Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Notes on a Last-Minute Safari, by David Sedaris

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It was a good year for Christmas parties. At one, I met a number of authors I had always admired. This can be tricky, but they were all lovely. The food was lovely, too, though I dropped a miniature barbecue sandwich on the new white shirt I was wearing, and will likely never get the grease stain out.

At another party, the following week, I was introduced to a curator from the Metropolitan Museum. We talked about people who throw soup and oil on beloved paintings, hoping to draw attention to climate change or poor nutrition or whatever their cause is, and then I learned that he would soon be leaving on an African safari, the sort where you carry a camera rather than a gun.

“Have you been planning it for months?” I asked.

“Actually, it all came together over the past few weeks,” he told me.

On the subway home, I said to Hugh in the faux-pouty voice that I use to challenge extreme injustice—other couples taking a vacation when it should be us, for example—“Why can’t we go on a safari?”

A month later, we were in an open-sided four-by-four vehicle surrounded by seven lions, none of which seemed to care about us. All of them were female, and I wondered if, when writing about this afterward—for surely I would—I might be taken to task for using the term “lionesses.”

“Is it like referring to someone as a ‘waitress’ or a ‘stewardess’?” I whispered to Hugh, who was seated beside me, sketching. “Will people say, ‘Why did you have to mention their gender in the first place? Why can’t you just say “lions” and leave it at that?’ ”

To my mind, the gender mattered, since the females do the majority of the hunting, and are therefore scarier when they’re eight feet away and can surely smell you.

I looked the subject up later, when we got back to camp, and learned that there’s some debate about whether or not to refer to lionesses as “she-lions.” Of course, none of that debate is coming from the big-cat family. What surprised me about these animals was their playfulness, the way one would sidle up to another and gently swat her, or roll over on her back with her paws in the air. We’d been stationary for ten minutes or so when one of the seven walked in front of our four-by-four, hunched over, and defecated. I thought that, like a cat in a flower bed, she’d then cover it up, but no. The moment she rejoined the others, a jackal darted out of the tall grass, snatched the turd in his mouth, and was about to make off with it when a hyena intervened, and a struggle ensued.

“Over a turd?” Hugh whispered.

We might have stayed there for hours, happily observing, but then another four-by-four pulled up. Its passengers went nuts: “Seven lionesses!” Hugh and I looked at the new arrivals with an expression that read, Um, they’re sort of ours. As if we personally had gathered them there. Then another four-by-four pulled up, and another after that.

I don’t know how many vehicles were roaming the Maasai Mara that afternoon. It’s a five-hundred-and-eighty-three-square-mile nature reserve, so had there been a thousand other four-by-fours we likely wouldn’t have seen more than a handful of them. June to October is the busiest season in Kenya, safari-wise, and this was early February. It was hot but not humid, and there were three of us in the vehicle: me, Hugh, and our twenty-six-year-old guide, Dalton, a Maasai tribesman who had on a moss-green shirt with the name of the place where we were staying embroidered on its right breast pocket. His pants were khaki and knee-length, worn with ankle-high suède boots.

Dalton’s hair was cut short. His head was almost perfectly round, and he was missing several of his bottom teeth. “What is it you would like to see?” he’d asked upon collecting us that first bright morning at the airstrip.

“A panda,” I told him.

On the ninety-minute drive to our camp, we saw every animal that was in “The Lion King” and then some. They were just there, like ants at a picnic, except that they were elephants and giraffes. We saw zebras and leopards and wildebeests and warthogs, all grazing or resting or fleeing on this grass-covered, seemingly limitless plain.

“Have you seen a kill?” people in the other four-by-fours—couples with camera lenses the size of the Hubble telescope—would ask. It didn’t take long to realize that seven lionesses weren’t enough. They had to have blood dripping from their jaws.

“On our first day, we saw a lion eating a wildebeest,” I’d tell them.

That was like saying you’d seen one eating a sandwich. The prize was to watch one pounce on her prey, and rip its throat out. “Just last month, a little after midnight, two lions took down a zebra right there next to your tent,” the woman who checked us into our camp told us, pointing over the railing to a shaded ravine. The camp was built on the banks of the Talek River, which was swollen from recent rains but still flowed lazily. There was no fence around the property. Wild animals came and went at their leisure, though during the day all we saw were crocodiles and mongooses. It was after dark that the action took place, so at night we had to be escorted from our tent to the common area by Maasai tribesmen carrying spears. The most dangerous animal—what Dalton called “the most killingest”—was the hippo. I had learned this years earlier from a nature documentary and was surprised, as they always look so happy to me, almost like they’re smiling.

We saw countless hippos in Kenya. “All they want is to get into our swimming pool,” the property manager, a man named Steven, told us. “And if that happens we will never get them out.”

He was giving us a tour, and was leading us from the hydroponic vegetable garden—the “shamba of goodness,” it was called—to the recreation area. I looked at the man whose job it was to guard the pool we were passing. “What do hippos smell like?” I asked.

Steven thought for a moment. “Cows.”

There were nine tents in all. “Are there many other guests at the moment?” I’d asked the woman who checked us in.

“We have no guests here,” she told me, smiling so broadly I could see her gums. “Only family.”

Oh, no, I thought, for doesn’t a person go on safari to escape that kind of talk? Ditto “shamba of goodness.”

If I know I have to get up early, I generally have a devil of a time falling asleep. The place where Hugh and I slept was a tent in the same way that a Shake Shack is an actual shack. The pitched ceiling was, at its highest point, twelve feet, and, not including our deck, which overlooked the river, we had a good nine hundred square feet of floor space—with a real floor. There was electricity and Wi-Fi. Potable water. A tub, a shower, and a toilet. Complimentary laundry service. Outstanding food. Our outings took place early in the morning and late in the afternoon, so I’d go to bed and, knowing that we needed to meet Dalton at 6 A.M., lie awake while Hugh snored beside me. The book I’d brought along for the trip was “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” which didn’t at all fit the location. Nor did it make sense to watch, say, past seasons of “Project Runway.” We were in Kenya, after all, and could hear all sorts of creatures on the other side of our canvas walls, roaring and moaning and carrying on.

On the first night, I reached for my iPad and watched a documentary on baboons. It wasn’t the kind of program that gives the animals names and talks about them in a whisper (“. . . but Denice wasn’t about to give up that easily”). Still, it was less interesting than I wanted it to be. The best part was when the heir to the colony, a four-month-old male, was killed by an intruder and his mother carried his carcass around until it was just a rag of fur.

The following afternoon, we came upon a troop of baboons resting beside the river. There were at least thirty of them, many with babies on their backs. “Get out your camera,” Dalton said as he turned off the four-by-four’s engine. I’d told him from the get-go that photography was not my thing.

“I will not be taking a single picture,” I’d promised.

“Not even if we come upon a rhino?” he asked.

“Not even if we see one fighting a mother grizzly,” I told him.

Dalton kept thinking I’d buckle, but I never did, at least not in Kenya. Later, in Tanzania, I would pull out my phone, but not for an animal. Rather, it was for a sign painted on the wall of a gas station. “No Smorking,” it read.

Evan, one of the guards at our camp, also noticed that I wasn’t taking any photos. He was slight and handsome and was wearing a traditional Maasai outfit that consisted of two rectangles of plaid fabric, each a different color. On his feet were sandals made of old tires. He looked outstanding, as if he’d been dressed by Comme des Garçons. When I complimented him on his clothing, he removed the upper piece of fabric, which was worn almost like a shawl. “Here, try it on,” he said.

I wanted to explain that in America this would be called cultural appropriation.

“What’s that?” I could imagine him asking.

To be honest, I’ve never understood it myself. “I think it’s when you make a taco with, like, blue cheese on it” was the best I would have been able to come up with.

“Everyone else is photographing all the time,” Evan said, taking back the piece of fabric and sounding, if not hurt, then at least a little underappreciated. “So why not you?”

“I jot things down instead,” I told him, pulling my notebook from my pocket and showing it to him. “For instance, earlier today I wrote . . .” I looked at a page and groaned. It was as if a person with only two fingers—one on each hand—had written it. While in a bumper car.

I never saw a paved road in the Maasai Mara. A few were wide enough for two vehicles, but were still as rocky and hard to navigate as the barely discernible, often flooded paths we frequently found ourselves on. My big fear before going on safari was that I wouldn’t be able to exercise. We weren’t allowed to venture on foot beyond the confines of our camp, so I worried that in order to meet my daily Apple Watch minimum of ten thousand steps—roughly four and a half miles—I’d have to walk back and forth across our deck for hours on end. I had two and a half miles under my belt the morning that Dalton met us at the airstrip, and, by the time we reached our camp, I’d miraculously logged twice that many. It seemed my watch mistook the bumpiness of the road, and the jostling it gave rise to, for walking. This was great for my step count but awful for writing.

It was only when we stopped that I could record anything legible. That said, my notes weren’t always as illuminating as I’d expected them to be. “What does ‘Alt’ mean?” I asked Hugh over dinner one night.

He looked down at the page. “It’s not ‘Alt,’ ” he said. “It’s ‘A.L.T.’ ”

Then I remembered. We’d been out early that morning, observing a short parade of ostriches. It was misty, and I pointed to a vague shape on the horizon. “What’s that?” I asked Dalton.

He followed my finger and told me it was likely an A.L.T. “Animal-looking thing,” he explained.

Another of my notes simply read “Wow!,” but I knew right off what it referred to—the highlight of our trip. We had driven up alongside a herd of eight elephants, three of them babies. Their size was impressive, but that I was prepared for. What surprised me, and was so magnificent, was the sound of the tall grass they were eating being torn from the ground with their trunks. Dalton had turned the engine off, so that was all we could hear. “Close your eyes,” I said to Hugh as I closed my own as well. If I were to manufacture a perfume, it would smell the way that grass being ripped from the ground by elephants sounds—simultaneously soothing and astonishing—and simply everyone would have to have it. The problem is that it wouldn’t go with any of the perfume names I’ve come up with over the years, the best being Obsequious.

The eight elephants were on our last day in Kenya. The following morning, we flew to Tanzania, not for more safari but to stay in a resort on the island of Zanzibar. The only animals I saw during our time there were lizards—some nearly a foot long—and snails the size of Hugh’s fist. The beach was pretty—sand as white as sugar, palm trees. The property was guarded by men with clubs tucked into their belts, and the moment you left it, walking, say, the twenty feet from your lounge chair to the water’s edge, you were set upon by people trying to sell you things: a hard-boiled egg from a bucket, a seashell, cashews, a ride on a boat, a painting of a leopard, a T-shirt with “Hakuna Matata” printed on it. “My friend!” someone would call, extending a closed fist and wanting you to tap it with one of your own, even while you were in the sea.

This is why I have never been to Bali or Mauritius or any of those other places people go to get some sun in the winter. The water in Zanzibar was warm and such an arresting shade of turquoise that it seemed to have been dyed. But the income gap between the people who stayed at the resort and the people who actually lived on the island was so wide you couldn’t really see anything else. Plus, the hotel staff said “Hakuna matata,” which means “No worries” in Swahili, incessantly.

“Could I maybe have more coffee?”

“Hakuna matata.”

“I’m not feeling terribly well.”

“Hakuna matata.”

“God, that’s a big snail.”

“Hakuna matata.”

It got to the point where you didn’t dare say anything just because you didn’t want to hear “Hakuna matata” again.

There were no price tags on anything. If you were to ask how much a sack of peppercorns was and the answer started with “For you, I am going to offer a special deal,” you knew you’d be overpaying. Everyone we came across was seemingly on the make, and who could blame them, really?

“How much for a ride to Stone Town and back?” Hugh and I asked a taxi-driver one swampy afternoon. He quoted us a price, but when we got there he claimed, “I didn’t say a hundred and fifty thousand shillings”—the equivalent of nearly sixty dollars—“I said two hundred thousand,” which simply wasn’t true. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t an enormous amount—a difference of twenty dollars, which I was going to give him anyway as a tip—but when you capped it off with “Hakuna matata” I felt like crying.

We could have ended our vacation in Kenya. It was me who wanted to add Tanzania, and mainly so that I could put it on my list of countries I have travelled to. The only thing I knew before arriving was that it’s not safe to be an albino there. Many people consider them to be evil, yet place great value on their organs and other body parts: their hands and hearts, entire legs. It’s easier to harvest them from children, so kids are at higher risk of being abducted and dismembered. Their parts are sold to witch doctors, who use them to create amulets and potions one might employ while searching for precious metals, say, or to improve one’s luck in regard to fishing. It sounds absolutely insane. How could anyone possibly be so gullible? you wonder. Then you think of all the Americans—some may be your neighbors, your co-workers, your wife or your uncle—who genuinely believe that J.F.K., Jr., did not die in a plane crash, but is alive and well and working in cahoots with Donald Trump to stop the Clintons from drinking the blood of babies. And you’re, like, The leg of a butchered child might help me find gold? O.K. I guess I’ve heard crazier things.

The world can be a savage place, but that’s not the lesson you want to carry home with you. Yes, we humans are cruel and often dangerous, but there’s still nature, and before it’s too late we need to appreciate it. Of course, not everyone can hang out with elephants, but look at that bird perched on your feeder, and at that squirrel chasing the bird away from said feeder. Look at the rats scuttering before you on a New York street, at the spider that somehow got trapped in your elevator. We’re all on a safari of one kind or another—it’s just that some of us aren’t returning with two brilliant rectangles of Maasai plaid fabric and a bacterial infection. ♦

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