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A Wahoo Out of Water in Africa – Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of lessons about how to make your home in a foreign country. Consider my advice so you don’t end up as woefully unprepared as I was when I moved to Kenya after living the first 28 years of my life in the state of Virginia. 

Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Lesson #4: Hang with the Locals

If you move abroad, it’s easy to surround yourself with Americans and stay ensconced in a bubble of relative comfort. Which is totally what I did (and still do) 95 percent of the time. But every once in a while, you should reach WAY outside your comfort zone and really hang with the locals.

The craziest local custom I have ever taken part in was a 10 kilometer camel race in Maralal, Kenya, a remote, arid expanse dotted with concrete storefronts and those ever-present acacia trees. It was one of the most exhilarating, uncomfortable, and surreal weekends of my life.

The adventure started with what was supposed to be a six hour chartered bus ride up to Maralal with an awesome group of friends. The tone of the weekend was set when the trip doubled in length to a twelve hour stomach-churning drive on pockmarked packed earth “roads.” Not once but TWICE, everyone had to disembark to lighten the load so that the bus could ford a small river, which we then crossed on foot. As dusk fell and we were nowhere near our destination, we called armed escorts to drive alongside us to protect us from bandits. Our new friends proudly waved their AK47s out of their car windows, so we felt pretty safe after that.

Luckily no one was accidentally shot, and we finally arrived in Maralal. After a few hours of sleep (at a frightening “hotel”), we headed to the camel derby’s fairground to get registered for the big race. It should not have surprised me (though it did!) that they quickly ran out of camels. Just when I thought we’d traveled all that way and would be shut out of the race, those of us at the end of the registration line were escorted “out back” to a separate corral. It did not take long to realize that these were clearly the B Team camels – smaller, less obedient, and with shoddy saddles. We were off to a rough start.

Eventually I secured an ornery camel with an undisguised distaste for humans, and we all trotted over to the starting line. It was kind of like the Daytona 500 in that I had a whole team of people dedicated to me and my vehicle. We were led by a sweet preteen boy who recruited five friends to deftly guide us through the race. It was not like the Daytona 500 in that these kids guided us through the race by ruthlessly beating the camel with plastic water bottles filled with rocks. No wonder the poor thing had such a bad attitude.

The starter sounded, and my camel showed what he thought of this whole charade by nonchalantly taking a few small steps, while all the A team camels took off at a sprint. I quickly fell to dead last out of about forty racers.

I winced as the kids whaled on the camel’s flanks, though the camel just meandered down the race course with a kind of defiant insouciance. Finally he decided it was probably best to just get this over with and started running, and things actually went downhill from there. I bounced painfully and uncontrollably on the saddle, chafing my thighs and finally falling to the left side of the camel before begging my team to let me down.  I estimate I lasted three kilometers before bailing out and jogging alongside my camel, looking even more ridiculous than I did on top of it. At least I was able to pass four of five other racers, including, notably, my husband.

Panting and cursing, my attitude was starting to match that of my camel when I heard the roar of an engine and looked up to see a friend I had recently passed sitting on the back of some dude’s dilapidated motorcycle, waving and laughing at us poor suckers as he headed back to the fairgrounds to relax with a beer. The ridiculousness of the whole situation was suddenly undeniable, and the tension left my body as my jaw dropped open and I doubled over in laughter.

At long last, I re-mounted my camel to triumphantly cross the finish line, lined on either side with hundreds of locals all dressed in their Sunday best. Nobody even clapped.

The residents of Maralal were not impressed with my showing, but I had to pat myself on the back for sheer perseverance. That weekend had it all. There was high comedy and humiliating defeat. It was fascinating and distressing. We were surrounded by beauty, and poverty. Made all the more memorable by sharing it with some of my best friends.

When we seek experiences far outside our comfort zone, we take the bad with the good.  But the upside is that we can profoundly expand our understanding of the world in just one crazy weekend.\

Post by Allison DiVincenzo (CLAS ’03)

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