Off-roading: An Encounter with the Unexpected
Michigan Avenue, 8:30 am on a Thursday morning: Tight-faced passersby exhibit alarming attention to mobile devices, and a yawning barista at Starbucks fails to take note of the delightful arias being sung by the birds outside the window. Strangest of all, everyone is wearing shoes. None of this may strike you as peculiar, but it shocked the heck out of me. Why? I just returned from safari.
In Swahili, “safari” means “travel.” Appropriately enough, to go on safari in the Western sense, you really have to travel a long way indeed, and the matter of distance is actually the least of it. In Tanzania, for instance, a typical day included close encounters with bull elephants in the throes of puberty freely exhibiting their arousal against surprisingly malleable tree trunks, giraffes overreaching our tents to gain access to the leaves of the acacia trees, and jackals stealing their way across our footpath to the outdoor toilet. I’m not even going to start on the honey badgers.
This was, however, exactly what we were looking for, and the animals rightly took little notice of us and our super-zoom lenses. If they only knew the cost and trouble entailed in observing their hijinks au naturel, they’d either play that much more to the camera or forbid us access to their world altogether. Which would really be a shame, because there’s nothing quite like wildlife to convince you of the absurdity of all the order we try to impose on our world, not to mention travel itself, a pleasure-driven microcosm of this incessant — and largely smashing — journey we call life.
Travel does require some organization, of course, and the further you travel, the more it behooves you to get all your little cross-continental ducks in a row. Yellow fever vaccinations just don’t happen on their own, after all. I know from experience, for instance, that it’s best to purchase tickets to the Alhambra in advance, because lines to enter this Moorish pleasure palace are long and the Granada sun is unforgiving at best.
That said, everyone longs for adventure, correct? Yes and no. With adventure comes a sizable helping of chaos, and who in their right mind really wants that? Not I, said the biting tsetse fly. Chaos leads to missed flights, lost luggage, and eventually cannibalism. Hey, it’s possible. I know where my mind goes when I’m stranded in a third-world airport without snacks. Which is why I made sure we had a guide with us at every outdoor excursion and a semi-safe camp to sleep in every night, all prepaid and prepackaged.
Still, there’s no sense in trying to plan yourself out of all sense of adventure. For one thing, life simply won’t allow it. For another, whether you’re anticipating the sequence of events for the next two weeks or next ten years, you simply owe yourself — and your familial caravan — an honest encounter with the unexpected.
The best trip I ever took as a child was with my mom and sister to Santa Claus Land in the aptly named Santa Claus, Indiana, and we never even saw the big guy. It was the middle of August, and we had driven three hours only to discover that all the rides were closed for state-imposed repairs.
Sure, in our fanaticism for all things round and jolly, my sister and I were a mite disappointed at the chained gates. In a stroke of parenting genius, however, my mom rented a room in a nearby Motel 6 with a single queen-sized waterbed, letting us jump on its undulating surface until I nearly broke my arm trying to turn an aerial cartwheel. Then we turned on the tube to discover — wonder of wonders! — that we were in the midst of an all-night Elvis movie marathon. We stayed up singing, dancing, and spilling crumbs on the bed until the wee early hours of the morning. To this day I can’t pass a Motel 6 without conjuring up visions of Shangri-La.
In comparison, the Serengeti certainly passes muster, but even the spectacle of the largest mammal migration on Earth benefits from some crossbreeding with the unexpected. For example, I learned that there’s possibly nothing more inconvenient than driving 20 miles out of your way on a bumpy dirt road after you’ve just entered the park simply to use a Turkish toilet. But thanks to the safari rule that one must never leave the confines of the jeep in the bush (lions, it seems, like to lurk in tall grass and devour tourists with weak bladders), that’s what happened. More than once. It’s also where I became all too intimately acquainted with a new species, one not previously noted by our guide – the overly curious mongoose.
“So much for big game,” I’m sure the other passengers in the jeep were thinking as they waited for me impatiently. Little did they know there was a sizable mongoose population inhabiting the rest area. When I ran out of the toilet screaming bloody mongoose, we all laughed hard enough to scare off half the predators within a five-mile radius. Suddenly, spotting a leopard became a little less imperative and we found ourselves exchanging “hakuna matatas” as freely as the natives.
“Hakuna matata,” for the few of you out there who haven’t seen The Lion King, means “no worries,” and that goes for more than just two weeks spent in the African savannah. It goes for a hectic morning on Michigan Ave. when I’m spilling change all over the Starbucks counter and there’s an eye-rolling line behind me 12-people deep. “Hakuna matata” is the world’s most appropriate response to the unexpected, which, truth be told, happens every bit as often as the lazily predicted and is at the heart of why we bother to journey outside of our comfort zones in the first place. As we all know, no good story ever centered on things going as planned. So any successful adventure means coming home with at least one whopper.
~By Melissa Wiley
The pic comes from Imagine Africa.