It started with some Tylenol. We were relaxing at the campsite outside our tents in the afternoon heat. The day of hiking up sand dunes in Sossusvlei, Namibia had been long and exhausting, and our safari guide had just admitted that he twisted his ankle somewhere along the way. I rushed to his aid, jumping at whatever chance I could find to bond with him.
Manni was cool. He seemed deep, too, and pensive—one of those strong, silent types. But we had absolutely nothing in common, and so I changed tactics: I’d use my irresistible charm to teach him about my country and maybe learn a little about his. When I handed him the pills, I explained that this is what Americans do—we take medicine for everything. I was being so charming.
He asked me how old I was, and when I asked him the same, his suddenly intense eye contact shifted the mood. “I don’t know,” he said. There were long pauses between each word. “Where I’m from we don’t record age. We don’t celebrate birthdays. I was born at some point, and now I just go.”
“W-w-wow,” I stammered. “So cool. So ... different.” I was really stunning him with my eloquence. I had no idea what the appropriate, sensitive response was. He asked if I had ever heard of this practice before, and I nodded, trying to seem aware of cultural differences, or like I had actually done my research on Namibia before flying halfway across the world to get there.
And that’s when I saw the corners of his mouth turning up and spreading, as if in slow motion, into the widest of grins. “I’m 30. I was born on December 22nd.” He politely but unsuccessfully tried to stifle his laughter. I felt the heat of embarrassment rising up my neck and into my cheeks. I came up with something like, “My blockmate’s birthday is also on the 22nd?” or some equally witty comeback.
But then I joined him for a good, long laugh, and together we enjoyed the only common ground we had found all day. I guess laughing at your own stupidity is universally understood.