Sunday, December 8, 2013

Black Friday in Narok

Narok is the last city before you enter the Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve in Kenya. But please don't think it is close to the park in actuality. It is a solid 2.5 hours on a washboard dirt road to get to the Mara from Narok.  We drove through Narok on our way to the park, of course, but we didn't stop. It was a crowded place, with ramshackle two story buildings lining the roadway. The buildings looked like they were from a movie set, and not real; they were made of cinderblock stacked with cement mix not more than 12 cubic feet, painted with bright colors.  Like a fake version of the old West. Trash was scattered everywhere, and goats, sheep and cattle were herded along the roadside.  
Personally I was glad we didn't stop, I hoped our destination would render Narok a faint driveby memory. It wasn't so much the poverty that I wished to avoid, but the disregard for the surrounding environs, the livestock that was lame or limping.  In other words, the things I hold dear were a luxury here, and not something people could afford to be concerned with. Naturally this threw into light the crux of the poaching war, for how can you stop poaching in a place like this?
And so what can you do in such a situation, but do your best to get through it until such a time as an idea or option presents itself.  But that is not exactly the story I want to focus on, so please allow me to continue.
We drove on our bumpy, bumpy way to the beautiful expanse that is the Maasai Mara, where we were enchanted for the following two full days.  It became easy to see the attraction, even addiction of safari, and when we drove out of the park that third day it was a quiet ride, leaving only the sounds of the truck in response to the rigors of the dirt route beneath us.
We cheered when we hit pavement again, and within the hour we arrived at a busy gas station in none other than Narok, gateway to the Mara.  The gas station was so busy that they had an attendant just to direct traffic to the overcrowded pumps, and as our able guide got out to take care of the fill up, our little truck succumbed to the masses of 'sales executives.'
This was a term we had gleaned from our aforementioned guide and driver, the one and only Fred.  While the truck's tank was tended to, all of us inside were tempted with Maasai blankets, beaded bracelets of every kind, completely inauthentic looking safari hats meant solely for the touristy-ist of the tourists.  
But by this stage in our travels, we were very wise.  Largely thanks to one of our tour members, the well prepared Kathy, we now knew that we could do so much more than haggle with these sales executives, we could barter.  Kathy, a vivacious gal from Houston, had learned from her hairdresser back home that bartering was the ticket when it came to local salespeople here in Kenya. And so she had packed her bags with American watches, t shirts and baseball caps for just such an opportunity.  Over the course of the week, we had all seen her in action and could attest to her successes.  However, as this was our last day and Kathy still had a select few remaining American goods for trade, her friend Karen jumped right in and began to bargain.  
Things came into the truck; things went out of the truck.  Goods changed hands, and one deal was even reversed when an American watch and T shirt were ultimately rejected as trade for a Maasai celebration blanket.  There were bracelets, safari hats traded for one another, and every one of the pens we had on us.
At the end, Kathy traded one man the windbreaker she was wearing for his touristy safari hat, and another man asked my husband if he would trade my sunglasses, and then he asked again for my sandals.
We ended up with a bamboo zebra print for our wall, and I kept my shoes and glasses. No money was exchanged at any point during the madness, by anyone if you can believe that.
As we finally made it out of that crazy gas station, Karen made the connection - it was Black Friday!  Somehow it was perfect, and we all laughed, remembering that it wasn't so different from Black Friday in the States, after all.