Travel Stories

Kenya/Maasai Mara

          The city of Nairobi is a trip, and Kenya seems very different than Tanzania, far more so let’s say than the U.S. and Canada, and perhaps less so than the U.S. and Mexico. Nairobi is an urban capital with skyscrapers, hustle, real coffee shops, university students, political debate crowds gathered on street corners, kids begging in the crowded streets, pizza shops, supermarkets, opticians, discos, easily as full of quickly moving foot traffic as Manhattan or Calcutta, although nothing compares with Varanasi.  There is a clearly urban, go get ‘em attitude evident in Nairobi, and a certain warmth and visible engagement among the people.
          On my “administrative” day in the city, I arrange for a four day three night relatively inexpensive tenting safari to Maasai Mara and some Lake with pink flamingos, book my flight to Addis for the coming Saturday, commit to a round trip flight for Sam arriving in Dakar in a bit more than two weeks, and a flight home for me with him less than a month from now.  I’ve been on the road over six weeks and each of the “units” of my travel seems particularized and discrete: Lesotho, Sizanani, Ruaha, Zanzibar, Moshi, and Kenya, with Ethiopia and Senegal yet to come.  
          I also visit the Isak Dinesen museum in the Karen section on the outer edge of Nairobi and enjoy seeing the effort given to sustaining aspects of the farm she created and the absolutely good faith maintenance of the home she had built in the early 1920s, with authentic kitchen equipment, plates, library, bedroom, etc.  She was a fascinating, risk taking, iconoclastic, accomplished woman, and her book, “Out of Africa,” captures an era in colonial Africa that the movie on which it is based – with Meryl Streep in the lead role – also accurately reflects. 
          When I again head out on safari the next day in the van with me are two unmarried couples in their early thirties, all of whom are sweet, urbane, good-humored, and visibly in love with their partners.  The man in the Argentine pair is a musician artist who plays an accordion-like instrument in a tango quintet and orchestra, has long hair, a beard, been to the Montreal Jazz Festival, played at Lincoln Center, and is obviously a kind, considerate, sweet guy - a bit of a beatnik even - and someone in love with his craft.  I’m eager to hear his riff.  The Argentinian woman is a social worker in the elementary schools of Buenos Aires.  I feel such openness and ease with them, and with the other couple in the van, that I find myself talking and conversing socially in a way I usually never do, and certainly have not done in months, and don’t think I miss.  What strikes me in this regard is how discomfort free my life really is on the road, no matter the hassles, because nothing gets to my gut.  I’d like to keep it that way when home, but “know” that being in the U.S. and in my everyday life somehow presents a set of everyday annoyances that get to me in a way very little does while traveling.  No, actually, Katie, I don’t really know that is true.
          The woman in the other couple is a yoga teacher and masseuse in Sao Paolo.  She is beyond attractive in her demeanor and very design, touching my arm when she talks, laughing in the deep free manner I find so appealing, and absolutely charming.  Her partner is a Canadian man who has worked for years at an NGO in the Congo, and is the most broadly traveled man - especially throughout Africa and Asia - that I think I have ever met other than the deservedly legendary Armand Kuris, a reference few will get, but trust me, Armand has only missed one or two places on the planet in his quest to have visited everywhere - every state, every continent, every country, county, river, mountain, and desert, has even traveled to the bottom of the deepest oceans in a highly pressurized submersible.
          The Canadian/Brazilian couple met on a bus in India, you’ve got to like that.  They plan to live together in Brazil after his contract with the NGO ends.  I like them, and while envious of the physical attention and affection the men receive from the women, I seem these days to be of another world and quite content in it.
          The drive out of Nairobi reaches the Rift Valley escarpment in less than two hours.  The Rift was created as the continents of Africa and Europe “crashed” into one another a few hundred million years ago and the tectonic pressure created a fracture in the African landmass that runs from the Mediterranean down into Tanzania.  The vista across the valley is stunningly beautiful, perhaps running for as many as ten miles before small mountains rise up inside the rift, blocking any greater east/west line of sight.  The valley itself stretches one hundred kilometers across from side to side, is about 1,000 miles long, an absolutely god inspiring and breathtaking site.  The parallel escarpments are very sheer and steep.  On the valley floor I can make out narrow dirt roads and occasional clusters of huts.  The valley suggests the sweep and majesty of the Sinai, except the Rift Valley is mostly a deep green fertile plain dotted with trees and brush, while the Sinai is a white and gray rocky desert, once the floor of a salty sea.  Seeing each valley is one of those sights beyond compare, like Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Rockies rising up from the plains.
          Once we’ve descended onto the valley floor the prototypically poor African roadside and roadside scenes repeat themselves for miles.  Shacks with mud, tin, or cow shit walls and tin roofs that function as beauty parlors, convenience stores, auto repair and supply shops, the “Blessings Pub,” the cell phone charging store for those with phones but no electricity, and no friends with electricity.  There’s more than one hovel with a sign declaring it both a butchery and hotel.  One uses a blanket for a doorway. 
          And then there’s a “hill” so steep our driver has to negotiate his way up it by weaving from side to side like a bicyclist climbing a steep roadway might.  After which we glide down hill, watch the water temperature gauge in the van drop, and stop for lunch at the “Dreaming Garden Restaurant,” right before the town of Narok, where there is a reasonably nice pre-paid buffet that all the vans filled with Germans, Japanese, Bulgarian, and even American tourists headed for Maasai Mara stop at for a lunch of chapattis, chicken stew, and rice.  Then, after passing through Narok and making a quick left turn we are on the absolutely impossible one hundred kilometer dirt and rock road to Maasai Mara, a road that makes the Mesa Verde road in Costa Rica seem like a distant runner up in the world’s worst road contest.  I mean these are not potholes, they’re craters, and the things jutting up in the roadway are not rocks, they’re boulders.  It’s an obstacle course with water traps bigger than those on golf courses, sides of the road where our two-wheel drive vehicle tilts over at a forty-five degree angle.  But does any of this slow our team driver down?  Not a lick.  He drives as if he was at Le Mans, a bone jarring, spring testing, shock absorber collapsing, chassis rattling, grinding, low gear screaming, 100 kilometer ride to the park entrance and our tenting site, where we high five one another at surviving the trip, drop off our gear in tents, and without much pause jump back into the van to continue to be rattled around for another few hours on our first “game drive” into Maasai Mara.
          Maasai Mara is very different than Ruaha: the valley floor is less covered with trees and brush, the number of vehicles also out on drives changes the sense of isolation to one of crowding, the vistas are broader, and game is more easily visible: big herds of zebra, wildebeest who didn’t go south for the winter, gazelles and giraffes by the score, water buffalo everywhere, warthogs, mongoose, lions.  The highlight of the afternoon is a very brief spotting of a leopard, a truly inspiring sight no matter how brief it was, which draws no less than thirty vehicles to the bushes the cat was seen walking in to wait for the elusive leopard’s next move, only to discover after some time that the leopard has either hidden itself brilliantly and isn’t intending to move before dark, or has simply vanished into thin air, consistent with its unique powers.
          On the morning of my second day in Maasai Mara I awaken in my tent to the most incredible natural light, the sounds of the bells on the necks of Maasai cows, sheep, and goats moving out to pasture, and, not exactly looking forward to the daylong game drive we’re scheduled to be on beginning at 6 A.M. (I’ve done quite enough driving thank you, and seen all the animals I need to see), but it’s what I’ve come for, and the end of the day promises a visit to an authentic Maasai village, which I’m quite looking forward to.
          Almost immediately inside the park we come upon a lone lioness guarding her gazelle kill.  We also see many of the impala, kudu, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffes, and elephants we saw grazing yesterday.  The scenery and the vistas are spectacular and we ride and ride on through the park for hours, headed toward the Tanzanian Serengeti border. 
          At one point we veer off onto a grassy wet track and after about one hundred meters our two-wheel drive vehicle is unable to sustain any forward motion, sinking down into soft mud, its rear wheels spinning uselessly.  But this presents a very different challenge than the parallel event in Ruaha, because we can actually leave the van running in gear, its rear wheels spinning uselessly in the mud and grass, and all get out of the van, get behind it, and push, which is enough to free the van, which our driver jumps back into and continues his forward momentum until back on a more tread worthy track about four hundred meters away, leaving us all standing in the field, cheering at the liberation of the van, and the fact we are actually outside the vehicle, able to walk a few feet across this precious land, which I do, taking off my sandals, my toes squishing through the mud and wriggling with delight.
          At the Tanzanian border, right before the fast moving Mara River crosses from Kenya into Tanzania, we again get out of the van and I walk into Tanzania toward the big giraffes grazing at the tops of trees in the Serengeti gathering stones left by the raging river at flood crest brought down from the mountains on the Mara’s 300 kilometer run to Lake Victoria.  I think of the Canadian border I lived on in Northern Vermont in the early seventies that we’d cross on tractor, on foot, and on horseback without much regard for border patrols and border stations.  (How else can you breed your prized Percheron mare to a renowned Canadian stallion?) 
          At the Mara we see hippos doing what hippos do in the river.  We see a crocodile at least twelve feet long, striped in brown and yellow.  We see the skeletal remains of 100s of wildebeest injured in the massive annual river crossing and left to die by the side of the river.  I harvest what I think is a wildebeest tibia or femur, but whatever it is, the engineering and sculptural simplicity of the joint are wondrous.     
          The highlight of the day for me, of course, is my visit to a “thriving?” nearby Maasai village, which the others in my party decline to do because they think it is too touristy and not respectful of the Maasai, although the son of the chief of this village who greets us, tells us he considers it an honor and a sign of respect that people want to see and learn about the Maasai.  
          The Maasai fascinate me.  They are a quite well known tribe in part because they tend to occupy lands near heavily visited tourist sites like Ngorogoro, Serengeti, and Maasai Mara, in part because of their distinctive garb and habits, in part because there are still nearly one million of them!, and in part because among all the major tribal groups in Africa they have somehow, and for some reasons, mostly resisted the almost inordinate temptations, pressure, and convenience the comforts of modernity offer, and persist in successfully and intentionally continuing to live the pastoral, migratory, spare lifestyle they have lived for centuries.   
          When I tell Salau, the chief’s eldest son, that it is not necessary that the dozen men - some of whom can be seen in the photo below - dance for me Salau laughs and says, “It is necessary.  It’s a sign of respect.  We would not consider welcoming even a Maasai from another village without dancing for them.”   So be it.  You’ve seen this dance before perhaps.  The men stand in a line, their arms tucked inside their blanket coverings, and jump up, seemingly effortlessly, springing straight up into the air, springing up like pogo stick riders, chanting a drone-like didgeridoo-like harmony as a lead singer calls out the words to the welcoming song.  One dancer comes to the fore and offers his highest jumps, almost as if in some sort of athletic contest, that dancer is then replaced one after the other until all of the men have jumped their best jumps.  Salau jumps last.  The men’s faces are expressionless throughout, whether a result of repetitive “performances” they must give to what at times must be a daily flow of visitors, or a cultural fact of unknown significance.  Their bodies are stiff.  They are jumping in unison.  It is both "understated" anquite spectacular in effect. 
          When the dance is over Salau and another man lead me into their village, which is a corral-like circle of mud and cow shit huts and a tall stick fence to keep all the cattle in, and all the predators out, at night.  I am led into one of the huts.  It is low, dark, hot, almost claustrophobic, and very smoky.  A young girl is tending the fire and mixing a thickening brew of cow’s blood and cow’s milk, the staple of the Maasai diet, along with occasional meat, and ground maize porridge.  They eat almost nothing else, no vegetables, and surely no fruit.  They do not hunt for food, which would be a violation of their creed about wild animals.  They do not plant crops, which would be a violation of their creed about the soil and when it may and may not be disturbed.  They do bury their dead and their feces ... shallowly.  They have no electricity and no water, even from a pump, but gather all water in old plastic containers from a local stream.
          I ask Salau if the Maasai were able to secure electricity and water whether he/they would choose to do so and he says no.  I ask him why and he says he lived in Narok while going to high school and didn’t like it, that the traditional Maasai way of life is comfortable, familiar, healthful, and inherently morally/culturally good as is.  In my brief research on line, I discover that although the Maasai have a very high infant mortality rate, they, in fact, also have a very low incidence of cancer and heart disease, a phenomenon that is not sustained or evident in those Maasai who abandon village life.
          Sitting in the dark, smoky, windowless, furniture less, storage less, virtually barren cow shit hut on a single wooden plank I ask Salau what the people of his village do at night, how the next generation of Maasai will resist the temptations of the modern world, about the role of women, about Maasai participation in national elections and national governance, about inheritance practices, death and burial practices, schooling, cattle ownership, marriage.  You can take the man out of anthropology, but you cannot take the anthropologist out of the man.  I won’t bother to share all the data here.  Most of this information, of course, is available in any good ethnography, or, if you’re interested in a true autobiographical romantic tale written in a somewhat turgid but anthropologically revealing style by a Swiss woman about her marriage to a Maasai man, read “White Masai.”  
          What I will say is that about 300 people live in the village and all are members of one clan.  That Salau’s father has three wives, sixteen children, and two hundred cows, worth about five hundred to one thousand U.S. dollars each.  Salau has about thirty cows.  Only sons inherit.  The inheritance is shared equally among the chief’s sons regardless of their birth mother or birth order, but only the eldest son replaces the chief.  That the village is only five years old, and that consistent with their migratory practices, in time Salau expects they will all move on.  And that the village was absolutely teeming with young children, everyone of whom had runny noses and flies on their faces.   
          I also visit the area school, which serves close to six hundred children, and is situated on the outskirts of the village.  I was toured around the school, a row of low lying classroom, by the second grade teacher - classroom photo below - who has over seventy children in her one class.  Her description of the challenges in getting school supplies alone evoked from me a small immediate cash donation.  I was also touched by her description of how a team of Irish firemen came to spend a week living at the tent site and in that time completely built a new cinderblock classroom at the school, which she proudly shows me.  And then there was that one huge satellite dish antenna donated by a man from America that runs off solar panels he also donated, intended to power the four computers he donated.  Unfortunately, none of this equipment is at all functional and no one knows how to repair it.  Maybe that’s the metaphor or the image I want to leave you with about the Maasai, surrounded by modern technology that looks good, but so far simply doesn’t seem to serve their purposes.