“There,” our tour guide said.
I skimmed my eyes through the yellow grass, long and swirling still even with the absence of wind. We plodded closer and in looking so close, I could see how this could resemble American prairie, the lighter color of autumn covering much vastness. Then blotches of what was flattened grass melded into clumps of lions, A whole mess of them. Some flicked the ends of their tails the way house cats do when slightly irritated.
“We will get closer.”
We drove like walking softly to negate inevitable creeks in a wooden floor. My stomach lifted into my shoulders. Just a plain white van full of seven humans nonchalantly rolling through and in between a large pride of lions. There were more than 30, but my anxiety wouldn’t let me concentrate enough to make an exact count. And even now, when I think back to my eyes wandering over that sight, all I can see are lions and lions and lions dotting the straw colored grass.
We had flown to Kenya for a safari. Nairobi, our point of origin, seemed like it was yet to make its economic way. I remember it as a city rising out of dust. Things either looked entirely unfinished, old, and rusted. My uncultured eyes, eyes that had caught just a few glimpses of developing countries–mostly just Tijuana, Mexico–felt just downright silly for my own problems.
The next morning, we crammed into a small white van with tiny road-only tires, the kind you see contractors and plumbers use in the US. But this van had windows, and, further, the van’s ceiling was cut out so that you could lift the roof and stand up to get a higher view of things. This last bit of character was the only clue that this vehicle was intended for the purposes of something as arduous sounding as a safari. That and it looked weathered, the way an old ax or shovel that has been in the family for generations looks.
The lions reacted not one bit to our presence, not even to the groans of the well worn axles of our safari vehicle. They continued their lives around us, which included nothing but remaining prone. They yawned, licked their paws, and thwarted unseen flies with their tails. The only real movement belonged to the cubs, wrestling, squirming, and pouncing on one another. Evidently, white vans were of no concern.
Our tour guide stopped the van and turned off the motor. The stillness of the scenery and the large expanse of the land around us became eerie. Standing in the middle of the van with half our bodies above the ceiling, in that sort of crow’s nest of a place, it felt like we were among them. I wondered darkly how high lions could jump.
It was to be a week long safari in Aberdare National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve, and one that would take us around to various touristy spots. We would experience new culture, land, and food. And in those gigantic parks, we got to be amongst serious wild life, vast herds, large predator and prey situations, a more rapt life and death hierarchy than the Midwest plains could ever provide.
Being among lions was unsettling, but the worst belonged to a visit to a Maasai village, or what was presented to be one. People were dressed up in the attire of the Maasai, paint and colorful garb, and were situated in ersatz old huts. Dances were done, pottery was shone. But I felt awful the entire time. Here were all these tourists, at least wealthy enough for airfare to different continent, descending upon a country with a history of war and strife and colonialism. And here was a side of capitalism and culture I could not parse. What exactly was I participating in? Maybe they were akin to Civil War reenactors in the States. Or maybe a practicing tribe that wanted to show their culture to those that paid. My naiveness was on full alert.
I do not know how long we sat there amongst the lions, I just know that when our tour guide went to start the car, it did not turn over. He tried several times; my adrenaline grew with each un-started attempt.
“I’ll fix it,” said the tour guide. He opened the door, got out, casually popped the hood, and started tinkering. Once the diagnostic phase was over, he extracted some tools out of the glovebox and went back out. The audacity was astounding. I got ready to yell, “Lions incoming!” Frankly, that yell would have only gotten to the first syllable before the closest lion was upon him. They were that close.
Did they tame these lions? No. This was not a zoo. This was Kenya.
I did not bless the rains in Africa, but I did watch them sweep toward us, along the flat plains, shimmering wisps in the air. I’ll never forget that expanse and the feeling it produced, the shadows of the low clouds and the immense field of view, clouds carving through the air like a ceiling on the move.
He tried the car again; it did not start; back under the hood he went.
None of the lions stirred themselves into anything resembling threats. They did seem watchful, perhaps curious in what these strange animals were doing in their midst. Stress levels began to lower. It was only natural; all parties except for me seemed completely at ease. I tried to acclimate.
In the Treehouse Lodge, a wooden hotel situated near a famous watering hole, I pictured the Queen of England and her entourage enjoying a safari in the finery they most certainly possessed. And I thought about my own experiences in England. My father was a successful manager at General Motors, and his upward mobility had allowed for an increasingly good life. So good that we had moved to England for his work and could spend who knows how much money on this safari.
One night, we went to a place that advertised all the wild meats of Africa aptly named The Carnivore Restaurant. A “cultural show” played on a stage while servers brought around exotic meat like that of crocodile, zebra, giraffe, and ostrich. Servers wore gaudy zebra-patterned robes. Seemingly African music played out of hidden loudspeakers between shows. Tiki torches burned around us, contrasting the neon and stark 90s colors of the Disney-ish African attire of the waiters and performers. How could all these animals be food? Weren’t they endangered or something? Were these employees happy to serve such novelty to tourists as a Kenyan experience? Still, I ate.
“I think I have it,” he said, climbing back in.
The engine returned to operational capacity. He revved and then went back out to shut the hood. I waited for the lions’ last opportunity. Nothing.
We trundled forward, off to see some elephants. Unworried about what had just happened. Completely at faith with this machine that would drive us around and the man who we all relied on.
I’ll never forget the passiveness of that pride of lions and the indifference of our tour guide. I was in awe of both of them, a complete tourist in that moment, watching something totally not stagnant like that of a zoo. Something real was playing out in front of me, challenging my conception of fear, reorienting the world I knew, making me feel completely uncomfortable but opening my mind to a newness I needed.
The trip was a safari, yes, but it was also an awakening of confrontations. A necessary lesson on seeming harmony I’ll never forget and still ponder.