Travels with Moron: Part 1
Flying to Tanzania to learn about Maasai cattle culture seemed like a great idea when I proposed it for a research fellowship. After all, I’d spent my whole life baling hay and chasing cows through the hills of West Virginia on my family farm. How different could cows be in an East African semi-nomadic culture? My epic flight allowed me time to come to a terrifying realization: I didn’t know a soul in Africa, and knew little about the Maasai other than that they are renowned herders. Suddenly, my upbringing on a farm didn’t seem so relevant.
When I got on the ground in Arusha, I selected the only screaming taxi driver who was smiling and followed his recommendation for a good “cheap” hotel (where I promptly spent more money in one night than I did over the next month).
The next morning I gathered my pack and hit the streets in search of other accommodations. I was the most popular guy in Arusha that day, with kids trying to sell me knock-off watches, women trying to sell me burnt ears of corn, and people who weren’t selling anything at all but asking for everything I had. My head was spinning. In just two short days, I had gone from rural West Virginia to the streets of a hectic African city I thought only existed in the movies. I tried to blend in, but my skin color and huge backpack screamed “tourist!”
Amid a sea of street vendors, I turned toward the first man I saw wearing a red shuka — a shawl typical of the Maasai — and shouted, “Do you speak English?”
He gave me a confused looked and blurted out “yes!”
“My name is Ben, and I need a hostel. Can you show me?”
“I know good hostel. I show you…this way,” he replied, flashing a calming grin my way.
And with that he was off, maneuvering the crowded streets with ease as I struggled to keep up. Five minutes later, I was standing outside the Arusha Backpackers Hotel drenched in sweat. Before I could say thank you, he was gone. So, I climbed the stairs to my room, exhausted and looking forward to a much-needed nap. Before I could even lie down, the receptionist knocked on the door to tell me I had a visitor.
“What? I don’t know anyone,” I informed him.
“The moron who showed you here is downstairs,” he replied, then left.
I found my Maasai guide (whose name turned out to be Moses) standing in the lobby holding two warm Coca-Colas and smiling from ear to ear. “I went to get us something to drink. It will be 500 Schilling for both.” He held out his hand out for the money.
I knew this was the type of guy I was looking for, so I paid for the Cokes and proceeded to have a personal tour of the city for the rest of the day. On our second warm beverage, he asked if I wanted to go to his village for a wedding. “Yes!,” I gasped, almost cutting him off mid-sentence. After discovering his offer came with a price and a lot of bartering, we agreed to leave the next morning.
When Moses came to collect me, he was not alone. “This is my friend Luka. He is a moron.” I was once again confused, but didn’t say anything.
In Tanzania, beat-up, hippie-looking vans called dalla-dallas serve as taxis. Dalla-dallas leave only after they are filled, and ours was already jam-packed when we arrived. The driver shouted a few commands and everyone inside the van began shuffling to make room. He pushed us inside with his foot before quickly slamming the side door shut. My face somehow ended up firmly planted in a Maasai woman’s boobs, which Moses seemed to think was a desirable position. I didn’t share his enthusiasm.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Three hours later, my face still buried deep in this stranger’s chest, the driver yelled out, “Longido.” Moses was smiling like a tour guide who had just showed me the time of my life as he motioned for me to get off the bus. I felt I should apologize, but the lady exited without batting an eye. In overstuffed dalla-dallas, this sort of thing probably happened all the time, but still. Feeling a bit guilty, I retreated to a roadside store to stretch and suck down another warm Coke.
Darkness had fallen, and there was no sign that a wedding was to take place. The thought did cross my mind that there was no wedding, and that I had just paid for Moses’s trip home. Still, I was right where I needed to be: in a Maasai village less than 48 hours after leaving West Virginia. Almost in unison, Moses and Luka jumped to their feet saying, “Let’s go meet the other morons.” Again, I was worried about being led into the bush by “morons.” Could it be Maasai for friend?
[Read Part 2]
Ben Long is a writer and photographer who received a Watson Fellowship to travel the world for a year to study cattle cultures. He currently lives and works on his family cattle farm in the Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr.
[National Geographic Expeditions leads Walking Safaris with the Maasai in Tanzania. Learn more.]