Introducing: Tales from the Deep (or A Retrospective Recounting of my African Debut) 

Balinese man in prayer at Hindu temple on Mt Batukar

Balinese men in prayer at Hindu temple on Mt Batukar

In 2010 at the age of 21, I graduated from college with a bachelors degree and moved to Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island nation in the Indian Ocean, off of the Tanzanian coast.

Seventeen years spent in a classroom had left me starved for real life. Enough with theory, I wanted practice. 

Boy, did I get what I asked for. I spent the next few years as an ardent student of the School of Life, matriculating at classrooms in Zanzibar, Uganda, and Kenya, and accompanied by an unforgettable cohort of peers.

Within my first month in Zanzibar I pruned my long curly hair into a short boyish cut because I thought I could avoid catcalls on the street that way. I spent those days at the local hospital managing a research study on family planning and abortion. A year later, in Kampala, Uganda, my housemate Paul the OBGYN, would come home to share new tales from the maternity ward at Mulago Hospital, the same one featured in the Last King of Scotland. While riding to work one morning in Kampala, I was followed down the street by a tank with a soldier firing warning shots into the air– a clear message to opposition party supporters during election season. One chance August afternoon in Nairobi I found myself sitting across a table on a date with Sibongiseni Shabalala, a member of the South African a capella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Within a couple of years, my work would take me from Rwandan maize fields to negotiations at the Ministry of Agriculture, all within the same frenzied day.

You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

The more I have thought about these past few years, the more I realized that I really ought to recount these tales in detail. This past year has marked a turning point in my perspective– these stories have started to provoke just slightly less emotion and a little bit more laughter. Thus, today marks my embarkation on a new set of vignettes for this blog I call– Tales from the Deep (or A Retrospective Recounting of my African Debut) .

Tales from the Deep could be considered, among other things, a coming of age story. I was after all just 21 when I first moved to Zanzibar; green behind the ears, a spring chicken, Dr Sultan called me.

As I first sat down to write this series, a quote by Robinson Davies came to mind: “There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.”

I‘ve felt an unsettling gnawing from within for a very long while that I thought might be helped by writing, but did not know what to write or how to express the knotted tangle of thoughts, emotions, and experiences swirling in my mind. I thought perhaps a story, a work of fiction, could serve as a metaphor for the journey I have taken and would help me unload the volumes I have accumulated.

My attempts however, were shallow and felt to me entirely too contrived. It wasn’t until a trip I took to Indonesia in December last year where I encountered an Englishman, a fellow of 34 years, who had spent the past three years living in a Balinese village atop a mountain, that I realized fiction was entirely unesscesary– my reality without any embellishment was entertaining enough. Simon seemed to me like a 21st century Paul Gauguin (minus the paintings and death by syphilis). Replace banker from Paris with IT start-up guy from London, and Tahiti with Bali, and you have Simon.

Simon could recount to me endless stories of village life in Bali. He lives on a small farmstead on Mt Batukar in Bali’s Tabanan province, and runs an ecolodge where I stayed. He cares for a rescued Sumatran pig tailed macaque, and several dogs, cats, and ducks all of which he acquired purely by accident or happenstance. For example, his dog Walu, which means pumpkin in Balinese, he explained to me is a sacrifice dog who would have been otherwise slaughtered in a ritual had Simon not made him his own pet. Lola the macaque on the other hand, was poached from her jungle habitat and raised in a dress as a little girl by a childless lady before Simon adopted her. She has a grave aversion toward all women due to the early trauma she suffered in her monkeyhood– I can attest to her loathing.

Simon’s world ran tangentially to mine, however we differed in one critical way. His ability to not only see the comedy in his daily tribulations but also maintain a sense of wonderment long after the romance of Bali was no longer so fresh and the mundane had settled in was so very refreshing to me, and it was exactly the example I needed. I also needed the necessary distance from my time in East Africa to be able to understand it and comment on it from a slightly more neutral and removed perspective.

In fact, what being in Bali did for me was exactly what I had hoped for: I could suddenly see the past five years of my life through a new lens, and it started to make a little more sense. I suddenly had a moment when the immortal words of Johnny Nash rung loudly and clearly in my ears:

I can see clearly now that the rain has gone, I can see all the obstacles in my way.

Here’s to new beginnings and clarity. Stay tuned, my friends.



Today it has been two years since my friend Ravi was shot in a terrorist attack in Nairobi by a member of Al Shabaab.

We realized by mid afternoon on Saturday, September 21st, 2013 that he was missing. For a day and a half my friends and I searched for him. Those 38 some odd hours didn’t and still don’t seem real. Every minute that passed, I expected that I would wake from the nightmare. But I did not.

Even when Woubie and Sean came upstairs at 4am on Monday to Toni and my apartment, it felt like a horrible dream I would wake up from at any moment. Toni had fallen asleep on the couch and I sat at our dining room table listening to a Third Eye Blind album on repeat, willing someone to update twitter with some news of an ambulance leaving the mall. I didn’t even hear Woubie say they found him. I just sobbed into her shoulder, because I already knew.

I haven’t thought about that night until today. My heart pounds still and tears flow. I still don’t know how to handle this kind of loss. My reaction for the past two years has been to avoid any real discussion of Ravi or Westgate. Sometimes I say it out loud, just to see if things seem different. Pictures elicit a knee-jerk reaction. That day left me so cold. I have a shiver no blanket can console.

I could not have known the depth to which that event would change my life, and those of my friends, irreversibly. It continues to change us.

For me, Ravi’s loss initially triggered a phase of machine-like steeliness by which I coped for the first six months. That quickly gave way to a hellish period of nightmares and dysfunction. I left Kenya last year after there was an armed robbery at my apartment complex. It has been a tumultuous year.

I feel like a character in a theatrical performance, cast with only half a script. The easy part was acting. While he was missing, there was something I could do. But now, we have said our goodbyes, and his parents have long laid him to rest. What comes next? What am I supposed to do now?

I cope by ignoring. By compartmentalizing. But mostly by ignoring. I have learned that this is not healthy.

If death was hard enough to fathom, to loose a person to an act of violence is incomprehensible. Really incomprehensible. It has been in the aftermath of this loss that I have begun to realize how little we know about our own minds. How our coping mechanisms can turn on us after a while. How it seems that on the surface we can convince ourselves of anything, but we can never escape the truth no matter how hard we try to keep it buried. Violence is a sharp blade. And it leaves a deep scar.

Ravi was one of the most honest people I have ever met. When I say honest, what I mean is that he was self-aware, he was so real and unapologetically himself. That was the first thing you noticed about him, whether or not you consciously realized that quality is what made him stand out among so many. No pretensions. Good, bad, or ugly– he stayed with it. He was at ease with his own self.

When you’re with someone like that, they unconsciously permit you a moment’s relief. We could all be a bit more human around Ravi. We could accept ourselves as we are, even if for just an instant. When our friends write about the person and presence that he was– it’s about laughter, dancing, and food. There are a lot of bright people in this world, but he was truly intelligent. Compassion starts within oneself and flows outward. Ravi not only knew this, but he lived it.

He was a lion of a man. He is so dearly missed.


“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  –  Rainer Maria Rilke

I took some advice a couple of years ago.

Back when I was still in college there was a chance summer, in 2009 to be exact, during which I ended up in a particular professor’s office. It was a seemingly random and unconnected chain of events that led me there. By that time, my very short life experience had taught me one real thing: do work that is meaningful, or risk loosing my fire and potential to lethargy and apathy. My brief stint in corporate America had left me feeling like my brain was rotting inside my skull. My attempts to find a summer job in the development sector had yielded a couple of awkward interviews with the World Bank, but no position. My head was spinning. I was not qualified for the jobs I was seeking. I needed tangible skills.

I finally decided I was ok with not earning any money that summer. I remember I was at a crossroads. I asked myself, what do I want out of life? What do I care about? I wrote to my local PBS station and asked if they could use a young person who was hungry to learn about the world and about herself. I wrote to others as well. The responses were overall positive.

At some point I cast an email to a professor in the African studies department at the University of South Florida, where my parents live in Tampa. My email was forwarded to another professor with a funny name. It was a shot in the dark. I said I was eager to learn social science research methods, and that I’d give my time in return for mentorship that summer. The professor told me to come in to his office at 1pm the next day.

I went in prepared for an interview. Dressed the part. Had my elevator speech and padfolio at hand. I hoped with near desperation that a 19 year old with far too many questions swirling in her head would finally find some luck that day. An answer, perhaps.


Dr. Sultan and I met again two years later on another continent. June 2011. Nairobi, Kenya. I felt like I had been sucked though a wormhole when we reunited in Africa: the land of both of our dreams. His of childhood, adolescence, the Sahara, old loves, and the lingering aroma of coffee. Mine of answers lived into. Who was I again? 

We met several times over the course of a week. Long and thoughtful conversations. Never heavy. Always light and lighthearted. But intense, subtly.

I was different by then. My values were the same, but I was not the 19 year old college student who was living on the periphery of life. For all I knew when I first met Dr. Sultan in 2009, my life was a full one, my universe complete– except for these questions– and they bothered me so.

But by 2011 I had seen just enough to realize that up till then in my life, I had only traipsed the very edge and had not dove in. I had lived in East Africa for one year by then. And I knew just enough to understand that up till then, all that I had felt in my life were just shadows of real emotions. I was a child on whom the true beauty of a life wholly lived was lost. Up till then in my life I had lived only in my own mind.

Dr. Sultan and I walked to an Ethiopian restaurant in the living room of a lady’s home one Friday evening. My mind was preoccupied as usual. I was expressing to him my concerns about one thing or another. Work, friends, love, purpose, intention, happiness. Matatu routes, time zones, a new city, a new pulse. I’m confused, I’m hurting, I’m alone, I’m lonely. How do I do this again? At some point he looked over at me and said something I only slowly began to absorb.


There was no interview.

I sat in Dr. Sultan’s office that chance afternoon in 2009 and he did not ask me about my resume. He did not ask me the behavioral interview questions I was prepared to answer– about a time when I worked on a team or showed leadership ability when no one else rose to the challenge. He did not ask me what skills I would bring to the table.

What he did ask was: Who are you? What do you want? What are your dreams? And what would you like to gain while you’re with me?

I think back, and it is like the conversation that started in 2009 just simply continued. It continues even now.


When I was 19 I lived by very strict rules. Discipline was essential. Focus, determination, goals. I was obsessed. No distractions.

One day at lunch Dr. Sultan asked if I would like a glass of wine.

I replied that I didn’t drink.

He said that it was ok that I was 20 and that I’m technically not supposed to drink for another year– one glass was fine. I replied that my non-drinking had nothing to do with my age, or laws, or even morality. Dr. Sultan said, what then? Would you object if I dipped a Q-tip in some liquor and rubbed it on your teeth?

Incredulous, I said no of course not, but that’s absurd!

Laughing earnestly, Dr. Sultan warned me then about having hard and fast rules. Discipline is a good thing, but the reasons for having rules can be lost when they are followed indiscriminately, he said.

I entertained these ideas– and there were so many we tossed back and forth that summer. I can’t say I could understand all of his advice and musings. What I remember is that we laughed a lot. I went home really happy every evening. I didn’t have all my answers, but this I was ok with. I learned my research methods, yes, but I was just getting started with my real education. My reality was expanding. I was not aware of this at the time.


I have recently been asking myself a lot of tough questions.

Fear and insecurities. It’s ugly to look at. Easier to push these away to the recesses of my mind and distract myself with the everyday. But every now and then life makes you confront them. A wake up call. A point where bad habits start biting you in the ass. The point where you can’t pretend any longer. Life becomes volatile. The slightest provocation can prove terribly painful.

I wrote to Dr. Sultan this time. He responded swiftly, poignantly: Please remember that you have about 3 times the life you have already lived ahead of you. You have time to adjust to everything. 

Oceans and decades later, perhaps I will have adjusted. Perhaps I won’t be so resistant to change. Or be so afraid of myself.

For months I thought long and hard about the advice Dr. Sultan gave me in the restaurant in the Ethiopian lady’s living room:

Don’t be too rational. Don’t logic your way through life. Make mistakes. Screw up. Get messy.

I took his advice.


Temple scene from my hometown in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

My mother and father were 29 and 32 respectively when we moved to Montana with just two suitcases. It was about the same time of year as it is now, and I was a couple weeks shy of my fourth birthday. This year marks 20 years that our family has called the United States home.

I never fully understood the limbo-state that my parents have always lived. We talk about settling down, we talk about citizenship, we talk about retirement plans. But over the course of 20 years the dialogue has shifted. It’s no longer about dreams of moving back to India, but rather how many months out of the year we would ideally spend there. Back in India, just a few rusty trunks contain what little remains from homes long bulldozed. Old photos could be all that we have of our former selves.

We left India for a chance at something new. In a place and time where paid work for so many was incredibly difficult to come by, employment within one’s field and course of study was truly a rare chance. Both of my parents had jobs within the fields they were trained in. Yet, when presented with the Opportunity to learn and to earn, to deepen one’s pond of existence, to see what else the world had in store– there was no choice but to take it. And never look back.

In Nairobi, we talk about the expat life. We talk about missing out on family milestones, we talk about loved ones moving on without us, we talk about a lonely existence in a foreign city.

But it’s sort of glamorous. We did something that not many have done; we congratulate ourselves. So it’s alright that during the two, perhaps three, years we spent as an expat we were uncomfortable. Yes, we were stretched across two continents (maybe three)—but it was worth whatever it was we each thought we’d gain by being away those years.

When I think of my parents and so many others like them, I think about what it’s like to be torn across two continents. As long as we are at home we cannot appreciate all that is familiar and comfortable that we attach ourselves to. Yet when we are away from home it is these things we never could appreciate that hurt us the most. Today I thought I smelled the distinctly tart aroma of dosa batter as it hits hot oil on a cast iron griddle, and it immediately put me at ease. It’s the aroma that wafted through my house every single morning of my childhood. My reaction was visceral. But my heart sank when I realized that I imagined it.

I think that in the long run, having to redefine ourselves, our identities in relation to our new homes is what hurts the most. In two or three short years, we sample that pain. But none of us can truly claim to know it.

The smells, the quiet, the noise, the spaces, the textures, the lights, the sights, the human beings we long for! It is not unique. The millions of immigrants who came before us, they too have mourned the loss of Things they left behind.

It is in this that I find solace.

The Idiot

Mountain gorilla who rubbed his face on my thigh

A few days ago I came to the startling realization that in two more months, I will have lived in Nairobi for a year.

That also means that it will have been two years since I left the U.S. and moved to East Africa.

Two years is an odd and startling benchmark in my own mind. When you are 21 years old and freshly graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, two years seem like an eternity. Two years in a land so foreign where, as my roommate Kimmie likes to say, the only thing you recognize is your own shadow. Two years in a place so far away that, looking forward, you can’t even imagine life on the other side of that finite stretch of time. I am nearing that point. That point at the end of two years. And it is so very, very real.

When I was 21 and a fresh graduate I thought I would spend two years in East Africa. I think the ‘about me’ section of this blog still even says that I would spend two years here. I am trying to remember what I thought would come after that. Graduate school seems the most likely next step I would have imagined for myself at the time. Let me start by saying that I am not ready for graduate school. But let me end by saying that I have never before felt like I know and have experienced so little as I do at this point in my life. At this very moment, it seems to me that I have spent two years in East Africa learning how much I don’t know. Continue reading

A quick note on the 30-day Blogging Challenge

A few of you have asked me what happened to the 30-day Blogging Challenge I committed to a couple months ago. Basically, I failed. I realized that writing on my blog every single day is very difficult, especially because on many days I come home late and go straight to bed. So my new goal is to write on my blog at least once every week. I think it’s a much more realistic goal! I encourage you to hold me to it!

Falling in Love All Over Again

“Absence diminishes commonplace passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and kindles fire.” –Francois, duc de La Rochefoucauld

The view from my roof terrace

After one year in Uganda and Kenya, I returned to the States for a two-week holiday. In that short fourteen days I fell back into life in the U.S. so seamlessly that my time there seems to have been much longer. It’s true that on the first couple of days Florida felt a bit foreign. The roads a bit too wide, the parking lots a bit too expansive, the palm trees grew in patterns that seemed a bit too planned and orderly. But one week in, and it was almost as if I had never left. As a result, having returned to Nairobi just a fortnight later, I am going through a very peculiar phase. My mind adjusted so quickly to the U.S., that I am looking at Nairobi with a fresh pair of eyes. I feel like a tourist in the very city where I live and work. The avenues I have walked hundreds of times are suddenly smaller. They’re thickly lined with bougainvillea and hibiscus plants that I did not always used to notice. The parking lot at Junction Mall is startlingly tiny, when just two weeks ago that parking lot seemed vast. My perspective has completely changed and it has caught me off guard. Continue reading