I was enjoying riding along the stunning greenery of trees until the South African sitting next to me said, “It’s such a shame this area is terrorized by armed bandits, isn’t it?”
As if on cue, a Red Cross van, siren blaring, roared by. I noticed that this patch of African coastline next door to Somalia, had “leave your guns at home” signs. Our dilapidated vehicle passed an entire town of makeshift homes made out of something that looked like the material that marathoners wrap up in when they’re done running.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, the soundtrack in my head went from classical jazz to a hip-hop tune about dying.
“Look at the guy standing next to the driver, scanning the area. His AK-47 is ready to beat the bandits at their own game.”
Usually I was an intrepid, experienced traveler. Had the spectacular scenery distracted me that much? Worse. I had just arrived from Europe where a friend had repaid a loan ... in cash. No fake wallet to hand over. No hidden money belt. Just a stack of euros a mobster might admire.
Our bus slowed outside a small village. Sputtering noises were gurgling from the engine, which then quit completely.
The other Kenyan passengers got out to look. Sure enough, we had a flat tire. We weren’t going anywhere any time soon.
The photographer next to me was already snapping pictures of locals. As he moved off the bus, I realized these kids had never seen white faces. They stared, gawked and giggled at mine. Sure, I was a backpacker in need of a shower, but I wasn’t that bad. Was I?
I wandered into a place with a table and ordered a chai tea. Heaven! One of the best I’d ever tasted, it made me forget that we were so close to Somalia with a horrible reputation of kidnapping and violence. A few more bandit-free hours and we’d arrive in Lamu. The tire was no closer to being fixed. With time to kill, I meandered.
Where was that uneasy undercurrent coming from? Why had everyone crossed the street? My survival instinct kicked in. Too late. Looking up, I saw Him, perched on top of the back of a chair like a Medieval King holding court. His phalanx of three men on either side, all packing. This is not where I should be.
“Who’s Pedro?” he sneered in a challenging tone that begs a fight in a ghetto. Me against seven armed killers. My odds didn’t look good.
Pedro? What was he talking about? The only Pedro I knew was Pedro “Who’s your daddy?” Martinez, the Red Sox pitcher.
Oh, right. I was wearing the “Vote for Pedro” shirt popularized in the indie film, Napoleon Dynamite. Mr. Gangsta thought I was making a political statement.
“It’s from a movie.” I muttered.
“Where are you from?” he demanded.
“Los Angeles.” Why did I just tell this guy I’m American? Bad move. I know better. I usually say New Zealand. No one picks on the Kiwis, except the Aussies. “And you?”
“Somalia. Do you even know where that is?” Six men started to go for concealed guns.
Think fast. My next answer determines if I live. Please don’t let my voice crack.
“Sure. Just north of here. It’s supposed to be stunningly beautiful. Is it?”
He nodded, tension eased. His army relaxed their grips; their guns remained hidden. He invited me for tea.
“I’d love to, but my husband will be worried.” I lied. “Lovely meeting you.” I didn’t turn back around. Nor did I inhale again until I got back to the bus. The children pointing at me didn’t register. I promised to be more grateful.
A week later, I choked on my morning coffee. The newspaper article about “Most Wanted Terrorists” prominently displayed Mr. Somalia, a notorious arms dealer.
Instead of taking the bus back through that area, I splurged and bought myself an airline ticket. Even this blonde backpacker knew when NOT to push her luck.