Month: August 2015

Babe the Water Buffalo

Babe ... enjoying a lovely bowl of gazpacho on a sunny day in Berkeley, CA.

Babe … enjoying a lovely bowl of gazpacho on a sunny day in Berkeley, CA.

One of my favorite parts of traveling is the unexpected things that inevitably occur… The four frantic Jack Russell Terriers that came tearing out of a pub in Ireland, skittering across the winding road to my car, just at the point when I need a little extra merriment.  A beautiful little girl running up to me at an orphanage in Zambia, telling me excitedly that her name was Katherine and then refusing to let go of my hand for the rest of the day. The bright spot of a mother’s love after an impossibly difficult day in Zimbabwe (involving a train wreck and a dilapidated hospital full of hundreds of scared and wounded people**). The friends made along the way, the surprising meals full of exotic ingredients, etc., etc.

With My Pal Katherine - Zambia 2005

With My Pal Katherine & Friends – Zambia 2005

The unexpected is already showing up on this journey – despite the fact that I have yet to leave the country. An everyday conversation on a hike with my friend Elizabeth (and her AWESOME dog Luigi) turns to talk of travel and she educates me about VPNs. Perhaps, you may think. not the most exciting of topics. But who knew that I needed to set up something like Hide My Ass in order to surf my favorite sites from afar. Not me! (NOT that I want to spend a great deal of time online during this journey … but I’m gonna need to chill out with a wee bit of Netflix from time to time.)

And other conversations with various friends that are leading me to all manner of fun – a private tour of a fish sauce facility on a remote island in Vietnam, a friend of a friend of a friend to dine with when I arrive in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and countless other connections.

Perhaps my favorite unexpected bit of joy in relation to this journey, however, is Babe the Water Buffalo. She didn’t come with that moniker … I bestowed it upon her the moment I saw her … thinking of Babe the Blue Ox who appeared in Fargo (one of my all time fave flicks). My Babe was a gift from, yup, a new friend I met because I decided to take this journey. Jeanne is a friend of a friend (they know each other through a “meat club” … god, how I love the Bay Area) who works for Buffalo Tours – a company specializing in customized tours in SE Asia. Along with the assistance of her sweet colleague Loan in Vietnam, Jeanne has been developing itineraries that are surpassing my wildest dreams. And we have, along the way, become friends. I think Loan might be a new friend as well … she has, apparently, referred to me as “the pleasant American lady.”

Babe the Blue Ox

Babe the Blue Ox (in Bemidji, MN, don’t cha know)

But back to Babe…  Made by local women in Mai Chau, Vietnam, these colorful, enchanting water buffalo are commissioned and purchased by Buffalo Tours to help support the tribal people. The women use scraps of local clothing to make these magical creatures – each one exquisitely sewn and beautifully unique.  The water buffalo is a symbol for steadfastness, loyalty and consistency in Vietnamese culture. It’s a very valued creature as it brings good fortune to all. 

So I have decided that Babe is going to be my traveling buddy. I’m imagining a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” type of situation … Hopefully you’ll see her show up in various photos – hanging out by temples in Angkor Wat, in a tree house in the jungles of Laos and sunning herself on the white beaches of Bali. I’m just excited to have something that represents such beautiful qualities. Something made with such care. Something that will remind me of friendship … and the magic and joy brought forth by the unexpected.

* * * * *

* * As I mentioned above … there was one especially difficult day in Zimbabwe ten years ago. It’s a story I think of often… I even wrote it out at one point but never shared it. So this seems like an appropriate time:

One day a bunch of volunteers was hanging out, waiting for lunch when one of the project leaders came rushing up. Two trains had collided outside of Victoria Falls and they needed help in town. We were asked if anyone had first aid experience. I tentatively raised my hand, explaining timidly that I had been a life guard years and years before (timidly because, really? A lifeguard?). They nonetheless eagerly accepted my offer and, along with my friend, Jen we scurried off – racing down the dusty hill toward town.

When we arrived at the hospital the gates were surrounded by hundreds of local Zimbabweans, hoping to learn news of their loved ones. Ambulances and trucks of every shape and size carried in the injured. As soon as our old VW bus came to a stop we rushed out toward the open door of the old hospital. It was chaos. We quickly slapped on some gloves and got to work, rushing gurneys into the hospital, attempting to help organize patients, trying to find anything useful to do.

A helicopter landed shortly after we arrived so we rushed over to take the survivors toward the emergency room. Then we heard the whir of another ‘copter so we hurried out with wheelchairs and gurneys. Once the rotors stopped, someone yelled from inside, “Only bodies.” The helicopter didn’t have any survivors, only three of the deceased. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless as when I wheeled that empty wheelchair back to the hospital entrance.

We were soon distracted however with the duty of making sure the multitude of survivors, patients, doctors and nurses had water. As we dolled out cups of water and sadza (a simple maize porridge), the injured looked curiously at my white face, smiles erupting when the cup of cool water was placed in their awaiting hands.

In the middle of the mayhem, a woman who had been on the train and was waiting for a doctor grabbed my hand. She was convinced I had been on the train with her. I sat with her and held her hand, gently trying to convince her we had never met. She would have none of it.

Throughout the day, I checked in on her as she lay in the uncomfortable looking metal bed. She had a bit of a concussion and needed to stay the night and somehow, despite the fact that we didn’t speak the same language, asked me to contact her daughter. The hospital only had one working phone line, so I asked a priest who was walking by with an ancient-looking cell phone dangling around his neck to help out. I was thrilled that we were able to get through and alleviate her daughter’s concern – and the look of gratitude from my new friend was pure joy.

At the end of the day, I wandered into the ward where her small bed sat against the far wall. I told her I had to leave. She motioned for me to get the crumpled paper bag that was sitting under her bed and, once she had it in her hands, she pulled out three beaded necklaces. She tried to hand them to me, insisting that I take them to remember her. I tried mightily to resist – pleading with my eyes that she keep them. I knew she didn’t have much, that these necklaces were likely very dear to her. But I could not change her mind. I clutched them in my hands, wrapped my arms around her and embraced her, wiping tears away as I walked out of the room.

Before we headed back to the lodge, we were asked to help feed the patients in the maternity ward. The last patient had just given birth to a premature, three pound baby girl. The tiny nugget was the size of my hand, swaddled in simple white linens and wrapped in her mother’s arms. No fancy incubators here. When we entered the warm, cramped room and asked the baby’s name, the mother gazed at us, finally asking in broken English, “what do you think I name her?” There was quite a language barrier, so for a time we didn’t know what to say. “Precious,” I heard myself saying… thinking of the name of one of my favorite lion guides back at camp. “Maybe you can call her Precious?” She grinned widely, leading me to believe that she just might bestow this name upon her tiny daughter.


Of Mice and Me


It’s 2:23am. Once again I can’t sleep. Sadly – it’s not because I’m too excited over my trip (though I am). It’s because of a mouse.

The little guy has been scampering around my house for weeks. Running to and fro, disrupting my viewing of another inane episode of Real Housewives. Skittering into the impossibly small heating vent as I pass by. Just yesterday he actually sauntered across the living room – taking his time as if to say, “yeah, I live here too – what’s it to you, yo?”

An animal lover to my core – I just could not put down traps so I’ve been begging my landlords to do the deed for me and they just laid them out yesterday. This evening I awoke around 1:30am … Thinking I heard him wandering about, wondering if the peanut butter in the trap under the TV across the house enticed him, thinking about grabbing a flashlight to see if he met his end, wanting to throw up at the thought of checking the trap and finding his entrails.

As I lay in bed – I wonder to myself why I’ve been so stressed out about this mouse situation for the past several weeks. I haven’t been able to settle down – have been on edge day in, day out. It’s just unnerving. And then I realize I’m anxious about a lot of things… getting the house ready for renters, wondering when the guy in Tanzania is going to answer my email about places to stay in Zanzibar, having to return (yet again) to Best Buy to get my shiny new iPad set up correctly, having to return my hiking boots because they caused blisters and my backpack because, really, I’m no longer a 20-something backpacker and I just don’t think I can traipse around the world without some wheels on my luggage.

And then I think to myself … seriously? These are the things that are keeping you up at night? Entitled much? Give it a REST! And too – what am I going to do on the road when anxiety-provoking situations arise? I won’t be able to grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, escape into HBO or pick up the phone and invite myself over to my friend Eileen’s house for some impromptu backyard meditation under her lovely lemon tree.

Thankfully – just when I’m starting to tweak out over tweaking out – an email (the perfect email) arrives in my inbox from my dear friend Jamie. “Just bought a string of mala beads and am doing a 40 day mantra challenge. NAMASTE SISTER!!” she writes. Until a Google search, I don’t know what mala beads are. I don’t have a mantra. But I ordered some and I’m going to figure out the words that I can say to myself on the road to settle myself down. Because shit is going to happen. I’m going to get lost… I’ll likely miss a flight or train or boat… I’ll probably get sick … I won’t necessarily have a mouse as a roommate – more likely a gecko or a massive spider, perhaps a snake. Who knows. I certainly don’t.

Mala Beads

Mala Beads

What I do know is my existing anxiety-busting M.O. is not going to work. You know the one … “Everything is FINE!” That one. Part of the reason I’m taking this trip is to see the world differently. Which means seeing myself differently. So adopting a different way to see (and accept) my worries is a good first step.

And if all else fails, I’ll remember my friend Sonya’s motto:  “there’s no whining on the yacht.”


Majesty - Zimbabwe (2006)

Majesty – Zimbabwe (2006)

Even before news of Cecil reached me – I knew I had to return to Africa. His unthinkable, tragic death only solidified my belief that this journey – to work with wild animals and help humans understand their magnificence and momentousness – is one that I must take.

But how did I get here? When did the kernel of the idea implant itself? And how was I able to let it grow and form into reality? I don’t know with 100% certainty. I do know that it wasn’t just one thing that made me decide to embark on a 7-month journey. There are countless crumbs that led me here… So I can go “there”…

My previous trip to Africa obviously played a part. Working with lions in the wild in Zimbabwe in 2006 – the majestic cats, the magically warm people, the deep red earth, the adventures. I want more.

Though she’s no longer here, my mother encouraged this journey. The courage she displayed during her battle with pancreatic cancer, her adventurousness spirit and love of world travels, the fact that she died too young. All of this has been speaking to me for years.

Mom & Me (2005)

Mom & Me (2005)

My own illness, my journey from debilitating pain and weakness to regaining my strength – and my belief in myself. I recently celebrated five years sans cancer – which is a fairly big milestone. It feels like the shackles – the ones that kept me wondering in the not too distant reaches of my mind if the disease would return – were finally disintegrated. While I recognize my cancer-free status doesn’t come with a “lifetime guarantee” – I am nonetheless in the preferred seating section when it comes to statistics. So it’s time to live.

And the seemingly “little things” played a role in this undertaking … Such as stumbling upon the picture of the girl and the elephant that’s displayed on this blog and becoming obsessed with the love and peace emanating from the image. And wanting that in my life. And seeing a woman hobbling down the street, barely able to hold herself uptight and realizing that my fortitude is not guaranteed forever. There was my trip earlier this year when a dear friend Honey, her endearing dog Leo and I ventured out into the wilderness of arid Arizona, majestic southern Utah and the Giants of redwood national park … where I felt the earth calling to me. The palpable draw of the land that had been whispering since I left Africa 10 years ago soon became a dull roar and then, finally, an impatient yawp I could no longer ignore.

This journey is simply something I must do. It’s something my mother would have applauded (despite her previous reservations about me working with wild cats in Zimbabwe). Part of me feels like I’m already out in the dusty African bush – or the expansive Indian Ocean swimming with dolphins, or walking with elephants through the jungles of Cambodia. It’s as if I have already lived that life. Because I envisioned it in my dreams. And my dreams are about to come true.


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