This blog is not horse-related. It is life-related. It seems appropriate to release it at the beginning of a new year.
And just like that, with one awe-inspiring and painful brush stroke, my view changed, never to be the same again.
I love animals, all animals. I could not get enough of nature shows like Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom when I was young. I dreamed of going to Africa to experience the animals up close and in their environments. I longed to live among them, study them, and help protect them from humanity, but this was not to be.
For my 40th birthday, I planned a trip to Africa in 2004. I traveled to Kenya and stayed in four camps to experience different flora and fauna in unique habitats like the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Then, I went to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda to trek and see mountain gorillas. At that time, there were less than 900 left in the wild.
We arrived at the first camp in the early afternoon, during the day's heat. The tour guides settled us in and advised us to rest before going out on a game drive and a Sundowner later that afternoon. What is a Sundowner, you ask? It is a happy hour during sunset in the African Bush—a sublime experience.
I lay on my bed and closed my eyes. Sleep was impossible. My mind was reeling—a bird called over and over. I had no idea what it was, but the sound was enthralling. I desperately wanted to get out of my tent and look for it, but my partner was already asleep. Getting out of the tent involved a noisy zipper, and I did not want to be the reason he woke.
The excitement of being someplace I had dreamed of for so long was more than I could stand. The minutes passed like hours, punctuated by unfamiliar, tantalizing sounds that tested my resolve to stay put.
Finally, the artificial blare of the alarm pierced the natural symphony, and I was never so excited to get out of bed. I was outside the tent in a nanosecond, scanning the landscape for the mystery sound. I learned the birdcall was a Cuckkoo, not the most stunning bird, but it captivated me. My African adventure had started.
Before the trip, I envisioned myself being so in love with everything in Africa that I did not go home from vacation, or if I did, it would be just long enough to get things in order and return. I fantasized about working alongside researchers, scientists, and veterinarians to help the animals. Never mind that I did not have the education or experience for this work.
Africa is mind-blowing in many ways—it has breathtaking beauty, vast expanses, and wildlife in unimaginable numbers. Yet, poverty and disease run rampant, making living arduous.
Before we went, we researched Uganda because well-meaning people in our lives had concerns about our safety. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest borders the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC historically has been volatile, and the threat of terrorism is high.
We weighed the risk and determined it was worth it. I have long held the outlook that if I died fulfilling a dream or doing something I loved, my soul would be content.
Conversely, I frequently joked that if I died in a car accident on the Tobin Bridge heading into Boston for work, I would come back to haunt someone. For anyone who does not know the Tobin Bridge, it is a miserable bridge frequently jammed with traffic. I have spent hours of my life on it, my car idling, spewing toxic exhaust into the atmosphere, frustrated humanity could not or did not want to come up with a better solution.
Africa is the land of extremes. If you are a middle-class person from a developed country, you may struggle with the reality of African life. We did not fully contemplate the ramifications of being in this untamed place.
The trip was uncomfortable in many ways. For starters, we did not have the freedom to explore the surroundings. The land was full of dangerous animals; the reason we were there and the tour company's job was to keep us safe.
Maasi men escorted you to and from your tent. We blew a whistle if we needed someone to accompany us outside at non-scheduled times. When you were in your tent, you were trapped.
We ran into digestive issues despite being conservative with what we consumed—having an upset stomach when riding in a safari vehicle for hours over rutted, dusty roads with limited options for restrooms proved torturous.
Let's talk about the restrooms. For starters, they are scarce. One I used resembled a multi-stall outhouse. The second time I was desperate enough to ask to pull over, the "bathroom" was an outhouse. However, there was no toilet, just a hole in the floorboard. Suffice it to say people needed better aim. I found myself questioning exactly how desperate I was at that moment.
What about dashing behind a bush on the side of the road? The bush you see as the perfect place is also a potential hiding spot for a man-eating predator. No dice!
Stating the obvious, part of what makes Africa uncomfortable is not having the creature comforts we are used to. Meanwhile, the lodges go to extraordinary lengths to provide guests with these amenities.
Water was trucked in from tens of kilometers away in some cases. They warmed it over fires, and men carried five-gallon jugs to each room so our spoiled butts could luxuriate in a five-minute hot shower each day. I struggled with guilt. I countered this in my mind with the rationale my presence gave them a job.
I reflected on my life. It felt overindulgent and excessive. It forced me to contemplate things I took for granted, like showers! I pondered what I could do to help balance the inequity smacking me in the face.
One of the astounding facts we learned before going was that the annual average income in Uganda was $250. Let me repeat: two hundred and fifty dollars! Sometimes, I spent that much on groceries in a week. It was unfathomable to me that a family could survive on that amount of money for a year. Survive is the operative word in the sentence.
If Kenya was uncomfortable, Uganda was borderline traumatizing. The drive from Entebbe International Airport to the gorilla camp in Bwindi was ten hours through endless impoverished villages. I previously traveled to second-world countries, but nothing compared to what I saw in Africa.
As soon as children could walk, they were assigned chores to help their family. Toddlers swept dirt away from the entry of their mud house. Slightly older kids carried water in small buckets from roadside creeks, wearing tattered t-shirts sizes too large and often with bare feet.
Some villages anticipated our arrival. Children lined the street, called out loudly, and ran next to our vehicle, looking for handouts. The tour operator told us to bring gifts for them. Candy, sunglasses, pens, pencils, and crayons were highly desired. We tossed these things out the windows as we passed through.
The closer we got to the gorilla camp, the more desolate the land became. The villages were tiny, and the reaction from residents was one of surprise. The locals started at us as we passed through with their eyes wide as saucers.
I felt vulnerable. I was thankful for the steel of the vehicle's walls that protected me. At times, people converged around the truck and reached for the doors.
Despite the apparent poverty and hardships people faced, I marveled at the joy demonstrated by the children. We passed a group of kids playing soccer with a banana leaf ball. They ran to and fro, jostling for position, calling out to teammates, and laughing. I wished I brought a soccer ball for them. I could imagine their excitement at such a gift.
By the time we reached the camp, I was emotionally weary. I wanted to retreat to our tent and crack a beer. I was keen to numb myself to the day's sights and realities. On the other hand, my boyfriend wanted to walk into the nearby village to check it out.
The memory of the Maasi village was fresh in my mind, and that, combined with a feeling of vulnerability from the day's journey, made me unwilling to participate. Meanwhile, he struck out to explore. As he left, he turned back and said, "Are you sure you don't want to come?" I replied, "Yes, I'm sure," as I gulped down some beer.
It did not take long before he excitedly busted into the tent and proclaimed that I had to accompany him to the village. It differed from the Maasi Village we visited—the people were welcoming and not aggressive with their sales tactics.
Words poured out of his mouth as he told me about his experience in the shops. He grabbed my hand and dragged me out of the tent. I reluctantly trailed behind his six-foot-five frame and broke into a jog to keep pace with him.
He was right. The locals in the village were wonderful! Most notable was that orphans ran many of the shops. A composed sixteen-year-old girl explained to us in perfect English that the town had over 250 orphans. They made handmade gifts for tourists to buy—the money they made purchased school supplies.
The girl's grace, strength, and the responsibility she demonstrated to better her life was remarkable. Imagining her circumstances tugged on my heartstrings. I felt empathetic to the human plight for the first time.
Before this trip, my view of humanity was harsh. There were many reasons to be angry with humans, especially when viewed from the perspective of the planet and the other living beings on it. I felt strongly about using my resources to help nature, not people.
Two men with AK-47s accompanied us to search for the gorillas. The guides explained that sometimes you walk for hours without coming across them. We found them in an hour, and they were astonishing. Their human-like faces, silky black hair, and the caring interaction between individuals made me want to reach out and touch them. Watching the youngsters play was spellbinding, especially with the Silverback.
He was stunning, a perfect example of his species. Individuals parted, making way for him as he strolled to the group's center and plopped down on his stomach, his weight borne by his massive arms tucked underneath him.
The youngsters did not take long to treat him like a jungle gym. They played chase and dashed over his back to add to their fun. I found his tolerance and patience notable. Occasionally, he rolled over, grappled one playfully, and then released them to their playful antics.
The trip was drawing to a close. All that was left was the 10-hour drive back to Entebbe. We decided to break the journey up with an overnight at a camp located on an island. Before the trip, this sounded like a unique experience and an excellent way to spend our last night in Africa. In hindsight, we wished we had driven straight to Entebbe.
By the time we climbed into the truck, we were travel-weary. Neither of us had ever been homesick on our trips to foreign countries. It was quite the opposite. We typically loved our travels and reluctantly dragged ourselves onto the plane.
But this trip was different. Between the lack of autonomy, ever-present danger, poverty, food, and digestive issues, I was ready to be home, free to come and go as I pleased, eating and drinking whatever struck my fancy without the worries that faced us in Africa.
The drive to the island camp was as impactful as the ride to the Bwindi. The countryside was hilly and terraced as far as the eye could see. Terracing land helps to reduce erosion and soil loss. The local people used every inch of land to farm and feed their families. The smell of smoke permeated the air.
We drove by vast tea plantations. When the workers saw our vehicle, they ducked into the tea plants and hid. The driver explained that they wanted to avoid having their picture taken by wealthy foreigners. They did not want to be criticized for their work and low pay.
All the workers we saw on these plantations were women. Many of them had a baby strapped to their back. They were barefoot, and the primary occupational hazard was snake bites. They worked from sun up to sun down, roughly 12 hours, for $1 a day.
I had another thing to feel guilty about my morning tea. Later, we passed men sitting on the side of the road cracking rocks together to make gravel. They did this for 12 hours a day for paltry pay. It was not hard work--it was back-breaking, soul-sucking work for barely enough pay to survive.
When we arrived at the dock to board the boat, my perspective of what constituted good versus bad and fair versus unfair work and pay had made a seismic shift. I wish I could say that last night was as magical as those first hours in the tent in Amboseli National Park listening to the Cuckcoo, but it was not.
I have never been so affected by a trip as I was by traveling in Africa. The experience created a tectonic shift in how I viewed humanity; the privilege of my life and work was wholly reframed. I refer to this trip as "My African High."
It made me realize the incredible luck I had at being born to middle-class parents in the United States. The hardship I knew paled in comparison to what people endured in Uganda.
After I returned, I wrote a letter to my family explaining Africa's impact on me. I proposed that we discontinue gift giving for the adults and instead give to a mutually agreed upon charity. I was excited to share my insights and hoped others would take steps to help.
My Africa experience has acted as a grounding agent. It provided me with a new lens through which to compare life, work, and hardship versus comparing my circumstances to those of my neighbors.
Twenty years later, I booked another trip to Africa. I am going to Botswana with my brother in May. We will experience Africa as middle-aged adults. I expect the unexpected and look forward to the gifts the trip will bestow on me, both easy and hard. Of course, I can only think about seeing the black mane lions hunt in the water. Lions in water, how cool!
I am willing to bet that the prominent memory will not be the lions when the trip concludes.
By Diane R. Jones
*After traveling to Africa, I began supporting the following organizations.
Women For Women International; Women for Women International
Heifer International; Heifer International | Ending Poverty and Caring for the Earth