Behind the lens

My dear wife often jokes that I must hate something before I love it. The most annoying thing about her observation is that she is right. Perhaps the most blatant example of this quirk (I’m being generous to myself) is my change of attitude about tours. You know, like guided tours, the kind where you spend two weeks with total strangers on a motor coach with a guide covering a lot of ground in Europe. Nope, not for me. Or so I thought. Never underestimate the power of true love.

My wife and I were married in May of 2014 and her dream was to go to Italy for a belated honeymoon that September. I had traveled there a handful of years earlier with three friends, but one can never have enough Italy, so I said sure – until she proposed the idea of doing a tour. She made a strong case – tempting me with perks like no waiting in lines at sites, no stress of driving in a foreign land and the big one – no schlepping your own luggage. And she ran the numbers that clearly showed we could get a lot more bang for our Euros by going the tour route. So, I acquiesced and immediately started worrying about the boring obnoxious deplorables we would be sharing our journey with.

Once again, I was wrong. Are you sensing a pattern here? I call it the luck of the Australians, and we were blessed with over a dozen of them on our tour. Bottom line – toss in a dozen Aussies and you are guaranteed to have fun. You may need to enter rehab upon your arrival home, but meanwhile, you’re going to have the time of your life. We fell madly in love with our mates from Oz and remain in contact with many of them to this day via social media. A subgroup of them has a reunion every other year or so and always manage to include my wife and me in the festivities – like a drunken conference call at 2:00 AM in the US. That 14-hour time difference is tricky. The last time they got together they had two little dolls representing me and my wife and we made it into almost all the pictures – and some of the drinks.

We never think of these travel friends without smiling and we hope to visit them one day in the Land Down Under. My life is bigger and richer for knowing them and I have my wife to thank for nudging (shoving) me into saying yes to a tour. The downside to that trip was that the bar was set awfully high for future trips. I thought we’d never even come close to such a great group of companions. And then we went on safari to Africa in 2018. There’s really no way to travel in Africa other than a tour unless you’re Bear Grylls and/or incredibly wealthy. We are neither, so once again my wife researched the hell out of all the tours and picked one.

If you’ve ever been on a tour, you know that the initial meet and greet is fraught with anxiety. That’s when you first see who you’re going to be stuck with for the next two weeks. It’s like a blind date on steroids. We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania very late at night and rode on a shuttle van to our lodge with some others who were on our tour. I sat in front of a woman from NJ who never stopped talking. And she was a loud talker – one of my pet peeves. She droned on and on – her poor husband never said a word and I started panicking at the idea of being with her in a jeep on safari for ten days. I leaned into my wife and said, “I cannot be with her. I will lose my mind.” My wife is so much better at rolling with obnoxious people than I am. She smiled and told me it would be okay. I was not convinced.

The next morning our group of 13 gathered after breakfast for the moment of truth. Loud Talker was already there monopolizing the conversation and my palms began to sweat. My anxiety was interrupted by a woman from IL who started talking to me. Not loudly. She was friendly and interesting. Her name was Candy, and she was traveling with her husband Fred. Our host introduced us to the two guides who would be driving us and after an overview of the trip, instructed us to get into one of the two vehicles parked out in front of the lodge.

Candy and I wound up next to each other on the walk to the jeeps – Loud Talker was ahead of us. Enter Divine Intervention. Candy turned to me and said in a slightly desperate voice, “I cannot be in the same jeep with her.” I grabbed her by the arm and said, “Follow me!” like I was Indiana Jones leading her away from the Temple of Doom. We climbed into the open jeep – our spouses followed. Already seated were a brother and sister, Jim and Suzie, who I had previously identified as nice. We had one slot open – and then came Marge – a soft-spoken solo traveler. Our vehicle was full, and we were safe. Funny thing – the rest of the entire trip, the seating arrangement never changed. Our group – our fabulous group – was together for the duration.

My wife is prone to motion sickness, so she rode up front with the driver – she offered to rotate her spot, but everyone was so kind, and we all sat in the same seats each day. I was beside Candy and Fred was in the way back with Marge. They were the serious photographers in our pack. I mean really serious. Multiple cameras and long lenses. They liked being in the back because they could stand up when we stopped and have no obstruction as they were shooting.

Fred looked like he was on assignment for National Geographic. You know how some people look like they just bought an outfit for the trip that they will never wear in their real life? Not Fred. His safari wardrobe was well weathered. He looked like he could be in an ad for a safari or a model for the J. Peterman catalog. He was a quiet man – only speaking to add insights into what we were seeing. He was smart and well-traveled, and he was super sweet to his wife, so we liked him a lot right away. And he had the eye of an accomplished photographer and would spot animals long before we did.

Candy would take pictures with her iPhone like us, but then she would call out to Fred like she was Martin Scorsese, “Did you get the lioness on the rock?” Fred always dutifully and cheerfully got the shot. Later at dinner every evening, he would show us some of the primo shots of the day and we would wonder if we had been on the same game drive. Impressive zoom lens you got there, Fred. And we were so surprised after one of the first nights of the trip when Fred called our room and asked if we wanted to meet for drinks before dinner. We liked Fred even more then and we had some lovely conversations – mostly about some of the many places where he and Candy had traveled. We learned about their son and their two granddaughters and that they loved cats, too. The life stuff that helps you get to know someone.

Fred was one of those rarest of men – at least in my experience. He was a man’s man – an Eagle Scout/MacGyver kind of guy who I’m sure could have gotten us out of any sort of jam. He was also a gentleman who would help you up that first big step into the jeep without making you feel inadequate. He had a kind smile, and he would give Candy and me a sly grin when Loud Talker went off on one of her tangents at dinner. And I repeat – he was so sweet and attentive to his wife. Like he would always ask if she wanted another drink before he got the check. Little thoughtful things like that. I think my wife and I both had a little crush on him and I’m certain Candy wasn’t the least bit worried. They were one of those couples that’s just good together and you enjoy being around them.

I could tell that Fred was a good dad and granddad, too. At the airport on our flight to head home, my wife and I had spent all our shillings – that’s the Tanzanian currency – and we desperately wanted to buy a couple of bottles of water. Fred overheard our frenzied discussion and kindly came to our rescue and paid for our waters. Just like a dad to save the day.

The flight from Arusha to Amsterdam was packed and we never saw Fred and Candy again. When we got home, Fred sent me some amazing photos that he had taken and we exchanged holiday cards. Two years ago, Candy let us know that Fred had been diagnosed with cancer. Fuck cancer. He was in and out of the hospital and rehab and we had not heard an update in a while. Until yesterday. Candy let us know that Fred had passed away last Sunday.

I was at my desk when I read her message and I sobbed. Sitting by myself in front of my laptop, I just couldn’t stop crying for a man I had only spent ten days with. I think this pandemic has stripped many of us of any protective layers we might have had. I know I have been teary about a lot of losses of late. And honestly, it’s not a bad thing to be completely authentic with your emotions. I pictured Fred hanging off the back of the jeep to get the perfect shot, telling a good story, watching an amazing sunset. Fred. Happy being on a magical safari with his wife.

I gathered myself and responded to Candy how very sorry I was and that my wife and I would always hold Fred and her in our fondest memories. She wrote back, “Wonderful memories of the best trip ever. And our last together.” Gulp.

So, this is my long way of thanking my dear wife for making me not hate tours. If not for her, I would have never met Fred Brown.

Rest well, intrepid traveler. You got the shot.

The Last Eden

AFRICA GROUPING

“The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa – for he has so much to look forward to.” Richard Mullin 

Africa in winter smells like spearmint and I hope that I never forget that sweet scent.  I want to carry Africa with me for the rest of my life.

I’ve been home from my safari for almost eight months now, but I’ve been reluctant to write about my experience. I suppose in part because I don’t think I possess the words to  translate the images in my head into sentences, but also for a surprisingly selfish reason. I just haven’t felt like sharing. I feel oddly protective of these memories – they feel rather sacred to me and I have wanted to keep them close in a secret place – like old love letters in a box.

You see, Africa was a cliché come true. It really was the trip of a lifetime – one I didn’t know I needed until I traveled 7,843 miles to Arusha, Tanzania. I’ve never been a bucket list kind of person, but thankfully my dear wife is, and Africa was at the top of her list.

AFRICA JOY IN PROFILE

Dear wife was so happy in Africa. Bucket Lists rock!

But let’s get back to my selfishness. Africa was so magnificent, and I want you to love Africa, too, and I’m certain I’m not a good enough writer to adequately convey its magic and mystery. So, I will borrow generously from some authors who did find the right words. Like Ernest Hemingway who said, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.”

That’s how I felt every morning in Africa and that’s saying a lot because my luggage for the two-week trip never arrived. Two weeks. No luggage. I went on safari and my bag, thanks to a careless man in the Amsterdam airport, went on a boondoggle to a conference in the Netherlands and then on to London for several days before returning to the United States. My bag – and the small stack of brand new Columbia safari shirts which have no place in my real life – were waiting for me when I returned home.

africa dirty shirt

My ONE shirt at the end of each day.

I will admit to being a lifelong over-packer. I like choices – it’s as simple as that. And I loathe people who brag about traveling light like it is some sort of virtue. But guess what? Africa was so amazing that after my initial breakdown after learning that I would be wearing the clothes on my back for two weeks, I got over it. I’m not going to lie – the breakdown wasn’t pretty – yes, there were tears – but I ran through the stages of grief quickly and landed on acceptance after our first day on safari when I looked way up into a giraffe’s eyes so close that I could almost count her eyelashes. Choices are overrated. Giraffes are not.

AFRICA GIRAFFE SELFIE

Best. Selfie. Ever.

My good attitude was tested on the second day on a long game ride. We stopped at a spot that had restrooms and a safe space to stretch our legs. Throughout the day we had seen navy and black flags tied onto trees like a target. Someone in our group asked our guide what they meant. He explained, “Those colors attract the tsetse flies and help keep them off of us.”

AFRICA ADDY SHIRT

From the Tsetse Fly Collection.

Any guesses on the colors of my one outfit? Yep. Navy shirt, black pants. What could go wrong?

Here’s the other problem about writing about Africa. It’s like going to IKEA for the first time. You have a list of things you’re looking for – say a duvet cover and a shower curtain – and you leave the store four hours later with a basketful of whimsical dessert plates, five picture frames, two vases and a jar of lingonberry jam because, what the hell, you’re at IKEA. The store is so vast that you are completely overwhelmed as you hunt for that perfect bedding and you wind up dizzy from walking around in circles while coveting dozens of other tchotchkes you never even imagined existed.

AFRICA BABOONS

Me wandering through IKEA be like…

Africa is just like that only without the baby strollers. I arrived with my list – the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and water buffalo. Well, I got them all – four of the five on the very first day! But I also got dozens of other “finds” that I never knew I needed – like a dik-dik. Don’t even. A dik-dik looks like a miniature deer but it’s actually a small antelope and is the cutest thing you’ve ever laid eyes on. They hang out near the lodges for safety – they’re so tiny that the locals refer to them as “cheetah snacks”. The circle of life can be cruel, my friends.

AFRCA DICK DICK.JPG

Two dik-diks are better than one.

The British travel writer A. A. Gill observed, “You either get the point of Africa or you don’t. What draws me back is that it’s like seeing the world with the lid off.” I think I got it or more accurately, it got me. Big time.

I love Gill’s analogy of the lid off. Viewing Africa up close is a rush of amazement and awe. You see it, but you also feel it – down to your spine.  If you ever saw the stage version of The Lion King, you might have an inkling of what I’m talking about. Remember the stunning first ten minutes of the show when the giraffes and zebras and company parade onto the great plains of the stage against the backdrop of a burning African sun? The music swells and you feel your heart expanding. Being on safari in Africa feels like that on steroids – with a lot of dust thrown in.

AFRICA LION CLOSEUP

Mufasa! Yeah, he’s definitely the boss of you.

I cried almost every day – not in a boo hoo way, but gentle tears of joy and wonder and a good dose of gratitude. And I wasn’t the only one. On one of our first days out, we came across a huge migration of zebras and wildebeests – they often travel together because  zebras can see very well while wildebeests have a keen sense of hearing. Together, they have a better chance of warding off predators. On this day, the chorus line of animals went on for miles at a noisy but peaceful pace. Our driver, the marvelous Edwin, had the wisdom to just turn off our Land Cruiser and let us watch in silence. It was a reverent interlude and needed no narration.

Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, captured the glee one feels in Africa when she wrote, “There is something about safari life that makes you forget all of your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne – bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.” All these months later,  I’m still nursing an Africa hangover.

This is where I get stuck – trying to describe how big Africa is. We spent most of our time in three areas –Tarangire National Park (an area of 1,100 square miles), the Ngorongoro Conversation Area (3,202 square miles) and Serengeti National Park (12,000 square miles). The name “Serengeti” is translated from the word the Maasai used to describe the area, siringet, meaning “the place where the land runs on forever”.

AFRICA LANDSCAPE

On a clear day you really can see forever.

And believe me, it does. There were times when I could look in both directions and not see anything but the plains and a single tree. Oh, the trees of Africa! I didn’t realize how smitten I was with them until I got home and started editing my photo roll. So many tree snaps and it pained me to delete any of them. The trees are so distinctive: the iconic baobab, favorite high fiber snack of elephants; the sausage tree that looks like, well, a tree with  big rolls of salami hanging from it and attracts baboons and many birds because of the sweet blooms it drops when it flowers; and my favorite, the lovely acacia tree, which sometimes whistles when the wind blows.

AFRICA BALBO BACK COVER.JPG

Behold the baobab! World’s largest protein bar.

One feels very tiny on safari – especially when you’re around so many elephants. Even the baby elephants seemed ginormous. Sweet factoid – mama elephants are some of the best mothers in the animal kingdom. And you see this every day on safari. They are very affectionate with their babies and terribly protective – which we witnessed one day when our vehicle got what Mama thought was too close to the herd and she gave us a “fake” rush and a loud chorus of trumpeting. We all leaned back in the cruiser – as if that would save us. Mama don’t play.

AFRICA ELEPANT FAMILY.JPG

Nobody puts Baby in the corner.

One of my most favorite things on safari was learning the names of different groupings of animals. I don’t know who gets credit for this clever nomenclature, but it absolutely delighted me. Here are some of the best:

A flamboyance of flamingos.

AFRICA FLAMINGO MARGE PHOTO

  Tickled pink.                           Photo credit: Marge Hester

A crash of rhinos.

A cackle of hyenas.

A business of mongooses.

AFRICA MONGOOSE

                Their work is never done.

A bloat of hippos.

AFRICA HIPPOS SWIMMING

They definitely pee in the pool.

A leap of leopards.

AFRICA FRED SHOT LEAPORD CLOSEUP

Perusing the lunch menu.  Photo credit: Fred Brown

A dazzle of zebras.

AFRICA ZEBRAS TRIO

Not everyone can pull off stripes.

A confusion of wildebeests.

AFRICA WILDEBEAST

It’s so hard to get a good group photo.

An obstinacy of buffaloes.

And my absolute favorite – a tower of giraffes.

AFRICA DOULBE GIRAFFE

Neck with a view.

 

AFRICA ALARM

Hi-tech alarm system outside our door.

We saw them all and so much more – birds, crocodiles and lizards, too. We even saw animals post-safari when we were back in the safe confines of our lodge. As we arrived at each destination, our greeter would review important information including the admonition to not go down to dinner without an escort from someone on the staff. I thought that was a little much until I opened our lodge door on one of our first evenings to find two warthogs darting across the path. And one night while dining outside on a terrace overlooking the pool, we saw two Cape Buffaloes stroll by. None of the locals ever got too excited because they know the bottom line – the animals were here first.

AFRICA LION IN ROAD

Care to guess who has the right of way?

And here’s perhaps the most wonderful part of all – the animals know that, too. All the areas we were in have been protected for years and years, so none of these animals have ever been hunted or harmed by humans. I can’t tell you what they were thinking when they looked at us – sometimes curiosity, often a blasé whatever, but never fear. And that’s why those interactions were so sacred. We weren’t enemies. I was just a guest with orchestra seating at the Great Migration – a spectacular show that has been running even longer than The Lion King.

“To witness that calm rhythm of life revives our worn souls and recaptures a feeling of belonging to the natural world. No one can return from the Serengeti unchanged, for tawny lions will forever prowl our memory and great herds throng our imagination.” G. Schaller

The sign on the door to the Visitor Center at Serengeti National Park reads, “Welcome to the Serengeti, the Last Eden”. And that’s exactly what it feels like – you are at ground zero of creation and it simply stands you still at times. On so many of our game drives, I would just gaze out at the beautiful, untouched land and the cacophony of all those exquisite creatures and wonder two things. One, how can this really exist and secondly, how did we screw it up so badly? I’m certain God is somewhere in the answer to the first question, but I don’t have a clue as to the second one.

AFRICA NGORO GORO

The Last Eden.

We were sad when it was time to leave Africa. We would have been even sadder had we known it was going to take us 52 hours to get home, but on the bright side, I didn’t have any laundry to do the next day.

I’m trying to be cheeky because I still get a big lump in my throat when I think of never seeing Africa again. It is an expensive and expansive journey and most folks never get to go – and there are so many other places to see. But Africa puts its mark on you in an utterly transcendent way that I will never be able to convey with words.

AFRICA SIGN

For once I followed the rules.

There is an African proverb that says, “The eye never forgets what the heart has seen.”

May it be so.

 

AFRICA DUSTY ROAD

“If there was one more thing I could do, it would be to go on safari once again.” Karen Blixen

 

AFRICA ADDY AND JOY

I had the good sense to marry my bucket list.

 

AFRICA group

“I have found out there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them. ” Mark Twain  We loved our group!