On the Safe Side

We’d been advised by the agency, in our travel instruction packet, not to go outside our hotel after sundown. In the daytime, it said, we should not go out alone.  The warning was printed in bold face at the top of the first page and appeared scattered about the ensuing pages.  I have to admit, this had me a little worried, so I decided that until the safari people picked me up the day after next, I’d hang out around the hotel.

Now this hotel was not just a hotel building.  Within the razor wired complex were gardens, a small shopping mall, a golf course, tennis courts, a gym complete with indoor track, and a small lake on which you could sail or row boats.  There were even folks out there, couples, pedaling swan-shaped paddle boats as well.

Given the enormity of the place, I felt I could very easily occupy my time for the next two days wandering this huge area.  Sure, it wouldn’t give me much of the flavor of the city or the country, but the agency seemed to indicate that those were not something any sane tourist would be interested in anyway.

Because of my back problems I’d given up golf, and although from Hawai‘i, had never learned to sail.  My cousin had tried to teach me how to play tennis, but I’d found it pretty boring.  I’m well past the age where I’m tempted to sculpt my body in the weight room, and I’d given up jogging because of my knees and hips.

I do, however, do a lot of walking nowadays, and for sure I know how to shop.  The arts and crafts in the small mall were all very interesting, and since the vendors appeared to be authentic natives, and because they assured me their wares were the genuine article, I picked up a few souvenirs for my friends back home.

The gift buying part of my mission accomplished, I was left with the only other option:  walking.  Since the safari would be all vehicle travel, I figured this might be my last chance to get in a good long walk, so after lunch I decided to make a counterclockwise tour of the area.

I followed a paved pathway along the razor wired perimeter fence.  This path had marked lanes for pedestrians and for bicycles.  I didn’t remember having ever seen razor wire close up.  It looks quite lethal.  Far more so than the barbed wire I’d seen when I went to school in Wisconsin.  I could imagine being sliced up, mutilated really, if I tried to jump the wall.  I’ve cut myself a time a two while shaving.  I multiplied that feeling by ten to come out with an approximate gauge for the degree of pain that could be inflicted.  That seemed about right.

The enclosing walls were solid dark stained wood, so it was impossible to see what lay beyond them.  I could hear some street noise, traffic mostly, punctuated occasionally by a human voice or two, the sound more likely than not, to my imagining, of people shouting at other people.

Every so often, there would be a guard tower.  These tall structures were made of steel, and at the top, overlooking what all it was I could not see, stood armed men with binoculars at the ready.  Most of the weapons looked to be automatic rifles, perhaps AK-47s, and every so often a guard would have a very substantial looking machine gun.  Occasionally I would notice a guard not looking out over the city beyond the walls, but looking at me.  This made me uneasy.

All in all, I have to say that I felt quite safe, so long as I did not have to make a break for it over the walls, at which point I would be sliced, diced and perforated by many bullets.  I was making very sure to look as innocent and touristy as possible so as not to trigger an untoward incidents.

Aside from the mostly white noise din of the city, the intermittent squawk of walkie-talkies was really the only noise that broke the otherwise quite quiet atmosphere.  Ignoring the armed guards, it felt at times as if I were in a kind of Edenesque setting.

I noted that the little sign with arrows pointing out distances to various destinations had listed the distance around the perimeter as just over four miles.  Overall it was a pleasant walk, but the heat and humidity had done their job, and what I needed at the end of that walk was a beer.

There were several bars both within the hotel and without.  It was time for this non-native to have a little AC, so I hunted out the coolest one which was situated on the second floor of the hotel.

It was still early; the place was nearly empty.  The walls were littered with the heads of dead animals of all sorts.  I hate that kind of thing and reminded myself that my safari would produce only photos for all the shooting we would do.

I sat at the bar where the bartender, in perfect British English, explained the assortment of local beers to be had.  In the end, I said I’d simply start at the top of the menu and see how far down I could work my way before dinner time.

I’d retrieved my laptop from my room, and as is my custom when I travel, I proceeded to type away, getting in as much writing time as I could when on the road.  At home I’ll write for three, four, or even more hours a day.  When I travel, this time is reduced, sometimes drastically, so I try to write at any given opportunity.

After a while, more people entered the bar.  Occasionally I’d look up to survey the population.  As expected, most were obviously tourists, but from time to time local folks would enter, either singly or in groups.  Their attire was generally of two types:  western business garb, or shirts and dresses made of the more colorful indigenous fabrics, sort of the Aloha shirts of the country.

As I was ordering up beer number three on the menu, a very dark woman sat down a few seats away from me.  She was one of those wearing very stunning, colorful dress, similar to a Hawaiian mu‘umu‘u style, the colors vibrant greens, blues, and yellows.  Her hair was an Afro, long, the kind of style I associate with U.S. social movements from the 1960s.

She obviously knew the bartender, seemed perhaps to be a regular.  They spoke some African language, although what language exactly I had no clue.

Finally, when the bartender was off filling a drink order, I leaned toward the woman and complimented her on her dress.

“That’s beautiful fabric,” I said.

She laughed and thanked me.  She too spoke a perfect British English.

“I like your shirt,” she said.  “It’s what they call an Aloha shirt is it not.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m from Hawai‘i.  You can take the boy out of Hawai‘i, but you can’t take Hawai’i out of the boy.”

“Ah, Hawai‘i,” she said.  “I’ve always wanted to visit there.  I would have to convince my husband, though.”

Bummer.  Married.  Oh well.

“I’m here to go on safari,” I said.

“Oh yes,” she said, “that is very popular with Americans.  And this hotel is one of the main meeting points for gathering you up.  I suppose they warned you not to leave the hotel after sundown, right?”

I laughed.  “Yes, they did.  Is that for real?  I see there are armed guards around the perimeter of this place.  Is it that dangerous outside?”

She smiled at me.  “Sadly yes,” she said.  “We have a great deal of poverty here.  We are in some ways very much a third world country.  People who do not know their way around must be very careful.  There is something wild out there at night.”

It sounded so much more dangerous, coming from her, than it did merely reading the printed warning in the travel instructions from the agency.

She finished her drink.

“It was nice to meet you,” she said.

“Likewise,” I said.  “Aloha to you.”

“Aloha to you too,” she said, smiling.  “Enjoy the safari and be careful.”

I nodded.

When she’d gone, I closed down my laptop and finished my beer.  All that night I had trouble sleeping, thinking about the armed guards and that woman’s caution.  I could hardly wait for the tour company to pick us up in the morning and get us out into the safety of the bush.

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