Seeing is Believing

For one day out of the year, Incans from all four corners of Peru journey to the Moray in Sacred Valley and pay homage to Mother Earth, or Pachamama. With the luck of whimsey on our side, we happened upon this annual celebration this past August. After parking in the overcrowded lot and being slightly miffed that we had to pay to pee because there was a special event going on, we walked towards the agriculturally significant site and were delighted by the live music reverberating from the manmade crater. We soon saw ladies dressed in their traditional garments of short gathered skirts and tall hats frying corn and chicken and vegetables under plastic blue tarps that provided minimal protection from the South American winter sun. Our guide regained his authority and informed us that Incans believe they must give back to Pachamama or be punished in the coming growing season. Participants waved regional flags in sweeping motions as brightly clothed leaders descended to the bottom of the terraced pit, thanking Mother Earth for the bounty she had provided and offering her a black llama in return. In past times, Incans believed that without the sacrifice, their crops would fail in the coming year. They no longer hold firm this idea, but tradition is tradition, and the black llama would be temporarily put to sleep as a way of honoring historical practices while protecting the animal’s rights.

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Is that a Llama or an Alpaca?

Llamas grow to be bigger than alpacas, are typically used as pack animals, and have a reputation for spitting. The alpaca’s fur is softer than a llama’s and is the material most often used in high-end sweaters, scarves, etc. Llamas have a longer nose, and banana-shaped ears while alpacas have a pug face and short ears. A restaurant menu may include one or both types of meat – I didn’t try either, but I did buy an alpaca sweater. Alpacas seemed to be the animal most used as a photo pet like the baby I held and the adult my husband had a special moment with.

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Getting Seeds to Grow

Even without the Pachamama ceremony, the Moray is an archaeological site worthy of a tourist’s attention. Chosen for its natural shaped bowl, the area was dug even deeper to create circular rows of terraces that start at an altitude about the same as where crops had already been growing successfully, and end at the current elevation. Over time, the seeds from the lower level terraces are transplanted to the upper terraces where growing conditions are less hospitable until they eventually adapt to the highest elevation. The angled stone walls of the terraces catch the heat of the sun’s rays during the day and deliver it at night to the seedlings, helping them to adapt more easily. This process takes many seasons to acclimate the crops, but the result is worth it – fresh produce for the community, no matter the altitude.

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History Lesson

The Incans are not indigenous people of Peru. This designation would go to the “pre-Incans”. History tells us that Spaniards conquered the Inca civilization in the sixteenth century and are duly resented for the mass destruction of an ancient civilization. But before that, the Incans were the conquerors. On a hill above Cuzco, the capital of the Incan empire, we visited a pre-Incan embalming chamber that was created from naturally formed granite tables and mazes below the surface of the earth. The entrance to the underground mortuary doesn’t look like something worth more than a quick pass over; however, after entering through the boulders guarding the entrance, a multi-roomed chamber is revealed. Peruvian music playing from a street musician is the only sound besides the wind that was heard in this place of afterlife preparations.

What’s more, next door to the creepy caves is both a sacred Incan ruin and the WWII gifted statue of the White Christ from Christian Palestinians. The views are great from this site honoring three eras: pre-Incan, Incan, and current Peruvian.

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It was also here that we noticed many houses with their roofs being guarded by two bulls. These ceramic figurines come from an adapted Incan tradition that promises they will bring good fortune and protection to the house and inhabitants. 

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Between Two Valleys

In the Sacred Valley, an Incan site we visited called Ollantaytambo (oh-yan-ty-tam-boe) was chosen for being equidistant between two valleys, creating visual gaps that are the exact distance apart as the trajectory the sun follows throughout the year, like the shape of a “V” with the point being near the sunspot or photo opportunity as it is now.

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The precision of Incan stonework used for sacred areas is unbelievable. Ruin 23

The site is easily reached on foot from the center of the same-named village which offers every kind of health food craze on the planet including raw, organic, gluten-free, vegan, and even alpaca burgers.

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The village is a hippy tourist’s paradise, offering hallucinogenic herbs for a massive detox.

  • Traveler’s tip #1: If you have five days to burn in Peru, some tourists choose to spend their time vomiting. Through a pre-Incan magic mix of scary-sounding drugs, a person endures a work-week worth of misery to rid themselves from the nasty build-up from a lifetime of regrettable experiences. Our guide recommended that a trusted Shaman be on hand to administer the “kool-aid” (my term) and an SOS friend is on call for the session. People who have lived through the detox report a lightness of being and a new lease on life that makes the whole ordeal bearable, even worth it. My doubting mind wonders if the relief from stopping the vomiting is the real reason for their newfound contentment, but I don’t want to say this to them and diminish any effort a participant has put into throwing up for five days. I am curious about it though, so if you’ve tried it, please comment below about your experience. And, recommend a good Shaman while you’re at it. 🙂

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In the Pink

“Only five places in the world produce pink salt. Can you tell me where they are?” our guide said as we entered the Maras Salt Pans or Salineras de Maras. The one thing that bothered me about this guide is his incessant quizzes.

We guessed Hawaii, the Himalayas, and based on proximity, Peru.

“Poland and Bolivia are the other two,” he said which seemed less interesting to us since we had already entered into the Maras.

Dennis, a former dentist turned tour guide, continued with his lecture, informing us that certain types of pink salt have better flavor and mineral qualities than regular table salt. The surprising aspect of the Maras is the manual process they use to create their pink salt. It goes like this:

A stream inside the earth dissolves the hardened sea salt and brings it to the surface where it is irrigated across 3,000 small plots of individually owned terraces. These small plots are about the size of a large bathroom in the US. Water from the salty stream fills the troughs where it is dried and then raked. The top layer is gray and not as sought after but still useable, the middle layer is the special pink salt and the lower layer is discarded because its clay content is too high to be used in anything a human wants to eat.

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Regardless of whether or not all the proposed virtues of pink salt are true, I bought a $5 bag to take home just in case I couldn’t find any in the SF Bay Area, a place where you can buy almost anything.

Dancing with Horses

Not only is Peru a foodies’ paradise, but it is also a great place for a dance enthusiast. For one of our lunch breaks, we witnessed a barefooted woman dancing with a horse while we munched on a BBQ buffet served at our table. Peruvian Paso Horse and Marinera dancing is an exotic combination of the romantic handkerchief dance and the naturally rhythmic movements of the Paso Horse. Although I love to dance, I wouldn’t be trusting enough to dance in bare feet with a hooved animal running around me like I was a barrel in a rodeo act. The sure-footed dancer performed her choreography with style and bravery while the horse pranced in perfect rhythm, seeming to swoon over her like he was in love.

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Dessert

As if that wasn’t enough fun, we also got to see a traditional dance show at the Cuzco Cultural Center as part of our packet of tours which I highly recommend purchasing should you find yourself in Cuzco (this idea should be a Traveler’s Tip).

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But, Why Did We Go?

With all this excitement in the Sacred Valley and Cuzco, it’s easy to forget the real reason we traveled to Peru. We wanted to see Machu Picchu. Although we had seen loads of pictures of the place from every vantage point and under every kind of weather condition, we maintained that it’s not the same as being there.

Hardcore REI types trek into Machu Picchu via a four-day, three-night trip along the Inca Trail where campers sleep in tents previously occupied by dirty, sweaty tourists and use toilets offering the same kind of ambiance. Being fussier hikers, we chose the cushier route and only walked the last 7.5 miles of the Inca Trail. That was more than enough stone steps for one vacation.

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  • Traveler’s Tip #2: Many tourists who arrive in Cuzco from near sea level spend their first few days with altitude sickness. Since I already know the higher elevations affect me, I was all for a new plan which had us acclimatizing in the Sacred Valley at 7,000 feet before heading to Cuzco at 11,000.

After becoming accustomed to the altitude in Sacred Valley, we started our very long day of hiking into the world’s greatest Incan Ruin (my opinion) at 5:30am which is the middle of the night for my husband. Dennis the dentist had carefully prepped us when we met the night before. He had repeatedly (read annoyingly) instructed us to pack three bags: one for our day hike to carry our packed lunch and rain gear, one for an overnight stay in Machu Picchu Pueblo, and our main luggage to be delivered to our hotel in Cuzco where we would stay two nights from then. This was a complicated undertaking and we had to review our notes several times to ensure we had the right contents in the right bag for each occasion.

We arrived at the Ollantaytambo train station around 7am along with dozens of other eager tourists who were also equipped with daypacks and overnight bags. Once the train was on its way, Andean music that sounded like Simon and Garfunkel’s’ “El Condor Pasa” (I’d Rather be a Hammer than a Nail) played in the background while we peered out the side and ceiling windows from one of Peru’s many luxury trains. A great way to get around while there. We followed Urubamba River as it flowed wide than deep, and rough then smooth as it wound its way around peaks with names like Veronica, Huacay Huilcay, Wayna Willka, and Waqaywill.

  • Traveler’s Tip #3: To prevent embarrassment and avoid sounding like you just flew in from Texas, it’s important to know the correct pronunciation of Machu Picchu. In the Quechua language, they make a “k” sound before the “chu” in Picchu as in “Peekchu”. Otherwise, the sound Peechu means a penis rather than a mountain. So, you would be saying Old Penis rather than Old Mountain when telling your friends that you climbed a Machu Picchu.

After a couple of hours spent snacking on brownies and coffee, we disembarked the train at Kilometer 104, the trailhead for the short version of the Inca Trail. For reference, the 4-day hike starts at Kilometer 87.

Trail KM104

I was keen to hit the trail fast and furious. It was going to be a long hot day and I wanted to get the bulk of the trek completed before lunch. Our guide was hoping for a more leisurely pace, but Dennis soon learned this was not going be an elderly person’s stroll. That’s okay, he got even with me the next day when he sent us on a grueling trip to Wayna Picchu (Young Mountain). “It’ll take forty-five minutes,” he said to us two hours before we would return.

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Our trail took us through the Sun Gate where the path rises to a flat area with stone pillars that welcome bug-bitten pilgrims to their first full view of the sacred site. This was one thing Dennis the Dentist didn’t prepare us for – the nasty hole drilling insects that you don’t see and that make your bare legs miserable for weeks after quietly entering your flesh.

When we walked through the Sun Gate at about 1:30pm, I realized people can tell you about it, you can read about it, you can even watch videos about it, but you don’t really understand it until you experience Machu Picchu for yourself. I can now say with confidence that the path through the Sun Gate is the way to see Machu Picchu.

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Across the mountainside, resting in the arms of a carved peak carpeted in green and framed by the jagged Andes rests the sacred city the Incas built centuries ago. Just like the those who made pilgrimages to the location in the 1500s, we arrived at the viewpoint, hot, exhausted, and exhilarated. Catching the first site of the sacred citadel from this vantage point made me feel as though we were seeing the city in the way the Incas had meant for it to be seen. From above. My beating heart, my damp eyes, and my arms dotted with goosebumps told me that this place had inspirational qualities that can only be felt from the inside out. Maybe it was the fact that we had toiled our way up the numerous stone stairways that my visceral reaction was a sigh of relief that the trek was near completion. Or, maybe it was something deeper. Perhaps those first few moments of witnessing the awe-inspired setting were the main reason to make the trip. The scene seemed both impossible and incomprehensible, requiring a more profound response than “Isn’t it pretty?”

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As we descended into the ruin, we stopped along the way for photo opportunities that would serve to document a trip we might otherwise not believe we had taken. Our guide pointed out the extreme workmanship, from precise corners and matching stone edges to the effigies created to honor the mountain resting in the replica’s shadow. We took more pictures and breathed more deeply.

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In a show of auspicious welcoming, a condor flew over while a chowchilla wrinkled its nose at us. We had made it to the fabled mountain and the wildlife continued with its daily routine, reminding us we were simply visitors for the day.

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Besides our love for freshly prepared food, the Incas and I have something else in common. We both believe that mountains hold magical powers. And, that if we spend enough time among these overseers of the universe, we too shall inherit their bravery and resilience. We feel the spirits of our deceased loved-ones floating in the watchful sky along with the condors, serving to guide and inspire us.

We are better for having arrived on this mountain top, even if thousands of other awkward tourists did the same damn thing at the same damn time. No matter how manufactured our day became after we joined the hoards, we will always have those first few moments of joyful tears and chills up the spine when it seemed as if we were among the first to witness this holy place. Seeing Machu Picchu is about so much more than seeing Machu Picchu.

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Jamestown

Before last week, I had never been to an insane asylum. Maybe I still haven’t been to one. Much has changed since my grandfather was admitted to the North Dakota State Hospital for the Insane – a harsh name for a place purportedly dedicated to helping people. None of the original buildings are still standing but they have drawings and pictures of the way it used to look. The so-called Insane Asylum was established in 1885, four years before North Dakota was granted statehood. It’s only one of two North Dakota institutions to predate statehood; the other is the University of North Dakota. Today, the mental health facility is called the North Dakota State Hospital, a kinder gentler designation. Located in Jamestown, we often refer to the hospital as simply “Jamestown” as if this one hospital defines the entire community. Since I was in the neighborhood, some ninety miles away in the up and coming city of Fargo, I thought I would visit the place where my father’s father died while bending over to tie his shoes.

Trivia Question: Did you know that many people claim the Fargo and Moorhead area is one of the largest cities between Minneapolis and Seattle? At a combined population of about 230,000+, it amazes me they could find enough people to brave the cold dark winters. And, ah-hum, what about Spokane, WA?

2nd Trivia Question: Did you know that the show Fargo is largely filmed in its twin city, Moorhead, MN? I totally understand why a producer would prefer the evocative name Fargo to the functional name of Moorhead, accurate or not.

Anyway, in this land of my Bohemian-Czech ancestors, I had one burning question I wanted to be answered:

Was the definition of schizophrenia back then – in the years of the Great Depression – the same as it is today? 

I’ll dispense with the suspense and say that I did not find a specific answer to my “historical lens of sanity” question, but I learned a few facts that may help draw some conclusions:

  • In 1931, the year my grandfather and uncle were patients at “Jamestown”, there were 1600 patients living there.
  • In 2019, there are approx. 200+ patients. These tortured souls are considered to be extreme cases on the mental disorder spectrum. The hospital no longer admits folks who want some R&R from the daily grind of farm chores.
  • The museum, located on the fourth floor of the Administration building, had some interesting restraint systems that you can try on. If you dare.
  • Patient records dating back to the late 1880s show meticulous record keeping and gorgeous penmanship, for what that’s worth. Before the days of computers, people took the time to write well.
  • If you can find the entrance to the nondescript museum, you deserve a prize, and it probably means you hijacked someone on their way between buildings to give you directions.

 

The inverse relationship of the hospital’s population compared to the total population suggests people were “put away” for reasons that, when viewed through the mental health lens of today, would seem egregious. The hospital reached its peak population of 2200 in 1949, after which it experienced a steady decline until it dropped to today’s number.

On the last point –  about the museum entrance – I made the mistake of first approaching a building that was located at the front of the complex. I pushed the intercom. Nothing. I saw people walking around inside. I pushed the intercom again. Nothing. I caught someone’s eye. She mouthed something back to me. This happened three times before she got so frustrated, she came to the bolted door, poked her nose out and said,

“Someone will be with you.”

I managed to squeeze in my question about the museum location to which she impatiently said go left then left. Slam. A few seconds later someone came out, this person a little calmer.

“I’m going to the building, you can follow me,” the calm woman said.

That’s how I found the museum entrance through a stairwell in the back. The calm woman explained that the first building I tried to enter is shared with the minimum security prison next door. This is the reason for the cautiousness. Admittedly, my curly hair was turning to frizz on the breezy spring day and it’s possible I looked slightly deranged. I have to say, the prison yard next door with its three rows of circular barbed-wire fencing was a bit off-putting.

 

I had certain expectations. For the museum entrance, I expected a large foyer, welcoming visitors from out of state, like myself, with orderlies on hand, holding straight jackets behind their back in case of emergency. In contrast, entering through the stairwell, I felt as if I were sneaking in a back way. And, I hysterically wondered if I would be able to leave. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wrecked me of sanitariums in the same way Jaws destroyed my trust of swimming in the ocean.

Before leaving California for Fargo, I had called NDSH and spoken to a woman who I’ll call Clara. Clara has been the main admin for the hospital for the past forty years. She took an immediate dislike to me when I requested to meet with someone to ask “a few questions”. I called several times, trying to penetrate the defensive armor of Clara or go around her, all ending in getting sent back to Clara and her spitting reprimands at me like I was a journalist looking to expose her employer for the lobotomies still practiced in the basement. I didn’t have any intention of mounting an expose, but I found it curious the amount of suspicion I created with a simple request for an open-ended conversation. Then it became clear. On the day of my visit, a news story broke in the local newspapers. It revealed that NDSH had lost its accreditation in part due to patient safety issues and possibly because of the murder that took place there in March when a patient strangled an employee who was cleaning his bathroom.

Back in the 1930’s people could be committed to the State Hospital on the word of almost anyone. In my grandfather’s case, he burned down the neighbor’s haystack. Family lore says the neighbor reported him to the authorities who came and hauled him off to Jamestown. Looking at the economic conditions that the US faced in the ’30s might give better clues as to why he was incarcerated for an argument turned vengeful. At the outset of the depression, farming communities were financially hard-hit, struggling to feed their large broods of children (Dad’s family is Catholic if that helps explain their large brood). This combined with the more personal tragedy that my great grandfather (Dad’s father’s father) shot and killed himself in their barn. No one knows why my great grandfather, a successful landowner, decided to end it all. Dad’s Bohemian Czech family had had their share of hardships which were mostly real and could help explain why future generations would be ill-equipped at coping.

Contrary to my irrational fears, I was free to leave at the end of my museum visit. When I offered to pay for the brochure, Clara waved the fee and gave me an additional book on the history of the hospital (cover value of $14.95). Apparently, I was more likable in person than I was on the phone. Or, maybe people are more accepting when they’re face-to-face and you’re not just some voice from radical-thinking California.

A copy of the letter from the Insane Asylum to my grandmother discusses the matter of payment, asking for a $40 parole deposit upon my uncle’s departure. Deposit implies that you get it back if he returns? Or? Another letter requested money for an X’mas present that should be sent in the form of cash or a check made out to the hospital. Don’t send a gift the letter advised. hmmm.

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Letters from my uncle to his mother suggest he was reasonably happy at the hospital where patients were allowed to roam the sweeping grass carpeted grounds at will.

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Historical reports filed by the hospital’s management indicate the poor conditions for patients and workers and suggest a plan for improvement. Perhaps the work of hospital administrators served to improve conditions for the employees and patents since 1914.

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All-in-all, NDSH is a unique place, preserving a part of the past that many would prefer to have swept under the carpet. The self-guided museum allows the general public to experience firsthand the evolution of mental health care since 1885. In a room filled with natural light, restraint devices and ledgers, a visitor can see how far humanitarianism has come in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Even so, I left the sanitarium feeling unsettled. I had been exposed to its history and experienced the reality of being misjudged.

How can I return to my previous state of blissful ignorance?

Sometimes, I think what separates each of us is our ability to overcome a bad experience while keeping ourselves intact. Being lucky enough to have one less harmful exposure to an event that could push the boundaries of what a human being can reasonably absorb. Having experienced one less rejection hurled our way that can’t be ignored. Having one less day of feeling lost and alone. Is it really just one less thing going wrong that can make a difference between a happy life and a tortured one? Maybe it’s simply one more day of saying, “I can take it. Nothing can break me.”

I left Jamestown thinking the same way about Psychiatric care as I do about Oncology: grateful the occupation exists, that it continues to evolve and better itself with each person it heals and hoping, above all else, I never need either one.

After all this introspection, I needed a change of pace and I found one in the shape of a rather large bison.

 

Jamestown is also famous for the heard of buffalo that roam near its Frontier Village. Dakota Miracle, a descendant of White Cloud, is one of the albino buffaloes in residence. The Lakota Nation holds white buffaloes sacred based on a legend about an important peace pipe brought to them via a beautiful woman who turned into a white buffalo, or something like that. The white I saw looked a bit shaggy still trying to shed its fur for the summer. The story sounded better than the picture looks.

 

My day with bison and asylums ended with my having a new perspective on the land of my ancestors. They were farmers, some of them better at it than others, but they all survived by working the land. Some had fiery tempers that got them into trouble with the neighbors and some didn’t live to see the other side of the Great Depression. I salute the bison of the Great Plains who struggled to survive the slaughter of their population when families like mine invaded from Europe. A lot has changed in these parts since the US government passed the Homestead Act of 1862 which enticed immigrants to plant the fertile Red River Valley. I mean, the Fargo & Moorhead region is one of the largest metropolitan areas between Seattle and Minneapolis. We’ve learned to revere Native American traditions and honor the white buffalo. We are less likely to commit sane people to insane asylums. We don’t even have insane asylums anymore. We openly accept our past in all of its ugliness, perhaps as a means to not repeat it. And, we tell ourselves each time we are tested, “I can take it. Nothing can break me.”

Camp Nyota 2018 and The Maasai

On the first day of Camp Nyota, our awareness is high. We want to learn everything we can about the Maasai people in Tanzania from our local Field Director, Vivian with Amani Afrika. We’re in the small village of Lemugur outside of Arusha where the school for the camp is located.

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The Day Camp

Ninety kids are waiting patiently in a classroom that might accommodate thirty students in the US. The wooden desks where they sit three to a bench were donated by Amani Afrika, a tour operator and all-around service provider for the area. Temba and Vivian, owners of Amani Afrika, deliver clean water to the school in their company’s water truck and coordinate special projects like this free day camp Dave and I sponsored in September 2018.

At the moment we step into the classroom, we’re greeted by ninety young voices saying in unison “Good Morning, Madam.” I intend to greet them with the few Swahili words I’ve practiced for the past thirty minutes. I say, “Habari.  Caribu Camp Nyota” which means “Good Morning. Welcome to Camp Star.”.

I’m met with blank stares.

Nembris, one of the camp counselors and the person assigned as my translator, steps in to help. She says the greeting I botched up with a slightly different accent plus adds the question “How are you?” It works this time. The kids respond with, “We are fine Madam. And, how are you?”

Camp has officially started!

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After introducing our camp counselors, we have each child stand up and say their name. Of course, they are shy. From past camps, we know this shyness will wear off by the third day or sooner. This is a warm-up exercise to get the kids adjusted to speaking up when called upon. After meeting each child, Vivian, Nembris, and Dave pass out name tags while Levina and I pass out t-shirts. As usual, we have some kids who were registered that dropout and other kids who weren’t registered that drop-in. First days require some adjusting to accommodate several last-minute changes.

To be candid, when Vivian said the camp needed to accommodate ninety children with only five camp counselors, it was a bigger challenge than we originally planned. The best age range for the day camp we’ve run six times in three other countries is nine to eleven. Class 3 in this school of 600 spans this ideal range (many students drop and restart school hence the age span in one grade). And, Class 3 has ninety students. Not wanting to leave any child in Class 3 out, we agreed to sponsor all ninety when our typical number is thirty. We also offered to sponsor a hot lunch for all 600 children of the school each day during camp. The hot lunch program increased attendance remarkably.

Much to our surprise, this camp with two to three times more students than we had in Ghana, Mexico, or Belize was completely manageable. We attribute the better-than-expected result to three things: 1) the kids understood the privilege – Amani Arika did great prep work, 2) when needed, Teacher – whose name I can’t pronounce but always referred to her as “Teacher” which she seemed to like – kept things in order without the use of force, and 3) we’ve added several new camp activities to help deflect excess energy (thanks to Autumn for her additions to the camp in Belize using recorded music and ball passing games).

Picture of “Teacher” for whom I have the utmost appreciation.

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While the kids had fun making animal masks, pinatas, beaded bracelets, and drawings, we learned a few Maasai songs. One is about making corn porridge, Mama Jamila (third song in the video). With each verse, they add another body part to help stir the favored side dish until the entire body is recruited “mwili wote”. Many of the kids haven’t been to the main road let alone interacted with outsiders. They got excited when we sang Mama Jamila along with them jumping until we stopped from exhaustion. 

Amani Afrika supported the camp with members of their staff (see the camp counselor picture at end of the video). 

 

On the last day of camp, the kids performed a recital demonstrating the dances they learned, their new camp songs in English, Spanish and Swahili, and their artwork. We invited their families and the rest of the school to watch the show and stay for the lunch we provided with the help of these most excellent cooks:

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The group presented us with the biggest thank you card stamped with each child’s handprint. I don’t know when they found time to make it – I thought I had kept them busy dancing! 💃 

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Asanta Sana means “thank you very much” in Swahili. It is us who should be thanking Lemugur Village and Amani Afrika for a wonderful week and unforgettable experience. See you in 2020!!

Notes on the Maasai

When we moved outside for our morning circle on the first day of camp, five male youths stood at the perimeter of the school ground observing the activities from which they must temporarily abstain. Like dark shadows from another world, the boys wear black for several months while they are kept from participating in most daily activities. As part of the Maasai tradition, the boys have recently been circumcised and must keep their distance. I’m not sure why.

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Later that day, a herd of cattle is being driven through the village on their way between grazing lands. The Maasai are known for livestock (cattle, goats, etc.) which sometimes puts them at odds with the wildlife that preys upon their inventory.

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In Kenya, we visited a Maasai home and were greeted by children who greeted us by bending their head down so we can touch the top of it. We also learned a few things about how their compound is organized. First Wife is in the house on the left as you enter the circle of buildings. In the compound we visited, the husband was still living with his mom. Mother had the most prestigious house position in this case. Second Wife is in the house on the right. Third Wife lives in the house to the right of Second Wife, etc. Animals have their pens inside the fenced circle too. The Maasai women cook on an open fire inside their clay shelters. They don’t use much room to sleep. On a bed with a thin pad that I would have to sleep diagonally across, five Maasai sleep side-by-side every night. Our guide who seems quite comfortable with westerners, says he sleeps that way when he is home with his one wife and two kids.

I’m captivated by the magnificent beadwork of the Maasai women. I brought back necklaces and key chains plus ordered coasters and a centerpiece that is due to arrive this month (shipped DHL). If you’re interested in purchasing some modern designs, I can recommend this website. They sell one-of-a-kind handmade coasters, key rings, necklaces, bracelets, placemats, centerpieces – you name it. Over 450 Maasai woman work for the organization giving them a solid income from beading and beekeeping. Their delicious honey is served in the local safari camps. Props to the Maa Trust for supporting the betterment of the Maasai women (previously only the men benefited from the conservancy and tourist trade).

 

Our guide explained that historically, the favorite wife’s children were allowed to leave school early and work the farm while the not favorite wife’s children were sent to school. Years’ of this practice produced an unintended result. Not favorite wife’s children got higher paying jobs due to their education.

Another outcome of modernization in Kenya is that the practice of polygamy has started to lose its attraction (at least with the Maasai guides we encountered) for the practical reason that more wives cost more money. In Tanzania, the Maasai still saw a financial value in polygamy. More wives mean more work gets done by the women. I learned enough about the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania to realize it could take a lifetime to understand their rituals and cultural practices. I still have so many questions unanswered, and perhaps unknowable.

The Maasai family we visited sang for us outside their home near the Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya.

 

 

Wrapping up a Loose End

This next story is not directly related to the Maasai but I promised to share it at the end this blog from a couple months ago. It’s time to wrap up the Africa trip.

So, here’s that story as I know it…

Of the thousands of languages spoken across Africa, we’ve seen one common communication in four African countries and are told it is practiced across many. It’s hand signaling between drivers to warn about police in the area.

To start the conversation, Driver One flashes his lights to the oncoming car, we’ll call Driver Two. This alerts Driver Two that she’s being asked the question, “Are there any cops from where you just came?”. Driver Two either takes her index finger in the shape of a number one and presses it downwards like she’s making a point in court which means slow the heck down, cops are ahead. Or, Driver Two holds her fist down and opens then closes it several times like doing a stretch which means, keep coming, Hakuna Matata “no worries “ (I added that last bit for effect).

Turns out, when it comes to matters of evading the police, every African driver is a brother.

 

Fleetwood Mac 2018 Tour – San Jose

Unedited Concert Review

If there was any doubt Fleetwood Mac could pull off another great concert tour without their original lead guitarist, Lindsey Buckingham, I can tell you now, there is no doubt, they can and they did. When the newly assembled group including the original four of five members plus two high powered additions, Neil Finn of Crowded House and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty, took the stage and fired out “The Chain” with as much power as previous years, I knew we were in for a good night.

 

From where I sat, the group seemed to gel. Without ever auditioning, the two new members – likely chosen based on previous experience playing with members of the group, and obvious talent – did their part to make the audience forget all about Lindsay Buckingham.

Christine McVie turned seventy-five this year, Mick Fleetwood is seventy-one, John McVie is seventy-two, and Stevie is seventy. Pardon me for saying this, but they’re getting pretty long in the tooth for the kind of rigor required for a touring rock band. Their schedule is arduous, crisscrossing the nation with only two to three days between shows. San Jose – Sacramento – Oakland – Phoenix – Las Vegas – Denver – Fresno – San Diego – Inglewood – Denver – Sioux Falls – Houston – Dallas – Austin – Birmingham – New Orleans – Tampa – Fort  Lauderdale – Columbia – Charlotte – Nashville. And, that’s only half the tour.

All I can say is you couldn’t tell anyone was worse for the wear. Christine’s Tell Me Lies still sounds crystal clear and provides a nice mood shift from some of the darker numbers which I love the most but appreciate we need variety.

 

Sure, we missed Lindsey Buckingham, but we’re also tired of him bailing on Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks and us. It’s not the first concert tour he’s missed for reasons usually having to do with him getting mad at Stevie over something she did or didn’t say. This song line seems fitting to describe  how the Fleetwood Mac world turns: “Maybe I’m wrong, but who’s to say what’s right?” All I know is, he’s the one who didn’t show up.

Lindsey’s substitutes were great. Neil Finn of Crowded House (and Split Enz) sang his hallmark song, “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, one of the five best songs ever written according to Mick Fleetwood.

 

Mike Campbell from Tom Petty played guitar like he played the crowd – intense and flirtatious. He is a showman that one.  Another thing I’ll say for him is that Mike knows how to make young girls who idolize the group feel seen – see story later in this article about the flower halo. Mike’s our new Queen, and I mean that in the most respectful way.

2c. Mike

1b. Neil and Mike

Say what you want about 70’s diva’s, but you have to give them credit for keeping it going for over fifty years. They still got it and they can still rock it!

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2a. Christine and Stevie2a. Stevie Gold Dust 2

The multi-generational appeal of Fleetwood Mac caught me pleasantly by surprise. Standing in line for a Blue Moon, I mentioned to the young woman in front of me that I wished the stadium had video monitors so we wouldn’t have to miss a number to buy a T-shirt or snack (it’s okay it was during the drum solo – sorry Mick!). Maybe she was in her twenties, not more than thirty. She looked at me and said, “at least it’s not Landslide”. Landslide is my favorite Stevie Nicks’s song. I couldn’t hide my surprise and, I have to admit feeling instantly bonded with the young woman. Yeah sure, we were at a Fleetwood Mac concert, but still. Not long after that chance meeting and I found my way back to my seat, Stevie sang my favorite song, Landslide. “The song makes no sense,” Stevie says. Maybe the reason for its broad appeal is that it means something different to each one of us.

The second surprise happened when the veteran Queen of Rock lost her key mid-song and asked Neil for assistance. Neil came to the rescue as did the ever supportive crowd. Stevie admitted to still getting nervous singing for people she loves. San Jose State, down the street from SAP Center, is Stevie’s, Alma Mater. I don’t think she graduated but she studied communications while also rehearsing with her first band at the College of San Mateo. Cool to know we are in Stevie Nicks’ old stomping grounds.

 

This might be a good time to mention the bottle cap rule at SAP Center. Apparently, plastic bottle caps are lethal weapons and need to be removed from water bottles before giving the water to the purchaser. In this way, water is spilled on the way back to your seat and every time someone walks past your seat on the way to theirs. No offense intended to anyone who has actually been injured by a plastic bottle cap. I might consider bringing along a spare next time I go to a concert. We lost almost our entire bottle of water due to cap-lessness spills and kick-overs.

A quiet moment with Neil and John.

Neil

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I felt the heart pulse in the auditorium during the tribute to Tom Petty. Stevie sang his song “Free Falling”, while they showed vintage pictures of her, Tom and Mike playing together. His absence from the earth is still so new. Is he really gone? Only his body. His spirit was at SAP Center last Wednesday night.

 

5c. Tom Petty

Reaching back in the annals of time, it turns out Fleetwood Mac wrote a song made famous by Santana, “Black Magic Woman”. Stevie took this number on with the gusto of a jazz lounge singer. A testament to her versatility and love for all things music.

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On a less positive note. I really hope my following observation of a star blowing-off a young fan is not accurate, but I fear it really happened this way.

Here’s the story of the flower halo.

A young girl’s delicate arm reached out in a perfect straight-line beckoning for Stevie to take a yellow flower halo she had brought for the Queen of Rock and Roll. The Band was on their way off the stage for their first exit before the encore. From where I sat in the second row, the right of center and near Stevie’s microphone, I thought I caught the star’s eye. I point to the young girl who had chosen to celebrate her eighteenth birthday with her mother at the concert. “Stevie!” I yell. I think I see her nod which I take to mean “I’ll get it in a minute”. I was wrong. Stevie Nicks walked off stage without accepting the young girl’s carefully prepared, hand-delivered from L.A. crown of flowers.  Here’s when Mike Campbell became our new Queen (again with the utmost respect do I say this). He came from stage left, saw the halo, and walked up to the sweet girl holding it in her outstretched arm. Mike says, “Is this for her?” He graciously takes the halo. We’ll never know why Stevie wouldn’t take the gift. The girl, the girl’s mother, and I believe Stevie saw it and chose to walk away. Nervous about it, maybe?

Flower halo 1Flower halo 4

End of the sad part of the story.

Never to let a moment pass without an extravagant gesture, Mick Fleetwood ends the show with a series of thank yous and grand motions he rarely gets to do from behind his massive drum set.

See you next time Mick!

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5d End

Big Five, Ugly Five, Fab Five, and … Cute Five

Ten minutes after we’re met by our driver, he pulls the jeep over to show us a mother and baby elephant feasting on an acacia tree. Already, Lucas is teaching us more than we came to learn. He tells us the acacia tree being devoured is transmitting warning signals through the air to other trees in the area. Those trees will change their flavor to something the elephants won’t like. Mom and baby may have gotten this tree, but others will be saved by the timely transmitting of telepathic information (or should I call it aeropathic information?). Even the vegetarian prey is savvy here in Kenya.

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2. elephant mom and baby

“The elephant’s digestive system is very poor. Look at their dung, almost no nutrients are retained,” Lucas says.

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I didn’t expect to be studying elephant poop when we boarded our first safari jumper plane at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Later, we’ll see a family of mongoose feeding on dung beetles and the partially digested elephant’s food as Lucas predicted.

Mongoose

Nearby, another type of acacia tree full of small globes that look like fruit rests untouched by the elephants who devour hundreds of pounds of food a day resulting in only a morsel of nutrient absorbed. We assume the long thorns keep them away. Lucas tells us differently.

“It’s the ants. The balls that look like fruit are ant’s nests” he says.

Not very big, but very bad, the ants sting hungry animals as they approach their tree of nests. These ants and some acacia trees have a symbiotic relationship with both parties getting something out of the pairing except, the elephants, whose side we normally take, but for some reason, we’re starting to root for the underdog and unsung hero. Without the acacia trees, the ecosystem would collapse and the elephants would die off. A delicate balance that requires small ants to help preserve it.

Lucas demonstrates how to take photos at ground level by leaning over the side of the jeep with our arms outstretched and snapping the picture below the area of focus. I finally realize why my new Sony camera has a flip-up LCD screen. I try it out on a family of Egyptian Geese.

Egyptian geese

For the next two weeks, I practice this technique and complain when we are given a closed vehicle that is ‘safer’ but doesn’t allow for this type of photography. They relent and exchange it for an open-air vehicle once they realize Lucas has spoiled us for all others. Before I get to those stories, Lucas has more to teach us. When driving through the village of Talek on the outskirts of the Maasai Mara, Lucas points to three large birds that look like sea posts.

“That’s the Marabou Stork. It’s one of the Ugly Five,” he says.

Whoa. We hadn’t heard of the Ugly Five. Tell us more. Unofficially, or somewhat officially, in certain tourist circles, the Ugly Five are comprised of five species: hyena, warthog, wildebeest, vulture, and marabou stork. I take some issue with the warthog and wildebeest being on this list. Warthogs remind me of our dog, Leo, the way they run with straight legs and their tail up in the air like they are about to tattle on someone. Wildebeest look like sad sacks at first, but after seeing them in various light, their coats offer complex shades of black, gray and cream. The strands of black fur running down the top of their sides serve as a stationary vertical pattern for their black mane to move across the top creating a striking visual of moving vs stationary lines. When the sun is on the horizon, their blonde goatee allows light to shine through it creating a luminescent effect. Most people disagree with me about the wildebeest.

STork

Some animals transcend the terms “Big” and “Ugly” by simply being fabulous. We added this new category for our favorites selecting the cheetah for its playfulness, the ostrich for its pink neck and pink legs (the pinker the color, the more females will be attracted to the male), the lilac breasted roller for its colorful wings, the hippo because it’s a hippo and the crane for its precision mohawk. Here is our Fab Five in all their glory.

1. cheetah31. OstrichDSC009392. Hippo3Crane

We may have gotten carried away with our lists of animals when we created a list for the “Cute Five”. Full of personality, our choices for this category are Gazelle, Dik-dik, Baboon, Klipspringer, and Jackal. Choosing an omnivore for the cute list took a bit of back and forth. The jackal made the list for its relationship to the dog and its face had more interest than the nearest contender, the superb starling (and it was easier to photograph than the flighty bird).

DSC00972DikdikBaboonUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2167 Jackal

Back to the Big Five. I described how the Big Five list came about and which animals are on it in one of my first blogs. In our second sighting of a Big Five member, we ogled over lions mating. Videos of that voyeur experience are posted in this blog. We spent hours observing a pride of lions and their cubs practicing a chase against wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles. As depicted in the Lion King by Simba’s early years, cubs don’t take any of this seriously, they play before during, and after the hunt. I captured their play in a video posted to this blog.

Even though we checked off all five of the big game hunter’s list in the Serengeti, we took better photos of the rhino in the Ngorongoro Crater and of the lions and elephants in Naboisho Mara Conservancey. Here’s our line-up for the big list: elephants in Naboisho, a lion in Naboisho, a male leopard in the Serengeti, a lone buffalo in the Serengeti, and a black rhino and calf in Ngorongoro Crater.

2a. elephant walking4. Lion23. Male Leopard1. Buffalo5. magnifed rhino and baby

As mentioned, the rhino pictures were taken in Ngorongoro Crater at a great distance. That’s not where the most interesting sighting occurred for which I didn’t get pictures. The tale of “The Great Rhino Jeep Chase” is worth sharing in hopes of something being learned or at least having a good laugh. Here’s that story.

Photographers, in search of the perfect rhino photo, are as competitive as big game hunters from yesteryear. At least that’s what it felt like in the heat of the pursuit. It’s about 7am on an October morning.  For the past hour, we’ve been in search of one of the forty horned beasts that live in the park bundled in our Maasai warrior blankets, buffs, and layers of jackets. The yellow jeep next to us has experienced hunters, I mean photographers, who carry huge telephoto lenses signaling how seriously they take this sport. These experts see him first. Their guide says something in Swahili to our guide. Guides speak in Swahili to one another so that tourists don’t get their hopes up from something one guide said to another. On this morning, we know what the guides are saying from the look of blood in the hunters’ eyes. Peering through the binoculars, Dave and our guide see the black rhino on the hillside between the palm trees by the zebras, next to the group of wildebeests, near the third gazelle from the right.  I’m slow when it comes to things like this. “Where is it?” I ask at least three times. Dave tries to tell me, but his directions are confusing to me. Did I mention it’s 7am in the morning? Our guide (it’s not Lucas) loses himself in the moment, uncovers his camera with the long telephoto lens from under the bags on the seat next to him and snaps a picture. I notice this, of course, since I am the only one not seeing the animal, and I didn’t know he was packing equipment. Dave points between two bushes. “There, THERE!,” he says. I finally see the phantom creature for about 3, or maybe 5, seconds before it goes behind another bush. The hunt is on. Reminiscent of the great OJ car chase in southern California, every jeep within a mile descends on the location of the last rhino sighting. The frenzied procession gets stalled in front of a narrow, steep, and extremely rutted crossing (requires 4-wheel drive) which leads to an area of the park that is off limits. No one cares about boundaries when chasing after a rhino. We make our way to the illegal crossing. We’re third in line to enter forbidden territory. Then, an irritating thing happens. Several of the other vehicles cut in front of us. We end up sixth in line to cross. I say something like “What the fuck?”  The other tourists hear me, but say nothing about the rightness or wrongness of the situation (I’m pretty sure “fuck” is understood by most non-English speakers). Up to this point, our guide has been argumentative and arrogant with me  – ever since I asked for an open-air vehicle to take photos the way Lucas showed me. Now, in front of his peers, our antagonistic guide decides to be “nice” and let the others go first. We never see the rhino again. We go back to the lodge, only one of us took a photo, the guide. I decide to make him squirm. I tell him the title of my next blog will be, “When it comes to spotting a rhino, it’s every man for himself.” He’s smart and understands my sarcasm. I take photos of the vehicles who cut in front of us with the intention of sending them to Asilia, the company these aggressive guides work for. I never do. Later, we will get photos of a rhino in the Ngorongoro Crater. We’ll only care about this chaotic scene for its absurdity value. I tell you, for the 3 or 5 seconds I saw it, that rhino was hauling ass. All the other animals were moving out of its way. Jeeps from all around tried to close in on it. I should have filmed the surrounding mayhem and forgotten about trying to snap pictures of the rhino.

On another day, also in the Serengeti, we watched a pair of leopards at various times of the day who may decide to mate. At the time of our meeting, theirs was a relationship still in the courting phase, sharing a meal, an occasional sleepover from afar, and a fight or two that left her with a gash on her backside. If she decides that he’s the one, they’ll have the same mating pattern as the lion, i.e., 3 days, 24 hours a day, every 10 to 15 minutes. The female is featured below hiding in the grass from the jeep squad that has just infiltrated the area. It’s safari protocol for the guides to radio each other when they spot an animal of interest. Hence the mob scene in the middle of her lair.

3a. female leopard

On that same day in the Serengeti, we learn that lone, male buffaloes are cantankerous and dangerous. Perhaps they’re bitter from being kicked out of their group, or maybe they spend too much time on their own and no longer care for the sight of others. When encountered in the wrong moment, a lone male buffalo will flash from awareness to fight in a second without advance warning. Unlike lions and elephants who play by gentlemen’s rules, the lone male buffalo believes all is fair in love and war. The one on the right gave us a run for the money. First, he gave us a stare that looked like contempt.  “He” is the one on the right looking like he wants to see our Driver’s License.

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Then, Mr. Mean turned and started to amble away as you’ll see in the video. In a moment he changed his mind – or, he was faking us out all along. He turned back towards us and charged the vehicle. Up until then, I had my doubts that the prehistoric-looking soldier is one of the most dangerous beasts. Rest assured, you can believe the hype.

Did you notice anyone missing? Giraffe didn’t make any of our lists! Like family, they have a special place in our hearts as the silent observers of the savannah. This curious baby with its mother is only about a week old.

DSC01238Baby and mom2

And, a couple more just because we can’t stop ourselves and giraffes can’t take a bad picture.

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As the sunsets around safari lodges, they have a practice called “Having a Sundowner” which is the equivalent of Happy Hour. To close out this article, here are a few choice spots to have a Sundowner. While I’m thinking of it, a few other phrases that will help you after the Sundowner:

  • “I need to pick some flowers” is the female version of “I have to pee”
  • “Time to check the tires” is the male version of the same

Small things change the world. This phrase was repeated throughout “The Wider Earth”, a play we saw two days ago at London’s Natural History Museum. Staged in a purpose-built theater, the play showcases some of Darwin’s lesser known discoveries near Tierra del Fuego, South America. The small, seemingly insignificant observations Darwin made formed the basis for his theories on the evolution of species and the geological events that created mountains and other massive formations. Each time I heard the actors say “small things change the world”, I thought about the termites of the Maasai Mara and Serengeti whose work it is to churn and enrich the soil for vegetation making it possible for large herbivores to feast on the bounty, and aardvarks to feed and create homes for the many small creatures needing shelter. I remembered the stories Lucas told us about stinging ants saving acacia trees on our first safari drive. He taught us how to see the signs of small things happening beneath the surface creating an entire ecosystem of life. On this trip that we took to see the Big Five, we saw much more than the majesties of the kingdom. We saw the fabulous, the cute, and even the ugly – appreciating them for their beauty and for the important role they play in the circle of life (borrowing a line from the Lion King which we also saw while in London). We left Eastern Africa with it seeming more familiar than it should, having made friends along the way that we’re sure to see again. We arrive home knowing how small things make a difference. This fills us with the hope that maybe our small projects too can make a difference in the kids lives we touch with our songs, dance, and arts. We hope they remember us for our smiles and our hearts, the way we will remember them.

Speaking of small projects, next up: The Maasai – their way of life and our kids day camp for Maasai children in Lemugur Village, Tanzania.

 

 

 

The Great Wildebeest Meander – Updated

Our lives are in danger every time we step out of our tent past 6pm without an Askari, Maasai lion tamer, to escort us. The unassuming protector wears a red checked blanket for warmth draped across his shoulder like an avant-garde fashion statement. The thin spear or knife he carries seems less of an actual weapon than a tourist prop. I think he’s here to keep us calm rather than kill any elephants, buffaloes, lions or hippos that may charge us on our way to the wifi tent.  They say the thin canvas barrier of our tent wall is enough to deter even the most ravenous of lions from attempting to snatch us from our sleep. What about hyenas? We believe them because we came this far and we want to get a good night’s rest before the 5:15am wake-up call which includes coffee, tea, biscuits and hot milk brought to our tent. We don’t have much time to think about dying in Africa. They keep us busy with jeep rides, eating, more jeep rides, more eating and the same all over again in the afternoon. Why did we come? We want a memorable way to spend this anniversary/birthday season. The Great Migration and accompanying River Crossing seem more memorable than our go-to celebration of pizza, beer and watching an old episode of Suits (unless it’s the one where Mike saves the Firm. Oh wait, that’s the premise for all episodes).

Like the meandering Mara River where herds from the Serengeti cross when migrating north for greener grass, the wildebeest go back and forth, around and back until they eventually make the crossing. Or, not as it were. Professional videos of the wildebeest migration show the mammals clamoring through deep water to reach the other side of a treacherous river as if the antelope know exactly where they want to go and are willing to risk life and limb to get there. That’s not really how it works. The truth is that there is less to the story than National Geographic shows in a film it took them three years to make. “Wildebeest are confused. Who knows when they’ll cross,” the guides who watch them hourly say. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the heck out of our twelve-hour jeep rides over bumpy, dusty roads, with the thorny acacia trees threatening to slap us across the face should we lean too far towards the edge of our open-air safari vehicle. Camps that move in unison with the migrating herd led me to wonder if there might be more to it than we’re seeing. Maybe, National Geographic has it right and I’m the one not seeing reality.

It’s October and the grasslands of Tanzania have been eaten down first by the zebras whose digestive system is strong enough to handle the dry tough grass removing it to encourage new growth for the wildebeest to gobble up in their wake. Many or most migration viewers want to see a river crossing because it’s almost a sure kill. The first thing a fellow tourist asks as we shuffle ourselves into safari jumper planes is “Did you see a crossing?” and the second question they ask is “Did you see a kill?” After bumping our heads a few times on the way to our seats we answer, “Yes, we saw three crossings: a wildebeest herd, six zebras, and a family of elephants.” I’m not sure that last one counts. We didn’t see a ‘kill’, but we saw wildebeest and zebras afraid for their lives as they made attempt after attempt to cross a river dividing them and their friends and family. One day in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, we parked along the riverbank with about forty other jeeps to witness the spectacle that never happened. Retrofitted Toyota trucks with pop-up roofs lined both sides of the river on both sides of the road waiting for the fated crossing. Six times the wildebeest trotted down to the shore of the river, some of them getting wet. Six times they ran back up to safety along the bank where the grass was plenty green and plentiful. There was no need to cross. It could wait another day. Having forty jeeps in their path could have affected their decision as much as the dead wildebeest on our side of the river and the crocodiles downstream from there. Probably after the last jeep went home for the night, they all crossed.

1a. Zebras and jeeps1b attempt1c attempt1d attempt

Then we saw one. On the other side of the border, in Tanzania’s Serengeti along that same Mara River, we experienced our first wildebeest crossing. It was spectacular. Like fireworks going off. By then, the crossing mattered a great deal to us because we saw the aborted attempts. We knew what was at stake for the animals, life or death. We watched with awe and excitement as they jumped like teeter-totters through the croc infested water, determined to make it all the way to the other side.

When they got to our side of the river, the bank was too steep to jump up. Many struggled to get up the cliff, their front hooves pedaling to find footing only to slip and slide back down towards that same river that gave them pause in the beginning. Luckily, they found an alternate path and made their way to safety. This, while another set of wildebeest lined up in front of us waiting to cross in the opposite direction. Why? They are a confused lot. By this time, crocs on both sides of the crossing heard the ruckus and came in for a kill. They were too late. Slowly, they turned around heading back to relax until the next splash in the water.

Since we claim to have seen three crossings, we noticed a distinctive difference between the species. Elephants don’t give a flip about the crocodiles they can squash like a bug with their huge legs. Zebras are skittish and our guides hope they will not be the first ones down the bank because they know the zebras will abort and alarm the wildebeest. Unless, of course, they are crossing a safe creek.

6. elephant crossing8. Zebra cross a creek (not the river)

That brings us to the wildebeest. Absent of any leadership, they simply follow whomever makes the first move. Since their numbers are around 1.7m, they must be doing something right. It only takes one to get things started.

Only takes one

When we saw the six zebras making a go at crossing Number 8 (there are about twelve crossings in the Serengeti), we honestly thought the days of the last zebra, who seemed to be sightseeing, were numbered. We all three held our breaths hoping for the best. To our collective surprise, all six made it safely to the other side with crocs not far away. Dave says the zebras picked the best place to cross. It was a shallow, wide area of the river where the assailants couldn’t use the element of surprise to attack. Their speed on land would pale in comparison to the zebras. Turns out, Dave thinks like a crocodile. Crocodiles live full happy lives in the Mara river feasting in the spring and fall. Sometimes they kill more than they need storing it for later or letting it rot as a sign of their superiority.

1g crocs

The Great Migration could be considered to be more mythological than actual. We watched from the deck of our tent cabin with hardwood floors and sliding glass doors (is that really a tent?) as a herd walked across the ridge to the right, then circled back and parked at the base of our deck for a few minutes before heading out to the left. Later. we saw them turn around and head back. Just another day in The Great Wildebeest Meander.

Herds and herds of zebras made it to the Maasai Mara by the time we got there. Thousands of zebras in any one location is a shocking display of black and white patterns more brilliant than anything designed by Gucci or Vera Wang. Zebras are fast to react and don’t hold any one position for very long. They grace the landscape with striped poses only so long before the entire picture changes as we got too close or they changed their minds, and they show us their plump butts displaying a braided tail pattern more stunning than designs coming out of New York (or Paris or …).

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Topis’ unusual black fur that follows their thigh muscle on an otherwise reddish-brown coat makes them a distinctive composition.  They stand proud and strong on the many termite mounds that are so critical for the ecosystem. Aardvarks eat the termites which give them the fuel they need to dig holes. The only digger in the system, their holes make homes for all kinds of followers like mongoose, warthogs, foxes, rabbits and I forget what else. I love the stance Topis take on top of the mounds. They are facing away from the wind. With their backside facing into the wind, they can smell a predator coming from that direction. To protect themselves from hunters coming from the opposite direction, they keep watch by facing that which they cannot smell.

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While we’re a little homesick for the pups and our Wednesday nights in front of the TV eating Round Table pizza and drinking Blue Moon, we’re glad we “risked our lives” and came to see the great meander. We’re grateful for the Askaris who kept us safe through the night. All joking aside, these brave soldiers have amazing eyesight. They flash their lights quickly from side to side along the path, in a moment they see a black buffalo at a distance blending into the night while we chat about the day’s events without a care in the world. The night watchmen, they quietly observe as a pride of lions saunters through camp making sure we don’t do something stupid creating a reason to be charged. I’m told the secret for avoiding an unfortunate encounter is to remain calm and, with an elephant, slowly hide behind a tree. Maybe TV show lawyers have more in common with Askaris than first meets the eye. Mike from Suits walking in at the last minute with a manilla folder full of blank paper that he says provides the damning evidence exudes confidence and bluff. Askaris may not bluff (or do they?) but you can be sure they exude confidence. Remaining calm and collected during adversarial moments seems like good advice for life in general. And, if that doesn’t work, hide behind something.

Askari

Giraffes may have nothing to do with the great meander. The thing is, ever since I kissed one, I can’t keep my mind off of him, I mean them. So, here are a few pictures of my tall and serene playmates enjoying their view from above the great meander.

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Next up: The Big, the Bad, and the Ugly,