Friday, March 4, 2011

When Marbles Fell out of my Head: Hyena Feeding in Harar

I was glancing around surreptitiously in the dark. The street lights only worked for about a block, and so I was carefully allowing my eyes to adjust to the dimness. Pavement melded into dirt roads, but the shops remained the same. Blue, red, green, white, and yellow paint, often done half way up the side and then white the rest of the way, they were all made of mud, I thought. And light flooded from inside.

Some were just a small window of what seemed an even smaller shop, so itsy bitsy that it seemed impossible that anybody would even fit inside. Some were stores, clothes shops with sewing machines outside and in, and big wooden flat counters in front. One had a pool table with wheels where the table legs should be, so that it looked like a racecar. Women sat on the sides of the road with tarps and sheets displaying fruit, vegetables, and nuts.

Nobody else seemed to be furtively glancing around for them. I walked through a sort of archway and into more blackness, although this seemed deeper, more intense. The numbers of people thinned, and I saw lights ahead of a parked car. But it drove past, and then the darkness came again.

There was another of the little shops made of mud, miniscule, in front of a house with a dim light, and across the way I saw a dumpster and a house with a fire outside. I heard a baby cry. And they were there.
A group of men, a soldier, and them, lying about, so close. Lying about as if they were not wild, as if they were merely pets taking a quick nap. I glanced back at the dumpster and saw a head peek out comically.

Don’t be afraid, I was told, they are like dogs. The things were not much bigger than dogs, although one seemed massive. And at first I found them sort of ugly, especially when they bared their teeth, which I noticed was more an expression than an aggressive gesture. They were spotted, had rounded ears that stood up, and they didn’t look like dogs.

When they wandered close, I carefully stepped back. I didn’t want them anywhere near me, really. They were scary, like lions or something, and they were not to be around. But there wasn’t enough light. I wanted to see and go, to get away from them, but there wasn’t enough light and we needed to wait for it.

The man in the red shirt placed an old plastic straw sack for flour on the ground and encouraged me to sit. They were creeping closer to him, and somehow it seemed so much safer to stand. But sit I did. And they came closer to us, and I couldn’t handle it. He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me against him as I crouched into a ball, then put my hand against my face to shield it as I felt one of them come against my side (I found out from a picture later that he was dangling meat over my shoulder). I screamed. I asked him to get them away from me. I cried a little.

I stood up and felt like I was gasping for air. There was one singular rod of neon light in the corner, and we moved closer to it, into their territory. The man laid the sack back down, and he put a stick in his mouth, draped it with meat, and I watched powerful jaws clench and teeth remove it. He held a straw basket where he fished out more meat, hand fed them, and then laid down and let them bury their heads in the basket. He laughed loudly, maniacally, and put the basket between his knees. I was reminded of ‘laughing hyenas,’ of the Lion King and the hyena servants to the evil lion master. He petted them. He showed no fear.

By the time I plucked up the courage to kneel again on that bag, there were two giant busloads of Ethiopian students from Addis Ababa to watch, and their bus lights lit the scene so much better. I felt like a spectacle.

But I breathed. I was getting a really cool experience. And it was fun for them, to watch the white girl squirm, though I noticed they shrieked and moved away too whenever the hyenas came near them. So I kneeled. And although I closed my eyes a bit (one stepped on my foot), I managed to stay mostly still as he waved meat over my shoulder and it ate.

And then we watched again as the man in the red shirt threw caution to the wind. Ethiopian students began to go kneel next to him, taking a stick into their mouth and letting him drape meat over it. Some of the bites seemed to get sort of close, but everyone came out unscathed. It became an attraction, like a crazed version of people bolting for a turn on a mechanical bull at a drunken college party. As soon as someone had fed it, stood up, and moved, another was in place to try.

I finally plucked up the courage. When, when on Earth was I going to be back somewhere where I could feed a hyena, mouth to mouth? Shouldn’t I take advantage of this opportunity, fear be damned? I decided this was not the time to actually think things through, like consequences. Or to consider the fact that with one little snap, I could be a much larger treat.

I hoped the stick he gave me would be long, but no number of inches (I was guessing mine was about four to six inches) erased the fact that I was nose to nose, eye to eye, and mouth to mouth with a wild hyena. I squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t help it! The photograph of me feeding it is hilarious. I look like I'm in pain, but I stood and laughed. I shook slightly as we walked away, no longer glancing around for strays.

If I were to make a list of the craziest things I've done in my life, this would be on it. I don’t know what propelled me to think it was a good idea. I’ve started a list entitled “marbles that fell out of my head” to document such occasions that seem so incredibly ludicrous now that my marbles have returned to me. I hope the list continues beyond the confines of this trip, and into a life full of moments where I forget the realities of this world, and take a leap of faith into the clutches of big, furry chances.

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