The author in Niger, 1988

Guest Post: African Reunion

“Are you going to Africa?” the driver asked as I sat down in my taxi to the Seattle airport. Were my REI conversion pants were a giveaway?

“Yes,” I told him, “I’m headed to Tanzania.”

“I knew it! When you got in the cab I was immediately happy,” he shouted.

As a college student in my early twenties I studied wildlife biology in Kenya and enjoyed an idyllic East Africa. After graduating I joined the Peace Corps and went to Niger, in West Africa—a much harder place to live. Now, 25 years later, I was returning to Africa for a safari in Tanzania.

“Are you from Tanzania?” I asked.

“No, I’m from Nigeria. But anyone traveling to Africa makes me happy.” He slipped a Papa Wemba CD into the stereo. We listened to a jubilant Congolese soukous rythm the rest of the way to the airport, talking about Africa, African music and African problems.

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In 1988 I was a 21-year-old anthropology major wanting to experience Africa’s cultural and biological diversity, so I signed up for a semester at a wildlife biology field school in Kenya. But I was also looking for a place to hide for a while. I had recently consummated, then abruptly ended, my first gay relationship. I was confused by my actions and Africa seemed like a good place to pause and think for a while.

The author in Niger, 1988

The author in Niger, 1988

The field school where I studied was on a game ranch outside Nairobi National Park. The African savanna was our backdrop. We lived in tents and went to lectures in an open-air hall. Giraffes and gazelles were our neighbors. Our days consisted of lectures, game drives and research projects. It was like an East African summer camp.

After the semester was over, I planned to take my dad and stepmother, Trudy, on a safari. I wanted to show them some of the places where we had gone on school trips—Lake Nakuru to see the flamingoes stretched out in a sea of pink, Mt. Kenya to climb the second highest peak in Africa, and the Maasai Mara Reserve to see the beginning of the Serengeti. Trudy taught me to enjoy the wonder of life in the natural world. She once owned a resort in the Wisconsin Northwoods where I spent blissful summers in my younger days. She was a second mother to me. I wanted to show both of them my newfound East African playground.

After returning from climbing Mt. Kenya I received a letter from my dad. Trudy was in the hospital with a potential brain tumor. A letter the next day said that they had operated but that she wasn’t responding well. I called home and he told me that Trudy had not improved since surgery; they would not be coming to Africa. My world had quickly collapsed upon itself.

Just before I returned stateside, my class visited the town of Machakos, not far from our school. The terrain was like a Swiss alpine village: sweeping views of the valley below, cool air, and plenty of cows walking around. I knew I didn’t want to leave Kenya. I didn’t know what kind of shape Trudy would be in when I returned. And then there was the coming out of the closet thing. But I also I felt the gravitational pull of Africa. I decided that I would return to teach, or do something useful.

At 23, after I graduated college, I joined the Peace Corps. I had no idea what I would do with my BA in anthropology and needed some time to figure out my next move. I had also begun my journey out of the closet, telling a few close friends, but not my family. Going back to Africa would, I thought, buy me some more time and help me figure things out.

The Peace Corps sent me to Niger, a West African country which suffered from lethal droughts, food shortages and desertification. I would be an agro-forestry volunteer working on environmental protection projects on my own, deep in the bush. This would be much more serious than studying giraffes in Kenya.

After language and technical training, Peace Corps sent forty of us volunteers to village posts scattered across the country. Mine was in the Zinder district, a thousand kilometers from the capitol, a tiny hamlet called Gabi which had neither electricity nor running water. It was ten kilometers off the paved road through the sandy, roadless bush. The thudding sound of women pounding millet in mortars and the smell of wood smoke hung in the air the day I arrived. Baobab trees with huge trunks and small branches dotted the landscape. The air was hazy with dust from the hot, dry harmattan winds which blew across the Sahara in the spring. My house was a two-room, mud-brick building with dirt floors and a latrine on the side.

I adjusted poorly to life in the village. The Nigerien bureau that I was supposed to work with had no projects for me, so I was idle much of the time. I was sick with dysentery and giardia. And I was acutely lonely—the nearest Peace Corps volunteer was 10 kilometers away and my family and friends were much farther than that. Plus my motorcycle, my only way out, was old and prone to breakdowns. I would regularly get anxiety attacks about being stranded in my village and so far from anyone who loved me.

My decision to leave the Peace Corps after only eight months in country early was the toughest I had ever made. I couldn’t survive two years of anxiety attacks, I never did figure out what I was supposed to be doing, and more importantly, I couldn’t finish coming out of the closet while living there. I needed to go home to move on with my life.

After returning to the States I moved to Seattle, got a job, and came out to my family. But the feeling of failure would haunt me for a long time. Years later I still had strange dreams about returning to Niger. Africa was always in the back of my mind: I kept up with news, I read books, and I listened to a lot of African music. But I hadn’t returned to sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, twenty five years after Niger, I was returning. My father, sister and I were going on safari in northern Tanzania. As we sat in the Dar es Salaam airport cafeteria waiting on our final connection, I walked to the counter to order some food, eyeing the samosas in the display case. “Yes, my friend!” said the woman behind the counter. I ordered three large Serengeti beers and several samosas—curried meat pies, my favorite African food—for our dinner. “The samosas are good, my friend,” she said with a broad smile, “very fresh!”

I’d forgotten how friendly East Africans could be and was taken off guard. But a feeling of belonging seeped into my jet-lagged brain and I wondered why it had taken me so long to return.

Our safari guide, Ray, showed us everything. We saw animals: elephants, lions, wildebeest, zebra, leopards, and cheetahs. I was thrilled to be back in the wonderland of the East African savanna. One late afternoon Ray drove us around in the Range Rover, dodging the thunderstorms that were all around us. We saw a pride of lions so close I could almost touch them. As we raced around in the wind, I don’t know if that water on my face was rain or tears.

Each time I have come to Africa I was at a crossroads, unsure of the future. I came on this trip, like my other African journeys, from place of unknowing: Two months before my employer of many years had laid me off. I enjoyed a brief sabbatical and then a job offer with a career change came through. Now I was wondering what changes waited for me when I returned home.

On the return flight I sat next to Magni, a Kenyan man close to my age, on his way to Seattle for a seminar. We talked about my trip, and my past trips, to Africa. He asked if I wanted to return again and I told him that I would. “I think when a person goes on a journey like yours they don’t come back the same person,” he said. I nodded with a grin. I couldn’t have agreed more.

Mark Lammers blogs at Wilder Shores.

zebras

The Opposite of Africa

This is how you know you are in Africa—when the houses, roads, the tires on your car, and even the soles of your feet become stained red-orange from the iron-rich soil that covers so much of this great continent. Wearing sunglasses heightens the red color so that the land just seems to glow like a live ember in a fireplace. The color stays with you—and I’m sure if you dig around your sock drawer you’ll find a bit of Tanzania still in there. — Andrew Evans

Jambo, jambo, Andrew,

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I pulled my car along the curb and took this picture looking up through the rain splattered windshield. The trees that line the broad arterial that leads into my neighborhood have not lost all of their leaves, but by the time this latest storm has passed, they’ll be gone, first carpeting the sidewalks and gutters in a checkerboard orange and yellow carpet, then turning to a slick brown mat that poses a serious risk to the few of us brave (or stupid) enough to ride a bicycle during what’s left of November.

Your letter from Tanzania made me smell the dust again. Your pictures made me think of that uneven bright stripe of road that reached out in front of and behind the truck crossing The Endless Plain. The Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is not the right color, or the cranberries in the stuffing but the last of the red orange leaves are close. Even if I could spread those leaves out in a great blanket over the asphalt, four lanes in front of me, four lanes behind me, it would not match the dry grassy smell of East Africa. Instead I have mulch, rain, the salt waters of the cold Northern Pacific that spill into Puget Sound. There is some wood smoke, and something piney, and pie, of course, because there is pie from the day before Thanksgiving until well into the following month, perhaps past Christmas. But none of this is the color, the smell, of East Africa. Only the leaves are close.

It should be that when you have been to a place, you are not wrecked with envy when someone you adore goes there. You should think, “Oh, this is the best possible thing, that my friend should get to see this place that I loved so well! This thrills me!” But I’m not that enlightened. I think, “Oh, again you are in a place I love without me! That’s not right! Why aren’t I there too?” While on safari, I stepped out of my tent in the middle of the night to hear lions roaring in the dark, to see the sky lighting up in a ring of heat lightning. I thought, “Everyone I know should be right here, right now, standing next to me in silence, to experience this moment when there is no time.” But now, when I read that you’re rushing off to the roar of lions, I think, “This is not fair, it’s not fair at all, I should be there!”

Instead, I am in the opposite of Africa, if there is such a place. While in Tanzania, each time I turned a corner it was as though I had transited from one technicolor dream to another. But in Seattle the sky is gray and wet, the light does not come up full under the storms, everything is shiny and smells like water and the thin edge of winter. It is a blur of all kinds of gray punctuated by smudgy tail lights, traffic lights; there are no hard edges. At night, the rain is loud and steady. It wakes me and I think that the water must be running somewhere. During the day, I write and drink coffee with friends and we watch the water pour from the sky in relentless, continuous strands of pewter. Days diffuse into night through a constant merging of cloud and sky and run off. What could be less like Tanzania than endless running water?

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I went to visit an old friend today and while I was driving home — and before I stopped the car to photograph these leaves, this rain on my windshield — I watched a man walk across the street. He was dark, Africa dark, and tall and skinny. He was wearing a long pale jehllubeeya, I could see it under his dark overcoat. He had black loafers on his feet and carried a black umbrella against the falling sky. I watched his leggy strides from behind my steering wheel. To see him out the window of the bus in Dar es Salaam would be nothing special, but to watch him crossing the from the corner that holds the Walgreens to the corner that holds the Minimart was disorienting, he was of another place.

I wanted to roll down the window and shout, “Tell Andrew thanks for the letter!” as though he’d disappear into a wormhole at the FedEx store and reappear on your side of the earth with my greetings to you, still wet from today’s precipitation. If only it were so easy. I would seal up a jar of Seattle rain and send it via this umbrella carrying courier. You’re in Africa, anything can happen there. Watch for a tall skinny man with a black umbrella carrying your jar of rain that smells like the Pacific Northwest. In return, I might ask for a box of that red dust that lines the roads you travel now, but …you’re almost right, I do have red dust here. It’s not in my sock drawer that the leftover shock of color lies, it’s in my veins, just like now, it’s in yours.

Never mind that our lives are anything but this, sing to the savannah, won’t you? “All I can say is that my life is pretty plain, I like watching the puddles gather rain…”

Your friend on the other side of the map,

Pam

The Madagascar Journals

I don’t post link roundups anymore, I use Facebook for sharing and I rarely hand over what is, to me, prime real estate, for other people’s stories. I am, as you know, a terrible snob about what people call “content.” I actually hate the word “content” because in my mind it equates with “filler” and “additives” and “high fructose corn syrup.” No one needs that crap added to their intellectual diet. It’s a testimonial to how much I love Matt Kresling’s video that I’m posting it here.

It’s an hour long; you should watch the whole thing. I love everything about it, the awkward conversation with the dude in the hostel, the good-natured joshing about wives with local guys, the way nothing really happens, yet everything happens, the sense of connection that this traveler makes with the place and oh, in the middle there’s some speeded up footage in a weird hotel room that looks an awful lot like what I do when I’m at loose ends in a weird hotel room… This is nothing short of a perfect bit of travel video storytelling — complete with a powerful message — and I absolutely love it. (You know me, I hate everything.) If you share whatever weird snobby aesthetic I have around travel, you’ll love it too. Go get something to drink, sit down, and hit play.

Hat tip to Ukulele Hunt.

On Safari

Eli has a smile that would shame the noon day sun. It breaks through the morning darkness, I recognize him before I recognize anyone else at the early camp fire. “Good morning, Eli,” I say, and he says the same thing, always, “Are you ready? Good to go?” sweetly, in his Tanzanian accented English.

We get up early in the Serengeti, it is barely light. If you have neglected to set your alarm it does not matter, you will wake to the unzipping of tents and the voices of your neighbors. “Could you hand me my flip-flops?” “I need to help with breakfast, I’ll see you there.” We are camped in a close semicircle, we know who is snoring and who is giggling in the night. I know that everyone will hear me when I get up to look at the moon casting shadows between the evenly spaced acacia trees. They will hear me rustling in the grass as I use my flashlight to pick out the reflection of hyena eyes.

In the morning, we shuffle to the fire. The park prohibits exploring before the sun is up; darkness belongs to the animals. We drink coffee and eat cereal and wait for the light. Eli smiles and shuffles in his down jacket and when we are ready, after fetching water bottles and sunscreen and snacks and running to the loo one last time, “Please, wait just one minute!” —  we climb into his jeep, hitting our heads on the door jamb, our knees and thighs on the metal seat rails, our elbows on the edge of the open roof and sometimes, each other.

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Eli wearing his usual smile at the hippo pond.

We are bundled up — I am wearing long pants and a heavy wind-stop fleece, zipped all the way up, the hood over my head. The wind comes in cold as we race along the dirt road out of the campground, but as the light comes up, so does the temperature. A degree of brightness, a degree of heat. The morning air smells good because it has rained, the grass is damp, the dust is down. We have not yet left the access road for the campground when we make our first stop. “Giraffe!” one of the girls shouts, and Eli smiles, and slows down, and then, stops as we all stand to look. The giraffe pauses, and looks back. “Ima answer your questions,” I imagine her saying, “but first, I’m going to finish these acacia leaves.”

Eli waits, and if we are too long with the cameras, he turns off the engine and lets us stay in the quiet, only the noise of the giraffe pulling on the thorny tree. After the right amount of time, he speaks. “Good to go?” he asks, and we are, he knows this. He restarts the engine and I pull my sleeves down over the backs of my hands and we race towards the open grasslands.

We do this over and over for three, maybe four hours. Eli drives and we look, scrubbing the horizon with our eyes. Zebras and gazelles and hartebeest and wildebeest are easy to spot, they are everywhere, spread out across the flat open land. We see a line of cheetahs striding through the knee high gold grasses. Eli stops the car and we watch. The zebras watch too, they stand perfectly still save for their ears, which track the cheetahs like radar dishes. “Cheetahs don’t hunt zebra,” says Eli, “too big. They go for smaller animals, gazelles…” The zebras don’t seem to know this, though. I can not see their eyes underneath the black and white face paint, but their ears remain alert, titled towards the three — “No, maybe it’s four, I think I see a fourth one…” cats.

The day gets hotter and the sun gets higher. I take off my fleece and roll up my pants. I wear a baseball cap to shade my eyes, but it doesn’t protect my ears from the brutal overhead sun. By the end of day three, my ears are red and blistered on top and they hurt like hell. My eyelashes fill with dust and I can feel the grit of the Serengeti between my teeth. We stop. We look. We take pictures. Eli smiles and asks, after the right amount of time, “Good to go?”

When the sun is high, we return to camp. Midday is no good for game spotting. The light is flat, and it is too hot. The animals are napping and we do the same, or we read in what shade we can find, or we sit, sweating in camp chairs, drinking not cold enough soda and talking nonsense. I look up and see a long line of zebras just beyond the trees that pretend to demarcate our campsite and then, my heart stops and I raise my hand and point. “Elephants!” We all stand and lean towards them, slightly. Then I race to grab my camera.

We walk through the sharp grass behind our tents, 15 yards, maybe 20. A family group is grazing just beyond a dry creek bed. There is a big female, a matron, with impressive tusks, she scratches a tree. They stay close together, mostly, save one slowpoke at the back who wanders down in to the dry creek bed, closer to where we stand, whispering. They are quiet, the elephants are, I can hear them exhaling, I can hear the swish of air behind their great ears as they flap. When they walk, there is no noise from their steps, the giant pads of their feet are silent on the gritty soil. They take their time, not looking at us, and we stare, open mouthed, not nearly as quiet as the elephants, while they move slowly out of sight.

Campground ElephantsElephants in the campground

When the shadows are longer, Eli reappears. We drive, again, and we see a leopard and more cheetahs and I laugh at the zebras taking dust baths, rolling on their backs, their hooves in the air. We look over a pod of hippos, submerged, their eyes, nostrils, and ears just above the water line. “Hippos get sunburned, ” Eli reminds us, so they stay below the water line.” There is a huge male in the this harem of hippos, he surfaces when he tries to climb on top of one of his ladies. There is a great deal of bubble and splash, and then, the water flattens and the hippos return to twitching their ears, the rest of their giant gray bodies still below the green water.

There are lions at the side of the road. They sit in the grass yawning, blinking at the jeeps, and then, disappearing into the sea of gold. We can see them when they move. We stand, transfixed, shooting photos, my camera is the loudest noise around, the click and whirr of the mirror as I shoot frame after (mostly useless) frame. I can’t hold the camera steady enough because even though the jeep is stopped and everyone is still, my hands are shaking with excitement.

The afternoon folds into night, the light drops, I zip myself back into my fleece. We see a redheaded zebra and a giraffe walking with great purpose as though she must get home before dark. “We need to get going,” says Eli, mindful of the park rules, while trying to indulge us as we take photo after photo after photo of the sun dropping beyond the darkening horizon. We drive, again, back into camp, and the next day we will start over. We do this for three days. We drive, we look, we return to camp, we rest and eat.

After the last morning drive, we fold up camp and Eli shutters the roof on his jeep. We load our camping gear into the back and take our seats. “Are you ready? Good to go?” asks Eli. We say yes, we are ready.

But I’m not ready, I’m not ready at all. I did not get a good look at that tiny black faced monkey racing away from the road, her baby clinging to her belly. I am not done watching the warthogs run on their short, funny little legs. My eyes are not unstuck from the sharp patterns on the zebras. I have not solved the riddle of the topi, its peculiar long face a mask of black and reddish brown beneath a set of sharp horns. “In migration season,” Eli says, “you can sit in the jeep for hours waiting for the animals to pass. They surround you. You can not go anywhere until they have cleared.”

Eli smiles. The jeep races forward, the dust flies behind us. “You will come back,” Eli instructs me. And I nod my head. We go, whether we are good to or not.

My travels to East Africa were sponsored by Intrepid Travel as part of their “classic journeys” campaign.” Most – but not all – of my expenses were paid for by Intrepid Travel.