How My First Trip Abroad–to Kenya–Changed Me Forever

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this story belongs to “top 10 most loved”, out of 136 I wrote in my first year blogging

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I go abroad the first time in August 2011. It’s not just my first trip abroad, it is also my first time travel alone. So 21 years old Vietnamese girl, boarding the plane alone for the first time. And where am I going? Africa, Kenya.

The flight ticket was cheap, I have to transit at Thailand and Ethiopia. The journey takes 2 days. Finally, that early morning, as I walk out of the plane and down the air-stair, I breathe in the crisp Kenyan air. “This is cold!” Much colder than I expected. Turn out that August is winter time in Kenya. Silly me! I thought winter didn’t exist in Africa.

I am in Kenya for an international youth conference organized by AIESEC. Luckily, even though I can’t afford the pre-stay hotel, the organizer arranged for me to be hosted by a local family for 3 days until the conference start. The family’s elder son, an AIESEC member too, is waiting for me right outside the gate of Nairobi airport. (Because I am terrible with names, I forgot what he is called. But let call him J!) J is my age, tall, dark, slender, bright eyes, friendly smile, and white shiny teeth – something I adore about African people. We hug each other even though it is our first meet – this is what AIESECers do.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that winter exists here. I may need to buy some socks later!”

J laughed. I buy a Kenyan sim-card, exchange money, and head to his house. It is Saturday and his whole family is at home waiting for this Vietnamese guest – probably the first one of this breed they ever saw.

As we drive through a big iron gate and a driveway nicely decorated with lines of trees, I see a two-story mansion. There at the big wooden door are a well-dressed middle-aged couple, a teenage boy, a little boy, a little girl, and a woman who seemed to be their maid. I smiled and timidly said hello. My host mother has a kind-hearted look, round face, large twinkling eyes, wide smile. She wears a colorful maxi dress, adorned with tribal patterns and flowers. Her sweet plump body moves swiftly beneath the big dress; her arms reaches out to me for a hug. Snuggling in the warmth of her embrace, even though I am in a different country and a mysterious continent, I feel that the following 3 days are going to be just fine.

Breakfast starts early. We have fresh milk and fresh eggs brought right in from the family’s farm, beans, and bread – quite similar to an English breakfast, I reckon. After breakfast is time to explore. I enjoy the guide and somewhat baby-sitting of J. We sit on the thick green grass under the sun. I look up to the big deep blue sky, sprinkled with clouds like white cotton candy.

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A hawk, with its wings spread wide, glides through the sky, swift and smooth like the sharp blade of a knife cutting through paper. You can almost hear the flap of its wing. I have never seen a real hawk before. As if it sees the amazement on my face, the big bird screeches. I have never heard something like that! This sound got through me. Holy baby Jesus! I’m no longer in Vietnam! I am thousands and thousands of miles away in an utterly, completely different land – it is obvious, but I still can’t believe.

Here in Nairobi, I know nobody. Nobody know me. I am a nobody here. This is so liberating. I feel like a child, accidentally falling out of her crib. Crawling around on her bare hands and feet. I feel innocent and pure. It is dangerous; and it is exciting! I am like the hawk, flying in my own sky.

I am free.

With the eyes of a child, everything amazes me: trees, plants, flowers – all sorts of peculiar shapes and colors. They grow on the side of the red, wet dirt road. The road softens beneath my sandals. I have not bought new socks yet. Cold feet. Warm heart. Big smiles.

When I touch a giraffe, my heart rockets to the sky. What a magnificent creature! Giraffes have very strong heart because of their tall necks. I feel the beats of her heart on my fingertips. I hold a piece of Giraffe’s food between my lips, beckoning for a kiss. Here she comes! Massive head, massive tongue! In some brief seconds when we French-kiss - she licking the snack away from my mouth - our eyes meet. Under her long eyelashes are the black crystal balls, so perfect, they reflect the world. Looking into her eyes is like staring at myself in the face.

I am different now, more alive.

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My host parents ask us to come back home by 8PM. They warn me not to wander around by myself. I looked closely at the poor neighborhood. People make their one-room house out of corrugated sheets. I can’t see what’s inside; there’s no light. I saw a woman sitting at the sidewalk, her skin wrapped tight to her bones; her breasts are exposed. A naked child curls up in her arms, sucking her small breast. My heart sinks. On her right is the wall of a big mansion. Behind her is a dry barren field. Its bleakness resembles the backdrop of her life.

When I return to the house that same afternoon, I saw my host mother sitting alone at the dining table. She hasn’t turned on the light. Sunset pours silver light in the kitchen through the stained glass windows. My mother’s silhouette is unmoving, next to the floating steam from a freshly-brewed cup of chai tea she holds in her hands. She must be deep in her thought. It takes a moment for her to notice me. She turns around, smiles, and beckons me to come sit with her. She asks me about my family, the conference, my study. I ask her about her work. She tells me she works in UNICEF. She pauses a moment then asks whether I know about the raging happening now in the north of Kenya. I shakes my head no. She says that children, many children, are dying because of hunger. Echoing in the room is her sad voice. I can almost taste it. Her voice is salty, taste like tears.

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The image of that skinny woman with the naked child flashes back in me. My heart tightens. My host mother tells me how much she admires her colleagues and the volunteers who are battling against poverty up north, living in huts, lacking many basic necessities.

“There are people like that in this world,” she says. I nod my head, not knowing what to say.

In that dining room, and the silver afternoon light, in the smell of Kenyan chai tea my host mother holds between her palms on the wooden table, and in that salty sadness of her voice, something inside me changes forever. I realize that I’ve seen the world through a very narrow glasses. Now the glasses breaks open. Here I am, overwhelmed by the light of a much bigger reality. This reality makes me care, makes me want to give.

A seed was sown in my heart that day, and it has grown inside me through all these years. It reminds me every day that there are worlds like that outside of my sheltered world, not only in Kenya, but also in many places, in my own country too. Whenever I need to choose between taking and giving, I think of this seed and that silver afternoon light.

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photo credit: Flickr Melissa Emmons PhotogrStephan GeyerFernando Hidalgo Marchion - Creative Common