September 8, 2010

On Safari in the Kgalagadi (Kalahari)

So, I suppose I shouldn’t really talk about this, but at this point, my adherence, or rather lack thereof, to Peace Corps policy is kind of moot, considering that the greatest penalty for violating a PC policy (assuming it’s not also illegal) is being sent home…not an especially powerful threat given that I’m sitting at my mom’s house sipping a latte to the grating sound of some absurd reality program in the background. So here goes. 

One of the more unfortunate side-effects of being a rule-follower is the startling frequency of missed opportunities for excitement and adventure.  Nevertheless, unless I feel a rule is unjustified, I’m pretty much a by-the-books kind of gal (of course it’s entirely possible that this implicit respect for authority arises out of a secret desire to accrue rule-following-Karma, so that when I do decide to break a rule I’ll manage to escape unscathed…not that I’m superstitious or anything…).  For the most part, Peace Corps rules were no exception to my dogmatic inclinations.  This includes the Peace Corps’ international “lockdown” policy.  Because it is the opinion of the Peace Corps (and, frankly, mine as well) that the key to implementing successful sustainable development techniques is for each volunteer to be well-integrated into his/her community, the Peace Corps does not permit volunteers to leave their assigned villages for the first few weeks or months (the required duration varies by country) of service (apart from designated medical, safety, or shopping purposes, of course).  For Peace Corps Botswana volunteers, lockdown ends at the conclusion of IST (in-service training), a two-week supplement to PST (pre-service training), held in Gaborone, to give volunteers a chance to reconnect and learn additional language and program skills.  And as fate would have it, this was also the event at which I had resolved to file my request to ET (early terminate my service…yeah, you guys thought you were done with acronyms…haha!).

Now, had I intended to ET all along, I must admit, I would have been extremely tempted to abandon any pretense of professionalism and take advantage of the plethora of natural beauty in my midst: Tsodilo Hills (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsodilo_Hills) was a mere thirty minute drive from my village; Kasane (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasane) only four hours (when taking the direct route through the Caprivi Strip [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caprivi_strip]); and Victoria Falls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Falls --yes, you read correctly; it IS in fact one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World) only another 4 or so away from that.  But the thing is, up until the very last moment, I was genuinely trying to make it work, to “stick it out,” and the prospect of getting kicked out for violating lockdown was absolutely not worth the risk—especially considering I figured I had another twenty or so months to venture anywhere I wanted…or not.

Now some of you might be thinking I’m the world’s biggest schmuck for not just going MIA for a few days once I had settled on my decision to ET, so that I could take advantage of my prime location and explore.  And of course the thought did cross my mind.  But the thing is, I genuinely do respect the Peace Corps and everything it stands for, and I really did not go there to be a tourist, but to work, and I am nothing if not principled—for better or worse.  Plus, who wants to jinx themselves and mess up their karma right when they’re in the midst of making a life-altering decision?  (See, I told y’all—I’m not superstitious at all!)

Of course, in order for me to ET at IST, I would have to travel to the Peace Corps office in Gaborone—at least a two day trip from Shakawe—there was no way around that.  And as it happened, the group of Canadian volunteers that had been volunteering with my NGO were scheduled to take a flight home from Gabs almost the same time I needed to arrive for IST.  So, you know, it would have been silly, if not outright rude, for me not to have gone along with them—to ensure their safe travel, and whatnot, of course.  And if their trip just happened to include a two day safari in the Kgaladi (Kalahari) Desert…well, who am I to object to a slight scenic detour, even if it meant tweaking the rules a bit over the last few days of lockdown?  I may be a schmuck, but I’m not the biggest idiot in the world.

It’s kind of strange to think about it now, because the farther removed I am from the situation, the more inevitable my decision to ET seems.  It’s one of those decision that made my life feel like it split in half—like another layer of fa├žade suddenly dropped off and went crashing to the ground, and once the dust settled, revealed more of my core, more clarity and perspective on who I really am and what I really stand for.  But at the time, it was one of those decisions that made me feel manic—even though I was ninety percent sure I was going to do it, somehow the decision lurked in the shadowy corners of every thought that churned through my mind; a perpetual scale weighing the pro and cons list, and causing my emotions to jut in one direction then ten seconds later lurch in another.  For a week or so my mental landscape was nothing but a mountainous terrain peaks of confidence and valleys of self-doubt.  In other words, not an especially fun time.

It’s ironic, but my emotional tumultuousness was so severe that it was actually causing me to dread the safari—a very large part of me wanted to just call the Peace Corps to get it over with, so at least I could begin moving on from my decision.  Nonetheless, thanks in great part to the support of the visiting volunteers, I managed to suck it up and make it to the safari. 

So.  A few quick things about a safari in the Kgaladi:
1.    Just because it’s an African safari in a desert does not mean that it is hot.  In fact, in the winter, the season during which our trip happened to take place, it is actually quite cold.  Quite cold.  Frostbite in an open-air-safari-truck cold.  Bring a WARM sleeping bag and cocoon yourself in it. 
2.    Get a good safari guide.  Ours was INcredble—I felt like I was living in a National Geographic special.
3.    Even though the landscape of the Kgaladi might look a little plain, there is actually an enormous diversity of species—both flora and fauna.  It’s just that most of them happen to be the same sort of beigey color, so everything matches.  And unlike matching couples or color-coordinated twins, which catch your eye like a cupcake in a salad bar, the Kgaladi matching effect just causes everything to blend together, so you might not notice (see again #2—ours was capable of seeing a ground squirrel 100 yards away whilst driving at 30mph [I’m back in America, screw the metric system {even if it is vastly more logical and easy to use}!]) (And yes, I just pulled off a three-tiered parenthetical phrase.)
4.    If you set your camera’s shutter speed to extra slow to try to get pictures of the night sky (which is breathtaking), 1. it won’t work, and 2. do not go to bed without changing the settings because you plan to fix them in the morning.  The morning is cold and early and you will not fix them in the morning and you never know what you might see and when.  But more on that later.

Now, the thing about game drives in the Kgaladi—or any truly natural reserve—is that you genuinely have no idea what you will or won’t see (well, within the parameters of animals that actually reside in that habitat, anyway…obviously there would be no tigers or platypus); it’s entirely up to chance, and sometimes you see absolutely nothing—that would be extremely unlikely for such a long trip, but we went for several hour stretches without passing so much as an antelope.  The Kgaladi is huge, and the animals are genuinely wild, not relying on food posts or treats from safari drivers, so they aren’t waiting around to hear the sound of an engine.  Although most of them are fairly used to people and car sounds, it is not like visiting a petting zoo.  Moreover, most of the animals—even of different species—tend to stick together, so if they all happen to be far from the roads, or just not near the roads you happen to be driving on, it is genuinely possible to not see anything.  So while a good driver does help in spotting animals, s/he can’t actually procure them, so the “success” of a safari really is entirely up to chance.

At this point, I think it’s safe to say you’re probably figuring out that I am a rather spiritual/superstitious/whatever-you-want-to-call-it type of person.  And while I’m not about to drag anyone down the road of my crazy belief system/worldviews, suffice it to say that I do feel very strongly that when your life is headed in the “right” direction, things just sort of tend to click—typically in small ways that hold a great deal of personal significance, but seem entirely trivial or go unnoticed by everyone else.  And, I’ll just say it: I also believe that you tend to get the greatest reinforcement when you need it the most.  (Yes, I am aware that many will say it’s just that we each choose to see what we want; that may well be the case, but this is how I choose to see it, and it’s my story, so I get to tell it the way I want!).  And this was one of the points in my life when I needed help, badly.  Even though I was pretty settled on my decision, it’s a scary choice to make, and I really wanted some kind of external validation—which, of course, no one can ever actually get, again, unless you believe in the small “signs.”  Luckily for me, I do. 

So.  I have always wanted to see a leopard—a wild leopard, actually in his/her own natural habitat.  And as it happens, the Kgaladi fits that bill perfectly.  Unfortunately, though, leopards are the rarest of the three big cats (the other two being lions and cheetah) which occupy the desert, so my odds were of seeing one weren’t especially great.  But, I sort of made a deal that if I saw a leopard, that was Botswana’s way of telling me “you’ve seen everything you need to see here, done everything you need to do—it’s okay to go home.”  Now, of course superstitious as I may be, I’m not a full-blown lunatic, so I had no intention of actually basing my decision on this…but once a thought like this crosses your mind, well, it’s kind of hard to put it to rest.  So even though I knew I was going to ET either way, it would really be nice if the Universe would hold up its end of my little “deal” as well.

And so our safari began.  To our great surprise, on our very first game drive, we had the good fortune of spotting (among many, many other spectacular creatures) a coalition of four cheetah (yes, “coalition” is the technical term for a group of cheetah; appropriately ominous, no?) on the prowl (wow, it feels kind of strange using that word in its literal context).  Not only did we spot them, but they got incredibly close to our vehicle and crossed the dirt road right in front of us.  It was such a powerful moment—to see something like that with my very own eyes. (Most of the videos I took bear the background of breathlessly whispered phrases like “this is the coolest thing that has ever happened!”)  I was overwhelmed with gratitude for everything in my life—how many people get to experience something like that?  But I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a teeny tiny piece of me that was an itsy bitsy bit disappointed—cheetah were the second-most rare of the big three cats…and obviously I understand that there is no correlation between seeing cheetah and seeing leopards…but, really, what are the odds of seeing both on a two-day safari?  Even our game driver didn’t think we’d be that lucky…but again, I’m (reasonably) sane, so as much as I wanted to see a leopard—both because I really, really, wanted to see one, and because of my little bargain—I was obviously overwhelmed with elation over our good fortune with the cheetah.

The cheetah were our big find on Day 1.  Day 2 began with a bang as well—we almost immediately happened upon a pair of lions mating, quite close to the road.  Now, lions are quite common in the Kgaladi, so none of us were especially surprised to see them, but even given that, their might and magnificence must not be underestimated.  Again, we were all overwhelmed by their presence—or rather, our presence in their world, their habitat—so we sat watching in awe for a good while.  But because the day was young, our safari guide suggested we go explore a little more, to see what else might be lurking around.  We drove and drove, and as the sun slipped farther across the sky, my hopes of seeing a leopard were dwindling.  I mean, how could anyone complain after the lions and cheetah—I certainly wasn’t anywhere near feeling a burst of self-pity (on the contrary, my sense of gratitude was only growing).  But, again, I would be remiss if I did not say that a piece of me was a tad disappointed that I would, in all probability, not get to see a leopard, and who knows when or if an opportunity like this would arise again.  Our safari guide said based on his 20+ years in this profession, it was almost entirely impossible that we would see cheetah, lions, AND a leopard in such a short trip.

So after a few hours of driving with little success, our guide suggested that we return to the spot where we had seen the lions earlier that day.  We all agreed and headed back—and again, we had overwhelmingly good luck.  Not only were the lions still there, but they had actually moved closer to the road and were sitting, not 100 feet away, facing us.   There is an indescribable burst of clarity that comes over you while making eye contact with a lion.  Your eyes meet, and all of a sudden it’s like the world goes quiet.  It’s this surreal sensation, you feel as though you are a visitor from some strange artificial technological futuristic world, which has just been shattered as it collided with the overwhelming strength and beauty of the natural world.  It is not a feeling of freight or being threatened—not at all—it feels more like being overtaken by a quiet wisdom, staring into the eyes of God; I couldn’t tell you whether I sat, eyes locked, for ten seconds or ten minutes, but it was one of those moments where I felt incredibly…centered.

As darkness swept over the grassy desert, I felt an internal stillness—especially welcome after the emotional thrashing that I had been so consumed by for the past week.  So what if I didn’t see a leopard—I had the most amazing experience of my life, and I knew in my heart that I was doing the right thing.  How could anyone ask any more than that?  I finally felt good about my decision—entirely prepared to submit my request to ET with no possibility of regrets.

The next morning, on our way out, we saw a leopard.  She walked right past my side of the car—maybe five feet away.  She was magnificent.  And—silly as I know it will sound to many of you—I knew she was saying goodbye and giving her blessing.

Movin' Out

I must admit to feeling a twinge of “I’ll show them—I’m running away!” teenage-style angst when I first began packing.  I hate to say it, but there is definitely something vengefully satisfying about the idea of throwing everything in a suitcase and sneaking away.  After all of the work I had done to get there—all of the waiting and training and homesickness—only to be treated the way I was.  It was nearly impossible, even being the optimist that I am, not to be overwhelmed by frustration and bitterness that it would all end like this.  But after weeks of turning it over in my head, I knew I had no other choice.  

I hastily bustled around the room and sifted through my belongings—though I had settled on the decision days before I was set to leave, I knew once my bags were packed, there was no going back, so I put it off until the last possible minute.  Despite the emotions firing inside, it was impossible to keep my mind from drifting back to the last time I had packed like this.  How odd that I had been so concerned with deadlines and order and structure, and making sure not to forget anything—when at that time I really had absolutely no idea what I even needed.  Yet upon leaving Botswana, I was so unconcerned with any of that—if something made it home, it made it home; if it didn’t, it didn’t; things are just things, after all.  I thought I knew that going in, but I really knew it coming out.  In fact, as sorted through my filthy clothes and sand-infested shoes, determining which to leave and which to attempt to squeeze into the remaining space in my bags, I was struck by just how much I had learned—about myself, about life.  About the importance of friends and family.  By this point in my journey, the letters of support meant more than anything else.  And even they were only physical manifestations of the amazing people that I am so blessed to be surrounded by. 

The process of reassembling my things was remarkably cathartic, and by the time I was struggling with the zippers and smirking as I attached my luggage locks (who would really want to steal anything that had been in the Kgaladi for the last 4 months?!), I was entirely overtaken by a confident calmness; no bitterness or ill feelings at all.  Really, even though things didn’t work our exactly as I had expected, I had grown more than I ever could have imagined.  I was more committed to my ideals and goals than ever before—even if the execution would be a little different than I originally imagined.  If it meant pushing myself even further outside of my comfort zone, burning through my savings, and distancing myself farther from most “sane” people, who consider even Peace Corps service to be “out there,” the bottom line was that Botswana was not the right place for me, and if I had any chance of staying true to myself, I had to follow my heart.  And it was clearly leading me out of Botswana.  And, really, I was grateful that I realized when I did.

I don’t know if my perspective was distorted or if it was genuinely true but my bags felt a lot lighter on the way out than on the way in.  And although I accepted offers to help a few times (I’m strong, not stupid!), on the way out, unlike on the way in, I had the strength to carry it all myself.

All This, Nothing, and More...

You know, when I came up with the title for this blog (Same Planet, Different Worlds) I will admit, I chose it partly for its sensational flair.  It does sound rather melodramatic, does it not?  Because, you know, traveling to another continent and living in another culture, may not be quite exciting enough, right?  Best to add some pizzaz; spice it up a bit.  I also assumed it was broad and vague enough to encapsulate a wide spectrum of potential feelings and observations about my future experiences.  But I have to say, I never imagined how precisely fitting and not at all exaggerated the name I selected would actually turn out to be.  But when I returned home, stepping off the plane from South Africa honestly felt more like exiting an alien spacecraft and entering an entirely different universe than merely returning from a trip abroad (ok, I haven’t actually traveled to another universe, but one can speculate, no?).  The strangest part?  It wasn’t so much the world around me that was peculiar—it was me.  I was the alien.  You see, many of the differences between living here and living on “that side” are tangible.  But most have a lot more to do with state of mind.

Out of all the blog entries I have written thus far, this has been the most difficult to assemble—I have so many fragmented drafts that I have started and stopped, so many thoughts, unrelated but somehow woven together because they were born of the same experiences.  I hardly know how to make the thoughts and emotions in my head materialize into words on the screen.  I think it’s in part because, once again, one of the Peace Corps mantras has held to be true—reverse culture shock is indeed arguably more difficult to grapple with than adjusting to a new country.  It’s also partly because the unbelievable web of distractions that I find myself somehow already re-immersed in continually pulls me away from the ever-so-“dull” task of actually processing my own experiences; and finally, because I was hoping that after a few days mulling over everything, a cohesive theme or story would emerge, allowing me to write something a little more engaging or intellectually compelling.   While everything makes sense to me—actually, with remarkable clarity—I still can’t seem to make sense of it on paper.  But, as I have said before, a partial motive for maintaining this blog is simply for my own recollection of experiences.  So, rather than scrap what has been one of the more poignant points of my experience—switching paths—just because I can’t make it “pretty,” I’m just going to put it all out there.  So, what follows (in the next several entries, most of which still in the works) is a series of incredibly meaningful moments over the past few weeks, haphazardly strewn together…if anyone actually makes it through these, apologies in advance.  I might make you cookies. :o)