A True Man Dies Outside
Date- May 29, 2020
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
Undulating serpents slithered behind glass cages, opening their frightening mouths trying to bite my finger pressed against the glass, crawling up with an ignorant determination that made me chuckle under my breath. Poisonous snakes, spiders, and other mysterious reptiles all made their home under the same roof in downtown Nairobi in its snake park.
Apart from all the slithery creatures looking for a way out and a new victim to shoot their venom at, the most fascinating part was my encounter with James, a clear-skinned kid in his early twenties with an enthusiasm for his country and its wildlife. His laugh thundered through Nairobi’s snake park hallways when I told him I would be pedaling up to Lake Turkana, more than 2,000 kilometers north. His voice morphed into a high pitched squeal and he slapped himself on the knee hard enough to leave a red indentation upon listening to my plan. James’ upbeat demeanor and pure innocence led me to believe he either spent a lot of time outdoors and was from a rural village. He had that energy to him that only people who spend most of their time outdoors can transmit to others. That carefree spirit of curiosity, enthusiasm, and vigor for adventure. Lean, softball-sized shoulders outlined the sleeves of his blue T-shirt and his thick, veiny neck looked solid as a brick. He reminded me of myself as a college student. Aggressively enthusiastic and ready to slam dunk the world while tearing down the backboard of doubters that stood in my way.
After some small talk about our backgrounds and future plans, l learned that my hunch was correct. My new friend grew up in a rural village in the western part of Kenya and came to Nairobi to study and make some money at the snake center.
“Tell me James. What kind of animals do you have in your village?”
“Oh. All kinds. So many animals. We have leopards, hippopotamuses, lions, crocodiles, buffaloes.”
“Yeah? Please enlighten me James. I am a guy who comes here from the other side of the world who only has deer, squirrels and an occasional coyote to worry about. What do you recommend I do when I ride through a rural area and run into a leopard?”
“Oh leopards are good to have around. Don’t be scared of leopards. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Here is the thing, when you are walking along the road and you see a leopard, most of the time they just go back into the bush. Sometimes they return near you after another fifty meters. They do this repeatedly every fifty to one hundred meters, going back into the bush and reappearing again. After about five hundred meters, the leopard starts to think of you as its friend. It will protect you. One of my friends was walking with a leopard for several kilometers and some people tried to mug him. The leopard popped out of the bush and mauled the robber. So you see, leopards can be your good friend.”
“Wow. Incredible! I hope I can make friends with a leopard while I am here in Kenya. Okay, so I am sure you don’t go swimming in the lakes and ponds right? Those crocodiles and hippopotamuses must keep swimmers away.”
“Oh my friend! Haha! Of course I go swimming. Swimming is the best way to cool off on a hot day.”
“You aren’t scared of the hippos and crocs? You could die while swimming James.”
“No! No! Not at all! A true man dies outside. It is much better to die at the hands of an animal than in your bed when you are old and tired. I don’t think about danger when I swim.”
This might be the quote of the year for me. I wanted to tattoo those words on my skin and have James sign his name as blood drips from my shoulder. Nothing in life can ever be achieved without risk. No wonder this guy seemed so alive. When confronted with your own death every day, how can you not master the art of living? You learn to appreciate the cool, silky waters if every swim could become your last. The scared and fearful among us drown. The confident and steady slowly push themselves back to shore. They keep their cool and figure out which way the current flows, pace themselves as they replenish their lungs with oxygen in the midst of torrential downpours. You learn to laugh and take life less seriously when confronted with your own mortality. It could all be over and done, at the hands of a famished wild animal, or at the unexpected stoppage of a heartbeat while walking down the street.
As James talked about death, his grin and positive demeanor never left his face. One day when he meets that fateful moment, it seemed as if he would still have that ear to ear smile on his face, proud of the fact that he lived out his destiny. My friend is in his early twenties, the age when we all think we are invincible and bulletproof, yet was ready to die while enjoying the simple pleasures of life and living for what he believes in. To have that much clarity at such a young age is rare. To stare at the waters of death and leap in knowing it might all end, what a liberating feeling it must be.
In a way, I could relate to James. Those who have never jumped on a bicycle in a faraway land seem to never stop lecturing me about how lucky I am to walk away from my adventures unscathed. The world of tour cycling is alien to most and no matter how colorful a picture I attempt to paint with my words, only those who have tasted it can understand its true flavor. The flavor that changes from sweet to spicy in a matter of hours, right when you think you have a box of cookies, it throws fiery hot jalapenos at you. You grab jalapenos to add some flavor to your bowl of brown rice, grab your spoon and begin to chew and then those mushy first few bites become rock hard, creating permanent gaps in your teeth. Before you know it you have a palm-full of chipped molars. All flavors, no matter how pungent, vile, fruity, or tart do not kill you. For a while, you don’t expect the flavors to change so abruptly, but after a few bites, you learn to enjoy the unexpected. You learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You learn to feel safe in the midst of danger. You learn to find compassion in the midst of hostility, to find beauty when the earth flings filth in your direction and spits in your face. It all becomes routine. The average person who has never tasted it will never understand. It is foolish to ever expect them to.
But the beauty is that when you live dangerously you live today to its fullest extent. You squeeze the juice of every moment dry, knowing that this moment could be your last. You love and your love is sincere and pure. You live and your life is a fire. A single minute of intense love and living is more profound than an eternity of dead ideals and bondage.
But what is security? Is there anything secure in life? Does security exist, or is it an idea people have created for themselves?
James’ world is all about walking alongside leopards and wading through liquid where crocodiles and hippos rest and feed. My world is one where I am on a bike in faraway places that the news media likes to paint blood red. Sensationalism may sell newspapers, but true men toss the paper aside and go outside and play with death every day. Mediocre men read newspapers and hesitate. Superior men do the unreasonable thing and attempt to change the status quo. As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable man adapts the world to himself, therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Go outside and play, even if there are leopards, crocodiles, and hippos out there.
It was only my first full day in Kenya, but James had my heart jumping in anticipation. James swims with crocs and hippos. I was about to cycle with lions and leopards. Play on and remember a true man dies outside.