I love the uncertainty of travel. If where you sleep, who you see, what you eat and when all depend on factors you might or might not navigate well, the stakes for daily life rise and the opportunities for missing your targets multiply. Separations loom, and common contact is no longer a given. The farther you stray from home and your comfort zone, the greater the risks. It’s a wonder we bother. It’s even more wonderful that we sometimes call this travel fun.
I just returned from three weeks of fun vacation, half in Switzerland, half in Kenya, almost all of it on the move each day. Geneva, Switzerland, is as close to a home town abroad as I know. My mother spent four years there as a child with her family and pitched it to us as idyllic. My father and his brothers and my siblings and I all went to school near there, each of us for a year or two, young enough to shape us. My aunt still lives there, and most importantly for this visit, our oldest son, his wife, and their daughter have lived there for the past two years. The trick for us on this trip was to balance time in Geneva with our granddaughter (and her parents) with time hiking in the Alps with two friends.
For us the uncertainties of travel in Switzerland involved negotiating in three languages (English, French, German), living out of suitcases and backpacks, traveling by Swiss public transportation, consulting maps every day, losing our way on trails and streets, paying in Swiss francs, communicating without our usual cell phones, eating in novel restaurants, sleeping in novel beds—sometimes four of us in a mountain hut room. Yet this trip, like others to Geneva, felt like another homecoming for me, and for my wife. We’re among family and friends in familiar surroundings that sing to the child in me.
Fly farther now with us to Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya, is the place where we as a family have lived the longest away from home—for two years in 1995-97. And for the past ten years my wife has travelled to Kenya several times a year to work on the non-profit HIV/AIDS prevention organization she founded in 2003, SOTENI. We have friends there that go back twenty and thirty years. Her work in Kenya has given us an in, and over the past thirty years of her love for Kenya she has come to believe that in some previous incarnation she was a Kenyan Mama.
Nairobi is the Geneva of East Africa: home to the UN and a large ex-patriot culture associated with embassies, NGO’s, and multinational corporations, an international hub that sets it culturally apart from the rest of the nation. But there the similarities between Switzerland and Kenya end. The two countries fall on opposite ends of most comparisons. Switzerland is rich, white, orderly, punctual, and its politics are bland. Kenya is among the poorest countries, black enough that spotting a white person on the street is a rare event, disorderly in its traffic and neighborhoods and markets, unpredictable in most timing, and its politics are passionate, raw, and fascinating. Switzerland is safe, clean, hard on your wallet, and easy on your eye. The Swiss sense of order runs so deep that Geneva operates its public transportation on the honor system, and it works.
The Kenyan public transportation system, an entrepreneurial army of matatus and motorbike taxis called “boda-bodas,” operates by a system of bribes, paid at random checkpoints set up by policemen, who are widely assumed to be paying for their breakfasts and their children’s school fees with the proceeds from their checkpoints. As a nation Kenya cares less about order, punctuality, wealth management, safety, pollution control, and stylish presentations than the Swiss. Instead, Kenya cares most about traditional welcomes, spiritual vitality, generosity in defiance of deprivation, fierce loyalty to family and village and tribe, and the power of the leader—whether the leader is the father or the village elder or the tribal chief or the president of the nation. Though for us trips to Kenya are more of a stretch geographically and culturally than going to Geneva, they are always more intimate, more meaningful, and more spiritually inspiring. We stand out in Kenya, and we make a difference there in small ways that lead to big appreciation.
More than the uncertainty and adventure of travel, I love the resolutions along the way—the contacts made across languages, the welcomings, the gifts that close the gaps, the nightly homes away from home, the expectations met, the blessings counted for each leg of the trip completed, each meal shared.
But travel, even fun travel, is too tiring to last long. We give up our routines and our rhythms. We stretch for these transient homes away from home. And when we return, we know better where we live and how. For a short time, we appreciate the precious certainties of this home where the messages and the monthly bills and the mold that grows on the porch boards and the fallen leaves and the best bed wait only for us.