Apr/May 2018 Travel

Travels to the Serengeti

by Marlene Olin

Photograph by Marlene Olin

All photographs by Marlene Olin

Somehow this vacation feels unlike the others. First an unexpected gift arrives in the mail. I unwrap the package and find a beautiful hardback edition of Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. Inside, the book label bears a lovely handwritten inscription.

When the wind kicks off the Maasai Mara and sings its gentle song,
Think of me and how I'll miss you and try to sing along.

The book's a personal touch I don't expect. My husband's a member of an international legal organization that tackles a different overseas trip each year. For Michael, these trips are an opportunity to see the world and make business contacts. Like an extra suitcase, I quietly go for the ride.

I run my finger over the book's spine. It's the job of each incoming President to oversee the planning. Though we've gone on many of these excursions, this is the first time the guy in charge is a woman. She had to inscribe over 50 books. I'm impressed.

"Wow. What a nice gesture. Wow."

Michael tilts his chin and looks over a shoulder. There's no mistaking his body language. We've been married for over 40 years, and every gesture's layered with meaning. I brace myself for bad news. Usually I fret over nothing. Was this nothing? Thank God I married an optimist. Thank God I married Michael! Because when I see storm clouds, my husband sees umbrellas. Nope—there it is again. Another wince.

"Noelle's dead," says Michael. "Right after she finished the itinerary, she came down with ALS."

There is no doubt about it. A sense of foreboding hovers over this trip. Usually we travel to developed countries. Italy. Australia. France. For the first time, we are directed to an infectious disease doctor months in advance. I'm nervous and embarrassed for being nervous. An African safari is all my fears and anxieties wrapped up with a bow. Risky vaccinations. Flying in small planes. Exotic sicknesses. And as time passes and my anxiety grows, the more my fears are validated.

Two weeks after receiving his shots, my husband comes down with viral meningitis. Another group member, we would soon learn, is hospitalized with yellow fever. Finally, it's time to check in with our physician one last time. He seems unfazed. White-haired and chipper, Dr. R. makes a living prepping travelers.

Once again, he runs through his checklist. "Remember the antibiotics and the antidiarrheals. And don't forget the bug spray. Lots and lots of bug spray. Make sure to buy the stuff with extra Deet."

Mosquitoes the size of hood ornaments come to mind.

Next he waves a prescription for malaria pills. "You're asking me about side effects? Of course there are side effects. Nausea. Stomach pain. Headaches." Then all at once his face seems to brighten. "Some people get vivid dreams. Nightmares. Hallucinations. But that's a wait and see kind of thing."

We spend the last few days packing and unpacking. Since we're flying in small planes (did I tell you how small the planes were?) we're limited to 35 pounds of luggage. Half of my husband's stuff is electronics, while half of mine is pharmaceutical aids.

Before I know it—there's no turning back.

Photograph by Marlene Olin

We arrive at the Kilimanjaro airport late at night. Taxiing on the tarmac, the jet throws shadows on the runway while the air seems to undulate in waves. The mountain, a huge black silhouette, looms in the distance. Of course I think of Hemingway.

"You know the guy dies at the end of the story," I tell my husband. "First his foot gets infected, and then he dies."

Meanwhile Michael's beaming. After 20 hours of traveling, we're in Tanzania. He unbuckles his seatbelt, turns off his Kindle, counts down the minutes until he gets to use his new camera. Three hours later, we are in Arusha.


Our first hotel is on the property of a coffee plantation. Though there are screens on the windows, mosquito netting drapes our bed. There's no air-conditioning, and everything I touch leaves a moist film. We report to the dining room after a few hours sleep, and the strangeness of East Africa hits me. The windows and doors are thrown open while monkeys scamper overhead. All at once I realize we are intruders trespassing on someone else's turf. This is the animal's kingdom. We're just voyeurs.

For the rest of the day, Michael and I are chauffeured in a six passenger jeep. Arusha is a blend of old and new. As we travel along a dirt highway, we see locals to our left and right. Long and lanky, some of them wear shukas, the traditional red togas, while others are dressed in blue jeans and hoodies. Women with impeccable posture walk with their hands free while their heads tote bundles of sticks or containers of water.

Every few miles a cluster of shacks denotes a marketplace. Wares are splayed on the ground. People congregate. But to my eye, the homes and shops all look the same. One-room shanties made of corrugated metal lean and list like playing cards. Children walk perilously close to the street while in the distance old men and young women, sticks in hand, herd goats, cows, and sheep. When I ask our driver where the herds are heading, he circles his hand.

"We have two rainy seasons in Arusha."

I look around. The ground is brown and carved with ruts, the grass withered. Every few miles we see a burst of color. A red Poinciana. A purple jacaranda. But as the tires of our jeep kick up dust, everything seems coated in a layer of dullness. Random termite mounds punch the dirt like fists.

"The rains, God willing, will start in two, three weeks. The pastoralists move their animals to the water, to the grass."

Succulents are everywhere. Large aloe plants with thorny leaves. Trees in the shape of candelabras. A huge, odd-looking tree stands out from the others.

"That's the baobab tree," says our driver. "See how its branches look like roots? The Maasai believe that God was angry. So he turned the tree upside down."

The jeep ride is slow-going. In front of us, olive baboons with their bare asses and beady eyes scurry across the street. They bring traffic to a standstill and stare at us, their hands folding and unfolding. What do we possibly have, I wonder, that they could possibly need?

As the jeep climbs toward our first destination, the terrain becomes more barren, the one-room shops and homes more infrequent. Then suddenly, almost close enough that we can touch them, we pass a group of teenagers standing by the side of the road. The boys are swathed in black. White masks are painted on their faces while crowns made of twigs and feathers are perched on their heads. They aren't just startling. They're surreal. Nightmarish. I wonder if my malaria pills are kicking in.

"The newly circumcised," says our driver. "The boys are separated from their families until they're healed."

My husband squirms in his seat. Leaning towards him, I whisper.

"They don't do the girls, right? They've outlawed female circumcision, right?" We glance in the rearview mirror long after they pass.

Soon the savannah is behind us while the road we are taking becomes rockier. The hotel where we will spend the next two nights is perched on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, 8,000 feet above sea level. Our group is now split in thirds since the lodgings are small. Hyenas cackle in the distance while zebras amble a few feet away. When we arrive at our destination, we're greeted by an assembly line of escorts, each one shouting "Jambo!" with a smile.

The man chosen to show us our room walks slowly ahead while his eyes sweep over the footpaths. A Maasai red sarong. Coal black skin. Impeccably white teeth. I pull up by his side. The natives, I am learning, all speak a heavily accented English.

"How come some of you have rifles while others have bows and arrows?"

He hugs his firearm and shoots us a grin. "I passed the gun test. Those other guys didn't."

From the outside our room resembles a boma or circular Maasai hut. But inside, modern life amenities add a homey touch. Wood floors. A fireplace. A claw-footed tub. Two decanters, one filled with whiskey and the other gin, have been left on an end table. A bottle of tonic water sits beside them. The offerings make sense. Tonic water contains the anti-malarial quinine. I suppose the alcohol in liquor kills everything else.

With another long day coming to an end, we step out on our porch, breath in the cool crisp air, take in the panoramic view. Then suddenly, under out feet, we hear the grass rustle. An enormous Cape buffalo, its horns like a giant moustache, is lying in the shade right beneath us.

Michael grins. "Honey, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

Photograph by Marlene Olin

The next morning we wake up and find our surroundings shrouded in mist. We climb once again into our jeep and drive down a red clay road. The Ngorongoro Crater, we soon discover, is actually a caldera, a huge volcano with the insides scooped out. A hundred miles square and ringed by 1,640 foot walls, it's a perfect sanctuary, a self-contained ecosystem that harbors countless types of wildlife. Within the next few hours we spot elephants, hippos, jackals, ostrich, warthogs, gazelles. Hyenas, we are told, are the primary predators. With an abundance of zebras and wildebeest lolling in their midst, lions can afford to be lazy. All they have to do is sit and wait.

As the hours pass, it becomes clearer and clearer that a fragile balance has been struck. From the smallest bug to the largest mammal, there's an interdependency. Take the oxpecker and the rhino. The bird dines on the parasites that cling to the rhino's back. In return, the birds alert the larger animal to danger. When a Cape buffalo tramps through the grass, its friend the egret eats the scattering insects. Though there's a pecking order, the numbers in this reserve stay remarkably steady. Cooperation bolsters survival.

We sit in our jeep as the sun beats down. The parched grassland is dotted with wispy trees while black volcanic rocks lay like tumbleweeds. Instead of flowers, there are birds. Thousands of birds. Cranes with golden headdresses, hornbills with red throats, secretary birds with their wildly spiked feathers and orange masks. By the end of our first morning drive, I'm wind-burned and thirsty. We've driven for over five hours with no sign of a restroom in sight.

Late that afternoon, back at our lodgings, we're offered an excursion into a native village. Around two miles from our hotel, a dozen Maasai huts are ringed by a wooden fence. Close up, the bomas are worlds apart from the faux huts of our lodge. The walls are made of mud, dung and sticks, the ceiling thatched leaves. A musky, dank smell fills the air.

Everyone's friendly, almost too friendly, inching close, thrusting their hands. Here. You See. Buy. Buy. Buy. The natives are dressed for the occasion, the men in their shoulderless red sarongs, the women wrapped more demurely—an underblouse, dress, cape. It's the jewelry that truly distinguishes them, loops and loops of necklaces and belts, amazingly intricate beadwork. Earlobes, pierced with thorns and stretched with twigs, dangle with long metal hoops.

"Would you like to see my home?" a man asks. "$20 American. A good deal."

Inside the small hut, the air's smoky, the light dim. Instead of windows, the only ventilation is a six inch hole in the roof. A small fire burns on the ground next to a single pallet. On the pallet, a woman sleeps with a child.

Once again I feel like an intruder, like a person spying through a peephole at someone else's life. We feel welcomed but not welcomed as our tour continues. Crafts are hawked. Prices are haggled. Deals are struck. In a corner, a pile of shukas sit in their plastic wrappings, with Made in China labels on their fronts.

I itch to leave. Throughout the property of our lodging, I had noticed blue and black flags flapping in the breeze. The colors, we were told, attracted tsetse flies, the flags saturated with poison. But here the flies are swarming, chasing the kids and pestering the elderly.

Despite the harassment, nursery-age children obediently sit on benches in a makeshift corral. Though they call this the village school, I had seen a new brick school building around a half mile away. Things don't add up. The school. The labels. I could swear I saw one of the vendors sneak a peek at a phone. On the way back to the lodge, I question my driver.

"There was a jeep parked by the fence," I point out. "In the back where they keep the livestock."

The driver looks over his shoulder at me and Michael.

"Like everyone else, the Maasai drive. Jeeps. Motorcycles. The people who live in the village... it's their job. Some people stay at night. Some people don't."

I suppose the world is filled with symbiotic relationships. Back in my quasi hut, I unload my cache of Maasai treasures—earrings, belts, necklaces—and wonder what my role is in this grand scheme.


Dinner that night is a bacchanal, our crystal goblets overflowing with wine, our emptied plates quickly refreshed. Our group of 30 is seated at one long table so everyone's within shouting distance. Like Michael and I, most of the couples in the organization are long past middle age. The men are outfitted in TravelSmith, sporting brand new clothes, khaki shirts and pants with millions of pockets. The women are safari chic. Some wear dashikis, their wrists ringed with jewelry, their feet wrapped in Roman style sandals.

Leopard prints are in vogue. Leopard slacks. Leopard blouses. Leopard scarves. As for me, I reek of "eau de Deet" and spent an hour trying to wrestle my hair into submission. Nearly all the other women, to my astonishment, wear full masks of makeup, false eyelashes, the whole shebang.

Typical of lawyers, the conversation is brisk, clever, competitive.

There was a spider in my room. Two no three no five inches big. Leaping. Jumping. It jumped from wall to wall like its legs were trampolines. And d'ya know how they killed it? With a towel! They catch the slippery suckers with a towel!

The men talk camera equipment, the perfect shot, the riskiest encounter, shutter speeds, pixels, bracketing. The women have clearly brushed up on their reading, cribbing scientific facts.

We're heading to Olduvai Gorge tomorrow. You must see it. Leakey. Hominids. Mandibles. Lucy.

Meanwhile, my eyes start glazing over. Even after showering, I have dust in crevices where dust shouldn't be. My skin burns from too much sun while my scalp feels like it's crawling with critters. And as for missing links and fossil finds, my expertise on Africa always boomerangs back to the same frame of reference: my grandchildren's love for The Lion King. Finally, I pipe up.

"Do you know Simba means lion in Swahili? Do you know that Nala means gift?"

Photograph by Marlene Olin

Due to the difficult roads, we fly to our next destination. It's the smallest plane I've ever been in, a single propeller 12-passenger. There's no beverage cart or door blocking my view of the pilot. I'm nearly close enough to smell his breath. While I'm debating whether or not he's sober, the plane suddenly leaves the ground. I white-knuckle the armrest and lift my butt to help. Remarkably, no one else seems anxious. As we head to the Serengeti, everybody but me is looking out the windows.

"You've got to see this," says Michael. Eleven people collectively lean to one side. To balance things out, I lean the other way.

Below us is The Great Migration.

Each year, almost two million wildebeest joined by hundreds of thousands of zebras journey from Tanzania to Kenya in search of water. The Earth's largest zoo follows in their wake. It's another symbiotic relationship, the zebras eating the tall grass, the wildebeest and gazelles eating the short, the buffalo finding the wet grass near the marshes. Traveling as one large band offers them protection and helps them find their way.

We touch down on a dirt airstrip, then once again we're in a jeep. It's greener in the Serengeti. For the first time we see giraffes galumphing in long lingering lines. Acacia trees drip weaver nests while tiny dik-diks hide. The land is broader, wider, more expansive. That glint of silver is a python. That sleepy head, a leopard.

The trees are solitary here, each one more peculiar than the next. The strangler fig germinates its seed in the fork of a host tree, then slowly sends out roots down the trunk. As the fig gets stronger, its host gets strangled. Though some consider the fig a nuisance, here in Africa it's welcomed. Birds, monkeys, and all varieties of insects enjoy its fruit.

Outside the lobby of our new hotel, we are greeted by a pair of Maasai warriors. Inside we're blasted with air-conditioning while offered glasses of chardonnay. Past the wide windows is a pool, beyond the pool a large pond, in the pond a dozen elephants bathing. Once again we are escorted to our room, but this time the men are unarmed. All of the walkways to outlying buildings, I notice, are built on stilts.

"The animals, they go under," says our escort.

I look forward to being pampered. Despite drinking only bottled water, many of us are now stricken with stomach problems. Complexions are tinged green. One friend threw up in her jeep. Another is tethered to her toilet. While my husband goes on another safari, I stay in bed all day, sip ginger ale, and watch nature shows on TV.

That night we are treated to entertainment. Someone's installed a semi-circle of folding chairs on a hilltop, complete with tiki torches and a table filled with snacks. We're bandying war stories and sharing intestinal woes when a dozen Maasai men suddenly appear. Again they're dressed in the traditional red togas and wrapped in rows and rows of beaded necklaces.

Soon the rhythmic chanting starts, interspersed with shouting and ululation. One guy blows into a long curved antelope horn as the dancing begins. It's a contest of sorts, two men at a time, jumping in their togas as high as they can. They land on the balls of their feet and like springs, pop up again and again.

"The Maasai warrior who jumps the highest," says our guide, "gets the prettiest girl."

The show ends just as the sun sets, a magical ending to the day. We all yell asante, asante or thank you as the dancers work their way through the crowd.

"Jambo!" says a familiar face. And instantly I recognize the waiter who served me pancakes that morning.

Photograph by Marlene Olin

Though the Maasai Mara borders the northern end of the Serengiti, it takes three short planes ride to get there. As we land in Kenya, I sense a perceptible change. There are still dirt roads, but now they're maintained. Our driver speaks with a clipped but clear British accent. There are far fewer tourists on the prowl.

Our new hotel room is an upscale tent. Though there are interior partitions, a shower and a bath, the ceiling and sides are canvas. At night, we unzip our walls and gaze at the stars. In the morning, a pink purple sunrise wakes us. We're at 7,000 feet and below us lie the plains.

For the first time, we see park rangers. Poachers are shot on site, and sure enough, during our first morning drive, we spot the elusive and rare black rhino. Killed for the medicinal value of its horns, here the black rhino is protected. People linger and study in the Maasai Mara. We're gazing at a litter of cheetahs when a National Geographic truck passes us by.

A less frantic pace has finally settled in. We watch a pride of lions devour a buffalo and bear witness to how the natural world works. Beyond the lions lurks a hungry hyena. Beyond the hyena, vultures. Beyond the vultures, a lone jackal paces in the distance. My husband is savoring every last second of the trip. Camera in hand, he sit and waits, too.

Others are more impatient. To commemorate the last day of our safari, most of the group opts for a ride in a balloon. The jeeps leave at 4 AM and the excursion is a near disaster. While one balloon grazes the treetops and almost crashes, the other lands off balance with the basket on its side. Thankfully, no one is harmed.


Our final destination is Nairobi. We're here for less than 24 hours and scramble to see the sites. Our hotel (Hemingways!) is located in the suburb of Karen near the Blixen farm. Known to most people by her nom de plume Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen is a much beloved figure. Unlike other colonists, she is remembered for the schools she started and the people she helped.

The neighborhood is jaw-dropping. The landscaping is dark green and lush, filled with bougainvillea and flowering vines, shaded by enormous trees. We pass one mansion after another, each one behind walls, the walls topped with razor wire, the razor wire topped with an electrical fence.

We are warned not to sightsee on our own.

"You see that hill," says our bus driver. In the distance, we see a blur of buildings. "That's our slum," she says matter-of-factly. "Two hundred thousand live there. If you take a taxi, head the other way."

I remember the shacks we saw in Arusha. "Is there plumbing?" I ask. "Electricity?"

She looks at me like I'm an idiot. "Of course not," she answers. "It's a slum!"

Our last stop on our last day is a cultural center/gift shop. Above the door a plaque is dedicated to its founder Richard Leakey. There's a coffee shop, toilet, and a warren of small rooms selling local crafts. The group splinters in different directions, MasterCards in hand. Though we already have suitcases bulging with mementos, we're compelled to do more. Like the others in my traveling group, never have I felt so blessed yet been so aware of the deprivation of others. But how do you right a situation that's so far off tilt? Equilibrium, the animal kingdom tells us, is the only answer. So we fill tote after tote, thinking it's the least we can do, giving back by taking in.

"Asante," I tell the woman at the cash register.

"Hakuna matata," she replies.


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