Wild Kingdom

Etosha National Park, Namibia – August 2015

So often, the things that we seek in earnest are already with us. Right by the side of the road. The safari truck jerks to a halt and backs up. We were so focused on the road ahead that we didn’t notice the lioness. Camouflaged, but not hiding. Lounging. Languid and amused.

Two more become visible. A male and another female. The lion’s face rises above the grass. Proud to the point of comical. So sure of his own worthiness. It doesn’t matter how many males he battled, if any, to win his females. Success has everything to do with whether we feel we deserve it.

A slow, luxurious sweep of my eyes across this alien landscape. The monochrome grasslands. The salt pan that can be seen from space. So spectral and magnetic. That mesmerizing shimmer on the horizon. It’s as if, no matter how far you walk, you will never reach it. But the truth is that it already surrounds us.

I deserve this.

**Bay City, Michigan – Spring 1973

A little yellow house. The last house on the road. Nothing but open fields beyond. Images flicker on the television. Two men in a faraway place. A jungle in South America. I stare at the screen. The show is called Wild Kingdom. A man named Jim wrestles a tapir while an old man named Marlin talks. I want to be Jim when I grow up. In Bay City, there are no jungles or tapirs or people with painted skin. My little brother Billy presses his leg into mine, as if to anchor himself. He’s almost three years old, but does not speak.

My mother rocks my baby sister Penelope. “In Africa, the bugs are as big as birds. In China, the flowers are as big as a person’s face.”

I wish she would smile like that more often. “Can I go there?”

Her smile fades. She shuts off the television. “It’s too far away. Go outside and play.”

I stand at the edge of the field behind our little yellow house. A soft spring sun shines down. The smell of thawing mud fills the air. Across the brown expanse, the horizon ripples. A warm, dusty wind blows. It is the Kalahari Desert. But what is beyond? I step forward. Billy follows. Our boots sink into the mud. We push ahead. Exploration is never easy. Jim wouldn’t turn back. We sink up to our calves. The mud holds us prisoner. Quicksand!

Billy opens his mouth and wails. The sound of his voice is so unfamiliar that I panic.

My mother flies out the door, long brown hair streaming behind her. When she gets to the edge of the field, she bursts out laughing, puts her hands on her hips, and shakes her head. “Oh, it’s not quicksand. Calm down.” When she lifts me up, my little brown cowgirl boots stay in the mud.

It’s funny, the long ago images that persist. Those little boots didn’t survive that adventure. My mother washed them off, but the leather was ruined and they had to be thrown away. I was heartbroken. Curiosity comes with a price, but that did not deter the backyard expeditions.

The lioness rolls on her back in a playful frolic. A collective “Aw!” moves through the group.

I lift my hand to my mouth and sink my teeth in. One of the college boys gives me a look. I smile and shrug. “I’m just making sure that I’m really here.”

A conspiratorial smile in reply. “I pinched myself earlier. We’re really here.”

I shake my head and sigh. I did it. I really did it. Even with all of the strange and remote places I’d been, Africa always seemed out of reach. Somewhere deep inside, the dream never died. There is always a way. If you believe.

Childhood summertime afternoons. That sweet time before the lies people tell us become that which we believe about ourselves. My best friends were twin boys who lived next door. After the boisterous games of Marco Polo and Dark and Stormy Night, we’d float on inner tubes and stare up at the clouds. Drifting in the silence of endless possibilities. A life ahead to fill. They weren’t sure what they wanted to be, but they both wanted to marry Farrah. I was going to visit every country in the world.

Questions wandered into my mind: Where do birds go when it rains? What does a mango taste like? These provoked boy giggles. You’re so weird, Julie. The questions deepened: Where does the sky end? What is time? Fearful silence replaced the laughter. After that, I modified the questions: Snickers or Milky Way? Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley? Who loves Farrah more? I did not want to be banished from their pool. Okay, so some questions were best kept to myself. But the answers were out there. Somewhere. Far, far away from Michigan. I figured out that there were some that I’d never know the answer to. I’ve continued to wonder just the same.

What the hell is time, anyway? And what obligates us to agree on its existence? I wonder what my travel companions would say. I stifle an evil giggle as I picture the looks on their faces. Bite my lip. I do not want to be banished from the truck.

The internal journeys have mirrored the external in their intensity. I set the mind loose to gallop across the savanna, the steppes, the tundra. Landscapes exotic and vast and without obstruction. Unrestrained, fearless. Go. Seek out new frontiers in the wild kingdom. Theories, solutions, possibilities never considered. When they begin to warp into delusion, I herd them back to safer territory.

The power of the imagination.

There I am at twenty-three years old. Sitting in a dark basement. November gloom pressing against the tiny window. Jimmy Buffet on the stereo. Take me away from this abyss of broken dreams. Please. Behind closed eyes: iridescent aqua sea and palm trees. Sun on my face. Soft sand between my toes. During the song “Son of a Son of a Sailor”, the phone rang. It was an invitation to sail through the Grenadine islands with complete strangers. Months earlier, while I was still living in Los Angeles, I had responded to an ad for a travel assistant in a Bangkok newspaper. In the turmoil of my return to Michigan, I had totally forgotten about it. The man had already found an assistant, but there was room for one more on the sailboat. Would I like to join them? I accepted without hesitation. A crazy risk, but I had nothing left to lose.

On the last day, when we reached Mustique, news was waiting for me: my father had died. I used to think it was a cruel joke to receive that gift of light only to have it end with such unbearable grief. Now I know that it was the glimmer of light that kept me alive during the aftermath. Whenever my belief in miracles wavers, I conjure this memory.

Looking back, the exploration seems so effortless. The spontaneous opportunities, the unexpected money. I’ve been almost everywhere I’ve wanted to go. There is more to come: North Korea, Easter Island, and, yes, even Antarctica. They will all come to pass. How is it that some dreams materialize while others remain elusive? How to maintain that daydream softness? A “what if” without desperation. Such a delicate balance. It is okay to have everything that I want, in every facet of life. There is enough. If only I could feel the truth in this.

The roadside princess rises and strides towards the salt pan with purpose. She knows the way through the place without shadow. The purity of emptiness. Vessel of creation. What treasure lies within? My mind takes off in pursuit.

The second lioness follows and then the lion. Oblivious to his obedience. It would never occur to him to venture there alone. Even if he did, he’d be lost.

**The quicksand scene is an excerpt from the memoir. I remember the episode with the tapir, and I clearly remember this quicksand incident, but were they on the same day? This is one of the trickiest things about writing such long ago memories. It seems that it’s acceptable to splice some things together, as long as they both occurred.

Inherit the Earth


Etosha National Park, Namibia – August 2015

The springbok are the first to appear. A collective sigh of relief fills the safari truck. We have been driving for an hour with no sign of wildlife. The guide passes out a checklist of all the creatures that roam Etosha. I glance at it and lay it aside. Turn my attention out the window. A thick gauze of dust hangs in the air. Grainy, diffuse sunlight. August is a strange month. The animals are restless, unpredictable. I do not get my hopes up.

More creatures emerge from the dust. Ostriches strut by. Harsh glares are cast in our direction. The brush thickens.

Long necks sway above the bushes. Curious flowers in a summer breeze. I catch my breath. Have I strayed into a dream world? The giraffe is, to me, the most fanciful mammal on Earth.

“What do you call a group of giraffes?” The guide pauses. “A tower.”

Just before I embarked on this journey, I came across an interview with a female trophy hunter. There was outrage at a photo of her with a giraffe she had allegedly shot. Its long neck was coiled at her feet. Long eyelashes eternally at rest. During the interview, the woman stared into the camera. Batted her eyelashes. The hunt was therapy for recent personal problems. And giraffes are dangerous! They can hurt you bad! More photos of her flashed across the screen: Chest puffed out. Silicone melons pressed against a tight t-shirt. Glittery fingernails clasped around a hot pink hunting bow. Then she recited that Bible quote about humans holding dominion over the Earth. And the interview was finished.

Those who truly know power feel no need to wield it. With what will her kind fill the emptiness when all of the creatures are gone?

Night and day again. I have seen elephants, a leopard, rhinos, and lions. My eyes seek out the littler ones. I contemplate the innate symbiosis. In some, there is a predatory need. It is for survival. It is nothing personal. It is up to the prey to learn how to recognize it and defend itself.

And yet some never lose their gentle curiosity.

The jackal paces back and forth, grimacing in our direction.

“Jackals are intelligent,” the guide says. “But he’s acting peculiar.”

Finally, the jackal sighs and squats. Its grimace widens as its bowels are emptied. We burst into laughter.

I lower my camera. “Aw, he just wanted a little privacy.”

Now, the winged creatures. I have always observed them by sound rather than sight. My eyes sweep across the landscape. There they are. Perched right beside us. I imagine what it would be like to hold the littlest one in my cupped hands. The rapid flutter of its heart. The song that longs to burst from its throat. I would lift it to my ear, close my eyes, and listen. Tales of its journeys far, far above.

And when they return to Earth for the last time, who will notice the void left behind by their silence?

A Day on the Big Red Bus

cpt02Cape Town, South Africa – August 2015

It is so often said that one of the main advantages of travel is that it takes us out of our comfort zones. For the seasoned traveler, however, it is easy to get stuck in our own travel comfort zones. Many prefer organized group tours. Every activity is rigidly planned. No need to stress about getting from here to there. Others, like myself, choose independence and spontaneity, often at the expense of convenience. There are many in-betweens, but we rarely immerse ourselves in other tourist realms.

As the red double-decker bus approaches the stop, I take a deep breath. It’s the first bus of the day. It’s low season in Cape Town. Maybe it won’t be full. Please don’t be full. The bus comes to a halt. A long, luxurious exhale. It’s almost empty. Three women and I are the only passengers at this stop. I buy a ticket and take a seat inside. It’s too chilly to sit on the upper deck.

Anyone who has traveled around Europe and elsewhere can recognize the distinctive Hop On/Hop Off buses. They ferry people from one major tourist attraction to the next. Faces turned in unison, following the instructions of the tiny voice in their red earphones. I used to snicker as I watched them pass. I’d never be caught dead, I’d tell myself, upper lip curled into a sneer.

Well, here I am. The travel snobbery of my youth has dissipated. I enjoy the challenge of navigating public transport. The authenticity of moving around with locals. However, Cape Town is just too spread out, and then there are the safety issues of using the public transport.

cpt04

This was taken late afternoon the following day during a return visit to Kirstenbosch.

I am on the Blue route. First stop: Kirstenbosch Gardens. A dull green blankets the slopes below the cliffs and canyons of Table Mountain. Too early yet for the famous wildflowers. The sun blazes down. The kind of sunshine that erases contrast and personality. After a brisk stroll through the paths, I head back to the bus stop. There are no other stops along this route that I wish to visit, so I settle into the seat. The bus barrels down the winding coast road, passing the beach enclaves of Camp’s Bay and Green Point. How tranquil it all seems. I’m told it’s a different place when the sun goes down.

cpt06

At the V&A Waterfront, I slam a double espresso and wolf down two chocolate muffins before changing to the Red route. Lunch of champions. An elderly couple sits on the bench by the bus. The man is sporting black socks, white sneakers, and Bermuda shorts. His blue Hawaiian shirt strains against his belly. Windblown gray hair, unruly beard. He grips an old-fashioned cane.

“How long do we have to wait? What’s included? Is it a real tour?” A nasally pinch to his voice. Not pronounced enough to be Michigan. Indiana or Ohio, maybe. He taps his cane forcefully on the pavement.

“We’ll just have to see,” his wife mumbles in the absent way of someone used to questions for which the answers will never be satisfactory.

The bus door opens. I flash my ticket. The driver hands me some earphones. “You should sit on the upper deck.” He smiles. I return the smile and take his advice.

Wheezing and mumbling. The old man heaves himself up the stairs. His eyes harden when he catches sight of me. His wife sits two seats in front of me. He sits on the opposite side of the aisle from her.  “Aren’t we supposed to get earphones? I can’t believe they didn’t give us any!” He bangs his cane on the floor.

His wife shrugs. “Guess not.”

I look down at the little red earphones in my grasp. Still in the plastic. My own perceptions are preferable to those of a tinny, disembodied drone. I bite my cheek, and then tap the lady on her shoulder. “Here, I won’t use them.”

“Oh! Thank you!” She takes them out of the package and inserts them into her ears.

The old man twists around. Bushy eyebrows furrowed over a glare of petulant fury. Ruddy jowls aquiver.

The slightest lift of eyebrows is my reply. Easy now, Captain Ahab, ’tis not I the source of thy deprivation.

He twists back around. Tap, tap, tap.

His wife takes the earphones out and passes them to him. He grabs them and shoves them in his ears without a word.

I shake my head and turn away. They are instantly forgotten as I take in the view. The bus is worth taking, if only for this perspective of a city. You can look down at the little people going about their day. I recognize the amusement in their eyes as they watch us pass. Yes, I’m a dork! Hello! The buildings rise beside rather than above.

cpt01

The massive monolith of Table Mountain looms closer. It reminds me of the mesas along Highway 666 in New Mexico. They seemed like forbidding fossils. Table Mountain glows. I stifle the pang of disappointment at not having enough time to hike it.

cpt05

The bus empties at the Cableway stop. In just a few minutes, I find myself at the top. Most of the tourists don’t venture far from the Cableway area, so I soon find a tranquil trail to walk. A cool breeze blows, carrying distant voices, but it is not long before they vanish into the silence. I sit on a rock and stare down the peninsula. The Cape of Good Hope is out there somewhere. And, far beyond, Antarctica.

cpt03

The sun’s relentless glide towards the horizon. I rouse myself and head back to the Cableway. The bus meanders almost the same route as this morning’s. Round and round again. I recognize the short, stubby palm trees at Camp’s Bay. Solitary Lion’s Head peak. How quickly places become familiar nowadays.

Back at the V&A Waterfront, I take the Yellow route to Long Street. I can grab a quick dinner and take out some cash before heading back to the guesthouse. It is the end of the day, so a cashier is also catching a ride back to the main office. He sits across the aisle, and then turns to face me. He introduces himself. He is from Zimbabwe.

He leans close, strokes his chin, lifts his eyebrows up and down as he looks me up and down. “WhereareyoufromwhatdidyouseetodaydoyoulikeCapeTown…”

I keep my expression neutral. “I’m originally from America, but now my husband and I live in Prague.”

The mention of husband provokes the obligatory, “Why isn’t he here with you?”

I know, by now, that no matter what I answer, it won’t wipe away the knowing smirk. My voice tightens as I give the usual excuses: he has too much work, he would love to be here, we’ll come back together one day. The more the “h” word is mentioned, the deeper the smirk.

I used to think that solo female travelers fall off the male radar as they age. However, we simply move into a different zone. Youthful beauty has been edged out by middle-aged desperation. If the husband is absent, it’s because there is a problem. We are on the hunt for “adventure”. Wink, wink. Starved for compliments and attention, we are laughably easy to seduce. I’m grateful that my ego doesn’t require such empty flattery.

“But what about you? Do you miss Zimbabwe?” Best thing to do is switch the focus back to him.

His shoulders slacken. He relaxes into the seat. For the rest of the short ride, he speaks about the country he wishes to return to one day.

I feel his eyes on my back, cunning and fierce, as I scurry across Long Street. I try to think about dinner, in an attempt to shake off the ickiness. The vague shame. But my appetite is gone. The issues that we try to escape always find a way to tag along, no matter how small the backpack and how hectic the itinerary. He would be here with me if he could, wouldn’t he? I want him with me, don’t I? I prefer to travel alone. I really do. But why is that?

Evening’s long shadows creep along the pavement. I quicken my steps in a futile attempt to outrun them.