An American Safari

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?

A True Story

As a child, I dreamed of going to Africa some day on safari.  Late at night I would drift to sleep hearing the imagined trumpeting of a bull elephant, and seeing visions of elegant giraffes moving like tall masted ships through the grasslands of the Serengeti behind my closed eyes.  I read voraciously—first children’s books about the animals, and later the autobiographies of brave colonial women—Beryl Markham’s West With the Night, and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa.  But I never went there until two years ago, when I received a flyer in the mail about a trip to Tanzania during the great wildebeest migration sponsored by my college alumni association.  I was fifty eight years old and had not been out of the country in ten years.  It was time, and throwing fiscal caution to the wind, I exercised my credit cards and signed up.

My guide on that trip was Martin Matei, who at that point had been employed as a safari guide for twenty five years.  Martin had an uncanny ability to see things the rest of us could not see, and hear things the rest of us could not hear, and upon doing so, would put his foot on the gas pedal of the old canopied Land Cruiser to get us right in the thick of whatever was happening.  As a result, I managed to get some extraordinary shots of elephants mating (“Happy Babar”) and an exhausted lioness rolling on her back after a similar session (“She’s Having a Cigarette”).  It didn’t take long for the six of us in Martin’s car to notice that wherever Martin went, the rest of the guides fell in behind. It was indeed the trip of a lifetime.

Martin and I have kept in touch over the last two years, and a few months ago, I received an email from a man named Beatus Mushi who identified himself as Martin’s nephew.  Beatus, who lives in Colorado Springs, had a list of Martin’s email contacts and had taken it upon himself to organize Martin’s first trip to the United States, hoping that some of his former clients in the US would help out to show him the country.  We were delighted.  Martin left San Diego for Las Vegas today after three days packed full of activities, including a Hollywood bus tour and trip to the World Famous San Diego Zoo.  More about Martin’s American safari later, but first a quick story.

In 2003 Martin was guiding a safari party that included Dr. James Doti, the president of Chapman University in Orange, California.  Dr. Doti had a wonderful time on safari, and wanted to do something to show his gratitude to Martin, so he asked if Martin had any children.  Martin had three, but at the time they were quite young.  Martin asked why, and was told that as president of the university, it was Dr. Doti’s right to bestow three full Presidential Scholarships to deserving students.  Martin said, “I have a nephew who is very deserving—smart, and a very hard worker.” Martin arranged for Beatus to meet Dr. Doti. Interviews and tests ensued, and a few months later, Beatus received a first class ticket from Arusha to Los Angeles.  A few years later, Beatus was in possession of a first class education from an American university.  And what did Beatus do?  He became a US citizen and joined the United States Army.  And in the process he supported his widowed mother and his six brothers and sisters so that they too, could rise out of poverty and get an education.

I think that from now on when I read the newspaper and feel despair over war, global warming and worldwide poverty, I’ll think of what Dr. Doti did by extending a hand to one, thus changing several lives.  Serendipitous meetings and small gestures can make a huge difference:  one does what one can.

For Dr. Doti’s account of running the Boston Marathon with the young man he came to call his African son, go here:

Happy Place

“Think of a place that’s really perfect.

Your own happy place.

Go there, and all your anger will just disappear.

Then putt.”        Happy Gilmore, 1996

I don’t know if I have ever heard my radiation therapists say this to a patient, anxious on the treatment table, “Go to your happy place.”  I think I may have imagined that they say this, because I remember thinking it might help, and also remember thinking to myself, at various times in the past, “I don’t have a happy place.”  And I didn’t, until a year ago when I finally took the trip to Africa that I had wanted to take my whole life.

I was a child obsessed with animals—all animals, but especially elephants and lions. I learned in school that elephants were like us–they lived long, they loved, and they mourned their dead.  By the time I was ten I had seen the movie HATARI! (Swahili for “DANGER!”) five times, and the only song I ever learned on the piano that I can still play, besides the ubiquitous Fur Elise stamped in the far recesses of my brain, is the Baby Elephant Walk. Born Free came a few years later, and I wept with joy over the story of Elsa. By the time I got to college, I had read Beryl Markham’s biography, West With The Wind, George Schaller’s The Serengeti Lion and after that came Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and all of Hemingway.  In 1984 I was swept off my feet by the Robert Redford/Meryl Streep movie version of Dinesen’s book, and in 1993, imagining myself to be a latter day Beryl Markham, I gave myself a flying lesson for my fortieth birthday.  Unfortunately I chose to do this in gusty winds in Aspen Colorado in the middle of the winter—needless to say it was my first and last attempt at becoming an aviatrix.

We all have our romantic notions of where and who and what we want to be when we grow up, but life gets in the way.  In my case, “life” was three kids and a highly specialized career which did not lend itself to the African bush. But just over a year ago, fortune smiled on me and the constellation of circumstances necessary to make a trip to Tanzania suddenly came together—the time off work, the housesitter (my daughter) for my dogs, cat and horses, and the delusion that I could sell my Corvette, purchased by me for my own fiftieth birthday nine years prior, in the middle of a recession to make the trip affordable.  Armed with binoculars, a new camera, sun proof clothing, DEET 30% and malaria pills, off we went.

I think that it is a rare thing in life when one’s expectations are not only met, but exceeded.  This was my experience in Tanzania, from New Year’s Eve spent looking out over the Great Rift Valley, to seeing the famous “tree lions” in Lake Manyara National Park, to the early morning game drives as the sun rose over the Serengeti plain, to the old bull elephant, long tusks still intact and unharmed for over sixty years, lumbering across the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater.  We had a full moon rising over Mt. Kilimanjaro on our last night in Arusha, temporarily blotting out the light from the Southern Cross.  The air was clear and smelled of hibiscus and I knew, unequivocally, that this was my happy place.

I am pretty certain that with my family history, one day I will find myself lying on the treatment table awaiting my radiation, nervous despite my years of experience on the giving and not the receiving end of this specialty.  If my therapist smiles and says, “Relax, go to your happy place—this will be over in just a few minutes”, I will know exactly where to spend the next 15 minutes, among the zebra and the wildebeest kneeling beside the crater lake, the song of a thousand flamingos softly taking wing ringing in my ear. And if that fails me, there is still a shiny red Corvette to drive home.  Happy places, indeed.