You can never ever leave
Without leaving a piece of youth
And our lives are forever changed
We will never be the same"
- Smashing Pumpkins
"Our main problem, and one that we share with all other earthly creatures, is what to do next."
- Jim Harrison
The hop from Amboseli to Nairobi was painless, and our quick drive-by of downtown Nairobi tended to underscore why we weren't being dropped off in the city proper. Lamentably, these days, Nairobi is literally one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden cities on the planet. The recent terrorist attack in Mombassa wasn't precisely a cause for less concern, either. Accordingly, we rolled into one last camp site cum hostel, about 25 minutes outside of town. Initially, I was distraught at this. I'd carried my "Insight Pocket Kenya" across 10,000 kilometers of Africa, chiefly for its Nairobi map and transport info and, also, for things to do on our last day and a half in Africa. I'd been somewhat interested to see, despite its advertised shortcomings, the Kenyan capital. Also, I confess, at this point, I was somewhat keen to shoulder my bag, step onto a curb, and show the back of myself to the truck and to certain of its passengers of the trip's second half. Instead, there we were, still all together, at yet another camp site . . . preparing another communal lunch. I asked Paul how hard it would be to find transport to downtown. His response was measured, but unequivocal: "That would not be very clever," he allowed.
So I instead sucked it up and settled down to one last camp chair repast of pretty much the last dregs from the ontruck kitchen. Then we helped Paul and Dudu clean up the interior of the truck a bit and then said our solemn farewells. "Go well," I said, reflecting back at Paul the fine parting I'd picked up from him. And of an instant, Paul (and Sid) had rolled through the camp gates us waving our hats in heartfelt salute and out of our lives. We were on our own. Albeit, Mark and I uncomplainingly sprang for a private (not to say comfortable, or clean) double room, and settled ourselves in privacy. We had the rest of the day and all of the next to get through before our flights out on the third day. And we slowly abandoned any ideas of going in town and looking at Nairobi. On reflection, we'd just got through nearly two months (and 10,000 kilometers) of Africa without losing anything, being ripped off in any way, being robbed or attacked, or getting at all sick (from the dozens of endemic diseases available) or in any way hurt (including at the claws of the local fauna). This was quite a record, and we were well content to play protectively of our winnings and concentrate on taking it easy, and getting safely to those flights out.
We ate. The camp had a very serviceable restaurant including with a vegan breakfast option! Mark and I repeatedly indulged in the veggie burger platter, with fries. Fattening, but what the hell. We slept in beds (albeit with mosquito netting draped over them). We sat around and read. I wrote up Serengeti dispatches, and posted them (the camp office had a machine with a dialup connection which could be rented). We watched CNN International on the tv in the bar. We divested ourselves of much gear. This was actually a great joy, and one to which we had been looking forward. First to go was the majority of the soiled (and in some cases ripped) clothing. My sandals were completely shot, and got dropped in a bin. Guidebooks. My SA-style can opener, my vegetable scraper/scrubber (which I never once used). Quite a lot of other fagged items which are escaping me now. Our loads, at any rate, got much lighter.
After that we lay around the room and talked at great length, recollecting the trip, making plans, continuing our long-running, blustery debate about the merits of classic literature versus contemporary literary fiction (into which I will refrain from extensive divagation here). I made a "mix tape" of MP3s; this included some tracks we'd listened to on the truck (Limp Bizkit), some old historical faves (The Police), some African stuff (Johnny Clegg & Suvuka), some African AMERICAN stuff (Public Enemy), and some of my essential stuff onto which I still hoped to turn Mark (Curve, Machines of Loving Grace). Then we endeavored to listen to all the Kate Bush songs in alphabetical order. We spent probably an hour and a half solemnly discussing Kate's innumerable and awe-inspiring virtues.
And at last the 20th our exfil day rolled around. Lamentably, Mark's flight was about 10 hours later than mine. However, he decided to go to the airport with me partly on the theory (ultimately falsified) that the airport would have more and better entertainment options than the camp site. We also wanted to share a cab, and have him see me off which he also didn't get to do, being unable to check in (and access the gates) until several hours later. C'est la vie. Shortly, for my part at least, I was settled onto an uneventful Kenya Air/KLM flight to Amsterdam. It was kind of a cool longitudinal flight through the crepuscular sky and over the Alps, which is the first time I've seen them from the air.
I landed at Amsterdam's Schipol in the early evening (though at this latitude, on Dec. 20, the evening starts at about 4pm), took the train to good ole Centraal Station, and then a cab in search of the abode of Cousin Maureen (aka Mo . . . CoMo?), who has a place on the south end of VondelPark. The cab ride was rather longer than I'd anticipated, and the twelve Euros I'd assiduously hoarded from my last stopover (and then trekked all the way across Africa) looked as if they were going to be inadequate. I winced at the fare meter until it was at €11.20, then warned the cabbie that, much to my chagrin, unless we were basically there, I'd have to ask him to stop at a cash machine. He averred that we were pretty nearly in the ballpark and shut off the meter! God love the eminently easygoing Dutch.
I ascended to Mo's 3rd-ish floor walk up (the exiguous, perilously steep, little Amsterdam townhouse stairways make it seem a lot higher), greeted my beloved relation and host, and attempted to settle in and catch up; albeit I was feeling pretty shellshocked from the flight, the ground transport and the ass-kicking cold, which was a shock after equatorial Kenya, I can go ahead and tell you. Mo had attempted to warn me of the closeness in which I was to be quartered, in part by asking if I had ever "showered in a kitchen?" I'd assumed this to be hyperbole, but in fact there was a shower stall at the end (though it's misleading to describe a room so small as having an "end") of the kitchen supplied with the same electrically-heated water as the sink. (This is, I am now given to understand, a space-saving convention not uncommon in Europe.) At any rate, my excessive torpor wore off a bit, probably not unrelatedly to the arrival of Mo's disconcertingly attractive Australian flatmate, Susan. She came home while Mo had run out to pick up what ultimately presented itself as candidate for best Mediterranean meal of my life. (She knows a guy nearby, who's like, the Middle Eastern take-out king of the Netherlands.) Yum. Then I was bedded down in a situation well superior to the one I'd been enjoying for weeks great piles of air mattress and sleeping bag and sheets and comforter. In the morning, Mo put me on the tram for Centraal and even gave me coins (not to say small ones) for tram fair! All in all, I can faithfully report that her hospitality well lived up to the supremely high standards set by her clan in Washington D.C. (where I've spent more Christmases, long weekends, and random stopovers than I can count but not nearly as many as I hope to).
From there it was the piddling Europe-to-East Coast hop. Pops and my sister Danielle (aka D) picked me up at the MARTA station. I checked into Chez Mama, threw my stuff down and put on civilian clothes (though not yet civilian hair) for the first time in a while. And then I proceeded to spend a typical, lovely family Christmas with all but one sister. (Sara is being all bad and trekking South America, including walking up to Macchu Pichu on Christmas Day.) However, D was around in fine form. Also Erin (aka Tiny E). The two of them helped me divide up, on Christmas Eve, my huge pile of African gift swag (which still exuded a certain nimbus of pelf, coming as most of it did from Zimbabwe's national going-out-of-business sale). For this service, naturally enough, I gave them first dibs on whatever they wanted for themselves. Among other things, Erin scored the tiny, humbly lovely giraffe head that I originally picked out for Dana. E, by the by, won't forgive me if I fail to include this picture of a picture of yours truly at age 13 or so, in quite the mid-80s fashion ensemble. Okay, you buggers, laugh it up.
And that's that. Or is it? Africa is said to be a life-changing experience. If for that reason alone, this series of dispatches would seem to require at least some attempt at a wrap-up. There are a couple of difficulties with this, the first of which would seem to be the sudden and dramatic deliquescence of my energy and motivation for such a project. The second, more justifiable, is the fact that it generally seems to take me about a year to get my mind around these trips what they were really like, in their whole more than their particulars, what they meant, what their place is in this jagged narrative I'm trying to make of my existence. So there's that.
But for now, as a stopgap, and as a bow to the convention of closure . . . I guess I can volunteer that many of the moments on this trip not the dramatic, lush ones, but the quiet, still, reflective, sort of empty ones seemed to hand up to me a number of little offerings of, let's call it, self-knowledge. I seemed to be able to, for once, get my head a little more firmly around certain aspects of my ongoing project to be the person I ardently hope and intend to (one day) be; as well my other project to live the kind of life I want for myself (particularly in light of the fact that this is the only one I get). This wasn't entirely unprecedented. I find that I am often very different people at different time slices I suppose it's my angels and demons battling for control of the machine. When the angels are at the helm, and all I need to do is bright and clear, I tend to leave forceful, little, morally suasive messages for later selves ones who might have loosed their grip on the controls, and who will need the guidance and insight. In other words, I write myself memos. And I wrote a whole series of them I called them "alerts," alerting future selves to the conclusions from my moments of African clarity at various times and places along the sub-Saharan road. At moments, I swear it was so CLEAR to me what I needed to do, and how I should go about things. And, I guess, who can put a price tag on that? I will embarrass none of us by reproducing the contents of those notes here, but I will share some headings, which should give the basic idea:
There was an HONOR ALERT, a SOUL ALERT, and a SELF-MASTERY ALERT all of which I trust will benefit, in ways larger or smaller, my immortal &c. I can further hope that my future path will prove to have been illumined by the LIFE-NARRATIVE ALERT, the PERSISTENCE ALERT, and the clarion call of a COURAGE-TO-LIVE-IT ALERT. (These were buttressed by a (non-alert-style) WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO DO IN Q1'03 (AND BEYOND) and an amendment, to wit, WHAT'S *REALLY* GOING TO HAPPEN IN Q1'03.) Somewhat more prosaically, I felt the need of a GET-OVER-YOURSELF ALERT (acutely, in that case) and an HONOR-YOUR-FATHER ALERT. One can always stand a few good workaday lifestyle tips in the form of MENTAL HEALTH, WEIGHT MANAGEMENT, and CAREER "JOYFULNESS" ALERTS. There was even an official SPIRITUAL LESSON OF THE FIRST HALF OF THE TRIP (and it was a fine, humbling one), and an otherwise unaffiliated INSTRUCTION to myself. Finally, there was a (highly synopsized) rundown of what I've done with my life (so far) and (more importantly) what I've made of myself (also so far) and I quietly and gratefully realized that I don't have any real complaints about any of it. Not one bit. It all suits me (the only person, luckily, it has any need of suiting) very, very nicely. All in all, a veritable Mead "Fat 'Lil Notebook" of small-scale personal enlightenment. Nomad Adventure Tours never put "Self Knowledge" on the list of tour highlights, but I guess that was always in the margins, or one should hope it is, on a trip like this.
And since I'm right here in the back of the notebook, I herewith include an abridged "Catchphraseology" from the trip:
- "I really respect your hat."
- " . . . Can I borrow your pants?"
- "WRAP-a-round Diiiildo!"
- "And it feels . . . good . . . it feels . . . so . . . good."
- "Accommodate THIS!"
- "That had better not be a spider crawling on my #$%*s . . ."
And Africa? Of course, it wasn't anything like what I expected. But it never, ever is. This to the point that I've quite given up having expectations of places. Lately I just close my eyes and jump in. I did at least hope that this trip would provide, if it lived up to its billing, all the Africa I would reasonably need for a long time. And I reckon it did. Across eight countries and at least a half dozen radically different climates, we saw a lifetime's worth of heart-thrummingly dramatic natural beauty. Amongst the people, we saw much soul-crushing poverty but plenty of hope and happiness in the midst of it. We met a real African or three (and verily benefited from it). We got our hands (and the rest of us) dirty roughing it, and drew a great deal of joy and strength from camp life on the Savannah. We navigated rivers, deltas, craters, grass plains, and thousands of kilometers of roads; we climbed over rock mountains and giant sand dunes, stood at the edges of mighty falls and canyons, sloshed through rich sucking mud, lounged on boulder-strewn beaches, and threaded city streets both ancient and modern. We wilted under our hats from the blasting and sanguinary African desert sun, ogled slack-jawed in the dead night air at the sprawling southern hemispheric dome gravid with infinite and unfamiliar constellations, and stood rooted and humble before the most thoroughly pulchritudinous and soul-tweaking sunsets and dawns one might ever hope to see. We met some amazing people including our intrepid South African leader and 23-year old man among men Paul, and 18-year old study in English courage Ms. Laura Helen McGregor. And we saw the famous wildlife. What animals did we see? All of them, as it turned out (with the single exception of cheetah, which never did turn up). Basically, across six different game parks, we saw every animal people generally go to southern or eastern Africa to look at. And not just from the backs of game-viewing trucks. We also stalked elephants and warthogs on the open ground, and paddled on the water amongst hippos and crocs. We shared camp sites (and uneasy detentes) with leopards, (more) elephants, and (many more) hippos. We cavorted nearly nose-to-nose with monkeys, ostriches, completely deadly snakes, and huge exotic bugs. We walked through and around flora that had survived millennia in the birthplace of all that implacably munches only by evolving virtually every stalk and frond into naturally occurring barbed wire. And I pulled off the photography of several lifetimes. So, yeah, okay: Africa's something else. And it was truly a heck of a trip. I thank you all very kindly for coming along; as you've figured out by now, that's in large part what makes it real for me.
And I suppose that leaves only one thing (see (second) opening quote):
Don't you see how late they're reactin'?
The only come they come when they wanna
So get the morgue truck and embalm the goner
They don't care 'cause they stay paid anyway
If your life is on the line, then you're dead today
So get up a get get get down
911 is a joke in yo town
Get up a get get get down
Late 911 wears the late crown
You'd better wake up and smell the real flavor
'Cause 911 is a FAKE life saver"
Giant Beatle with Hands on Hips
Giant Beatles with Heads in Shit