We pulled up to the exit gate of the Masai Mara game reserve as bejeweled Masai women swarmed our Land Rover bearing blankets, Masai sticks, jewelry and other hand-made trinkets. The ladies brazenly opened the car’s sliding windows and dangled necklaces, earrings and blankets inside the car, imploring us in their broken English to buy; to “promote” them, to “support” them. They had dark skin, bald heads, slender arms and bodies and all had drooping earlobes, some of which were wrapped over the tops of their ears. Many had yellowed teeth and flies buzzed around them constantly. They were at every window of our car with their hands inside. The scene was reminiscent of the group of hungry vultures we’d seen just that morning picking over a carcass on the savannah.
My wife and daughter had been eyeing the intricately-beaded bracelets worn by the importuning women, but were disappointed with the quality of those being offered for sale. When my wife asked if their personal bracelets were for sale, a woman offered hers but it didn’t fit. Another woman offered hers but that was too small, as well. Without a Masai beaded bracelet, we rolled through the exit gate and out of the park.
Five minutes after leaving the park our Land Rover suffered a tire puncture. Ordinarily this is not a big problem, but near a park known for its lions, some caution needs to be exercised. We piled out of the car while our driver and cook started replacing the tire, which had completely shredded into strips of thick, black rubber. Up the road was what appeared to be a Masai village and near us a few Masai boys were tending goats. After a couple minutes, a couple Masai men wearing red, tartan-like blankets and carrying swords and large sticks came by to inspect us, keeping about 20 feet away and saying nothing. For the past couple days, we’d seen a few women selling trinkets, but our interaction with the men had been limited to watching them tend to their livestock while we drove by in our safari vehicle.
My son got out his Nintendo DSi game, sat down on the ground and starting playing, not sure how long we’d be stuck there. After a few minutes, a young Masai man approached him to watch what he was doing. A few more came over and now my son had a crowd around him. His handheld game, which occasionally serves to isolate him from where he’s traveling, now became the thing that brought him and us closer to the local culture. He handed over the game to one of the young men and demonstrated how to use it. By now there were about a dozen Masai men milling around us and I could smell their powerful body odor. The tire was taking a long time to fix and I was getting worried that we might be stranded there for a while.
The young man playing Nintendo handed it back to my son and came over and asked me in English where I was from. “America. Obama-land,” I said. Most Kenyans are extremely proud that one of their people has fathered the leader of the free world. I heard many reports of raucous celebrating on the night of the 2008 U.S. elections. Many large-screen televisions were set up to watch the election results all over Nairobi. One cab driver told me that many people watched on the big screen because they did not trust their television sets at home, as though somehow results could be altered on a small TV set but not on a big one in front of so many people.
Nintendo Man asked me, “Do you know Salt Lake City?” I drew a map in the sand to show him where the town would be on a U.S. map. We told each other our ages and then he said, “I have been to Memphis.” I sang a few lines from “Hound Dog” but he did not recognize the song, a statement either about his familiarity with Elvis Presley or my singing ability. I asked him at what age he would marry and he said twenty-five. I asked him at what age a girl might marry and he said 14 or 15. At this point I looked over my shoulder to check on my almost-13 year old daughter, who was with my wife talking to a group of Masai men.
With the tire taking longer than expected to fix, my wife and daughter had settled in to a negotiation of some kind. I walked over and watched them admiring the beautiful, beaded bracelet of one of the men. The bracelet, made by the wife of the man’s friend, was indeed exquisite: tightly-woven, multicolored beads on both inside and out with an attractive geometric design. By now they were almost done with the negotiations and after a few more minutes they had arrived at a mutually-acceptable price. My wife had skillfully chopped the price by two-thirds from the original asking price. Only 30 minutes after being rebuffed at the park exit gate, they had their beaded bracelet.
Travel mishaps sometimes turn into rewarding experiences and often they turn out to be quite memorable. Instead of being marooned in the Masai Mara, isolated in our Land Rover with a flat tire, we made the most of a great opportunity to interact with the people we had been driving by for the past couple days. My wife and daughter’s authentic Masai bracelet was a bonus as well.