Wednesday, September 6, 2017

On Safari: Among Lions

As our plane landed in the middle of the Serengeti, I wasn't having the best of days. I was recovering from a bottle of Swiss Kirsch which I'd acquired at the Zurich duty free and finished off while talking Kenyan politics late into the night with a few Masai at the Emakoko Lodge in Nairobi National Park. I know nothing about Kenyan politics, but as it turns out, Swiss Kirsch makes me think that I do. So after the Kirsch and a spontaneous dip in the pool that the lodge owner had to call extra guards out for to ensure we did not share it with cape buffalo, I finally made my way off to bed - ready to capture a few hours rest before heading to the Serengeti.

Karen Blixen described this part of Africa as "distilled." It's the earth left to its most primordial roots. The trees are hardy, the water scarce and the animals all adapted to fight for their existence in a place where if they couldn't or didn't they were doomed to extinction. As our car bumped over the dirt roads mile after mile towards the southern tip of Serengeti, we passed everything that I came to know in my childhood as near mythological creatures that one only saw at a zoo: zebra became commonplace; the antelope were as numerous as the stars; ostrich, buffalo and the endless rolling hills of grass took us into a world which reminded me of those paintings on the back of the wild cat exhibits.... but here we were. 

But then there were the lions. After a few hours of driving, we came upon a rock... Not a particularly impressive rock.... But this rock had lion resting on it. Nothing really prepares you to see a lion in the wild. Of course I'd seen them in a zoo. Lethargic, confined, looking out and yawning at all the visitors. But not this lion. He was an apex predator and you could see in his eyes that he knew it. He was proud... unafraid... the master of his domain. And it made me never want to see a lion in another place. We all stared transfixed at this first lion for several minutes. You in a way become more aware of your humanity when looking at a lion like this. Knowing you are no longer in control as you are in a zoo, or in the safety of your home. Of course we had cars - but they were open, and if for some reason this lion decided he'd like to have a go at one of us, I'd imagine he could have inflicted a fair bit of damage before we could make our escape. But this is the world to which we got accustomed if only for a few short days. 

That night after we'd got to camp we were not too far off from this rock. And as it turns out even though we arrived near sundown with enough time to set our things down and enjoy the luxuries of camp life, we shared the valley with a group of lions who were hungry and very interested in a kill it seemed. At 2:05 AM that night (I know because I remember thinking that if this was the night that I was going to die, I may as well know what time that it was going to happen), I began to hear lions roaring not 50 yards from my tent. Hemingway, in his typical unvarnished and slightly crude manner, described the experience this way:

"You cannot describe a wild lion's roar. You can only say that you listened and the lion roared. It is not at all like the noise the lion makes at the start of Metro Goldwyn Mayer pictures. When you hear it you at first feel it in your scrotum and it runs all the way up through your body"

To that, ill just say... yup. But I won't be overdramatic here... these lions were not interested in a large canvas mass containing something which would have provided not even a days food if they were lucky enough to navigate the zippers and canvas and blowhorns which I would have frantically set off.. they were after cape buffalo... fat, vulnerable and worth a weeks hunting for an entire pride. 

The lions did not make their kill that night, and the next morning we set out early to find them. Sure enough not more than a couple minutes drive from camp we were among them. Us still rubbing our eyes and barely awake, they just settling down for the day after a night of activity and being on the hunt. We watched as they walked just feet from the car, very uninterested in us, just going about their business as if we were not even there. I can remember thinking how terrifying it would have been to spend a night alone in the Serengeti. How everything blends to its surroundings and even when on your guard it would take just seconds to be overcome by this or that cat, hyena, Cape buffalo, (fill in the blank). But these lions owned the night. It was clear they weren't scared of anything, and to be in their presence made all of the stereotypes and sayings about them make sense (fought like a lion, such-and-such the lionheart,  the lion and the lamb, etc... )

It was fitting that we'd come on safari and to have this encounter be one of our firsts. It is of course, the most stereotypical and impressive beast one expects to find in the African plains... but over the coming days a bigger story began to come together, and I'd come to see that though impressive, he was just one small part of Serengeti.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Wrapping Up; The Bucket List in Review

I've been avoiding this post for the longest time.

For one, because it feels like it needs to be a conclusion. I have no more countries to add to this list, so should I be done? I feels so wrong to write a concluding post to a journey which I feel is still very much underway.

Secondly: how do I summarize all this? Is there a central theme? What lessons have I learned? Does that even matter?

It's true, my list as of now has come to an end. So unless I'm prepared to update this once a year (at best), my "bucket list series" is done here (guest authors welcome!).

I suppose I'll just end with this. Somewhat of a call to action to you homebodys, or a reminder to you travel-bugs.

Traveling is timeless. Yes, it costs you money. But what it buys you is priceless. One day you'll have to part from your Dodge Stratus, or fancy Kitchen-Aid blender. But no one will ever take away your memories.  And this is what travel buys you, or at least what it has bought me.

When I shave in the morning before work, as the razor hits my cheek, I remember shaving in front of the window watching the waves crash on the cliffs in the Forteleza do Guincho hotel in Portugal, and I smile.

When I have a good steak, I remember sitting on the patio of La Puerta Ancha steakhouse watching those kids play soccer in the square of Ayamonte, Spain while the afternoon gave way to evening.

When drink my coffee, I'm brought back to the crisp 7 am morning air in Vienna and the journey we undertook to find a coffee shop and pastry before setting out on the town to explore.

When snow begins to fall, I remember Prague. Experiencing  something like waking up in the middle of a dream, but realizing it was all real; that fairy tales are really inspired by true places, and you have to get out into the world to see them.

But also Terezin. The camp just outside of the city. This same snowy cold day providing an eeriness and deadness to the world that made me question what it is to be human and haunt me even to this day.

All these things have made me a different person.  And without having been around the world, I'd be so much less. I count my blessings that I married a woman who shares these same passions and has journeyed with me throughout much of this, and a woman with whom I welcomed a son Jacob to the world who was born this past January. He was named after my ancestral forefather from Hesse, Prussia (see my earlier German post), the man whose father braved a two week long Atlantic journey from Antwerp, Belgium to New York Harbor and planted my family's roots here in America.

What a joy and excitement that I get to teach his great, great, great, great grandson how big this world is. What beauty he has surrounding him. What treasures his God has created, and maybe one day even bring him back to the land his ancestors left.

What a beautiful world.

Until next time - KG

Thursday, November 3, 2016

#19: Portugal. The Mariners.

Portugal is a proud country. At the westernmost expanse of the European continent, the Portuguese were among the first to look out at the Atlantic in wonder and build ships to weather the seas and sail west and south into the unknown. They discovered Madeira, the Azores, Cape Verde, islands all to which it took days to sail, in a time when most of the world believed sailing west from Europe was a trip to your doom: either into an impossibly long voyage toward Asia, or even off of an abrupt end to a flat and finite earth.

The Portuguese challenged this idea, they began making ships designed to sail for months into the sea, taking men where no one had gone before, exploring places which were believed to contain only savages or were too harsh for humans to endure. For this curiosity in defying common beliefs of the day, men like Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco de Gama sailed into the southern sea and made voyages thought to be impossible. They proved that the world possessed a southern hemisphere which an adept sailor could venture down into and go east to the land of spices, gold, and silk. To the chagrin of wealthy Venetian merchants, the Portuguese proved that the Silk Road was an unnecessary venture when ships could sail around the Cape of Good Hope to ports of call like Mumbai, Calcutta, and Shanghai.

Today, Portugal is a far cry from its former self. Not that its people have changed. That spirit of the Portuguesa, the one that inspired the likes of de Gama, Magellan, and Dias, you can still see it in the them. It was in the voice of the girl working at Quinto de Crasto, who explained that Portugal is retaking their wine industry from the old days of the British dominated port trade, and how in just a few decades Portuguese wine will be among the best in the world; it was in the eyes of the Rodrigo the guy who led us around Lisbon, who took so much pride in everything Portuguese, but had not one positive thing to say of his government; or the bartender who politely informed me that you shouldn't ever lead with Spanish when speaking to a Portuguesa, after all, they have a language of their own. Over and over again, I heard a Portuguesa lament over their ineffective leaders. How their economy is in stagnation, unemployment staggeringly high, and how decent hardworking people nearly starve on the streets. Today Portugal joins its once mighty neighbor Spain as one of the most languishing economies of Europe. If nothing else, it was all sad to me. I remember standing in the Plaça de Comercio in Lisbon, to this day one of the largest public squares in all of Europe with one long side on the banks of the Rio Tejo, and an enormous bronze statue of King Jose I on horseback in its center. I stood there looking out at the water picturing massive caravels moored at the docks, unloading nutmeg, pepper, cardamom, and cloves - just grocery store commodities today, but were luxuries that made the Portuguese the most privileged people of Europe in the 16th century. This plaza was converted to a parking lot in the 1950's and has only recently been reclaimed as a monument to Portugal's past. Today tourists buzz around the square and it has the same feel of any other big European plaza, if not for the conspicuously empty side facing the water which once drove Portugal's economy.

I left Portugal with a sense that its people had a bad case of 'small dog syndrome,' overshadowed by its much larger Iberian neighbor which despite its own economic woes seems to dominate it these days in every way. But I've realized that this is oversimplified. In a country which has played such a dominant part in world history, it must be ashamedly humbling to make headlines these days only for being the 'P' in PIGS (the convenient porcine mnemonic device referring to the worst economies of Europe). The golden age of Portugal is long in its past, but when you stand on its western cliffs and look out on the ocean, when you consider the innovations its people brought to this world which are taken for granted today - ships that could sail across oceans and into the wind, maritime devices which could pinpoint your location simply by looking at the sun - it's easy to picture the time in which it was great.

I'll admit, I'm much more taken by Spain than Portugal. We even escaped to Spain for one night when we were close as if to take a breath of fresh air away from the unfamiliar accents and weird 'ç' and 'x' pronunciations on road signs we didn't understand and often got us (me) lost. But I've never met a person that went to Portugal or has Portuguese roots that didn't just spill out this Portuguese pride in every word they spoke about the place - and it's worth the trip because you can feel it when you're there. It's no longer dominating the world economy like it was centuries ago, but in many ways its people still live like they do... even so, they manage to maintain a laid back demeanor which is enviable in today's world. No, you won't find a Portuguesa donning a cap demanding that Portugal be made great again, I think they are at peace that those days are over, but what you will find is a sense of nationalism, pride and unity which was borne out of necessity over the centuries as its people stood cut off from Europe, looking west out into the ocean.