings’ awnings were lined with simple bells, and with the escalating wind, a few were liberated to sneak out their high-pitched calls. The bells became my favorite architectural detail in the place, much more than the peeling gold paint splattered all over the building, and the colored mirrors that posed as jewels. The bells reminded me that enlightenment may be invisible, and hard to understand no matter how many times you’ve read the scientific explanation for what the hell causes wind, but it’s always there, simultaneously within and out of reach.

We will be hearing bells in Kenya. I know it.

P.S. Giulia had a much different impression of the Grand Palace, and will be sharing that here soon.

P.P.S. We will likely have much more limited internet access in Kenya, so don’t mind us if we slow down the pace of updates. We’ll still try our best to keep active. KThanksBye.

Posted by: Giulia | February 20, 2011

Shabby Chicness and Beautiful Nature

The top reasons of why I love Lodges Ekologika at Portibi Farms….

The friends that know me well are aware of my love for anything vintage & shabby chic. In California there is this amazing flea market called The Alameda Flea Market and it takes place the first Sunday of every month about 45 minutes from my house in San Francisco. I don’t miss it, ever! I tend to go with my girl-friends because Mark refuses to ever come with me. He hates this kind of stuff, but he does love the fun, painted, furniture or artwork that ends up coming home with me after a long day of roaming the endless aisles. These unique pieces give life & character to our Sunset apartment, which I absolutely love.

Unfortunately I have had to miss the last couple of fairs because I’m not in SF right now. The good news is that at our latest WWOOF spot in Jakarta all the decor was shabby chic! When I walked through the property for the first time I was jumping around like a little girl telling Mark to “ohh look at this!” & “ohh look at that!” I was in my own little heaven. One of my many responsibilities was to play photographer during my time there. I took hundreds of pictures for their new website as well as for my own personal enjoyment.

Another one of my favorite aspects of this place is the beautiful natural surroundings. There is fresh salad, flowers, trees, growing everywhere! Every green that we ate was hand-picked in the farm. It’s a special feeling to eat everything that is harvested on your own land. You have a new found appreciation and respect for your food.

Here are some of my favorite shots of the farm that I took this week. Enjoy! Let me know what your favorite shots are. Would love your feedback =)

One of the beautiful guest houses. Check out the detail on those vintage guard-rails. love.

My favorite picture. A cute, little, old lady walking down the path carrying bananas.

Our lovely outdoor bathroom. Check out the colors and detail on the antique door.

My favorite plant at the farm. Can you guess why? It's purple of course!

Shabby chic tiles that are added to the new guest houses. Wanted to bring some home!

View through an antique guard rail. Check out that greenery!

I mean, can you see the beauty that is that door?! love.

Mark and I getting ready for our last harvest, picking salad.

Posted by: Mark | February 16, 2011

Death and all of his friends

I killed a baby rat the other day. It was awful.

On our second night here, we heard ruffling in the ceiling and found that we had a rat roommate. We must have scared her by shining our flashlights on her, because she scampered off, only to return a few minutes later. She carefully navigated the rafters, and then the wall, and then quickly jumped to our closet and disappeared, to then reappear and run off with a lump in her mouth. After a few minutes she came back and did the same thing, and on the second trip we realized that those lumps were actually her babies. She had a nest in our closet and was hiding the babies throughout the roof now that she felt that her security was compromised.

(Rat roommates, by the way, are an inevitable side effect of jungle living. This place is teaming with wildlife.)

We told our host about the rat and he brought down poison. As endearing as it was to watch a rat protect her babies, and it was pretty darn cute, they are still rodents and they eat through bed mattresses and clothes and are a menace to have in a guest house. And I say this having fully enjoyed the movie Ratatouille.

By telling Jocean about the rat, I was taking the first step in what would likely turn out to be the death of that rat family. But I was taking a distant, aloof backseat role in the process. I set things in motion, but was otherwise ready to sit back and let the killing unfold in front of me, without my involvement.

Two nights later, I went to take a shower at night and there was a baby rat in the shower. Nowhere to go. Couldn’t climb out. The baby rat was cute and terrified, but I knew it would grow up to be an adult rat, one that would probably create future baby rats, and the rodent problem would only be worse. I hated what I had to do, but I knew what lay ahead of me. I had to kill the rat. Myself. With whatever resources I had around me.

After almost an hour of pep-talking myself in and out of things, with Giulia and I squirming in discomfort at every possible option, I grabbed a broom and flipped it around and when the moment was right I took a swift swipe at the rat with the broom handle. I was trembling as I went for it, my heart jumping in my throat. The fact that a huge spider was silently watching in his web overhead certainly didn’t help. I killed it on impact, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t a clean or silent death. My adrenaline kept me up for over an hour afterward. It was a tough night.

If we had found a rat in my shower in San Francisco, I probably would have called the landlord, who would have called an exterminator, who would have kicked us out of the house for a day or two and would have taken care of the job by himself. In his final report he probably would give us the satisfying body count tally, and I wouldn’t have thought much else about it.

But we’re not in the city. We are on a farm in Java. And on a farm, death is a constant presence. We kill weeds that invade the fields, we kill overgrown bushes that cover trails, and yes, we kill rats.

When you really boil it down, much of what I actually do here could be classified as killing. Weeding is killing. It’s purposeful killing, sure—we pull out the weeds that choke off nutrients from the crops that provide us sustenance—but it’s killing all the same. My favorite activity is to grab a scythe and clear out the overgrown bush. That’s obvious killing. I’m basically stabbing big bushes.

Death feels like it is everywhere. Without death, we don’t eat. I’ve never been so intimately connected to my food, and I’m realizing how much death it takes to get to my plate. “Death” is such a nasty word, but it really shouldn’t be. And although I’m identifying much of my work here as “death,” love is just as omnipresent here, if not more so. Love in the human relationships, like that of Jocean and his family, and in the natural relationships found in the bugs and the rats and the wind and the trees.

But it is inescapable that death is all around. While you might think that makes me feel dark or glum, it is in fact having the exact opposite effect. I’m more mindful of the fragility of life, and therefore, more prone to be focusing on what is really important in life, most notably, love.

When Giulia was acutely sick, death felt very real and present, more than it ever had during my life, and it was in that stretch of time that I focused most on love and gratitude. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude that I tattooed a token of it into my forearms: gratitude for my wife, my family, my friends, my health, and most of all, the beauty of life. Love felt so goddamn important that I never wanted to let it go. I wanted to be reminded of it every time I looked down at my hands.

But in “normal” life in the city, or the suburbs, or wherever, death doesn’t feel nearly as present. We are distant from our food and its sources, and don’t consider the many, many sacrifices that went into its production. Death goes into the creation of the clothes I wear, and the car I drive, and the bike I ride, I don’t think about any of that stuff while I enjoy them. I’m just going about my business, focusing on other stuff, like whether or not to switch back to Verizon now that the iPhone is finally on their network, or who to invite to our welcome home party.

In “normal” life, it often takes the illness of a loved one to force death back into our consciousness. And then we go into the regret spiral: did I spend enough quality time with this person, was our last visit meaningful, was I as attentive to this person as I could have been? Death’s re-emergence rattles our thinking in profound ways and forces the big questions back into our focus, questions we otherwise leave aside. And when there is no news of illness? Death goes back into hiding as an aloof, momentary concern. The modern world has gifted us a cool indifference to our own survival, which has many, many tangible blessings, but on a metaphysical level, it has disassociated death from our lives.

But I’m finding on the farm, or maybe I should say re-discovering here on the farm, how liberating an acknowledgment of death can be. I read recently in a book somewhere that when we fear death, it means we actually fear life. We fear that we’re doing it all wrong, and need to fix it all before we die, and spend every day frantic that we might not have another day to wrap up all the loose ends. What a frantic way to live. The writer goes on to point out that the inverse is true: lose your fear of death, and lose your created worries about life.

If a metaphorical broom handle was to suddenly crush me against a wall, like I did to that poor baby rat, what phone I have doesn’t matter, nor what type of clothes I buy or how much money I have in my bank. Those don’t matter. Love, on the other hand, matters very, very much. Or to be more precise: how I love matters very, very much. I learned this when Giulia was sick, but the insight drifted as she improved and death drifted from my consciousness. The recent passing of a family member is re-teaching me this lesson. In every memory I have of her, which are mostly from my childhood, she was a source of happiness and love. I’m now left wondering if I was able to fully reciprocate that love to her. She’s family, so of course I loved her. But how I loved is important. The final reminder of this lesson comes from the farm and death’s constant presence. It feels like I’m being hit over the head, for what will hopefully be the last time, by some divine teacher as I hack down plants. “Just learn this lesson already will you? How many times do you have to be reminded, you bonehead.” And so I’m trying to loosen the many parts of me that focus on superfluous worries and just love the best I can.

When I consider many of the people I love, I realize that much of it is a selfish love. I love people but I want things for myself out of that love. I want their company, their consolation, their friendship, and the list goes on. But when called to be truly unselfish for someone I love, and support them as they pursue their happiness, regardless of how it impacts my own happiness, I often have difficulty. I still have much to learn on how to love.

And so here I am. Still farming, still surrounded by love, life, and death, and still reflecting on how to love less selfishly. Because how I love matters very, very much.

Strange. All of this has been stewing for a while, most immediately since the email arrived over a week ago with worrisome news about Judy’s health, but it took the death of a baby rat to finally sort it all out.

How I love matters very, very much.

Dedicated to Judy Zytka. You are missed.

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