CONFESSIONS // After Safari

By Avery Houser

In fall 2011, when I was a mere 20 years old, I traveled to Tanzania on safari with my 78-year-old grandmother. My grandfather had died two months prior. Sad though it was, Grandma was finally free to travel the world. It just so happened that I was taking time off from school and was the only other family member who had time to join her.

I was the youngest person on this trip by 40 years, which was tailored to the elder set. Though we were “roughing it” in the Serengeti, the tour company provided every amenity it possibly could: Our tents were fully equipped with flush toilets and showers, and we had hot meals every night. Along with these modern comforts also came an unlimited supply of boxed wine and Tanzanian beer.

We had four beer options: Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Tusker, and Safari. Each tasted indistinguishable from a standard American lager (or imported lager for that matter) save for Safari which boasted an alcohol content of 5.5 percent ABV to the others’ 4 percent. Safari was slightly fuller bodied, and it became routine for me to nurse a bomber (the only available size) at lunchtime.

I had a revelation on the afternoon we traveled to a Masai village. Masai are a North African ethnic group, and that’s pretty much all I am qualified to say on the subject. In many ways it felt like Disneyland: The huts seemed more like pieces in a house museum than a person’s dwelling, the villagers’ modern, Western-style clothing peeked out from under their colorful robes, and the “local” crafts they sold were clearly produced in a factory. Yet there remains an element of truth in the situation; they are Masai people, and this is how they live now.

We saw a strong strain of “authenticity” during a casual question and answer conversation with an elderly Masai woman. A hot topic of the trip had been East African views on homosexuality. A member of the group asked the woman what the policy was in this specific village. Our guide had difficulty translating, taking a number of linguistic routes before the woman burst out in a sharp cackle. She finally contained herself enough to explain (via translator): “You would be killed. But that’s crazy. No one would do that. Does anyone do that in your country?”

Bette, the youngest in our group (age 60) was eager to explain, in an endearing attempt at liberal-mindedness, “Homosexuality is genetic and some people are just born that way.”

I felt compelled to chime in, “I don’t know if that research is conclusive. Where I’m from we don’t draw such sharp distinctions. It’s okay to like who you like and love who you love. And sometimes that’s a man and sometimes that’s a woman. It’s not as black and white as there being a gene; you just like who you like.”

I don’t know if my message ever translated, but it certainly fell on the ears of Sharon, another woman in our group. She approached me before we returned to camp: “I really heard what you were saying back there. When we get back, stop by my tent. I want to talk to you about something.”

Back at camp, I cracked my customary Safari lager and checked in with Grandma who was contentedly reading Jonathan Franzen on her Kindle. Upon arriving at Sharon’s tent, she sent me to procure whatever sodas I could from the drinks tent. As soon as I returned, she began pulling unmarked hotel shampoo bottles out of her suitcase. Many of them.

“Vodka or whiskey?” she asked.

“I’ll take vodka,” I replied.

“I always keep a stash for times like this. You can bring booze carry-on if you keep it in three-ounce bottles, that’s the maximum for fluids. I was a stewardess my whole life. You learn this kind of stuff.”

She shared with me the story of how, after being married, raising two children, and eventually getting divorced, she began having a lesbian affair, first with her hair dresser and subsequently with her dog walker. Her newfound interest in women in no way diminished her interest in men though. Well into her 50s she discovered that she was bisexual. This in turn served as inspiration for her eldest daughter to come out as being a lesbian.

I was glad I had spoken up in the Masai hut, even if Sharon was the only one who understood what I was saying. The next day and for the rest of the trip, I gave up Safari lager in exchange for shampoo bottle booze with Sharon.

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