Monday, December 8, 2008

What I know

What do I know? This morning I read the entries from my journal from my first journey to Botswana in July 2007, the trip that turned my life upside down. As I prepare to fly away from Botswana today, I find that the words I wrote then hold true:

I know that stillness speaks. I know that the sky can sing. I know that unity with the other is possible beyond words and recognizable by only the slightest thread in ordinary space and time. I know that culture is learned, customized like a suit of clothes, but the day may come when the suit is threadbare and no longer of use. I know that fire and water hold magnificent power and that rocks have stories to tell. And I know that the trees stand as witness and healers to the world. I know that tracks in the sand point to the animal but are not the animal, just as spiritual paths point to the truth but are not the truth. I know that dominion over nature can be only a temporary exercise. The cycle will turn, round and inside out. What is nature if not ourselves?

A journey's end

From author Joan Halifax:

"Many of us, no matter the skin color, no matter the culture of epoch, have found that we have to leave society to retrieve our innocence. Our minds and bodies need to be refreshed; they need to be restored to each moment. Gurdjieff once said that the only way you can get out of jail is to know that you are in it."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Feeling antsy

Last night the rains fell in Maun. Stuart, Kim, Kyeren, Rian, James and I were sitting near the campfire and under the thatched lapa to savor roast chicken, potato bake and a green salad-- one of my last meals at the Boro. It felt perfect to be back with people who have been like family to me. They've checked on me, fed me, invited me along on outings and kept me entertained with endless stories. They were telling some good ones last night when the big storm came, and I was treated to another African phenomenon: The rain causes big white flying ants to zoom out of the ground! Guess where they fly? Yep. Into your hair, on your shirt, down your shirt, into your lap, onto the table. Even the dogs looked confused by the biblical swarm.

I think of it as another lesson about the animals of Botswana. I've never given the insects their due. I won't miss many of them. What I will miss on the Boro: the lesser bushbabies that leapt from tree to tree above my cottage, the genet that enjoyed the chicken bones, the scavenging francolins in the yard, the screeching barn owls, the little bard owl, the cacophony of bullfrogs, the music of the doves in the morning that we say sing: "You have to work harder," followed by their afternoon chorus, "You have to drink lager!" I'm glad I didn't see the two Mozambique spitting cobras discovered inside my cottage earlier in the year. I did see Stuart and Kirk don plastic welder's glasses and grab a snake stick to capture a cobra on the property the other night. That was a show worthy of the Discovery Channel. They gingerly placed it in a blue plastic container and the next day released the creature at the rice project.

I missed the python they caught near the campfire a couple of weeks ago, and, seriously, I would have enjoyed seeing it and the bush guys' expertise at snake handling. I was in the bush. Snakes, though, may well be on the run from now on at the Karibu property. Just spotted under my deck: a dwarf mongoose. I'll sleep better tonight knowing he's there, on snake patrol.

Friday, December 5, 2008

May the circle be unbroken

Dec. 5, 2008
Maun, Botswana
With photos of Richard Avilino and his girlfriend, Kay, and of Richard and me.

I like it when life runs full circle, when I find that closed parenthesis that helps order events. It happened to me the other day at Jacana Camp in the Okavango Delta.

I was spending the week at Jacana with Wilderness Safaris’ Children in the Wilderness program, and on this particular morning I was in the storeroom with Bonolo and Helena sorting crayons, t-shirts and craft supplies in advance of the children’s arrival. Someone rushed over to find me sweating among the Rubbermaid boxes: Richard’s here; he’s come over from Kwetsane Camp with two American travel agents.


Richard Avilino is the guide who introduced me to the beauty of Botswana when I came on holiday with Wilderness Safaris in July 2007. He led six of us on a “Great Botswana Journey” arranged through Natural Habitat Adventures in Boulder. In the fall of 2007, I wrote about the vacation that had opened my heart to Africa and changed my life. I talked about Richard’s gifts as a guide who interprets nature, not just points out what he sees, and I seconded another U.S. newspaper columnist’s assessment that Richard is “an all-purpose human Swiss Army knife.” The man can track lions, talk on the 2-way radio, drive a Defender through water that covers the hood, shine a spotlight on a minuscule mammal in a thorn tree and mix a G&T sundowner without batting an eye. My story ran on the wire in newspapers throughout the U.S.

One of my first stops when I arrived in Maun in February was to march into Okavango Wilderness Safaris headquarters and leave my telephone number for some of the great staff I had met on my vacation, Richard included: I wanted them to know that Wilderness Safaris’ slogan was true: their journeys really do change lives. Look at me. I hardly touched my feet back on U.S. soil in July 2007 before I was trying to figure out a way to return to the bush of Botswana. Lucky for me, The Sacramento Bee granted my request for a sabbatical.

This year, Richard and I talked a few times on the phone and sent text messages, but we never saw each other. I was in the bush when he was out of the bush, and vice versa. He would sometimes hear about me at Maun Airport when he was talking to my guide friends from Desert & Delta. Everywhere I went I sang his praises, which the guides let him know, and they let me know when they ran into him. (I always held him up as a model for what makes a great guide – someone who can speak of the whole ecosystem and the culture and traditions of the country, i.e., “In the olden days, the leaves of that tree were used for medicine for….”)

So here he was, at Jacana. And it turns out the two travel agents were from Natural Habitat Adventures and knew about my newspaper story. Richard and I had only a few minutes to chat, but I was able to meet him and his girlfriend, Kay, at Bon Arrivee for lunch this week before he and I flew our separate ways into the bush again, he to the Kalahari and I to Savute. It gave me a sense of joyous completion to be able to thank him in person and say, ‘See, I really meant it when I said that Botswana moved me to tears and to a crossroads. I put everything I own in storage. I gave up my income. I hopped a plane. I’m here. I speak some Setswana. Want to hear me list the animals in your language? I eat papa and seswaa. I’ve lived in the bush. I’ve stepped over black mambas. I’ve stayed awake listening to lions and honey badgers. I can spot the Malachite kingfisher….”

Poor Richard. My words rushed at him like the river at Victoria Falls, but I could tell he liked hearing it. He got a good laugh over my Setswana language skills and my imitation of a lion’s roar. (It’s pretty good, if I say so myself. Even Richard said so. I’ll demonstrate when I come back to the U.S.) And what I learned from him reaffirmed the global power of the written word. Richard told me the article I wrote is posted at his company’s office, the only article singling out a guide. He’s being offered exclusive trips to lead in 2009. His bosses rated him on his last evaluation as exceptional, he says, and acknowledge the marketing value the article had for the company. Guests arrive at Maun Airport having read about him in my story on the Internet – they tell him they know all about him -- and others are requesting first thing that he be booked as their guide because of the story. It has been a good year for him, busier than ever. And what’s more, he had a rare sighting: a pangolin. (My landlord says if any of his guests photograph a pangolin in the wild on safari, the Karibu Safari mobile trip will be free. That’s how elusive this nocturnal, armored, anteater creature is.)

Richard was pleased to see how well I had done in Botswana. And he didn’t seem surprised by how I had felt at home. “You were open to everything you saw, and you had so many questions and you wanted to know everything,” he said about my week on vacation. And he said the people of Botswana know when someone is truly respectful of them and their culture. I had passed that test.

I took Richard shopping for a reference book on mammals as a thank-you gift, and I inscribed it “with deep gratitude”. We exchanged e-mail addresses, promised to be in touch, and cried out the Setswana farewell, “Tsmaya sentle!” Go well.

Somewhere in the Kalahari, Richard is looking up at the night sky and telling his guests about the constellations. Just the thought of Richard and his group huddled together, marveling under a blanket of stars, makes me happy.

Jacana sunrise

Here are photos of guide Richard Avilino in July 2007 and a November 2008 sunrise at Jacana Camp in the Okavango Delta, where I would finally meet once again the guide who introduced me to the beauty of Botswana

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is wild. I'm in the bush, but the director of Children in the Wilderness has an Internet connection, so I can say how thankful I am for all of my friends and family the world over. I'm volunteering this week with Wilderness Safaris' nonprofit that takes disadvantaged children into the wilderness. It's fantastic and I'll have lots to report when I return on Monday. We are playing capture the flag, learning about the Okavango Delta and dodging an elephant in camp. He bumped up against my tent last night. Lots of photos to come. Lots of fun to be had with these children of Tubu Village in the Okavango Delta. Cheers on this turkey day.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

You can't always get what you want...

Maun, Botswana
Nov. 22, 2008

Often in my time in Botswana I have met tourists intent on checking off the animals on their lists. They have watched the National Geographic documentaries, so they arrive tuned and ready: “Lion…Order up!” They simply MUST see a lion or a leopard or a wild dog or a cheetah. They don’t want to hear how filmmakers spent a year in the bush to capture the images seen on TV. They look to the guide to deliver on demand.

Is it any surprise that the vibe of “power and control” is in the air when they take their first steps on the Maun tarmac wearing their starched khaki ensembles, with a host of techno-camper gadgets at the ready? I wonder if the animals sense it, because they sometimes prefer to hide away on their own holiday rather than meet the guests. I like to imagine the elephants down by the water hole stamping their feet and sharing a few chuckling snorts about the Air Botswana parade. They tell their jokes and before the guests return from an afternoon game drive, the ellies amble off silently in all directions, lickety-split into the bush, just for the fun of leaving lodge managers to say, “You just missed them! I promise. There must have been 10 bull elephants at the water hole, not 5 minutes ago.”

What I wish for anyone who visits Botswana is to arrive with senses wide open for all that can be perceived. An opening of the heart will surely follow, by virtue of approaching the land’s treasures with the reverence of a novitiate, from the Fireball lily ablaze in scarlet to the dung beetle rolling a ball of wet buffalo poo with Herculean purpose. Where is that armored fellow going with that boulder of dung and at such speed? Sit and watch. The landscape and its occupants are grand, the whole of it, not just The Big Five.

Across the planet we are all sojourners among landscapes in constant change. It’s easy to miss the unfolding of the miracles where most of us live, stuck in traffic jams, a Bluetooth in our ear, a Blackberry on our dash. Underneath it all and through it all is a tapestry of nature woven from morning to night and all night through, indeed woven right through us. We forget to look for the gossamer threads. We’re walking amnesiacs huddled on street corners waiting for the light to say proceed. Here, in Africa, the recognition slaps us in the face, wakes us up. This is the light you’ve been waiting for. This is where you came from, this is what you’re connected to, this is the new news, same as the old news. Forget Times Square, for a digital moment anyway.

The other day I was in Camp Moremi, surprised to find I would be the only one on a game drive with guide Kagiso, a river bushman whose name means “peace.” I was overnighting at the camp to interview managers and guides. I hated to take Kagiso away from a rare opportunity to have an afternoon break. Just an hour’s drive would be fine, not the usual 2 ½ to 3. Anything we saw would be appreciated, I assured him. (This is usually the time I tease guides by amping up my demands, “You must find me a lion today!” We have a good laugh over it.) I was happy to see the Fireball lilies and dozens of baby impalas, tiny antelopes that belong under the lid of a music box, some of them not more than two days old, grazing and skipping throughout the reserve but sticking close to their moms.

I looked at my watch. We’d been out for an hour. It’s ok to go back now, I told Kagiso. Not far away an African fish eagle watched over the pond where golden-green crocodiles rested on the banks. The eagle took to the sky, throwing back its head to call its long whistling cry. (I am determined the sound of the fish eagle will be my cellphone ring tone back in the States. It will be the signal that elbows me in the ribs, “Wake up. Remember.”)

Kagiso started the truck rolling, but something caught his attention in the wet sand. Fresh leopard tracks. He wanted to check them out. Fine by me. Whatever we saw would be a gift. I really meant it.

You can see photos of the male leopard Kagiso tracked, a leopard with yellow eyes that were sparks. For some unknown reason, the leopard granted an audience, letting Kagiso and me join him on his afternoon walk, we in the truck of course, inching behind. To my astonishment, we spent 45 minutes with this leopard while he scratched his head against a log, sharpened his claws, marked his territory, rolled in the grass and sipped water from a puddle in the road. He was close enough that if I had leaned out of the truck I could have petted him. Radical notion, that one.

I was so close I watched the heaving of his chest as he breathed. How can nature paint a coat like that? I wondered. I found myself transfixed by him but not unaware of the whole. In the distance a giraffe stopped eating fresh leaves from an acacia treetop to crane his neck; his neck was the Tower of Pisa. (Did you know, despite that long neck, the giraffe has the same number of vertebrae as you and I?) The impalas froze as if on ice. The leopard carried on. Nothing else moved except the red-eyed francolins. They squawked and scattered about in a panic, sounding the alarm calls, running around like headless chickens. The leopard lazed. He was the picture of nonchalance. No question who was boss on this reserve.

To think the visitation happened without a whit of desperation on my part or that of Kagiso. The leopard granted us an audience, and we accepted with reverence. It was one of those moments of grace, fleeting yet eternal. I wish all the guests in Botswana could have shared it with me. Then they would understand and perhaps remember to keep their eyes open for the gossamer threads at home.

A magical flower

A magical flower
The guide squeezes this flower and it squirts water like a water pistol

Cathy and Joe Wanzala

Cathy and Joe Wanzala
They couldn't wait to paste the Obama sticker on their car

My main man

My main man
Ernest is my trusty cab driver who blasts music as we make our way through Gabs

Ted Thomas, man of intrigue and style

Ted Thomas, man of intrigue and style
My friend, Ted, and his wife, Mary Ann, hosted a Safari Send-Off for me in Austin and treated me to a special mix of African music that already a UB student and a professor want to download.