Thinking of South Africa

Well, I am finally done with my South Africa blog. Okay…I finished it  a month after we got home, but there was a lot to digest and even more to think about. In all, we spent five days in Cape Town at the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, five days on safari at the &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge, two days in Johannesburg, and a week at the Zebra Cottage in Stellenbosch. Thank you, Marianne Birrell, of Marianne Birrell Safaris who arranged our Cape Town and Ngala stays. You did a beautiful and professional job.

I added a few more blog posts that yes, I know, are after the fact. Some of them took a while to write. Others took a movement of heart to say.

I packed my People, Places, and Palate pages full of stories, pictures, and memories. For a writer, a blog is a living scrapbook filled with words that represent experiences. However, if you are more of a picture person, come over for wine and we will show you the almost 2,000 pictures we took on the trip. There are at least 200 of a leopard named the Black Dame.

For the final post in this blog, however, here are a few memories I carry with me from South Africa:

  • Our hotel, The Belmond Mount Nelson, was painted pink to celebrate the end of World War I in 1918. It has stayed pink ever since.
  • Swirling in a handmade African dress made me feel more like a princess than wearing a prom dress.
  • Cricket and Rugby are just plain incomprehensible. We still don’t know how you can get 300 points in one cricket game or why a field goal in rugby is called a dropped goal.
  • We thought the six dogs that roamed the winery were sissy dogs until Paul jokingly told them to hunt up a bird. Mayhem ensued.
  • I spent three weeks learning how to conduct an African handshake. Children on the streets of Cape Town and Soweto were my patient teachers.
  • I bought Paul a leather safari hat which makes him look devastatingly dashing. He now wears it every day at home—“it keeps the rain off my glasses”—I know the truth. He looks like Indiana Jones.
  • We played a drinking game where we used giraffe poop pellets to see who could spit the farthest. They tasted like grass. Done. No more details unless you read the post “Ngala Meeting the Black Dame.”
  • Baboons and monkeys are called bush criminals.
  • I didn’t like hyenas going into my trip and I still don’t. They skitter sideways which I think looks creepy.
  • We almost got kicked out of Ngala. Read “Elijah’s Leopard” to see why.
  • The collective nouns for safari animals now resonate with me: a crash of rhinos, a thunder of hippos, a parade of elephants, a clan of hyenas, a leap of leopards, a parliament of owls, and most hauntingly—a journey of giraffes.
  • To be able to become a tracker on safari, one must be able to tell where a butterfly’s feet and wings left the ground in a square foot of sand. (Lovely, is it not?)

Thank you, friends–Thobeka, Edward, Katie, Pappy (even though you almost got us arrested),  Kaglia, Alti, Elijah, Allyn, Jimmy, Mama Connie, Given,  Benali, the Winery dogs (especially Girl, aka Cocoa), and Freddy–who made our trip not only memorable but now lodged in our hearts.

Come see us in the United States. We live in beautiful Washington State on a salt water inlet. We will take you on walks on the beach, hikes in the mountains, pour you South African wine on our deck, and share pictures of our trip and reminiscence on the kindness and hospitality you showed us in your country. Let us repay you.

Best Regards,

Lesley

Farewell to Freddy

The most poignant moment of our 19 days in South Africa happened in the airport as we were leaving.

We had five suitcases, two carry-on bags, a filthy rental car, and Paul and I were getting a little cranky. It had been 19 solid days together. We spent our final day in Cape Town visiting the Belmond Mount Nelson and Green Market Square for last minute gifts–or just more stuff. We were tired and we still had to wait for a midnight flight to Paris.

We got in line to return the car. I heard a voice behind me.

“Ma’am would you like help with your bags?”

I turned around. A small man stood tall with his chest up and looked at me directly in the eye. He had before him a suitcase cart. He wore the official orange vest of the airport employees. He was dressed simply; his coat worn but clean and mended; his shoes shined, his hair was short and the color grey was beginning to creep like moss over his head. He smiled.

“May I help you?”

“Yes!” I said. I began rolling the bags and lifting them on the cart.

“Ma’am, let me help.” He took the bags and stacked them on the cart. He motioned for my heavy carry-on bag and placed it securely on the cart. “Sir, yours, please.” Paul handed him his carry-on too. We both stood silent. We didn’t know what to do. We were used to struggling with our own junk.

“My name is Freddy. I am your porter. My job is to help you.” I was reminded of Given and his simple declaration of service.

“Okay,” I said as we walked through the dark empty parking lot together. Paul and I shuffled next to Freddy our arms and shoulders empty. “My name is Lesley. That’s Paul, my husband.”

Freddy smiled while confidently pushing the car. It weighed at least 250 pounds. “Did you enjoy your stay in Cape Town?” His voice was low and steady. We continued walking uphill through two more parking lots.

“We did! We love it here.” Even tired and crabby, I was still in love with Cape Town.

“And you are from where?” he inquired.

“Seattle,” Paul said. “In the U.S.”

“Of course, Freddy said. “Sleepless in Seattle. That was a good movie. I remember it. Tom Hanks, yes?” We all laughed.

“What do you do here at the airport?” Paul asked carefully.

“I am a porter. I help people with their bags. I will help you with the VAT process as well.”

I looked unsure.

“If you spent money here in South Africa you will get a portion of the tax back since you are not a citizen of South Africa.” Paul and I nodded. Thank goodness we happened upon Freddy. We didn’t know anything about that.

“Will you show us how to get our bags wrapped in plastic too?” I asked. “I’m worried I packed my bag so tightly it will burst open.” When we left Cape Town to fly to Ngala, I admired a machine that twirled a suitcase covering it in saran wrap.

“Yes, Lesley and Paul, I will have your bags wrapped for you.”

Freddy continued pushing our cart up the steep hill to the departure terminal. Paul and I looked at each other. I motioned at his wallet and mouthed “do you have a tip?” He nodded.

“It is hard to find work in South Africa,” Freddy said. “So many people have come here from other countries. There is not enough work.” He cleared his throat and changed subjects. “Where did you stay in Cape Town?”

“At the Belmond Mount Nelson. It is so beautiful.” I sighed. “Just beautiful.”

“I know that hotel. Yes, she is wonderful. I was there once for a dinner for my work many, many years ago.”

We arrived at the check-in counter and Freddy unloaded our bags, handed us our VAT and plastic wrapping receipts, and then nodded his head to us. I handed him two unopened water bottles.

“Here Freddy, would you like these? We can’t take them through Security.”

Freddy took the two bottles and placed one on the counter for the agent at the check-in counter.  “It was a pleasure meeting you Paul and Lesley. Have a safe trip home.” He turned to leave and Paul handed him a 100 Rand note. It was the equivalent of eight dollars American. Freddy smiled again, shook our hands and left.

“That was nice of you to give him that tip. Porters don’t make a salary here. They work for tips,” the agent said.

I turned and looked at Paul. I got teary-eyed. Most of the time Paul can withstand my pleas, but this time it was written on his face too.

“Find Freddy. He needs more money. He helped us so much.” Paul kissed me and took off on that slow jog of his that I love. I’d never tell him, but he looks like he is running on his tip toes. I could see him glancing at all of the porters sitting in their orange vests. That’s when I really looked at the patrons at the airport. Orange vests were everywhere. Everywhere.

“How many porters are here?” I asked.

The agent looked up surprised. He thought we were gone. “I don’t know. It changes every day. Freddy is the best, ” he said shrugging his shoulders. “he is not too proud to help anyone even if they only give him a rand.”

I sat and waited for Paul. Freddy was one of the good guys. I knew it in my heart. He was hardworking, respectful, kind, pleasant. He was a good man. Why didn’t he have a job?  Yes, I understand that people have things that happen that turn their life away from the direction it should be heading. There are personal issues, family issues, issues, issues, issues.

It came down to Freddy for me. Paul says that all countries have some sort of racism and class issues. South Africa, the United States, France, and many others are still toiling away at the issues that mark our countries with ugliness. During our time in the Winelands, when work would let out, hundreds of black  South Africans would stream onto the sides of the highways to walk home to the shanty towns of small houses built out of corrugated metal. There were a few of those large taxi vans like in Soweto that would pick up passengers and people would cram their way into the vehicle. It took me days to realize that the people walking on the highway did not own cars. Yes, go ahead and shake your head. How could I have not known? It wasn’t my experience. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own a car.

Paul came huffing back. He handed me a piece of paper. It said FREDDY. And there was a phone number next to it.

“Call the Mount Nelson when we get home. Tell them about Freddy.”

And, so I did. I contacted the Belmond Mount Nelson. I told them everything Freddy had done. “The Mount Nelson uniform was meant for someone like him,” I said. I kept that piece of paper with his name and number. I don’t want to forget him or how he conducts himself each and every day. He is one of the good ones–in spite of the issues.

 

 

Meeting the Black Dame

Ngala (which means Lion) Safari Lodge is located within the Ngala Game Reserve which borders Kruger National Park which borders the countries of Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east. Why does this matter? Because there are few fences in Africa and animals are free to roam across the bush. The Drakensberg and Limpopo mountains are always in the distance and this is important because a safari never ends.

Our game reserve is 36,000 acres. After five days on safari, the names Cheetah Flats, Little Serengeti, Skananaan Road, Big Bend, and the dry riverbed of the Timbavate River all had meaning to us. These are the places where we met the animals of Africa and where we learned about their struggles for survival. It is where we met the Black Dame.

Our lodge is nestled inside a stand of mopane and tamboti trees. Elephants, Cape buffalo, and hippos visit the lodge’s watering hole when they choose, drinking and splashing while guests take pictures and leave their lunches to the monkeys.

 

There are 21 thatched cottages and a family lodge. It is good to know that the ceilings are thatched because centipedes are known to fall directly on you while you are sleeping. It is quite startling when it happens. Our cottage was luxurious with fine linens, a deep tub with a floor to ceiling window, and an outdoor shower in a tall, private courtyard. I was sure if I knocked on the door across the way, Ernest Hemmingway himself may have answered the door. A slow-moving fan rustled above our bed and we slept with sturdy screen doors open to the night. Every door in the lodge was secured tightly against the shrewd and ignoble antics of the baboons. Baboons and monkeys are called bush criminals. Their play is charming, but when they dash up and steal your food, your camera, or your glasses, you let them have them. Baboons are strong enough to injure a person. The lodge has given up trying to scare them away. It is best to live alongside them if not in peace then in vigilance. I shook my finger at a monkey who was directly above my head, and he lunged and swung on the branch. I screamed and jumped into a woman’s lap. I think the monkey laughed.

When we first arrived at Ngala, we were greeted by our butler. Yes, I said butler.

“Paul,” I said to my husband, “I can’t have a butler.” Given was our butler at Ngala.

Given became my best friend at Ngala. Sometimes he held my hand while we were walking through the grounds. We talked to each other without taking a breath, and his smile was broad and sincere, and I couldn’t help but feel love. Yes, love.  He brought us chilled wine after lunch and again after dinner, he folded my clothes, and left a book mark for my reading. He held my scarf for me and insisted I have the warmest blanket for the chilly morning drives.  He pampered me.

 

I asked him if I could visit the kitchen and meet our chef, Duma. Given was overcome with excitement. Thank goodness I had showered and washed my hair after the dust of the morning drive. Given took 24 pictures of me and the staff. He introduced me and handed them my camera so he could be in the picture. He was thrilled as I asked questions and took notes on the task of feeding 75 people five times a day—rusks and coffee early morning, breakfast after our drives, lunch at noon, tea at three, and dinner late in the evening.  Given told me everyone’s name and I tried to write them down. I visited the laundresses and they hugged and patted me because they loved my green African dress. He showed me where the staff ate, where they lived, and the pantry that was triple locked because of the monkeys and the baboons. When we finished our tour, I asked him to sit down and have tea with me. He looked at as if I had asked him to join me on the moon. He said,

“No, I am a butler.”  I was ashamed at my breach of etiquette. I didn’t know what else to say so I asked him where his community was located. He said Hutchinson was 3 ½ hours from Ngala. I then asked him how often he went home to see his family. He smiled at me with genuine compassion. “Mrs. Klenk, I go home when I am not a butler.”

Every morning at 4:45, there would be a tap at our door and a voice would tell us it was time for safari. We were also told that if we did not rouse, another tap would come at our door. “It is important,” he said “to greet the day.” We ate rusks in the morning. Like biscotti, rusks are dunked in coffee and they then turn to mush. Allyn, our guide, and close in age of our oldest son (and that was important because it was the lens by which I saw everything), would greet us, pull out a map, and show us where our journey would take us that morning. It was different every day because we went where the animals went. We always stopped for the sunrise. Always. It looked different every day. Allyn says that every drive begins with a little bit of imagination and a lot of hope.

Paul and I listed all the animals we saw on safari: elephants, lions, hyenas, leopards, warthogs, cape buffalo, kudu, hippos, rhinos, giraffe, zebra, alligator, African wild dog, impalas, wildebeest, gnus, bush bucks, antelope; baboons, monkeys, dikas, mongoose, honey badger; I’ll keep thinking. There are more.

 

I thought I would be impatient with bird watching, but it became a challenge between the birds and me. I found myself looking for the agile lilac-breasted roller, the magpie shriek that kills birds by impaling them on thorns, and the bird whose name escapes me but is known as a cackling old woman. We drove by an eagle’s nest twice each day, and I wanted so wp-1479159652103.jpgbadly to see the eggs hatch before we left. They did not, but the mother and father were diligent parents and I believe the hatchlings are snug in their nest as I write.

While on safari you do not stay on roads. You rocket into the brush, spin around tangled grass, knock down noxious thorn bushes, and drag branches in your wake. But you do not run over mopane trees. Mopane is a Zulu word that means butterfly because the leaves look like butterfly wings. Mopane trees became the symbol of my happiness while on safari. We rode in three seats, climbing one after another. The safari vehicle was open to the sky. I cannot call it a jeep, but it wasn’t a car. It was something all its own because it can cross deep puddles, tilt dangerously sideways against a ravine side, and bump over the tops of rocks higher than I could jump.

There was a ritual you follow when you find an animal or animals. First, Allyn cuts the motor and we glide to a stop. Second, there is always a hush. You talk in a whisper. It is like seeing animals as you have not seen them before. For example, watching giraffes, you notice they glide. You see them anew only because you have a tracker.

 

Jimmy was our tracker. He raised his finger slightly to signal Allyn when he saw an animal. He rode out on a chair that juts out beyond the end of the safari vehicle.  When looking for lions, Jimmy left the vehicle and entered the bush. If you turned your head and then looked back, he was gone, blended into the trees and tall grasses. He did not carry a gun. He could look through the brush and thorns and see animals without revealing his presence. He found African Wild Dogs and lions for us by following their prints, their scent, and the path they left behind. I asked him if he was ever afraid and he shook his head and gave me a small smile.

“No, if I was I would not go.”

Allyn told me that to become a tracker of Jimmy’s caliber you must be able to see the imprint of a moth’s feet and wings as it took off in flight from a bed of sand.

I admired Allyn’s knowledge; I worshipped Jimmy’s courage. A tracker is always listening while the guide is always talking. Allyn would laugh if he knew I said that. It’s the tracker’s job to find the animals and the guide’s job to open your eyes to what it is like be that animal. Did you know that a giraffe is voiceless? Or that the white underside of impala’s tail is meant to confuse a predator while the black top of the tail is meant to help it blend into the bush? Did you know that you could drink snake venom and be fine—it is only when it enters the blood stream that it kills? Did you know that a leopard does not have spots, but instead rosettes? When you are close enough to the Black Dame you can see how her coat is scattered with roses.

We leave for late-day safari after afternoon tea. Again, we plan our four-hour drive. The sun begins to set at 6:00, and we stop to watch the sky creep with pink and then orange.

 

Before dusk arrives, Allyn and Jimmy set up a table, settle a fluttering table cloth on it, and put out snacks and drinks. I discovered the snacks were corn nuts and jerky. Impala jerky. That would have been nice to know.  With the wind quiets you get to know your companions better. The Norwegians, Christian and Nina, our young ones, were beautiful, tall, and blinked their sky-blue eyes like giraffe. They didn’t talk much, but they loved riding in the third seat. We called it the Disneyland seat because of its propensity to cause flight to those sitting in it during a particularly thrilling chase.  Paul and Andre were classic middle children, laid-back and willing to go along with the group. Erica and I were first born children with definite opinions and a passion to see as much as we could as fast as we could. Here’s what’s interesting: When we returned to the lodge, we all stuck together. We were a tribe. There is something about peeing with other women behind a termite hill while the men all stood peeing in a row and looking at the landscape that bonded us. That and maybe the giraffe poop story.

Allyn convinced us that he and his friends had giraffe and impala poop spitting contests when he was a young boy. I should have listened more carefully. He grew up in Pretoria, the capitol of South Africa. I am pretty sure there weren’t giraffes or impalas grazing in suburban back yards.  He gave each of us a handful of dried poop pellets collected from a nearby desiccated pile.

“They taste just like grass,” he said. There was a grin tugging at his cheeks and his chocolate-colored eyes were dancing. He makes his mother ride in a different safari vehicle when she comes to visit. If she is with her son, she will tap on the back of his head like a woodpecker and tell him to slow down and quit driving so fast. I love her, of course.

Sundowning is also about your first cocktail of the day, and after a few hours of spinning in the dust, chasing the flash of a tail, and hurtling down the road to be the first vehicle at a new carcass, you are ready for a drink. The lodge thoughtfully packs everything—gin, tonic, several kinds of wine, whiskey, and vodka.

The spitting contest commenced. Paul and Erica were pros. I think Andre abstained, but Christian and Nina were game to try, so I put a poop pellet in my mouth. But then I couldn’t do it. I gagged, bent over and let it slide out of my mouth. It looked less like grass and exactly like fresh poop when it hit the ground. I had additional glasses of wine after that. I prayed for wine’s antiseptic qualities. Music is not allowed in the Ngala Reserve, but that didn’t stop us from singing songs we remembered from our youth; or, in my case, a borrowed youth.

“Hey,” Allyn called as I made my hands stiff and swooped them out in front of me. “You’re dancing like the Backstreet Boys.”

“I am not.” I laughed from the belly that had clenched as if punched. I lied. I had indeed danced to their music seventeen years ago when my son was eight and discovering boy bands. Allyn’s innocent recollection of an experience we shared while continents apart stung; it was a reminder that my son’s childhood was now just a memory. “I bet you wore your hair like theirs too,” I dared.

“You mean like this?” He used his fingers to rustle through hair to make it stick straight up above his forehead.

“Yes,” I said and held my glass out for more wine.  I thought of his mother. Did she too work the comb and the hairspray carefully in the morning until it met his approval? It was a long time ago and I wondered why I couldn’t let go of my boy who now is a man. Perhaps I hope that my son, like Allyn, lives fully, with joy, and aware of the fragility of life. I know my time with Allyn was a mere five days while my relationship with my son is 25 years, but I am convinced that Allyn opened windows for us that are closed to me with my son. My heart hurts about that.

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The sun was dropping behind us melting the branches of a tree. Halcyon moments are rare, but this counted as one.

Although it happens every night, I am never prepared for dusk. It is stealthy. It does not have color when it arrives and, for a moment, you panic. On safari, the darkness  hides the animals and you are afraid they might be gone. But, they aren’t it. You must put your trust in your guide and your tracker day and night. They know the way.

Allyn began talking about the Black Dame. Jimmy wandered back. He did not drink and usually left our party to look for prints in the sand. This is what Allyn said:

“We’ll probably find her tomorrow. She made a kill today—an impala—and another group saw it in a tree. It was fresh. The Black Dame is an 8-year old leopard. Her son still comes to see her. Her eyes are surrounded with thick black fur that makes her look like Cleopatra. It’s as if she knows that she is a queen. She suns herself, climbs trees, and eats impalas close to the safari vehicles. She removes the fur before eating. We don’t know why, but she doesn’t like the taste of fur.”

 

We learned the Black Dame is at ease with the safari vehicles having grown up with them. She yanks the fur from the body of her kill with delicate, swift pulls of her front teeth. She grinds its bones with her back molars until it sounds like  garden tools scraping across cement. She is known for glancing at a vehicle filled with picture-snapping guests and leaping into the branches of a tree from where she had been standing.

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We met the Black Dame four times while at Ngala. Once she had her back turned and did not acknowledge us. Another time she was in a tree sunning herself. We also saw her on a non-sanctioned trip into the reserve. (You can read about it in the blog post, “Elijah’s Leopard”) She saved the best for last. She was sleeping on the ground at first sight. Hearing us, she woke, stretched, yawned, and walked to the tree. She leaped, the roses scattered across her fur blooming as she left the ground. My heart was in my throat and my pulse was pounding. She does that to you. 20161003_211934

When we arrived back at the lodge at night, we were often sleepy, cold, and stiff. Security guards met us and walked us back to our cottages with flash lights. Without any fences, the animals of Ngala could wander into our place as well. Which they did while we were there.

“Mrs. Klenk, you must come to the boma tonight,” Given said squeezing my hand. Although I was tired, I agreed. There was a tall gate behind the open-air thatched lodge where we ate breakfast and lunch. Tonight, the gate was open. The boma is open to the night with sand for a floor and an enormous bonfire that sends sparks into the blackness. I sank into my chair and our group members settled too. Given and the other butlers poured wine, and Allyn entertained all of us with stories from his time as a safari guide.

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“There was a guest,” Allyn started, “who asked how often the windsock on the runway was filled with food for the giraffes. I didn’t laugh,” Allyn promised. The rest of us snickered. “Okay,” he said warming to the stories. “Another guest inquired how long it takes for the wildebeest to grown into its zebra stripes. I’m not kidding, it really happened.” he smirked as we began to laugh and shake our heads. I breathed deeply of the smoke’s spicy scent.

“Fine,” he said, giving up. “I did laugh one time. I couldn’t help it, because I would have suffered an aneurysm if I hadn’t. There was a guest who was impatient and hard to please. Finally we were headed back to the lodge. He…he was a big guy. He had taken his belt off to loosen his pants on the way back. When I  pulled up to the lodge, he forgot about his pants and stood up.  He fell face first to the ground.”

We didn’t just laugh; we snorted, harrumphed, and cried. Allyn’s young face beamed and I was reminded again of my son. He too could tell a story with aplomb.

Inside the boma, hundreds of sparkling lanterns whisper and greet you. They flicker and glow on the tables and from the top of the wall. They hang from the branches of the enormous weeping boere bean tree and swing slightly in the draft of the fire. We tried again and again, but the camera could not capture the dancing light. It was meant for the moment and no more.

So now we are home in our own little beautiful corner on earth. I know people say they leave a bit of themselves behind when they depart a place that has special meaning to them. I believe it. I don’t know if I can return to Ngala. Without my tribe, without Allyn and Jimmy, that little piece of me would be lost to the wind. I want our time there to be like a spider web in autumn— unexpected in its beauty, undone with a touch, and discovered by few. I now understand why the safari guides are reluctant to name the animals that live in the bush. I want the Black Dame to stay exactly where she is—in the tree where we saw her last.

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Stellenbosch: Winery Dogs

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“Paaauull,” I said hugging him from behind. “I could call the airlines and find out how much it would cost to change our tickets to go home early.” I waited to see how he reacted.  He didn’t turn to look at me. I knew he wouldn’t. One of us has to be firm. In our marriage, it is him.

“No, let’s just go into town today and you can go shopping. You’ll feel better.” He’d probably calculated the difference between a shopping spree and the cost of changing a ticket. “What are you missing most?”

Why did he even ask? “Tucker,” I said walking away. Our dog.

We’ve adopted a dog who lives here on the winery grounds. We call her “Girl.” She’s sort of a Bull Dog/Lab mix with deep brown eyes and a short-haired brown body. She visits us at breakfast on the patio each morning and waits at the cottage steps to see if we will take her on walks. Of course we do.

The winery owner tried to tell us her real name, but we interrupted him and said, “Don’t tell us. We call her Girl and she seems fine with it.”

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We set out tonight on our second walk of the day. On our other walks, we discovered porcupine quills scattered in the rows of grape vines. It had become a contest between us to see who could retrieve the most quills to put in our new safari hats.

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In addition to Girl, five other dogs joined us for our night’s ramble: one brown, happy Lab, two compact and determined black and brown Boston terriers, and two clumsy, grey, floppy-eared Weimaraners. The dogs dashed ahead of us, crossing the path back and forth. There was no clear leader, but Girl hung back staying close to us.

Paul was happy. The last time he walked with dogs was back in Minnesota hunting pheasants. He called out to them, “Get a bird, get a bird. Hunt them up, hunt them up.”

The dogs looked back at us. There was a tilt to their heads that was a bit disturbing. The Boston terriers cocked their heads sideways and, in both of them, one ear up stood up and one flopped down. The Lab wagged his tail smiling, and the two floppy-eared dogs stumbled around on their wobbly legs. Girl stopped. She sat. She did not move.

All hell broke loose. The dogs jumped in the bushes, crashing through the blue salvia and wild rosemary. We heard the frantic beating of wings and scrabbling of canine claws digging into the rocky soil.

Paul and I looked at each other.

“Dogs, dogs, come here! Dogs, dogs, come here,” we shouted. Paul pushed through bushes trying to reach the desperate and panicked sounds of wings breaking in the brush.

Five dogs trotted out of the scratchy green, the cross-eyed floppy-eared puppy triumphantly carrying a fat guinea hen. Her neck was broken and a trail of long, speckled black feathers fluttered to the ground. The dogs jostled one another, and the featherless breast began to tear. As the dogs tasted blood, they began to grab at one another’s mouths.

Girl stared. She stood up and began moving forward with her ears flattened.

“Paul do something!”

“Out, out,” shouted Paul pushing them apart with his knees and slapping their haunches.

They scattered, tails beating hard, and took off up the path six across. Now they were a pack. Even Girl was one of them.

“Paul do something!”

Paul held up the guinea hen. It swung from his fist, an electric blue ring circling its crooked neck.

“Chase the dogs,” Paul yelled. “I’ll get rid of the bird.”

For the next two kilometers—up and down hills, across vineyard rows, over rocks, and through stands of pine trees—Paul and I chased the scraggly, unorganized pack of out of shape winery dogs whose previous idea of bliss was scraps of French bread and brie cheese.

They finally slowed down at the top of the mountain. They all collapsed, their chests heaving. They threw their heads back in defiant glory, and slobber flew in strings from their mouths.

“Gross,” I called as it splatted against my bare legs. “Paul, do something. I don’t want to be responsible for them going rogue and chasing a porcupine.”

They stopped. Six sets of eyes looked at me. They rose as a group and loped off down the hill. Paul and I grabbed hands and began running after them.

“Count them,” Paul panted. “Make sure there are six.”

“One, two, three, four, five,” I squinted in the purple light. “Girl. Girl is the one missing. Paul, run. See if she is down there.” The dogs continued down the hill, their back feet comically landing before their front ones.

The dogs and Paul disappeared over the rise in the road. I was alone. I listened for Girl. Nothing. I didn’t hear any snuffling along the ground or rustling of stiff branches. I didn’t feel her presence. She wasn’t there.

“Girl, Girl, Girl, Girl,” I screamed. “Girl, Girl, Girl, please.” Nothing. Then I heard Paul.

“Come on. Come.” I could barely understand him.

“I’m not coming down there if Girl isn’t there. I’m staying here to look for her.” I had tears in my eyes. Paul appeared out of the darkness.

“She’s laying down there waiting. Laying there.”

Ashamed, I joined him on the path. “It probably would have been a good idea to learn her name,” I admitted.

“You think?” Paul was taking deep breaths trying to recover from hiking back up the hill to me.

“Paul, do you think sometime when we are really, really old and can’t travel any more we can get another dog?”

Paul bent over, his hands on his knees, porcupine quills jauntily sticking out of his sweaty leather hat.

Sure.”

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Postscript:

Our beloved Tucker died a month after we returned from South Africa. I miss him every day. I hope he is in a place where he can run mountains like the ones in Stellenbosh with a group of goofy dogs who discover a thirst for life they did not know they had. 

Finding A Male Lion

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While on safari you go for a game ride in the morning and another one in the late afternoon that stretches into the night.  You spend a lot of time with your safari guide. And sometimes he breaks your heart.

This will surprise no one: Paul memorized the roads in the game reserve. He became almost as good at sighting animals in the brush as our guide, Allyn. By the last day he could hunch over with the guides and the trackers and read the prints in the dust.

Paul and I were desperate to see a male lion. Time was running out. We had only one more game drive. Years ago we watched a TV show called “Big Cat Diaries,” and recorded every episode so we could watch them again. Focused on lions, leopards, and cheetahs, the show featured three experts who each tracked one big cat. We actually checked all of the dates the shows premiered because we didn’t want to find out that one of our favorite cats had disappeared.

We needed a lion.

Allyn checked with the other guides and trackers, and there were reports of paw prints belonging to a pride of lions south of the lodge near the lower gate of Kruger Park. We left in a swirl of dust. We flew down the roads—Cheetah Flats, Trevor’s Hole, The Big Dam, Serengeti Corner—to the far end of the game preserve.

Allyn stared ahead, intent on the road, as we drove. Jimmy rode out on the tracker seat and kept his head down looking for tracks. Watching Allyn’s determined shoulders, I felt a familiar feeling, an ache. I too, knew a young man who was courteous, gregarious, and professional. But he also had this part of him that was convinced he was invincible. We rode in silence. We all scanned the sides of the road looking for a creamy, white underbelly turned up to the sun or the smudge of tawny brown lounging on the top of a termite hill.

Allyn turned off the motor and glided to a stop in a lonely intersection of two dirt roads. Jimmy jumped down and looked at the ground. He nodded to Allyn and took off on foot. He carried a walkie talkie and a cell phone. His job was to make visual confirmation of the lions and then return back to the road to get into the vehicle with us.

“While Jimmy is tracking, we’re going back to look closer to the gate. They are here somewhere,” Allyn waved to us impatiently. He was bouncing on the tips of his toes. We all jumped into the car and roared off. My bladder began to ache and then burn.

“Allyn,” I called when he slowed down to take a corner. “I really have to go.”

He slowed the car and pulled over. He turned around and looked at me high on the third seat. “I don’t know if I can find a good place right now.” We were all quiet. “Okay,” he turned the car around and cruised back towards a break in the road. I jumped out and ran to a tree. I had perfected this squat pose close to the ground, but I couldn’t account for a fifty-year old bladder that had witnessed the birth of two children. I looked up and they were all yelling at me. Jimmy had found the lions.

Allyn left the road without hesitation. He guided the car around rocks, and steered around monpane trees. Their leaves, shaped like butterfly wings, trembled as the slender trunks popped up behind us. We reached the edge of a dry ravine. Jimmy signaled to drive around the far end of it. Allyn drove carefully. We reached the other side.

Paul stood up and motioned to Allyn. We looked. Two gorgeous full-grown male lions raised their heads to look balefully at us. They lay in tall grass facing away from each other. After glancing our way, they flopped back to the ground. Their bellies were full and round, and yes, creamy white. Allyn stood up in the front and pumped his fists. He and I grinned at each other. We had our royal lion decked out in full regalia.

A small sound like the hissing of a popped tire escaped into the air. Then the smell followed. It washed over us. Rotting meat and digestive juice mixed together to create an odor that made our eyes water. I felt the urge to vomit rise in my throat.

“Hold your breath,” Paul said squeezing my hand. “It will pass.”

“If it doesn’t, I’m leaning over you to get to the side,” I gasped.

“Oh no,” Allyn said and sat down. “Look at his leg. It’s all torn up. They must have been in a fight.”

The darkest lion rolled onto his back. His right leg was swollen as large as an elephant’s. In the middle of his bloodied knee something white glinted bright and hard.

“Allyn,” I whispered. “Can’t you dart him with antibiotic?” He shook his head. He looked miserable.

“No. Kruger doesn’t do that. This is the bush.”

Paul pulled me down. “Let him be for a while.”

Allyn was back in his role as the genial safari guide by the time we were within the center of the reserve. We pulled the car over to view a sunset that stretched across the African sky. The lodge had packed us a sundowner basket to celebrate our lion find. Our motley group, now a family, danced and laughed as our teeth tore into impala jerky. Our gin and tonics were cold in our hands.

I watched Allyn’s profile grow dark as the sun finally set behind the Drakensburg Mountains. He is not my child, but I know what it is like to have your boy deliver what he thought was the perfect gift only to discover it was flawed in a way that hurt to the bone.

Hyena vs. Lioness

 

Friends,

I’m tired, and it is not from all the traveling and sleeping in different beds. I thought blogging would be like writing my articles at home. Yesterday I listened to the safari guide describe the traveling habits of  African Wild Dogs while squinting in the darkness taking notes. Today I finally threw my notebook in my bag. I think it is time for something new–being present.

Two days into our five-day safari, I get it.The morning starts at 4:45 am with a gentle knock at our door–“Mr. and Mrs. Klenk. Time for safari.” We climb out of bed and Paul is ready in two seconds. I take a bit longer. It is cold in the morning. It’s not what I wear that is important, it’s how many layers can I put on and not look like a marshmallow. We go to the gathering space, a large thatched room that morphs into a small coffee table in the morning and expands into an elegant dining room with flickering candles by night. Our safari guides stand at the table pouring us coffee and giving us a hearty hello. Paul may not like this, but I have to say they are the hunkiest group of guys I have ever seen. I wonder if having good legs is part of the job requirement. I watch the other groups warily. When they move, I move. Our guide Allyn knows me by now. I want our car to go first. I don’t want to follow in someone else’s dust.

Jimmy greets us at the car. He is our tracker. He lives on site. He is quiet and moves little. He rides on a seat jutting out in front of the car and doesn’t even totter when we go through water holes or down the deep sides of a river bed. He does not move his head much, but there is nothing that gets past him. He sees the flick of an impala’s white tail, hears the first shuffling step of a herd of  cape buffalo, and smells the sheening odor of the hyenas digging into a fresh carcass.

We ride for four hours in the morning returning to the lodge at 9:30 am. We are staying in  a private reserve. Neighboring lodges cannot cross into our territory and we cannot cross into theirs. The animals, luckily, are free to roam wherever they  want. Thank goodness. I don’t want to peer across a road and not be able to chase the lions.

That is one of the hardest parts for me to get used to. Kruger Park is not a zoo. It is wild land where we must respect the animals’ world. Cars politely take turns lining up to see a leopard in a tree. But when there is a lion and hyena stand-off, it is every car for itself. We leave the road, crash through thorn bushes, spin out in the two-feet deep sand river bed, and basically screech through the bush to beat the other cars there.

The first day we were on our night safari which starts at 3:30 in the afternoon and ends at 7:30 pm. That night was different. Time didn’t matter.

It was past twilight and Allyn heard some guides squawking on the radio, “Hyenas and lions, Tibavate Road.” We sped through the dust cresting hills with all four wheels in the air. The landings were hard, but the car was tough. We approached the clearing and  Allyn said tersely  on the radio, “Position 1, I say. Position 1.” He then slowed to a crawl and cut the motor immediately.  We could barely see in the darkness, but Jimmy turned on a red spotlight. It lit up the scene without changing the animals’ behavior. I crept over to Paul’s side of the car and pushed my way under his arm.

A lioness was cornered by eight hyenas. Her back was against two fallen tress. She lay with her paws out front, her eyes riveted on the creatures in front of her. I say creatures because that’s what they are. It seems God put them together out of all of the parts he had left over. They have short front and back legs yet their back and necks are so large and muscled they look  like the hunchback of Notre Dame. They scuttle back and forth sometimes even sideways. The sound, though. God made that unique. If it was just one grating hum like a cicada, you could get used to it. No. Not these creatures. They chuckle softly and then a moan begins from one. Another begins trilling in sharp barks. And then the screaming starts. Through it all, the lion stared straight ahead. She didn’t flinch. They broke apart and began circling her, one after another lunging towards her. I smelled something putrid and looked down. A hyena was crouched next to the car. They began using the cars as shields. And they kept screaming.

“They are either going to attack her as a group, or she will strike one herself. She will die if they all get to her. But she will kill the one she grabs,” Allyn said. His eyes never left the scene.

“Who’s going to win?” I whispered.

“It’s fifty fifty at this point,” he replied.

“I hate hyenas,” I said.

He turned and looked at me kindly. “Don’t. They are just as magnificent. Watch them work.”

The screams climbed higher and higher. Then two hyenas lunged hard and fast. The lion stood up and roared with her mouth wide open. Even in the dimness I could see her white teeth. She pulled up tall and roared into the hyenas’ faces.

The screaming stilled. The hyenas disappeared into the bush muttering to each other. The lion stood up and ambled through a gap between two cars. The last I saw of her, her tail flicked, just once.

 

 

 

Joy, Joy, Joy

 

Joy, joy, joy. Unfettered joy. Never did I think a tour to Robben Island would end in such a powerful and healing emotion.

Robben Island is the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. It can only be reached by boat five miles out to sea. The barren island, covered in scrub brush and attacked by crushing waves from the Atlantic Ocean, echoes with emptiness through the silent cells, peeling paint, and lifeless vegetation.  I was prepared to feel sadness and grief when faced with the site of the quarry where Mandela dug rocks and the sisal map where he slept each night.

So how did the joy happen? Their names are Kagali and Atli. They live with their families in North Pretoria and attend a school called Assumption Convent Primary School. They were on an 8-day school trip to Cape Town. After the tour of the prison was over, we all boarded the boat to return to the city. Paul and I were surrounded on the top deck by 40 or so young people. It started out that two boys were sitting next to me, but two beautiful little girls waved their hands and motioned for the boys to switch places. So, I had the privilege of sitting next them for the hour-long ride.

At first they were shy. I complimented them on their beautiful, long braided hair. They giggled.

“Are you from the US?” they asked. I nodded.

“How old do you have to be to drive a car in America?”

“Teenagers can get a license when they are sixteen, but they have to practice a lot before then.”  They both sighed and shook their heads.

“We have to wait until we are eighteen. There is a saying, “If you die before you are eighteen, you have never lived.” They looked at me with earnest faces. Next to me I felt Paul shudder with silent laughter.

The boat rocked back and forth in the surf, dropping down into the bottom of the swells and rising to the crest again. We all crashed into each other. Paul leaned towards them.

“What did you think about Robben Island?” The girls dropped their eyes at his directness. The Ohio State hat was perched low on his forehead.

“It was educational, “Kaglia said.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Atli added.

Paul pressed a bit, “How did it make you feel?”

They looked at one another. I could see them making up their minds whether or not to share their thoughts with us.

“Actually, when we found out that the president we have now was there too, we were very surprised. Not a lot of South Africans like him.”

I was stunned by their honesty. “Do you learn a lot about apartheid in school?”

“Oh yes,” Kaglia enthused. “We also learn about world history and the social sciences.”

I decided to share my own truth. “When so many teenagers in South Africa were getting hurt in the 1980s, Paul and I were teenagers at the same time. I feel badly that I didn’t pay more attention to how terrible apartheid was. I was going to dances and playing sports. I should have been thinking about the teenagers in the townships.”

They looked me in silence. I could tell they weren’t sure what to say.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked.

“I want to be a gynecologist,” Atli piped up in a rush.

“And I want to be a pediatrician,” Kaglia grinned.

“So you are going to help them be born,” I said pointing to Atli, “and you are going to take care of them while they are children?” Kaglia smiled and crinkled her eyes.

“Yes, because we are best friends. We want to be friends for always.” The girls bumped their shoulders together.

All I could do was smile. I felt such love for these two little ones who dreamed without fear, loved without consequences, and shared their hopes with a stranger.

“What do you do in America?”

I hesitated. My full-time job working at a state education agency would be too hard to explain.I described my freelance writing position instead.

“I write articles for an online newspaper about special but unknown people in my town. I tell their stories.” I tried to make my explanation simple.

“So, you are an American journalist,” they looked at me wide-eyed.

“Yes, I am.” It felt strange to hear the words out loud.

“When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?” Kaglia asked.

“From the time I was a little girl.” It was true.

“So you are just like us. We are young and know what we want to do too.”

“Kaglia and Atlia, you are going to be amazing when you grow up,”I said.

The girs shook our hands formally as the boat was docking and we stood up to disembark.

“Girls, can I write an article about you?”

“Yes, yes, yes! They busily wrote their email addresses in my notebook.

Joy, joy, joy.

My New Friend, Katie

 

wp-1475136549432.jpgI have a new friend. Her name is Katie and we met our first morning at the hotel. She and I agree that Paul eats too much at breakfast. I saw her later in the afternoon at the formal High Tea. She dashed over to say hi and I shrieked (quietly) when I saw her.  Then Katie looked down at the tray of tea sandwiches she was carrying as the hostess with her clipboard walked up to us.

“Are you enjoying your tea?” She asked. She looked at Katie with a direct stare.

“Yes,” Paul and I said together.

“Very good,” she said and sauntered away.

“Meanie,” I said under my breath.

 

Paul and I shopped all day. We counted off on our fingers the gifts we needed to buy for our family members. The bags began piling up—African clothes for Dane and Emma, tea and a Zebra mask for SarahKate and Brian, a kissing Meer cat carving for Connor and Sam.

We had a big night ahead of us. For a long time, one of the adventures on our “bucket list” had been to attend a Chef’s Table. At 7:00 we would be seated at a table in the middle of the kitchen of the five-star hotel restaurant. All night long everyone in the kitchen from the wait staff, to the sous chef, demi chef, pastry chef, the sommelier, and the big kahuna—the chef himself—would stop by our table to bring us food and wine and describe the preparation of food and its origins.

It had been kindly explained to us that men would be expected to wear a collared shirt and women a dress. Even though we had dressy clothes hanging in the closet in our suite, I wanted something new. (Who wouldn’t?) So, while shopping at a Pan African Market, we met a store owner who takes measurements and makes one-of-a-kind, custom fit African clothes for people. His shop is filled floor to ceiling with colorful fabrics and different textures. The colors and patterns were a riot of color. They couldn’t be organized by hue as the patterns contained so many different designs and pictures. Paul and I looked at each other. They were by far the most expensive clothes we had looked at all day, but to be able to say a tailor made a blue African collared shirt and a swirly green halter dress just for us…they will hang in our closet forever. We had to keep up our end of the bargain, however. Paul had better back off those breakfasts, and maybe just one glass of wine a night for me would keep that dress within reach. The tailor informed us to return at 4:00 to pick up our clothes.

Six hours later we picked up our clothes and walked back to the hotel with them hung over our arms. They had been pressed and starched. We walked through the park next to the hotel.  The staff was streaming out of the basement of the building. It was the end of their day. Their uniforms were left behind and replaced with jeans, headscarves, and serviceable jackets. I looked hungrily for Katie. I scanned the women’s faces, but not many met my gaze.

They flowed around us and we were like an island in their wake. They laughed and chattered to one another, some in English, but more in different languages that all blended into one. They didn’t look back at the Mount Nelson. It would be there for them in the morning.

We looked ahead at its pink façade. In one day we had spent 5,000 Rand–$500 American dollars for a night of wearing beautiful clothes and dining in the midst of smoking pans, sous chefs shouting instructions at their helpers, and watching food appear in front of us that took our breathe away.

What would Katie have thought of it all? I think she would be happy for me. I believe she would smile, squeeze my wrist, and say as she does each time we greet each other, “You look so happy. Be happy today. It is a fine day.”

Ripped Jeans

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A much needed drink at the Table Bay Hotel

“Ick,” Paul said eyeing my fashionably torn jeans. “I don’t like those.”

“Too bad. Packing was horrible. I finally decided to pack by days. Today is cute day. Ripped jeans, pony tail and Keds tennis shoes.” Paul’s face was still.

“And tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. There’s still Sports day and Designer clothes day.” I paused.  “Although, all the designer clothes were bought at Ross, so they probably don’t count.”

“What are you wearing during the safari?” Paul asked.

“Heck if I know. I’ll figure it out then.”

We spent the morning exploring the hotel while it rained buckets outside. The breakfast buffet sprawled along one long wall. Meats, eggs, cheeses, fruit—it went on and on. While trying on my clothes, I decided that I would have to choose either dessert or wine each day. I couldn’t afford the calories of both.  Paul, on the other hand, told me that I always bought his clothes too big, so he had plenty of room. (Really?)

We’re staying at the Mount Nelson Hotel, an aging grand dame in Cape Town that reminds me of the Empress in Victoria, British Columbia. The “Nellie,” as she known, is painted pepto bismo pink.

The hotel is filled with wood-paneled rooms, walls of windows, and you can have champagne at the front desk upon your arrival. The restroom is called the cloak room, pots of tea are available 24 hours a day, and in the gift shop the clerk showed me a white and black striped clutch purse. It looked like horse hair.

“Zebra hide,” she said. “It is not tinted like the springbok hides are.” She waved at the wall of purses.

I backed out of the store feeling ill. Paul, ever my conscience and irritant, said,

“I’m sure they are farmed. It’s not really different than leather, Lesley.”

“Ick,” I retorted.

We caught the hotel shuttle to the Victoria and Albert waterfront. The car dropped us off at a three-story mall. I was outraged. If I wanted to shop at HM, I’d go to the city back home.

We skirted around the mall and walked the piers where workers were building boats, fishing vessels were pulling in to sell their catch, and Table Mountain towered behind us shrouded in clouds. There were security guards everywhere, and unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the gate each time. People walking towards us grumbled a bit as I refused to give way to my lane on the board walk.

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Lesley in her ripped jeans with part of Table Mountain in the background

“I think it is like cars. They think we are driving on the wrong side of the road,” Paul said in a low voice.

Grudgingly, I worked a little harder at moving to the left instead of holding fast to my side of the sidewalk. Then I remembered something my friend Linda told me at work.

“Paul, did you know that the toilet flushes in the opposite direction because we are in the Southern Hemisphere?”

“Hmm. Really.” I knew he could hardly wait to see if I was right.

We were looking for the Nelson Mandela Gateway in order to buy tickets for a tour out to Robben Island. We saw a building that had a faded sign that stated it was the Pier 1 Embarkation Point. Curious, we stepped inside the decrepit building. A surly woman gave Paul minimal directions to get to the new tourist building.

“Can we look around in here?” I asked her. She nodded.

Embarkation Point was the last place political prisoners were held until they were taken to Robben Island. It was empty except for us. Somewhere a TV was blaring, so we headed up a narrow set of stairs. In the first room were arm and leg shackles hanging on the wall. The floors were covered wall to wall with scratchy hard mats. The next room was covered with shellacked pieces of paper—typed, handwritten, blue, white, some with the names of churches or organizations on them. Regardless of appearance, they were all written by women begging the wardens and the government officials to allow them to see theirs fathers, husbands or sons. A prisoner on Robben Island was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. 30 minutes. Paul and I talked about my wardrobe for longer than that this morning.

The letters were desperate. The elderly spoke of how they longed to see their children before they died, while wives begged to share pictures of their children with their fathers, while most poignant to me, there was a letter from a sixteen-year-old girl who was finally old enough to see her father. The women all wrote their identification number  from their passbooks on their letters which made them a “real” person in apartheid South Africa. It was a gamble to put your name and number on a document. Women were political prisoners as well. The letters were signed “faithfully”.  In the hundreds of letters on the walls, there was perhaps less than a quarter of them that had the word “Ok,” scrawled on the paper with a cavalier, uncaring hand approving the visit. The letters? They were written in 1965—a year before I was born.

We left the building, so small and insignificant, in the midst of the towering mall and working harbor. I looked down at my jeans and felt my face burn. Torn jeans are a symbol of privilege in my world, while for others each tear is a story untold and even forgotten.

The Horror of Packing

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Packing. How do you put a representative sample of your entire life in one suitcase? Take two suitcases.

Paul resisted.

“Let’s just travel light, the plane to the safari lodge may have a weight limit.”

I looked at him. “I think a man started that rumor. It can’t be true. There are women like me everywhere.”

The deciding factor for clothes making the final cut is how they will look in photos. Does that sweater make me look fat? Are those pants dowdy? What effect would those decade-old pajamas have on an inadvertent meeting with someone? The sassy pile is puny. The frumpy pile is substantial. I may have to go shopping.

I have been having bad dreams. What if I left a banana in the back of the second drawer of my desk at work? (Somebody check, please). What if someone has to drive my car out of the driveway in a fire and they see the collection of empty diet shakes rolling on the floor? The biggest, however, is the idea that Tucker might not be there when we return. He is old. He weighs 100 pounds. Our house sitter weighs 98 pounds. It is more than that. He fills every corner of my heart. He knows we are leaving. Three weeks in his life is a long time.

There is the obvious. What if I die? I know I should not release that thought to the universe, but it is the most frequent nightmare of the last few days. How will my family get me home? What will my children do with my 21 carefully collected antique beaded purses mounted in shadow boxes? What is the memory of me they will mentally wrap in delicate paper and only open when they really need their mother? What about Lily? Someone please take Lily. In spite of her reputation, she really is a nice cat.

Paul strolled back into the bedroom. “Is there anything you aren’t taking?” He lifted the sassy pile with his toe.

I ignored him. “The safari list says to dress up for dinner. You need khaki pants and a couple of nice shirts. I’ll bring a dress and a skirt.” I hesitated. “I don’t know about my lucky shoes.” My lucky shoes have been everywhere. They debuted at our wedding. They attended an inaugural ball. They attempted salsa dancing. (Not their best outing). They gamely stayed on my feet as we ran through a thunder shower on uneven streets in New Orleans. They know me.

Paul knows them too. The correlation between their distinction as lucky and the likelihood he will get lucky is as close to perfect a psychometrican will get.

“Bring the shoes.” He wandered out the room.

I toss them in the suitcase. They’ve endured more than a decade. They’ve never left the closet unless I was with Paul. They’ll bring me home. Best of all, I’ll have to go shopping to find a dress to show them off.

Starting Out

I’m lucky to have my husband, Paul, as my best friend. In our years together we’ve raised three children and watched our golden retriever, Tucker, go from a puppy to a solemn old man dog who occasionally remembers his reckless youth.

Since we are a blended family, we did not have any time to grow up together as a young couple. After marrying, our first few years (okay, I’m lying. Every year) felt like we were jumping off the high dive into a pool without a bottom and we weren’t even sure there were ladders on the side to clamber out.

Our family trips always involved drama. It was usually me; I’ll admit it. But, it was well deserved. We bought a boat. Paul ran it aground and the kids and I had to squash into the bow so he could pop the stern out of the mud. Three kids, small space, Mom’s face right near…you get the point. There was a hike in Arizona where the youngest grabbed onto a boulder only to have it break free. I watched them–the son and the boulder–tumble down the rock face. He survived. He begged to keep the rock. We said no. In Sun Valley, our oldest son poked a stick into the vegetation and then informed his family that rattlesnakes do indeed have reticulated scales. We yanked him so hard he practically flew through the air.  Our poor daughter. Her claim to fame in the family saga was the time I overdosed her on Benadryl during a particularly dusty visit to Minnesota. She fell asleep with her face glued to the counter top with drool.

But there is one more. We took Tucker on a beach trip and by the fifth day you couldn’t tell what kind of dog he was, because the layers of sand and salt were so thick on his body. He saw a car down the beach that looked just like Paul’s. He took off at a full gallop with me chasing him desperately screaming “that’s the wrong car!” When he launched into the stranger’s back seat and shook his coat so it rained sand all over the inside, I’d had it. I wasn’t going on any more trips.

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Our Tucker

Then one day the three of them were gone. Military, college, baseball…Tucker looked at us bewildered. What happened?

So Paul and I and Tucker tiptoed around the house for a while. It was weird. We never lost the TV remote. There was actually carpet in the room where I had only seen dirty clothes. The milk went bad but we were always out of wine. I was bored. “Let’s go on a trip,” I said. I saw the look that crossed Paul’s face. “And,”I threatened, “we’re not going to see any of the kids.”

Instead, we went by ourselves.

We went to Kauai and almost died on a hike to the Fantasy Island waterfall. We saved a mother turtle and her eggs outside a beachfront restaurant in Mexico. We ate beignets at midnight in billowing clouds of powdered sugar in New Orleans. We climbed a tree in the organic garden of the fanciest restaurant in Napa Valley. (Oops).

I don’t really mean this, but I mean this. I love my husband more on vacation than I do at home. Women, don’t roll your eyes.  You agree. When we are traveling, Paul isn’t just smart, he is brilliant. He isn’t just cute, he is vavoom! Stateside, I take his gentleness towards me for granted, but when I see him help an elderly woman in Mexico out of a boat, my heart swells with tenderness. What did I do to deserve such a husband?

On our first date we talked about traveling and what destinations were first and forever on our list. Me: Italy. Check. Loved it and will do it again. Paul: Africa. Over a decade has passed. It’s Paul’s turn. We are going to South Africa and the highlight of the trip is a safari in Ngala Game Reserve near Kruger Park. Paul is like a kid at Christmas Eve. He is giddy. He even spent $54.00 on special safari cargo pants with seven pockets. When I booked the trip last January, I showed him  a picture. “This is where we are staying,” I whispered. It is a photo of a thatched lodge back lit with an orange sunset. The lodge faced a watering hole where a family of elephants amble up during cocktail hour. “We can talk to them while we are drinking wine,” I grinned.

So, darn it, I want to write a blog. I don’t want to stand in the grocery store line three months from now, remember  something from the trip, and think, “Why don’t I go home and write about it?” I am going to write while the elephants trumpet and the lions roar.  It probably won’t be like the movie Out of Africa. I know I’m going to have a drama queen moment (or two), but Paul is going on safari, and I get to see him the moment he catches sight of a lion in the wild.

That moment will be priceless!