Iceland was one of those trips I set my mind to and willed company to follow. Thankfully, my brother was up for a very different kind of trip than his usual beach or city visit. And his daughter, my 8 year-old (now 9) niece. And finally my colleague and co-advisor from TGS. Somehow, our crew came together… different age groups, some strangers at first, novice and experienced travelers… and what transpired was truly enjoyable.Read More
Peering out tent flaps at African hippos, Learning sign language and swimming with locals, Feeling at home up in Bujagali, These are a few of my favorite things
When I throw up over Maggie, Cov'ring KJ's lap, I simply remember I'm Zanzibar bound, And then I don't feel so bad
Jambo and mambo, Cheesy camondeezi, Sailing in dhows and learning Kiswahili, Red Bulls and Cholos and beach break dancing, These are a few of my favorite things
When my new friends have to leave me, A rolling stone so sad, I simply remember I'm living a dream, And then I don't feel so bad.
Chapter Three: Leaving Dar, Looking for Livingstone The creases of my eyes remained dry. My pupils fixed on the back of our new drivers' heads in the new cab...of the new truck. I felt ashamed at the somewhat "poor little rich girl" moment, this sadness for the changes in company and wishful abandonment of the leg ahead. Young Peter, the other spry hoodlum like me on the truck, stared at me in disbelief during the first breakfast, hours after leaving our old guides in Dar, and after a long silence exclaimed, "Why the hell are you so freaking miserable?"
This trip of mine is about the people, and this trip of mine isn't about the people. I haven't made it a main mission, but I seem to acquire great companionship on every leg of this journey...which only makes the transitions more emotional, the events more enjoyable, and the introspection less important and more avoidable. It took me a while to forget the loneliness caused by the loss of those expiration friendships, and in the meantime, I fought to get back in the state of mind conducive to self-discovery...while bouncing, yet again.
Driving across the entire width of Tanzania in two 12+ hour days gave me plenty of miserable, staring-out-the-window time...and then I saw the water, again. Lake Malawi tricked me into thinking I was lounging again at the seaside and somehow connected by water to my soul's content state and my lost friends. But it didn't make sense that this massive body with waves and sand had no shells or salt. The existence of Carlsberg' Elephant beer, however, made me 7.2% less aware of the recent past and, finally, more present with my new company.
The evening's bungalow parties, isolated from the old Drago passengers and dripping with humor and contentment, made me smile. But during the day, when these seven new pax paired off to spend their heftier bank accounts on activities, I took my travel notebook, iPod, and sarong to the "beach" and submerged into a world where those around me don't exist and my mind scales, traverses, and swims great distances to the point of bodily exhaustion. I wrote all day and started sleeping a lot more.
There is a perfect spot at Kande Beach for sun-downers, where a piece of the bar's patio juts into the sand like the bow of a ship. I sat there in the afternoon one day, listening to nothing but the often neglected songs from my audio collection and putting every passing mental bite on paper. And then I stopped, balled my outlets into my clothing, and started running into the lake, feeling equal parts regret and exhilaration as more and more of my dry skin and suit became drenched.
I had to go out at least 150 feet before the chilly water was deep enough to envelop me, and at that distance, I dipped my head into the lake, only to emerge feeling as though I just realized where I was and what I was doing there.
In the movie, its the moment when the weight of the past pulls the audience in, utterly concerned for me, and the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer or John Williams crescendos as I enter a place where tears can finally fall. And here, where my head returns to air, more aware of the confusing side of life, the camera sits, half-underwater and spaced from me, as to not disturb this pivotal life moment. It was at this moment that I felt very strongly the abnormality of my path and the certain disappointment that will come when parts of my soul remain unfulfilled.
There's simply no way to do all that I feel called to do in life, and since I cannot silence these needs, my heart will never feel weightless. Sometimes, a cloud covers the sun beams in the day...and this was one of those times.
As much fun as being deep and emotional is, I didn't want to be the young, dark, sleepy girl for the next two weeks, especially when passengers from the prior leg knew how light-hearted I can be. So I went about meeting the young German girl and the new Drago crew.
Lara, a 20 year old from Dusseldorf traveling with her father, provided nice companionship, even though our dialogue struggled to transcend the language barrier at times. Though they both expressed their intentions to do their own things, Lara found trouble getting space from her father, so she spent much of her time feeling obligated and unlike herself. Made it a bit difficult to become better friends.
I tried to bond with Lucy. Every fiber of that girl's being is dedicated to the life she leads, her job and calling to be an overlander. Free time she spent performing engine checks, managing the finances, filling out meticulous paperwork, and many times doing jobs most other overlanders delegate to other people. She always refused the free bed at each camp site for her mattress atop the truck and ate last to consume all the less appetizing tidbits of the meal, avoiding the bagging for leftovers. I cannot say that she didn't make time for her passengers, as she was always around to offer me some chit-chat, but there was no distracting her from the life she loved. Her demeanor was reassuring and nice to observe in a world where many are unhappy and I struggle to find the same contentment...but I still remained without a good connection on the trip.
I shared some drinks and chatter with the co-driver, Mark, and some laughs with the cook, Vesh, but I was spoiled by my comrades from the past...and very aware of the kind of people I like to be around. I found my type; didn't know I had one.
Goodness, what depressing material. Have I mentioned how beautiful Lake Malawi was by hammock? Or the enjoyment I reaped from going grocery shopping with Vesh and Lucy? It wasn't all gloomy thoughts from start to finish, and, actually, the trip went steadily uphill, starting with the road to South Luangwa National Park.
Four hours of corrugation, dust, and potholes were broken up by a roadside meal, next to the smallest scorpion possible to exist, and a parade-like drive through the cliche idea of Africa, where we sat on the truck roof and waved at the screaming, running Zambian children...until they started asking for sweets. There was the frequent low branch that caused us to fold in half at the waist and duck for cover, getting scratched from shoulder to butt. Incidentally, the truck ended its journey to the camp site covered in unripe mangoes.
The Luangwa river is the natural border between the National Park and the human world. This strip of water is murky entirely, its surface almost motionless except for the occasional, and quite frightening, eye, ear, or tail of a human-munching killer, breaking that serene surface with a terrorizing presence. The adjacent bank is nothing but riddled with footprints of hippos and crocs. Up the bank, no more than 100 feet is Flatdogs camp site, our home for three nights.
Each tent kept its distance from each other and other obstructions by one meter, at least, the average width of an adult elephant. No food, trash bin, drying clothes, or window ajar were left in the presence of the nut case baboons, which stalked the grounds waiting for human error.
We all took our chances with the weather at night, leaving the flies in the tent bags and tying up the tent flaps, in case we arose in the wee hours to the sound of munching beyond the nylon walls and wanted an unobstructed view. This was hippo grazing ground: the ground within a inch of each tent. A half-asleep bathroom outing in the middle of chow time could and would honestly cost you your life. Nothing about dangerous toilet breaks gets old.
The paucity of upgrades made tents in high demand, so Lisa, a cast member of the Golden Girl-Drago era, and I joined forces and decided upon erecting our tent on a tree platform, which hovered just out of reach of an out-stretched elephant trunk. At this slightly improved elevation in this more inspirational location, I felt compelled to write something more typical of my mind, something searching for meaning and laced with satisfaction of my present state. I had recovered.
Three nights among the wildlife...days spent in the park, at a nearby village, and a third at stationary peace...all wonderful. Our game drives were fruitful and diverse, involving, at one climactic moment, the intense, defensive roar of a dining leopard, coming no further than five feet from our jeep's front tire. With a thinner group, we went on a village tour an hour away...and for the first time in weeks, the experience felt welcoming, interesting, and downright fun. This may have been caused in part by the chances to both visit a witch doctor and to join a village shake session...where, once more, my own capabilities fell short of African hips.
Maybe more smile-inducing than that, I finally sat up front in the cab and played DJ with my own music, appealing to the group and pleasing myself as I heard the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Space Capone reverberate off mud brick huts. Those days in the bush were turning points for chapter three. I lost the loneliness of heart and spent more time laughing, laughing at the Germans who waited a half hour in the bathroom because an adult elephant with monstrous tusks munched by the doorway, trapping then in awe inside.
Canoeing down the Lower Zambezi river, which borders Zimbabwe, was the main event for many of the passengers on this leg. By the time the Drago journeys started, I had completely forgotten the expected itineraries, including the exciting highlights due ahead of us.
En route to the canoeing safari starting point, we stopped to camp at a dark, unfriendly locale run by a racist, drunk, and incredibly abrasive Dutch man. The drive day was long, and, for the first time, we arrived after the sky lost all evidence of color or light. No one was in high spirits, especially when we realized the spirits cost more than they would at a posh restaurant in the USA.
And then we heard a scream. He called her name over and over in breathless pain. I heard it in the back of my mind, and suddenly the woman I was talking to started sprinting up the hill towards her fiance's yelps. The Irish couple left for Lusaka an hour later to wait outside the best hospital in Central Africa until opening time, Chris' ankle propped up on bags and padded with ice and a homemade splint. The horrible Dutch owner was stingy with adequate lighting by his cabins, and, with that, we lost those people most excited about the canoe safari as they flew home to reset his broken bones. I started walking with sure footing immediately.
We were paddling with the current, floating at a steady clip near the trusty guides and smiling from the recent elephant sighting. Lisa was in front, and I concentrated on keeping us on course and not splashing her back with each hand switch. The green streamed by the left side of the canoe at the same time we experienced an unsettling tousle.
Surprisingly little flashed in my head at the moment I thought I was going to die. I froze and simply thought, "whoa...crocodile." To our utter relief, it was a stump streaming with weeds, one of the five biggest dangers on the canoe safari, behind hippos, crocs, elephants, and the blazing African sun.
Zambia on the left and Zimbabwe on the right, we covered 40 km in two days, avoiding wading hippos, crossing elephants, and sun-bathing reptiles in some situations that were far too close for comfort. Meals were picnics under trees on islands claimed by neither country. The dangling of flesh over the sturdy, fiberglass canoes was only o.k. if you insisted on getting that part amputated.
At designated points along the way, when safety was fairly certain, we swam in the Zambezi, whose micah content makes it shimmer like magic water. Our guides, knowledgeable on every aspect of the outing, followed in true African man fashion, flirting with every unattached woman on the trip. Completely uninterested, I used this extra attention to become informed on the Southern Hemisphere's constellations and to get added security while swimming in beast-infested waters.
This flirtatious Martin thought I would be interested in discovering some lion poo, but in the seconds we stooped to investigate the dried clumps, we heard a scream. I turned to see a flash of blue as Vesh frantically fastened her pants while fleeing from a charging mother elephant. Once again...the fun of bush toilets...makes the walk to the heated tile floors and quilted paper seem boring, eh? Lara and I had a perfect vantage point of the mammoth's advance and Vesh's all-star sprint to safety. We used each other for balance as we doubled over in belly laughter. It was still funny hours later.
Perfect orange sunsets on bubbling landscapes. Bush fire camps and good books. An almost alarmingly close connection to nature. A break from sitting on a truck. All just a few wonderful things about a canoe safari on the Zambezi river of Africa.
And, of course, just when I am finding some comfort with this group and our dynamic, the leg to Livingstone comes to an end. I became almost tear-choked thinking about the perfection of my coming Golden birthday, a day that would include a flight over the world's largest waterfall by microlight, relaxation, free drinks, and a sunset cruise alongside our ghastly friends from the canoe experience. The Germans honored the stroke of my day with a shot and a hug, sure to let me know I was around people that would make the day [that I care far too much about] special.
The microlight took off from the dirt runway without much power or effort, and the lack of ground contact sent a surge of terror from my wide eyes to my sudden death grip on the handles. It was a surreal satellite view of the interwoven borders of Africa's Z countries. The mist rose slightly, and it was almost too much when the pilot dropped us sideways, swirling down like a leaf towards the thundering water below. My helmet's visor gathered the mist that stung my exposed chin when our shadow cast over the rainbow. 15 minutes flew by...pun intended.
After continuously refusing free drinks for weeks from the friendly new passengers, I decided a birthday isn't a bad time to take advantage of such generosity without mounding guilt. The sunset cruise gave us all an excuse to shed the normally nasty and rather masculine clothes and showcase our classy sides.
Before boarding the boat, we posed with Claudia, our trusty steed, before they opened the doors to blare a zesty version of "Happy Birthday" while bringing out a melting pink and white cake. We brought it on the cruise to share with all those people not with our swingin' party. I soaked up the African birthday anthem, a smile from ear to ear, and chopped the pastry up for all the strangers that sang to me, telling them, "I hate not getting cake when it's someone else's birthday." Obviously, thoughts and words were uninspired that fine dusk.
That night, back on land, I hugged many people goodbye and retired for a last night of tent-a-licious slumber...but not before the camp site's bar band tried to pay me a tribute by playing my favorite song. Only one guy knew "Little Wing," so the attempt was spotty and lacking finesse...but I sat on the floor about a foot from the bass drum with yet another broad grin on my 23 year old facade.
I came to Africa. I saw five of her sprawling countries. I think to say conquered would be misleading, but I definitely didn't let her get the best of me. I laugh in the face of malaria...for now.
TWA...That Was Africa.
Chapter Two: The Road to Zanzibar Once the Golden Girls cast was infiltrated by new blood, a funny thing happened to me among the group who thought they knew me. I started acting like the "tart" I'm known to be now. I joked. I smirked. I giggled. I danced around in a semi-conscious state. I dove into conversations as if I would always have some valuable comment to make. Patrick was amazed at my transformation, and so began our friendship.
I'm glad the shell cracked, because the next stop was a return to Nakuru for a wee (thought spectacular) safari and the most exciting local interaction to date. Walking from the Kembu camp site, down the dirt road to Patrick's family compound, we felt the Earth rumble and the air split by hand claps, cackles, and the harmonious singing of a massive gathering. They performed but wouldn't let any of us just be spectators to their tribal anthems. We had to not just participate but throw ourselves into the celebration like it was our own, usual crew during a regular jam session. A multi-course meal followed and left our fingers sticky, bellies full, and cheeks sore from smiles. We learned more intimate details about Patrick from his family members than most of us were comfortable knowing, but these juicy tidbits gave ample material for more jokes between those of us on Patrick's friendly side.
The next night, we invited the whole fan damily to dinner as a thank you and to showcase our sad skills in celebration. Yes, celebration. Kool and the Gang style. Then we moved onto Chumbawumba...and almost broke the floor because we got knocked down...and then got up again. I played DJ with Jase and blared the crowd pleasing favorites like Tupac and Marley. I heard my name chanted from behind my disc jockey stance and turned to see Patrick's entire tribe forming a circle and summoning a "break-down" from yours truly. I cut that rug. At first by myself, then against Patrick himself. I'm embarrassed to note he out-shook me to the point that simply coming in accidental contact with his vibrating backside gave me an instant fabric burn. African hips are hazardous. Cross-stitch that into your next throw pillow.
I shook myself silly and soon became the young, giggle-box, whom danced around while eating her jammed toast in the early morning dew, hair askew and sporting the sock/sandal combo for humor's sake. The following few days, I opted out of group activities, like walking safaris and group meals, to become more familiar with those three people I was growing to befriend: the Drago crew. We chopped veggies, avoided hippos, navigated urban Nairobi, and threw back libations while chatting about overlanding, "intense travel," breaking social norms, finding ways to be happy, and getting paid to do what you love. They were some of the most intriguing opinions I've witnessed and found them to satiate the deep questions of my wandering soul.
And then the sun rose slowly, glowing...blazing all tints of the color wheel's warm side...I sat waiting, listening for the Kiswahili chorus and the raising of Simba into the living skies. Yes, you guessed it, we thundered across the appalling dirt roads via unlucky jeeps to the world famous stretching savannahs of the Serenjeti. Good guess; that was a tough one. Rising up the walls of the Ngorongoro Crater and skimming the rim, we experienced some unfortunate coincidences involving all three jeeps that hauled our poised cameras and anxious eyes. The first had a massive diesel leak, making its passengers physically sick and "fuming" mad. The second, my loyal carrier, vibrated down the corrugated roads and lost a connection that kept a tire in alignment. We took the opportunity to frolic around the barren 360• of savannah surrounding the site of "wreckage." Some tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to squat behind some thin and mobile tumble weed while those knowledgeable with mechanics squatted to stare at the damage. I ran around like a headless chicken, looking for a rotting carcass to "munch" on and get closer to the oh-so-musical circle of life. The landscape was perfect for a TIA photo moment, modified for Tanzania as we formed our bodies into the lovable exclamation "T.I.T." The third jeep, which doubled back to aid our car struggles, solved the issue, sent us off on our way, and then crawled behind at a fragmented pace from three flat tires. Seven years of using this company, and we experienced the first three problems Drago has ever had with them. Some said "What freakin' luck." I said, "ALLLLLLRIGHT!"
Those whose company I enjoyed dealt with our mercurial road trip to the National Park with light-hearted optimism. However, the high expectations summoned by the word "Serenjeti" made others bitter and suspicious of anything that wasn't straight out of the Lion King. As if safaris are controllable, predictable or follow a schedule of perfect skies, eye-to-eye encounters, and Kodak/Nat'l Geographic moments. I dropped all expectations and grew to love those times that weren't about the game...hydroplaning for sport on the newly-wet bush roads, listening to "Hakuna Matata" from guide Henry's cell phone, flipping pork chops by torch light on a bush bbq, and screaming in terror when I thought I was staring into the reflecting eyes of a night-scavenging lion by my tent. It was just a buffalo; don't fret. Patrick's baboon-bandit experience left us short of potatoes and bread and left me in stitches. Maria's dust COVERED visage brought a tear to my eye when she took refuge from the wind above the open top jeep. When I hear Serenjeti, I'll probably forget the cheetah that crossed our path, the leopard gnawing at a carcass suspended in a tree, or the hot air balloons floating majestically over the terrain at sunrise. I'll remember the moments that broke the mold...it's the stuff of life.
The Ngorongoro Crater, conceived by a brilliant geological mishap, is the only safari experience a person needs...a wildlife utopia with views to make a shutter finger seize in exhaustion. Bloody faced cheetahs chomping on a corpse, face-to-face elephant stare downs, and wildebeest migrations made my memory card steam, but nothing made me laugh harder than a massive alpha lion doing his business in front of 15 jeeps. I took four snaps a second, making sure I got the perfect illustration to add to the helpful book Everybody Poops...I could make it a flip book.
Though my Crater experience was memorable to say the leastest, I found the best thrills the night before, camping along the rim. There was no protection or fortifications between our wee tent circle and stampeding zebras or a giant elephant knocking down tree limbs. I watched the sunset slowly silhouette the mammoth's body as he balanced on two legs like a circus act, then I took to the "kitchen" (or spot where we put the gas stove range) to comfort our heart-broken cook and tour guides, all four still writhing from the previous day's verbal massacres by unhappy group members. In exchange, they bought me some local spirits and watched my back for stalking animals...which eventually materialized in the form of a massive bush pig. Think evil pig with a skull thrice as tall as it should be. I called it an early night and walked to the abolution block, only to find myself in a face-off with a buffalo...who stopped munching to turn his head and stare my shivering frame down. Patrick came running to my calls for help and accompanied me the rest of the way in the animal kingdom. I sorta miss the possibility of death on the way to the toilet. Gives life a zing. The night was semi-sleepless as I felt the stomping of game inches from my face. That's also zing-worthy.
Exhausted and caked in sweat and dust, I collapsed on the pile of bush camping equipment and smiled as Maggie approached our group in Karatu...it felt like a homecoming. Jase and Helen had spent the previous four days taking her apart and back together...enjoying the lively ambiance of Snake Park, a camp site that borders a hefty collection of massive reptiles, full-grown crocs inclu ded. And it was there that I purged myself of all anxieties cause my the tour group atmosphere. I lounged around while others toured museums. I, again, associated more with the guides than the fellow pax, staying up late and trying my hardest to avoid imbibing the deadly Ma's Revenge at the watering hole. It seemed I was becoming intoxicated by the overland life, where acquaintances become beloved comrades, camp site bars quake with the lively recounting of travel tales, and land traversed gives you a quantitative measure of success each and every day. Once again, age pulls me back from diving towards those apps, and so I'll dilly-dally for two more years, to contemplate those dreams until Drago will put me in the pool.
I awake at sunrise. Something is uncomfortably wrong. The night before involved a decent amount of bar time but not enough to warrant a wake-up call of extreme stomach irritation and a burning throat. I crawled to my tent flap and hovered inches outside to wretch in the most painful manner. Masai watchmen walked by and pretended not to stare as I wept and purged on all fours. This is one of the things I love about Africans...they will avert eyes to help you save face and dignity...even in times like this where a woman is crying, tossing cookies, and stuck leaning out a tent that was turned in the night so the fly and tent flap were no longer aligned. Thank you, Jase, for thoroughly pegging me into my own tent at an inconvenient moment in time. A fire trapped in my throat that I couldn't extinguish with water or biscuits. Potatoes and ketchup for breakfast went down like chunky needles, and I barely moved from my seat on the truck even with the multiple pit stops. And then I exploded. All over Maggie...myself...and others nearby. One of the most embarrassing events I've experienced. Covered in my own regurgitated food, I made a sad speech to my group from the front of the truck, announcing my shame, apologies, and the priceless chance for photographs if anyone wanted to seize the moment. Jase pointed out the vomit that had wrapped around my body, making light of my impressive skills, and I waded in that exposing feeling that eventually makes you laugh in disbelief. Might as well. The shame subsided slowly when I put two and two together...I had the 24 hour stomach flu. Swell.
I was a weak, wobbly, sleepy, hungry mass for the next 24 hours. That is...until I got a glimpse of it, the ocean. All life and color returned to my face, and I couldn't stop singing "Buffalo Soldier" as I threw on my suit and bounced around, erecting my tent in the smooth, white sand. After a month of experiencing the tropics, the altitudes, and the dusty plains of Africa, I saw her sweet coast, and it filled me with all-consuming, all-curing glee. I think I was meant to be a beach baby...or, maybe more accurately, a Zanzi-baby.
Re-living moments on the island of Zanzibar cause an actual physical reaction...my body smiles, some organ crawls up to hug my heart, and something else shakes the sleeve of my mind like an impatient child, begging for a quick return. Luxury came to mind when I saw our fantastic abodes for the week in Nungwi...en suite, tiled floor, queen beds for all, the list rolls on. The beach disappears beneath a creeping tide of beautiful teal, and when it emerges, it sports an eclectic collection of Western visitors, local Bob Marley-idolizing beach boys, faux-Masai warriors, volleyball and soccer aficionados, dhow boats run aground, and miniature sand crabs scurrying from hungry felines. The sunset that met us upon arrival was a vicious display of the world's ability to astound with beauty and hide it away all too quickly. I hope my eyes will always be able to recall that image, even if I burn my retinas from such continual sun worship.
I am so sorry, because I feel bad...for both of us: you, the reader, and I, the writer. I'm sorry for not divulging into an incredible account of this paradise and my week of bliss. You won't get to know those joys that I could very easily describe but choose not to. I know what you're missing, so I'm sorry for your unknown loss. And I'm sorry I know have the knowledge of what that location can do to me, what possibilities it holds, and the satisfaction I reap from being a part of its existence. I choose to leave it to wordless memories, the silence instead representing that inexplicable smile you see on a person across the room, listening to music or eyes closed and breathing deeply. You can know I floated in a gorgeous ocean, scalded my skin in the hot sun, and covered myself with sweat and sand, trying to out-dance the local lords of the dance floor. Magic connections and visual masterpieces, the lifestyle of my soul's dreams; basically, I had a good time. I will touch that sand again. And you should, too.
Goodbye, Jase and Helen, Patrick and Maggie, my Bristolian crack pots. Enter Lucy and Mark, Vesh and Claudia, and some new blood from Ireland, Deutschland, and Aussieland.
Continue reading about this African adventure by reading the next and final chapter: The Pity of an Expiration Date.
BounceLike your butt has the hiccups Like you were riding in an overland truck Matatus and jeeps Maggie and Claudia We've managed to find (and feel) every weathered divet in the path between Jinja and Livingstone.
Allow me to explain.
I was scheduled to fly back to Nairobi from Entebbe, Uganda, in order to catch my Dragotrip across the dark continent. But regardless of the fact that Africa is a massive place with billions of people, a former Drago passenger (Shvonne) arrived at my volunteer site, offered me invaluable advice, and managed to not only introduce me to my future trip mates but get me a spot on the truck to Kenya...for the low, low price of beer money for our leader, Jason.
And so began my many weeks of overland adventures. These good times naturally fall into three chapters for their routes and the different ensembles aboard. And so I shall recount my Drago trip with due accentuation on the highlights: the sights, the comforts, the characters, especially the crew.
Chapter One: Hitch-hiking to Nairobi
I came to Adrift camp site in Jinja for a big Drago dinner between Shvonne's old and my future trucks and met the self-proclaimed alcoholics and nut cases that made up my group. I hadn't turned on my wit factor for weeks and was blind sided by the six over 40-year olds who came at me with big smiles, beers in hand. Helen approached us at the bar afterwards and welcomed me to the group...so slow was I to realize this young, blonde woman was one of my leaders. She looked so clean. Get it, girl! And finally, we traced down the leader, Jason, the big kahuna whose decision it was for me to join. He only had a few questions for me upon arrival, this man of whom I've heard numerous party tales about already, and they were: will you buy me some beers? Do you like to party? And how often do you go skinny-dipping? Exciting start, huh? This former party rep lived up to his reputation with the first impression; I immediately admired his spunk. A self-proclaimed "professional bum". I began to take notes right then and there.
Hittin' the road the next day, the roads from Uganda to Kenya thankfully improved, ever so slowly. The landscape stretched exotically out my window and always held a scattering of babies on backs, shops selling phone chargers, matatus packed above capacity, staring men squatting by the road, and police checkpoints for seemingly no reason. The drivers dealt with each officer with nauseating charm, answering their sometimes oddball questions (do you have a fire extinguisher and tire pump on board?) like they were chatting over cocktails. I sat near the front, as quiet as ever, staring out over the dashboard between pages of my Michelangelo biography. Those first few days, I was painfully shy and acted more like a fly on the wall than a passenger, unsure how involved I could be on this trip I hitched onto. I instead retreated into Renaissance Florence and battled to pound out the bio that weighted my bag down to a saggy, formless low. Once I reached success, I loaned it to my first character, Julia, who finished the 750 pages in a staggering few days.
Julia has a not-so-salient, at first, defining feature that, once unearthed, tramples you with laughter: a dry and spot-on, effortless, sense of humor. A business manager from Bristol, England, she and I had little in common on paper besides an obvious wanderlust, but I grew to be magnetized to Julia in hopes osmosis would transfer some wit my way. She could make everyone laugh at the most inappropriate, paper-thin moment. In an attempt to give frame of reference, I'll explain one instance of sporadic humor that sustained giggles for weeks. On our first or second drive day after Jinja, we slowed behind traffic because there was a recently killed body lying in the road. Most of us kept our eyes aimed at the books in hand (worried that shady business had gone down), Helen turned to avert her attention from the scene, and Jase drove on, mumbling a prayer under his breath. Later, Julia recalled the moment in conversation and noted a good headline for the unfortunate incident might read "Man Killed in Yoga Accident." So morbid and inappropriate. Perfect timing and so original. A Julia joke.
Much of the time, Julia's material was fed by her fellow Bristolian partner'n'crime, a frizzy haired, smily nurse named Maria. I began seeing Maria's spark when we reached Nairobi and were about to welcome the new passengers. The approach of eight new people into our Golden Girl group was a bit threatening, also quite exciting. We all began cracking jokes and blending like the unit we weren't prior (meaning I cracked my shell and joined in). The prospect of a 22 year old male stud-muffin for me on the trip was enough to send her dirty mind spinning with hilarious anecdotes to make me unwind and be myself. That was just the beginning of our many male objectifying gab sessions. The bond was sealed when I captured the exact moment a giraffe pulled away from its kiss with her lips, leaving a double strand of antiseptic saliva, stretching like clotheslines from woman to world's tallest animal. It was what we youngsters know as a "Cruel Intentions" kiss. A classic.
I'm not sure why I wasn't myself at the beginning of this chapter. Patrick, the Kenyan cook on board, thought I was a shy little girl, as did Jase, whose presence always made my mind freeze. It may have been caused by my cyclical mood changes, which always occur after each individual phase of this journey. I had just left the home-grown, natural community that stirred up in Bujagali Falls as fast as a cup of instant coffee. And a tour was still something I was ambivalent towards for its cattle drive tendencies. And it also could have been my expectations that the Golden Girls and I would have little over which to bond. There's no doubt though I was somewhat "star struck" by the living legend I had heard tales of before I met his face. When you ask someone in the area (meaning Africa) if they are acquainted with him and they respond "ooooh yes, I know Jason," it makes one a bit timid to immediately whip out the goofball antics, for fear of clashing with another dominant personality.
I'll take this opportunity to explain the character of Jason, or Jase, as best I know how. He's a force of nature, sometimes a freak of nature (meant in the most endearing of tones, of course), for the things he does and continues to get away with at the youthful age of 37 years young. Bored of school and academic life, he graduated high school at 15 and began his own life that included the military, the police force, a move to the USA, Camp America, and working as an au pair. Considering the fact that he has charisma oozing out his dimples (and never, freakishly, gets hangovers) he became a party representative and moved from exotic beach locales to luxurious ski resorts, making holiday goers smile and amusing himself as a bar keep/manager/Jackass stuntman/etc. Looking for a new scene, he adorned his new scarf and wings and took to the skies, moving up at an incredible rate among the Virgin Air flight attendant hierarchy. There, at 30,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean, he shook up drinks and partied with Robbie Williams, attempted to charm the likes of Kylie Minogue, and dodged the verbal blows of our girl, Whitney Houston. And once he had traversed the heavens and gotten his fill, he moved on to become a DragoMan, to traverse the African plains via cement trucked turned passenger vehicle. He owns only the clothes in his bag and a snowboard somewhere in New Zealand. His home is everywhere and nowhere. A true nomad. To me that meant he was a man with answers. I listened to his words with bated breath; however, still knowing I could never be as displaced as he for decades on end. Jase still asks himself, "What on Earth am I doing with my life? What do I want to be when I grow up?" Just one more person I've met on the way who affirms that the straight shot into careerland is not always the way to go.
He will slide into his grave, rugged and saggy as a leather bag (thanks to his refusal to use and lack of need for sunscreen), thinking with no regrets, "what a ride!" While I don't necessarily think being a mechanic/police officer/Jackass stuntwoman who points vaguely to the nearest exit (which may be behind you!) is the path for me, Jase got me thinking about my youth, my attitude on life, and the art of travel. Under his Ngepi shorts' waistband, he's got 37 years, 77 countries, and 22 years of experience making his life exactly what he wants it to be. His only words of caution for this world was to be weary of the opposite sex, as love will be the only thing that can make you forfeit the path you choose. A bucket full of smarts, that one.
I think I've established to some extent the magnitude of Jase's legend, but that's not to say his current leading lady is a snore. No, Helen, his co-driver and trainee across Africa, is a character herself, the former movie biz powerhouse. Helen began from the ground up in a production house, from receptionist to production manager, and had encounter after envious encounter with everyone from the "star-studded" cast of Stardust to the famous feet of Beckham and Ronaldo. Do we envy? Yes, we do. But even after the loads of cash, the glamorous life, and meeting the potential scientist of her dreams, she needed to satiate the wanderlust and change her day-to-day scene. Enter DragoWoman.
And with Helen, in chapter one, came her mother, Jane, who wanted to see her youngest in action across Africa, getting under trucks, covered in oil, her formerly posh and privileged daughter. Jane, to me, was the British colonial version of Jen Winters, for all who can follow such a reference. She was the fulcrum of her community, had a voice that reeled in your ear, and a sharp humor to cause some gut-paining giggles. And she was a pistol with a drink in her hand, the pace car for nightly consumption. You never feel embarrassed drinking with this woman; if you come to a dry table holding a double, you'll find her already set up with a triple...and a beer for later.
We bumped, from Jinja to Nairobi, up and down, sometimes body dives to the side, and the occasional hidden speed bump sail forward with a bag to the head. We relaxed in Eldoret, sought dry shelter in Nakuru, stalked lion kills and bounded across the Mara, and came to Nairobi ready for paved roads, a glimpse of civilization, and a new flush of passengers to joke about. I'd like to thank the wild roads of Kenya for shaking me loose and making me open and happy for the road ahead. A wild road.
Continue reading about this African adventure with the next chapter: The Game.