We’ve all ridden in a car, probably since coming home from the hospital as an infant. But there are still places in this world — or there were when I was in the Foreign Service — where riding in a car is unique.
I was living in Tanzania in the early ’70s and had the opportunity to make safaris into the heart of Maasailand, a sparsely populated region in the north-central part of the country that was being developed by the government to capitalize on the hunting and tourism industries. This was fewer than 10 years after Tanzania’s independence, and game-rich wildlife parks were important sources of national revenue, as was big game hunting.
With an American friend who worked for the Tanzanian Wildlife Service, I traveled through the dense scrub north of Tarangire National Park, an area with few streams, no campgrounds, and almost no local farmers. There were nomadic herders tending cattle there, mostly from the Maasai tribe, and we crossed paths with several during our safari.
Once or twice a day we would see a lone man walking through the brush, usually a tall, lanky figure with a walking stick and the long-bladed spear that was common to the Maasai “warrior,” or moran as they were known. We always approached the solitary walker and spoke to him through our guide Bahati Mbaya (“Bad Luck” in Swahili), who spoke English and the Maasai language so he could translate for us.
This was wild country, with plains game, elephants, lions and leopards roaming at will across the country. But the Maasai warriors felt invincible when armed with their spear, and would walk for days from one herder’s camp to another. When we asked them where they were headed they would point in a vague direction and say “there,” but with no specific destination apparently in mind. They were the equivalent of my teenage companions when they would “cruise” main street in their hot rods on long summer evenings.
They would also invariably ask for a ride. When we asked “where to?” they couldn’t name a place: they just wanted to ride in the Land Rover. They had never been inside a vehicle.
On one occasion we picked up a pair of Maasai who seemed to have a definite destination in mind. Bahati Mbaya discouraged us from sharing our vehicle, but we resisted his counsel and invited the two to sit in the back.
As I put the vehicle in gear and started moving forward they laughed and hooted, shouting their amazement at the speed they were moving over the ground when compared with how fast they could move on foot, and the distance they were covering in just a few minutes compared to the hours it would have taken them to walk that same stretch.
“We’re here! No, we’re here!” they kept saying. It was a revelation to us to reflect on the idea their only form of locomotion up until then had been their feet, and the comparison was beyond their own comprehension. It strained their understanding to cover distance in an hour that would have taken them a full day to walk.
I occasionally reflect on the cultural chasms I have experienced, and in this case think to myself our own forefathers, and the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, for example, moved at the same pace as the Maasai herders, except when they moved by horse. We take time and space for granted, but in my lifetime there has been a quantum leap in transportation. Experiencing it first hand opens new understanding of our daily experience and that of historical figures.