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I eased myself from the canoe and into the river, relishing the cooling caress of the jade water on my hot dusty feet, and slowly waded, Merrells in hand, the few metres to the shore where a bearded man wearing a faded check sarong stood beside a bucket of water.
He motioned for me to rest a hand on his shoulder and I stood on one leg, balanced on some cut logs like a pink flamingo (a result of the far too casual application of sun cream) whilst he washed the soft sand from my feet.
“He’s the chief of the village,” someone whispered.
I felt uncomfortable at the idea of this important man stooping to wash the feet of a nobody. In truth I felt uncomfortable at the idea of anyone stooping to wash my feet but I figured that it would be insulting to refuse him. So I let the chief carry on bathing my toes.
For some reason he seemed to take a liking to me and stuck by my side as he showed a group of us around his simple Pokomo village tucked away behind the mangroves on the Tana Delta in Kenya. He told us who everyone was, puffing up his chest proudly as he pointed out a son or daughter (of which there were lots) and demonstrated how to turn a handful of reeds into beautiful baskets and floor mats.
At one point we stopped at an umbrella shaped tree where the chief grabbed a few leaves and told me to chew them. Their fresh, tangy flavours were like an explosion of morning sunshine in my mouth and brought back a memory from my youth.
“They taste like Starbursts,” I beamed.
The chief probably didn’t know what Starbursts were, but he was clearly delighted by my wide-eyed reaction. He laughed, slapped me on the back affectionately (I think) and put his arm around my shoulders as we carried on walking through the village. Then came the question that changed everything.
“How many children do you have?” He asked.
“Oh, I don’t have any children.” I answered without hesitation. It was a statement that stopped him dead in his tracks.
“You have no children at all?” He was visibly astonished. I could see any respect he had for me was heading for the exits rapidly. “You have a problem?”
“No, not at all,” I replied, before immediately trying to defend myself by adding. “We enjoy travelling too much…children would restrict that.”
But it was no use. I was a childless man – end of story. In his world that made me about as manly as the toothless granny cackling away (probably at me) in the shaded doorway of one of the village’s mud huts.
The arm around my shoulders was withdrawn quickly and the chief wandered off to find one of the group who actually did measure up to what a man should be. I have to admit to feeling rejected and quite hurt.
If only I’d heard of Thomson’s ‘Couples Only Holidays’ (aka ‘leave your kids at home’ holidays) I could have told the chief a white lie and pretended I was on one of them. And, in the unlikely scenario that he was concerned that leaving the children at home might traumatise them, I would have explained it was character building for my twenty kids and would help prevent them from growing up being over clingy and unable to ever leave the family home. I reckon he would have related to that…and we’d probably still be bezzer mates.
We were on a Kuoni tailor made safari holiday when I let the chief down with my lack of seed sowing. Oddly the price of a customised, tailor made safari turned out to be slightly cheaper than the packages on offer which was a very pleasant surprise. If you’re interested in having similar experiences, see the Kuoni link on this page.