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Yes, I think they can smell fear, and no I am not talking about hyenas, or jackals; I am talking about camels. Those damn camels! I love them even though they are being big jerks. I am becoming scared of them. A few weeks ago, a camel was strangely offended by me. He had run towards me, kicking up his heels and tossing his head like a silly, upset horse. I had just stood there, not sure what he was trying to do. It wasn’t until later that I realized that he could have easily kicked me in the head and, I dunno, killed me or something. From then on, I was wary of camels. I wasn’t afraid, but I just made sure not to get too close. Then I noticed that they were noticing me. Is it my skin color? I would walk past a herd of them and every single one would turn his head to watch me walk by. Mother camels would stand between me and their young and Dad camels would guard the whole pack- walking in front to edge me off the path. Then, a couple weeks ago, I noticed that they now didn’t even want to walk past me. They would see me coming at a distance and stop. Their herders would yell and smack them with sticks and they would take a few steps and stop again. I learned to use that as a sign that they were threatened, and as soon as I got close to them, they would swing their heads and stomp their feet. This week, one was forced to walk down into a ditch near the road on his way past me and he carried the momentum up onto the road and ran in my direction making a huffing noise that sounded like a vaccum cleaner that sucked up a childs toy. I stumbled off the path in the other direction trying to get out of the way while the old man behind the camel ran to whack the camel on the nose with a stick. I am sure the camel would have kicked me, but he had his two front legs loosly tied together to keep him from running away. The old man got his camel under control and walked by muttering gruffly to me in Borana. I assume he was saying something like “Goodness me! I am at a loss to what this here camel was doing! I am ever so sorry!”
I left the experience with legs like jelly and a new fear of camels. And don’t you laugh thinking that they are just big cows. Cause they aren’t. They are REALLY big cows. With really big dinner plate sized feet. They are like big moose. Can you imagine standing there, two feet from a running, angry moose and not wanting to pee your pants? If you’ve never seen a moose, then I guess my analogy is lost. But anyway, I was scared. I walked the rest of the way home trying not to be freaked out- there are camels everywhere! What was I going to do? In my village, there are more camels than cars and more camels than houses. Surely it is my destiny to be killed by a camel, and soon. This was very worrying. Then I wondered if the camels were really identifying me, the white lady with the ripped red backpack, or if they were noticing that I was afraid and were just attacking because they thought it was hilarious to freak out the mzungu. The next morning, I was walking along when I saw a camel up ahead. It was, of course, a giant boy camel. And of course, I had to walk by him at the narrowest part of the path, squeezed in by a large acacia bush on one side. AND of course, his herder chose that moment to be distracted by another passerby. She was in the middle of the world’s longest greeting. “ngini badada? Badad. Bartukai? Ay-bartu. Fi-ya? Fiya-fiya. Salam alikum? Alikum salam. Akum? Dasa…” and I, meanwhile, was trying to calm my breathing and not look the camel in his giant staring eye. I thought “this is it, I must pretend to not be afraid. Either I’ll be trampled into the acacia bush anyway or the camel will see me as an equal and leave me alone.” I focused on the woman behind the camel, she was finished with her conversation but was not close enough to save me with her big stick. So I just pasted on a giant smile, looked past the camel and loudly and confidently greeted the woman. “Ngini badada?! Badad. Bartukai!!? AY-bartu. FI-ya?!! Fiya-fiya.” And then I was past the camel. It worked! My legs were shaking, but the camel had not taken one step in my direction. So yes, camels can smell fear.
Since we are talking about dangerous animals, I will tell you about what happened last weekend. I was at the Brothers’ house, as usual, eating their food, drinking their chilled white wine, and watching Discovery Channel. I lost track of time and by the time I was ready to go, it was almost midnight. I don’t normally stay out so late, cause of the hyenas. The Brothers offered me one of their many spare rooms, but I wanted to be in my own bed, and only asked to borrow a flashlight. One of the Brothers said that I was courageous for attempting to walk home so late, but I didn’t ask why because I knew I would get freaked out. I think a more appropriate word for what I was doing would be ‘stupid’. But I was sleepy, and I had had more than a small amount of wine, and I knew I would be okay. You know that feeling you get when you are doing something profoundly dumb and you say to yourself “when I die doing this, my family is going to say ‘what the hell were you thinking?’”. I felt that as soon as I stepped outside the Brothers gated compound. I saw the fence that had just been put up that day and remembered that it was blocking my usual shortcut through the dust to my gated compound. I realized that I would have to walk the long way around. From a five minute walk, I now had a fifteen minute walk, and I was closed in by a fence on both sides. I shined my flashlight around as I walked, checking for, and noticing, a few pairs of glowing green eyes. When the light hit them, the animal would freeze, staring at me. The first thought in my head was “Shit” but there wasn’t really anything I could do. I didn’t even know what animal they were. Were they just dogs who are afraid of people? Were they jackals? Which would be scary but I could probably defend myself. Or, oh God, were they hyenas? The warning Mr. Ngure gave me last week kept running through my head. “They have strong jaws that can crack your spine.” I looked around for a rock or something I could use as a weapon but there was nothing that I could easily lift. And I noticed that my flip flops in the soft sand would make it very difficult to run. So I just walked straight and fast, bouncing the light between the glowing green eyes. I rounded the corner onto the main road and then had to shine the light behind me to make sure the green eyes were not following me. They didn’t follow and as I walked onto the path leading to my gate, I was able to breathe again. The path I use to get to my house is very narrow, only about a foot wide, one side has a fence and the other drops off a couple feet into a rocky ditch. The ditch is also narrow and immediately climbs upwards into a steep hill with lots of boulders and low acacia bushes. I walked briskly along the path towards the gap in the fence which serves as my gate, still bouncing the light onto the rocks to make sure there were no glowing eyes. I was about twenty feet from the gate when I saw him. The large black jackal standing on a boulder on the hill in front of me. He was watching me, not moving. He was close enough that if he wanted to, he could jump onto the path in front of me and cut me off from the gate. Double shit. Again, I had no choice. I walked, slowly, past the jackal, his large ears following my movement. I finally slipped into the gate and nearly ran to my house, my flashlight holding him until his body faded into the night leaving only the green eyes watching me in the dark.
Someone said to me a few weeks ago, “Wow, Ryan. When you have a bad day, you have a really bad day.” Yesterday, I had a really bad day. And I'd like to know why so many of my stories end with the phrase "and then I ate a bug". I had gotten home a little late, it was already almost dark. The electricity had been out for over a week and I desperately needed to wash my hair (I'm pretty sure a small animal has its burrow in there) and I had gotten into the habit of cooking dinner before it got really dark. I lit a candle that I had put in an old honey jar. I didn’t like the bare candles- they made me spill wax on myself. I put down my makeshift lantern on the floor of the kitchen then went back to the living room to turn on my ipod so I could sing obnoxiously while cooking. Back to the kitchen and I went to pick up the lantern again. My skin instantly boiled, searing, melting my middle finger onto the glass jar. I jumped back and screamed “F*CK!!” Then I ran to my line of jerrycans full of water and stuck my hand in the small jug of water sitting on the floor. I am sure I could hear the sizzle when my hand hit the water. The burn started to cool down and, when I could breath without wimpering, I picked up the jug, my hand still submerged, to go back to the kitchen. I was going to blow out the candle but I found that the jar had shattered from the intense heat. The glass shrapnel was sprinkled on my kitchen floor amidst puddles of still burning wax. The wax itself was on fire. What the hell do they make candles out of in Kenya? I blew out the wax and then gingerly picked up every tiny shard of glass, I was pretty sure I would step on some later. The water in my bucket was getting warm from my hand and my burned finger started to hurt. I pulled it out of the water to look at it, but 3 seconds in the warm air and the pain was intolerable. With a whimper, I put my hand back in the jug, but now that it was warm, my finger was still searing. I dumped the warm water out and then refilled the jug from the jerry cans. The big jerry cans hold 20 liters of water and they were full. I usually need two hands and a foot to hold and tilt the can without spilling water all over. I only had one hand, and it was dark, so I of course spilt water all over the floor. Once my hand was back in the cool water, I tracked down my flashlight. It was dying and the beam was very weak but I was mad at candles for the moment and so I dealt with it. I looked at my hand and saw that only my middle finger was badly burned. The skin looked like a hot dog when you cook it in the microwave for too long without poking holes in it. It was bubbly and a gross looking mosaic of red and white. After an hour of sitting on my couch in the darkening room I realized that my finger was not going to get any less painful any time soon and I still needed to cook dinner. Since I live in Kenya, there is absolutely nothing that I can make that would be fast or easy. It is Wednesday, so I have no bread, no eggs, no pasta, and all my veggies are too old, smushy, and wrinkly to be eaten raw. They simplest thing I could make was leftover rice with a white sauce and some vegetables. Normally, I would take a clean pot and melt some Blue Band. I would sauté onions, green peppers, carrots, and tomatoes. I would add more Blue Band so there was enough liquid to make a roux. I would add some flour and stir until thick. Then I would slowly add milk, stirring until a sauce forms. Add some spices, pour over rice and voila! Dinner! But on this day, with the extreme pain of a burned finger, things didn’t go as planned. I gathered all my ingredients close to the stove, I use a small gas cylinder with a metal burner on top. The whole contraption comes up to my knees and with no counter space, I use the floor for cooking. I took my flashlight, put it on the floor, kneeled next to my ingredients and lit the stove. I was very impressed with myself for lighting a match with one hand, and it was my left hand. But I couldn’t take the leftover rice out of the pot so I had to cook with the old rice in the pan. I figured, no problem. I took some Blue band and started to melt it while I chopped vegetables. I started with tomatoes cause I figured that would be the easiest. I had to keep my right hand submerged in the water jug and so I used my left hand to chop. I didn’t have a free hand to hold the tomato so I basically pressed the knife into the tomato and cut it into rough wedges. I couldn’t get them small, or even, or even cut completely. The tomato juices kept making my knife slide and the tomato kept rolling. I ended up with about six ugly chunks of tomato and by then I was frustrated and so I threw them in the melted Blue Band. I decided that I would end up slicing my hand off if I tried to cut anything else so I stopped after the one decimated tomato. My hand was starting to burn because the water in the jug was warm so I went to the living room, dumped out the warm water, tried to fill with cool water, slipped and dumped the entire 20 liter can onto the floor. I instinctively grabbed the can with both hands to hoist it back up and then I screamed “F*CK” again when I scraped the fresh burn. I quickly dunked my hand back in the cool water jug whispering “f*ck f*ck f*ck f*ck” until I smelled my dinner burning and ran back to the kitchen. I needed to stir the food but I had only one hand and I needed to hold the flashlight so I could see. This is where it gets fun. I put the jug of water on the ground on the right side of the stove, I bent at the waist to keep my right hand in the water. I put the flashlight in my mouth; it is actually a headlamp with a missing strap so I put the rubber square that normally goes on your forehead in my mouth. I pointed the flashlight into the pan and with my left hand, stirred. With my right hand nearly touching the ground, my torso twisted to reach the pan, and my knees slightly bent, I felt like I was doing a complicated yoga move. The rubber of the flashlight tasted awful and made me drool pretty profusely. The drool caused the flashlight to slip and I dropped the flashlight, twice, into the pan of cooking fat and rice. I would then have to pick it up and put it back in my mouth. Occasionally, my right hand would suddenly start screaming in pain and I would realize that in my distraction I have stood up too far and accidently removed my hand from the water. I added flour to the rice-tomato-blue band mixture and stirred. I was doing something wrong because it didn’t thicken like it was supposed to. But by then, I didn’t give a shit. I poured the milk in slowly, kind of, and stirred some more. I dropped the flashlight into the pot, again, and fished it out, again. The food was pretty much ready but I knew from experience that it would taste bad if I didn’t add spices. I tried to sprinkle in some salt, gently, but you can guess how well that worked out. I did the same thing with the pepper. I didn’t bother trying to add any other spices. I tasted the oversalted dinner and it tasted like old rice with cooking fat, milk, and salt. In other words, it was not good. My trick for fixing a messed up sauce is to add a small can of tuna, the fishiness covers up a lot, and it adds the only source of protein in my diet. Unfortunately, opening a can of tuna requires two hands even with the fancy pull tab. Since I didn’t have an extra hand, I used my big toe. My filthy, dusty big toe. I tried not to touch the actual tuna, which worked pretty well. I dumped the tuna in the pan and stirred. It still tasted pretty bad. But I was tired, cranky, hungry, and in pain. I didn’t care. I took the pan off the heat I sat on my couch in the dark, my flashlight was fading, and took a few big bites. It was hot and filling so I didn’t care about anything else. I changed the water in my jug once more, and then I ate about half the pan of food. In the dim light of the flashlight, I saw what I thought was a bug in my food. I looked closer, and fished it out with my spoon. I looked closely at the bug and it was a small brown creature that lives in my flour when it goes bad. “Shit.” I used flour full of bugs. I took the light and looked closely at the pan of food. I fished out 7 weevils before I gave up. I had eaten HALF of the food and who knows how many insects. Feeling a little nauseous, I stopped eating. With nothing else to do, I went to bed and crawled under my mosquito net to avoid the flying bugs. By 11pm, I was still awake, still in pain, and still having to change the water in my jug every ten minutes. I had dozed once, but ended up dumping the jug of water on myself and my bed. I peeled off my wet clothes, curled into a ball, and used the puddle of cold water on my mattress to soothe my burn for the rest of the night.
Don't worry. I bounced back to my usual good mood the next day when I saw a baby camel with a big black crow on his head. Teehee! The baby couldn't figure out how to get the bird off. Silly thing!