Masai Mara - Part III

The fire crackles, propagating scintilla of ash. Figures dance in the flame; what images appear in Kenyan fires? The air is thinner here. Do flames suck in oxygen and combust it differently? Daniel and I finish our Tuskers and pay the bartender. Our tent is #72, the furthest one from the bar. We wend our way in the dark to the footbridge and across, further, strobing our path with a flashlight before turning it off and using the moon’s light, preferring the dampened contrast. On until we are right next to the perimeter’s electric fence. Camp personnel have turned on the citronella light in our tent. The room blushes from a small nightlight next to the beds, and the mosquito nets have been untied and fall plum. Daniel climbs into his bed and tells me he thinks he hears a mosquito, but that maybe it’s on the outside of the netting. “Listen to the buffalo,” he says.

I stop brushing my teeth. I turn off the faucet. From outside there’s what sounds like two buffalo having sex. I tap my toothbrush on the sink edge and toss it into the cup holder. The staff have turned down my bed and tucked a hot water bottle under the sheets, and I flip it to the next pillow. Daniel says goodnight, stuffs in his earplugs, and a short time later his breathing deepens into sleep.

I lie awake watching the ceiling fan lazily circling. I’m not tired. I can’t tell if that sound is a mosquito or the fan, but it seems to get closer at irregular intervals so I fear the worst. There are more than one couple of buffalo outside. It’s an orchestra. We’re so close to the electric fence it sounds like they’re right outside our tent.

Given the dry heat of the day it’s surprisingly muggy at night. I'm starting to perspire but I don’t want to shed the aegis of the blanket, because of the mosquito. I hear something scrabbling at Daniel’s side of the tent, and then the low chattering of monkeys. Birds too, lots of them in the trees. How thick is the canvas? Can monkeys scratch through? I’m hyper-alert. More awake than during most days. There’s blackness and from it crystallizes every sound.

I don’t know what time it is when the rangers arrive. I know I haven’t slept. When I first hear their footsteps on the path next to our tent I think This is it. My imagination splits from my body, leaves the tent and lifts up into the sky where it looks down at where we lay, just two tiny dots on this African expanse, and from up there it telegraphs to me. You could disappear here. I’ve been lying awake for a couple of hours and I’ve had time to imagine plenty of awful scenarios but this one is the worst of them, eviscerated by bandits, and that’s how I imagine it, something methodical and black market. I could be eaten by a lion. Dying from a mosquito bite would be somehow sad out here, far away from anything I consider normal, and if I’m smitten by yellow fever or malaria I’ll walk straight through the gates until I find my lions.

Before we left I was told not to worry about the men with machine guns. “It’s the ones carrying bows and arrows you need to watch out for. The ones who don't make a sound. Then you know you’re not safe.” Tonight I find this is oddly comforting. The footsteps stop outside our door, and I think if they were after us we wouldn't have heard them approaching. There’s the sound of something like a bird call but not quite; more mechanical. Too ... measured. It seems to sweep the night. The monkeys stop scrabbling at the canvas. Birds quiet down. As this mechanical sound recedes so do the noises from the buffalo. It’s quiet now, the tumult of the evening settled. Just the hum of the fan and the seraphic billowing of the mosquito netting, brushing against my blanket. It must be after 1:00 a.m.

In the morning the talk at tea is about the lion that leapt the electric fence into our camp last night. Shortly after 10:00 p.m. two Australians had settled their tab at the tiki hut common and headed straight back to their tent under the charitable starry night. On the path a lion which, who knows why, didn’t attack. Daniel asks our driver what a lion sounds like. He makes a sound like the buffalo. We ask what the buffalo sound like, and he makes a sound like something we’ve never heard. Daniel and I look at each other and I know he’s thinking the same thing, wondering how close we came.

Today we’re leaving Kenya. Driving the five hours back to Nairobi from the Masai Mara, and flying out at 4:00 a.m. After a short morning safari and breakfast we depart, hoping to make good time before the midday heat. Daniel can’t believe I fall asleep on the rutted roads. My head swings unnaturally on my neck, bounces with the van, pendulums through 180 degrees. When I jolt awake it’s because we’ve stopped. Ben is cursing, and from Daniel I learn we’ve flatted. We get out of the van and Daniel, who used to do this for a living, jacks the driver's side of the van, but we don’t have a spare. “It was stolen,” Ben tells us. He pulls out his cell phone and wanders down the road away from the sun to place the call, looking in the direction we came from. When he’s off the phone he tells us it’ll be about an hour before a new tyre arrives. I look left down the dirt road. It’s straight and empty for as far as I can see, until the north and south ditches converge into a single point at the horizon. I look right and see the same thing. Daniel is standing in the middle of the road and isn’t casting a shadow, and I look at my watch and see it’s getting close to noon. There’s a single tree beyond our van creating some shade, so I motion I’m heading over.

On one side of the road is a herd of cows. On the other, a Masai warrior walking our way. Ben has opened the van’s rear door and propped it overhead, and is standing underneath it drinking the last of his water. I watch him wipe his brow with a rag, and I walk back and join everyone.

The Masai is soft spoken and polite and makes small talk, pointing to his herd and telling us a lion killed one of his cows yesterday, right there. Daniel asks him if he wants a t-shirt, and he takes the one off his back and offers it to him, which the Masai accepts. I unwrap a piece of gum and chew on it to stimulate a bit of saliva. It’s easier on pavement and much harder on dirt roads to see when heat waves are shimmering. Far down the road dust is kicking up, which must be our vehicle, our spare. An hour has passed by the time it arrives.

Daniel turns the last crank and we pile back into our van just as a jackal runs across the road in front of us. Ben turns to us with his finger in the air, either an exclamation point or a warning, and we learn a bit more about Africa. “Where there’s a jackal there’s always a lion,” he tells us.

I feel like we’ve only been back on the road for a few minutes when I again burst from sleep. We’re on a long pavement hill defining the escarpment, about 100km outside of Nairobi, partway up the hill where it esses left. It’s our second flat tyre. We’re pulled onto a dirt shoulder littered with trash; banana peels and cobs of chewed corn, empty plastic water bottles and Coca Cola cans, flattened cigarette cartons, old newspapers, chicken bones, and green and black garbage bags ripped and fluttering in the parching breeze. The road is cambered away from our flat, so when we jack the van this time the vehicle seems to teeter. Sitting and watching us from the concrete guardrail across the road is a baboon. When we look up the road we see another, and as our eyes adjust to the sunlight, and the lustre of our stranded van becomes apparent, we notice six more baboons furtively making their ways down the hill, the way a boy might make his way across the dance floor to a girl. Eight baboons in total.

Ben calls it Crash Corner. He tells us 68 people have died here. As he is saying this Kenyan cyclists fly past on road bikes, tucked aerodynamically, and Daniel and I estimate they’re hitting 80kph. The air is thin, there’s a tailwind, and the descent is long and steep. Transport trucks muscle their ways in the opposite direction, climbing the hill, gasping billows of black exhaust. One of the drivers tosses a chewed corn cob out his window and two baboons chase it down, screeching at each other. More garbage is tossed out windows, now a plastic bag which splats in the opposite lane and stays on the highway. Four baboons race for it, and cars coming down the hill have to swerve to avoid them.

It’s scorching. Our drive to Nairobi was supposed to take five hours but we’ve already been on the road for seven and don’t yet have a spare tyre. To the east is a precipitous drop off the escarpment, and to the west the bushes are now rustling with something unseen. The air feels more humid here. Way off in the distance there’s a shifting of the sky, then it becomes electric, shooting with lightning.

We’re 90 minutes roadside before our spare arrives. The baboons have left us alone. They're in a sort of agitated semi-circle around us, but they haven't pressed any closer. Despite nothing more than a slight breeze the clouds have mobilized quickly. Ben gets us back on the road just before it starts raining. We’re like the Little Engine That Could getting over the crest of the climb, and then we rattle down the other side, raindrops detonating against our aluminum roof. Ben is driving to make up time. I’m not sleeping. What I’m doing is bracing, but meditatively, just sort of staring expressionlessly at the back of the front seat while tensing my arm and shoulder muscles like I’m trying to stop something from falling. There are many ways to die in Africa and one of them, I now believe, is skidding off the road during a thunderstorm. Cars zip past in the other direction, quickly becoming small and indistinct, and even the ones travelling in our direction seem to similarly recede, almost warily as though they're giving something dangerous wide berth, from what I can see in the rearview mirror when I dare to look, as though taking my eyes off the middle of the middle hatch of the hatched seat fabric in front of me would precipitate disaster. I feel as though I am keeping us on the road by force of mind.

I think sometimes we need to be squeezed. We need to be put in unfamiliar environments, to face new dangers, so that we can continue to grow. People ask me if Kenya changed me. If it did, I wouldn't know how to measure the changes. I've been home for two months. I feel happier. How long will this endure? I haven't been this happy in a long time. And I feel as though I have more time, though my schedule is as busy as ever. It is as though time has expanded. Minutes feel longer, in a good way. They no longer rush past indistinct. Minutes line up as individuals and I can look at them separately, count them, remember their faces. There's this perception of an expansion of time, and feeling happy; otherwise I am the same. I still get nervous before a date and talk too much or too little at the wrong times. I still eat a satisfying amount of chocolate. The particulars of my days haven't changed. My ambitions haven't changed. How I walk through Bukowski's fire, though, seems to have.

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