But before we get to Masai Mara, a story about a Kenya traveler experience. Don’t know if it’s typical, but it provided much entertainment during the journey from Nairobi to Masai Mara.
Caution. Caution. Caution.
Always be on guard.
Life is different in Kenya, life is very hard, and there are bad people about. The schemes and crooked-ness that people have come up with in order to part one from his or her money (even in “normal” business situations, for heaven’s sake!) leave the visitor with the impression that one is almost never safe.
And remember, for many in Kenya, the operable construct is “Muzungu = Rich.”
There’s nothing you can do about it, and if you’re muzungu – originally meaning European but now referring to any “white man” (or woman) – you just learn to live with it. It’s expected that you are rich and always have lots of money on you.
So one has to be careful, and when there are situations that are unusual, combined with the (not to put too fine a point on it) general lax attitudes of anyone in a law enforcement role, the necessity to give a “little something” to have the most basic action take place, and the general security situation that can be pretty unstable, one has to be on guard all the time. And, yes, there are those stories: the awful murders and robberies and situations like, for example, a roadway accident – of which there are many – and you just keep going, for if you stop to help your own life will be in danger, as has been proven many, many times over.
So a basic rule of travel in Kenya is: Watch out! Do not let anyone talk you into anything. Do not – under any circumstances – allow anyone to travel with you.
Enter Benson, my and Charles’s private police officer. On our way to Masai Mara, we had stopped for breakfast about two hours after leaving Nairobi. Narok is a town which is the much-anticipated turning-off point for the rest of the journey to Masai Mara, and the popular place to stop for fuel up and have a meal before you tackle the final two-thirds of the journey.
And here comes Benson.
Handsome, tall, ordinary civilian clothes, about 25-28 years old, Benson approaches us as we are getting out of the van to go into the restaurant.
Benson is a police officer, he says. He is stationed at the Masai Mara barracks, he has been up in Narok since early yesterday, he cannot get transportation back to Masai Mara, and now he is kind of desperate to find someone to let him ride with them. He’s apparently been trying since late the night before. Could he please ride with us? He reaches into his pocket for his wallet, and although there are plenty of people around and it’s broad daylight, when he reaches into his pocket Charles and I both sort of instinctively step away.
But it’s just his wallet, and from it he pulls out his laminated police identification, and assures us he is legit.
What to do?
We leave Benson waiting while we go into the restaurant – a fine outdoor garden that is a very pleasant place for breakfast and a deep discussion.
And boy, do we discuss!
Should we? Shouldn’t we? What if he’s not legit? What if he has a group of people waiting for us down the road? What if he’s carrying a gun (we had asked him if he was armed and he assured us he was not)? If there’s a gun in his duffle bag, how do we keep him separated from the duffle bag? (That one wasn’t so tough: we would just put his bag in the rear of the van, with our own luggage.)
Finally, Charles hit upon the solution: it’s a few kilometers out of the way, but there was a police roadblock not too far along the highway, a little beyond where we were turning off the highway, and we would just take Benson there and have him checked out.
Which is exactly what we did. The policeman who looked at his identification indicated that Benson is indeed a real policeman, praised Charles and me for coming to ask him, and we went on our way, turning back to get to the turn-off from the highway onto the road – such as it was! – to take us to Masai Mara. Once there (long, long bumpy trip), as we approached the gate, other policemen and guards recognized Benson, were very happy to see him (apparently it’s a big deal to go away from the police barracks for precisely this reason, because it’s so hard to get transport back), and after we took care of the bureaucratic details of getting into the game reserve (and paying the enormous admission fees!), we entered and took Benson straight to his camp, better for the experience because he had provided us with good conversation, interesting stories, and, best of all, much insight about dealing with the many details for successful game drives in Masai Mara.