When I stepped onto the tarmac in Nairobi, Kenya, I was 23, and fresh off my first year of law school. It was summer. I didn’t know it at the time, but that summer would forever change the trajectory of my life. I had come to Kenya as a human rights intern. It was my wild summer of adventure. My boss, who later became a member of Kenya’s Parliament, spent most of that summer in detention, the price he willingly paid to help bring multi-party democracy to Kenya. For our part, we wiled the summer away at a safe remove, writing, researching the Rule of Law, eating wonderful South Indian lunches at the home of a colleague who’s grandmother fed us like her own, and traveling the vast and glorious Kenyan countryside.
We spent a day and a night in Kisumu, a flat and beautiful place where we sat beneath tree canopies underneath an open sky like something out of Out Of Africa. We took five-days’ safari on the Maasai Mara game preserve. In those days, travel by land was safe, so we rode by van from Nairobi, through Maasai country until, finally, we rounded a bend onto a cliff overlooking the Great Rift Valley, the cradle of humankind. That was and remains the most breathtaking sight I’ve ever seen, though a close second was the Maasai Mara plains by night. From our little spot on the equator, we peered up at the star-filled a sky, not an electric light in sight, and saw, with a certainty, that the world is round, and we were part of something grander than ourselves.
Late that summer, as a coup attempt descended upon the city of Nairobi, we hopped the train to Mombassa, heeding the request of human rights friends who wanted us safe. As the high winds kicked up dust in the Nairobi streets, uniformed military officers, semi-automatic weapons hoisted upon their shoulders, swept the news stands of the magazine we were there working for. Back in the U.S., my parents, by then divorced 16 years, huddled together on the phone as State Department travel advisories warning against travel to Kenya beamed across their TV screens. How to explain? I was a train ride and a whole world away, taking in Mombassa’s blue-green waters and sugary sands. There, some 300 miles from Nairobi, we toured the former slave port and learned of an East African slave trade we hadn’t known about. From there we wandered the streets of the Muslim neighborhoods abutting the port. There I met a Muslim man a little older than myself, and though I turned down his advances (making him laugh when I cited my rule against walking five steps behind), he took me to meet his sister in the home she shared with her three young adult daughters and teenage son. I stayed a few days, trading stories with women I otherwise would never have met, women who walked the streets in burka-style robes, their vibrant voices silenced to the outside world while, in the shelter of their home, they spilled their riches. These women, who did not wish to drive, who did not miss the gaze of ogling men, taught me the many ways of seeing, the many ways of making sense of our life.
From Mombassa, we hopped a small plane north to Lamu Island, a tiny bohemian outpost on the Kenyan coast. The six days we spent there were the most relaxing days of my life. Five times a day, the Muslim call to prayer haunted the streets and swept away my cares. Those sleepy streets, with their network of footpaths just large enough for a donkey to pass, beckoned me through a labyrinth that led me deeper into the city, and deeper into myself. We drank mango shakes by the ocean, ate the cheapest lobster you’re every likely to find, and passed whole days, reading and talking with new friends, or sipping coconut milk on the sand of a deserted beach. Our room was on the top floor of a rustic, Arabic-influenced hotel. The bathroom was in the hall, but we were alone there on the penthouse floor, with our Swahili four-poster bed and private roof deck with panoramic views to the sea.
All good things must end. With the coup attempt past, we returned to Nairobi, sun-kissed and relaxed. My passport was promptly lifted from my bag, sending us in a bee-lined panic to the U.S. Embassy that would later be bombed, where passports were re-iussed while you wait. On our first day back in the magazine offices where we were working, we received a mysterious call. The woman on the other end identified herself as a U.S. State Department employee who claimed to have met us at an embassy party when we first arrived in town. Some 10 weeks into a 12 week trip — and on the heels of a failed coup (that, yes, we had information about) — she asked how our summer was going. She wanted to take us to lunch. I looked through the stack of business cards that I gathered at the embassy that night. Her name was not in my stack. We declined her kind offer and, two weeks later, were headed home.
New York had broken through my small-town tunnel vision. It laid at my feet actors and painters, restauranteurs, Madonna’s attorney, and some guy “in arbitrage,” whatever that meant. Kenya did New York one better. By bearing no resemblance to anything I’d known, it cleansed my perceptions, revealing just how vast and full of possibilities the world — and our lives — really are. It made the safe, respectable path I’d set my feet upon feel wrong. I knew that I would not practice law. I had no idea what I would do instead, but I took long walks, and wrote in my journal, and figured it would come to me. Within 24 hours, I heard a “voice” telling me, “You will write for film.”
That voice spoke to me across a twenty-year slumber. It freed me from doing the expected in order to do what was true. I did finish law school (I was too chicken to quit), but as graduation approached, I turned down the big law firm job that awaited at Skadden Arps and, after passing the New York Bar, I promptly retired from the practice of law. Five years later, I was a working screenwriter living in L.A.
Sometimes, over the years, I’ve questioned the voice I heard that day. It didn’t lead where I thought it would. I didn’t become an A-list screenwriter. I did not win an Academy Award. But when I am still, I can still hear that voice whispering about the rightness of the path I set out upon one Kenyan summer when I was 23, a summer that wooed me away from the law and into the fickle arms of Hollywood, so that I might set upon the path of my true life. That voice led me here, to the road I’m walking now.
EXPLORE MY KENYA…
Seeing Lamu through the eyes of Max Osterwels, Chief Executive and Creative Director of fair-trade fashion brand SUNO, is like being there again for the very first time. If you can’t make the trek yourself (or even if you can), visit Max’s Lamu as seen in T Magazine.
When in Mombassa, don’t miss:
The old Slave Fort.
A chance to eat with your hands at one of the neighborhood restaurants in the Muslim quarter near the Fort.
Shopping for beautiful, hand-carved, Swahili furniture and doors.
Nairobi is a bustling city best treated as a jumping-off point for further adventure, but it does have it’s charms.
Stay at Giraffe Manor.
Eat at Carnivore.
Witness The Mutatus. These little overcrowded buses are quintessential Nairobi, but they do tip over from time to time. Of course, we hopped on, but we were young and the type to throw caution to the wind.
If you’re an adventurer at heart, and you have a flexible schedule, you might try flying into Nairobi and booking your safari through a travel agent there. You’ll pay in Kenyan shillings, and the favorable exchange rate will make it worth your while. This is what we did and we were not disappointed, though our long stay in the country made securing a booking easy to do. If you’re traveling without a set schedule, this is an affordable and adventuresome way to go.
We’re hearing great things about:
Virgin Bush Safaris. The luxe-bohemian tent-camping outfit, founded by former New York city advertising and publishing executives, Cindy Crain and Lisa Rolls, specializes in custom safaris and also offers weddings. You might horseback ride amidst giraffes, helicopter in to a remote location, sleep high on an open-air platform, track a herd of elephants with renowned elephant researchers, or track leopards and lions with Samburu warriors with whom you’ll sing and dance with at night.
Lemarti’s Camp. The luxury-eco lodge owned by the German born, Kenyan raised fashion designer Anna Trezbinki, and her Samburu warrior husband, Loyaban Lemarti, marries the safari experience with an opportunity to get to know and experience the lives of the indigenous nomadic peoples of Northern Kenya.
Kensington Tours. The luxury tour outfitter offers custom safari options, including family-friendly options.
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.