[Before you get started here, you might want to read Part 1]
The farther Moses and I went into the bush, the more vulnerable I became. No one in the world knew where I was, or whom I was with. I didn’t know. This was quickly developing into one of those “what were they thinking” moments you see on the news as the reporter tries to piece together the last known whereabouts of a missing tourist.
Hedging my bet, I told Moses I’d pay him half of my “excursion fee” when we got back to Arusha. I figured it needed to be in someone’s best interest to keep me alive and well.
Finally, we reached a cluster of about 15 bomas (huts made of mismatched sticks fused together with cow manure) with hundreds of goats, donkeys, and cows lazing about. Even though I had no clue what was going on, I sensed anticipation. Many people were piecing together elaborate costumes with assistance from others to make sure everything was just so.
The scene wasn’t too different from weddings back home where everyone rushes around making sure cuff links are accounted for and flowers are in place. That was where the similarities ended, though.
Moses led me into a large, smoke-filled boma where we joined about two dozen other men who were engaged in energetic discussions I couldn’t understand. An elderly man calmed the chatter as he took his place on a small bench at the front with the groom. After what seemed like a very eloquent speech, he turned to the groom and all hell broke loose.
Men took turns calling out, with the rest cheering and laughing in response. I watched the hubbub in silent astonishment, but my observer status evaporated when Moses let out a cry of his own. After a brief silence, the crowd pushed me forward and seated me between the pair at the front.
I peered across the fire’s orange glow at twenty pairs of eyes, and noticed Moses wasn’t wearing his customary smile. The elderly man reached behind his seat and pulled out a five-gallon bucket filled with a yellowish liquid with bits of root, dirt, and leaves floating on the surface. Someone in the back passed a cup to him. He filled it and motioned for me to drink it.
I’ve smelled some strong moonshine in my days, but nothing came close to this. With everyone’s attention on the young white guy in the plaid button-down shirt, cargo shorts, and Chacos, there was no getting out of it. So I chugged the whole thing.
I think something died in that bucket. I lowered the cup to an eruption of applause, and Moses coming to my side to tell me that he’d donated two cases of Coca-Cola to the wedding party on my behalf (which, apparently, is a very big deal). It turned out this whole process was a sort of gift-giving ceremony. The men had been yelling out their gifts to the groom — a cow, two goats, a donkey — which is why each outcry elicited clapping fit for a king.
I started to relax, but that soon faded when I saw my cup being refilled. I remained at the front of the room for what seemed like a minor eternity drinking the yellowish liquid before it came time to exit the smoky hut.
The night air hit me like a slap. I realized I was very drunk; too drunk to panic. The women had begun their ceremonial procession while we were in the hut, and the men joined in on the singing and dancing, falling effortlessly into place with each other and the rhythm. Maasai men display their impressive leaping ability while dancing. I stood off to the side — until someone decided it would be funny to push me into the fray.
It may have been my unfamiliarity with the music, the potency of their home brew, or more likely a combination of the two that caused my epic failure. My first attempt at leaping turned out to be more of an awkward stumble that disrupted the seemingly choreographed procession, but everyone seemed to enjoy laughing at the white guy fumbling over himself and urged me to give it another go. After a few less ambitious leaps, my bruised ego and I managed to make an exit.
A Maasai dressed in western clothes approached me and asked if I could teach math at the local school. We struck a deal; I would teach in exchange for lodging, which meant I would be calling Longido home, at least for the next few months.
He spoke very good English, and with liquid courage fueling my curiosity, I just had to ask: “Why is everyone calling each other morons?”
He looked confused, then broke into deep, guttural laughter. “The age group roughly in their twenties are the warrior class,” he explained with an amused grin. “Maasai warriors are called morans, not morons.”
Now, I felt like a moron. We got yet another laugh at my expense, and soon after, Moses came to collect me.
As we made our way back to town at dawn, we stopped to rest. There are few moments we can look back on and identify as pivotal, and this was one of them – a 52-hour revelation full of luck and blunders that changed my life. That memory – sitting on that termite mound watching the East African sun climb out of the horizon – fills my thoughts and dreams to this day.
It was at that moment that I became a traveler.
Ben Long is a writer and photographer who received a Watson Fellowship to travel the world for a year to study cattle cultures. He currently lives and works on his family cattle farm in the Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr.