Month: September 2015

Care and Feeding

Happy with one of the girls

Happy with Safiya

Following a breakfast of a lovely fried egg and the most welcome surprise of bright orange melon (a first!), our main Lion Manager Cara put her two closed fists out in front of another volunteer and me and asked us to choose. The other volunteer Carol picked one fist which, when opened, had nothing inside – so I got the mysterious silver ring … which meant I was the lucky volunteer who got to take medical notes during the upcoming lion operation! I was instantly giddy … being entrusted with simple things like jotting down the time the lion was darted and when he went under from the heavy drugs. Perhaps these activities sounds banal, but I’ve come to care so deeply for these cats that being able to provide any kind of assistance has become highly meaningful. All the more so when I regard how the people who work here care for these animals.

I have been struck since day one by the deep concern and passion displayed by every member of the Lion Encounter staff. Watching the lion handlers – whether it’s Kennedy or Trywell or Happy or Sunday – walk with these cats day after day is like viewing fathers caring for their children. They stroke them softly as they glide by – or reprimand them just sternly enough when they are acting “naughty” (i.e. giving a volunteer an overly interested look or moving quickly toward a guest walking nearby).

Everyone is equally caring with all facets of this operation. “Enclosure cleaning” is a big part of most days – meaning walking through areas looking for and gathering lion poo and discarded bones from previous feeds. These big, strong men walk with us volunteers, surveying the dry earth – picking up tiny shards of femurs and using thin sticks to gather the smallest remnants of poo. It might sound odd to note this – but I am always struck by the attention they bring to every task … forever ensuring these lions have the most optimal surroundings possible.

Ndulu surrounded by those who care for him

Ndulu surrounded by those who care for him

So when we all heard that Ndulu, one of the male lions, needed a minor operation, it was no surprise that fifteen of us (volunteers and staff) surrounded the two vets as they probed and removed a small growth from his side. At two and a half, Ndulu has had several small procedures like this – Cara simply calls him a “lumpy lion” … and the hope is that this latest growth is also benign. Regardless, four of the handlers gently picked Ndulu up after he fell to the earth from the effects of the strong tranquilizer dart and carried him to a shady area – some of them covering him with their bodies during the procedure to keep him as cool as possible. All of us silently watched as the vet used his scalpel and then delicate stitches to tend to this beautiful cat. It is a sight I’ll never forget.

I’ve had tears in my eyes several times since my arrival here in Africa … during my sunrise visits to the neighboring elephants as I watch a mother wrap her trunk around her tiny daughter or as I sit watching a delicate vervet monkey with just one leg valiantly hobble along after his brothers and sisters. And I have no doubt I’ll tear up when have to leave these amazing cats and the people who care for them. I’m just grateful that most of my tears are coming from joy and amazement. That what we are all doing here is making a difference. That, hopefully, the care and feeding provided by my new African friends (as well as staff and volunteers from around the world) will help sustain and improve the plight of lions in Africa. This would be a dream come true.

Early morning elephant visit

Early morning elephant visit

An Education

Enthusiastic Students

Enthusiastic Students

Since I arrived a little over a week ago, I’ve traveled three times to the Natabe Primary School – a low-slung, single level white brick building situated down a deeply-rutted red dirt road – far from the bustling town of Livingstone. The inner walls are painted a pale aquamarine – much like the shade of blue that adorns many American swimming pools … and every time I see this cheery color a smile erupts on my face as I think of all these little kids bobbing about in a cool oasis of a pool. How I’d love to see that.

The volunteer organization I’m working with is affiliated with various rural schools so we lion volunteers provide educational assistance several times a week. On two Wednesdays I’ve helped with “Book Club” – a time when several of us fill up the truck with several sturdy, black milk crates (craftily obtained by one of the teachers who emailed Parmalat and asked for a donation … and voila … for once bureaucracy was thrown aside and the company happily donated six crates which were a godsend to our program). Before we start, the teacher calls out, “Good morning class!” and the students all stand up and enthusiastically respond, “Good morning Madam! How are you!?” in their lilting English. It’s simply one of my favorite parts of class.

Sweet Simplicity

Sweet Simplicity

During Book Club, the kids are separated into various groups based on their age and reading ability and we sit at simple wood and metal tables reading books like Harry the Hippo’s Picnic and Larry the Lion’s Spaceship. As each child reads, I watch them move their little fingers across the pages, often squinting to figure out the words. Some are confident and wholly interested while others speak in a whisper so low I find myself leaning across the table to hear them. When we’re done instructing each group we carefully collect the precious books and flashcards … and once I found myself re-tying a knot in a thin, blue rubber band, thinking wistfully about how I take such simple things for granted back home.

Another feature of Book Club is the “library” … we pull out those Parmalat crates that are filled with books like The Wizard of Oz and The Hot Hippo and a few Arthur the Aardvark books. Every child gets to take one home each week – many of them gazing through the aging books in the crates until they find just the right one, clutching it to their chests as they walk back to the tables and tuck them in their backpacks or simple plastic shopping bags.

Saturdays are for “Kid’s Club” – a time when children come to the school to play with us and learn at the same time. When I arrived last Saturday, a few other volunteers and I ambled out of the truck and were immediately surrounded by children of all ages. I recognized several from Book Club and as soon as I took my iPhone out of my pocket the kids started posing. They just love having their picture taken and then huddling around to see the result.

Joy with the Club

Me and the girls (and baby David)

Perhaps the biggest highlight was when I learned how much these children – especially the girls – love to dance. As those who know me well are quite aware – I’m typically quite bashful when it comes to dancing … but I just can’t help myself around these little kids. For whatever reason, at one point I found myself doing the twist – moving my knees back and forth as I crouched toward the dirt. And the next thing I knew, about ten of the girls were following my lead, shrieking with delight. I threw out another move – waving my arms above my head – and they followed suit. On and on it went, the laughter growing with every move. I was in heaven. And now – whenever these girls see me – they look at me expectantly until I shimmy around – resulting in an eruption of laugher and calls of encouragement to continue. So while it’s my “purpose” to be at this school to help educate these kids – they are also schooling me …. reminding me of the joy brought on by abandon and silliness.

My Girl Memory

My Girl Memory

End note … here are some of my very favorite names of all these adorable kids: Gift, Blessing, Gertrude, Memory, Mercy, Prince and Orient.

A Day in the Life

Happy (man) & Samiya (lion)

Happy (man) & Tisa (lion)

So I’m sitting outside at a long wooden table … it’s a still, hot African afternoon – the air still and filled with sounds of countless wild animals. I just unpacked my iPad to do a little writing and looked up to see a huge baboon meander by. Then the project staff came by and carried away the platter of Mopane worms they served for lunch (alongside stewed meat and big mounds of pale white nshima <the local corn meal mash they traditionally serve at many meals>). Some of the baboons are fighting on the metal roof of “the White House” – the building we are living in during the project. Yes, I am in Africa…

As you may imagine, it’s impossible to describe a “normal” day here. So here are a few highlights of the past few days…

Yesterday (Tuesday?) I had my first lion walk – heading over to their enclosures with our guides Lovewell and Happy as well as a few scouts carrying AK-47s to protect us. They rarely shoot these big guns and to date have only fired them in the air to scare away tempestuous animals charging out the bush … We got a bit of a scare by an errant water buffalo before the morning walk began, but no shots were fired – just shouts of “run!” as we all scattered. During the outing we walked Saba and Tisa – two beautiful, 15-month old lions who seem like best girlfriends. They raced after each other, lolling about on the shore of the shallow Zambezi river, pawing elephant dung and gazing across the water.

The girls & the Zambezi

The girls & the Zambezi

After the walk and a bite of lunch, several of us volunteers packed into an old pickup truck loaded with ripe-smelling, fly-covered donkey meat to feed another group of lions. Once we arrived a few of us ducked into empty enclosures to pick up lion poo and rinse out and refill their water troughs. While I noticed the thick metal wires surrounding the enclosures, I failed to realize they were actively electrified (to protect the lions from nasty poachers during the dark nights) and managed to get electrocuted not once but twice. My loud screams filled the air and the second time around my iPhone went flying out of my hand, tumbling across the red earth.  While the shocks were a bit painful, I think my reactions were more from surprise (and perhaps embarrassment the second time around … had I not learned anything the first time?!).

This morning I awoke at 5:45am to a vivid orange and pink sunrise, jumped out of my mozzi-net covered twin bed, grabbed a cup of Rooibos tea filled with room temp Parmalat milk out of a box and hurried outside to my favorite stoop. I sat there entranced …gazing across the patches of grass at the elephants and watching a baby vervet monkey shimmying up the trees, examining me from up high. I know the locals and perhaps many of the volunteers who have been here a while likely look upon these little monkeys as we Americans regard squirrels, but I continue to be amazed that I get to watch them scamper about. And as I sit at my stoop every morning, I try to keep my friend Dana’s words in mind … before I left she reminded me of the Buddhist concept of Shoshin – meaning “beginner’s mind” or having an attitude of openness and eagerness. I simply don’t want any of my experiences during this journey to become rote or overly familiar.

Vervet - just hanging out

Vervet – just hanging out

This is why I squealed like a little girl when I saw the adolescent giraffes hanging out on the railroad tracks the other morning and then stuck my head out the open-aired truck staring at the small herd of zebra until they were out of view. I hope I can maintain my focus on this lovely concept of Shoshin and continue to be amazed and moved by the things I am seeing … whether it’s tiny, smiling children waving wildly at us as our huge truck rumbles by or the sight of little George (the ridiculous dachshund/labrador mix who lives at the project site) scampering through elephant dung, racing alongside us as we rush to catch the sun before it sets over the blue Zambezi.




The First 48


Zambian Feline Friend

I’m sitting in a lounge chair at the Backpackers Livingstone hostel in Zambia … trying to be patient as I wait for my lift to the lions (as if hearing me … a tiny black cat just rambled up and climbed into my lap. Thank you universe.)  It’ll be another four hours … or five or six. I learned during my last trip to Africa that time is very fluid here so I’m going to try to do my best to throw off my penchant for punctuality.

It’s been 48 hours since I left America – or something like that. Honestly this whole concept of time is already messing with me. I went to bed at 4:30pm yesterday after about 35 hours of travel. I awoke around 9:45pm, convinved that it was actually 9:45 in the morning. And was it Sunday? Or Monday? And where was I again? My temporary delerium left me with a lot of unknowns. So this morning I thought I’d write about what I do know…

Travel makes me a more expansive and open person. I found myself smiling at everyone I passed on my stroll to the ZigZag Cafe for my morning coffee – saying a joyous “hello” or “good morning” to almost everyone who looked me in the eye, prompting smiles and return greetings.

Travel is highly educational. Case in point … one should not wear clothing one has not “tested” before traveling … like flowy palazzo pants that looked like just the ticket for long flights but that, in actuality, proved to have an unreliable waistband, resulting in pants falling down throughout my journey.

View at the ZigZag

View at the ZigZag

When ordering in a foreign restaurant, keep it simple. I tried to order something different than “brown bread” with my omelette this morning at the ZigZag… I just couldn’t pass up the idea of “dropped, griddled scones” … so I asked my lovely waiter if I could have them instead of the bread. And so of course I ended up with just the scones … the onion and cheese omelette I had ordered was nowhere in sight. Sigh. Lesson learned.

The best lesson, however, is that droopy palazzo pants and erroenous scones don’t matter. These pesky details don’t make a lick of difference in the grand scheme of things… it’s the smiles and the buoyant “Hellos!” that matter. And the curled up cats and the school girls I met yesterday who threw their arms around me as I showed them their picture on my iPhone. And big YES to all of that.

Giggly, Gorgeous Girls

Giggly, Gorgeous Girls


Who, What, When, Where…


Since I already wrote about the “Why“, I figured I’d explain a bit about the other particulars… at least the highlights ‘cuz it’s really my hope that the stories will unfold over the coming months. So below is a little overview to let you know what’s what. In a nutshell though – the eight flags above represent the countries I’ll visit!

I’m leaving on September 11 (total coincidence, that date) for Zambia where I will volunteer at a Lion Conservation Project near Livingstone. I’ll be doing conservation work (preparing food, cleaning enclosures, etc.), research (traipsing around in the bush taking notes on the lions’ activities, character traits, etc.) and conservation education (hanging out at local schools to teach the kids how cool lions are!). This is the same work I did 10 years ago and I cannot wait to get back to the cats.

In mid-October I’ll head over to Zanzibar to work on a Dolphin Research & Marine Conservation project for three weeks.  I’ll be conducting marine research, monitoring dolphin activity and doing coral reef assessments. And hopefully swimming in the ocean every day.

From Zanzibar I’ll travel to Vietnam for a month … wandering from the north to the south – checking out the food scene in Hanoi, trekking through rice paddies and doing a home stay in a remote northern village in Sapa, passing through Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City, touring the Red Boat Fish Sauce factory on a tiny island in the south and then jumping on a few traditional teak boats to motor up the Mekong Delta to Cambodia.

elephant valley project

In Cambodia I’ll work with the Elephant Valley Project in the Mondulkiri Province near the Vietnam border. My days will be spent working to improve the elephants’ living conditions in the sanctuary, helping the mahouts (the elephant caretakers) walk and bathe the elephants, preparing their meals, etc. After I tear myself away from the elephants (I’m already anticipating lots of tears) I’ll head north through Battambang to Siem Reap – spending Christmas amongst the majestic temples of Angkor Wat.

I’ll be in Laos for the New Year – traveling around for about three weeks. I’ve heard it’s amazingly beautiful country …  and am perhaps most excited about participating in “The Gibbon Experience” – zip-lining through the jungle and spending the night in a tree house in a national park surrounded by Gibbons (I originally thought they were monkeys but they’re actually from the ape family … who knew!??).

gibbons experience

After Laos I’ll head to northern Thailand for lots of good food, some cycling tours and cave dwelling and temple visiting and night market perusing and who-knows-what-else.

Myanmar is next on my dance card … think strolls around ancient pagodas and cruises up rivers and across majestic lakes on rickety boats and yet another food tour (are you sensing a theme here?) and I honestly can’t even remember what else.

Then back to Thailand to visit the southern part of the country which I haven’t even planned. All I know is I want to stay far, far away from the crowds of partying westerners on holiday. Anyone with great recommendations for this area – please let me know!

By this time, it’ll be the end of February and I’ll head to Bali to meet some dear friends. We’ve reserved three ridiculously affordable AirBNBs around the country and are just going to do whatever the heck we want. The gals will take off in early March and then … well, I don’t really know. I might head down to the Flores Islands in the southern part of Indonesia (home of the Komodo dragons!) or try to find a volunteer opportunity with sea turtles or who knows what.

So there you have it. I have to admit that, after typing all of this out, my head is spinning. I am left speechless… pinch-myself-don’t-really-have-words kind of stuff. I am a lucky, lucky girl … a girl bursting with gratitude.


Defending My Self


I spent three hours this morning yelling “NO!!!” at the top of my lungs. Not my normal Saturday morning routine… And the repercussions from all this yelling are just now sinking in. And they are significant. Allow me to explain…

I decided a while ago that I wanted to take a self-defense class before heading out on this journey. Single woman, traveling alone, to parts unknown … knowing how to protect myself just made sense. So I signed up for a three hour “Intro to Self Defense” class in San Francisco and really didn’t give it another thought until I walked into the Krav Maga studio this morning.  I fully expected to learn a few defensive moves and perhaps be schooled on how to become more aware of my surroundings – that sort of thing. What I did not expect was how all the defense training would translate in relation to the pesky gremlins that have been taking up a bit too much space in my mind of late.

For the past week or so, I’ve been questioning this journey.  Can I really do this? Should I really do this? And my personal favorite … do I deserve to do this? Thankfully question number one is pretty easy – yes, I am quite confident I can pull this off. With the “should” question … well, that’s a word I’ve never much cared for. Who is to say what we should or should not do? For much of my life I relied on societal expectations to determine the course of my action… I should go to college. I should work in an office for at least 40 hours a week. Etc., Etc. Thankfully I’ve managed of late to identify this  word that is so indicative of duty and conformity – and been able to tell “should” to take a hike – especially when whatever I “should” be doing is contrary to what’s in my heart.

But the final question – the one about deserving – that one has been lingering a little bit more. This is the question that makes my stomach bunch up in knots. It brings up other inquiries, like “Have I worked hard enough to warrant such an extravagant trip?” and “Is the time I’ll be dedicating to volunteering during this journey adequate in relation to the time I’ll ‘just’ be traveling?” It’s as if there’s some mysterious calculation that exists that I’m searching for … one that, should I reach or exceed it, would allow me to go on this trip without the guilt that has been plaguing me. Thankfully conversations with dear friends have alleviated much of this onus. When I bring it up, I get incredulous looks and reminders that, yes, I am worthy. And thankfully my wonderful friend Cheri sent me this part of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese poem to drive the point home:

you do not have to be good


So what does a self-defense class have to do with all these philosophical ruminations? Simply put – I feel like my guttural yells of “NO!!!” – though verbally directed at a poor guy wearing a heavily padded protective suit – were really aimed inward. I feel like I’m finally saying NO to the old doubts of my own worthiness, to  my questions about being enough. So while I spent this morning yelling NO … what I’m really declaring is … YES. Yes to my trip. Yes to my worth. Yes to me.

My dear friend Mati Rose's artwork ... with just the right message.

My dear friend Mati Rose’s artwork … with just the right message.

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