Pitch dark, ten degrees hotter than outside, a stench of manure. I can barely make out the outline of a woman, or rather a girl of twenty, who sits in silence as she feeds her baby. My arms are constricted and my back is hunched. The domed composition of the structure allows for abundant ground space, but the ceiling is closer to five feet than six. Buzzing flies envelop the humid hut with their vuvuzela-esque hum.
“This is one of my wives,” the chief of the Kenyan village says as he points towards the faint shadow of the nursing women.
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Outside there are dozens of other huts like the one with the mom and baby. The villagers live in dwellings made out of cow dung. There is an enclosed corral, containing goats and chicken, made of sticks like the Three Little Pigs would use. Nearby stand dozens of babies, teenagers, men and women with captivating smiles and bright white teeth.
It was July, 2010. As the sun set, my family and I stood in the local Massai village in the Selenkay Conservancy near Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Old men play a 1000-year old mancala with pebbles. Guys jump higher than NBA players as they harmonize in captivating baritones and basses. And teens my age in bright fabrics and beaded bracelets aspire to be warriors.
These kids compete in jumping contests and secret ceremonies before they leave home for the pastures to go through rituals to become junior and then senior warriors. Their clothing changes as they progress.
It was easy to say that their way of life was more similar to Ancient Sparta than mine.
“Do the colors of your tee shirts mean anything?” our guide Wilson asked me and my brother, curious about whether our shirts symbolized warrior status.
As guests of the eco-conscious Porini camps, who lease land from the Masai tribe and provide them with water, we not only had an amazing safari, but also an unbelievable cultural experience. For seven days, we lived, ate and slept in authentic, but comfortable tents on sacred Masai ground.
We ended up seeing migrating wildebeest, cheetah kills and mating lions. But spending time with the Masai rivaled the wildlife encounters – competing with them in a spear-throwing contest measuring hand-eye coordination on a nine-kilometer walk, visiting one of their schools, barbequing lunch by the side of a river filled with hungry hippos.
Many of our Masai guides were not only warriors, but also silver and gold level safari guides, certified by the Kenya Tourist Board. To become a Bronze guide, one must pass a written exam about hundreds of birds, beasts and plants. Silver guides must also take a test about first aid techniques. And Gold Guides, in addition to their knowledge, are expert drivers and spotters.
We stayed at two of the Porini camps, one in the Selenkay Conservancy, and the other in the Olare Orok Conservancy, next to the huge Masai Mara where we saw the great migration of half a million wildebeests.
When we said goodbye to our guide Wilson, we were not sure if he would appreciate the Lakers cap we brought him from LA. But it turns out he was a big fan of Kobe Bryant.
Wilson may have several huts made of dung for each of his wives, but he also owns a cell phone with a mobile Facebook application.
Though we live in such polar worlds, I will be the first to comment when he gets his Gold Guide status.
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