The Root: Plantation Tours: You Can't Expect to Hear How Horrible Slavery Really Was

The Whitney Plantation

I’m not sure how I picked up the hobby of touring plantations. I think it started with my interest in architecture—picked up from my husband, who works in real estate—and my best friend of 20-plus years, who is an interior designer. Over the years, I’ve adopted their combined interests.

I’ve been to four plantations and an antebellum home with slave quarters over the past few months. That certainly doesn’t make me an expert on slavery or plantations. But it has given me some perspective on the popular article “I Used to Lead Tours at a Plantation. You Won’t Believe the Questions I Got About Slavery,” written by Margaret Biser for Vox.

Biser, who described herself as someone who once “worked at a historic site in the South,” shared her observations of some white people who visited the grounds and the sometimes bizarre questions they asked. I’ve had my own experiences with strange questions on the tours, notably all from black people, and also the bizarre commentary from white—always white, always women—docents.

My first plantation tour took place in March, when I visited Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, S.C. The tour of the big house was OK, though it was smaller than I expected. I appreciated the architecture and interior, though I was never able to separate the opulence from the people who toiled miserably in cotton or tobacco fields. Every time the tour guide made a sweeping gesture alluding to the grandness of a room, I wondered about the enslaved men and women who were forced to work for free to make such luxuries possible.

As the other visitors, all of them white except for a friend accompanying me, oohed and aahed, I wondered if they were picturing themselves heading back in time and imagining what life would have been like then. As a black girl with a great-grandfather born into slavery, I know how I would have lived: enslaved, considered property, doing backbreaking work for no pay, subjected to the demands of Massa and Missy, and living under the threat of violence at any time. Standing in one of the upper bedrooms, I thought, “This visit was a bad idea,” and whispered to my friend, “Never again.”

The slave quarters, distant from the big house, required a separate tour. Of our big-house group of 30 or so, just four of us boarded a trolley that took us down the road to the cabins. The tour guide, a peppy young woman in her early 20s, walked us out to the restored one-room shacks, which she described as "duplexes" because they had attic space that enslaved people slept in.

She told our group that enslaved men and women were treated and fed well on the plantation. In fact, they “were like family” to the owners. She went on to tell the story of a black family who stayed on the plantation beyond the Civil War and into the 1960s because they were loyal and they were so happy there. Then she showed us a cabin with psychedelic wallpaper. My friend and I had exchanged “This is bulls--t” glances throughout the tour, but our eyes locked the longest and rolled the hardest over these details.

The Evergreen Plantation, where the film Django Unchained was filmed

Oddly, this perspective on slavery actually made me want to go back on my word and visit more plantations, if for no other reason than to hear who was telling revisionist history and who wasn’t. Was every plantation selling “The slaves were so happy!” stories, or was anyone revealing 12 Years a Slave realness?

Last week I was in New Orleans and stopped by the Hermann-Grima House in the French Quarter. It was the city house of a family that owned a large sugarcane plantation elsewhere in the state. Enslaved men and women were kept in an apartment-style building in the backyard.

The docent, a white woman, of course, was visibly nervous. I was the only black person on the tour. Was she nervous because of me? She alternately referred to the enslaved women and men who worked in the home as “dependencies” and “domestic workers.” When she actually called them “enslaved men and women,” she stumbled over the words as if she weren’t used to the phrase. I wondered if she used that politically correct phrase with all-white groups. No one asked anything like what Biser described in her article.

After the tour, I double-checked some numbers and dates with her because I knew I would write about my visit. She answered my questions, then added unexpectedly that the current owners of the home don’t really like the docents to talk about slavery, but she’s a historian and thinks it should be mentioned. I thanked her for clarifying.

On the final day of my trip, I headed an hour out to Old River Road, a 100-mile stretch of two-lane road with plenty of plantations, including the Evergreen Plantation, which was featured in Django Unchained. (A TV show was shooting on location, so it was closed to the public.) A friend from Louisiana recommended that I start with the recently restored Whitney Plantation, which was now a museum dedicated to the history of slavery.

Slave cabins on the Whitney Plantation

Of our tour group of 20 or so, there were five black people: me, three women and a man, all of whom looked to be in their late 50s to early 60s. By their accents, I assumed they were from the South. Only their questions struck me as bizarre.


We were standing by a monument to enslaved people that included only their first names, ages, any skills and the region in Africa where they were stolen from. The guide had just explained that the only way researchers were able to retrieve this information was by looking at property records.

From one of the black women: “Did the slaves have birth certificates?”

Um, no. Enslaved men and women were not considered people. Maybe she wasn’t paying attention to the docent. I gave her a pass.

Inside a slave cabin at the Whitney Plantation

Our group moved on to the on-site slave jails. The parish jail was for people actually considered human. The “property” who needed to be locked up for whatever reason were punished or held in a square contraption. There were hooks showing where they could be shackled to the wall.

From one of the black women: “When the slaves were in slave jail, were they allowed out for exercise?”

Um ... no.

I was happy that they were on the tour in order to learn. But I was surprised that black people, especially those from the South, knew so little about slavery and seemed to think the treatment of enslaved men and women reflected a modern, humane way of life. Ignorance about slavery is not the sole domain of white people.

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I Ugly Cried in Nairobi

Painting of Maasai Warriors, as seen on the wall in my hotel room in Diani. I had a breakdown in Nairobi. Like full-on heaving sobs, snotty tears and all.

Don't be alarmed. I do this at least once every time I travel overseas. I love traveling. I love seeing new parts of the world and meeting new people and learning and appreciating new cultures. As long as I am able, I will get on a plane regularly and go see some world. But there’s stress that comes with being far out of your comfort zone, especially when you're solo, as I was my final day in Kenya.

Solo at home, you can operate on auto-pilot. You know the rhythm of “your” world. Abroad, you don’t. And as a result, you're hyper-aware, operating with all senses (if you're smart). There's the realization that there are thousands of miles between you and the next person who personally gives a damn if something goes wrong. You are all you've got. That means you've got to be over sensitive about looking right to cross the street, your surroundings, your purse, your cash flow (because credit cards are iffy, as are ATMs) and the battery life on your phone, a savior for its GPS and list of places to go, as much as it is an emergency lifeline to you and home.

Taking off the blinders and living completely is the thrill-- and occasional trigger-- of traveling. This caused my flip out. Allow me to explain.

I had a lot on my plate that day. Getting back to Brooklyn, required a plane ride back to Nairobi, a 9 hour layover in the city, then a 8 hour plane to Heathrow, a 3 hour layover there, then another 8 hour flight to JFK. It's all minor when it's broken down. But combined it's an (lengthy) ordeal.

The plane back to Nairobi was one of those 8 seaters where you feel every bump in the air. I hate little planes (mostly because of Aaliyah). I sang gospel songs softly the entire ride. The driver who was arranged to meet me at the airport didn't make it. The cab driver who took me to the hotel couldn't find it. The hotel-- though safe and secure-- wasn't at all like it was advertised.

I navigated the city just fine. I walked around sucking up the energy and people watching. Nairobi's Central Business District is more vibrant and alive than even Times Square. I had lunch by the rooftop pool of a swanky hotel, then headed to the city market to pick up last minute souvenirs for friends and family. I haggled for bracelets and stuffed animals and a belt for my husband just fine. "We are not arguing, my Sister," the vendor, a woman, said. "Just discussing what's fair for us." It's a great line. I was overcharged, of course, but I didn’t feel ripped off.

I left her stall with my gifts in tow, and wandered toward the exit. On a wall, I spotted a print of Maasai warriors similar to one I'd admired in the hotel room I’d just left. The woman, older and who reminded me of my deceased maternal grandmother, saw me looking and quoted a price. Too much. "I have more for you," she said. "Come..." So I followed her into the stall.

She's got a pile of 200 paintings and she's flipping. And I want to take home half of them. Two, I just couldn't leave behind.

The walls of my apartment are like an art gallery (they’re blank on The Show because the network won't pay for clearance, and blurring the art out looks weird on camera). I’ve made a habit to pick up a painting (and/or jewelry) in every country I visit.

Years ago, I went to the summer home of [name redacted so as not to name drop] a well-known magazine editor who I (and my mother) admire. Her house was like an art gallery too, with sculptures and paintings collected during her travels. I complimented a piece of jewelry she wore that day. She told me she'd picked it up in another country and it was years was before I was born. I admired her lifestyle too. I committed to creating an art gallery and jewelry box reflecting my travels.

So, at the stall in Nairobi, I got a painting for me, and one for my mama/parents house. My mom is no fan of my travels to anywhere in Africa and will likely not see the continent herself. But she will have a piece of the continent in her dressing room.

I didn't have enough money for the purchase, so I offered to go to an ATM, and return. Or, I had American dollars at my hotel close by. I could go and come back. The woman suggested I take the paintings and her husband would walk with me to my hotel to collect the money.

Her husband, the splitting image of my (also deceased) maternal grandfather, walks up. He's an older man, in his 70s, he'll tell me later, on our walk. I ask how long they've been married. He smiles. His upper row is perfectly straight on the left side, entirely missing on the right. If he had his full teeth, he would have had my grandfather's smile too. He says, “oh, a long time.”

So we walk to the hotel, 3 blocks away. He, Mr. Geoffrey, tells me he was born near Mount Kenya. He had 2 sisters and 6 brothers. One sister is gone, 2 brothers died. They were all over 100 when they passed. He, in his 70s, is the baby of the family. He doesn't go back to his birthplace because he doesn't like it there. He and his wife have a house in the Nairobi suburbs. They've had their current business for 10 years. He asks where I'm from, if I have family, if I like Kenya. He tells me he's worked in the stall for 10 years and never walks this way.

At the hotel, he waits while I run up to grab the money. We exchange money for posters in the lobby, and I offer to walk with him back to the market. He smiles and looks at me incredulously. "I am fine. You don't need to walk with me," he says. I tell him I have to go back out, and that way, as I need an ATM. I don't have money for the cab to the airport.

He says he'll walk with me to find one. I insist I'll be fine. He tells me that the area is fine during the day, but can be seedy at night. They call Nairobi, "Nai-robbery" sometimes and it's not always safe after dark, he says. Dusk is coming. I don't see any harm in accepting his chivalry. I relent.

So we walk, and he asks me if it's my first trip to Kenya. And he asks if I'm married and have family. And if I like Kenya. And he says he's worked in the stall for 10 years and he's never walked this way before. And I assume he wasn't paying attention earlier because he was making small talk with a stranger. And then we find an ATM and it doesn't accept my card.

So we start walking again and he asks if it's my first trip to Kenya and if I enjoyed it, and if I'm married and have a family. And I answer the third time just like it's the first as I realize something is wrong.

He stops to ask a security guard in Swahili where there's an ATM, and the man points inside a building and it turns out it's a money exchange, but no ATM. As we walk out, he cautions me to slow down. I apologize. I walk fast even when I'm trying to walk slow, and I've inconvenienced my elder. He says, no, he's worried about me. The sidewalks aren't always smooth and he doesn't want me to fall. He's fine*.

So we walk again, slowly for my own good, searching. And Mr. Geoffrey tells me that he hasn't walked these streets in awhile and he and his wife have worked at the market for 10 years. And then he asks if it's my first trip to Kenya and if I have a husband and family. And then I realize he has Alzheimer's.

My grandmother had it. And she did the same thing. She would get stuck in a train of thought and just loop the same conversation over and over and over. And I feel... sad. And vulnerable. Like, this old man who looks lke my grandfather saw me, and saw my vulnerability as a "stranger in a strange land" and he wanted to look after me, and he may or may not know that he's the one that needs looking after.

We find a Barclays ATM. My card works. I can get to the airport just fine, assuming I can find a cab, but the hotel should be able to call me one.

On the walk back to the hotel, he asks if it's my first time in Kenya, and if I liked it, and if I have a husband and family, and this time he asks if I'll come back to Kenya. I say that I will and I will come with my husband. He invites me to stay with him and his wife as they have a house outside of the city. We could come and stay for one or two days. I tell him I will take his information and I would love that. He tells me that he's worked in the stall for 10 years, he and his wife, and he hasn't walked this way before. My eyes begin to well up with tears.

He is a very kind man, who looks like my grandfather (except shorter) and reminds me of my grandmother. And for whatever reason he has taken a liking to me and wanted to keep me safe, though it's debate-able whether I needed it or not, and what could a 70 year old man do if harm came anyway? But it was a kind gesture and it eased my anxiety. And it also made me feel extra vulnerable as this very vulnerable person sees me as the one in need of help. And now I'm emotionally rattled, even more vulnerable. And trying to hide it from Mr. Geoffrey.

I also wonder if his wife knows he has Alzheimer's. She has to know he's forgetting things. But does she know how bad this gets? We (my family) knew my grandmother couldn't remember things the same and would get stuck in a loop. But she was otherwise fine and doctors said there wasn't anything we could do. The loops weren't so bad and were pretty harmless. So we paid a bit more attention and more or less let her be.

But then one day she told her husband she was going to the grocery store and didn't come back. Hours later, someone called my mom and described my grandmother to her and asked if she knew her. Grandma had gone to the grocery store, come out to the parking lot after shopping and couldn't find her car. She was looking for a vehicle she had when I was growing up, not the current one. She's been walking around the parking lot aimlessly until the woman spotted her, stopped her, and found my Mom’s number in my grandmother’s purse.

At the hotel, Mr. Geoffrey scribbles his name and mobile number on a piece of paper and I sniff back tears. The desk attendant notices something is wrong and offers me a bottle of water. I take the water and the paper and thank Mr. Geoffery again and ask him to thank his wife and say goodbye to her. And I ask if he remembers how to get back to the market, and he looks at me like I'm stupid. Then he offers to give me his number so I can come visit him and his wife when I come back to Kenya.

I show him the number he just gave me. He smiles and shakes my hand and I thank him as he waves goodbye and walks out. I follow him to the sidewalk and watch him walk to the corner. He turns left in the direction of the market three blocks down.

I go back in the hotel, round the corner for the stairs to my room and COMPLETELY LOSE IT, like fat tears, and spit and bent over heaving sobs. I’ve done this twice before in my life. One, I don’t really talk about (I was barefoot in the middle of the street, but it’s the reason I left the Hamptons in Season One of “The Show” and I won't talk about it publicly as along as my father is alive out of respect.) The other time was when my grandfather died.

I'd gone to the nursing home where he lived with my grandmother. Their room had twin beds, and his was made up and empty like he had never been there. My grandmother and parents were in the room, and my grandmother kept asking, "where's my Honey?", her name for my grandfather.

She had Alzheimer's so she couldn't remember he was dead. The fist two times she asked, we told her he'd died. And we watched twice as she absorbed that traumatic shock of finding out her husband of 60+ years was never coming back, then promptly forgot. After that when she asked, we lied and said he was on his way back to the room. I held it together until my parents and I had to leave her to go to the funeral home and see the body. I walked out the room, turned the corner, leaned against the wall and lost my entire sh-- (just like I did in that Nairobi stairwell) as my parents stared at me wide-eyed.

So I go up to my shabby room and sit on the edge of the bed and sob and snot, and tears and spit get on my dress, and then I call CBW, one of only four people in the world (other than my parents) who can calm me down when I'm like this. I tell him the whole story and then apologize for scaring him because, you know, your wife calls you from the other side of the world crying uncontrollably, the first thing you think is that she’s been raped or robbed. And really she's just upset because she misses her grandparents and feels helpless. He talks me off my ledge and tells me it’s okay and because he said it is, it is.

After I get off the phone, I wash my face, gather my sh--, and hop in a cab to go meet a reader (and new friend) who lives in Kenya. It's my last night in Nairobi and I want to make the most of it and keep building memories, even if the man who just triggered so many probably already doesn’t remember me.


*Kenyans be walking. Like I walk fast, just because. But when I was out for my morning walk in Diani, I was hoofing, and this guy pushing a wheel barrow of old electronics came up from behind me out of nowhere and outpaced me... barefoot. And did not break a sweat.

48 Hours in Nairobi: 10 New Observations 

You can't go two steps in Nairobi without seeing an ad for Tuskers. (It's still not as bad as Digicel in Port-au- Prince).  1. So yesterday, I told you that the first song I head on the radio in Nairobi was Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me”.  It stood out to me because the station didn’t appear to be oldies. The announcer was doing a call-out for women who had given birth at 12/13 and were now raising daughters who were pregnant at 12/13. The demo had to contain a lot of women 24-26 for that call out (and my driver was no more than 25, okay maybe 30. You never know with Black people). The station was also advertising an upcoming expose about homosexuality in Nairobi. Apparently, sex tourism and "down low” behavior are an issue, and homosexuality isn’t all that tolerated. It all sounded very Springer 90s. I say all that to say this: for a station with salacious topics and a mid-20s demo, I expected to hear hip-hop or R&B, or whoever the local music artists are, not a song that was popular when I was, literally, 19. After that came some unidentifiable Michael McDonald-esque music.

2. So yesterday, our driver, Amos, takes us from the cottage to the city. We were supposed to go to this tourist heavy all-meat restaurant, literally it’s named Carnivore. (I was along for the adventure. I’m a pesca.) Anyway. Traffic was abysmal, so Amos was like, “um, no.” So he says he’ll take us to the city to a nice place. Great.  (He's also not sold on us going to a tourist spot where the waiters dress up in zebra print.) He recommends an American coffee shop that serves burgers and shakes. I get it. We’re Americans, he thinks we want American ish. We don’t. We detour to an organic spot for local food instead. What’s playing from the speakers? Usher's “Confessions", and Kelly Rowland’s one-hit, the one about “make Mama proud." Oh, and that one Kerry Hilson song  that had Kanye on the intro. On repeat. We figure someone put together their "moving on" playlist and is smitten with a new boo. I tell you all this to say, in, now 48 hours, I’ve heard no hip-hop, which I am delightfully fine with. And the radio program directors of Nairobi have great taste in music.

3. When in doubt/ lost/ in need of A/C or wi-fi, find the nearest American hotel, talk loud so everyone hears your accent and assumes you’re staying there, and use what you need at your leisure.

4. They have a Coldstone Creamery in Nairobi. So far, I’ve seen one McDonald’s and one KFC, which please me greatly, but not for the reasons you imagine. I like going to visit another country and feeling like I’m in another country. Traveling to shop in a bunch of stores with marked up American goods that were made in China isn’t a vacation. Nairobi has some imports, but they mostly have their own ish. This makes me happy.

5. Every city has its classic cup caking spot. For BK it’s DUMBO or the BK waterfront. For DC, it used to be Hains Point, but it seems to have moved to National Harbor. In Philly, it’s the top of the “Rocky” steps. For Nairobi, it seems to be the rooftop of the International Conference Center. It’s appears to be the tallest building in Nairobi and there’s a 360 view of the city. There were multiple couples just hanging out, enjoying the breeze and the view. From what I can tell, PDA isn’t a big thing here, which I only noticed because I saw a woman holding a man’s arm and it stood out because I’ve rarely seen people touch. Is that the culture? The influence of Islam? I dunno. But even on the roof, the couples sat or stood close next to each other, but never touched.

6. So. We try to go to this restaurant, only to find out its actually closed on Tuesdays. Whatever. We hear live music, so we wander over to the crowd.  It’s a outdoor music spot, Seemas (not sure of spelling.) The first thing I notice is the abundance of men, and two girls in tight dresses grinding on each other. Hmm. This strikes me as  odd because of my previous observation. So, we sit and have a drink and a meal. One of my traveling companions orders a “Tusker” because they’re advertised in Kenya the way Heineken is advertised in the US. Cool. The bottles are ginormous. I sneak a sip. It tastes exactly like Corona. I notice a few tables full of women. Most are sitting, some standing and they’re  in really tight dresses and standing wide. The service was a little slow, but we only minded because we were in a rush. That’s not the point of this, this is: a woman my friends met in the airport while waiting for me, called out of the blue to ask where we were. Turns out, she works near by. So she comes to meet us. As she walks us out, she asks what we thought of the spot. It was cool for what it was. She comments on the number of prostitutes. The girls grinding?And standing really wide? Advertising services. They call them “night girls” in Nairobi. The woman says that there are tons of them in that area and she’s surprised more weren’t out that night. She adds that while technically illegal, police mostly turn their heads about it.  We mention this to the driver, Amos, in the car on the way home. He says otherwise: “run away or you will be arrested,” he cautions. He adds that he doesn’t drink Tuskers anymore. “I drink two and I black out.” Womp.

7. The Hustle— so we pass by the City Market, and go in. It’s beyond obvious that we’re not American. People who were just chilling in  their stalls, look alive, and start calling out to us, “My Sister…”, “My Brother…” Like every. single. vendor. They call “jambo”, “karibu” (welcome), invite us to look at their wares (“looking is free!”) They are super aggressive, and I say this as a New Yorker. In fact, I was so overwhelmed at being verbally accosted, that I turned around and left. As our small group was walking along the street, two different men came up to chat with the gent in our group. They wanted to know if we were going on safari, where we were from (more on that in a second), what our plans were for our visit, blah, blah, blah. And even when we gave the brush off, the guys continued to walk with us for blocks. like at least 6 blocks each.

8. We’re Jamaican. I don’t know what about any of us reads as Jamaican, but that's the assumption. One of the girls in the group has braids, but so do half the women of Nairobi. The guy has a beard. I have my hair in a high bun. I know Jamaican. Nothing about us looks so. But constantly we’re asked, “You all are Jamaican?” I’m missing some backstory/cultural link, I think.

9. Musky Men: let me say this blunty: the vast majority of the men I have encountered in Kenya are scentless. As a whole Kenyan men smell exactly like American men. I am not in anyway implying that the men of Kenya smell bad. I am, however, saying that in the 48 hours I have been in Nairobi, I have encountered more men with with a strong underarm scent than I have encountered in other places I have travelled to. And I don’t mean homeless men or poor men. I mean men that are working jobs and funk up the whole phone store when they walk in on what appears to be their lunch hour. I mean the guy who checked my ticket to get to the roof where the couples were cup caking. I mean, just a random collar-shirted guy you pass in the street and think, “Good Lord, man!”

10. The Sixties— Nairobi is a modern city. It’s a tech hub for Hova’s sake. Everyone’s got a cell phone, there are electronic stores every five feet you walk downtown. And you can’t go in any crowded place without passing through a metal detector and getting swiped down like you’re going though airport security. At the really important places, your bag goes through a Xray machine. But the infrastructure, especially the buildings,  is very 70s. It’s like the government built everything they needed, did a good job the first round, and decided they were done. That’s not a bad thing. It does however make you feel like you’re in a time warp as you walk around the city. That said it’s a relatively clean city (sorta), especially given the number of people walking around. I walked around in flip flops, which when I do that in NYC, the bottom of my feet are black. Not even grey here, even though I walked and walked and walked today. I did see a couple open sewage streams, and the alleys weren’t the cleanest, but where, I ask, are alleys clean?

BONUS:  I’m… intrigued by the security here. In addition to noticing the metal detectors everywhere today, I also noticed that the cops walk around holding vintage AK47s... like baseball bats, if you’re just walking along at your leisure with one. So again, I’m wondering, is Nairobi that bad and America is better off in this regard? Or is it about the same and Americans are naive? I dunno. The guy and I were walking from a park back to the city centre earlier today, right? We’re talking about being bummed because we can’t do Lamu and Mombasa. There’s no plane that goes between the two cities anymore and the bus that travels is frequently robbed, or worse. Six months ago, some extremists hijacked a bus and killed all the infidels. So… yeah, no. We’re not taking the bus. My mother and husband would never forgive me. The alternative is to fly to Mombassa, fly back to Nairobi, then fly to Lamu, which again, no.  So we chose Lamu. We’re talking about this as we walk, and suddenly there’s a BOOM! We freeze immediately. And the “let out”, hundreds of people everywhere, do too. Cops go running in the direction of the sound. The guy and I stay frozen until everyone else starts moving. I can tell from the reaction that this city is shell-shocked just like NYC, post 9/11. (Literally, my VERY first observation walking out of the Nairobi airport was “hmm.. smells like post 9/11.”)  Maybe all the security is the government’s way of providing peace of mind. Maybe they actually need that ish.

BONUS 2: Before our guy of the group began going along with the Jamaican thing, he tells this one guy, a market vendor that he's American. The guy responds, "America? We call it Obama Land". LMAO.

10 Random Observations I Made in Nairobi (in the first 24 hours) 

DCIM100GOPRO Processed with VSCOcam with 4 preset I’ll tell my random how I got here  (as in Nairobi) story another day. It involves a mother being unimpressed by flamingos and over-concerned (I think) about terrorism, me missing a connecting flight in London (thus delaying my arrival by 9 hours) and being temporarily separated from my travel buddies (while chill-laxing at the Hilton Nairobi, which was a great hotel…. 40 years ago). It’s a ‘lemons into lemonade’ tale, that CBW pointed out is comprised of first world problems in a third world country. I, however, think it's worth telling.

Anyway. My top 10 observations about Nairobi within the first 24 hours. These observations are subject to change, be debunked, or be the gospel truth, depending on what happens over the next 16 days. I apologize in advance for any offended Kenyans. Whenever a newbie writes about a city—a home city to many someones—there’s no way not to offend unless the reviews are glowing. This isn’t that.

So without further delay:

1. The traffic here, at least in rush hour, is sh—. I read that in multiple places and in this travel group I’m in where several people recently visited Nairobi. I thought they were exaggerating. Nothing could be worse than Atlanta or LA at rush hour. Nairobi is worse than both combined. It took an hour-plus, to get from the airport to the city, a distance that should have taken about 15 minutes, tops. To credit, the driver said traffic is better in the city, but still unpredictable. He suggested I give myself a few extra HOURS to get to the airport from the city when I leave in two weeks.

2. There are people walking everywhere— at least in the city. Like everywhere. It’s not like Times Square walking where everyone sticks to sidewalks. It’s people EVERYWHERE. I’m not explaining this properly. Ok. You know how people pour onto the sidewalk and into the street when there's a let out from the club? The let out. That's what the city centre of Nairobi is like, all dang day. It's super busy. You need a break just from walking around.

3.  I don’t see white people— at least not in the part of downtown I was in. Why does this matter? So… when I was in college at a PWI, I used to play this game I made up where at any given moment, I would stop and give myself 5 seconds to spot another Black person on campus. I lost a surprising amount of the time even though Black students made up 10 percent of the campus population at the time. I tell you this to say, I played, “spot a white person” after I left the airport. Until I went to dinner by the UN, I spotted three. If you wonder why this is so fascinating? Because I’m American and white people are the majority everywhere you look, and the parts of Brooklyn I most frequent are hella gentrified now. So just generally walking around and there are no white people is… different. Not good, not bad, just different.

4. I haven’t heard hip-hop yet. Like NOTHING. Maybe the cab drivers I’ve had don’t like rap. Who knows?  The first song played when I got in the cab from the airport? Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me.” I’ve heard Nairobi is a party city. Google “what to do in Nairobi” then click “Images.” LOL.

5. You know how people are always saying Americans are slobs? It’s because in a lot of other countries, especially predominately Black countries, men put on a collared shirt and pants to go out, even if it’s to do dirty business. Just walking around in a t-shirt and shorts or sweats is unheard of. I was riding thru the city people-watching. I didn’t see one person in a t-shirt. ). A surprising number of men had on dark blue suits. It seems  dark blue suits are “a thing”. And the women had heels, and often, stockings. Didn’t see one mini-skirt. (And it’s 80+ degrees).

6. I'm staying with friends at a cottage on an "estate". There is a rooster on the grounds. Somehow I was unaware that roosters "go off" for like an hour each morning BEFORE actual sunrise. I thought it was one and done big moment and that’s the song for the day. Yeah, no. So I’ve been up since 6:32 AM my time.

7. About the cottage. It is small and clean, and beyond suitable size for 3 people. It has just the basics. Enough comfort to be comfortable, nothing that would be considered fancy or excessive, at least by US standards. I'm struck already by how much I can do with "simple" and "less" here, and better, how unnecessary “more” is. I've been thinking a lot about necessities and space post- marriage as CBW and I  now live in what was formally "my" one bedroom apartment. It was big for one, seems small for two. (And moving doesn't make sense at this point). But actually, there's quite enough space and too much stuff. I gave away half my closet before I got married. I'm inclined to give away half of what's left too. I would rather have the space than the stuff.

8. One of my travel mates read that Nairobi has amazing Thai food for some reason.  Whatever she read didn't lie. I had the best Thai food ever in life for like $5 last night. It was a green fish curry and at least 4 servings. I ate two. Either "take home" isn't a thing here or the guy didn't understand me, so that's that.

9. Kenyans speak English fluently. My ears haven't adjusted to the dialect yet. So I'm all, "sorry?", "huh?", "sorry?" like I’m basic. We have a driver who's been teaching us well, basic words in Swahili: "Jambo" (which oddly enough, I know from watching "Mean Girls"). "Asante" (thank you). That's all I learned so far. It's been a day. American cultural currency, even for Black people, is an underrated American privilege.  American films/ TV have been exported worldwide. Our dialect is not foreign to the ear.

10. Um. It's  85 during the day and cold at night. I slept in a sweatshirt. You know how Black Americans will say, "it's Africa hot!". Yeah, we gotta be more specific. Maybe West Africa hot? I dunno. I haven’t made it to West Africa yet. I’ve not been able to make two offers to go to Nigeria, and had to decline another for reasons I will probably explain in “A Bride in Brooklyn” (the sequel to ABIB.) Anyway, the point remains, everywhere in Africa isn't hot all the time.

BONUS: I'm trying to judge the extent of the terrorism issue here. So I ride up to the Hilton yesterday. The car is stopped and surrounded by armed security, and the driver must pop the hood and the trunk for double inspection. Same happens when the second driver comes to pick me up and take me to my friends at the cottage. So, terrorism is an issue everywhere, as I tried to explain to my very anxious mother. Yes, there was a mall attack in Nairobi, but there were recent threats to the Mall of America too. September 11, Boston Marathon. And America is supposed to be "safe." So I guess what I'm trying to figure out is Kenya hyper-sensitive/smart in taking the precaution to search cars, or is America being naive? Or is it that Kenya has greater threats? Hmmm.

That's it for now.  Today is my first "city day" with the group, so hopefully, I'll have plenty of observations to make tomorrow.


A Belle in Panama: Isla Taboga

Isla Taboga, Panama  

I got up early this AM (Friday) and took a ferry to Isla Taboga. I left too early to grab free breakfast at the hotel, so I found a hotel on the island that was still serving it. The plan was to head to the beach after and do nothing. Yes, I have to plan to go blank. And I ordered a veggie omelette

While I was waiting with my coffee and for my food, a sneak storm comes. I look up from my book when I hear a bang of thunder, and all the sudden the sky is dark, the water is choppy, and the wind is whipping everything around. The manager is running from door-window to door-window closing everything and just when he finishes, the sky opens up. It's rainy season.

So I sit and eat my breakfast and watch the show Mother Nature puts on. And then I go back to reading my book until the storm passes. 3.5 hours later, the sky has stopped leaking and I have finished "Who Asked You?", which was a GREAT read.

I sling on my backpack and go exploring in the direction of the beach. It looks like something out of "The Beach". Remember that movie where young Leonardo DiCaprio goes HAM? Exactly like that. It's beautiful and I have one of those I-Can't-Believe-This- Is-Life moments. I take a bunch of pics, then abruptly stop. I took a helicopter to the middle of the Grand Canyon once and the pilot, a woman, told us about this guy who’s “a regular”, who comes to the Canyon and never takes pics. He spends the visit taking the view all in, and when he forgets what it looks like with clarity, he comes back. I want to be like that guy. I want to enjoy the moment and I want to come back here (again and again) and bring friends so they can experience all this awesome.

I put my phone away and I walk to the water. It's bath water warm. And I just stand there looking and watching folks swim and leaves blow and what looks like a film being well, filmed and these guys digging holes big enough to be graves in the sand and then I just stare at the pretty houses in the hills.

I don't know how long I stand there. But when I've had my fill, I go find a restaurant with $3 red wine, and I sit at the table and read "Lucky" with Solange on the cover talking about how she stopped wearing prints and likes solids and color-blocking now and I realize this wardrobe change is the entire hook of the story. "Elevator-gate" doesn't even come up. Womp.

I fall asleep for part of the boat ride back to the mainland. And I hail a taxi and negotiate the rate with the driver. He offered $10, I haggled him down to $5. I should have paid no more than $4, but... My Spanish is getting better, I see.

When I get Wi-Fi again, there's a text from Alex. In summary, we're renting a car tomorrow to go see both Black Jesuses in Portobelo and Isle Grande.

I'd tell you more, but now I have to go find said rental car place and extend my stay at the hotel/find another room. My goal is to stay here at hotel Tantalo. I came back from my trip today to find a note and a sparkling VIP band on my bed. There's a "battle of the pianos" in the lobby tonight, the letter reads. They, hotel management, hopes I will come down to join the festivities. As an added incentive, all drinks are on the house if I wear the band.


Other thoughts:

I'm amazed how long  the battery in my phone lasts when I'm not on text, Twitter, Facebook + AskFM. Like I can go a whole entire day without re-charging. I'm usually dead after 3 hours. I'm notorious for asking anyone (including strangers), "do you have a charger?"

I've spent the last three days listening solely to alternately The Best if Dionne Warwick and The Best if Luther. They actually make the same songs to different music. No, really. Warwick recorded "House is Not A Home" before Luther. She was actually a huge influence on him as a musician. (With all my downtime doing nothing, I looked it up.)

Single dollar bills (and to a lesser fives are more precious than gold. Panama is big on exact change. Twenties, also the most common denomination dispensed by ATMs here, are the devil. People are like that's A meal can be $13. You whip out $20 and folks are like, "Oooh! Nooo." I got a drink the other day for $6, whipped out a $10. The barista was like "ooh. Mmmmm." (She finally broke it.) I gave a cab driver a $5 for a $4 ride. He looks at me like O_o. I wasn't getting out to get change, so I just gave him the $5. Hmmm. Maybe he knew that was going to happen. Anyway, I don’t understand how I’m supposed to get change if no one ever has any. Conundrum.

A Belle in Panama: The Art of Doing Nothing

It's an art. You know what is my biggest issue being in Panama? Stopping me from me.

I keep looking for things to do to keep me busy: a walk here, a ferry there, a cab here, a look-see there, etc.

I set my alarm this morning for 6:30AM planning to head to Isle Taboga, a little island with a beach-- Panama City proper doesn't have one— about 60 minutes off the mainland. There’s only one ferry going and one returning, so I fancied myself to have a day trip of exploration and getting up at 6:30 AM on my second day of vacation. I’ve been in Panama City for 36 hours, and I’m already trying to run off when I need to just be still.

I forced myself to turn off my alarm and actually get some rest, especially since I was up til 4AM the “night” before. Folks told me Panamanian coffee was good, and it is. “They” didn’t say how strong it was, but now that I think about it, that could have been what they meant by “good”. Hmmm.

Anyway, I’ve made plans to do nothing today—or nothing major. I’m headed to Armador  Causeway later this afternoon to ride a bike and the plan park myself under a shady palm tree and put another dent in Terry McMillan’s “Who Asked You?”, which I’m really enjoying. That’s my plan for the entire day. Oh, and dinner. Somewhere fancy. Maybe Italian?

I don’t like to be still, but I NEED to be. Being in another country, especially one where I don’t speak the language well, has its challenges, to put it mildly. It's frustrating not to be able to communicate effectively and I get lost a lot. I didn’t realize how unrelaxed this was making me until I welled up with tears at the sight of a toothbrush.

In addition to draws, I left that at home too, so I spent all day Wednesdayy with dirty teeth. It’s not like I didn’t try to find a toothbrush, just no one knew what I was asking for and my wi-fi (pronounced here as “we- fee”) outside of they hotel was sketchy and I couldn’t look up the word, and… you get the drift. Anyway, after spending three hours at the mall alternately chilling, shopping, walking in circles and searching for a toothbrush, (ie, asking various shop girls if they knew where I could find one, ie, Me: “Emm…. Donde esta..." *makes brushing motion with hand *) I finally found a woman dressed for a store promotion in about the same outfit Rose wore to board the Titanic who spoke enough English to know “toothbrush.” This was right after I’d left the mall to walk aimlessly around it searching for anything that looked like a drugstore and came up empty. Defeated, I was headed back to the mall to catch a cab, spotted a Courtyard Marriott and popped in to ask the guy at reception in English if they sold toothbrushes. He in turn asks me, “did you try the mall?”

Anyway, chick dressed like Rose pointed me toward perhaps the fanciest drug store ever and there I found a plethora of toothbrushes on display and tears came like Lenny Williams in that “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” song, except he had a better reason.

I tried my luck to look for Black hair care products since I left my black gel at home too. (Yes, that black gel. The old school kind. What you know better that holds down black girl edges in humidity? Exactly.) That was just me being ridiculous though. No gel. Not even anything for silky haired folks. Plenty of perm boxes and products to maintain a keratin treatment though.  :-/

Random: my hair is going to look like Pure D sh—in 2 more days. I am solely hair- equipped with a bottle of oil lotion and a can of oil sheen. And rubber bands. Oh, and no Black girl brush. Don’t expect IG pics of me after Saturday.


I was out all day yesterday (Wednesday) so I showed up to a much-anticipated dinner with my favorite writer  (Alex Hardy) with edges that looked like a Black girl who’d been at play all day. He was kind enough not to notice, or better, not say anything. Bless him.

I was kinda nervous to meet him because so many people aren’t in person who they are online. He is. And that – and dinner at Black-owned Caribbean restaurant (the owner went to HU, ha!)— was awesome. We talked for two hours about life, and writer ish.

I planned to go for a walk when I got back to my hotel. Instead, I knocked out my second column for The Root so my editor wouldn’t be mad at me for missing deadlines. After this, I’m actually on vacation…. at least til Tuesday. Now to learn the art of doing nothing.

A Belle in Panama: The First 24.

Panama City (2012) Image courtesy of It took me 12 hours to get to Panama. I'd planned for 8.

Actually it took me 6 days and 12 hours.

Let me explain.I was supposed to leave for Panama on July 10, the day after my birthday. I bailed on the latter half of my surprise party to get home early because I had a 6AM flight and had to finish the last bit of packing and you know, actually sleep.

So I did that. And I went to sleep intending to wake up at 3:45 and/ or 4 AM to head to the airport. But I woke up at 4:45 and there was no way I could make it to the airport in time to board my flight. So I call the airline to say "hey, I need a later flight" and the woman on the end of the line is like, "no, you need a flight". I don't understand the distinction until she explains that despite putting in all my credit card deets and pushing "purchase" my flight had only been reserved, not bought. So even if I woke up on time and made it to the airport on time, I wasn't going to Panama, at least not on the flight I thought I had booked.

So I tried to buy a ticket on the next flight, until she told me it was $1400 total. Um... I don't pay that to go to South Africa. The way I set my trip up, 5 days in the city, 5 at a resort, it made more sense to just wait, fly in Tuesday, go to the city first, then the resort and call life, well, life. And it was only $50 more than the ticket I paid for.

On Tuesday, I get a call at 3 AM that my flight is delayed by an hour. Great. And I mean that. I used the extra hour of sleep. The plane  leaves on time for the new time, but there's a layover in Miami that leaves an hour late, then sits on the runway for 90 minutes because of a storm, then, when finally arriving in Panama, sits at some obscure gate for 30 minutes because no buses are available to pick us up and take us to the main gate.

The woman sitting in the aisle seat across from me (a grandmother from Panama who is taking her two children and five grands to Panama for the first time) uses the down time to make small talk. " I watch you on 'that show'," she says. "Is it coming back for a second season?"

It is. Am I? Uhhhhhh....

But I made it here. And I'm not complaining at all because Panama is f***in awesome.


The drive from the airport was uneventful until I saw the Panama City skyline which looks like more like the pics I've seen of Dubai than Miami which I've actually seen several times and what everyone always compares Panama too.  What is does look like for certain is way better than the pics online.

So does my hotel. After a long mental back and forth where I couldn't figure out if I wanted to stay at the 5- star Trump (the views are sick) or a boutique (pool-less) hotel in the "cute" side of town (Casco Viejo), I choose cute. The cute place also happens to be a HUGE room and have a balcony, which was oddly not mentioned on the site. Weird.  In the morning, I'll pull a chair in my room out there so I have something to sit on while I write

Anyway, after I settle in, I grab dinner on a rooftop bar, then I go for what's supposed to be a brief walk. I recall my travel book (more on that later) saying the area isn't safe, so I avoid dark streets and stick to where large groups were crossing and well-lit areas. That logic took me by some really cute resties that I MUST eat at before I go and the waterfront with great views of the skyline and Casco Viejo.  I walked around for an hour-plus taking pics and taking in the views and sights.

Day 2

My Spanish sucks. I took 3-4 years of it in high school and you'd think that would make me fluent. Um, I can read it well enough, but speak or better, reinterpret into English what people speaking Spanish to me are saying quickly enough to actually converse? Not so much. This is especially problematic as I'm making a rather conscious decision not to do total tourist ish. I'm relying on hand signals and minimal words -"comida?" "mall?" "taxi?" - to get by, which is surprisingly effective. My Panamanian friend who told me everyone in Panama speaks English, lied.

I bought a guide book about Panama so I would know where to go. It's 120 pages. The writer recommends the same 10 places over and over and from what I can tell misses all the good ish. Get this: the place I was posting all those pics from on Wednesday? Casco Viejo? The book doesn't mention it more than to say it's an unsafe area, should be avoided at all costs, and it's a bunch of old rocks so it can be skipped? Um, really? One of the oldest churches in the Western Hemisphere is skippable? Later, a friend points out that it may be an old guide book. Casco Viejo didn't look this way just 2 years ago. That, and tour guides are made for middle-aged white people who walk around with Nikon cameras hanging from their necks. If you can manage to use just a lil bit of sense, he says, you'll be fine.

The upside of the book is the author kept saying over and over how cheap taxis are in Panama City. Like dirt cheap. So I leave my hotel, looking for one to go to the good mall because I forgot to pack draws. (I'm wearing swimsuit bottoms as undies. It was that or go commando on a humid, 85 degree day. Um... No.) Anyway, the first cab that stops charges $20 to go to the Mulitiplaza. I say, "no way." The next one that stops charges me.... $3.  Oh, and I do mean $3 as in US currency. Panama's official currency is the American dollar. Go figure.

The book saved me $17 already, which was the cost of the travel guide, so we'll call it even... almost.

The book also says to avoid a place called Colon. Literally, it says Colon is dangerous and there's nothing remotely that would be interesting to tourists. How about from what I can gather, Colon is the "black part" of the Panama. My (Black) friend who lives here described it as a "sleepy Black town" with pretty views. Colon is also the bus connection to get to Portobelo, which happens to have Nazareno of Portobelo aka the Black Christ, which I am all about and the book never once mentioned. Like, if I see NOTHING else this trip, I want to see a historical life- size statue of Black Jesus that Black folks in Panama have been praising for 354 years.

Apparently  once a year for the last THREE CENTURIES  there are folks who WALK  50+ miles from Panama City to Colon to honor Black Christ on October 21st. There are also folks who crawl the last mile as penance. We can't get even most American Black churches to put a Black Jesus on the wall in 2014, but there are Black Panamanians who  have been celebrating one since the 17th century and CRAWLING to get to him?!
I NEED to see this biblically accurate Jesus with skin like bronze and hair like lamb's wool for myself. And apparently there are TWO of them. Not one, but two!!! There's another Black Jesus in the water off Isla Grande nailed to the cross. Seeing both of these are God's plan for me.

Black Jesus at Isla Grande

But figuring out how to get to Portobelo SAFELY is tricky without, you know, speaking thorough Spanish or spending hundreds on a driver. But it might be worthwhile. Stay tuned. I WILL make this happen.