Kenya is the only place that can slow this sprinter down. I never look at the clock. I feel no hurry to get through the day, or the night. Nothing passes in a blur. I move along at the pace of the human race around me. Sometimes at a complete standstill with my surroundings and myself. Fearless, not reckless.
What Kenya has taught me, in three separate trips, is this: pass through fear as if were a place on a map. Pause in the midst of discomfort to have a cup of tea or use the facilities. Buy a postcard in the epicenter of terror, then write about the eery calm that also comes with uncharted territory.
Traveling in Kenya will test every inch of you, if you let it. Can you remain compassionate in the face of seemingly endless suffering? Will you keep going even if the roads are closed or washed out? Will you wait patiently, for long periods, for a glimpse of something far greater than yourself? For me, here, the answers are always yes. I embrace the ambiguities of Kenya so much that I hardly want to move a muscle. I’d rather see what’s going to happen than make something happen.
Case in point: the long, slow drive from Nairobi to Maasai Mara. We left at 7 a.m. to make the six-hour trip, with our driver Joshua from Natural World Safaris. We stopped at a lookout over the Great Rift Valley to stare out at the cradle of mankind. Perhaps one of the greatest vistas in all the world. We lingered for as long as we could, gazing at the very center of the universe. The place where time began 25 million years ago.
Joshua had to nudge us to get back on the road in the hopes of making our safari camp for a very late lunch, if any. He’d already told us that his company had given us a lodge upgrade — a completely unexpected gift. We had no idea what was waiting for us in Maasai Mara, only that was it was very promising indeed. And off we went, down the escarpment, past changing landscapes and exuberant faces.
But traffic came to a standstill about five miles from the town of Narok, where the two-lane tarmac road turns into dirt for the final two-hour stretch to the Mara. Was there an accident up ahead? People had gotten out of their vehicles to investigate. Joshua joined them. He returned a few minutes later to tell us about an alarming situation underway.
A lorry (truck) driver had run over six sheep belonging to a Maasai man. The driver left the scene of the crime — but was in police custody for his own protection — and the Maasai was weeping at the sight of his eviscerated sheep. Other Maasai had blocked any passage on the road by placing rocks across the pavement and standing guard with spears. The police were on hand, but had determined that the best thing to do was wait out the crying before taking any action to open up the road. The grief-stricken Maasai would not be ready to talk until every last tear was shed.
So we waited, along with a dozen police officers and a growing queue of other travelers and vehicles, while grief ran its course. An hour later, the situation changed dramatically. The Maasai was asking the police to bring the driver back. But the police were refusing because they knew that the Maasai would kill the driver, and all hell would erupt. Everyone had to wait, longer still, for tempers to cool.
There was no way to know how long we’d be stuck on the outskirts of Narok. Hours? Maybe even days. Forget the lodge upgrade, we’d be lucky to get to the Mara at all. We’d be even luckier not to find ourselves it the middle of a violent situation. Yes, I was worried about a riot leading to crowd justice, but I was calmed by the reality that there was nothing to do except wait the matter out. Besides, Joshua was in constant contact with the home office in Nairobi about our status and safety. He even helped Allan find a hidden place to pee, not too far from the sheep massacre.
Through my open window, I waved and spoke in Swahili to passersby — exchanging updates and stories. One Kenyan woman stood next to my window for a long while, asking if I’d adopt her daughter and take her to the United States for more opportunities. She was dead serious. We were surprised an hour or so later when the road opened up — signaled by herds of people heading back to their vehicles. The police had reached a compromise with the Maasai by offering to take him to see the lorry driver in jail. There, they would discuss financial retribution, as opposed to revenge.
We eventually arrived at our upgraded lodge, by the name of AA. Yes, really. As in Alcoholics Anonymous, but actually representing Asia Africa. I was dumbstruck, awestruck by the serendipity of the situation since I am a recovering alcoholic A quintessentially Kenyan experience: anything can and will happen. Just you wait and see.
After a very late lunch and an ice-cold beer for Allan — water for me, of course — followed by a dip in the Serengeti-set swimming pool, we embarked on our first game run into the park. Like most of Kenya, the Maasai Mara is in a drought, with cattle and humans in full-blown crisis. The tension between the game park, wildlife and the Maasai people at a breaking point. Still, we felt welcome on the land that has been home to man and beast for thousands of years.
As fate would have it, at the exact minute we crossed into the protected area, the skies opened up. Rain came in torrents (even hailing for a bit) and turned the dirt road into a muddy river. Just before nightfall, the rain stopped and we traversed slowly across the soaked plains until we spotted movement in the bush. What was it? We waited and watched until a lioness and her three cubs emerged from the brush to enjoy the cool evening light. As rare a sight as the rain itself.
After the best night sleep I’ve ever had, with the sound of hyena wailing in the distance, we started our second day with an early morning stop at a Maasai village. Our guide, named David, introduced us to life in his community and the values his people have held sacred for eons. The warriors brought my son David into their fold — putting a blanket around his shoulders and showing him how to dance and jump. (Vertical height, as we learned, is in indication of male virility.) Inside, I was invited to dance with the women of the village and met a mama named Nancy who gave me the moniker bracelet right off her arm. In turn, I gave her the sandals in my bag.
Before leaving the village, we bartered for a few souvenirs. The head bargainer was quite keen to instruct me in the ways of negotiation. He started with a price for our selection, then told me to give him a number. “Now my turn,” he’d say. “Now your turn.” Back and forth ten times until we inevitably landed on the same number to our mutual “surprise” and satisfaction. The elders watched with approval and applause.
With full hearts and hands, we headed back into the Mara Game Park for an entire day of animal spotting. Joshua presented us with a picnic lunch which we enjoyed in the vehicle parked under an acacia tree where a leopard was napping with the remains of his antelope breakfast. Everywhere we looked, the miracle of life and death was waiting for us: a newborn elephant clinging closely to his mother; a fallen zebra being consumed by lion cubs; zebra young and old; giraffe tall and cheetah cubs small.
At the Mara River, we were treated to a walkabout with no less than the Game Warden himself. With an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder — protection against poachers and human kidnappers, NOT wild animals — he led us to a view of hippos and crocodiles. He also gave us the sad news that only 16 (or less) rhinoceros are left in the 583-square-mile entire conservancy.
Needless to say, we did not see a single one of those creatures on our safari. Nor did we see many other Americans since Kenya is on the state department’s travel warning list on account of kidnappers and possible terrorists. I will say, for the record, that I have never felt more safe or more welcomed anywhere in my entire life. When my time on earth comes to an end, I want my human remains to scattered in the place where time and mankind first began. The place where I, too, learned what it means to be alive in the world.
We crawled into our beds shortly after dark, mosquito netting already in place as part of the evening turndown service at AA Lodge. While David and Allan drifted off to sleep, I wondered what the next leg of our trip would bring — the visit to my former school 300 kilometers and seven hours away from the Mara, near the shores of Lake Victoria.
Whatever it is, I reminded myself, would be worth the wait.