Not Your Mother’s Travel Porn by Douglas Weissman

We came to the boma, a gate that encircled the village beneath the shadows of the distant mountains. Outside the main streets of Arusha, hidden in the brush and discarded trash that bordered some semblance of harvested gardens, we followed our Maasai guide as he toured us through the local village. The sunlight in the Tanzanian air was hot and humid; the shade in Tanzania was also hot and humid. I traveled with a group brought together by a ramshackle truck taking us from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi.

The closer we came to the boma, the closer we came to the shouts of children, another step in and out of the shadows, another loud collection of screams. Straps wrapped around pieces of the gate holding newer strips of wood together against aged and warped stakes. The men of the village would soon replace the entire fence needed to keep the goats penned in. Our guide was wrapped in a vibrant red and black plaid Shúkà, a collection of traditional wraps. It wasn’t hard to figure out the children’s words, even though we hadn’t understood them from the distance. 

Mzungu! Mzungu! they said. It was a word I had become accustomed to over the months traveling through East Africa. The term is said to have originated in the 19thcentury from the confused look of navigationally challenged Europeans, meaning, “aimless wanderers,” and has since become directed at foreigners, most noticeably, white people. The children ran out from behind the open gate, grabbed our hands, and steered us into the village, as if we were the lost children in desperate need of guidance. 

The village was a spread of mud huts and open space with a small pen inside the bordering gates holding the goats. It was a village built by the women, maintained by the women, and, once upon a time, packed up and moved to follow the cattle, ever in chase of rain and endless plains. Sometimes a place can be filled with the inelegant difference that makes me wonder why I have come this far in the first place, but within the coarseness is something akin to wonder, based on something like truth. 

The mass of children were half-brothers and half-sisters, born of a single father to different mothers; the Maasai traditionally, and continues to be, a polygamous culture. Looking out over the village was different than staring out of an open roof at rhinoceros and lions. Lions laze in the grass twenty hours a day, their golden fur heavy and hot in the African sun. At that moment, we felt more like a herd of goats in a petting zoo, gawked at and fondled by the children of the village. 

Days before, I had sat in a jeep watching two male lions rest in the thick grass of Ngorongoro Crater. One lion had a wound on its left flank, an open gash where bits of red glowed within tiny gaps of the fly-swarm that fed on, or laid eggs in, whatever nutritious grime and crust they found inside the wound. Related male lions without a pride stick together—safety in numbers, and everyone knows safety never takes a vacation. 

I stretched my arms outside of the window for a glorified selfie with the lazy wild, animal kings. Whether because of my time spent in Africa up to that point, or due to the lack of thought at all, the moment didn’t seem real; it definitely did not seem like the right thing to do.  

The walk to the village hadn’t changed my perspective on life but something about having my hand held by a random child—where other children in other villages I had visited, from Zimbabwe to Malawi, had climbed onto my back, head, and shoulders—that was serene, filled with a series of breaths, where present awareness became as important as the moment itself. I was there specifically because it was different, and that the cries of the children were aimed at me because everything about me was different to them. They had crossed the boma and pulled me inside. 

The children stood in line and sang songs they learned in school. Their voices were soft and shy, each child as timid as the next, like a chorus draped in faded pastels. When their singing subsided, they showed us their dance moves, including, what became, the quintessential sway of one of the girl’s hips, hand on her head with her elbow out, shifting her weight to the beat. 

Then the Mzungus, of whom I was a part, sang the songs we knew, danced the dances we knew, showed the children that we also like to dance and sing, that we like foolishness in our lives that sometimes don’t seem foolish enough. But we would never know if silliness existed after we left or would the children then work the field, tend the goats, or marry a wealthy Maasai man from four villages over. 

Beyond the stellar palaces guidebooks recommend or where lions laze in the savannah for long enough to turn from inspiring to--dare I say--boring, the real world returns for a radiant second. Within those backstreets and back-alleys, hidden along the trash-heaped paths that lead to a village inside a wooden fence, I saw the thin line separating maturity and immaturity, childhood and adulthood. 

The oldest girl in the group hid a wide piano key smile behind her hand as the Mzungus danced. She was thin but not frail, shy but not afraid, wearing a shirt with a cartoon character printed on the front. I stepped to the side of the group to take a photo with her. I stretched out the camera and leaned in. I knew my face would fill the screen. I looked back with my smile, my finger ready to snap the pic, ready to tell her to laugh. Instead, she ran away. 

And then I saw myself for what I was to those children—to that girl.  
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Douglas Weissman is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco. His short stories have been published in 3 Elements Review and Soft Cartel. He works as a travel writer and lives in Los Angeles.

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