Note: This is the first in an occasional series of “chance encounters” with famous people while traveling.
It was May 1977, and I was sitting at an outdoor table in the Thorn Tree Cafe of Nairobi, Kenya’s, New Stanley Hotel, nursing a Tusker beer and alternating glances between the local paper (“Saboteurs Hit Uganda!” blared one headline) and the other patrons.
I chuckled at some members of the well-heeled safari set sipping bubbly at a nearby table, looking slightly ridiculous in their pith helmets and bush jackets.
But I have to admit, I was a bit envious of them. I was on my first overseas reporting assignment for a news service I was working for at the time, and, after several days of frustration, the stories just weren’t materializing — in truth, I didn’t know what I was doing or even where to start.
Like the future travel writer I would become, I just wanted to be out on safari on my first trip to East Africa, joining those folks in pith helmets and bush jackets. My news service, however, expected gripping, highly original stories about, well, something newsworthy — which, unless I caught a rogue guide poaching rhino horns, wildlife safaris were not.
Then a tiny miracle emerged from the hotel: a diminutive woman in her late 70s carrying a walking stick taller than herself.
As a frequent interview subject on TV, she was immediately recognizable as Dr. Margaret Mead, the world-renowned cultural anthropologist and author of such classics as Coming of Age in Samoa and Male and Female.
I watched as she approached a busy intersection and hesitated crossing at the corner. Even when the lights were green, some drivers were plowing right through.
Smelling a story, I bolted up from my seat and scurried over to her. Introducing myself as an American journalist, I paid my respects to her work — some of which I’d read in college — and asked what she was doing in Kenya.
“Actually,” she replied, “all I want to do is get across this street alive.”
At last, I thought, a chance to use my Boy Scout training!
After I helped her cross the street, she suggested I accompany her a few blocks to her destination, where she promised me a good story.
We walked slowly down Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi’s main boulevard, where we were stopped twice by various admirers — all hers, of course. (“Sorry, folks,” I thought to myself, “she’s mine.”)
“Now look for a chicken place,” she told me. “The building we are going to is directly across from that.”
The Doors Close
Soon the familiar grin of Colonel Sanders appeared across the boulevard. She motioned me into a nondescript government complex, and we headed up some stairs to a meeting Dr. Mead was chairing related to a United Nations environmental conference then underway in Nairobi.
At Dr. Mead’s request, a public relations man handed me a garbled, week-old press release titled “Statement by the Advisory Workshop of Experts on the Role of the Non-Government Organizations and the United Nations Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation.”
I quickly scanned it — a masterpiece of bureaucratese, and dog-eared at that.
“There’s your story,” Dr. Mead told me. “I have to go into this meeting now. What was your name again?”
As she disappeared into the meeting room, I knew I had missed my big chance; I hadn’t even handed her a business card.
Halfheartedly calling out my name behind her, I fumbled with the press release for a moment, then headed across the street to take consolation in a three-piece greasy chicken platter from the Colonel. It was the last time I saw her.
Postscript: Margaret Mead died a year and a half later in 1978, at age 77. Even though I didn’t get a story from our encounter (until now), I felt privileged to meet her and help her get safely across the street. And after a few more days of chasing what turned out to be non-stories, I did finally get to go on safari.
Next in the Series: My chance encounter with Imelda Marcos.