The day I spent exploring “authentic Bali” with Koolman was one of the most memorable parts of my trip. Discovering the non-touristy side of his country and getting to meet and interact with the locals was something I will never forget.
I had about a million questions for Gaudence on our first safari day. A great deal of them had to do with the Maasai boys herding cattle along the roads. I’d read a book about the Maasai when I was a kid and could only remember vague details. Now, seeing them everywhere, I was intrigued. I wanted to know everything about them.
After about an hour of rapid fire questions, Gaudence asked if I would be interested in meeting the Maasai people with a village visit.
I answered, yes, without hesitation. I looked at Dane, who looked straight ahead. I thought he would be thrilled. Meeting the Maasai sounded like a wonderful adventure to me, but his face did not reflect my excitement.
“This is going to be just like my Bali experience!” I told him. “We will get to talk to the locals, ask all of our questions, take great pictures, you know really get to know Tanzania! It’s going to be great!”
“They are probably going to charge us for a village visit. Did they do that in Bali?” he asked.
“No they won’t!” I said naively. “He’s just giving us a chance to visit with them because I am so interested.”
“You must pay 50 USD to go into their village, so really think about whether or not that is something you want to do,” Gaudence said, not pushing us to do it. “But once you pay, you can take all the pictures you want.”
Hmmmm. I hadn’t really expected to have to pay to visit them. For a moment I was disheartened, but I quickly got over it. I mean, what is $50 among friends! And surely, after this visit, they would be our friends! Besides… this was authentic Africa. Not a safari. Not a luxury lodge. But a real African village. People just going about their daily lives, allowing us to glimpse in to them. I didn’t care about the money. I wanted to do it. And my husband indulges me.
“Sure, we can stop if you really want to,” he said. “Just try not to get your hopes up too high for a Bali experience.”
My hopes were sky high. I imagined that I would form a strong enough bond with one of the women there that we would stay in touch for years. I would send the children Japanese candies. She would send me beaded necklaces. We would never forget the impact we had on one another.
Dane had been to Africa before and had done the “local tribe visit” thing. Some wives might think, that considering he had done this before, he might know something I didn’t. That thought never crossed my mind.
We pulled off the main dirt highway and drove down a smaller dirt road. Men started running toward our vehicle. We got out and they shook our hands. Then they stood waiting for the money. Dane handed them cash. I pointed at my camera and asked if it was okay. They all nodded and then looked to one man in particular who offered to take photos for me.
He knew his way around this new dslr as well as I did. Hmmm. Okay, so maybe he is the village photographer, I thought. Maybe he learned while taking care of the cattle.
“Welcome to the Maasai tribe,” said one man who introduced himself as the son of the chief of the tribe, and also the chief of this village. “You are very lucky that I am here today,” he told us. “Normally I am in meetings.”
I couldn’t exactly picture this guy with a palm pilot, but, Okay… We decided to go with it.
“Before you enter our gates, you must dress like Maasai,” he said. A man came forward and wrapped us in shukas, the traditional red cape-style garment worn by the Maasai.
“Red,” I said, stating the obvious. “To keep the mosquitoes away, right?” Shut up, Mindy. It was like I was trying to impress them with my very limited knowledge of them. He just nodded. Unimpressed.
“First we will do the Welcome Song for you. Then we will perform the Jumping Song,” the chief told us.
“Oh nooooo…” I groaned inwardly. “Please don’t let there be a song and dance!” All of a sudden I was quite certain that Dane had been right. This might not be the most “authentic” experience of my life. I couldn’t even look at him. I knew if I did, I’d be able to see the tiniest ripple in his jaw, unidentifiable to most people, but a sure tell to those who know him well that he is not happy.
Instead, I smiled, too brightly and said, “That sounds just wonderful.” I didn’t want to disappoint him. He seemed so proud to introduce their performance and no one likes to put on a show for a less than enthusiastic audience.
We stood there, in our capes, and watched the welcome song. It is a long song. I hadn’t had to smile this hard since my wedding day.
Then they divided us up. I stood with the women, while Dane stood with the men. They added a beaded collar to my ensemble. Now it was time for the jumping song. Also not a short song. The men took turns jumping while the women sang and chanted.
“Traditionally, the man who can jump the highest is the most desirable,” it was explained to me. “He is a good jumper,” a woman said pointing to Dane. I nodded. He is not that good of a jumper. It’s not a skill we have spent a whole lot of time cultivating.
“He is going to KILL me,” I thought while I watched him jump up and down. I couldn’t help but smile because he was being such a good sport but it was clear that he was miserable. Dane likes attention the way I like small spaces. Oh well. The chief was proud of him and gave him a necklace like his own. Not to keep. Just to wear. Dane was okay with that and did not offer additional money to buy one of his own.
After the jumping song there was a fire demonstration. I took my camera back at this point so that I could take pictures of the men blowing on cow dung to start the flame.
“We use dung for everything,” they explained. “All of our fire is made from dung. All of our structures are made from dung and hay. We waste nothing.” I nodded approvingly. My mom is really big into recycling. She would appreciate that.
“Come inside my dwelling,” the chief motioned for us to join him in his dung-walled hut. I’m claustrophobic on a good day. I don’t like crawling into anything. Especially when I’ve just been told it is made of poop. I searched for excuses for why I couldn’t go in, but came up empty. As Dane glanced at me before ducking to go inside, I realized that I had gotten us into this situation and he was not giving me an easy way out of it. I’d be going inside that hut.
There were animal skins stacked on top of each other to create pallets. “This is where I lay with my wife,” he said, motioning for me to sit. Great, I thought as I sat. Dane sat on another stack of skins where the chief’s children slept. I wondered if they’d all been born in here. On the skins I was sitting on.
The hut is bigger than it looks from outside. This is not to say that it is big. It’s just bigger than you might think. There was also a small kitchen area where they cooked. “The fire helps to keep the flies out,” he explained. It did not seem to be working, I thought, as I swatted a few flies off of my legs.
I was confused by the empty Mountain Dew bottles and candy bar wrappers. Somehow they just didn’t fit inside this hut to me. But there they were. A perfect juxtaposition.
“Well this has been great,” I said standing up as straight as I could. An international sign that one is ready to go. Dane continued to sit on the skins, looking up at me with a little smile. “Sit,” the chief said to me, “I am happy to answer all of your questions.” I sat. I’m sure I had tons of questions, but I couldn’t think of a single one while I was sitting inside that hut.
I concentrated on my breathing. Hyperventilating would likely hurt his feelings, and that was the last thing I wanted to do when he was being so hospitable. It wasn’t the hut itself that was causing me to panic. It was my own level of discomfort in small spaces. It was the space, the darkness, the heat. I felt like the dung-walls were closing in on me.
We sat in silence. Think of a question. Think of a question. “Where are all of the cows?” I asked. They were off grazing with all of the young men, he told me. We sat in the hut for a while longer. I couldn’t think of a single additional question.
“Can you show us the school before it’s time for us to go?” I asked. He nodded and I bolted out of that hut before he had time to tell me to sit down again. The world was so bright! My breathing returned to normal. My husband smiled at me. I could tell he felt that we were even now. I’d made him take an active role in the jumping song, and would later be publishing the pictures on the internet. He made me sit in the hut. Even.
He held my hand as we walked to the “school” right outside the gate. The guide whistled and the kids who had been playing outside filed into the building. A woman walked quickly inside. By the time we reached the school she had written the numbers 1-12 on the chalk board and continued writing until she reached 30.
Then she stood back and told me to take pictures of the children. I guess this was how it normally happened. I snapped a few, feeling like it was expected, but the pictures saddened me.
I thanked the teacher. Thanked the chief. Thanked everyone as we walked away. “Asante sana,” I said, nodding at each person.
“Okay, you were right.” I admitted to Dane, as we climbed back into our 4×4. “That was nothing like Bali.”
We had not had an authentic cultural experience. We had become the embodiment of tourists in that hour– taking pictures of people just because they looked and dressed differently than we did. I sat in the jeep, feeling somewhat dejected. I hadn’t read Trip Advisor’s take on Masaai Village Visits before we left. I didn’t even know they were “a thing”. I do now. I’d been looking for authentic- but I’d gotten a performance.
I didn’t know it that morning, but our authentic African adventure was still coming. I couldn’t engineer it. I just had to wait for it.
In 2013, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. After four months of backpacking I returned to the States and fell in love with a guy whose job sent us straight back to Asia. Nothing has gone according to plan... and it's been absolutely magical.