On Safari with Masi, Negotiating and Finance Abroad

(Originally published March 7th, 2010)

It was December 19th, the official three-month mark of my trip abroad. I awoke to the sounds of baboons fighting and the bells that hung from the necks of the Masi cattle.  It was 6 a.m.   I stepped out of my tent, took a deep breath and saw my breath. It was actually chilly.  On the horizon, I was privileged with a beautiful sunrise.  In the distance there were faint wisps of clouds which appeared to be on fire and growing brighter by the second.  My first night of safari had been a treat.  I had slept soundly.  It was a great way to start into my fourth month overseas.  As the others of the group slowly wandered in there was a definite feeling of excitement.  We enjoyed a good breakfast of eggs, toast, and sausage.  Almost all you could eat.  We all woofed our breakfasts down and jumped into the van.  We were off!

As we traveled towards the gate of Masi Mara Park, we saw many Masi people that were very distinguishable.  The men all wore a light red blanket for clothing.  Many of the blankets had a plaid pattern. (I wondered if the Masi men realized that each different plaid represented a clan of people in Ireland).  In addition, each Masi man carried a two-foot-long knife sheathed on his hip and a two-foot-long club. Most of the clubs were made of carved wood. Occasionally the club would be made of carved wood with a very large 2 1/2-inch metal bolt screwed in at the top, where the normal club head would be. When you held either club it was easy to see how they both made a highly effective weapon. In addition to their knives and clubs, each man carried either a short 1-inch diameter walking stick or a spear.


Both the men and the women wore brightly colored, beaded bracelets and necklaces. The beads represented their standing in the tribe.  Some of the women wore beads pierced into their earlobes, which were stretched up to five inches in diameter.  The men also had large earlobes. Occasionally a heavy ornament hung from them, but most of the men looped their earlobe over the top of their ear to avoid tearing them.  I was told that it was a great disgrace to the entire tribe if anyone allowed the piercing in their earlobe to be torn.  I silently wondered if they had any idea how hip they would be in any of the body piercing shops or moshpits at home. Then there was footwear.  The footwear of the Masi varied dramatically.  I have seen everything from barefoot through the bush to wing tips, Converse low tops to sandals made of old tires.  (Many people have asked me what I had to trade a Masi to get my sandals. Seldom could they believe that I had bought them in Peru from the local people.)

How these tall, very slender and fit people could simultaneously coexist with modern society; the occasional pair of shorts under their blanket, modern footwear and maybe even a watch sometimes, was nothing short of amazing.

As the Masi men tended the cattle, the young boys took care of the goats. Occasionally women could be seen walking along the very rough road with children or firewood, or along the river washing clothes.  All the people seemed to be friendly; especially the kids, they always waved.  The one exception to this rule was discovered as one of our group stood to take a photo of the children as we passed by.  As the camera was pointed at them, the kids all dived for cover, hiding behind bushes or whatever they could find.  Most Masi were Christianized and didn’t believe a camera would hurt you. The hiding was more due to the fact that the kids were tired of people taking their pictures all the time. Most only allowed their picture taken if you paid them.

As our group continued on we saw some Masi villages, or as they called them, Bomas.  We found out that in these bomas an extended family existed, consisting of several brothers and their wives–sometimes up to five wives per man–all their children, the cattle, goats and chickens.

The outside of the village was completely covered with a dense 5′ wide x 6′ tall barrier of very thorny brush.  The thorns were 1-3 inches long and were used to deter lions from entering the boma.  This protective fence was shaped in a circle and only had one entrance, large enough for a single person or cow, to walk through. People slept in very small huts made of sticks, cow dung and mud, and were roughly 10′ x 10 ‘ and only 5 ft. high and slept up to 6.  Additional rings of thorns were made outside the boma for additional cattle.

Massi people don’t have bank accounts. Their wealth is measured only by their cattle.  What money they do get is used for a knife for their son when he turns 16, beads, schoolbooks and medicine.  Most of the Masi are very tall and thin, kind of like Jimmy Walker.  I could see where in the States these guys might get picked on, but there it is a very different story.  The Masi are known to be completely fearless. Remembering back to my first days in Nairobi, when I recall the Masi guard at the hotel, armed with only a war club, all of the nasty looking guys outside didn’t dare try to come to the door. Even the hotel owners were nervous when they went outside, but the Masi guard didn’t seem to have a problem with it; completely fearless.

On this particular day our group had enjoyed a great morning game drive. In the afternoon there was a treat.  Several Masi had wandered into our camp and offered to take us on a hike.  The beautiful rolling hills and outcroppings had been calling to me, but because we were western Muzungus, (Swahili for white people), we didn’t have the savvy to wander the outer bush of Africa by ourselves.  I had backpacked all over the United States, through national parks, and felt extremely comfortable in the woods, but after being on Safari for a few days I could understand why our guide didn’t want to let us Muzungus travel the bush by ourselves.  So when the opportunity arose to go for a hike with some guys who are known to wander wherever, whenever they liked, I was game.

It must be said that Masi are definitely made for walking.  Those guys are strong and take huge strides as they go.  All of the Muzungus struggled to keep up, but finally we arrived at the top of one of tallest hills near our camp.  We sat on a rocky outcrop and looked down towards the Serengeti river, passing binoculars around, ones that some of the other travelers had brought.

Our three Masi guides wanted to show off for us by making a fire simply with two sticks and friction.  (I’m and Eagle Scout and I have done that before, but it was obvious by how quickly these guys did it that they were pros and that this was really how they made a fire each night).  Two of our guides we really friendly and smiled easily. They both tried talking with us, going slow, being patient with the Muzungus they had in tow.  Our third guide appeared to be some kind of tough guy who really didn’t seem to appreciate that we were with them.  I never saw him smile and it felt as if he was always impatient with us.  I just tried to steer clear of Grumpy.  After the fire was made we continued to hang out and that was when I noticed Grumpy had gotten hold of the binoculars.  He had moved off to the side by himself.  Sitting on an overhang with his feet dangling, he was looking through the binoculars the wrong way, sticking his hand out in front of the lenses, looking through the binoculars then looking with just his eyes.  He was smiling, having fun looking at his hand as it appeared so far away.  OK, so maybe tough guy wasn’t so tough after all.

That evening, back in camp, I pulled out a small harmonica I had bought in Paraguay for two dollars, nothing special but it had a reasonable tone.  I began to play Christmas carols.  It was very surreal, sitting around the campfire with Masi warriors in the heart of East Africa, playing Christmas carols.

Earlier, at dinner, one of the other travelers had celebrated a birthday.  His wife had brought along a white ceramic candle that when lit warmed up, activating a small chip inside that played Happy Birthday.  This candle looked similar to a very fat golf tee that you placed upside down.  In this case, once the candle cooled and we had eaten the birthday cake she’d also brought, the used candle was presented as a gift to one of the Masi.  He quickly put it through a hole in his ear as an ornament.  After all, it was bright, white, and hard, and no one else had one.  So there we were, sitting around the fire, with everyone quietly staring into it while I played Silent Night on my harmonica, when we were all surprised to hear Happy Birthday To You.  With a jolt, the Masi with the candle in his ear jumped up and started spinning around, left then right, trying to see why that noise was so loud and where was it coming from. This six-foot-tall-plus man didn’t seem scared. (He had not been around to see how the candle worked originally).  When he realized that it was simply the candle in his ear, he pulled it out in disgust. He was embarrassment, as his fellow warriors rolled around on the ground, laughing so hard I thought they would wet themselves.

Those men–who had such an aura around them, men who walked so tall and proud that everyone respected them, if not feared them–were giving us a glimpse of how childlike and silly they could be. To see an embarrassed Masi warrior being relentlessly teased by his companions and being able to laugh with them was a tremendous treat. Eventually the candle cooled down enough to allow it to stop playing Happy Birthday. Each of the warriors took turns looking at the hard white candle, which eventually ended up back in the warrior’s ear.  I think he liked that he could play Happy Birthday repeatedly in his ear.

As the night continued on, I played the harmonica and resumed a discussion with a Masi man I had become friends with.  He spoke English and smiled easily.  He told me his Masi name, which I had great difficulty saying, so he told me simply to call him Dennis.  Dennis was an easy 6′5″, and as most all Masi men and women, he wore several finely detailed, beaded, bracelets and necklaces.  Dennis and I were having a good talk and he was showing great fascination with my harmonica.  I would play and then he would ask how it worked.  I handed it over to him so he could give it a try.  He gently took the tiny instrument and meticulously inspected it.  He gently put it to his lips and carefully blew… honk!  Smiling a huge smile, Dennis tried to look inside the harmonica to see what had happened.  After a few more tries he became more confident and began to experiment.

I showed him how, if he inhaled through it, a little different tone came out.  The others were watching and I could sense they wanted to try out the harmonica, but they seemed to be respectful that Dennis and I were talking.  Smiling, Dennis handed back my harmonica.  I looked at him and pointed at his beaded bracelet and said, “Trade?”  He looked confused.  Someone who knew Swahili translated, and then someone who knew Masi translated again, to Dennis.  He looked at me and frowned and said something in Masi, pointing to the different beaded adornments he wore.  This went through the translation telegraph around the fire. Dennis wanted to trade, but his beads were all gifts and he could not trade them away.  It wasn’t exactly the UN, with those funny headphones, but it was my turn to frown.

Dennis and I looked at each other and then an idea appeared to pop into his head.  He was wearing one, single-strand necklace made of beads and small dangling pieces of metal.  He said that this one was his and he could trade it for the harmonica.  Before it got through our campfire translation service I already knew we had a deal.  I smiled and nodded, put the harmonica in its little box and extended it to him.  He smiled, pulled the necklace over his head and handed it to me.  I’m sure we both thought we were getting the better deal, so it worked out perfectly.

Dennis pulled the harmonica out of the box and the other young warriors rushed over to see his new prize.  I went to slip the necklace over my head and realized there was a problem.  All those times I’d been called a fat head, those people must have been right.  I could almost get the thing on, but not quite.  Dennis looked up from his new harmonica and his face went blank. I pulled the necklace down and looked at it.  Dennis put the harmonica back in the box and offered it back to me.  Evidently the necklace had a must-fit guarantee.

Everyone around the fire looked at me to see what I was going to do.  Now lets think about this for a moment, I thought. I can buy a harmonica anywhere, but how many times in my life am I going to have the opportunity to trade a Masi warrior for one of his only prized possession? I looked at Dennis and knew this really was a good man. I smiled, shook my head no and let him know the offer to trade back was appreciated, but I was still happy with the trade.  He smiled. You could feel everyone around the fire finally take a breath.  His friends immediately started trying to grab the harmonica away from Dennis in boyish curiosity.  Dennis would show it to them, holding it out and twisting it and then pulling it back, curling up as the others tried to wrestle it away from him, but Dennis won every time.

Finally one of the older Masi men, an elder I guessed, mumbled at Dennis, gave him a dirty look and held out his hand.  Dennis respectfully handed the harmonica over.  The older guy proceeded to go though almost the exact motions that Dennis had when he first investigated the harmonica.  The only difference what that he never smiled.  After a few minutes he handed it back to Dennis, grumbled and hinted a smile.  It appeared that everything was kosher with the old man.

As the night continued Dennis eventually let the other warriors look at his harmonica.  The grumpy one who liked looking through the binoculars the wrong way even smiled when he made the harmonica go, ‘hum’.  It gave me great pleasure to watch as these guys explored the new instrument.  I was feeling a little frustrated that I could almost get my necklace on, by not quite, so I decided to try again.  I was sitting off to the side of the fire so I didn’t think anyone could see me.  I was playing with it and realized I was getting very close to getting it over my head.  It was pretty close to my eyes and I thought if I could just get the damn thing over my nose I would be set.

Dennis and a couple of the other Masi must have read my mind.  My eyes were closed and the necklace was stuck above my nose.  I suddenly felt several sets of very large hands on my head, gently trying to work the necklace down over my nose.  As it turned out, the cord that the beads were strung on was made from material used in large grain sacs, which was plastic, so it had some stretch to it.  It took the guys a couple of minutes to work down over my nose and bushy handlebar mustache, but it worked.  I realized I would never get the necklace off without breaking it, but that was a-okay by me.  I looked up and Dennis was smiling ear-to-ear. I glanced over at the old guy and even he gave me a quick smile.  That did it; a good trade all around.


Trading a harmonica for a necklace while on Safari was a simple, fun, and extraordinary bit of negotiation.  While you are on the road, different opportunities for trading may come up; particularly trading books with other travelers.  Just remember before you begin trading that just getting by with your day-to-day activities may be challenge enough in the beginning of your journey.

When negotiations do start, remember that in the Third World, often the person on the other side of the table looks at you as one of the wealthiest people they have ever met.  The average income in the Third World is appallingly low. There is a good chance the boots you are walking in represent several month’s wages in the country where you are negotiating.  Another uncomfortable fact is that most Americans and Europeans haven’t haggled for anything in their life.  Haggling is not part of our culture, and is even considered rude.  Imagine standing at the checkout line in a grocery store, telling the clerk you aren’t going to pay a penny more than twenty-five cents a pound for those tomatoes, and that seventy-five cents for a roll of toilet paper is highway robbery.  Most likely security would be called. At the bare minimum, you would receive nasty looks from the people waiting in line behind you.  In The States it basically comes down to this; if you see something you like, look at the price. If you think the price is reasonable and you have a means to pay for it, then buy it.  If you think the price is unreasonable, then don’t.

In the Third World, things are very different. Adam Smith’s Rules of Supply and Demand Economics really come into play.  Like anything else that comes up when you are a traveler, it is necessary to find out what the local rules are and make sure to play the game.  I have no idea how important this is from a money-saving standpoint, but from a cultural perspective it is very important.  A good example would be purchasing toilet paper in India.  Most Indians believe in the philosophy that says you eat exclusively with your right hand and you clean yourself up with the left hand. It doesn’t matter if you are right or left-handed, that is just a hard, fast rule.  Because of this, many of those people don’t see a need for toilet paper.  I’ve heard all the arguments on how this is actually more sanitary and easier, and though I usually try to partake of all local customs, this one is where I draw the line.  Therefore, I always carry some toilet paper with me, just in case. If  you have none, there is usually toilet paper available for sale, although very few restaurants, and no public facilities will have toilet paper for sale. Combine this local custom with the fact that most Westerners’ stomachs don’t react to the food in India in a positive manner, and you have a very interesting economic study of supply and demand.

While in India, I heard a range of prices for toilet paper–anywhere from ten cents to five dollars a roll.  It makes sense, for if  you were in the wrong situation, and there was only one vendor selling toilet paper for five dollars, you would probably pay it.  The problem arises when you are not in such desperate need.  All the street vendors in Third World countries have heard the same story of the range of price of toilet paper, so every time you try and buy a roll, the standard asking price is five dollars.

I found India challenging due to this and several other negotiating points.  A full dance is required when negotiating in India.  You usually want to start off with extremely insulting prices.  Then comes insulting the product itself, then insulting each other, and spending a lot more time than you would have liked to waste going through these motions. However, it is important to remember that this is how these vendors make their living, and you’re the Golden Goose. It will be well worth the vendor’s time to haggle for an hour to make an extra twenty-five cents.  If you choose not to haggle over the price of an item, it will cost you and other Westerners more in the future because of the vendors’ raised expectations. These expectations make things a real challenge when you have to buy again or for those who may follow.

Learning the rules of the game is important as well.  In India, very rarely would I buy something off the street where our voices didn’t get raised.  In contrast, when I flew from Delhi, India to Katmandu, I discovered that raising your voice and being aggressive was the fastest way to see the price go up.  In most of South East Asia, Nepal included, if you raise your voice at the vendor, the vendor loses face and is extremely insulted and may not even sell you something no matter what the price.  So learning the rules for each area is important.

These examples are very basic and simple but are here to prove a point.  Negotiation is like a long drop toilet.  It is very different than anything we’ve seen in the Western world. You may find it vulgar and distasteful, but it works for billions of people all over the world.

I don’t pretend to think that I always got the best price or even the local price, but I would like to think I was getting a fair traveler’s price and not a bad tourist price.  Talking with other travelers and getting an idea from guide books is usually a good place to start to get a good idea of what price is fair and what isn’t.  When you arrive in a new country, assume at first that you will always pay a little too much, then once you do your homework, you will do a lot better.

All types of transportation need to be negotiated in advance.  If you are taking a taxi anywhere in the Third World, it usually requires that you agree on the price before you get in.  Taxi drivers in the Third World are notorious for being great negotiators. Once you have discovered what the standard rate for a taxi is, stick to your guns.  If the first driver doesn’t want to give you a ride for a certain price, then fine,  let him go. There will be another taxi that will be willing to give you a fair price.  Another taxi trick is to get you into the cab and then try to renegotiate.  Whenever this happened to me, if the driver was persistent about changing our negotiated price, I would open the door at a stoplight and start to get out.  This always worked to end negotiation.

In certain countries, the taxi drivers love to make detour stops, where you can get a “Good Deal.” Remember that the driver will get roughly a ten percent commission on everything you buy, so sometimes they can be really tenacious. When this happened to me, I made it clear to the driver that there would be no shopping and no stops. I figured that if he did it anyway he had broken our agreement. I would just get out and walk away.  Inevitably he will agree with your wishes in the beginning, but sometimes he may be persistent and try a couple of more times to get you to stop.  Just keep in mind that all of this is just a game. If you do stop, shop and buy something, there is a very good chance your driver will drive you around all day long, looking a “Good Deals,” and you will never reach your destination.

Places to stay is another area where negotiating comes into play.  The least I ever paid for a night’s lodging was fifty cents.  I got my money’s worth, but not much more.  Accommodations around the world vary greatly.  I personally liked more of the pension, bed and breakfast style accommodations,  where you had your own room and may share a bathroom.  I enjoyed this more than a hotel because it is usually easier to get to know some locals.

When considering a room for the night, always ask to see the room. When you are led to the room, look around to see if it looks clean and safe.  Check out the bed.  Very few places have nice orthopedic mattresses, so lie down and decide if you will be comfortable.  If the room is supposed to have hot water and you are feeling suspicious, turn it on and give it try.  If it is in an area that has a reputation for being a bit unsafe, ask if there is a locker where you can put stuff while you are out. Once acquired, lock this locker with your own padlock. Finally, look outside to make sure the area looks quiet and is in an environment you like.  If you like the room, but would like to check out a few others, say thanks and head on down the road.  All innkeepers are used to this and it promotes a good competition among the lodgings.

Most lodgings are safe, friendly, and secure.  When traveling by myself I usually looked for something that had a good buzz of activity coming from around the area, to immerse myself fully in the culture, though sometimes it was nice to have a quiet place.  Remember, these places aren’t the Marriott. Smoking is allowed almost everywhere in the Third World. The mattresses may not be perfect, but usually they are very comfortable and offer a rewarding sleep.

Once you have finally found a room you like, check out the price. If it is close to what you were prepared to pay there may not be the need for much haggling. If it is totally unreasonable be prepared to go someplace else.  A few other important things to find out are; if breakfast is included, is there laundry available, and on some rare occasions if there is a curfew when the place get locked up.

When Reka and I were on the road we would often go for a place that was a little better then the rock bottom price. Usually, for just a couple of buck more, we were able to get a private bath and cable TV. Not that we only hung out in the room, but sometimes it was nice to escape the busy hustle and bustle and be in our own little oasis.

Here is a short review list of the basic rules for following when negotiating in a Third World country.

Negotiating rules:

  1. Most of the world negotiates. It isn’t rude.
  2. The street vendor sees you as a Golden Goose.
  3. Always remember, your opponent has more patience.
  4. Do your homework to find out what’s fair.
  5. Find out what the ground rules are, and whether to get noisy or remain quiet.
  6. Always predefine the price for cabs, hotels, bus rides, and outings.
  7. Don’t get angry if you don’t get the local’s price.

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