I’ve always secretly envied families who served as hosts for AFS, the American Field Service, which promotes cultural exchange by bringing high school students from foreign countries here for a year, and by sending our own students around the world. As a doctor-mom busy with the balancing act of raising her own three children while pursuing a full time career, I could not imagine coping with an extra teenager around the house, especially where homesickness and language barriers were involved. I was having enough trouble dealing with my own. Consequently, I’ve never had the pleasure of being a tourist in my own country—seeing our world through the eyes of a stranger in a strange land—at least not until last week when I hosted my Tanzanian safari guide, Martin, as part of his whirlwind tour of the United States.
By the time Martin arrived in San Diego, I had a tough act to follow. A somewhat arduous journey had taken him from Arusha, Tanzania, to Dar Es Salaam, and from there to Doha International Airport in Qatar. From Doha, there was a flight to London’s Heathrow Airport, and finally he touched down on American soil in Miami, Florida. Before he left Tanzania he had written to ask what he could bring me from Tanzania and of course I said, “Nothing, just yourself.” Apparently he felt that my answer was unacceptable, and he had loaded his suitcase with gifts for all of his American hosts—Maasai clubs for the men, beautiful hand beaded Maasai necklaces for the ladies. Although Martin made it to Miami where his first hostess, Donna greeted him, his suitcase did not. After being told initially that it was stuck at customs in Heathrow, the news was delivered much later that the bag was irretrievably lost. Someone has made a killing selling Maasai artifacts in the London Tube, I suspect.
Martin is an avid amateur photographer and to my delight he chronicled his journey across America on Facebook. His Florida entries included his introduction to MacDonald’s, gated communities, gardeners wielding leaf blowers, drive through banking, an RV dealership, and Harley Davidson motorcycles. From Florida he traveled to Washington, DC where he posed in front of the White House in what appeared to be a blizzard. He was hunched over, smiling and shivering. After a brief stop in New Jersey to visit relatives, he moved on to San Antonio, Texas where his host there, a wealthy rancher, had been so grateful for his own safari to Tanzania he went back and built two wells in Martin’s mother’s hometown. This African man who faced down Cape buffalo at home was pictured gingerly reaching out to pet a longhorn steer on the ranch, with the caption reading, “I am afraid of these cows!” A field trip to the Alamo was followed by an evening of San Antonio Spurs basketball. From Texas he ventured to Colorado, hitting Denver, Colorado Springs and Breckenridge in the course of 48 hours–“I took the gondola up the mountain, but no, I did not ski!” And finally, two weeks after arriving in America he stepped off the plane at Lindbergh Field.
Before Martin came to Southern California, I asked him what he most wanted to see. His answers were immediate and definitive—he wanted to see Hollywood, and he wanted to go to the World Famous San Diego Zoo. Hollywood I could understand, but the zoo was more problematic. I said, “Martin, you see these animals every day in the wild. Why would you want to go to a zoo?” He replied, “Because I want to see how Americans learn about the animals of Africa, and I want to see animals that I have never seen in Africa.” A day later I was on a Hollywood Home of the Stars tour bus, snapping pictures with my iPhone and oohing and aahing like all the rest—“Look, the Playboy Mansion! Tom Cruise’s house! Madonna’s house! KATY PERRY’S HOUSE!!!!” To which Martin replied, “Did he say MacDonald’s house?” As I took his picture with an ersatz Charlie Chaplin on the Walk of Stars, the actor turned to me and asked me for a tip. Martin said, “Just like Maasai!”
Martin’s last stop in San Diego was indeed the San Diego Zoo. As we walked through the exhibits, he marveled at how much effort was made to recreate the animals’ natural habitats. A friend of a friend is a panda keeper there, and we were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the panda facility which houses the most successful captive breeding program of these rare creatures in the world. (Thank you, Kathy Hawk!) A viewing of the bamboo storage locker was followed by a special viewing of the recently weaned baby panda, Xiao Liwu. After the pandas, the Polar Bear Plunge followed, and all was well until we got to the elephant enclosure.
In 2009, one of my patients wrote the ad copy for the San Diego Zoo’s new elephant enclosure, dubbed The Elephant Odyssey. She urged me to go and visit this state of the art facility, and finally in 2011, I did. As much as the zoo tried, there is only so much it could do with 2.5 acres. The steel “baobab” trees, and the girders and the electric fencing were reminiscent of “Jurassic Park.” Despite the various enrichment activities and “no touch” training, this was not the Serengeti. Martin gazed upon the elephant enclosure with dismay. He said, “The elephants are sad.” As we walked out of the zoo, he said to me, “Why don’t Americans come to Tanzania to see these animals? They are so much happier when they are free.” I explained to him that to me, and to most Americans, a trip to Africa is an expensive dream, and nothing more. He said, “I wish that were not so.”
One of Martin’s last Facebook photos of his trip was a panoramic view of the Las Vegas strip, which he subtitled “THIS is America!” The tone of his remark was of childlike wonder, without a trace of sarcasm or irony. Although many of us were quick to “correct” him—“No Martin, Las Vegas is NOT America”, the truth is that for many, America is still a place of fabulous riches and bright lights, a place where dreams come true. Seeing my world through Martin’s eyes, from the sandy beaches of the coastal towns, to the glitz of Hollywood, the concerted conservation efforts of the San Diego Zoo and to my own backyard, convinced me that indeed, the grass is always greener. While he dreams of Hollywood, I dream of returning to Africa, summer of 2015. Anyone care to join me?