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Sidewalks, Sailors, and Slimy Leaves

Student 24's picture

I begin this paper with with a brief walk-through of my places of origin. The where-I-am-from’s. They are like stepping stones. Or building blocks. By contemplating this list I am browsing through my memories to find the right ‘slice’ about which to write this essay. I find that thought process is worth paying attention to in order to observe what triggers your mind to go in what direction, especially when searching through past experiences and emotions.

Gliwice, Poland
Houston, Texas, USA
Richmond, Virginia, USA
Georgetown, Washington DC, USA
Dupont Circle, Washington DC, USA
Nairobi, Kenya
Istanbul, Turkey
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA

David Sobel writes about Robert Michael Pyle’s musings on relationship with the land around him, describing a ditch in a city as his ‘place of initiation.’ I look in my memories for what I could call my ‘ditch,’ but I feel that I didn’t spend enough time in one place to fully immerse myself in the ditches around me. I definitely had them in every place I lived, but as soon as I left, I would leave them behind because there is a thrill of going some place new that eventually overshadows the brokenness of separation and departure. I had adventures in cobblestone alleys behind my houses and brick sidewalks that cracked and crackled along with the autumn’s dry fallen leaves and broken glass and friends in city playgrounds without swings and metro stations bustling with characters. I suppose I was a character there too. I had many ditches, but they remain in their place and I’ve moved on and away.

I am ambivalent about claiming one of my moments with wildlife and Nature as having found a ditch. It’s not that I haven’t spent a lot of time outdoors; I have. My dad  has taken my brothers and me on hiking camping trips for most of my life and I owe him for always forcing us to be active when we didn't necessarily know that this is not something everyone has the means to do. There are two ways I am humbled by these excursions.

The first is in the actuality of the experience. Walking through forests on mountains by rivers under skies more celestially extravagant than those framed by city skyscrapers, there is something intimate in the immediateness of my being here. There is nothing keeping me from walking through the trees; from being in between them and becoming a parallel structure; from claiming that clean moment. That humbles me, when I am returned to my body’s location because it is in a simple place.

And yet, it isn’t an entirely a transformative feeling. I say this because the feeling stays in the place and the specifics of the circumstances don’t stay with me forever. This brings me to the second way I am humbled. I am privileged in my ability to leave the city for a weekend or a few days, to experience the peaceful pleasure of certain non-urban spaces. And yet, I don’t come from a family that seeks to reject the city. On the contrary, we try to live in most urban, convenient, accessible places when we can. My parents, from what I gather, grew up in a static-enough lifestyle that allowed for not making distinctions between ways to enjoy life and time with friends, be it in a small town or out hitchhiking or biking across mountains and highways of Eastern Europe. I am fortunate to have grown up with my parent’s culture as an internal - or central - background, though that conflicts with my very American reality. In America, I grew up to sense that there is division among city people, suburban people, and non-urban people. I lived in the city, went to school with suburban people, and every couple of weekends, I would leave the city to spend time in a non-urban space.

Being in non-urban spaces - the more natural and wildlife-like scenes - hasn’t profoundly changed me. Perhaps that is because I feel able to immediately adapt to new environments. The feeling of peace and intimacy with nature - I’ve felt this in other places, in cities, both those I know and those which are new to me. I didn't grow up in a forest, but I've always felt at home, or just extremely comfortable and uplifted when I am in forests and in the mountains. It’s not because I’m a city child who finds refuge in the peaceful haven of nature, because like I said, I feel this way in cities too. This humbling-blissful feeling in big and bustling spaces.

However, I’ve also felt extreme sadness. Because with the success and business of cities come all the problems of struggle and failure. Is it fair that I get to temporarily leave the city and experience other spaces that are more conducive to calm? I’ve grown up with financial comfort and security and stability, thanks to my mother, to afford leaving and afford to enjoy it. I can go to riverbanks in forests out of state and sit and be inspired to contemplate the state of the Earth, but do I not have a responsibility to the urban environment?

At this point, my mind moves me forward in memory away from my childhood in America, forward to living in Nairobi, Kenya. I guess all of this before was a prelude to my autobiographical slice. There is just too much to write about Nairobi, but I will begin with a moment and see where it grows.

Every handful of Saturdays, I would drive to the Lake Naivasha Yacht Club, with either my dad, my whole family, or with another family. The club isn’t actually on the real Lake Naivasha; it’s on the smaller, crater lake which connects to the larger one during the rainy seasons when there is enough water. All of this is located in the Great Rift Valley, which is unlike any geographical formation I’ve ever had the tremendous fortune to visit. I don’t remember the full history of the club, but it has been around since colonial days, and its members are almost all British ex-pats (with a few newer members, like us, though who are also European). Some of them I grew immensely fond of; others, I did my best to respectfully ignore. This memory deals with one who left me dumbstruck. It was afternoon, just after lunch, which was about the time the wind usually died. As a teenage assistant sailing instructor, also the only American around, among older British sailors and story-tellers, I would sometimes feel out of place with the adults. So, I went and sought out the younger children to play a game.

I walked down to the dock on the lake and saw out in the middle of the water, a small Optimist sailboat with about five little children swimming in and around the tiny, wooden tub of a thing. It had filled up with water and bailing was no use at this point. I could hear them shouting for help. Of course, it wasn't anything unusual for the children to be out in the water playing around and swimming, despite the threat of hippos. And hippos were dangerous. But the adults sitting on the grass, drinking wine or Tusker beer, didn’t seem phased or at all concerned with their children. I figured they weren’t going to save themselves, so I dived in and swam out into the middle of the lake.

Earlier during that season, when the water had risen by an enormous amount and connected the crater lake with the main lake, the wind and currents and brought in millions or billions of these strange, weed plants. They looked like green beet plants, with big juicy bulbs, thick, slimy leaves, and long, stringy roots. At first I adamantly refused to touch them, but after a few weeks, we all got used to them and would have fantastic weed-throwing fights. Perhaps the best scenes were watching fifteen children on boats and rafts shouting, “Give me weed! I need more weed!” I’d laugh and let the marijuana references slide.

At this point in time, I didn’t mind at all having these slimy beet-shaped weeds attaching themselves to my body as I hurriedly swam out to the sinking Optimist. I was more concerned with hippos. And the irresponsible adults. Cultural differences, I scoffed inwardly. Reaching the children, I told them to sit inside the boat, despite its being submerged almost entirely underwater, the inflated floatation bags just barely helping. I wrapped the bowline around my fist and towed them back to shore.

As I got to a point where I could stand, I let the children jump out, and then hauled in the boat so that I could turn it over and let the water out. A woman, whom I presumed was one of the mothers and expected to say something of gratitude for rescuing her children from being stranded in the middle of the lake, walked down carrying a glass of wine. She half-crossed her arms and pensively regarded the children walk out of the water. “Well, they’re fine,” I said, scratching my head. She smiled at me and replied in a genuinely friendly tone, “Oh, so you like to swim and sail and do all these water activities?”

Before I had a chance to be puzzled, raise an eyebrow and not say anything, she turned around and followed the children. Remembering this always frustrates and perplexes me because I am astounded at the way some people behave. Though it’s fascinating to observe how the more comfortable an ex-pat is in the foreign country, after probably being around for generations, the more they might feel and act like an authority.

Lake Naivasha has been my ‘ditch’ - the act of being on the sailboat, totally ignoring the lack of wind, dangling my legs in the water, and just looking around. The giraffes. The groups of people dancing and swimming on the shore opposite the sailing club. The view of Mount Longonot, an old volcano which I’ve climbed twice. The roaming wildebeest. I would feel again the feeling I used to feel in mountains and forests in America. Imagine that, in a whole new world, on a whole new continent, I can feel that again. However, it comes with the same uneasiness when returning to the city. Except that the journey is quite different while driving through the Great Rift Valley, as compared to well-groomed and articulated highways in America.

The road from Naivasha to Nairobi passes through villages, by refugee camps, by slums, through more villages, by tea farms, by tulip and rose greenhouses, and then into residential, ex-pat, and wealthier Nairobi. I need to recognize disparity. I need to recognize my social, economic, and socio-economic standing by living as an ex-pat in Nairobi. I interact with my every day life as someone who directly participates in the local economy and environment, but socially-mentally treat and am treated as a foreigner. Which I am. I can come for three years, find activities in my lifestyle that I enjoy and can enjoy because I have the comfort and luxury to do so. I can come in and ‘fall in love with Africa’ with all its breathtaking, heartbreaking natural beauty. By doing so, I participate in, what I guess I will call, safari culture. This is a culture of tokenising the exotic. This is a culture in which I can easily embrace and admire the beauty that exists in Kenya, but do I not also have a responsibility to be aware of my social and economic roles? Is it fair to welcome the innocent majesty of wildlife and dismiss what is wrong in the urban environments of Nairobi, apologetically and regrettably saying that is just the way things are? I would say that if I were to do so, I would be a fool. A fool for playing along with the exploitation of wildlife, which is probably done with an echo of the political corruption that is harming the country as a whole. Of course, I am nervous about making these statements, because there is so little I know. I am speaking of what I have experienced, both the awe and the uneasiness. Trying to see where I and my voice stand.


Sobel, David. “Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators.” Stenhouse Publishers. Portland, Maine.


jccohen's picture

a whole new world


The language of ‘stepping stones,’ ‘building blocks,’ ‘browsing’ that you use to open this piece orients the reader to a sense of movement, also an acknowledgement of gaps that invites me in…  And then -- in your narrative and reflection on your sojourn in Nairobi -- your calling up of “both the awe and the uneasiness” reminds me that it’s not so easy, this invitation in. 


The central tension that seems to me to move the piece forward is this urban/non-urban theme:  “I didn't grow up in a forest, but I've always felt at home, or just extremely comfortable and uplifted when I am in forests and in the mountains. It’s not because I’m a city child who finds refuge in the peaceful haven of nature, because like I said, I feel this way in cities too. This humbling-blissful feeling in big and bustling spaces.”  Where things get pretty complicated is in the way you’re also working with and intertwining the relationships of ‘innocence,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘beauty’ to ‘privilege’ and a powerful questioning of your role as…visitor/inhabitant/ex-pat/participant in ‘safari culture.’  This takes me back to an earlier point where you note that urban, suburban and non-urban have not been in fact ‘divided’ in that way in your experience.  Indeed, dividing these arenas is intensely problematic, and maybe symptomatic of the deep divisions (life/not-life etc.) that have taken us down the winding path where we find ourselves today, right now, as you suggest when you say you would be “(a) fool for playing along with the exploitation of wildlife, which is probably done with an echo of the political corruption that is harming the country as a whole.” 


Given all this, then, what does it mean to have a “ditch”?  And, in some relation to these issues, do you know this piece?