na foine ting

Thursday, September 23, 2004
I wrote this essay in Kenya two years ago.


Leaving Amboselli
(for Crystal)

A gamut of lodges before today; each experience, each stay different, but also inherently the same. Arrive at the lodge, check in, go for a game drive-with as many as a few dozen other truck and van loads of tourists-arrive back, have dinner. Arise early. Get back in the van. Exclaim at the zebra and impala, hope secretly for lion or even the elusive leopard.

Return for breakfast.

Amuse ourselves, have tea, and at four go back out in the vans again.

This morning, here at Amboselli, the routine is briefly broken by a walking tour around the perimeter of the lodge.

Strange, to suddenly feel the powdery yield of volcanic ash under my feet. Good, to feel the sun pour down and find later I am sunburned.

Oddly reassuring, to see an immense dust devil sweep by and now, outside the confines of the van, feel the wind of it brush and pluck. A real prickle of adrenaline, wary in case it swings our way.

Our guide, Erick, walks with deliberate slowness through the bush, skirting the lodge's septic ponds and pointing out ibis, heron, water-walking Jesus birds. Like all of the guides, he is intensely knowledgeable, confident. He is also genuinely enthusiastic.

Later I will notice how loudly I walk, and how little noise Erick makes as he moves along. Later I will alter my stride and footfall, learn to look up and around and not just at my feet.

We see the jewel blue of the superb starling, ludicrous guinea fowl, a stunning tawny eagle.

A Masai warrior walks along with us, for protection from the unlikely presence of predators, who at this time of day all lie tucked in shady spots out of the heat, asleep.

We, like mad dogs and Englishmen, pick our way along, learn about big game scat. I am contemplating an impala's leavings when the Masai raps my arm with the wood haft of his spear, just hard enough to get my attention. He points to the path, to a mark the diameter of a serving platter, criss-crossed with faint, maplike lines.

"Elephant," I say in comprehension as he circles it for me, makes a point of tracing its size and shape with his finger in the dust. He nods. It is unnerving, his walking silently alongside me as we make our way across the plain. He is tall, draped in red cloth, younger than I am by perhaps more than a decade, and yet his wears his status in such a way that I can only feel small and weak in comparison.

It is not superiority, exactly, but an ease and assurance here that is complete.

It is the total antithesis of what I have been feeling.

So I find when we arrive at the end of our short hike, at the jeeps and coolers full of Tusker beer, that I don't want this being outside, this walk out into the world here, to end. I have begun to touch the ground, to feel a size and shape of the wilds around me. In getting a true sense of how out of place I am here, I begin to feel like I have finally, actually arrived.

I ask Erick the guide if we can walk back. He laughs.

"Sure, we can walk back," he says. The jeeps will go on without us, carrying the handful of sporting tourists who are dusty and more than happy to be driven back.

I am thrilled.

I take more water from the cooler. There is something Erick finds funny, and I'm not entirely sure what it is until he points to the land rover.

"Get in the truck," he says.

Get in the truck.

It was a joke, and yet as I once again clambered inside a vehicle designed for safe and comfortable viewing of Kenya, I was blinking back angry tears.

But I sat in the truck, and rode back to the lodge, and tried to be at least grateful for the experience we'd had.

Later, it was time for the four o'clock game drive and I found I couldn't bear to go.

There is a sort of odd panic you feel, making that choice. I might miss something good. Leopard. Cheetah.

But it is in part the sheer acquisitiveness of experience, that panic, that bothers me about all this.

And I opted to stay.

A wise friend advised me in email to do what it took to get off the beaten path, to find someone who could show me something new, different, real.

So I tried to be polite but also persistent at the lodge's front desk. Another walk, if it wasn't too much trouble. Yes, today, no, not with the others tomorrow. Yes, I know it's hot now. I'm fit, it's all right.

You do not demand these things, and the lodges are in a state of quiet exhale during these times, four to six in the afternoon, when the vans and jeeps are all out hunting the perfect game viewing moment.

People lean, converse in their native languages. The power is frequently turned off, and there is, for those two hours, sometimes no hot water.

When Erick the guide returned to the front desk, he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt instead of his Friendly and Knowledgeable Lodge Guide uniform. He introduced himself, as though I wouldn't recognize him.

"I know who you are," I told him, "and you're still in trouble with me for pulling my leg earlier."

He shrugged. "I didn't want you to miss your lunch," was all he said.

We made our way back out past the sign that said "DANGER - animals only beyond this point."

On the first walk, Erick had asked us, as part of his guide patter, "what animal will you be? I am a lion," he said easily.

Erick is Masai, through from Masai Mara, not the Amboselli area in which he now works.

"Cheetah," said my brother in law.

"Wildebeast," I said.

On the second walk, I only had to tell Erick the guide patter wasn't necessary twice before he realized I meant it. Then we talked more comfortably, both about the animals and wilds around us, and about ourselves.

Erick's brother is studying medicine in Utah, and after six months of settling in, enjoys the US very much.

Erick has studied hard to be a guide, worked in Masai Mara and now for a few months in Amboselli. He hopes to emigrate as well, after a couple of years.

He is getting in shape for a Kilamanjaro climb in a few months. As he told me this, he stood framed in the mountain's immense, snow-capped silhouette. It towered over us, impossible and serene.

"Five days, if you're fit," he said with casual confidence. The same confidence of the young man who had walked with us through the bush, prepared to defend a baker's dozen sweaty white tourists from any threat with just his speed, wits, strength and a fragile-looking spear.

I imagined Erick and his friends, the slow but steady pace he walks at, up the side of the mountain.

"It's pretty cold up there," he remarked, turning to look at the mountain, following my gaze.

Despite our having broken out of the guide-client context, I was delighted to find that at least some of Erick's enthusiasm about Kenyan wildlife was real.

The same young man who told me with a sheepish grin, "I'm sick of zebras," nudged me sharply so I would not miss a jewel-toned bird in a tree that I had bypassed as a mere superb starling.

He handed me his binoculars. "Lilac breasted roller bird," he said with some reverence. As it fluttered from the branch, I gasped at the flash of a half dozen colors which glittered off its feathers in the sun. "You see?" he said with satisfaction. "Beautiful."

I have come to realize that there is a moment that is genuine, here. A place where I have come to witness, to observe and experience and exclaim, and if I am humble enough about it, it can transcend acquisitive tourism and become something real.

"Look," they say. Erick shows me the roller bird, the Masai warrior traces his finger around an elephant footprint. Someone tells me about back doors in weaver bird nests. Again.

But, "look," they say, and
"Ah," I exclaim.

On the way back to the lodge we pass a group of Masai, headed to the village. They look at me, and then at Erick curiously. It is five-thirty in the evening, their expressions say. What the hell is that tourist doing out here?

As they file past, their dog, following along behind, stops in its tracks. It stares, ears flat. Tail stiff. Its eyes follow me mistrustfully until I am well away. Erick catches me watching it and chuckles. "It's probably never seen a white person before," he says. I contemplate this, on the way back to the lodge.

Leaving Amboselli, I find I am, for the first time, filled with tangible regret. A sense of real loss, as Erick comes to say goodbye and Justus packs our things in the ubiquitous van, and we drive away through the now-familiar landscape.

I realize the sense of loss is a good thing.

I realize as we drive along through the now somehow known landscape that I have somehow connected, learned this place, become in my own brief way a part of it, until I am gone.

So I savor the loss as a mark of having had something, and remember it, and am glad.

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