Could you live like this? Lots of people do.
It was February 2015, somewhere in Tanzania. I was traveling by camel with four men: three Maasai warriors and a Meru man named Raymond who was our cook. I was the only guest. We had three camels. I rode Dominique, whom I had ridden once before on a three-day ride from Arusha to Moshe, just before I climbed Kilimanjaro.
February below the equator, especially this close to the equator, is really hot. North Central Tanzania isn’t exactly your tree paradise, either. Much of the bush is thorny acacia, and much of that has been cleared for firewood for the expanding bomas (Maasai homes) that dot the countryside. Which is of course one reason you don’t see giraffe. The other herd animals? What’s left is mowed down by the vast goat, cattle and sheep herds which mark any Maasai man as successful, as does his expansive herd of wives, producing ever more children who, in their own right, need more wood and more animals and more herds. But I digress.
We were within two days’ ride of Lake Natrone. It had already been hot, but the farther we ventured west the hotter it got. Temperatures at the lake that time of year are often well over 100 degrees (to give you an idea, as I write this, it’s only 89 degrees at the lake, but that’s because it’s winter and it’s five pm. A veritable freeze).
It was after dinner. I was in my badly busted-up tent.
After the white-hot ball of sun had finally gone down, the heat from the baked soil continued to rise. I was lying on my mat doing my best imitation of breathing. I had multiple bottles of water and one empty one. That was my pee bottle. Making sure I picked the right one, periodically I sprinkled my naked body with the water to let it evaporate.
In Africa, in the bush, you learn to pee in your tent at night. You also learn to use a container you can screw tightly shut. You only knock that sucker over once, especially when water to wash is nearly non-existent.
The ambient air temperature hovered near 100 degrees. We’d stopped early the day before at the very last copse of trees before the long ride into Lake Natrone. My body was already showing some of the effects of both the extreme heat and the exhaustion that can accompany it. It’s about 130 km, a very long way in that kind of heat.
My lips were so burned and cracked that they bled. I slathered SPF and balm on them, but the balm I had was for far more balmy climates. Not this. Eating and talking were agonies. Each time I moved my lips I cracked them again and they bled and broke open some more.
Five ribs were cracked from having rafted the Nile at Jinja. Those Class V waters had thrown me in repeatedly, and the heavy raft had landed on me hard each time. Then I’d gone horse riding nearby. On two occasions, nearly invisible vines and an acacia tree had pulled me off my horse. I’d landed on hard-baked clay the consistency of concrete. I had concussed my coconut as well as cracked more ribs.
The ribs were taped, and the ends of the Rocktape had pulled open the skin in three places on my right side. Three large, open sores which, given the dry climate, were easier to care for than had I been in the tropics.
Didn’t make the pain any better. We had no bandages or medicine. Raymond had a tiny bar of pink hotel soap, and we did have water. That was largely because I had eschewed showers on the trip, choosing instead to fully experience African life as best I could without the luxury of a daily shower.
Good thing. We needed the water to drink. The hell with showers. The only parts of me that got cleaned were my face and the sores on my ribs.
The tree cover, where we had sat most of the day, was very limited. Three or four at most, and those were sparse. Still, it was better than the direct sun.
Before we’d gone to bed that night, a young Maasai herder had come in to sit with us. He drank our water and commented with some haughtiness about how my guide could speak English.
What good could that do when the only thing on earth that mattered was cattle? he asked. He was openly curious about me, in that pleasant, direct way of people who are utterly sure of where they fit in the world.
I wouldn’t make a good wife, he figured. My skin wouldn’t last in the sun, I was already baked to a crisp, and clearly past child-bearing age. Accurate on all counts.
Assured of his superiority in the space we were temporarily inhabiting, and he was right, he thanked Raymond for the water and moved his herd out of sight and earshot. I was in bed moments afterwards, my energy spent.
I lay in the sweltering heat, my tent zipped shut for privacy. The men’s quarters were under the main tree where Raymond, as was his habit, would rise before four am and start making Raymond’s Famous Pancakes. Small fried bits of tasty dough filled with strawberry jam.
You have no clue how wonderful those are.
That bit of joy was eight hours away. We had a very long march into Lake Natrone the next day. I had to rest.
This kind of still heat, especially trapped in a cheap zipped tent, is unreal. I could hear the insects outside. The occasional breaking twig. The great soft pads of the camels as they shifted position.
After two hours, I thought fuck it. I unzipped both ends of the tent.
A meager but very significant airflow changed the atmosphere to almost tolerable. I finally found a position on my pad that didn’t hurt my ribs, slathered more goop on my mouth, dripped more water droplets onto my baking body and finally, blessedly, dozed off.
When I woke up to moonshine on my naked legs a few hours later, that wasn’t the only thing decorating my pegs. I chanced turning on my flashlight. During the night, the local ground-dwelling denizens had taken advantage of the access and had come to have a look-see. Spiders, ants, every kind of creepy-crawly. Then, more insects that eat those creepy crawlies, and so on. Nothing bit.
I rolled over and went back to sleep. You learn to prioritize. Had there been a mamba, well, I wouldn’t be writing this. Besides, they like forests. Me, too.
The last day was brutal beyond comprehension. The steady march of the Maasai over the plains has largely ensured that the visual distractions of large herds of African wildlife had been grazed out or killed off for food. All I could do was sit on Dominique, amuse myself by dripping water on Babu’s head, and we would occasionally get into a quick water fight. Babu led my camel, and as my guide he was the closest in line for whatever pranks I might pull. He found ways to get even in that wonderfully good-humored way that people do, and we set each other off in great gales of laughter.
That was another reason not to use the water for showers. The brief nighttime water fights which involved many of us hurtling around Raymond’s cook fire while trying to land a well-aimed spurt of water out of our bottles kept us giggling, and distracted from the awful heat.
It wasn’t until much later that I really thought about that water. However, that’s the value of travel, because the experiences, at least for some of us, allow us to see. And in seeing, at some point we really see and then we might begin to understand. Because this:
This is one of the side effects of leveling forests and lands which otherwise support water retention. It’s not just that it gets hotter. It gets hotter and there is no water, and what little there is tends to be pretty bad.
As a White woman paying a pretty penny for this experience, I got plenty of water. You cannot begin to imagine how many people might not see that much water in years. Which is why, each time we crossed paths with herdsmen, we shared. A lot. Water that clean, water not contaminated with animal piss and dung, is like fine wine. You share.
Because the herders drink from the same sources where their animals drink. Those animals wade in, shit and piss into those waters. I watched as the herders drank water a few feet from where their animals were relieving themselves. Your opinion about this is meaningless unless you understand: that is all they have. You can I can turn on a faucet. All they have is rain, if that. A child will squat in the middle of the road to drink out of a filthy puddle.
Because that is all that they have. It’s going to get a lot worse.
By the time we arrived at Lake Natrone, the temperature was well over 100 degrees. I hugged all the men in turn, and gave Dominique a kiss. Then, when I saw where I’d be staying, I upgraded to a private room with a shower. Rather than try to sleep in the bed with the mosquito covering, I found a towel, padded to the concrete shower, and bathed. Then I lay down on the damp, cool concrete, the towel under my head, and slept the sleep of the blissfully damned. Because I could.
I was there almost two days. I hid from the heat and slept in the shower. The guys were also resting and watering the camels. The next day a team picked me up to take me back to Arusha by truck; we passed my guys along the way. We stopped, and I leapt out to say good bye.
Babu and I, both of us 62 and wildly different, held each other by the arms and grinned into each other’s faces. I looked deeply into his eyes, a man who is watching his way of life change far too fast. One of his hands was behind his back.
Suddenly he whipped around his huge water bottle and dumped the entire contents over my head.
It felt awfully damned good.
Our group exploded into laughter, we waved goodbye, hugged again. Babu and Raymond headed back across the plains towards Moshe. They still had most of the water that was meant for me. Water I had paid for. That is precisely how it should be. It went to their families. Animals. Babies.
I sat in the air-conditioned jeep, sipping cold water, all the way back.
Because I could.
The camel concession didn’t survive. Neither did Dominique, who wandered into the wrong boma where a young boy ended his kind, patient life with a spear to the chest. Babu is now a security guard in Arusha. Raymond still cooks his amazing pancakes but for other people. Life goes on. There are no more camel rides across the Maasai lands. It was a week of watching the real Africa move by me at camel speed while it’s changing far faster than that.
I could moralize but this isn’t that article. This was just one aging White woman’s story about dealing with the kind of heat that billions of folks who don’t have faucets, who don’t have green lawns, who don’t have easy access to ice or anything else, live with. I survived it. Barely.
Because I had the option to walk away.
That’s something to consider in a heating world.