Monday, 17 December 2007

“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, five new friends . . .”

We met the family who are joining us on the safari in the morning. The girl’s name is Rachel, her parents are Heather and Joel, they live in Manhattan and we liked them right away. The girl loves to read and she immediately hooked up with all our kids and rode in our car for the first portion of our drive. It would take us five hours to reach our destination, Sweetwaters Game Reserve, where we would have our first game drive that afternoon. They all sat in the back, passed notes on little scraps of paper, sang songs and got to know each other. We were in two cars, jeeps with enticing panels on the roof that can be removed so you can poke your head out the top. The kids wished they could do it right away, but we promised by the game drive that afternoon the ceiling would be open and they could stand up all they wanted.

As we headed out of town, we pulled behind a city bus with an interesting message on the back. It said, “Don’t hate what you can’t conquer”. I don’t know why that quote captured me so much, something about it really made me think as we embarked on the first leg of our safari. Don’t hate what you can’t conquer. So if you are strong enough to conquer something, hate it, and destroy it? I’m still mulling it over.

We saw a lot of green as we drove out of town, lots of farms growing anything from wheat to pineapples, maize to coffee. They even grow fresh flowers and then export them. Our driver, David, explained how they cut them before they bloom, ship them in refrigerated trucks, and then fly them to Amsterdam overnight. It sounded like a stressful thing to grow, and too bad they never get to see their crop when it’s beautiful, a field full of flowers in full bloom. Our guide, Cosmos, was in the other car but David was a great source of information as we made our way across the countryside. Flat topped acacia trees, those trees you always see in pictures from Africa, dotted the landscape. I never realized how thorny they are, their branches prickle with inch-long thorns.

We passed cows and goats being herded alongside the road, and most of them had ropes tied around their necks so they could be pulled away from the traffic if need be. I wondered how many men it would take to hold back some of those big cows? It looked strange, seeing this livestock on ropes like leashes, like they were giant pets.

We made two stops along the way, for bathrooms and a break for the drivers to get some tea. Unfortunately, these bathrooms were located in the back of souvenir stores. Cosmos explained that we would be making a few stops like this, that we shouldn’t be obligated to buy a thing, but it’s hard to say “no” to the polite men who escort you through their store and eagerly tell you exactly how things were made and where. I wondered about their families back home, I wondered if twenty dollars would make a difference in food on the table, and we bought a small picture to hang on the wall back home at the first store, and a black rhino made of ebony for Nate at the second store.

More bargaining, we can’t seem to get away from it, how I long for price tags. When the man selling us the picture at the first store couldn’t get us to come down any more, he asked if we had anything American we could give him, but I could think of nothing. We aren’t traveling with any excess, the only pens I have were nabbed from hotels on the trip and the American quarter that was lingering in my wallet finally disappeared somewhere.

We had two other stops, one on the equator where a man showed us how water spins different directions depending on which side of the equator you are on. It was cool to think we were standing smack dab in the middle of the earth, and the young man’s presentation was interesting. He had really low overhead, all he needed was a bowl with a hole in it, a pitcher of water, and some toothpicks. We walked twenty meters from the equator along the side of the road, he emptied some of the water from the pitcher into his bowl, put in the toothpicks, set the bowl on top of the pitcher, and we watched how the toothpicks spiraled clockwise while the water drained. Then we walked twenty meters the other way, the same procedure, and the water spun counter-clockwise. We paid the young entrepreneur a few dollars for his time, but declined the ten dollar certificate saying we had been on the equator.

Next, we were hassled by four or five men who wanted us to visit their shops. “Just to look,” they insisted. Yeah right. But, our driver was having a coke, and while we could have sprinted to the car and safety, we were weak and said “okay”. Heather and Joel went to store number five, we went to store number six, and the sales pitch began. We actually left with nothing, except a crummy feeling that this wasn’t how we thought our safari adventure would be. Another stop, this time for the driver to pass a certain checkpoint. Cosmos warned us to roll up our windows, and sure enough, while we sat there men came up to the windows, holding bracelets and necklaces and other stuff we really didn’t want, and certainly didn’t need. Little kids mimed that they wanted a pen, any pen. A pen? Cosmos, is irritated by it all and certainly never made us feel obliged, said their parents probably told them to ask, that if we rolled down the window it would allow them to ask for more, for men to have an opportunity to put the bracelets through the window. So, we kept the windows up and continue to feel kind of crummy. Where were the lions and elephants?

Yet one more stop before we entered the game reserve, more bracelets and necklaces, and kids asking for pens. This time a mother held her little girl in a purple dress up to the window, and Alayna was beguiled. We handed the little girl a 100 shilling note through the window (worth a little more than a dollar) and she took it and gave it to her mother. Do we feel good about that? Do we feel like we just enabled that mother to use her baby to get money? Is this any kind of answer, any kind of solution, to the poverty these people may be experiencing? No matter how much we gave, would it be enough, or would there be anger that we didn’t buy from everyone? The same problems and questions that plague us back home when we pass a homeless person on the street came swarming into my brain. There is no easy answer, I want to help the right way, I want to show compassion, I want to show our kids that you don’t buy out of guilt or on a whim.

Just when I thought I might just get depressed, just when Clay was about to blow his top (we did not pay this much money for a safari to be dragged to souvenir stores, much as we liked our guide and drivers we were really getting irritated), we drove through the gates of Sweetwaters and saw wart hogs. A mama with her babies. Giraffes. Rhinos. This was the safari. We arrived at the tent lodge and were shown our tents, which can only be called tents because they have canvas walls. They have showers with hot water and a flushing potty, and while it isn’t the rugged adventure I had imagined, I was very thankful for the toilet. They really are beautiful. The tents, I mean.

We had some time before our first official game drive. We had some lunch. The kids got out their pocket knives and whittled awhile. Alayna tried to find a tree to climb that didn’t have thorns. They threw the football, until Nate accidentally threw it into one of the acacia trees, it was pierced by a thorn, and deflated. Clay and I sat on the chairs on the front porch of our tent and just gazed a while at the animals congregating at the watering hole across the way. It seemed like a long time since we just sat for a while. Maybe all the hassle earlier just made it that much sweeter. To just sit and think and gaze.

We took a game drive late that afternoon. The jeeps had the tops removed and the kids gloried in their freedom. No seat belts, and they could stand up on the seats and even arm rests to poke their heads out the top. We saw giraffes, rhinos, impala, warthogs and zebra. We went to a special chimp reserve set up by Jane Goodall, where we encountered Socrates. All the chimps there were once pets or orphaned, and they have a giant place to roam surrounded by an electric fence. Socrates was not pleased with our presence. For a while he sat there, munching, just two feet from where we squatted. When another group arrived to join us, he grabbed a big branch from a tree, stripped it of the extra limbs like they were pieces of paper, then ran on his back two legs up and down the fence line, clanging the stick up and down the wires. It was quite a sight and we kept our distance as he had his little tantrum, then left him as we all giggled ourselves back to the jeep. I didn’t realize chimps were that strong, or that opinionated!

We also visited a rhino that is kept all by himself at a different reserve. It is a rare black rhino that has lived there since he was a baby, and he’s so friendly you can hand feed him sugar cane and pet him behind the ears. I declined, but everyone else had a go, while we repeatedly reminded Benji not to stand in front of the rhino, where it might get spooked. His giant horn made me nervous. He could have skewered Benji like a s’more, but I kept telling myself hundred of tourists pet this friendly rhino every day, what could possibly happen?

That night we zipped the kids up in their tent and settled in for the night, the sound of crickets and cicadas buzzing outside. As the sun went down, it got chilly, so we cuddled up with our blankets and slept the night away under the African sky, under a canvas roof, with a potty nearby.