“I’m not all knowing yet, but I am knowing.” ~Joe, age 6
Our son starts college next week. Although it’s taken 19.5 years to get to this milestone and I’ve had ample time to prepare myself for its eventuality, I find myself shellshocked. Not going to lie. This transition has hit me harder than I thought it would. You see, since my sons were born, I’ve played a little game with my heart. I’ve tried to convince it (and rightly so) that my sons are not mine. I mean, they’re mine biologically, but I have spent their lifetimes reminding myself that they don’t belong to me. They are now and have always been their own entities. I have carried on this charade in my head to protect myself because life is precarious. You may create their existence, but your offspring are meant to leave you, one way or another. The job of parenting is both the best and worst on earth. You get to witness the growth and development of this amazing creature who is part you but wholly not you, and then you get to stand and wave goodbye as they (hopefully) get into their own car, pull into their lane, and drive away. What a stupid, incredible ride we’re on.
My oldest has been my nearly constant companion. He is, what others negatively describe, as a momma’s boy. He’s my buddy. I’m not his friend, but he is mine. His absence is going to affect so many aspects of the life I have known that I don’t know how to begin to process it. The only thing keeping me afloat right now is the flip side, the narrative that I have pushed since he was born. He’s his own person, and he deserves and has worked hard for his chance to explore his purpose, to take his opportunities and see where they might lead him. And while I will miss him like crazy, I have also never been more proud of anything in my life. This kid is boundless. He’s no stranger to difficulty. And true to his new school’s motto, per ardua surgo — through adversity I rise — he has, and I believe he will continue to do so.
When he was finishing first grade and told me through tears that he didn’t want to go on to second grade because he was too dumb, I worried. How was this kid going to thrive? How would we get him there? It took a while to get him on the right path, but we did it. I found help. I found school psychologists and hospital psychiatrists who explained to me what obstacles he needed to overcome. I sought out schools that would help him develop not only study skills and common knowledge, but life and coping skills. And along the way, he learned how he works. He has a deeper understanding of who he is at 19 than I had of myself until just recently. He has that self-knowledge because I helped him change his narrative. Together, we flipped that script. I pointed him the right direction, and he did the work. Our persistence has brought us to the week he leaves for college. And I am a tangled mess of emotion, equal parts excitement and weepiness. What I am not, however, is anxious, because I’ve seen this kid discover his own power. I know he gets it.
In the end, when he is off at school, what I will be left with is a wise and grateful heart. I know he has roots. He loves his family. He knows what home means and he carries it everywhere he goes. I’ve done a mother’s job and I’ve done it well enough. Now it’s time for us both to grow again, to expand our horizons, to stand on the precipice of the future with our eyes trained on what possibilities lie ahead for us. We may not be together, but we will never be apart because we share a story. We’re just beginning a new chapter. And while I don’t know where this story goes from here, I have reason to believe its authors know how to craft a compelling script.
I have Covid-19. I got the positive test result last Thursday evening, a full four days after I visited an urgent care center for a PCR test. I’d been having mild cold symptoms for a week when I opened a jar of Vicks Vapor Rub and couldn’t smell a whiff of it. Damn. They aren’t kidding about that loss of smell thing.
Although hundreds of thousands of Americans regrettably have already died due to the virus, experts estimate as few as 1 in 10 of us have contracted it. With that in mind, I thought I would share my experience with it.
The most commonly listed symptoms of Covid-19 are fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, and sore throat. I didn’t have any of these symptoms, which is why I believed I had simply caught your basic, garden-variety cold after Denver had a 50+ degree temperature drop in less than 24 hours. There was no reason to suspect it might be Covid. The county I live in had, at that point, some of the lowest case numbers in the Denver metro area. And since the beginning of March, I haven’t eaten in a restaurant or visited a bar. I’ve not been to a wedding or a party. I haven’t spent time in crowded places, indoors or out. Although I often have groceries delivered, if I have to visit a store I have done so at off-peak hours staying more than 6 feet from others, turning around and exiting aisles when other people enter them. I use hand sanitizer when I go out and wash my hands and disinfect my phone as soon as I get home. I have taken, according to the experts, all the necessary precautions to stay healthy along with the other three members of my household, and yet here we are. Two positive cases and two presumptive positive cases. What can you do?
Fortunately, my family and I have no comorbidity issues. Overall, we are in generally good health, and I think that has helped us keep our viral load at a level where our immune systems are able to work as they should. It’s been over two weeks since the onset of my stuffy head, my taste and smell have returned, and I am confident that when my quarantine ends on Friday I will be feeling 100% healthy again. My family and I are still checking our temperatures and conducting daily pulse ox readings to be sure we are on the right track, but so far so good.
The most difficult thing about our mild Covid cases has been the stigma of having it. Our youngest was Patient 0 in his junior class, the one who caused in-person classes to be cancelled for two weeks. Friends and family ask us daily how we are feeling, as if they are expecting us to take a turn for the worst, and their fear has made me more uncomfortable than my symptoms. I keep wondering if I am missing something and if the other shoe is about to drop and I will be in the hospital tomorrow. Others inquire as to where we think we got it, as if it matters and as if we had been irresponsible somehow, and I have to shrug because I have no clue. We had been with no one who had symptoms or had tested positive. We just came in contact with it somewhere at some point. Covid-19 is like the honey badger. It doesn’t care. It goes where it wants and does what it wants.
Given how case numbers are exploding across the country and no one seems to be going into forced lockdown, I trust the scientists who expect 40-70% of our population will have contracted this before a vaccine is readily available to all. As each day passes, I hear more and more about new cases among friends and their families. After my experience with Covid, this is my advice. Wear a mask in public. Take care of yourself. Make sleep a priority. Stay hydrated. Take Vitamins D3 and C. If you get any symptoms that seem like cold or flu, pay attention to them and record when they start. And get tested if you aren’t feeling well, even if you have only mild symptoms. This virus has become politicized, but it is not political. It doesn’t care if you are liberal or conservative. It doesn’t care if you think you are being careful. I know people who have thumbed their nose at its existence and haven’t contracted it yet, but they could and might yet still. We were taking legitimate precautions and that might have helped reduce our exposure and keep our symptoms our mild. I’m glad we are not huge risk takers by nature and heeded the science. And I’m grateful now that we are coming out on the other end with at least some immunity to it, no matter how short-lived it might be.
Hospitals across the country are becoming overcrowded, and healthcare workers are struggling and also getting sick. Some areas are nearing the time when doctors will have to make hard decisions about who is favored to receive potentially life-saving care. Some areas are running out of healthy care workers to staff hospitals. The bottom line is that this is serious, whether or not you want it to be, and the situation is only getting worse. And you just don’t know if you will be one of the unlucky ones who becomes an unfortunate statistic of this pandemic. I know we all have limited time on this planet, but if you take any precautions at all in your life, be it seat belt or bike helmet or flu vaccine, be careful out there now. Covid-19 is a pathogen. It doesn’t care what you believe about it.
Please, look out for others even if it seems like a bother or a burden. We’re in this together, and our common enemy thrives when we pretend it doesn’t exist.
I am your garden variety, classic introvert. To be at my best, I require alone time. And, by alone time, I do not mean an hour sequestered in a room while others rattle around on the other side of a closed door. I mean ALONE, as in no one present I have to answer to, no one to request my assistance or bend my ear, and nothing on my agenda or to-do list. That is how I recharge. Alone time is what enables me to be a marginally decent human being in the company of others most of the time. Without it, well, I start to lose my shit. Not only do I become irritable, but I feel adrift. I forget myself. I forget who I am and what inspires me and what makes my life worth showing up for. When I exist only as part of my coterie, I shrivel. It’s not that I don’t love my people. I do. They are almost everything. The intersectionality of our lives makes the yearly trips around the sun fascinating, joyful, and worthwhile. As an introvert, though, I just can’t show up for them as the best version of myself when I don’t have time to unplug from the world we share and plug into my own space. Sometimes my brain needs to be powered off so it can start up again fresh.
So, imagine my chagrin when in March, Covid-19 brought my peaceful, recharging time to a screeching halt. After what had been three quarters of a school year during which I had between 7-9 hours a day completely to my own devices, suddenly there was no alone time to be found anywhere. Initially, it was sort of amazing. I reveled in it being the four of us, keeping each other and the world safer by staying home together. I staked out my claim in the master bedroom, my husband set up his office across the hall, and the boys did online classes from their basement boy cave. As we adjusted to grocery delivery, weekly take out instead of dining out, and a sudden cessation of driving and shopping and living in the outside world, there was some bonding. After six weeks, though, life got real. I mean, we really weren’t going anywhere. None of us. We were all there. All the time. Nowhere to run. And once the novelty of our new uniforms of super cozy lounge-pants wore off, well, things got dicey until it got warm enough outside to venture out.
After spending a solid three months in each other’s presence, two things became crystal clear to me. First, we know each other well and like each other. Second, if we were to continue to like each other in the future, we would need more room to spread out. Because dealing with a pandemic and widespread political division and unrest isn’t stressful enough during a year that increasingly felt like the dawn of the apocalypse, we bought a new home and moved across town because that is how we roll. I naively thought the additional space would serve as a buffer for my introvert nerves. But, at the end of the day, wherever you go, there you are. And so I found myself still anxious and disquieted, albeit from a much larger and nicer enclosure. I had upgraded my twitchy self from a small aquarium to a deluxe Habitrail with its long tubes to escape to different spaces and a larger wheel on which to occupy myself by spinning for miles while still not actually getting anywhere.
On Sunday night, I hit a breaking point. I decided I might either end up in handcuffs or in a straight jacket if I didn’t make a break for it. So, with my family’s blessing (which felt more like several feet pushing my cranky butt out the door), I reserved a cottage 46 miles from home for two nights away, no noise, no schedule, no meal prep. Just me being me, whatever that looked like in the moment. And it has been glorious. I missed me. I’ve read, taken hikes, enjoyed a bottle of wine I didn’t have to share, sat on the screened porch and observed nature. For dinner tonight I had cheese and apples. Just cheese and apples like a picky 3 year old. Earlier today I spent about 20 minutes wandering through a cemetery and I found myself tearing up. All those lives. Were they well lived? Many, it appeared, were short-lived. If I survive this pandemic (fingers crossed), what story will I tell about my time in it? Life is fleeting and it’s for the living, and I need to be doing more of that. I need to tune out political noise, turn off the television, and go on more walks, hikes, and bike rides. I need to find things that feed my soul and do them. I need to be willing to ask for space so I can recharge. We could be in this a while.
Funny thing this pandemic. As an introvert, the words “social distancing” sounded promising. Then I learned that socially distancing myself from most meant non-stop socializing with a few. I know people, myself included, have been worried about our extravert friends because they need human interaction and without office time, sporting events, dinners out, concerts, and parties, they have been sad puppies. And they have been great about sharing what they miss and need. But, I would urge you to recall on occasion those who don’t share much. Check on your introvert friends too, the ones who are trapped in their homes with people full-time. PEOPLE. ALL. THE. TIME. They might need someone to vent to or a cottage to run to or, at the very least, a phenomenal set of noise-cancelling headphones and a door that locks. We’re all just trying to survive right now, going through these new motions and figuring out as we stumble along. Keep an eye out for each other. And, make it a priority not just to stay alive but to be alive because this life is all we get.
I suffer from a not-so-secret addiction. I rather obsessively play Words With Friends. I downloaded it to my iPhone in 2009, a month or so after it was launched, and I have been playing steadily ever since. According to the app, I have completed 5,423 games. No lie. I suppose I could (should?) feel bad about the time I have wasted playing this silly game, but I don’t. This game is brain food. I am keeping my mind sharp, attempting to stave off the Alzheimer’s that runs in my family. Yep. That’s what I tell myself.
During the past year or so, I began finding random males starting new games with me more often than before. It took me a while to determine that these men found me through the Lightning Round section of the app. At first, naive gal that I am, I simply accepted the games without question because, did I mention, I am addicted? Any new game is one more game than I had before, which is a good thing, right? Maybe not.
Last weekend I had some downtime and spent about an hour playing Lightning Rounds. When I finished, I noticed that I had 12 new games waiting for me. Twelve. All were from men I did not know. All had chat requests pending. I showed my phone to my husband and told him I was going to open a can of worms by accepting all the game play and chatting with these guys. Curiosity had gotten the best of me. What was their deal?
From the minuscule photos the app allows you to post (they seem smaller and smaller as my eyes get older and older), the men appeared to be between the ages of 40-60. All of them had accounts that had been started within the last nine months, most started within the last week, which was the first red flag. Nearly all of them used two first names as their user names, names like Christopher Matthew, names that would be hard to research. Most of the photos showed respectable looking men, although some appeared to be stock photos rather than personal ones.
Their initial contact with me varied. Some simply started with a basic hello, while others added a compliment or a pet name, hello my dear or hello beautiful. Okay. Whatever. I played my turns and responded honestly but succinctly to their questions, trying not to give away too much personal info but still offering enough so they would continue the game and the conversation. All the while I played investigative reporter, digging for dirt, trying to get at what lurked beneath the surface.
My initial assumption was that these men (fingers crossed) were using WWF as a dating app. Maybe WWF was, as my son suggested, Tinder for old people. He looked at the photos and brutally surmised that “those are the men who can’t mate, Mom, because the ones who can don’t have to go on a word game to do it.” So, there you have it. Perhaps these men were attracted to fifty-one year old me, but only because they couldn’t mate with anyone else. But, I digress.
As the chats wore on, I began to notice patterns in the different conversations. While it seemed that two of the men were legitimate human beings looking for a love/sex connection (their accounts had been active for months and not days), the other ten were something else entirely. Those men either claimed to be Americans living overseas or foreigners living in the US, which explained to some extent their less than stellar English grammar. They almost always said what city they were from and followed it with a state name written out fully, not abbreviated. Tell me. How many Americans do you know who will tell you they are from Las Vegas, Nevada, or Houston, Texas, rather than simply saying they’re from Vegas or Houston? Some of them used their broken English to extoll my “beauty.” Most of them had far-fetched but intriguing job descriptions. When the first one claimed to be a diplomat in the Middle East on a peacekeeping mission, I giggled to myself. By the time the third one mentioned a peacekeeping mission, it didn’t seem as funny. Another few guys mentioned being contractors who worked in drilling, specifically mentioning oil fields near Aberdeen, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Nevada desert. Their stories contained enough verifiable information to make them seem credible, but they were also just quirky enough (and somehow close enough to other tales I was reading) for me to understand these were frauds.
I continued chatting and taking screen shots of conversations and sharing them with my husband who got as caught up in my experiment as I was. My favorite chat was with a guy who claimed to be one Paul Bauman. Because his name seemed plausible and was accompanied by what appeared to be a legitimate photo of a high-ranking, career military officer, I conducted a Google search and discovered the real Paul Bauman is a Brigadier General working at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Ummm…yeah. The conversation became even more curious when less than a day later he told me that he wanted my email address so we could always keep in touch and, because he was in a war zone, he might not be available for days. Uh huh. It’s common practice for a Brigadier General to tell random women he chats with on Words With Friends about his covert missions. Seems legit.
In the forty-eight hours I conducted my chat experiment, my contact with these (ahem) gentlemen eventually led to each of them asking me to chat with them on Google Hangouts (wasn’t that being shut down?) or What’s App. All of my chats ended only one of two ways. They either determined I was not going to be a willing and easy target and stopped playing with me (the next day I noticed the game was missing from my feed and their user name had been deleted) or I would have to block them when they unrelentingly pestered me for my phone number and/or email address after I had plainly and repeatedly stated that I do not share that information.
There’s a reason why I have, in the past, eschewed games from random males who start them. Even on an innocuous app like Word With Friends, there is always opportunity for someone to take advantage of the kindness/decency/loneliness/naivety of others. Sharing personal information on the Internet often can lead to hacked accounts and even identity theft. Sure. There are some people out there who may legitimately be looking to meet the next great love of their life through an app like Words with Friends, but it’s less likely than you might expect or hope. Most of the Casanovas on WWF might be, as my son suspects, scammers on their computers somewhere in Asia (hence the serviceable yet oddly formal, broken English) trying to gain access to your accounts by collecting your email and using personal information you share to crack your passwords or, worse, people who will prey upon your emotional vulnerability to befriend and then defraud you after you’ve taken them in.
I’m not saying Words With Friends is a den of iniquity. It is, after all, just a word game. But you might want to watch which words you share with people who might not be your friend after all. On the plus side, after my little experiment, my husband now sends me WWF chats that mimic the messages I received last week. He’s pretty funny and, luckily, not just some poor guy who can’t mate.
I am in a weird place. I don’t mean I’m at a bat mitzvah for a bearded lady or a Buddhist retreat for biker gangs. It’s not that kind of weird but, for me, in the spectrum of my life it’s unusual. For a while now, I’ve been parading around masked as a functioning adult while I am mentally checked out. I don’t have GPS coordinates for where my brain is currently located, but I am acutely aware that it is not with me. I suspect it followed through on a thought I had for a fleeting moment years ago when the boys were young and I was overwhelmed. Perhaps it got in a car, started driving, and kept on going until it was in the Yukon and then stopped somewhere silent amidst towering pines that sway in the wind, where it could rest and breathe and stare straight up into the emptiness of the sky to swallow the current moment and be peaceful in the present. It must be happy there because it hasn’t returned my texts or sent a postcard.
Meanwhile, my life has been proceeding without it, my body carrying out the day-to-day routines that comprise my life (grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, appointments, etc.) while my mind is on hiatus. Outside the house and in front of others, I function on autopilot appearing totally unchanged. Inside the house, away from the judgment of others, I disappear. Incapable of dealing with the heaviness in my heart, I check out. I binge watch television or flip mindlessly through my social media feeds. I spend hours playing games on my phone. I look at real estate I will not be purchasing. I load up and abandon myriad online shopping carts full of items meant to fill the void I feel. Sometimes I even doze at midday. I am not myself. I would like to coax my brain into returning, although I’m not sure I have the energy to manage its re-entry.
Depression is a place many people live and understand. I have never been one of those people, though, fortunate enough to barrel through life with imagined purpose. I love to create and move and learn and grow, but I am not doing any of those things. I miss them, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to do them. This is how I know depression snuck in a back door when my best self was distracted by life changes I didn’t want to allow, like my children growing up and my family members suffering from illness and my own body betraying me with its aging. And, me being me, afraid to ask for help or admit weakness, I went missing.
I’ve been gone for a while now and, dammit, I miss me. It’s time to find my way back from the endless forest. I know it’s going to be a long, desolate road home. It starts with a lot of walking and a little hitchhiking help from a therapist or two. As I get closer, it will include a lot of fake-it-until-you-make-it bravado. The journey out of depression can’t begin until you recognize there is depression. Well, I’ve finally got that part figured out, and that is progress. As comfortable and safe as it has been sitting in bed, taking up space, and remaining checked out to protect myself from the pain of all the things I cannot control and don’t want to accept, it’s time to come back. The Yukon is a lovely place to visit when you need to catch your breath, but it’s isolated and lonely long term. It’s no place to spend the rest of my life, however long that may be. I need to stop wasting my ephemeral time.
I’m heading downstairs to bang on my drums, to beat out a rhythm I hope my brain will hear and follow home to a long overdue reunification with my body. If you catch me glued to Netflix or on my phone playing video slots, give me an encouraging, two-handed nudge forward. I understand now that I can’t do this alone, and this is why I am calling out my depression here. Hold me accountable. Send up a signal flare. Put me back on course. Let me ride on your handlebars when I don’t think I can walk anymore. I could use a little support, loathe though I am to admit it. I promise to do the same in return if you ever need it.
Fifty (or fifty-one if we’re being specific) is a marvelous thing. With five decades behind me, I now understand my place in this world much better than I have before. I’ve learned that I am not as important or influential as I thought. I am not responsible for everyone else’s feelings. After fifty years, I am free of the burdens and expectations of others. Mostly.
I was raised to believe I was the direct cause of other people’s suffering. You know the phrase, “That sounds like a you problem?” Well, everything negative that happened in my interactions with others was a me problem. It all rested squarely on my shoulders. If someone was unhappy with me, it was because I was selfish or lazy or thoughtless. There was no onus on the other person. I was to blame. Always.
The natural consequence of believing that my every mistake, misstep, or misspoken word made me less likable was a conditioned level of fearfulness around other people. I didn’t dare express what I liked because someone else might not agree and that would be awkward. I didn’t feel comfortable asking for what I wanted because that might put someone else out. I was terrified others would see how naive and foolish I was if I spoke up, so I kept to myself. I played along. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t impose. I didn’t want to rock anyone else’s boat. It wasn’t until I hit fifty that I realized my concern for not rocking anyone else’s boat meant I never learned to sail my own.
For most of my life, the you problem comment bothered me. I found it haughty and mean-spirited. Eventually with therapy, I began to understand that diagnosing a you problem had less to do with being dismissive of someone else’s feelings than it had to do with being responsible for my own. A you problem is a problem you are responsible for. Nothing more. Nothing less. As long as I own my part, it’s okay to wish, hope, or expect another will own theirs. Believing someone else is responsible for their own feelings is not dismissive of my responsibility to them. It acknowledges that I am responsible for only my part in the transactional nature of our human relationship. It allows another the opportunity and responsibility to accept their fair share. It’s equality.
I still live my life trying to be decent and fair to others. I still try to consider other’s feelings and cause no harm. I still strive not to be a burden. I just no longer accept that I am 100% responsible for someone else’s reaction to what I say or do. I can only be responsible for myself. If you’re reacting negatively to what I say or what I need, you should examine why it bothers you because that is a you problem. It feels good to let you shoulder your own feelings and expectations. It feels good to let that go.
My oldest had his wisdom teeth out a couple days ago. He’s been fortunate, and it’s been mostly not a big deal for him. He’s had no bruising, very minimal swelling, and pain that is manageable with over-the-counter relief. Last night, however, he didn’t sleep well. So he awoke at 5:30 a.m. to take some more Advil and when they kicked in he fell back asleep. Great, right? Wrong. He had a coffee date planned for 9:30 this morning. I didn’t know this, but somehow wandered down to his room at that time to check on how he was feeling.
He was pretty out of it as he awoke. He looked at the clock on his phone for a long five or six seconds while it registered in his brain.
“Shit!” he exclaimed as he moved the blanket back and slowly sat up. “I was supposed to meet Ella.”
“When?” I inquired.
“Right about now,” he said.
He’s never been late to pick up his girlfriend. Since he started dating last spring, I’ve learned a great deal about my son and how he conducts himself in matters of the heart. He is considerate, continually thinking of what she might like and dreaming up creative ways to show he cares. He is flexible, willing to rework plans to make the most of their time together. And, he is timely. Usually.
“Text her and tell her you overslept because of your mouth. Tell her you’ll be there in a half an hour. Grab a quick shower. You’ve got this,” I told him.
I knew he was worried. He doesn’t like to be late. Once when he was three, in an absent-minded parental state of exhaustion, I got on the highway to take him to school. Problem was the highway was in the opposite direction of school. He noticed immediately and told me I was going the wrong way. He began to panic, fearful that he would be late, that his teacher would be upset with him, that he had ruined his perfect attendance record. I spent the fifteen minutes rerouting to get him to school apologizing, explaining there are dozens of different ways to arrive at the same location and assuring him it would be fine. When we walked into school, he ran to his classroom. I heard him loudly tell the teacher, “I’m late because my mom went the wrong way. ” Subtle.
At 9:45 I heard the door to the garage open, so I went to say goodbye. He was showered and ready to go, but I noticed his thick hair was uncombed and unruly.
“You didn’t fix your hair,” I noted.
“No time,” he said.
“Nuh uh,” I replied. “You have twenty seconds to fix yourself. Stay right there.”
I dashed off to get the hair cream and reappeared in seconds to help him tame his mop. At the time, it occurred to me maybe I was overstepping my bounds, being too motherly to someone who is no longer a kid but an eighteen year old with a car and a girlfriend. Then I shoved that thought right aside because sometimes it’s good to have someone around to help you out in a rush. Everyone benefits from a little help sometimes, and it’s good to understand that. The devil is in the details. That is the kind of thing I want him to remember as he crosses this bridge from youth into adulthood.
“If you’re going to make a girl wait for you, it’s good to make sure you’re worth waiting for,” I told him as he got into the car.
Many times as a much younger woman I sat waiting for a guy who was late. Many times said guy showed up just as he was, not the least bit concerned about his disheveled appearance or apologetic about his tardiness. The boys who weren’t like that are the ones who stand out to me now. The ones who took a minute to throw on an attractive sweater rather than the crappy, acid-wash denim jacket they wore to school. The ones who bothered to put on a cologne they knew I loved. The ones who showed up with a flower they’d grabbed at a gas station convenience store. Those guys were the ones who made me feel special, the ones who were worth waiting for. I like to think my son will be one of those someday, even if he needs some guidance to get there.
The next morning we headed out to Serengeti National Park. It takes several hours to reach the Serengeti from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Along the way, we passed many Maasai. The Maasai are the only people allowed to live within the conservation area, and these people originally called the Serengeti home but were relocated to the crater area when Serengeti National Park was created. In order to protect the area, only the Maasai are permitted to graze livestock and they are allowed to cultivate only the foods they need to subsist. Tourist-savvy male Maasai youth adorn their faces with white chalk used traditionally for a coming-of-age ceremony and stand along the roadside willing to pose for photo ops if you offer cash. While the Maasai have been forced to abandon their pastoral, nomadic ways so that their children can be educated in accordance with Tanzanian law, the government has made some concessions to allow them to continue with many of their traditions. Contemplating how the Maasai have been treated in contrast with how the Native American tribes have been treated in the United States gave me something to do on the drive. My son found another way to shorten the drive.
As you get closer to the Serengeti, the vegetation decreases substantially. Shrubs and trees are few and far between, while grasses dominate the landscape. Serengeti means “endless plains.” It’s a fitting name. After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the photo op entrance to the park, took a few quick shots, checked the tire pressure, and resumed driving into the park office and gift shop.
While Ammy was off conducting official tourist business, the six of us followed a short trail up a rocky outcropping to get a view. Along the way, we happened upon several mwanza agama lizards. Who knew?
Once we’d had our requisite picnic lunch, we pointed ourselves in the general direction of our camp for the night, hoping to spy some big cats along the way. The Serengeti landscape took some getting used to after all the lushness of our previous locales. We joked that it reminded us of Wyoming or eastern Colorado, which is to say it was familiar but not in the best way. After a while, we began to hear radio chatter from other guides and Ammy started off towards them. I had no idea how Ammy knew where to go. I mean, sure, he’d been doing this sort of thing for 20 years, but the rough dirt roads were not marked in any way. There were no landmarks by which to guide yourself. I started to wonder if we would get lost and pondered how many Lara Bars I had in my pack for emergency sustenance. Finally we saw a few other Land Cruisers and drove to them to get a closer look at what they had discovered. Lions!
I’m not sure what I expected when I thought about seeing lions in their natural habitat. I suppose I imagined they would be more entertaining. Aside from the fact that they are potentially lethal, lions are not all that interesting. Once you accept that they aren’t going to break into the vehicle and eat you, you settle into the reality that they are cats. They sleep. A lot. When they’re not sleeping, they’re resting. When they’re not resting, they’re lazily eyeing the horizon for their next bite of fast food. With a proper meal, they can go days in between hunting. And so they sleep. Without an abundance of trees, they find relaxing in the shade under safari vehicles a welcome respite from the African sun. After a while, all their yawning was making me yawn. We moved on to see what else we could find.
Because it was migration time, we began to see large herds of wildebeest and zebra. We finally got the opportunity to observe some hyena too. They are much more reclusive than I expected and went out of their way to avoid us. Perhaps they should be called shyenas instead? While we continued along the road, we looked for ways to amuse ourselves in the vastness of the endless plain. Karen did some tree posing with a tree.
At long last we found what I had been waiting for…cheetah. As big cats go, cheetah are my favorite. They are long, sleek, fast, and cute as the day is long. And, let’s face it, they are not nearly as terrifying as other big cats. That afternoon we found a mother with four cubs. Ammy said she was a good mother because it is hard to keep four cubs alive. We watched her begin stalking, considering taking off after some potential dinner, but in the end she decided against it. Cheetahs know their limits, and they won’t waste their energy chasing something they don’t stand a chance of catching. With four cubs to feed, this momma had to make wise choices to ensure their survival.
As the sun began to slip towards the western horizon, we drifted into our next camp. Namiri Plains is another camp run by Asilia Africa, the same company that operates Little Oliver’s. Unlike Little Oliver’s, however, Namiri Plains is a mobile camp that changes locations as the migration moves through. The tents here were traditional tents without thatched roof coverings and stone floors. I could not wait to check them out. After a quick meet and greet with the staff, we were guided to our tents.
I haven’t spent much time extolling the virtues of glamping in Africa. It is something else entirely. It was hard to fathom that you were in the middle of the Serengeti. The hot water came courtesy of solar panels, and the water was always Africa hot. The tents were private, incredibly spacious and comfortable, containing a bed, a seating area, a desk, a vanity with two sinks, a flushing toilet, and not one but two showers…indoor and outdoor. There was plenty of indoor lighting and even power strips for charging cameras and phones. And the views. Sigh.
Outdoor shower with two showerheads
Commode with a view
We finished settling in and headed off to share dinner with the other camp guests. This camp was bigger than our last one, so we had the opportunity to dine with other tourists. Again the food was delicious and in no short supply, and they went out of their way to cater to my gluten sensitivities. I remain awe of how the Tanzanians can provide this level of hospitality in a mobile camp in the midst of an endless plain.
By the time we finished our meal and had some campfire time, it was nearly dark. One thing you are not allowed to do while on safari is walk without camp staff to or from your tent between dusk and dawn. At night, we were escorted back to our tents by a member of staff and a Maasai warrior. There were a couple Maasai tribesman who patrolled the camps at night, keeping an eye out for potential danger. They did not carry guns, only walking staffs. They understand the animals, and the animals understand them. We were told that the lions know that they Maasai are danger to them. It was easier to drift off to sleep at night in the land of big cats knowing the Maasai had our backs.
After our first incredible day on safari, I thought nothing could compare. I was wrong. On day two of our sojourn, New Year’s Eve, our hosts raised the bar. This will live on as one of the favorite days of my life ever. And, to be fair, I’ve lived a fortunate life, have traveled to four continents, and enjoyed many “once in a lifetime” experiences.
We awoke early to breakfast with the morning plan being a guided safari walk. We were outfitted with gaiters to protect our legs and feet from acacia thorns and bugs, stainless steel water bottles and holders, and horse-tail swatters to discourage biting flies. Our guide drove out a short way from camp begin our walk. Before we had left the security of the vehicle, we were debriefed on safety. We would be walking with our guide who was carrying a high-powered rifle and a park ranger who had a fully automatic assault weapon. Realizing we would be on the ground with creatures larger, bigger, and faster than us that could stomp, gore, claw, kick, bite, and ingest us if they felt threatened was intimidating. We were not to speak unless directed. We were to remain in a single file line. We learned hand commands meant to keep us safe if wildlife grew agitated or aggressive. If an animal charged, we were not to run.
The first thing we spotted was a mating pair of tortoises. A bit later we noticed females and young elephants grazing. In the other direction, two bull elephants were doing the same. Our guide was careful to check our position and the wind direction so we would not be detected. We walked silently through the bush. The flies were relentless in heavily foliaged areas, and the swatters were a godsend. We saw ostrich, varieties of antelope, and warthog, and fortunately did not encounter any predators. We stopped to identify a buffalo that had been killed, its bones scattered by scavengers.
Of the creatures we found, none were more shy than the antelope. They watched us warily from great distances and were only able to be photographed decently with my husband’s high-powered camera lens. The warthogs were the most fun to be around because, while still reticent, they were animated, curious, and checked up on us often.
We somehow wandered right back to our vehicle, although I had no clue how given our circuitous route not following any given trail. I was grateful the guides hadn’t had to use a weapon, although they admitted they rarely had to. Through extensive wildlife safari training and experience, they know how to keep people and wildlife safe.
That afternoon, four of the six of us went out for a drive and were treated to an elephant extravaganza. We encountered several herds up close. Their bodies were tinged red after time in the water followed by a roll in the earth to smother the ticks they regularly acquired. Some scratched themselves on massive, abandoned termite mounds. Some used their trunks to cover themselves in dirt. Being this close to an elephant, close enough to see her eyelashes and be dusted with the dirt she threw on herself, was a gift I will never forget. (Video here)
I was not prepared for Tanzania to be as beautiful as it was. The short rains of November and December had created an environment that was fertile for grazing with short grasses that offered us unimpeded viewing of the creatures who call this place home. We had flawless weather (warm days, temperate nights, very little rain) and the benefit of an endlessly green landscape. I was awestruck by the scenery.
As we were driving towards our evening plans, we witnessed large family groups of elephants trumpeting and beating either a hurried rush towards a sunset get together or a hasty retreat from some unseen predators. Ammy told us he had not seen so many groups exhibiting this same behavior, and he had no idea what might be the cause. I wish I had photographs of it but, because of the distance at which the elephants were and the fading light of day, it was not to be captured. Still, as a lover of these grand beasts, I felt as if someone had commanded them to put on a display just for me. Over a hundred, perhaps several hundred, were all on their way their way somewhere with great purpose. Maybe it was the beginning of their New Year’s Eve ritual. Who knows? It was my Day of the Elephants and my heart was full.
Ammy told us it was time to move on and began driving with serious purpose as the sun began to sink on the western horizon. At last we rounded a bend and I understood what his rush had been. Sundowners! I’d read about this, but honestly had no idea the level to which this tradition was taken seriously.
Sundowners are drinks at sundown in the bush. I saw several safari vehicles congregated near a set up of camp chairs with a table and a makeshift-but-well-stocked bar. I couldn’t help myself and uttered to Ammy several statements of disbelief and joy. What? Are you kidding me? This is nuts! You guys are unbelievable.
Karen, my sister-in-law, popped open a bottle of champagne they had on ice for us. This was accompanied by freshly made potato chips and followed by made-to-order drinks of our choosing. Our oldest son, who is only 17, was treated to a glass of champagne too, making him feel extra special. And while we stood there sipping our drinks, the sun went down in a spectacular flourish of yellow, orange, pink, red, and violet.
After dinner, our final event was a nighttime game drive in an open air vehicle. With the use of high-bean flashlights, we watched a genet climb stealthily through tree branches, hoping to capture a bird who was perched there. We also saw a variety of mongoose on the prowl. And while the creatures were not as generous with their time or numbers as they had been earlier in the day, the experience of driving at night, seeing stars which we had never seen in such multitude, was unforgettable. We might as well have been the only people on the planet. So far removed we were from our usual lives at home, from the bustle of cities and relentless visual noise of light pollution and the distraction of electronics and to-do-lists.
We returned to camp overwhelmed by our day and settled in for late dinner around the campfire. Every new year should begin from this point of peace and oneness with nature and Mother Earth. Every new year should begin by taking a moment to inhale and exhale consciously and appreciate the current moment. The future is not a guarantee, but a wish. Live now the wind whispered to me through the trees.
Africa had been on my dream travel list since I was a teenager. In December, through the kindness of my unfathomably generous adopted parents (aka, in-laws), I departed Denver with my family and our carefully packed and weighed bags, bound for a safari in eastern Africa. Three flights and twenty-four hours later, our 777 touched down at Kilimanjaro International Airport after dark. We deplaned via two sets of stairs and made our way across the tarmac to the small airport. I’d made it.
That night our travel company, Deeper Africa, had us booked into a small hotel in the nearby city of Arusha as the jumping off point for our safari. We hopped into a van that had been arranged for us and made our way there in relative silence. Exhausted, we stared out the windows into the night. As we bounced down the dirt roads, I was struck by how dark it was. Although we were approaching a city, there were no street lights. Dim lights illuminated just a few facades of gas stations and small shops along the way, and motorcycle headlights provided the only proof of other motorists. It was Saturday night, though, and off the road we saw villagers congregating and enjoying their night out.
We arrived at the small boutique hotel, Onsea House, and a large staff grabbed our bags and offered us hibiscus tea. Eventually we were settled into our rooms. It was humid with a temperature of 75 at midnight. Even with the windows open, without our western luxury of air conditioning, we laid atop our mosquito-netted beds and struggled to drift off, wiped out yet too excited about the upcoming adventures to ease into sleep.
The next morning at breakfast, we were at last able to appreciate the summer beauty of Arusha. From the patio where we had breakfast, we gazed upon Mt Meru, a dormant volcano, which at almost 15k feet stands taller than all 58 of the Fourteeners (the nickname for peaks over 14k feet) back home in Colorado. Its immensity was shrouded by low morning clouds. Around us, flowers bloomed on bushes and palm trees swayed in a light breeze. Standing there, taking it all in, it felt more like an island in the Caribbean than what I had imagined for Tanzania.
After a European breakfast, we met our travel guide, Ammy. He had arrived in the safari Land Cruiser, our transport and adventure base for the next eight days. Ammy is a big man with an even bigger friendly smile and deep laugh that made us feel immediately at ease. As soon as our gear was loaded, we were on our way to Tarangire National Park, full of questions for our guide. We learned that Arusha was home to approximately 400,000 people, a fact which boggled my mind when I considered how dark it had been upon our arrival. So used to city lights we are.
The initial highway out of Arusha was paved. We drove out into the vastness of the countryside, lush greenery giving way to more sparse vegetation that reminded us more of home. Small homesteads and villages dotted the countryside, while Maasai wearing their colorful cloaks and holding tall wooden walking sticks stood among herds of goats and cattle alongside the road. This was what I had imagined Africa would be.
As we grew closer to Tarangire National Park, the landscape again changed. As December is the end of the short rains, the area was green with low grasses and leafed shrubbery. There were more acacia and baobab trees here. The wildlife began to appear. While Ammy checked us in at the park entrance, we wandered around the visitors area and saw some black-faced vervet monkeys sitting on a branch. While we were enthralled with them, they could not have cared less about us. One monkey, in fact, was too interested in his own blue parts to notice us noticing him.
We slowly made our way along the dirt road in the park, winding towards the camp where we would spend the next two nights. Close to the park entrance, we saw group after group of warthogs, a creature I never thought much about before but immediately came to love, their tails with long hair at the end serving as little flags by which you could spot them as they ran through the grasses. The Swahili word for warthog is ngiri, but to me they will always be Pumba.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in a campground (yes, campground) in the park. There were a few families from Italy who had pitched their own tents there. With the number of wild creatures in the park and no fences to keep them out of sleeping quarters, we decided early on that we felt much safer staying in larger structures than your typical two-person REI creation. I mean, at least an elephant wouldn’t accidentally crush our tent underfoot, right?
Tarangire National Park is 1,110 square miles, so it’s just a little bit smaller than Yosemite National Park in California. Without paved roads in the park, travel can be bumpy and slow going. This makes the drive through it ideal for spotting its many protected creatures. On safari, it is a game to see who can find new wildlife first. And, yes, eventually on a safari trip you do get to the point when you are saying, “Oh, more zebra over there. Yawn.”
It wasn’t long before we sighted our first elephants. I’d like to say that seeing an elephant family in the wild is not a big deal, but that is a lie. The elephants were a non-stop delight for me. They are far and away my favorite wild animal, and seeing them where they live happily protected was something I will never forget. Ammy told us that the animals in the park have no fear of the vehicles, so they are generally unfazed when you pull up near them and just go on about their business. This makes it easy to observe their behaviors and witness their interactions with each other. Only once did an elephant group decide they weren’t thrilled with our presence, and then they let us know by appearing agitated (flapping their ears, tossing their heads, becoming vocal) and we respectfully moved on to another group.
On our first day on safari, which was really only a half a day because of the morning drive from Arusha, we logged an impressive seventeen new animal sightings, including ostrich, jackal, cheetah, baboons, mongoose, cape buffalo, giraffe, and several different species of antelope. And Ammy patiently answered every single question we had about every single thing we saw.
Finally, he had to drag us away from wildlife viewing because we were expected for dinner at our lodging. So we accepted that we would see more animals in the days to come and drove straight on to Little Oliver’s Camp. Little Oliver’s camp has only five luxury tents, so it is smaller and more intimate than many safari camps. I had seen photos of it prior to our departure, so I thought I knew what to expect. What I experienced upon arrival, however, was well beyond my wildest expectations. If I ever make it back to Africa, I will be staying at Little Oliver’s. It is one of the most special places I have ever been. I teared up when I stepped onto this deck. I tear up now remembering that moment.
After an incredible dinner, it was time to rest up. As the sun set on our first full day in Tanzania, I knew we had only scratched the surface of our experiences here. More to come!