A tip for those traveling in East Africa: unstructured adventures may be a bit more difficult than they are in, say, Europe. The implications of our hastily cobbled together adventure, hampered by poor internet connections and our work schedules, dawned on Sarah and I as we stood by ourselves on an airplane runway in the middle of the Maasai Mara. Possibly lions and certainly gazelles looked on bemused.
Sarah and I were working in Kenya at the same time and we had decided to take advantage of our location and travel a bit. One of us booked flights to the Mara, and from there we’d just see what we’d do next. Shortly before our flight, Sarah called a friend of a friend who worked in the tourism business. He sounded panicked about our plans, which confused us. We came to understand as we disembarked from the flight and realized that this airstrip—and the other airstrips we had landed at on the way—belonged to a resort. We stood there, a bit befuddled, while the one worker on duty called the resort and told someone to come pick up these two crazy girls, reservations or no.
It wouldn’t have been agreeable or good PR for us to be eaten by lions near the airstrip, so the resort sent a vehicle out to get us. And yes, we did see a lion on the drive to safety. Playing blind to our naiveté, staff gave us washcloths and orange juice as we entered the hotel lobby. We were disproportionately pleased, quite unused to this kind of pampering. And despite it all, everything fell into place. This friend of a friend, who we had never even met, worked for this very resort chain and negotiated over the phone on our behalf. Even though there were no open hotel rooms, we were placed in very spacious quarters normally used to house workers. Better yet, we were (necessarily) given a huge discount. Thus our Mara vacation fell into place. Sorry lions, no snacks for you!
The Mara is remarkable, but nearly as fascinating to me, though in a darker manner, was the resort itself. Having never stayed in such a fancy place, I was in for a bit of a shock. Yes, it was nice to have a huge buffet available and to indulge after months of very limited vegetarian options. And yes, the ability to take a proper, not freezing, not bucket, shower was welcomed. But this luxury was hard for me to reconcile with my life in East Africa over the previous months.
I could forget I was white again because I was surrounded by white people. Resorts are pretty much for rich white people. Any black people there were staff. I could forget about having to haggle prices. Everything has a set cost, and you’re being ripped off regardless. In fact, if it weren’t for the hyraxes and warthogs running around the grounds, I could forget I was even in Kenya. And that’s a problem.
The Mara really is a wonderful place. Seeing elephants, gazelles, topis, hyenas, wildebeests, giraffes, lions, warthogs, hippos and more all in the span of a couple of hours is certainly an experience to be had. Even the river of death, littered with carcasses of wildebeests that failed to cross during the Great Migration, speckled by feasting vultures and surrounded by lazy crocodiles, is a sight—though not smell—to behold. It is important to recognize and appreciate the diversity of landscapes and lives that this earth supports. But this includes human lives and cultures as well.
Many tourists come to the Mara, take some game rides, hang out in the resort, and then leave. Maybe they’ll go to another tourist spot of a similar persuasion, or maybe they’ll just leave the country. They will hang out with other white people only. They will be served by black people. They will buy uniform trinkets at highly inflated prices. They will arrive home, newly purchased bracelets jangling, and proclaim that Kenya is such a beautiful country, with such an interesting culture—I mean, look at these handicrafts!
I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to visit the Mara—I wanted to visit the Mara! Who wouldn’t want to see this amazing place with its incredible amount of wildlife? How could one be indifferent to witnessing the Great Migration? Yet, it seems like it would be incredibly difficult for the average Kenyan to see the Mara like the droves of tourists do, despite the fact that the Mara is a Kenyan national park. The only Kenyans I saw experiencing the game drives were the drivers and guides.
On one tour, I spoke with a slightly older British couple. They proudly exclaimed that they had been to Kenya eleven times already—only a few more national parks to go! I suppose they have seen Kenya, and yet they absolutely haven’t.
Of course, national parks generate a huge amount of revenue for the country (how this money is used is another matter). And I love seeing elephants as much—or more!—than the next person. National parks play a significant role in conservation and they can be truly amazing. My qualms do not lie with the parks. But do I challenge travelers anywhere to eschew resorts. A resort is a Western hotel planted in an interesting landscape. To truly visit a place, you should to see real life as it is, not just staged traditional dance performances. Unfortunately, in the case of the Mara and likely elsewhere, it is much more difficult to avoid the entrapments of pre-packaged, sanitary experiences, even if you try. So go, see the wildlife, but travel elsewhere and actually meet some people too. And if you do visit the Mara, remember to plan at least a little. You might find a somewhat less neocolonial place to spend fewer dollars and shillings at, and at least you won’t be stuck in the middle of an airstrip. The lions have enough antelopes to snack on anyway.