Confessions: Travel, Depression, and Walking Alone

Posted on June 2, 2011

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I’m having trouble finding the words to write what I think I ought to post today, so I’m just going to do this in the clumsiest way possible.

Perhaps I will not be able to find the Internet connection to post this today, but as I write this it is the first of June and in Kenya this is a national holiday—self-rule day. I could not ask the girls to come in for class today, so instead I am here in my cell of a room in this guest house, contemplating my first free day since I arrived. So far I’ve not had the chance to go into Nairobi-proper and explore some of the city. I want to scope out the cafes (I am told there is one shaped like a dhow), find a market where I can get reasonably priced food, have a look around the Jamia mosque, and just run up and down the streets to get a feel for where I am. But I am very apprehensive of going out.

Those who have heard me yammer on incessantly about the stories of my life (i.e. anyone I know) will know that the last time I was in Africa for an extended period of time, I ran into some trouble. One evening, in a story that I will not force you all to re-read, I was cornered in an alley, a knife drawn on me, screamed at in a language I did not understand, and only by the intervention of a friend did I escape some things I would rather not think could have happened. I was also arrested thrice on trivial charges (actually, I never understood the charges—I called it walking while white), mainly so that I could bribe my way out of the police station and give the cops a hefty bonus to take home.

Eventually I just went down to a market and bought a machete—not to use, but just so that people would know that I had a machete, that I was not going to be messed with anymore. And it’s true that when I heard yesterday about a market of tribesmen selling long, frightening knives, I was tempted to take a look-see. Because more than faking it and acting as if one belongs, I suspect it’s not a bad idea to look like someone no one ought to wants to fuck with, to distance yourself as prey from con men by increasing your defenses, perhaps not by toting some blade, but by reputation and mannerism and self-confidence, such that one does not seem like an easy target. But that was a different time, a different place, a different set of conditions, and those are not the concerns that make me wary of going out to explore the town.

Growing up I was forced by necessity to learn to live happily alone. I’ll not repeat the stories as they are old and dry and full of a false and undesired pity or sympathy. But suffice it to say that I learned to occupy my own time, to enjoy cooking for myself, eating and reading and watching movies alone, riding the bus alone and taking long, long, far too long walks alone. But I think far too much, and when there is nothing more to chew over my mind begins to gnaw at itself in vicious starvation. And beneath my bluster and ostentation, as many who know me well are aware, there still lies a deep streak of flagellating asceticism and self-recrimination. In the past this could lead to truly self-destructive behaviors, to a good amount of self-hatred and hopelessness.

I say this not to evoke pity, but just to be honest about the root of what I am feeling now. I’ve never enjoyed the indelible mark that depression and other grim afflictions of the mind can leave upon one. The shame of talking about those moments once they have passed, the twinge of guilt for ever having felt so low and helpless when life is so worthy of admiration and enjoyment. One ought to be able to speak of these things without feeling a degree of regret and fear, without expecting pity and knowing that it tints the way people will, at least initially, react to you for a time. Because talking’s what helps to stave it off, to dissect it and pull at its tenderness until it can’t hurt you anymore. But more on that later.

I’ve found ways of parlaying that self-destructive thought into more beneficial projects. I turn myself towards work, towards writing, just trying to burn off enough of my critical energies so that I do not have enough left idle to turn upon and pick apart myself more than is healthy and constructive. Admittedly I often go overboard, spending myself so utterly on more projects than I ought to take on, so much so that in my stupor and exhaustion (mental and emotional), at times I do not remember to scrutinize myself as much as I should to ensure that I am not rationalizing bad behaviors, am not slipping into mischief and mean spirits.

And in the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to have more regular contact with others—to live with some truly amazing people. Really, they’re far too tolerant of all the silly things I do. I don’t know how they manage to live with me so well and I am in awe of them for it (so wrapped up in my little projects and then so tired, I can be a bit brusque and anti-social). But two things: I think I’m now spoiled on good friends and a good life, and they are good things that came to me a little too easily, I think.

That’s not to say I think it should be hard to make friends and find good companions. It’s just that it usually is hard for me. I make friends well with the people I work with, and when introduced to someone, I’m more than happy to talk his or her ear off in a controlled setting. But without some manner of facilitation, I lack the courage to approach and befriend random people. So when I’m in a foreign place—be it Washington, D.C. or Kenya—where my co-workers have less interest at times in knowing me as a human being than they do utilizing me as a temporary and dedicated worker, I know that I’ll have trouble making friends and will probably spend much of my time utterly alone.

It’s not so bad as all that here actually. I know two people in Nairobi outside of work and an acquaintance has introduced me to a third, and with that little foothold I should be able to establish myself a nice little circle of friends to while away some time with. But I will admit, there’s a bit of fear in me that that little plan will fall through and that the schedule I’ve been keeping these first few days will become the normal hum of my life for the next thirteen weeks.

The schedule: I wake at a shockingly early hour. I shower. I seek breakfast and chew it slowly alone at a corner table. I come back and meditate for perhaps three-quarters of an hour. I go to work, sometimes the first to arrive, and proceed to work straight through the day, perhaps to six or seven at night depending on the projects at hand. I come home, tinker with lesson plans, take some dinner, do a bit of writing, and then exercise, read and go to bed. It’s an exceptionally healthy existence (especially eating some bread, egg, and tea and two plates of rice with a little vegetable and meat everyday in place of the slop I usually cram my guts with) and it is getting me into shape, getting me focused. I love the work and I love the girls I work with. But it can be lonely.

I was warned; I knew this would happen. If you have been depressed for an extended period in your life in the past, it’s more likely to resurge when you travel, especially when you travel alone or for a long time. So what does it say of me that I eagerly blunder into foreign lands on my own?

Regardless: Walking alone on the same route that you’ve walked a thousand times is perfunctory mechanics and may be turned into an act of meditation. The mind can be focused on a single point and used for the betterment of the self. But when wandering around a strange place, I must use my wits to find my way, but the doubt of wandering, the tension of being in a foreign location, it can all send the rest of your mind, especially in the lulls, into a spiral of cannibalism.

So that’s the long and clumsy way of saying I’m scared to walk alone through a foreign city for hours and hours. I’m not scared because it is a foreign place and I am alone and vulnerable to others on its streets. I’m scared because it is a foreign place and I am alone and vulnerable to myself on its streets.

Last night I took a map of Nairobi and committed it to memory. I retraced and then copied the map from memory several times, marking the things I’d like to do and see today. I’m hoping to save myself the pain of wandering alone through a foreign city.

I could have just found someone else to walk with me, perhaps called on one of my two acquaintances here. But many of you know that I’ve got a nasty proud streak and an addiction to independence. I’m desperate to know that I can conquer this city and all the worst of me that it might bring out, and to know that I can do so absolutely alone. I crave knowledge of my own autarchy. And usually I can rule myself well—self-reliance wouldn’t be such a virtue for me if I had found in the past that I was absolutely miserable at it (or maybe it would, who knows what twisted impulses lie deep in my silly, reptilian brain).

But here I go, about to charge into the heart of Nairobi on my own. Let’s see how it turns out.

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