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Under Kenya’s Southern Cross

Nobody yelled “Fire!”  Instead, frantic cries were snuffed out by the crush of bodies swarming an exit.  Smoke and panic spread across the stuffy theatre like a Napoleonic battlefield, while passing stampedes of legs and butts cast monstrous shadows on the movie screen.  Then, orange, crackling flames began licking over the balcony.  Should I sit and fry or jump up and be trampled?  My hands claw-gripped the armrests as my feet nervously tap-tap-tapped, crunching spilled popcorn.  Had I come halfway around the planet only to die watching a bad Sylvester Stallone flick?  My mind drifted back a few months, to when this odyssey began.

I swung the machete violently.  I panted like an animal.  The sticky vines and steamy air playfully argued whether I should be strangled or suffocated.  My blade’s rhythmic thud feebly voiced my dissent.  Trekking through Kenyan rainforest is more like gardening than hiking.  Running down my back, red ants and perspiration were indistinguishable.  If I swatted it, it was sweat.  If I ignored it, it was alive.  By noon, I’d surrendered my flesh to a wildlife habitat: a playground for all creatures so inclined.

My companions were Kipsigi hunters.  They’d never had a friend as pale as elephant tusk; I’d never had a friend as black as tire rubber.  We tried not to stare.  Such awkwardness didn’t diminish our bond.  When climbing together, a leathery hand becomes a rope, a grimy shoulder becomes a step, and a tired grin becomes a pact.  Instinct runs deep within a species.  We six humans instinctively formed a clan against the wilderness.

We intersected a dry streambed.  Strolling along its soft, reddish clay was a refreshing change.  Above us, the forest canopy was dense.  Rain from last week still dripped leaf to leaf, each crystal droplet choosing its intricate path to the jungle floor.  We passed flowers ranging from the sublime to the grotesque, with colors ranging from sunny yellow to bloody purple, aromas from syrupy sweet to hypnotic spice. 

Monkeys howled and screeched overhead.  Swinging past us, they laughed.  “Okay,” I shouted, “Maybe our arms are too short for transportation.”  Glancing at my comrades, I saw the monkeys weren’t alone doubting my competence, so I shut up.  Single filing along, our strides melded into a cadence.

Suddenly, the front man stopped.  The rest of us bumped in turn, like bad slapstick.  Pointing at the ground, he hissed an unknown Swahili word.  The others encircled the spot, tossing the word back and forth into a hissing symphony.  Kipsigis point with their lips, so the group alternately puckered toward the ground, as if kissing invisible lovers.  The hissing and kissing continued for some time.  Finally, the leader gave me a trembling translation: “Fresh leopard feet!  Leopard smell and track man.  Leopard no fear fire.  We go now!”

We continued toward the soon-expected village.  First, at a brisk walk.  Then, after a couple UFNs (Unidentified Forest Noises), at a brisk run.  We abruptly burst out of the dim forest, into the middle of a blazing African day.  Our eyes adjusted and blinked at an enchanted scene.

Out of the jungle flowed a river: a serpentine, meandering, chocolate-colored river, clouded with nutrient-rich, botanical sediment.  Along the bank, crocodiles napped and hippos grazed.  Across the wide valley of golden cornfields was another river:  a swift, clear, boisterous river, tumbling out of the emerald green hills.  It crossed an enormous slab of exposed, polished rock where it shattered into a thousand miniature waterfalls.  Beneath the cascades, veiled by mist and framed by rainbows, was an ancient, wooden house and waterwheel.  Inside, a rotating stone ground corn into meal – apparently since the dawn of time. 

Where the rivers met was a miracle: the combined waters flowed on neatly divided, half muddy, half clear.  Further along, the spirits of the hills and forest resigned themselves into one.  In the “v” of the merging rivers, spotted cattle chewed complacently on a grassy slope.  The slope ascended a high bluff, surveying the whole panorama.  Here sat a single hut, surrounded by sugar cane and fruit trees.  No one spoke to break the spell, but we all simultaneously began the ascent to the obvious destination.

The occupant was a wrinkled, little man who walked with a stick.  His earlobes, pierced with bulky wooden adornments, had stretched several inches.  He raised corn.  He had no idea how old he was.  We tried to discern his age, using every mathematical system we could remember or invent.  We decided he was real old.

We drank tea and talked.  Walked to his son’s house, drank tea, and talked.  Walked to his relative’s house, drank tea, and talked.  Walked to his friend’s house, drank tea, and talked.  The impatience of my culture and mega doses of caffeine reached critical mass.  I blurted out, “Why do we sit around all day, drink tea, and talk?” 

The old man responded innocently, “Can you make the corn grow faster?”

I could have “enlightened” him – after all, my technological civilization produces genetic hybrids that do just that – but it would’ve distracted from his profound truth: there are forces in life bigger than I.  Perhaps that’s why I wander: some instinctive spiritual quest.  Do I travel to know a higher reality, the world, or just myself?  I finished my tea.

A rooster crowed.  I opened my eyes on thatched roof, inches above.  The sun filtered through, warming the grass smell from my straw mattress.  Bath day!  I sprang from bed like a pouncing cheetah, out the door, past the goat, and down a steep hill.  Trudging up the road was an old woman.  Her gray head balanced the water bucket; her hunched back bore the firewood.

The distant riverbank was pink.  Approaching revealed a horde of flamingoes, crowding the swampy edge.  Posting two crocodile watchmen, I waded into the warm current, but relaxing proved impossible.  My submerged head filled with visions of razor sharp jaws.  Lather, rinse, repeat became lather, rinse, retreat.  I felt a little cleaner, sort of.

I lunched with the tribal elders.  Each had two wives who all cooked together.  The menu never changed.  We drank chai: black tea boiled with milk and sugar cane.  We ate ugali: ground corn and millet pronounced, “Ooh golly”.  Ugali is eaten from a community pile with unwashed hands; this tends to darken the pile as the meal progresses.  The grain paste is then used to scoop up beans or greens.  “Greens” refers to any plant, found round the hut, which the goat missed or rejected.

Unfortunately, I was an honored guest.  A bowl of animal parts, suitable for teaching anatomy, was offered.  I couldn’t refuse.  The assortment was a feast for a poor village.  Starting with meats I recognized most and feared least, I commenced chewing.  Bites lingered forever.  Some refused decomposition and defied swallowing, but delicacies dwindled to two: a chunk of cerebral matter and a large intestine.  Custom allowed leaving one.  I visualized the gut section being squeezed out like a tube of brown toothpaste.  “Brains it is!” I decided.

A woman entered.  She was lean and hard like a runner, with movements soft and deft like a dancer.  High cheekbones cradled moist, glittering eyes.  One silver and two wooden rings jangled around each wrist and ankle.  She refilled our teacups.  Instead of customarily exiting, she abruptly sat down.  Tugging the straps from her arms, she let them fall away.  Shoulders and breasts were exposed.  I glanced furtively for the elders´ reactions; they seemed oblivious.  Now, handed her baby, she began nursing.  I slurped my tea.

My culture doesn’t program people to feel passion for goat guts and passé about breasts – quite the opposite.  Different societies install different life operating systems.  As elders conversed, I pondered: to what extent can we choose to override or upgrade our own programming?

The finale was merseek: a sour, smoky drink of milk and charcoal fermented in a gourd.  I quickly declined seconds.  My hosts summoned me a matatu: a taxi/pick-up truck seemingly transporting up to 100 people and their livestock, at up to 100 miles per hour.  After a thrill-packed ride to Kisumu, I boarded the night train to Nairobi.

My cabin was clean.  My berth had fresh, cinnamon-scented, white linens.  My sink oversaw the window.  Brushing my teeth, I watched a fiery, red sun setting on savannah.  Then, darkness fell on the long silhouettes of giraffe munching treetops.  I migrated to the brass and mahogany dining car.  Sharing table with a member of parliament, we ate chicken curry topped with coconut, bananas, peppers, and mango chutney.  The train’s rolling motion lulled me; the politician’s voice sedated me.  I slept deeply.

In Nairobi, I slept with the Amish: Mennonites who ran a guesthouse: a secluded, garden oasis between a monastery and a spa.  Bed, dresser, and bare walls with crucifix comprised a room.  Rock floor, open sky, and flowering shrubs enclosed a shower.  Each dawn, a clanging triangle rousted us staggering to breakfast: oatmeal porridge, milk, and guava juice.

Surrounding the table were bleary-eyed adventurers, on a mutually bad hair day.  The clinking of silverware and glasses gave way to the rising buzz of conversations.  Blue napkins were encircled by hand-carved, animal figurines.  Mine was a zebra.  Guests were permanently assigned to beasts.  Sitting by our randomly distributed statuettes, every mealtime brought new acquaintances.  One day’s destiny paired me with a gray-bearded man.  I spoke first: “Jambo, habari?”

“I’m alright, but I don’t speak Kiswahili.”

“So what brings you here?”

“I’m a bush doctor.  I deliver babies and antibiotics.”

“That sounds interesting.”

“Oh yeah, great!  Villagers pay the shaman to stuff their wounds with leaves.  Then, broke and dying, they come to me.  Gave up a lucrative practice in New York.  Told my wife I wanted to help people and the bitch divorced me.”

“The guava is delicious.  Don’t you think?”

“Everyone’s driving out to the national park today.  Wanna come?”

“Sure.  Why not?”

Seven people piled into a beige Land Rover.  Doc drove.  Stomping the accelerator and scattering gravel, he took off like a kid for Disneyland.  Multi-tasking as chauffeur and guide, his head spun recklessly from windshield to back seat.  Hours passed.  Dusty roads wound endlessly through saltbush and flat-topped acacia.  Rounding a curve, we careened to a halt.  Four stocky warthogs surrounded the business end of a long python.  The meeting abruptly adjourned, waddling and slithering into the brush.

We crested a hill where a vast rift severed the landscape.  Herds drifted lazily across the sea of stubble grass – massive wildebeest and delicate gazelles.  We eagerly ploughed ahead, shifting gears and bouncing down a rock-studded hillside.

On the right, hyenas burrowed lustily into a pinkish-white carcass.  On the left, a camouflage jeep passed by.  Out of the window, fingers pointed and voices shouted, “Simba!  Simba!”  Adrenaline mounting, we approached the spot.  There he was: flanked by two lionesses and lying under a tamarind tree, tufted tail and carpeted torso, rippling haunches and radiating mane.  He yawned carelessly and stretched defiantly.  I stared open-mouthed, very aware we had parked too close.  My carpool mates furiously snapped photos, leaning out the windows, climbing on the roof.  The lion looked annoyed.  He stood, pawed the air, and snarled a warning.  We headed home.

Somber gray skies set the mood for our drive.  Storm clouds hung like sooty cotton balls as gentle thunder rumbled across the open range.  Tall grasses rippled and bowed under the wind’s unseen hand.  We rode silently until roof-pattering rain filled the void.  All was right until everything went wrong.

Our vehicle lunged downward and stopped cold.  Cargo hurled forward.  Left-side passengers flung right and introduced themselves.  The engine shuddered, farted, and died.  For a frozen moment, no one moved or spoke.  We eyeballed each other till a resident genius said, “Musta hit somethin!”  Sure enough, our tire had hit a deep rut.

Jumping out, we fanned around the freshly entombed wheel.  Like a committee of experts we rubbed our jaws and performed a visual auto autopsy.  Tire and rim had been yanked apart, the latter bent, the former mangled.  A bumper-mounted winch offered some hope.  Hooking cable to a tree, we pulled the SUV clear – only then discovering a flat spare.

We were stranded, on a remote stretch with a bad reputation.  If someone passed us (unlikely), and didn’t rob us (less likely), they couldn’t possibly transport us.  Nothing to do but wait.  We’d be found, either by Mennonites in a few hours or by archeologists in a few centuries.

Daylight faded out; insect noise faded in, as if Mother Nature simultaneously adjusted two knobs on her entertainment system.  Long after dark, a distant car sound invaded the night.  The guesthouse VW Bug appeared, beep-beeping a friendly “Hello”.  Seven plus driver squeezed in eagerly, as if sitting on another guy’s lap, between an elbow and an armpit, was a rare treat.

A few head-bumping, bone-shaking kilometers later we stopped – some kind of checkpoint.  Tire-puncturing spikes blocked half the road; more obstructions up ahead blocked the other half.  We had to make a slow “S” maneuver.  Two men in baggy, green fatigues appeared from the brush.  One fingered an AK-47; one shoulder-holstered a handgun.  Both motioned us to halt.

“Handgun” looked us over, sneered, and spit on the ground.  “AK-47” took a long puff, flicked the cigarette away, and challenged our driver: “You were speeding.  Pay the fine!”

“I left home without any money.”

“Gimme some identification!”

“I forgot to bring that too.”

“(Long pause), Your registration sticker’s expired.  Get out of the car!”

They lined us up by a roadside ditch.  My heart pounded with fear.  They groped over our cameras and backpacks.  My muscles tensed with readiness.  They crossed the road, squabbling in tribal dialect.  My mind raced with questions:  Should I dash for the trees?  Could I get everyone killed?  Would the others bolt first?

Meanwhile, disagreement escalated.  Their spat seemingly revolved around whether our gear merited the nuisance of shooting and burying us.  I side-glanced accusingly at those who’d brought nicer wares.  “AK-47” appeared to be on our side.  (In other words, he thought our stuff was cheap.)  I mentally cheered him on, but apparently “handgun” outranked him.  I felt like a death row inmate discovering his lawyer’s a rookie.

Finally “AK-47” barked at us, “Get out of here!”  “Handgun” threw down his weapon angrily.  The silvery moon emerged from cloudbank, bathing us in milky light.  A pee stain could be seen on Doc’s pants.  Scrambling to the VW, we dove in and drove off.  Neither legs flailing out the doors nor a deflated rear tire slowed us down.  I was grateful both to be alive and not to be sitting on Doc’s lap.

The backseat was a jumble of people – not packed in like sardines, tossed in like salad.  At first, personal space was established by self-conscious compression, but joints tired of assumed contortions; lungs rebelled against forced inhalations.  Body parts sagged and settled, requiring counter-adjustments, and parts weren’t just parts.  The difference between boys and girls loomed before me like a puberty refresher course.  Accidental brushes inspired outward courtesy and inward electricity.  During such tactile collisions, my arm hairs bristled or recoiled, micro-flagging sexual preference.  Stuck in this mobile game of twister, I retreated into my thoughts.

The roadblock incident bothered me.  Being near death wasn’t the problem – after all, I’m always a heartbeat away – facing death was the problem.  I thrive on the perpetual self-delusion that death is inevitable but not imminent; the grim reaper can stand just outside the door, as long as he doesn’t knock.  Nevertheless, to be human is to be trapped between the monkeys and the gods: too philosophical to live in the moment, too weak to secure immortality.  My culture solves this dilemma, by ignoring it.  When that strategy fails, when reality is rubbed in my face, I freak out.  Putting such heavy issues aside, I decided tomorrow I’d relax and escape by going to a movie.

Sunrise found me on a dust-blown airstrip, with a battered Cessna suggesting more historical than aviational value.  At take-off, we were flung skyward and somehow stayed there.  Looking surprised, the pilot beamed.  My mouth hung loose in disbelief; I’d paid cash-money for this aerial reenactment of “The Little Engine That Could”.

Riding air currents like surf, we sputtered to the crests and then careened down.  My green face stared longingly below where an elephant herd made slower, steadier progress.  The fuel gauge heralded our arrival.  I took deep breaths and made allegiance to several world religions.  We landed.

The coastal port of Mombasa teems with commerce: Arab traders, Indian restaurateurs, and African prostitutes.  I checked into a hotel.  By afternoon, I was perusing a coral reef, submerged in soundless solitude.  I told the fish I was a refugee from the upper world; they granted me temporary asylum.

By evening, I was sipping soda at the cinema.  The smell of something burning went almost unnoticed.  Behind me was a balcony; above the balcony was a ledge; on the ledge was a fan; with the fan was a cord; from the cord emitted sparks; the sparks ignited a flame; the flame started a frenzy.

I stood up, to join the door-rushing throng.  Suddenly, a theatre employee emerged on the ledge.  Beating the fire to death with an old blanket, he disappeared.  The movie resumed; the crowd sat down.  Thirty minutes later, the whole scenario repeated: fire, hubbub, blanket, film.  Everyone stayed to the movie’s end.  (There are places where human life, unlike Hollywood footage, isn’t a precious commodity.)

I stumbled out into the night – so far from home even the stars were different.  My eye fixed on a pulsating constellation.  Some long-ago sailor, finding a familiar symbol in a foreign sky, named it “the Southern Cross.”  My heart was comforted.  Like the corn grower, I knew there were life forces bigger than I; like the sea wanderer, I decided that was good.

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