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Thirty-three pounds and Twenty Thousand Dollars to Africa
October 29, 2014

So, progress is slow!  At times, discouragingly slow!  But today I want to share a chapter from my book–the one I just finished editing–for the 7th time!  It’s about the African Safari BF and I took following my cancer treatment.  Here goes:

Thirty-three pounds and Twenty Thousand Dollars to Africa

Two years had passed since BF and I had sat on the futon in Daughter Jessica’s NYC apartment, flipping through a binder from her workplace, Micato Safaris. Photos, itineraries, and luxury travel lured us. We had a dream.

Just months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, we deposited money toward The Stanley Wing Safari, one of her company’s most popular trips touring Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa. Truly, this held promise as the trip of a lifetime. One afforded us by the planning and encouragement we received from Jessica, backed by the family discount. We planned to forego all discretionary spending, making payments over time for this trip. Typically middle-of-the-roaders, high-end travel would provide a new experience for us, and fit in nicely as a yearly honeymoon, our fourth.

Our first visit with Dr. Myer, my oncologist, included a verbal confirmation that we were okay to continue with our plans for this trip. By the time this trip rolled around, I would be finished with treatment. It would be a celebration—a culmination. She was all for it.
Interestingly, a supplementary cancer insurance policy that I had previously purchased through work, paid me well over $20,000 and we agreed to spend every cent of it on Safari. It was investment in a memory. Money well spent.

Our initial documents arrived, while I was still in treatment, packed in a box fashioned to resemble an antique suitcase. Our first tangible evidence (other than the price) that luxury travel truly was distinctive. Included were the instructions and paperwork to apply for a visa, luggage weight limits, vaccination guidelines, travel tips, and an exhaustive packing list. The final item on the packing list was “a sense of humor.” I hoped that I still had one.
We purchased a digital camera and close-up lens, Travelsmith’s entire safari wardrobe, and two tubes of DEET. We received huge, army-green duffle bags from Micato in which we packed our allotted thirty-three pounds of goods. We bared a hip for shots and swallowed anti-malaria pills. We prepared.

The lure of the exotic nature of an African Safari and my willingness to go so soon after treatment was intoxicating. I became ever so motivated when friends asked, “Are you sure you should do this? Are you well enough to go?”

“Hell yeah!” I was going. Full speed ahead. Nothing drives me more than when I can tap into my inner spunk and do something others obviously think I shouldn’t. Besides, I was in one of my post-trauma periods in my life (like after someone dies or cancer) where I am, for a period of time, not so prone to give in to my many fears. It’s like, well, I didn’t die of cancer—probably not going to die of ___________ either. It’s a throw-caution-to-the-wind bravery I don’t enjoy in regular life.

June 13, 2009: departure date from Indianapolis.

In a mere twenty-six exhausting hours, we landed at the Nairobi airport where a Micato representative met us, helped us through security, grabbed our bags, and whisked us off to the historic Norfolk Hotel. We immediately got the sense that we were being taken care of and it was nice. More luxury: our gorgeous suite was adorned with two dozen roses, full tea service, and a fruit basket. Very nice! We ate as much of the fruit and goodies as we could before a much-needed night’s rest, knowing we would have to leave the remainder and the lovely roses the next morning. We were scheduled for our first briefing and travel immediately following breakfast.

We ate breakfast next to a large, square, open window a few feet from the narrow sidewalk paralleling the packed streets of Nairobi. Crowded buses, cars and taxis honked and swerved, staking their claim to the right of way. Bicycles darted on to the sidewalk and back down into the street. Beautiful, dark-skinned people hurried to work while we enjoyed a gourmet breakfast buffet and strong African coffee poured from a sterling silver pot. I studied the other folks at breakfast, wondering who might be our travel companions for the next two weeks.

Jambo! Hello. Our first word learned in Swahili. Following a short briefing, we were introduced to an authentic Maasai Elder, our fellow travelers, and the pampering we would enjoy for the upcoming days. In-room gifts, luggage service, and total lack of responsibility for—anything—became our normal. This was not a difficult adjustment. Vacation mode had always suited me, and this step-up to luxury thing sort of happened naturally. As Jessica’s parents, we were secretly treated to a cool safari vest, with 17 pockets, like the ones worn by the guides.

Our job was to simply show up at the designated time at the designated place, open for our next big adventure; and on travel days, we were required only to pack our bags and leave them inside the room by the door. That was it. Each time we moved, our bags magically showed up in our next room. We never touched them other than to pack.

Our first sighting of African wildlife was from the window of the 20-seater plane flying into Amboseli National Park, Kenya. We squealed like excited children as we watched the giraffe and zebras lope from the landing strip and out of our way. Unbelievable.

As we drove to our lodge, I noted the dotting of animal carcasses, bleached by the sunlight. I soon learned these were remnants of kills. That afternoon, our first game drive with Elphas, our knowledgeable Kenyan guide and constant companion, educated us regarding pecking order of the animals (who eats whom), the mating rituals of lions (this is fascinating to watch), why some zebras are brown (they are young), the number of bird species in Kenya (well over 1000), and bush etiquette (never talk above a whisper while watching animals).

We returned from our initial game drive dusty, tired, and unwilling to let the first safari day end. We perched on the patio of the lodge where we could easily watch the evening migration of animals just a few feet from our chairs, drinking wine and opting for casual dinner service, foregoing a shower and the fancy dining room. The stream of wildebeests, zebras, elephants and gazelle trumped any cinema show I’d ever seen. National Geographic Live! We could actually hear the labored breath and smell the animals as they galloped by on their way to their nightly resting place. We had truly exchanged one surreal experience (operating rooms) for another (real, live, galloping zebras!) and I was ecstatic. At that very moment, I determined to never let life become normal and boring again.

We fell into a “routine” of waking up before daylight to in-room coffee and cake served on a silver tray, throwing on our safari vests for sunrise game drives, and later returning to full cooked breakfast and free time or lessons taught by Elphas until lunch, followed by an afternoon game drive. Naps fit well into the schedule and I grabbed rest at every opportunity. Make-up went by the wayside, and I had just barely enough hair to wash and gel.

Before my hair reappeared, I had vowed that I was going to accept my hair however it grew back. No more highlights or lowlights for me! All natural. I’d just be thankful that I had hair once again. And then I discovered that my hair grew back like that of a salt and pepper poodle—curly and not so attractive gray! It instantly aged me by 10 years.

“Blonde please!” I had begged my hairdresser days before departure. My hair was not quite ready for chemicals and I ended up with bright, yellow-orange, pubic-like hair on my head. Nice! I went with it.

Meals and down time on game drives provided time for sharing of life stories with our travel mates. BF and I knew we were not the typical traveler on this type of trip, but we managed to fit in and bonded with our group over the amazing shared experience. We learned that even to those accustomed to luxury travel, this was a surreal adventure. Our new friends taught us to make a Shandy by mixing Tusker beer and ginger beer, and they were jealous when BF grabbed the opportunity to purchase the sword straight from a Maasai warrior’s belt. We happened upon him walking alongside the road while we were driving in a van on our trek to Tanzania. Our guide spoke Maasai and negotiated the deal. Along with the sword itself, a photo of BF standing next to the young man after he exchanged a $20 bill for the sword, is a prized souvenir. And we were the lucky ones who claimed a warthog pet, “Harold,” who slept, body pressed against the side of our tent, at tent camp.

Giraffes and zebras nursing their babies, lion sex, aftermath of kills, male giraffes “arm wrestling” with their necks, mock-charging elephants, and the pursuit of the Big Five: lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino filled our days. Gourmet meals and displays of traditional African song and dance filled our evenings.

We snapped over 3,000 photos, standing, heads emerging from the pop-up top of the Land Cruiser. We fell in love with the acacia trees and the crystal blue sky. Each evening netted a new pillow gift, and sometimes a special treat like a surprise cocktail party in the bush.

We were humbled by the appreciation and gratitude of the African people. “Thank you for coming, thank you for coming” they’d say. They offered to take our laundry home and wash it for us for 25 cents-per-piece or in-room tea and coffee service. Anything was ours for the asking.

A violent election followed by drought had all but killed tourism, their main source of income. They were gracious, friendly, and truly grateful that we were visiting. They were dedicated to making our vacation perfect. BF and I were almost uncomfortable at times by their willingness to serve. We were not accustomed to this.

Over time, anything has the potential to become routine, even watching wildebeest run or spying a leopard sunning herself on rocks. One afternoon later in our trip, we crawled into our Land Cruiser for our game drive and our seatmate, a lovely lady from California who spoke with a classy British accent, ordered the guide and driver, “We would like to see something fornicating. Or a kill.”

My usual intense fear of heights did not keep me from accepting the challenge of a hot air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara. It was a bit of challenge, but I did it! BF held my hand and I shook as the pilot fired up and we floated into the air. He hung over the outside edge of the basket snapping photos. At first, I plastered my body against the inside wall of the basket as we brushed past the treetops, but was eventually able to relax and enjoyed the view. Never before had I looked down into a bird’s nest. I saw something dark floating along the wide stream way below, leaving a wake—a swimming hippo. Amazing!

Our balloon landed in a field of tall grass where champagne, eggs Benedict, fresh fruit, seasoned potatoes, sweets, and piping hot African brewed coffee, and a portable restroom had magically appeared—just for us. We’re talking china, silver, and crystal champagne flutes. Cloth napkins and full table service in the middle of the bush. The coolest breakfast experience ever!

Back in our Land Cruiser, we discovered a very short distance from our feast lay three, black mane lions sunning themselves in the middle of the road. Fortunately, they were not hungry.

We teased with our Tanzanian guide, Lema, when he educated us about the tiny antelope, dik dik, and its lack of predators, “No one eats dik dik,” he said, and we all laughed hysterically. Embarrassed at first, and then understanding that we were okay with a bawdy laugh, he joined in and “No one eats dik dik” became our daily joke.

BF and I almost made one really embarrassing mistake. We lunched with the entire group after checking in to our rooms at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, our final destination. The conversation led to room assignments and fireplaces, etc. It was funny to us how, at each new destination, there was a slight competition over who had been assigned the “best” room. We didn’t care, but for some, having superior lodging to others was imperative. I reported that our room didn’t even have a fireplace. I was so over it!

Our new friend assured me that all of the rooms were equipped fireplaces.

Well, ours didn’t.

After lunch, she walked me back to our room, showing me that I needed only to unlock and open the door in our bedroom, which I had assumed led to our neighbor’s room, to reveal the additional rooms of our suite, including a full living room with fireplace and an additional bedroom. Left to our own devices, we would never have opened that door to discover the extra rooms, fireplace and full bar that awaited us.

The end of our safari came all too soon. Our final days included a dose of another side of Africa. A tour of a school for young children and a home for women with AIDS, exposing an alternate, heart-breaking view. Antithesis. We witnessed the extreme poverty of slums and lack of fresh water before returning to our luxury suite.

Sad to leave, we spent our last afternoon in quiet celebration. Alone, we opened a bottle of African red wine and a white chocolate bar that had been left in our room, and curled up on our patio furniture. We drank to good health and this opportunity to step into a diverse world, unlike any place we had previously visited. We laughed at ourselves about how we almost missed half of our suite by not opening a door and mused regarding what a metaphor that was for life. Sometimes we need only to walk over and open the damned door!

We celebrated the animals and our adventure into their habitat. We celebrated our own lifestyle, certainly not one of opulence like our fellow travelers, yet far from extreme poverty. We celebrated our friends and family at home. We celebrated middle-of-the-road-ness. And finally, we celebrated cancer and the lessons it taught us.

With a down payment, we had dreamed this trip into reality shortly before my diagnosis. We relied on it as our something-to-look-forward-to-when-this-is-all-over throughout our cancer adventure. And in the end, we mostly paid for the trip with my cancer insurance money.

The welcoming energy of the African people, the animal society of the living plains, the pause and appreciation taught by the crying slums proved a perfect backdrop for celebration and in the end, a true culmination.

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1 Comment

  1. Time for another adventure!! BF


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Debi Dixon

Debi Dixon

The Universe is guiding me on an incredible adventure: my Plan B. I write here to share bits of my Odyssey, hopefully to inspire, encourage, or extend the virtual hand of friendship.

When I quit teaching in 2014, I could never have imagined the growth I would experience through travel, writing, reading, therapy, and introspection.

I believe human connection and compassion will go a long way toward our healing, and the best way to connect and feel compassion for one another is through the sharing of our stories.

Thank you for joining me here. I appreciate you and may we grow together.

Inspirational Quote

“You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.”
~Joseph Campbell

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