October 22, 2013

Healing in Africa.

When I was 29, my mom took my sister and I on a two-week safari to Tanzania.

My sister was 41, older than me by enough that we were essentially strangers. I, unbeknownst to her or my mother, was up to my eyeballs in an abusive relationship, a drug habit and a job as a dancer. I’m certain they knew that something was wrong, but am equally certain they didn’t know the extent of what it was.

I spent weeks preparing for this trip in a haze of drug-induced urgency. I had been given a list of things to bring but only managed to purchase one or two of the specified items. Thankfully, my mom sent me khaki pants, a wide brimmed hat, Tevas and more.

When I grabbed a cab for the airport I left behind my rat’s nest of an apartment, an eight ball’s worth of lines on the kitchen counter and my boyfriend compulsively watching porn while he tried to drink himself to sleep.

It was a 19-hour flight to Arusha, Africa, with a stop in Holland. We, my mother, my sister and I, ate a lovely little sandwich of tomatoes, basil and the sweetest, softest cheese ever to emerge from the udder of a goat on a real porcelain plate during our layover. We marveled at the civilized quality of this sandwich and its presentation for years afterward.

When we landed in Arusha, Mount Kilimanjaro loomed in the distance, and the steward guided us down the ladder-like stairs they had unfolded from the plane with a cheerful “Jambo jambo!”

We got to the tarmac, and our noses filled with the scent of earth and distant fires. We stared at the airport in front of us, which didn’t really look like an airport at all, but more like a independent mechanics shop which was on the verge of bankruptcy.

My sister wrapped her arm around my shoulders and said, “We’re in fuckin’ Africa!

Our bus ride from the airport to the hotel was jarring. There were guards with AK 47s throughout the bus, and outside everything was black. Our American eyes, accustomed to constant illumination, struggled to latch onto any shape out there in the night and put some sense to it. Now and then we could see single florescent bulbs, buzzing near hand painted signs for what we assumed were local bars, but that was all.

Our trip was broken up into two parts, time in the bush where we slept in tents, peed in yogurt cups because we were too afraid to go outside, and ate, drank and reveled under the sun moon and stars, and time in luxe hotels which were invariably  staffed with white gloved Africans. This detail made us feel just a little too close to our slave owning forebears.

Despite the discomfort of sleeping in a tent in the Tanzanian bush while elephants brushed their trunks against the canvas walls, and the mortification of being waited on by well meaning locals for whom a dollar a day was an enviable salary, this was a magical place. We saw things on the savannah we never could have imagined.

We gazed into the enormous sun-soaked amber eyes of a wild lion and she gazed steadily right back, imagining perhaps if we were worth a stretch of her lean languid bones, an unsheathing of her scythe-like claws, and a big satisfying chomp of her long, white fangs into our well fed flesh.

We saw a cheetah overtake a wind-quick gazelle, bring her down with a single swift and deadly maneuver, and bury her face into its proud neck. When she looked up at us, where we watched from our open sided Jeep, our faces wrapped in bandanas to ward off the swarms of black flies which had enveloped us, her muzzle was stained bright red, as if she had been doused in beet juice—but it was blood, and she licked it from her fur with the gesture of a queen, merely taking what was hers.

We saw lines of warthogs trotting through the grass, their upright tails swishing back and forth like divining rods, hyenas surrounding an old lion dame who had stolen their kill, their eerie voices like the screams of unbound and evil spirits, splitting the air around us in two, and thousands of monkeys, surging across road in front of us, grinding our procession of two Jeeps to a halt, as they jittered and jeered and regarded us with faces just as intelligent as our own.

We saw giraffes and bright hued birds, and trees with what looked like enormous sausages hanging from them, cork forests, hippos lolling in the mud, and vivid green snakes draped on branches overhead. We saw a volcanic crater with an entire eco-system at the bottom including a black rhinoceros and dust tornados as high as sky scrapers twisting up beyond it’s rim. We saw the first known foot step of man, pressed in mud that set like concrete, beside which was the hoof print of his animal.

About a week and a half in, we arrived at a Massai village and were greeted by a child playing with a plastic bag tied onto a stick. His people stood behind him, their tall black bodies draped in scarlet cloth, their low mud huts fanning out to the side.

We were ushered by our guides into one of the huts, and sat there in the cramped and gloomy but sweet smelling place while they interpreted the villagers conversation. They told us what they undoubtedly told every tourist, things I can’t remember now, about what they ate and how they cooked it, about their family structure and daily lives.

As I sat there, trying to concentrate on the clouds of Massai and African accented English words flying through the still air, all I could think of was my own apartment. How I had been given everything in life; a strong body, a sound mind, the best medical care, an elite education, all the clothes and trips and visits to museums and concerts and ease and luxury that any one person could ever require, and all I’d managed to do was become a barely functioning woman on the verge of her own death, filling every day with fear and shame.

I felt my face burn hot and was glad it was too dark for anyone to see. Tears began to work their way up from the murk of my broken heart, but before they crossed the threshold of my throat, I realized something else. The entire time I was in Africa, I had been free.

I’d forgotten entirely about drugs. My boyfriend had receded painlessly into what felt like the remnants of a bad dream. This person and these drugs, for whom I lived and breathed every waking hour, had simply dissipated, disintegrating with so little fanfare that I hadn’t even noticed it happening.

When I returned home, I walked in on the exact same scene that I had left. Well, not exactly the same. The drugs were all gone and hadn’t been replaced because my boyfriend refused to work and hadn’t had enough money to buy more. But aside from that; his drunkenness, the porn and the rat’s nest of an apartment were all there.

It would be many months before I had the strength to leave that place, and years before it stopped shading every waking thought—but an elemental shift had occurred. Somehow, in a mud hut in Africa, I managed to remember who I was. I remembered that I have eyes with which to see, a mouth with which to speak and a heart as strange and intelligent as a thousand monkeys sitting in the road. I also knew that those are the only things anyone ever needs to begin again.

I will always be grateful for that trip, which was the beginning of another mysterious journey into the unmapped swamps and oceans and star filled reaches of my soul. Tanzania shocked me with its beauty and its oddness, it’s fearsomeness and it’s mad clinging to life, out of a grand sorrow I had invented in my mind and came to believe was all there ever would be.

All this time later, I still carry around the idea of Africa in a hidden pocket in my heart, where it reminds me what freedom feels like and that sometimes mud huts are where you find God.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

{Source: turbotwister.ru via Amy on Pinterest}


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