Wednesday, September 29, 2010

But You're Not Into Making Choices

Wow. Ten days into the trip and it feels like I've only just arrived. Part of that is the first week being somewhat hazy thanks to our old friend Jet Lag, and the other just getting accustomed to being halfway around the world.

I will say that I have had a fine welcoming committee. Not only are the people here fantastic (much more on that in a bit), but I also had a wonderful introduction to the local wildlife on my very first night in Eldoret - bed bugs!

Turns out mosquito netting can't quite protect you from bugs that are living in your sheets. I woke up that first morning with lively red lumps that itched to all get out. A quick change of sheets, and a new mattress later, and I think that we've got the problem under control in our room, but other rooms have had the same issue in recent days as well. Not quite the introduction I could have imagined, but what would a trip like this be without a few obstacles?

Lest you think I'm all cynicism and vinegar (especially after my last post), I will say that this has been an incredible experience so far, and I would love to have had more time in Eldoret. Part of that is based on not being here quite as long as I'd love to be able to stay. I'll have had less than two weeks here when we head out for vacation on Saturday, which is just long enough to get a good taste of the city, its people, and what all can and needs to be done here.

While there have been a myriad of frustrations (none the least of which have been with myself), we've gotten a few things done while I've been here. At the first part of the week, we were able to get a wireless connection going in the Tumaini Children's Center.

I suppose I should explain what the Tumaini Children's Center is - this will be a brief and probably over-generalised description. Tumaini is a house open to all children in and around Eldoret that is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The purpose of the Center is to help keep kids off the street as much as possible while the center is open. Eldoret town has an overabundance of kids who are on the streets during the day because they cannot go to school - usually because they do not have enough money for the necessary supplies, uniforms, or tuition. Needless to say, this is not the best alternative to schools - while on the streets, many children develop addictions to substances, most predominantly huffing glue. They learn how about gambling in the alleys instead of learning about how to read, count, or have the opportunity to develop trade skills as they grow older.

What Tumaini does is give these kids a place to go within a short walk of the city to get off the street. While there, they are given a code of conduct to abide by, while at the same time getting lessons, food, medication, and just general care that they may not be receiving otherwise (as some of the kids have lost or been abandoned by their parents). It also gives them interaction with other children that doesn't involve street activity, which helps deter some of the gang mentality that living on the street may induce.

So, why is a wireless connection important at the Center? Essentially, it allows the adults that work there to use the Internet in any room they'd like. The office in the Center now has the capability to access broadband Internet rather than using their cell phones for access, which is far slower and can be costly.

Another part of Tumaini is rewarding kids for good behavior. Attendance is highly valued there, and each kid is given a certain number of points for coming into the center and attending class. Points are also given for tending to other functions of the Center, including working in the farm that provides food for the Center's meals, or even taking initiative to help out without being prodded by an adult. Those points can be used in the Tumaini shop, which includes donated clothes, a chance to watch a movie in the afternoon, or even play some of the video games that have been donated over the past few years.

This, too, is where the wireless connections comes into play. One of the things we would like to do is find a way to set up a channel through XBoxLive or Nintendo WFC that allows the kids to play music-based and educational video games with kids from all over the world. By doing this, we're hoping that it can expose these street kids to other cultures that are not their own and give them more incentive to be at the center, while at the same time giving American kids a glimpse of what life is like in Eldoret.

The first step in that is getting the XBox or Wii connect to the Internet, which we should now be able to do through the wireless connection. That part, however, has been fraught with obstacles, be it from my shorting out a power cord by plugging it into the wrong outlet (Kenya runs on a much more powerful electrical system which must be converted before used with American electronics), to both of the XBoxes available to Tumaini succombing to the Red Ring of Doom, which effectively means that they must be reparied before they can be used.

So, we've run into our share of brick walls, but something great came of all this. Through many things - the wireless connection, the laptop available at Tumaini, and a little groundwork laid back in Indiana before I left - we were able to connect the Center to an elementary school in Auburn, IN this past Friday. We worked with the mother of one of the founders of Tumaini to get a class in Auburn interested in forging a relationship with the kids at the Center, and were able to set up a time that worked for all the kids involved (despite the 7-hour time difference).

We kept our fingers crossed that everything would work as it was supposed to - but sure enough, after a few minutes of diagnostics, we could see 25 kids in Indiana, and they could see the 15 or so Tumaini kids grinning and laughing as they crowded around a laptop in Kenya. It was incredible to see, not just because it was a great first step in what we're hoping can be a valuable communication tool for the Center, but also becuase the kids here really seemed to enjoy it.

And focusing on that rather than the setbacks and the things still left undone that I'd had in mind is what has lifted me throughout this trip. I've been able to visit other places as well since I've been here - Sally Test Center at Moi Hospital and the Neema House most recently - and its incredible what is being done already.

What's more incredible, though, is that there is still so much more that can be done.

That's what keeps me looking forward to coming back here as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Start the clock, take time out...

If you were to believe my original itinerary, I'd be telling you this story from Eldoret after having seen my wife and tucked my bags away in our room.

In actuality, however, I'm telling you this story from Nairobi, while my luggage is en route from London as we speak.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

The whole trip started off with a bang. Scheduled to take off from Indianapolis at just after 4:00, I was on scheduling preparations-wise to be out of the house with plenty of time to make the flight. That is, until I got a call from American Airlines, telling me that the 4:00 flight was getting into Indy too late for me to make the connecting flight, and that they were putting me on an earlier flight through United.

So I rushed through my last steps and headed out to the airport with Mark (father-in-law) driving the van. This proved to be a little more daunting thanks to increased traffic caused by a change in construction patterns that had created an express lane on I-465. Now, usually drivers in Indy are pretty good, but the first day of a change (and on Friday night, they had changed where the lane split off from the local traffic lanes), it seems like everyone panics and forgets how to drive.

So, flight leaves at 3:00, and we pull into the airport at 1:50. Not ideal timing for international travel, but at this point I knew I'd have to hurry whenever I arrived. Now, I'd been told by American that I need to check in with United since my first flight would be through them. So, I wait in line a the ticket counter. Now, most airlines at most airports will have their automated check-in kiosks away from the desk because that will help keep some of the unnecessary foot traffic away from the counter which makes things more efficient.

Not here, though, and this is one of the many reasons that I don't fly United if I can help it. We waited in line to get to the kiosks, which meant that people who had no idea how to use them were clogging up the line and hogging up the folks that work thee because apparently they get confused when a touchscreen monitor asks them hard questions like "WHAT IS YOUR NAME? _________"

Deep breaths.

Of, when I got there, the screen told me I had to check in with American. Awesome. Went over there and used the touchscreen (handily located away from the counter, I might add), and then went to the counter to check bags. They gave me boarding passes for the 2nd and 3rd legs of my trip, but said I had to get checked in by United since it was their flight.

Deeper breaths. Serenity, Courage, Wisdom.

When I got back to United, the line was twice as long as when I'd started, and the same people were being thrown off by the ridiculously tough interrogation of the touchscreens, "ARE YOU CHECKING ANY BAGS? ______" By this time it was 2:20, and my flight was boarding in 20 minutes. I hated to do it, but I bypassed the line and went straight to the clerk that told me that I had to check in with American, and said in no uncertain terms that she was to check me in immediately. Uncertain though they may have been, my words and tone of voice were kinder than the words that the associates at the American Airlines desk used to describe the folks at United. So it's not like I was rude about it.

Much to my surprise, it worked! I flew through security and hustled to the gate to find out that - guess what - another flight was at my gate!! Whoooooo commercial airline efficiency!! Can anyone guess why they're going bankrupt?

Ok, that was a cheap shot, but still. Turns out the delays meant that my gate was essentially double-booked. Thankfully the many clerks from United that were at the gate were working hard to find a solution and alleviate the situation.

And by many, I mean one. And she was at the wrong gate.

After frenzied walky-talkying and two others finally arriving on the scene, everything got worked out, and I was on the plane. We landed in Chicago, and there was plenty of time to grab a quite bite (and a last Caramel Apple Spice for a while) before heading out to London. That flight went well, and I had a little more time at Heathrow airport, whose Terminal 5 is incredible, especially if you like high-end retail shops - nothing says luxury like Duty-Free Gucci!

After a spot of porridge and tea, it on the plane to Nairobi. Thankfully another pleasant and uneventful flight - kudos to British Airways, btw, on both of their legs of the trip. The only thing missing was in-plane WiFi, but everything else was spot on.

Landed in Nairobi at 9:00-ish local time and called Meagan with the Kenyan cell phone she'd acquired and given to me. She told me there was a change in plans - I'd been scheduled to fly out on the morning flight from Nairobi, but apparently had been bumped to the afternoon flight. Neither of us were thrilled about that, but it worked out (more below). Customs took over an hour, and then sat at baggage claim for half an hour while they unloaded all of the bags from the plane, which understandably brought a lot of people over (which partially explains the delays at customs as well). As I've mentioned, though, my bags were not to be found.

So, a quick trip to the Baggage claims office, and lo and behold, they found my bags. On their computer. In London. This was the point at which I just started laughing.

Worked out a schedule with the folks their on when my bags will arrive in Eldoret, and then met my driver, who was very patiently waiting out front. Titus, the same driver who took Meagan, greeted me warmly and kept me laughing all the way to the hotel at which I was not scheduled to go. Just as with Meagan's stay, I would not be able to stay at my original destination, so it was off the Heron hotel, which is delightful, and where I am typing at this second.

So, it seems like this adventure has started before it begin. I'm quickly learning that patience is required when doing much of anything here, which as we saw with the United-American snafu, is a trait that is not unique to any one culture.

I'll be in Eldoret soon, though, and that will mean the end of this part of the journey, and many, many more parts to look forward to beyond that.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Don't freak out, don't strike out

T-minus "Holy crap, I'm leaving tomorrow".

For the most part, the bags are packed and the house is clean. I've still got a few things to pick up and tuck away before I go, but for right now it seems like things are in pretty good shape. It still hasn't sunk in that that giant, four-week-long purple blob on my Outlook calendar is actually upon me and drawing me into this adventure.

Over the past few weeks, I've been given a lot of support and well-wishes for the trip, which I greatly, greatly appreciate. Two days of travel aren't really something to look forward to, not to mention leaving the creature comforts that we've built up over the years in our home.

But that's been one of the better parts of the timing of this - it comes at a time when Meagan has been gone for a month. Now, don't get me wrong, I've really enjoyed having the house to myself. I've been able to nerd out a little more than usual by finally rolling through Firefly and Serenity, as well as hosting a couple of D&D game nights which Meagan is half-sarcastically loath to admit happened in her house.

No, the advantage of going on the second half of Meagan's trip is that it takes the "leaving" aspect of the trip behind. Granted, I've had to prepare for a scheduled departure and help prep the house for an extended vacancy, but this feels much more like I'm coming back than I'm going over. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but it takes the sting out of leaving, and while I will very much miss all of you fine folk back in the States, through all of the stories and already feeling like I know some of the folks that I'll be meeting there for the first time, this almost feel like I'm headed home.

My only goals for this visit are to see whatever I can, learn whatever I can, and do whatever I can. I only have a slight idea of what to expect, but even that idea isn't reliable, as I'm sure that within that idea I'm mixing in trappings of my own everyday life that will be absent during my time in Eldoret. I know that I can't see everything there, I can't learn all about Kenyans, their culture, and uncover solutions while I'm there, and I certainly can't make everything better by the time that we head out.

But I can witness a world I've yet to see.
But I can learn from others that I've yet to meet.
But I can lend a hand in place that needs so much.

And I can share all of this with you through these ramblings that you've all been patient enough to read through. I'm hoping to post a few times a week and may even have some pictures and videos included with a few of the posts.

But right this second, I'm thinking about bag counts and airplane seats; about connections and terminal changes; about customs and visas. But once I'm through all of that, I'll be there - and that's not nearly as scary a thought as I once feared it would be.

After all, I won't be alone. Friends are there, too.

See you soon.