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I was groggy when I pulled on my shoes this morning, so I didn’t take the usual five extra seconds to wham them against the wall a few times and dislodge any nighttime occupants. I was surprised when I found they weren’t actually empty, although not half so surprised as the spider the size of a playing card that ran out. Luckily, rather than bite my foot, it tried to escape. By running up my leg.

I tell you, that will wake you up a hell of a lot faster than a cup of coffee.

The rest of the day went smoothly enough. I have a routine medical appointment this week in Nairobi, then will be staying an extra day to do some electronic window shopping for my clinic’s disease monitoring project. To accomplish this trip in a way that is both convenient and in accordance with Peace Corps travel policy, I’m spending the night in Mombasa and catching a morning bus out of there. It adds a little more time and expense than, say, the pre-dawn-departure-arrive-after-dark –slightly-sketchy Malindi → Nairobi Express, but it’s worth it. Besides, Mombasa’s *fabulous.*

On previous trips, I’ve almost always been here as part of a larger group (or with at least one other person.) This is fun, too, but traveling alone is something I have some familiarity and comfort with. You really test your knowledge of the place: how to get around, where to eat, what’s a good price for watermelon slices. That sort of thing.

I arrived in the relatively early morning and after refreshing myself from the typical death-defying matatu ride with a tall iced coffee, I headed out to explore. Even if you dodge the usual touristy places (I STILL haven’t been to Fort Jesus), Mombasa has a lot to offer! Markets! Fruit stands! Second-hand book sellers! Great samosas! Awesome tiny cafes! After mailing a record thirty-two letters (OW MY TONGUE WILL NEVER RECOVER FROM ALL THOSE STAMPS) I mostly just wandered. Took lunch. Bought a couple of used books to entertain me on the bus ride tomorrow. Practiced getting completely lost and seeing if I could find my way back to my hostel. Talked to a spice seller for a long time about how tourists never bother to learn the simple “please” and “thank you” portion of Swahili. Shocked a textile seller by buying a white-and-black checked scarf (“But … you are an American,” he said in exasperated Swahili. “This is like the head cloth of Mr. Arafat! An American cannot wear this! America! Israel! America!”) Explored endless quantities of singing Good Luck cards. Bought some snacks for the trip (slightly dubious looking … sesame cake things?)

It’s now early evening. I’m tired from all the walking, so I’m lying on the narrow bed at my hostel, plotting for dinner. Trek back out to that great Indian place I always go to when I’m coming through Mombasa, or get a chapatti and soda from the place across the street and save my limited food budget for something decadent and useless in Nairobi?

Decisions, decisions.

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Ajabu.

ah-JAH-boo.

In Swahili, it means weird, or unusual, or astonishing. It’s a word I’ve used to describe my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, to describe the wonky dreams gifted to me by my antimalarials, and to summarize why things in my life sometimes work out perfectly against all sensible reason. It’s a good word. And, oddly enough, it’s a word I’ve heard more this week than I have since I started learning the language.

Usage One.
I boarded a matatu the other day and found myself sandwiched within a pack of hyenas giggling school children. There were more in the row of seats behind me. It was a longish ride, during which I shielded myself from their curious gaze by reading a slightly outdated copy of The Daily Nation newspaper I hadn’t had a chance to finish yet. They spoke openly about me – my clothes, my figure, my skin – without realizing that I could understand a word they were saying. I heard a rustling behind me, as though the kid was leaning far forward in their vinyl seat, and suddenly – YANK. My ponytail was pulled.

I turned, gave the row of kids a mildly irritated look, and went back to my newspaper. It was less than two minutes before – YANK. Harder this time. When I turned, they got a scolding glare. Clearly, the deterrent failed, because I soon heard the creak of vinyl once again; before they could reach me, I wheeled around and snapped (in Swahili) ”KNOCK IT OFF! That’s bad behavior!”

The look-a-talking-farm-animal look came over their faces and they sat with mouths gaping until one summoned the courage to respond ”But your hair! It’s so … weird!”

I know.

Usage Two.
Leaving Malindi after a USAID monthly review meeting, I was greeted by a tout who recognized me and called to me familiarly. “DADA WATAMU! HABARI YAKO?! HABARI ZA KAZI?! HABARI ZA MAISHA?!” he inquired at maximum volume as he good-naturedly shoved me into the waiting matatu. I did my best to answer as I half-crawled, half-stumbled to the back row. Two women in hijabs sitting in front of me put their heads together in a much more discrete version of the school girls’ conversation from the previous day. ”The mzungu understands Swahili? Is it true?” one queried. ”I think so,” the other replied contemplatively. ”Do you know any other mzungu who learn Swahili?”
“No. It is unusual.”
She paused. ”Ajabu sana.” Very unusual.
The other nodded before adding, ”Ajabu kabisa.” Completely unusual.

I smiled privately at her invocation of one of my most favorite Kiswahili words. But that rarity’s a pity, don’t you think?

Usage Three.
I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, one of those parts of America where the expectation of the majority is still to live, wed, and die within a three county radius of where you were born. (And there’s nothing wrong with this – but it ain’t for me.) My best friend since I was knee high to a duck was a girl we’ll call R, who lived five houses down the street from me. We lost touch when I moved to Washington, DC following my parent’s divorce and I don’t know if I’d actually spoken to her more than once or twice since I was 15.

That is, up until last month, when she sent me a message on facebook to reconnect. She’s finished with university and is – for the moment, at least – an aspiring photojournalist based out of Nairobi. As in … Kenya. As in … a day’s busride from where I am. We made plans to meet up; I saw her briefly a few weeks ago as she sped up the Coast on an assignment, which was awesome. I was actually able to hang out with her more while I was in Mombasa this past weekend. We laughed and caught up and found ourselves wondering why we’d ever lost touch to begin with. She’s leaving Kenya soon to begin a graduate program in – what else? – African studies.

That kind of serendipity is … unexpected. Not impossible, of course, but in defiance of ready explanation.

Ni ajabu.

As the gauzy haze of sleep slipped back, the first thought that scuttled across my Larium-addled dream-brain was that I had just born auditory witness to a murder. It was not the sound of my alarm that woke me, but rather a choked cry from the hallway of “I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE!” This was swiftly accompanied by a crunching THWUNK noise, followed by the sound of dragging something large and inert. Like a body. Or, as it turned out to be, an enormous duffel bag.

I wonder why people are saying their goodbyes already, I mused as I came to my senses, it’s only …

6:15.

I was supposed to be meeting my group at 6:30.

ACK!

Despite my alarm’s best efforts to sabotage my departure, I made my bus with plenty of time to spare. I passed the time before we embarked partly by listening to PCV Lorenzo play guitar and partly by chatting in Kiswahili with a newspaper hawker. Imagine my surprise when I opened one of Kenya’s national dailies, The Standard, and found a picture of myself. WHAAAAT? There was an unnervingly large media presence at our swearing-in yesterday; it’s shocking that out of the hundreds upon hundreds of rapid-fire pictures taken throughout, they chose a seriously unflattering photograph of me cracking up laughing because we all messed up the oath. Hrm.

It was even more surprising when a handful of random Kenyans on my bus to Mombasa asked me for my autograph. I laughed it off and used it as an opportunity to talk about the work the Peace Corps does, which wasn’t explained in that particular paper. It was, however, described in greater detail in the front-page coverage the event was granted by another national daily, The Star. Kumbe!

The bus ride itself was quite pleasant. I mostly dozed, waking occasionally to find that my supervisor had once again thoughtfully left some snack or other – roasted nuts, carrot juice, bottled water – in the seat pocket in front of me for consumption at my leisure. A lot of PCVs were anxious about their community counterparts before this week’s workshop, but mine’s pretty awesome. He pointed out landmarks and large mammals when he thought they would interest me, and together we worked a crossword in the Daily Nation to pass the time. As the road unspooled gradually towards our day’s destination, the landscape shifted notably. What began as scrubby acacia trees and distant peaks quietly gave way to arid copses of baobob trees. I’m a huge fan of those trees myself, but seeing them in such great number (and at the near-total exclusion of other large plants) was simultaneously compelling and a bit eerie. As we neared the coast, groves of mango and coconut began to overtake the view entirely. The land flattened to soft sand hills with distant glimpses of the Indian Ocean. In what seemed much less than the actual 8+ hours it took, we were in Mombasa.

Before I had even made it to the sidewalk, I was swarmed with cab drivers, goods hawkers, and street children. I barked at them in Kiswahili and they buggered off – for the most part. One unflappable man asked who I was waiting for, told me my ride wasn’t coming, and insisted he would drive me to my destination in one gasping breath. “COME, I TAKE YOU,” he said emphatically, helping himself to a handful of my jacket sleeve. I countered by throwing an arm around the nearest male PCV and telling him in polite but firm language that I didn’t need his help. My colleague had to repeat the message before the guy got it.

But before I could really start to get frustrated, the evening call to prayer started and came echoing down the street. Instantly, my sensory memory conjured Damascus at dawn and twilight sails in Zanzibar. Something in the base of my neck unclenched. I breathed in the city that will be a satellite second home for the foreseeable future and felt a thrill just to be standing there.

Tomorrow I’ll be meeting ranking officials and community poobahs before finally, finally, finally making it to the place I should (inshallah) call home for the next two years or so. Then I can begin to unpack, to brush up my best Kiswahili, and get down to the business of doing what I was brought here to do. Although what that is, exactly …? We absolutely shall see.

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Yours truly