Bless the Rains

When I arrived at the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, the staff said it was the worst drought since the park was founded more than twenty years ago. It was the driest place I’d seen in a long time, and it seemed as if the strike of a single match could set the entire savannah on fire. Dry trees, dry earth, dry bones stretched as far as the eye could see. 

“We really need the rain,” they said.

That afternoon we piled into the open air truck for the game drive, the first of a few drives into the bush (or bushveld, if you want to get fancy). The goal was to experience the savannah and hopefully see some of South Africa's most famous animals, but it was unusually windy. This faceless force of nature slashed through the savannah that afternoon and into the evening, pushing the animals to take shelter. Our guide, a talented and dedicated man named Given, explained that strong winds make it difficult for the animals to smell, and with that sense reduced they often hide. But the drive wasn’t without its rewards. Given spotted a mother giraffe and her calf, and we quietly exited the truck to get a closer look. Our guide took care not to invade the space of the giraffes (or any animals we approached), always maintaining a distance comfortable for all. I don’t remember the first time I saw a giraffe in a zoo, but I will always recall the moment I saw this calf half hidden by the trees. Even at just a few months the giraffe was enormous, and undeniably graceful. Given pointed out the differences in the coloring and the spotting patterns, as well as the size of the horns to indicate sex. It was the first lesson of a thousand he gave during my stay in the savannah. 

A successful game drive is a combination of wildlife and environment knowledge, keen observation and luck.

There are no guarantees in the business. So often we saw signs of the animals’ presence but didn’t actually see the animal. For example, I asked our guide Given about was a tree whose bark had been erratically stripped and scored, exposing a reddish trunk smattered with mud. The culprit? Elephants. He said elephants not only eat the bark, but often knock over trees for the sheer enjoyment of it. The mud on this one had already hardened, and we didn’t see any elephants that day but just the idea of these majestic creatures roaming around knocking over trees was enough to make the journey worthwhile. Given also showed us the other, less playful side of nature — the remains of an elephant. A single bone nearly the length of my body brought me back to those dinosaur displays I saw in museums as a kid. Only this time it wasn’t a prehistoric piece strung up along with the rest of the skeleton. This set of bones was strewn about in a similar fashion to the way my nephews toss their toys throughout the living room. A femur bone by this tree, a few vertebrae by the bush over there, and a hip bone in the center of the destruction. Way off to the side, a portion of twisted elephant hide, so stiff you could use it for a chair. Welcome to the savannah’s living room.

Other surprises awaited once the light faded.

Even with the windy night, Given found four lions thanks to his sharp eyes and apt juggling of driving and spotlight duties. I found the beasts to be surprisingly relaxed as we watched them amble about, then finally pick a place to rest. They took no notice of the incessant camera clicks. In fact, our presence didn’t interest them at all, which was kind of a relief. 

The ride back to the lodge was invariably windy, and after a quiet meal we retired to our cabins after what turned out to be a tiring day. An early morning six-hour drive from Johannesburg just to get to the border of the preserve, another hour or so from the park gate to the cabins, and then several more hours in the truck for the game drive really shouldn’t have been so exhausting. After all, I was just sitting there. But something in the wind pulled me into a weariness that made me expect sleep would come easy. I settled in for the night just as the long-awaited rain made its debut. Perhaps rain is an understatement. The storm came in furious as the wind was earlier and raged well into the night. I am no stranger to thunderstorms, but this one howled so intensely even I couldn’t sleep through it.

Bless the rains, indeed.

"Better not to watch"

Sleep or no sleep, every day at 5:30am the staff at Greenfire Game Lodge beat an enormous drum that hangs just outside the dining area for the wakeup call. After a quick coffee or tea, it’s into the trucks for the morning game drive. Not long into the bumpy, jerky, motion-sickness inducing ride, I knew I had a problem. Something hadn’t settled well with me the day before, and the moment Given stopped the truck along the way I asked if it was safe that I exit the vehicle. Six sets of eyes followed me as I hopped quickly down and walked behind the truck to revisit last night’s dinner. I could only think to offer this advice to my fellow safari-goers: “Better not to watch” and pointed to the front of the truck as if I could distract them from what was about to happen just a few steps behind their seats. Moments later Jonathan came to check on me, and managed to step in one of the three deposits I had made. Instead of thanking him for the paper towel he offered me, I only managed to quip “Watch where you’re stepping!” I knew that he was also having some stomach trouble but my symphony for him got lost in the shame I felt for subjecting the rest of our the group to the ever-disgusting experience of hearing someone else toss their cookies.

An Unlikely Pair

After that embarrassing episode had passed, we saw far more interesting sights, such as the unlikely pair of a zebra and giraffe. Given told us that these two species often graze together because the giraffe’s height allows it to see approaching predators, whereas the zebra can sense danger on the ground and below the tree level. At the first sign of danger, either the zebra or the giraffe will move out, which signals to the other that it’s time to go. 

Zebras are of course a well-known staple of the African savannah, but what I didn’t know is that you can replace the word “herd” with “dazzle.” And doesn’t a dazzle of zebras sound more fitting? No two stripe patterns are equal, and even more adorable, they often rest as a pair with their head placed on the other’s back to watch for danger in different directions. 

References to the Lion King are inevitable on a safari, but the diversity Disney presented only scratches the surface of the true glory of the animal kingdom. The birdlife alone is enough to fill a book. Our successful sightings included a black-backed jackal, an animal that mates for life and will share food with their partner if they’re not foraging together. I’ve found that sharing food is a basic concept of love (especially when it is chocolate), so I think this counts as romantic, even by Disney standards. We also saw genets, which look like a snub-nosed cat with rounded ears, and opt to carry their young on their back instead of by the mouth as other cat species do. The genet’s raccoon-like relative, the African civet, are also rarely seen, and tend to diet on things that kill most other animals, like toxic insects, toads and poisonous snakes. 

Our guide spotted this giant African land snail shell--another surprise along the safari. And apparently they make great pets.

Our most intimate encounter was with the short-tempered African buffalo as a herd of them grazed quietly and peacefully on either side of our safari vehicle. Both males and females have horns for defensive purposes, and evidently they’re not afraid to use them at the first inkling of a threat. 

A more common sight on the savannah is the greater kudu, a majestic antelope with corkscrew horns and an ability to jump eight-foot fences. Surprisingly, their twisted horns don’t pose a tangling hazard, as they simply tilt their chin up to avoid catching them in the brush. 

A smaller but more common antelope, the impala, is definitely the animal we saw the most of during the safari, to the point where we didn’t even touch our cameras when they were spotted. But seeing them so frequently had its benefits over the rarer sightings. We could observe the herds better without constantly worrying how the pictures turned out. 

The variety of antelope in South Africa alone is extensive, ranging from the greater kudu to the smaller varieties, each with their own coloring and graceful gait. Unfortunately, my photography skills weren’t good enough to capture them all. 

Earth’s largest land animal, the African savannah elephant, is surprisingly good at camouflaging itself, and I’m still in awe that such an enormous creature keeps a strict vegetarian diet. We were lucky enough to spot one older male which our guide guessed was close to 50 years old. The elephant easily ripped off a large branch whose thickness was enough for a small tree, partly to eat the bark, partly just to be destructive. We didn't get very close, but to be honest, we didn't need a closer view to realize this animal's power.

Though some measures exist to keep the animals safely on the reserve, it's good to be reminded of the wildness of the savannah and its creatures. On our way to the airport we saw a warthog on the side of the road. That’s right…a regular Pumba just looking for some grub. Instant delight filled our car. Even on our last leg nature provided us with a glimpse of something new. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “I want to see a baby warthog.” Because we can all agree that smaller, younger versions of animals are obviously cuter. Just then on the right side of the road we saw another clan of warthogs, this time with the smaller, younger and cuter version in their midst. Our safari was complete. The best part about the experience was feeling like I might never need to go to a zoo again. In fact, it makes you think twice about ever putting any animal in a cage.

Name one living thing on earth that wasn’t meant to be free. I dare you.

PS - If you're thinking, "Well, G, how about murderers and such? Should they be free? What about deadly viruses? Should they be free to wreak havoc on society?" You can take my challenge with a grain of salt and use your judgement. 

The Price of Secrets

I know a man who can identify a bird by the shape of its wings. In an instant of flight he analyzes its shape and size and coloring, then quickly flips through a thick field guide to show me a drawing of the bird I was too slow to catch on camera.

It’s easy to miss sighting a bird or a monkey or a caiman or a cobra in the jungle, despite their near omnipresence. They move seamlessly in and out of the shadows of this vast habitat. But catching a glimpse of wildlife, to see this intense array of biodiversity is what brings me and thousands of other voyagers to the Amazon every year. 

The intensity of the natural diversity is enough to make you feel like a stranger on this earth. And why wouldn’t it? The Amazon, or as Amazonas, as it is in Portuguese, is a wild, storied land. It would be foolish of me to try and capture its grandeur here, but to prepare for this trip I did read two accounts of men risking life and limb and sanity to experience this place. The first was The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace, a writer for National Geographic. He opts for a Amazonian voyage at what is perhaps the worst possible time—in the middle of a divorce, a new relationship, a stressful transition for his kids and his lack of physical preparedness. But then again, is there ever a good time to venture into one of the world’s harshest environments? I think not. His book details a trip with Sydney Possuelo, the once-leader of Brazil’s government agency to protect the indigenous people. Possuelo’s lifework was to implement a no-contact strategy for the agency, meaning they wouldn’t attempt to intentionally modernize any uncontacted indigenous community. Instead of trying to bring the tribes to a modernized way of life, he worked tirelessly to survey the outskirts of their communities and advocate for their independence. Basically, the idea was to leave them to continue living the way they have been for hundreds of years. Wallace’s book follows one of Posseulo’s trips to search for and survey what was believed to be one of the last uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, the Arrow People, or, the Flecheiros, who were given this name by outsiders for their habit of launching poison-tipped arrows at any intruder. This adventure weaves together the challenges of modern Brazil’s interaction with native populations and the classic jungle trek (with a few surprises, of course). The Unconquered is a fantastic look into the madness of the jungle and Brazil's culture, and it is one of the best pieces of journalism I've read to date. 

The other book I read was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, which retraces the the tale of Royal Geographic Explorer Percy H. Fawcett and his 1926 disappearance in the Amazon. Fawcett, a well known and experienced explorer went on a mission with his son Jack, and his son’s friend Riley to search for the fabled El Dorado, or the Lost City of Z, which Fawcett believed was a highly sophisticated society deep in the jungle. He wasn’t alone in this theory, and after Fawcett and his party vanished, others went in to search for him and Z. Not all lived to tell their tales. Fawcett’s other exploration feats are as legendary as his disappearance, and this book was a great introduction in the old world days of exploration and how alluring the Amazon can be, despite its dangers. It was also a fascinating look at a talented and perhaps troubled man possessed by passion. You should read it before the movie comes out in October. Trust me, it's worth it to experience this adventure first in words, then in film.

But it should be remembered that the difficulties are great and the tale of disasters a long one, for the few remaining unknown corners of the world exact a price for their secrets.
— Percy H. Fawcett, lost in the jungle

My own voyage did not remotely resemble any of the treks I read about but it was no less thrilling. The density and diversity of the Amazon Basin is simply astonishing. I saw a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the jungle, but it was enough to feel like it was a world within itself. The starting point of our journey was in Tefé, a small city in the state of Amazonas that is about a hour long flight west of Manaus. From there we took a small boat for 40 minutes or so to the Uakari Floating Lodge in the Mamirauá Reserve. There are many outfitters that advertise Amazon jungle experiences, particularly outside of Manaus, but most of the ones I researched felt more like a gimmick instead of an actual look at nature. The Uaucari Lodge, however, not only employs its own biologists, but it is a model of sustainability. I was impressed by their organization and service, and most especially by the quality of their guides. Speaking Portuguese made our experience more enjoyable, of course, but the guides were all helpful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. During one canoe trip I foolishly asked our guide, who grew up nearby, if he had to study the field guide much in order to work this job. “Of course not,” he said. “This is my backyard.” The brightly colored parrots were as familiar to him as pigeon was to me growing up. 

Every day in the reserve he proved it. He pointed out two sloths which otherwise would have gone unnoticed to my untrained eye. He also showed me that a coiled lump in a tree just above our heads was in fact a snake sleeping. It was in that moment I finally saw for myself a little of what I had read about the Amazon and its hidden dangers and its undeniably deadly qualities.

But deadly can be beautiful.

It was as if we were clawing our way through a huge, vaporous terrarium, an enormous laboratory where the process of evolution continued to unfold by the minute, spawning a mind-boggling array of deadly creatures and toxic plants, all locked in a terrifying contest of survival.
— Scott Wallace, The Unconquered

Piranha fishing is surprisingly easy. Here, the guide tells me not to let my arm so close to the fish's mouth...

You know, I had a lot of romantic notions about the jungle and this kind of finished that.
— James Lynch, Jr. as quoted in Lost City of Z discussing his capture by an Amazonian tribe
Have you ever heard the sound of a jungle? It’s not what you imagine. It’s not really loud or anything like that. But it’s always talking.
— James Lynch, as quoted in Lost City of Z
Civilization has a relatively precarious hold upon us and there is an undoubted attraction in a life of absolute freedom once it has been tasted. The ‘call o’ the wild’ is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure.
— Percy H. Fawcett

Linda Olinda

It has been over a month since my three-week trip around Brazil began, but the cool ocean breezes are ever present in my mind. The journey began in Olinda, a small colonial coastal town in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast. Once a stronghold of the sugarcane industry and the state’s capital, Olinda has seen its glory days come and go, but the charm remains in brightly colored buildings and churches reborn after a ruthless looting by the Dutch. 

As perhaps is to be expected in a Roman Catholic country, there are churches around just about even bend in Olinda, including 20 Baroque styles chapels mostly dating from the 18th century. The historic center of this quaint hilly town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, one of just 13 cultural sites across the entire country. I loved wandering into a few of these houses of worship with their beautiful, delicately painted blue tiles. The chapels were scattered among the broken cobblestone streets where I caught glimpses of the ocean shimmering just beyond the palm trees.

The view from our Airbnb was envious, especially at sunrise.

Perhaps even better than these picturesque views was an accidental encounter with several dance troupes of caboclinhos who perform the traditional indigenous dance that portrays three key aspects of that culture: hunts, harvests and battles. Caboclinho means “little caboclo” which is entirely unhelpful unless you understand the origin of caboclo. This was the Portuguese term given to the offspring of natives and blacks in Brazil. It is worth nothing that the Portuguese and Brazilians historically had a different view of racial intermixing than the United States. The intermixing was in some ways encouraged here in Brazil centuries ago, and though I can’t pretend to understand all of the nuances on the subject, I can say that this term caboclinho is not meant to be a racial slur. These days it refers to the dancers themselves who perform this traditional display, which includes the characters of a chief and the tribal mother (or female chief), shamans and their warriors. The instruments are nothing like what you would find in a high school band. Instead of clarinets and french horns, these kids learn to play bamboo pipes and maracas shaped like war clubs to decidedly un-Western tunes. And then they dance. I don’t mean awkward prom school dances or even the ballet numbers I tried to do as a kid. I mean whole body movement faster than you can blink. Feet shuffle and arms wave in a maniacally beautiful fashion. Add to this the sparkles and feathers and headdresses the size of a mattress and you have a festival. In fact, you have the northeast's answer to Rio's Carnaval. Needless to say, Brazil continues to surprise and delight.

To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield

O que é um berne?  “What is a worm?”

I turned to a man named Bruno with very blue eyes and asked this question without a hint of sarcasm. An early, necessary sidenote: for those of you who don’t know, sarcasm is my natural state. Bruno turned to me with a surprisingly equal lack of sarcasm and answered, “É quando você tem…

This was not my first mundane vocabulary question, or my last, during a four-day weekend in what’s known as the Switzerland of Brazil, Campos do Jordão, in the state of São Paulo. Apparently it is also Brazil’s highest city, meaning that during the winter it might get a dusting of snow, maybe, but probably not. It’s not yet officially winter here, but that hasn’t stopped Brazilians from reciting the Game of Thrones chant “Winter is Coming” and donning scarves and gloves. I don’t have the heart to tell them that no, it’s not coming. At least not with heaps of snow. Because this isn’t really Switzerland. It’s only fake Switzerland in Brazil, which means two things: 1. Winter sports are never going to be your thing 2. Everything is decidedly less organized.

But I didn’t go to Campos do Jordão for the nonexistent snow or even the quaint, Swiss-chalet-like architecture. I went on a wild, curious and abrupt turn of the mind. I went on a whim. I went to spend a few days expanding my comfort zone with Outward Bound Brasil. I’ve wanted to do an Outward Bound course in America for a few years, particularly because they offer free programming for eligible veterans. I haven’t made it to a course in the States yet, so when I happened upon this course in Brazil that was open to anyone, including a gringa like me, I decided to go. Not because of careful planning or a great desire to sound like the dumbest person in the room, but simply because I could. (Fact: I did sound like the dumbest person in the room, but I got over it).

As my family members and fellow military friends know, there are many choices you cannot make while serving in the military or being a part of a military family. You usually cannot choose where you live, or when your family will be together. You cannot choose your rank or your commander or your uniform. You often cannot chose if and when you go to war. You certainly cannot choose whether you come back. You simply serve, knowing that you will have to make a million other, often more difficult choices along the way. And though my season of military service is over, I try to be mindful of the ability to choose during this unparalleled season of freedom I am in right now.

So I chose to go into the woods with ten Brazilian strangers and ask them about worms. Our four-day weekend was spent largely at a cabin learning how to do things that seem totally useless in most of our everyday lives: tying knots and using a compass, finding an azimuth and navigating to a point (sans GPS, if you can believe it). These were all things I had done before but long forgotten, however for others it was an entirely new experience. The joy in seeing someone learn a new skill, not because they needed it for a job or a promotion, but just because they wanted to do something different, was joyful. We played a few of the classic team building games, and one such exercise is the trust fall, where you willingly fall backwards off of a platform and hope the strangers you met yesterday don’t drop you. 

In the military I had done countless of these exercises that are meant to help you trust yourself and the others in your new team. But now I was seeing it from the civilian side, from people who chose to spend their long holiday weekend doing something different. They weren’t attending because their ROTC program required it or because their military education demanded it. They weren’t trying to impress the commander or the first sergeant. They certainly weren’t wearing uniforms. But as a group and individually they were more dedicated to trying, to taking a risk, to falling and failing than I had seen in a long time. And they reminded me that once you get past that moment of panic, you can start learning. In the end that’s what Outward Bound is trying to teach you, to keep striving and not to yield to your panic. 

This is easy to say in the more-or-less controlled learning environment I was in. The harder task is taking this idea home and then applying it when your when language skills fall short. Like when you’re the foreigner who can’t explain herself after her debit card was literally eaten by the ATM and the bank workers are blaming you for their dysfunctional machine. Not that it has ever happened to me, of course. 

Which reminds me of another phrase I learned that weekend: Nunca se renda. Never surrender. This doesn’t have to be a William Wallace-type war cry (but that's fine, too). It can be a quiet reminder in the days when you feel like you don’t have a choice or a chance. It’s a reminder to me when my Portuguese fails me and I’m caught in another awkward situation, likely of my own doing, that I can’t talk my way out of. I used to be good at that. It used to be my job, actually. Talking in and out of situations, in and out of media interviews, in and out of the spaces between rocks and hard places. I liked the work, too. I liked telling stories, even the difficult ones. But you can’t be a storyteller if you don’t know the language. So I’m relearning…everything. That primarily means learning to embrace the discomfort zone and not being a berne about it. So, nunca se renda. And don’t be a worm.

Fez.

Such a simple name for a complex city. As Morocco's cultural and spiritual center, Fez was a must-see on our list, particularly because of the medina (an old walled part of the city - common in many north African towns). The Fez medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the closest I've come to stepping back in time.

Donkeys, mules and handcarts are the main means of transportation in the medina. 

For starters, there are no cars in the medina. They simply wouldn't fit in the narrow, winding alleys. If you're thinking of tiny European cobbled streets, cut them in thirds, and that's about the average width of the alleys in the medina (or so it felt to me). What it lacks in roadways, it makes up for in traffic. The "streets" (if you want to call them that) are typically congested with shopkeepers, errand boys, donkeys, cats and, of course, tourists. There is a constant din of haggling during the day as shoppers bargain for their treasure. Here's a incomplete list of what you can buy in the medina:

clothes (traditional and modern), shoes (new and the ones straight off a seller's feet), wedding  decor and dresses, trinkets, headscarves, jewelry, tea, coffee, spices, produce, meat (up to and including camel meat from one specialty butcher), leather goods, metal goods, pots, pans, all manner of cooking utensils, copper sinks (for the kitchen and otherwise), books, electronics, furniture, antiques (real and not). 

The only camel butcher in the medina, as far as I know. 

The size of these stores range from smaller than your master bedroom closet to surprisingly spacious. There are also food stands, restaurants and tea houses in the same range of sizes. And remember, all of this business is done without a cargo loading area. I stepped aside in the alley for more donkeys to pass than I did for elderly people. 

One of the wider alleys inside the medina. 

Personal affairs are also conducted differently there. For example, the best source of neighborhood information comes from an unexpected place: the baker. Every neighborhood baker becomes this source and confidant because every family kneads their dough at home and brings it to the bakery to cook. So, it becomes the one place everybody visits daily, and subsequently, gossips daily. If a family is looking into a potential marriage for their child, the baker is often still the person they ask about the other family to see if it is a good match. 

Aside from gossip, the medina is also home to a gorgeous mosque I was only allowed glimpses of (non-Muslims are not permitted to enter) as well as many former schools, or medersas.  Other hidden gems included our accommodations. We stayed in Fez for a few nights in a beautifully restored guest house, or dar. These guest houses operate much like a bed and breakfast, only you wouldn't see a charming farmhouse or an elegant Victorian home on the outside. In the medina, there's no room for that. Instead, you're more likely to roll right past it because their entrances look just like the rest - guarded by a heavy, creaky wooden door. But stepping inside felt like walking into an oasis among the madness of the old city. The guesthouse, Dar Serrafine, had a beautiful inner courtyard that opened up to the sky and a rooftop terrace to view the medina. In the midst of donkeys, hand carts and people shouting, the dar was somehow insulated from it all, a place where it was just quiet enough to hear the birds. 

 

An old medersa, now a small museum. 

Buying linens in an artisan shop was a much better experience than being haggled on the crowded streets.

Leather goods are still made in the traditional fashion at this tannery in Fez. 

Inside the courtyard of a a large guest house and restaurant.

This is madness. This is the medina.  

Turn 180 degrees around from the view of the medina and this is just on the other side of the hill.

We're flying around the world.

But first, let me tell you where (and why) we've been of late. Last October, Jonathan and I began learning Portuguese for our upcoming move to Brazil. He is part of the Olmsted Scholar Program, which is allowing us to embark on an exciting journey of learning a new culture by spending a few years in South America. So, last fall we began an intensive language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. We spent countless hours together learning Portuguese, but we also enjoyed the beauty of the area. We settled in a sweet little cottage in the ever-charming city of Carmel and explored the California coast whenever we could. After months of work (and a decent amount of play) we graduated from the language school and said farewell to California in May. Since then we've spent some quality time with family and friends and are just days away from embarking on our most ambitious travel yet: circling the globe. Jonathan and I have always been passionate about traveling and experiencing life in other lands, so to begin our new life in Brazil, we figured we'd see as much of the world as we can!  We started in Los Angeles in May and headed to the East Coast of the US, but the real fun begins next week when we touch down in Morocco. From there, we will keep working east to eventually touch back down in Los Angeles. I plan to continue writing here as we experience new sights and hope you'll join me for the road ahead!