Home is where my suitcase is

Lakshmi Jagganathan and her family nuzzle with a baby giraffe.

Lakshmi Jagannathan and husband Raghu Raghavan join their sons, Krishnan (far left) and Hari, in nuzzling with a baby giraffe.

By Lakshmi Jagannathan

It’s 8 pm, dark. “Tell me. What should I do now,” the Uber driver asks plaintively as we turn into a lane. I am in “Nairobbery,” Kenya, a place where you may have to bribe a corrupt cop, where you never slow down for a traffic situation because you could get car-jacked, where terrorism is very real. And here I am alone with a local who is lost.

Yet.

I feel strangely serene. With some phone guidance, somehow, we reach our destination. For some reason, everywhere I go in East Africa, I seem to have total trust. I seem to be attracting only a sense of well-being in a place of contradictions.

Kitengala Hot Glass transforms recycled glass into stylish objects.

Kitengala Hot Glass transforms recycled glass into stylish objects.

Another driver literally drives through water to get me to a recycled-glass factory run by Anselm Croze, a German-Americana social entrepreneur and environmentalist. At the factory, men dance dangerously in rhythm to a roaring oven fueled with recycled gas, dipping their long rods in broken glass, swirling it, blowing into a vase, cooling it with their bare hands and newspaper.

Seraphine

So skinny — her waist size is probably 19 inches — she looks like she might be in middle school, but she is apparently one of the hottest seamstresses around. Her shop is literally a hole in the wall, near Ring Road – a dangerous part of town. The doorway is low and the tiny room very stuffy. She looks at the colorful fabric I have and offers ideas. She seems to be a counselor of sorts and philosopher – tells me I need to take risks, bare a shoulder here, make a neckline plunge there. “Are you a model?” she asks taking measurements, winning me over instantly.

Weeks later, when she comes home with the final product for a fitting, I gasp at the result. Where am I going to wear this glamorous dress with a head scarf to match? A Hillary Clinton fundraiser? Farmer’s Market? Within a span of 3 weeks she makes several outfits, dresses, a jacket and even a matching handbag, but what I am impressed with the most is the warmth of her personality. I think Oprah Winfrey should have her design her clothes.

Kitties

When the rest of my family arrives, we visit an elephant orphanage where babies drink out of giant milk bottles and receive “kisses” from a baby giraffe at a park. We see gorillas in Rwanda, hug a 189-year-old turtle in Zanzibar, and see a lion curled up on a tree in Tanzania.

Yet.

What, you're not taking me with you?

William: What, you’re not taking me with you?

What moves us most are the two kittens my son’s household has adopted. On our last day, one of them licks my foot and gets on top of my suitcase. When it’s my son’s turn to leave, both get into his, expecting to be taken “home.” I have never thought of myself as a cat person, but now I feel I have left family behind in Jabavu Gardens.

Obama

Coincidentally, a month after we return, the President is visiting Nairobi. I have been reading a book about the less rosy side of Kenya “Our Turn to Eat: The story of a Kenyan Whistle Blower” by Michela Wrong. Colonialism and corruption have been the cause of a lot of problems, but tribalism is still the worst enemy. Stereotypes are common – Kikuyu are enterprising, Maasai are only good as security guards, Luos are all show and no substance. In different regimes, different groups were favored and whole regions suffered because of nepotism.

For various political reasons, until recently, relationships between the U.S. and Kenya have been cold, but now I see the President greeted with great affection. Obama is the first American President to visit Kenya and everyone is proud of his Kenyan heritage. At an event, he speaks to a solar energy entrepreneur. The Kenyan doesn’t get the President’s jokes. Their body language and accent are not the same. The President is clearly American, but if Donald Trump really wants to know, he is a Luo.

Lakshmi Jagannathan at an elephant orphanage.

Lakshmi at an elephant orphanage.

Kenya and other East African countries are also linked inexorably to the country of my origin – ships sailed into the coastal regions from Western India for hundreds of years and workers were recruited to build the Railways. Politically, Indians keep a low profile, but they play a significant role in the economy. Indian food is main stream and there are innumerable places of worship.

When I visit a bead factory run by a women’s cooperative, or talk to my son’s friends who work to prevent gender violence in Somalia, I wish I could be more than just a tourist. Traveling to an exotic place for me has never been just a tick off a bucket list or yet another posting on Facebook.

It’s about connecting to the past, to people and lately to animals. It’s about confronting risk and overcoming fear. I find I get attached to the places I visit. Maybe it’s because I was an immigrant, but I find I belong nowhere and everywhere. I don’t know how the President felt about his visit, but, suddenly, Kenya is another “home” I now miss.

Lakshmi Jagannathan is many things: a travel writer (Living La Vida Pura) #puravida#VeggieTravelTales ; tech-startup mentor (TiE Oregon), energy healer/ counselor, treehugger, cat person.

 *

Editor’s note: I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writer program. Then and now, I’ve admired her intelligence and writing ability, her multicultural sensitivity and love of the natural world.

Tomorrow: “Time to write” by Rachel Lippolis

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12 thoughts on “Home is where my suitcase is

  1. For quite some time, I have been fascinated with East Africa and, someday soon, I hope to travel to places similar to your visit. Hopefully, we can chat for a bit about your travels at the VOA get-together.
    I am currently reading Paul Theroux’s, The Last Train to Zona Verde. With the practiced eye of a veteran traveler in Africa, his observations of the people and conditions provide a cynical yet appreciative and honest view of the people, politics, and economics of many African countries.

  2. That’s my husband Raghu’s favorite book. I need to read it. Tim Buthcher’s book Blood River where he retraces Stanleys expedition mapping the Congo River is also a fascinating read. We came pretty close to the Congo border in Ruhingere in Rawanda.

    • Ha ha, well there’s jet lag, 5 am flights, taking malaria pills and worrying about food illnesses and all that good stuff that I left out…

  3. It is such a blessing to be simultaneously American and able to claim a separate ethnic identity. I have long embraced my Japanese heritage, and now my daughters revel in their mixed Japanese-Chinese background. I very much relate to the sentiments and wonderment that you reveal in your writing when I travel to Japan or other parts of Asia. It is interesting, however, that once in awhile I find the need to “check” myself and my daughters, and remind ourselves that no country or culture is perfect. I continue to believe that there is no better place in the world to live than the United States.

    • Yes it is! I love the country of my origin and I also feel a special warmth for the United States which welcomed a bewildered graduate student and helped her stand on her own two feet. I am also grateful that I somehow I landed up in Oregon and have lived in Beaverton, longer than I have in any other town.

  4. Oh, the places you go! That looked like a lot of fun. I guess you and Angie Chuang could have a lot of great conversations, especially about gorillas. You should have jacked the cats. It doesn’t matter where you go, they are the consistently lovable. They were even going to help you pack. They must have been bummed to stay in Africa. Thanks for sharing your travels.

    • I saw the cats just for a few weeks and they are not even mine, but they were so affectionate. And playful. I remember one of them jumping off a fence and sliding down the windshield of a car. They would have loved a gym. William definitely felt he was helping me pack. So sad to see the puzzled looks on their faces after being left behind. True, when it comes to birds and lizards they were quite ruthless – they liked nothing better than dismembering them, but there was a purity and simplicity there.
      Yes Angie and I should trade stories about the gorillas. That will have to be another article for me!

  5. You always present yourself as a person with great grace and wisdom … there seems to be a serenity about you that I envy. You also seem to be brave. I am certain traveling to distant lands on my own is something I would not be able to do so I will be grateful to see these places through your insightful eyes. Thank you.

  6. Wow. Next time, I want to climb in your suitcase. I probably won’t fit. (You don’t seem high-maintenance enough.)
    I haven’t been a big traveler in life so far — because of circumstance, not desire. I’m interested that you find you “belong nowhere and everywhere.” I wonder if that is one of the points of the human experience, being a God girl and all. Hmmmm. I believe we are not of this world. And I think people who attach themselves, as you do, to people and places, speaks highly of one’s ability to live in the present and appreciate what is around you. Cheers to that!
    About cats: I have one and ADORE her, even if I “got her for my kids.” I have always attached to cats. Who was I kidding?
    I was going on a weeklong vacation recently and having trouble finding someone to watch her. So I did some research. That’s when I read they are more attached to their homes than their people. For example, if you’re going to move, you and the new owner of your home should consider letting the cat stay put.
    Whatever! I was offended. I pet Ellie extra.

    • That was my son’s rationale for leaving the cats with the his friend who is also a “co-parent” of the cats. They loved their home and had learned to navigate it. However, I had this funny feeling that they were ready to follow him anywhere. They used to sleep in his closet and when he left, apparently they kept waiting for him on his vacated bed for a while, though now they are back to their usual tricks. Was heartbreaking, but he hopes to be re-united with them in a few years.
      In terms of belonging, I do try to be in this world but not of this world. Sometimes that is good, but sometimes you appear a little weird when you do that!

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