How I Found My Hakuna Matata

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Going on a safari was on my mother-in-law Joyce’s bucket list, not mine. Still, we gratefully accepted the invitation to accompany her. (We’re givers, I know.)

For a year we received e-mails from Joyce admonishing us what to do to prepare for the trip to Tanzania (not the least of which was practicing taking a shower with our mouths closed). Care packages of DEET and rain ponchos arrived at our house. I stored them in a drawer and hoped I wouldn’t forget where I’d put them many months later when it came time to pack.

The safari loomed in the future for so long. Now we have been and returned. It is over in time, but not gone.

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When you don’t know what to expect in an experience, you allow room for surprises. Sure, I expected that I would enjoy seeing a place on our planet unique in its preservation of land and animals. I expected that I would ooh and aah over elephants and giraffes and lions and baboons. I did not expect, however, that the pace of our journey, slow and in the moment, would linger quite so long when I returned to “real life.” Call it the Hakuna Matata Effect; it lasts.

I’m not speaking of the red dust that still clings to my suitcase. I’m speaking of the less tangible residue, like the first Swahili words we learned as we rushed to get everyone and six suitcases into a jeep on our way to the Arusha airstrip for a propeller flight to the Serengeti. “Pole pole,” he said (poh-lay poh-lay). “Slowly, slowly.” We’ll get there. Just breathe. It takes the same amount of time to move calmly as it does to feel rushed and to rush others.

I’m speaking of the melodious sound of Swahili, embodied in this ear worm of a song taught to us by our very patient driver/guide Ellison (and which essentially translates to, “What’s up, dude? Everything’s cool; no worries in Tanzania.”):

 

I’m speaking of my continued longing for the sound of only birds and animals and wind, instead of the sounds that fill my habitat: houses striving for perfection with incessant remodels; hammers and power saws; lawnmowers and leaf blowers; fire engine sirens; airplanes droning; electronic devices buzzing and dinging.

 

 

Mostly, I’m speaking of the perspective gained by traveling outside of my culture, which all-too-quickly fades upon reentry. For a week I was not constantly connected to cable “news.” For a week I watched animals who knew nothing of North Korea or Russia or the United States, who cared nothing about SAT Prep classes or Bar Mitzvah caterers or glitchy WiFi at the office. I am not saying I wish I were Maasai, or that I would like my world to constrict to hunting and gathering. I am saying I needed the reminder that some of my concerns are cuckoo creations of my cultural bubble. They have no intrinsic universal value, and I can choose which to ascribe to, and which to let go.

I cling to the residue of Tanzania. For a week, I was with my family, away from the push/pulls that animate our lives at home. For a week we lived a starkly different pace — on the go at 6 am, eating breakfast and lunch in the quiet of the bush, in bed at dark, falling asleep to those sounds of nature. For a week our eyes set upon the unfamiliar beauty of flat-topped acacias and rocky outcroppings that shelter lion cubs. And for a week we spent 8-10 hours bumping around in a jeep looking for glimpses of animal action, and peeing outside when Ellison decided the threat of lion or leopard attack was low. Joyce said it was the trip of a lifetime, and that she will never do it again.

Me? I’m ready to plan my return.

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P.S. Bonus video: Watch an elephant multi-task, and listen to our amazed commentary. And finally, the words to “Jambo buana” song, written out for us by Ellison.

 

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How To Celebrate A 7 Year Old’s Birthday

Easy. Start with dinosaurs, finish with giraffes.

We have two summer birthdays in our family. My son Emmett and my mother-in-law Joyce have back-to-back July birthdays, which we frequently celebrate together during summer vacation. Before you shed a tear for the poor child who never gets to bring cupcakes to school for his birthday, please know that he ends up with multiple celebrations of his joyful birth each year – one with friends in California before our trip, and another celebration with Pennsylvania family on the real day.

This year his dream was to have a sleepover at L.A.’s Natural History Museum in its New Dinosaur Hall. I don’t know how brave you are, but I would be skittish sleeping with a T.Rex triptych – baby, juvenile and full grown – hovering over me. So I didn’t expect a single friend to jump at this idea. Instead, we told Emmett we’d take him to see the dinosaurs, and another day he could have a party with friends at home. That is how he ended up with three birthday celebrations: those two events and on his actual birthday, a Six Flags Wild Safari V.I.P. Tour in Jackson, New  Jersey. All together now: Life is good.

As an Angeleno, I’m particularly proud of our new dinosaurs. The Natural History Museum keeps getting better, far surpassing my childhood experiences of it. For years we watched scientists patiently build these dinosaurs, and they have finally come to fruition, along with a lot of interactive exhibits. My favorite is a video of the self-taught paleontologist whom L.A. County long ago sent to Montana in search of its own T. Rex, rather than purchase one already unearthed by another institution. Later they may host birthday parties, but until then, just bring a picnic and a soccer ball and have a party outside on the massive lawn. Happy Birthday Part 1.

The only animals involved in Happy Birthday Part 2, were the dozen six-year-old boys running around playing Red Light/Green Light, jumping on a trampoline and eating pizza and cake, so let’s skip ahead to Happy Birthday Part 3.

We all use Emmett’s passion for animals to connect us to our own animal instincts. While most visitors to Six Flags Wild Animal Safari in Jackson, New Jersey drive their cars through meandering dirt roads throughout 350 lush acres, past 1500 animals representing 52 species from 6 continents, ogling creatures from bison to Bengal tigers, and from emus to elephants, those guests are required to stay in their cars with the windows rolled up – just in case. We splurged for the V.I.P. tour, which allowed eight of us to get in and out of our two guided Land Rovers (painted like zebras), stand within three feet of lions and tigers, pet Roosevelt Elk, giraffes and a rhinoceros, and feed various animals fruits and raw vegetables as we went.

I have never seen my children voluntarily let a raw sweet potato touch their teeth, until today, when they decided to feed the giraffes mouth-to-mouth. I think they would have taken them home with them if we could have sneaked them out.  Animals aside, Emmett was over the moon simply because he got to sit in the Land Rover’s front passenger seat, another birthday perk.

And so the first day of our two-month travel adventure begins with a theme we hope will carry us through: experience the unfamiliar, get out of our comfort zones. I must confess, however, that as I write this, I am quite comfortably sitting in the air-conditioned home in which I became engaged to my husband nearly 14 years ago. So there you have it: a perfect balance of creature comforts and wild creatures – and another birthday to remember.