Our short time in the Maasai Mara gave us all time to relax and focus on the beauty of Kenya. We were able to spend quality time sharing stories of our family and our lives back home, getting to know each other, while creating new memories together. I have never bonded so quickly or so intensely with anyone as I did with those six incredible women; and from the fact that everyone we met thought we had been lifelong companions, I believe the bonding experience was the same for everyone. Maybe we just needed a little time to slow down and let the glue gel.
The day we headed out of Nairobi, the weather turned dreary, wet and chilly. There was a drizzling mist, not quite heavy enough to be falling, just making the air and all the surrounding landscape damp and cold. As we travelled, the beautiful rich, dark red-brown clay of Nairobi gradually changed to a grayer dirt which covered everything in a light film. There was not enough rain to wash things clean, just enough moisture to cover everything in a thin coating of mud. A very dreary day, good for nothing much besides resting and riding. In other words, a perfect day to head to the Maasai Mara.
Our driver and soon-to-be safari guide, Paul, had a slingshot hanging from his rearview mirror. Sheri asked him why and he told us that he keeps it in case baboons attack the van for any food that might be inside. Shortly after this conversation, we passed baboons on the roadside, just a mile or so past a souvenir booth–a sobering reminder to just how wild and untamed Kenya is.
As we travelled, the land leveled off and the terrain became more arid than Nairobi; the sky cleared and the temperatures rose. Everyone was quiet; we were all still very tired from our travels and this long, bumpy trip was a great excuse to rest. I looked out the window as we passed yet another small village, and I saw a mother and her two small children standing in the shelter of a wall–not a building, just a wall standing next to a hut. The children, who were standing behind the wall, peeped through the window opening and waved shyly at us as our van passed by.
Everywhere we went, even out in the miles of seemingly uninhabited brush and farmland, people were walking. People walking with arms empty; people with arms full; people pulling carts; people leading donkeys pulling carts; people with large baskets filled with produce on their heads; people with large plastic containers of drinking water on their heads; people in suits; people in t-shirts…just people.
Although traffic in the cities of Kenya (and on the highways outside the cities) is quite congested (think New York City at rush hour, all day long), most Kenyans cannot afford to own a car, and many cannot afford public transportation, either. The highways and cities are filled to overflowing with matutus–mini-buses and vans used for public transportation–and these matutus are often filled to overflowing with people. Despite this, the streets and highways and byways of Kenya are filled with people walking. Often half their day is spent in getting to and from wherever they need to be.
I saw children walking, as well. Walking to school; walking from school. Many children, sometimes very small, very young children–were walking with burros hauling water barrels. During our trip the The Mara, I saw three different pairs of very small children watching herds of goats and cattle. Heartbreaking that children so small should be required to handle such a big task; and yet, in our country sometimes we ask far too little of our children, even the ones much older than those in the fields of Kenya. Somewhere, I thought, must be a balance of the two extremes.
About two hours or so before reaching the Maasai Mara, the paved road gives out and becomes a dirt highway. This dirt highway changes structure and layout as the rainy seasons wash it away and create new and adventurous gullies across it. At one point, the nicely paved bridge had been washed away and had never been rebuilt; so traffic simply rerouted around it, through the now dried creek bed the bridge was meant to cover. Kenyans seem to be not only resourceful, but very adaptable, too. Not sure what happens during the next rainy season, however…
After we had been on the dirt road for maybe half an hour, a noise–that had begun shortly after we started on the bumpy road–turned into a very loud clanging sound too loud to ignore. The springs on the struts of our van had given out. Out in the middle of nowhere. Miles from the nearest village. Seven white American women and one Kenyan driver. Hmmm…now how does that work out?
Actually, in Kenya, on the road to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, that works out quite well; or at least it did for us. Paul called his safari guide friends, who were also traveling somewhere along that same road, explained his situation and one offered to help bring the necessary parts from a nearby town. As he was assessing the damage, several other guides stopped and offered to help. One incredibly kind driver even offered the unused seats in his van so that we could continue our journey to the camp while Paul and his other friends fixed the vehicle and caught up with us later.
So after a brief break to look at the giraffes eating in a field on the side of the road, all seven of us piled into a van already holding the driver and four passengers and drove the remaining hour and a half or so into the Rhino Tourist Camp. What a tight fit that was! We were, however, incredibly touched by the generosity not only of the driver, but of the passengers, as well, in allowing us to squeeze into their van and turning what had been a comfortable drive for them into quite a tight and miserable ride.
The Rhino Tourist Camp was rugged, but comfortable for most of us. Some of us were without hot water, some of us had no shower nozzle, some of us were without water at all. Despite these setbacks, we got settled in and rested for a couple of hours and then Paul arrived to take us on a mini-safari before the reserve closed for the night. We were amazed at how quickly he repaired the van on the side of the road using only a few tools and the help of a friend or two.
That first night I got very little sleep as the baboons decided to dance on the tin roof of our tent-cabin and then pick at the side of the tent and keep me awake with fears of him entering to get the snacks we had brought along–and me without a slingshot!
During the rest of our safari, we saw multiple examples of the incredible camaraderie of the safari guides, including their willingness to share a great sighting of one of the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, hippopotamus, and the ever-elusive rhinoceros) with their friends, so that all could catch a glimpse of all the incredible inhabitants of The Mara. At several points along the way, we passed our previous “savior” and his passengers. Waving and shouting greetings across the trail through the windows of the safari vans, it was like multiple mini-reunions among eleven virtual strangers, bonded by a common experience and the air of friendship exuded by the guides.
Throughout our trip, all of our drivers in Kenya were friendly and helpful, offering insight about our surroundings along the way. Paul, however, took friendly, helpful service to a totally different level. He was knowledgeable, outgoing, and personable. He was resourceful and witty. Most importantly, he didn’t hold a grudge!
When I dropped my phone out of the van while trying to capture the “perfect shot” of the pride of lions that were only a few feet away, he only faltered for an instant before working out a plan with one of his friends to circle the phone with the vans and then snatch it before the lions realized what had happened. And I know he didn’t hold a grudge, because he gave me my phone back! (Yes, I know–having my phone in my shirt pocket was a dumb thing to do, but I can guarantee, it did NOT happen twice!)
Our time in the Maasai Mara was for rest and friendship building. The friendships formed during those first few days came to define our entire journey through Kenya. Our ability to grow our little group of strangers into a band of tightly woven friends so quickly made building relationships with others so much easier than it would have otherwise been.
Our time spent enjoying the sights of The Mara helped create an anticipation for the things to come. Our time spent getting to know Paul helped create an anticipation for the many other people we would meet, and a desire to know each of them better and more completely than just saying “hi,” and “how are you.” Our time in Maasai Mara was for bonding–not only with each other, but in learning how to bond with the land of Kenya and her people. Like a glue that takes time to gel, it is in slowing down and taking time that you learn to grow in relationship with others; this is something Kenyans understand.
It was in our act of slowing down to enjoy the sights and sounds around us, that we were able to learn more about each other and about the land around us. And there was so much more learning and bonding to come…