Monday, February 21, 2011

Lions, God and turning 40

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I have been thinking about turning 40 a lot lately.  Not sure if am to look at it with fear, dread or welcome acceptance (that rolled of the tongue awkwardly.) As you dear reader know, turning 30 was tough. I am dreading that 40 will be the same...maybe worse.  

Why? Why are these milestones so painful?  I have always had plans for my life.  List of them. It feels as though a small fistful of them are the only ones I have managed to accomplish.

Get degree in history- check
Get teaching job- check
Husband-......(Crickets chirping...chirping)
Babies-......(My heart aches for babies.)
Well know author-....(only well known to me.)
House I am proud of-.....(well, I have a house.)

There is an internal scale of my success and my failures. As of right now the wrong side feels to be winning. In these moments, memories of Africa have been coming back to me in waves that soak me to the soul.  

In 2008 I was teaching, living in an apartment and working on getting my Masters in Business Administration, MBA.  Money was tight, it has always seemed to be tight.  I was looking for something that would make me happy.  Not excited about leaving teaching but not sure how I could make myself happy internally.  I thought that maybe it was the money.  You don't have it long enough and you start to think that is what will ring me joy.  I was nearly finished with the degree, I only had a few classes to go.  

I decided that an internship would help me transition out of teaching and get my foot in the door. A small is where I planned to start, a travel boutique. It sounded fancy and chic.  It was a bedroom in a gay man's house where he bossed me around and was never happy with anything.  He didn't pay me.  Said it was an internship and I was there to learn that lasted a week.  Then he could see I was on my way out so he threw Africa on the table. Out of no where he decided I was going to set up a partnership with a guide that does accessible safaris.  I was excited but it was tempered.  I didn't believe it.  I didn't believe it till I was packed to go.  

I remember I was so poor at this time I couldn't afford the co-pay to get the shots that were recommended.  So I didn't get them because I was also too proud to ask for help.  I left to Africa for 15 days with the only money I had, $200 and a bank card with no money on it.  The flight I took had a six hour layover in Washington DC.  I slept in the airport. Well, I sat there terrified and alone.  Felt like a child running away from home. 

The plane landed in Johannesburg, I envisioned a wide open plain and elephants darting along on the runway.  Not exactly.  
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Africa looked more like Dallas clearly not so exotic.  My boss had set up ahead of time for me to stay at the Westcliff.  Amazing, simply amazing it is ultra luxury on the side of mountain. Westcliff is a five star wonder, magical in every way.
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I stayed there long enough to sleep the night then headed back to the airport for my flight to Botswana. The flight was late.  The plane ride was hot and crowed with tourist.  The only saving grace is they fed us a delicious sandwich.  I like my food it is always a quick way to win my favoritism.   We landed in small town Africa,  Maun.  The safari pick up point for guides, was quaint from what I could see.  We didn't stick around long.  As we breezed through in our big clunky safari truck concrete roads bled into soft dirt paths.  We entered a flimsy wire gate, the only thing holding in the wild that laced my childhood dreams of Africa.  

Narnia awaited.  On the way to the campsite we spotted giant black birds, vultures. They were stalking a male lion that had taken down an elephant and was eating his dinner.  (Botswana is the only place in the world where the lions have learned to do this, and I got to witness it.)  After leaving that our little safari group was completely jazzed and pretty sure we hit the jack pot.  Less than half a mile from camp, the sun was setting into pink and baby blue ribbons across the sky.  We stopped because we spotted three elephants.  Mesmerized, by their silent passage I didn't notice they were not alone. Maybe it was the jet lag...when I snapped out of it we were surrounded by a heard of 100s of mommy and baby elephants on the way to the delta.  The swoosh of the wind in the blades of grass, the smell of wild sage and their slow methodical progression are all I remember. Two separate scenes so natural and peaceful I felt for the first time I could relax.
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 We slept in tents made of canvass and metal poles.  They were the only protection we had from anything around us.   The rhythm  was different there.  We woke at dawn and drove for 3 hours stopping in scenic vistas had juice and cookies then drove back to the campsite.  We eat lunch then slept.  In the evening we would go back out driving for 3 hours and stop for wine and crackers and watch the sun set.  Then we would head back to the campsite eat and go back to sleep.  It was a jolt from the two jobs and school I was spending my days at.  I found I was breathing there.  My shoulders released.  I had a neck. 

The second to the last night out on the wild we were on our return trip to the campsite and we came across two male lions less than a quarter of a mile from our campsite.  They were lazy, laying down barely awake.  From silent and sleepy they began the to roar.  Not full force, a hiccup really.  Each time the force of it shook the thick chunky jeep, and my internal organs.  Felt like sitting in one of those vibrating chairs at Brookstones.  

That night we returned to the campsite, ate and chatted till we heard the boys again. We decided to head to bed.  I dressed and read, it was the routine I was used to.  The boys got closer.  It was inky black outside the moon was coved by jealous clouds.  

I didn't need to see them. The boys sat and licked at the water. One minute later they were in the water.  It lapped quaking as they crossed.  My tent was closest to the shallow exist of the delta.  

Low rumbles were a constant conversation as they traveled. Fearing they would be drawn to the light in my tent I lifted the glass to my lantern and tried desperately to blow it out. The glass apparently was blocking the wind, without the protection of the glass the mild light turned into a disco ball effect.  I was horrified.  With everything I had I huffed and puffed and tried to blow out the light.  All that came out was a slight wisp.  The sound of them was growing closer outside.  They were no longer in the water.  The shower of drops flew from them as they shook.  I tried again, this time more spit then air came out, but it did the trick.  The boys licked their lips, it was a wet slow smacking.  Not of hunger more an attempt to remove the bits of water. 

One was walking toward the tent.  Branches snapped as he came to me.  Sniffing, the smoke from my lantern he pushed against the bush outside my tent.  The canvass leaned in with him his nose was molded by canvass. Inside I was silent, not breathing. Inches from raw power.  I smelled the earth and hot wetness of his fur.  In an instant I could have been gone.  In a second I could have joined my Grandmother.  With a flutter of a hummingbird wing he was gone.  I was alone, alive and alone. Suddenly, I was the luckiest girl in the world.  When was the last time you came close enough to kiss a wild lion?  
I think for my 40th birthday I will go back. I need to kiss another lion, makes the lists disappear. 


  1. This was SUCH an amazing recounting of your experiences! It sounds to me like you've accomplished quite a lot, and you should be proud!

    I too am a list maker. It's sometimes difficult to let go of our perfect ten-year plans. Nonetheless, nothing substitutes for these kinds of un-planned moments!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this - it's full of lovely observation. And when you write your inspirational memoir, Kissing the Lion wouldn't be a bad title, would it?

  3. wow, what an adventure. I felt as if I was there with you. The pictures are amazing.

  4. This is a beautiful post. I have always wanted to travel to Africa, especially since my African literature class in college. I have a deep-rooted respect for the culture and history bound to the land. So it's really amazing to be able to read your experience.

    As unpredictable as life is, I hope you find happiness in the years you have had, peace in the incredible things you have already accomplished, and deep appreciation for this journey.

    And as far as the "known author" thing goes . . . I believe you'll get there. Your writing certainly inspires me a great deal.

  5. Thanks for taking me on that journey. Seeing that I have no desire to travel outside the U.S. for fear of me getting kidnapped or something tragic like that, I will probably never visit myself. You were blessed to visit and make it safely home; and what memories. I envy you.

  6. Thank you guys for all the comments! Travel changes you, no matter where you go.

    Your kindnesses touch me!

  7. oh man. how amazing you got to experience that.

    my trip wasn't as exotic, but i do often long to go back to Europe. I got to go to alot of places while i went to school there and it was amazing. a far cry from the midwestern small town with zero charm that i currently live in.

    of course, i'm scared to death to fly. so then there's that. hah.

  8. Oh, yes. Yes, go back. Those are the moments that make life worth sticking around for, and as someone who feels most free when traveling, I completely utterly and always support others taking leaps of faith and making somethign exciting come from their days. I can't wait to hear how your planning goes... make it happen, for yourself, for your gift to your 40s! :) :)

  9. What an amazing experience!!! I love the way you write, I was holding my breath there for a while!!!

    A trip to Africa would be amazing! You should do it!!!

  10. What an incredible read! A joy to witness Valerie!

  11. Wow...what an amazing, once in a lifetime adventure. I am so envious of this experience. I would love it!

  12. Loved this post! I am preparing to travel further distance and I am preparing to leave my 40's and enter into my 50's. The milestones are big and create a rumbling inside that perhaps is similar to that low rumble that the lion emits. I am glad I read this.

  13. experience you will never forget! The scariest and most challenging moments are often life changing.

    I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world!

  14. Wonderful! I found your blog via She Writes. What an amazing trip. Happy birthday.

  15. Awesome story. Beats my 40th (this yr)

  16. Each day is what you make it. So rather it's turning 30 or 40, grab life by the horns and hold on... Milestones require stepping stones to get to them so keep it pushing and don't look back. Welcome the next day, week, month, whatever... As it is a blessing to us all. Africa is beautiful but keep in mind that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder... See life for what it is and put your mark on it. Thank you for letting me read, ~The Poet!