Secret Handshakes

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As though some cruel twist of fate, it is my job to tell people not to wander off. Working for a nature reserve, I am tasked with constant outreach to our visitors, explaining why it is so very important to remain on the trail, obey the rules, stay safe and behave yourself. I have created signage and newsletter articles preaching such obedience. If only they knew…

Once while lost in a spice market in Dubai I was lead through the alleyways by a young man and his promise of beautiful purses. I wasn’t even interested in a new purse, but sleep deprived and jetlagged, it only made sense to follow. When I climbed the stairs and entered his apartment in some unknown alley in the depths of Dubai, another man quickly locked the door behind me. I cursed my curiosity. No one would miss me for days. Luckily, the men’s shady dealings were limited to the sale of knock off purses. A room full of Coach, Gucci, Fendi all ready for me to take home. The men misinterpreted my desperation to leave with hard bargaining – prices quickly fell from $200 to $20 as I unlocked the doors, fled down the stairs and out into the labyrinth of city streets, lost again. Wandering off is both my best and worst habit. Just ask anyone who has gone grocery shopping with me – while my shopping partner is mid-sentence, I am three aisles over, dazzled by the different types of vinegar. I am drawn to shiny objects like a raven stocking her hoard, forever blown off the path.

Exhausted, filthy and sore, I found myself in Africa, making my way to see the lions. The main road up to the Ngorongoro Crater, a major link between Tanzania and Kenya, traveled by tourist-filled 4x4s and precariously loaded transport trucks alike, was more rugged and jarring than the abandoned logging roads back home. As the Land Rover edged over to the side of the road, I was surprised that our guide Stephen could even tell we had a flat tire. Stephen scoured his brain for the very few English words that he knew, chose two and said them with utmost authority. “stay here”.

I immediately unbuckled my seatbelt, grabbed my camera and ventured off. We had stopped in a quiet, dusty village, just waking up to the day. A mamma brightly dressed in her khanga, bustled along with her load teetering upon her head, starting the day’s unending tasks. Men lingered outside the shops, as though waiting for a bus that would never come. Children rolled the frame of a bike tire, running by laughing. I garnered a few uneasy looks, not because I am unwelcome, but my imposing camera is. I slung it over my shoulder and continued to wander, glancing momentarily back at our Land Rover. A few fellow travelers had dismounted only to stare at Stephen while he struggled with the tire. The others remained inside, trying their best to look as bored as possible, yawning and pressing their foreheads to the grimy windows, trying to get back to sleep.

I spotted the village grocery store – a thatched booth so small that would fit neatly in my front hall closet, spilling over with fresh produce – tomatoes, onions, pineapple and bananas. Being my 4th day in Africa, my Swahili was very poor, but my charade skills were excellent. A timid young boy wearing only shorts, approached me as though I was a mother lion, a very hungry one at that. I smiled, pointed, and waved my arms around like a mad woman, and after a few minutes I was the proud owner of five tiny yellow bananas. We were both quite pleased with ourselves.

Shrieks of laughter stole our attention, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of a girl running into a nearby shop. Small pairs of eyes peered out around the corner, followed by screams of laughter, and an immediate retreat to the safety of the shop. An invitation if I’ve ever heard one. As I approached the doorway and heard the girls in fits of giggles, testing who would be the next brave one to sneak a look at the white mzungu. They are startled when I enter, but equally curious. “mambo, habari?” I asked, spawning even more uncontrolled laughter. It was contagious, I find myself both shy and grinning at once.

Using my most entertaining charade skills yet, I introduced myself and asked what their names were, offering my hand. The bravest took my hand in hers, shook it and immediately bolted back behind the counter to the safety of the others, spilling over with laughter. The next girl did the same, moving my hand with hers, adding in a little twist, and a fist bump. I went down the line, with each introduction the handshakes became more elaborate, joining our hands in new found friendship, adding in dance steps, and finishing off with a hug. I gave them a handful of pencils and bought some water for the ride, and waved goodbye to my new best friends.

Heading back to the 4×4, I could still hear the squeals of laughter, and can’t help but smile. The others were settling back in, trying not to be annoyed with the delay, in a rush to find the day’s adventure. I offered them my bananas, a small consolation. I have already had my adventure; those lions would have to roar extra fierce to outshine my new dance moves.



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