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.