I walked into her tent, went immediately to her bed and turned over her pillow. And there, as plain as day, was a stack of hundred dollars bills, a US passport, and a first class plane ticket to New York.
“How the hell did you do that?” she asked, astonished, hugging me, crying.
“Just doing my job, ma’am,” I replied in a drawl, which caused her to raise her hand in a mock gesture to slap me.
She was an older (but young of mind and sharp) woman of fame and great means. If I said her name you would surely recognize it, either because you know of her or her somewhat more famous relative with the same last name. She was one of my guests on a safari to a country in Africa. And earlier that day, she had lost her money, her passport, and her ticket home.
She had earlier confided in my colleague Seseku, a citizen of the country we were visiting and co-leader of the tour, telling him that she was mortified that she had lost these items. She didn’t want to suggest that someone had stolen anything, but, well, the items were not anywhere to be found … and how else could one explain their disappearance?
She had looked absolutely everywhere. Absolutely. Everywhere!
Now, to understand the gravity of the situation, you need to understand this: This tour was one of those special, hermetically sealed tours. The pax (that’s what we call the tourists… the “flock”) get off the plane. We put them on a bus. Our bus. We bring them to our guest house. We feed them our food cooked by our cooks. We transport them in our land rovers and our airplanes. On one or two occasions, we may stop at a public place but they are put in a lounge we have rented or otherwise secured. Nobody goes near these tourists unless they work for us. And if anything goes wrong … if any one does turn out to be a thief (which never actually happens so this is just a theory) that person can be easily detected, fired, and his entire family fired for ten generations into the future, and his ancestors fired backwards for ten generations as well.
But the bottom line is that people in this particular country are honest. They are not thieves. The situation is under control from the top down and bottom up and from side to side. Passport, money, tickets … they don’t get stolen. But if something WAS stolen … especially hundreds of dollars, a passport, and international air tickets … people would be majorly fired. Including my colleague, Seseku. His career would be over.
Indeed, my tourist understood this and she later told me she was willing to try to figure out a way to avoid reporting the incident. Even if someone had stolen all these goods from her, she knew the consequences to them would be much more severe than the loss to her. Which I thought was rather nice of her.
So, Seseku brought me up to speed in a private conversation. She didn’t want me to know, but Seseku needed me to know, to help figure out what to do. We decided the only place that these materials could have been lost was the Land Rover she had been in that day. So we walked out of the secure compound and into the night, across a bit of wild savanna, taking our time because we rarely got the chance to observe nature at night on the savanna on foot (too dangerous) and arrived at the auxiliary compound where the vehicles were stored under armed guards. The guards, who also care for the vehicles, were surprised to see us. We asked if anything had been found in any of the vehicles. They said no. So we searched the vehicle in question very thoroughly just in case something had been missed, like smokers going through a couch to find a lighter. We turned up nothing.
The guards offered to let us search their persons and their dwelling, and Seseku was about to do so when I said no, no reason to do that. They could not possibly have taken anything by accident, and theft was out of the question. I think that was appreciated.
So we went back to the main compound, and I went to our tourist who was at the bar and said “Seseku told me about the missing items.”
“I was hoping you would not have to know, that we could figure this out.”
“I’m supposed to know these things, it’s part of my job. Don’t worry about it. But now, I have to visit your hut.”
“They’re not in my hut. I searched through everything. I took every single item I own and turned it up side down. Twice. They are not there.”
“I know. But you don’t know where the passport, money, and ticket are, right?”
“Well, obviously, that’s true,” slightly annoyed.
“Then, that means that you don’t know where they aren’t, either.”
“Let’s go,” I said as I headed towards her hut.
So, when I entered the hut I saw two cots. Both cots were made. I could tell that neither bed was made by this white woman because it was made up in the characteristic way that women trained in the hotel services in this country did it … a particular way the sheets were folded and attached to the cot, the blanket put on, and so on. But the one on the right had been slept on. Someone had taken a nap, or laid down, on the surface of that cot, atop the blankets and pillow without undoing the blanket or sheets. The other bed held all of her possessions, scattered about on the surface, and I could tell that the pillow had been messed with a little. Someone had moved the pillow.
Every day for the previous several days, when I would retire for the mid-afternoon siesta to my own hut (not at this location … we had just arrived at this safari camp … but at similar camps elsewhere) I would put my passport, wrist watch, and cash under the pillow of one bed, and lie down on the other bed, take a nap, write some notes, and go through the bird book to review what we had seen that morning. It was a natural thing to do. You don’t want to hide your stuff away because you may forget where you put it. You don’t have to worry about theft, because we can trust everyone, and there are no locks on any doors anyway. But if vervet monkeys manage to get into the tent, or worse, baboons, better that small shiny objects be out of sight. So you put that stuff under the pillow.
My guest could only have put her possessions under the pillow, and forgotten. Later, in looking for these items, she emptied her luggage out and ended up putting several items on top of the pillow. The idea of something being UNDER the pillow (or for that matter, the blanket) was unthinkable, or at least, inaccessible, to her, because she had been so systematic in her search.
So I picked up the pillow and revealed her passport, her money, and her ticket home. And I tired very hard, and mostly succeeded, to be totally cool like it was not some major accomplishment that I had figured this out instantly, much like Sherlock Holmes himself migh have done.
I was reminded of that when I watched this:
On Safari, always look under the pillow of the contralateral bed from the one you nap in. At home, check the fridge. That’s probably where your car keys are.