Apollo loaded the four of us into a riverboat the same size as a short bus, with a quiet, round man at the motor in the back. Apollo stood at the helm, facing us, and told us to keep our arms and legs inside the boat. A desperate stooge needing to be funny and validated, I asked, “What about heads?” and pretended to lean outward from the dock. Apollo laughed, amused, but then reminded me he wasn’t joking. “Crocodiles can leap six feet in the air and take you down,” he said.
For a moment, I thought he was kidding and wanted proof, maybe from Wikipedia or YouTube. But we didn’t have Internet access out here. Not just here on the boat, but here in Selous. Getting away, being remote, and disconnecting entirely were more than half the point. I tucked my body parts inside the boat and resigned to not knowing. It reminded me how gratifying and open the world feels when the answers aren’t always at your immediate disposal.
I had to remember how to imagine. How sad is that? Goddamn you, Internet!
We sputtered from the dock to different spots on the massive lake, spotting African fishing eagles and pods of angry, angry hippos. With each new animal we saw, Apollo spit out a hundred new facts. Dude knew everything, including English and Swahili.
I just sat there, taking it all in, including the relentless heat and sunshine that my body craves. Like always, I ignored everyone’s guidance and didn’t bother with sunblock, begging for the sunny seat and doing my best to land a direct beam, like a kitten napping in the afternoon. Go ahead and wince. I didn’t get a spot of sunburn.
And just like that, rain. We hadn’t even been on the lake a half hour when the storm clouds rolled in and water emptied from the clouds. The drops smashed the lake with increasing intensity, starting as polite polka dots and growing to full welts on the brown water.
Apollo handed us rain ponchos, though he didn’t take one for himself. He acted like the rain didn’t touch him, and based on what I saw, I’m not sure it ever did. He seemed to defeat the rain, which we’d see each afternoon as the heat peaked and the humidity released onto the grateful ground. He kept going without saying a word, completely unfazed by the incoming pellets.
The rains grew heavier and the lightning moved closer, and I couldn’t hold out or act tough anymore. I fussed with the poncho, finally finding the top hole and putting my head through it, struggling to find the shape so I could both cover my legs and valuables and not suffocate inside of it.
I noticed how different Apollo’s attitude was from Americans, who relish in mocking the sissies as a means for bolstering our own status. Don’t call me a hypocrite; I count myself among the guilty. It struck me how insecure we are, or should I say I am, how prone to comparison, judgment, and competition, while Apollo sat quietly confident and tough as fucking nails.
“My mother is real Maasai,” he told us. Several times. Not until two days later did we learn exactly why that makes him so proud, so strong, so aptly named after Greco-Roman deities.
He still seemed calm, but I could see his concern when he looked at us and said, “Now it’s getting serious,” and then broke into Kiswahili to ask the man napping at the motor to take us back to the dock. We could see lightning closing in on us and hear the thunder on all sides.
The crocodiles whose snouts and log-shaped bodies floated atop the water acted like they didn’t even notice the weather change. Unflappable, cocky, and defiant, which I guess is the general attitude for leaping, saw-toothed predators that lived through prehistoric times. Those guys don’t have any more fucks to give. They handed them all out in the Cretaceous period.
We quickly got to shore and sprinted to our camp’s outdoor bar, covered with an impermeable thatched roof. I’m not sure why I bother telling you it’s outdoors because literally everything is outdoors at Siwandu. The closest thing resembling a wall is made of canvas. It is a tent. For all in-tents (⛺️ pun!) and purposes, you are always outside.
As the skies attacked, we sat safely upstairs in an outdoor saloon, where Apollo had become our favorite impromptu bartender. He mixed drinks and poured me a hot tea. “Karibu sana,” he said, then parroted it back in English for the slow learners. “You are welcome.”
Now, I’m not sure about you guys, but my mom placed a high value on manners. Through repetition, intimidation, and mild threats she drilled me on the importance of minding your Ps and Qs. In my mind, there was no mistaking the sequential art of manners. I ask for the thing and say please. When you give it to me, I say thank you. Then you say you’re welcome.
That’s how it goes, right? That’s the whole exchange. I mean, that’s what I thought, too.
But in Tanzania, sometimes they’re so polite and hospitable, they even preempt your “please.”
A host leads you to your seat, but before you have a chance to sit, karibu.
A waiter pours you a drink, but before you have a chance to sip, karibu.
It’s an actual invitation – you are welcome to partake and enjoy – before you even have the chance to ask. It blew my mind, made me think about the literal meaning of language, and served as yet another example of travel opening my eyes in previously inconceivable ways. Girl, you’ll be a woman soon.
The skies continued to explode with lightning, and the rain hit the ground with such force that you could almost hear the drops bounce and land twice. The storm was still too aggressive and violent for us to go back to our tents just yet, so we continued to sit at the bar and have a chat. If you want to be a dick about it, we were trapped. But here’s what I really think happened.
You know how in general, tourism feels weird? Here you are, this foreign item in a new place, and you look at it, watch it, study it for a while, and then you go home and tell all your friends about it using plain words that would be used in a workbook when learning a new language. The food was amazing. The beaches were lovely. The art museum was beautiful. The people were nice. We enjoyed our trip. Dónde está el baño, por favor?
You pray for good weather, search for good food, and try to stay in the nicest place your budget will allow. You try to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. It’s a constructed falsity. A nice one, a pleasant one, but false nonetheless.
It’s too perfect to be real life.
You don’t often meet real people; you meet employees who are paid to “arrange” things for you – tours, day trips, airport transfers, taxis. They go out of their way to make you feel important and special. They say shit like, “good afternoon” and put Andes mints on your damn pillow. This is nice, I think to myself. I must be special. And then it all comes crashing down when I come to my senses. Hey wait a minute! Who the fuck says ‘good afternoon?’
Perhaps it’s from having grown up in New Jersey, but I raise a skeptical eyebrow to people who are professionally nice to me. In some ways, the whole concept of capital-H Hospitality fits awkwardly, is too snug, and smells like jasmine-infused bullshit. Do we have to do this phony-baloney, rooty-toot-toot, song-and-dance, dog-and-pony, hyphenated-colloquialism show? Do they have to keep me so separated like I need to be washed in the delicates cycle? Can’t I just be somewhere?
I suppose I just want to know how I fit in a new place, or how I could. I want to know if I am accepted, not in the same way a Visa or visa are accepted, but as a human person.
I want to understand whether culturally and personally, I can see myself in this new place. See myself, as in imagining myself, a common nobody walking in the streets. Also, see myself, as in my reflection staring back at me. And it’s OK if the answer is no. I just want to know the answer. Straight, no chaser. Maybe you don’t feel the same. Maybe I’m just needy.
Cut back to being trapped there in the saloon, the sky falling down like Chicken Little wasn’t just a manic conspiracy theorist. In that world of fantasy vacations, this would have been a real downer. We had just barely started our boat safari, had so much still to see out there. We were missing it. We wouldn’t get to make it up. Nature doesn’t reschedule. But that disappointment never even made it to my limbic system. And why not?
Because just like that, with the literal switch of the wind, Apollo didn’t feel like a tour guide anymore. The five of us were old friends visiting his spot, just shooting the breeze and catching up on what we’ve missed all these years.
I blew on my tea, listening to Laura and Andy tell us about London’s fox infestation, which I thought sounded rather adorable. They assured me I was wrong – foxes are nasty little buggers – but I could only picture their cute little fluffy tails whisking through the city streets. I’m not a very good listener.
Which explains how I missed the gravity of Apollo’s previous job. When he said that he had been a park ranger here in Selous, I pictured what I’m sure you all are picturing. A guy with a rigid green hat puttering around in a golf cart, clearing brush and collecting litter. Maybe, on a hard day, tending to an ambitious idiot’s broken ankle or shooing away a black bear. A gig perfect for the middle-aged nature lover in your life.
But guys. I can’t tell you how wrong I was. Being a park ranger in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve means navigating through the park on foot. At night. Just you and a shotgun, alone with your over-active imagination. Hearing the call and response of nearby hyenas and every rustle and cracked twig in the grass. Chilling in the pitch-blackness, the smallest and slowest of all the prey out there.
And before you get too brave and comfortable, remember that the most dangerous motherfuckers out there aren’t wild animals. The animals don’t need help. They got this nature shit on lock.
Poachers, man. Many of them former soldiers from Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo. Bad guys, man. Unfathomably bad guys who do unfathomably bad things. Guys who would kill the first or last living unicorn without a second thought. Guys who care about money and profit and power, and don’t give a single fuck about anything else. Guys too evil, stupid, and myopic to understand that they’re on the verge of wiping out the very animals that put food on their table. Irony? They’ve never even heard of it.
As a ranger, your job is to stop them. And they shoot to kill, so what’s your move?
Apollo didn’t bother adding in all that drama. He was too unflappable to start flapping. He just talked about how his mom was happy that he took a job as guide instead of being a ranger anymore.
“Why is that?” I asked, naively confusing bravery with stupidity.
“Being a guide is much safer.” That was the extent of his color commentary, for now. And we didn’t press him on it.
Instead, Apollo turned his curiosity on us and started digging. He wanted to know everything about the U.S. and UK. He wanted to know what we did and how we lived. You know that story already. It’s your life too. It’s boring and common. But not to Apollo.
He had explored so much of Tanzania, by jeep and bus, on foot and aerially, from Arusha to Selous to Dar Es Salaam. But a man like Apollo is too curious to contain. He talked passionately about saving up so that he could travel beyond Tanzania’s borders.
Apollo had big plans to see the world, to sop it all up, and learn everything he could, just like he had about Selous. Already, he was saving to buy a jeep and planned to start his own safari company.
“In the U.S., we call that hustling,” I said. “You’re a hustler.”
“Hustler,” he repeated. “I like that.”
We sat in that saloon until the sky turned still again, which happened even more suddenly than the storm had started. I don’t know about anyone else, but I wanted to stay there. I didn’t want to go back to our tent. I didn’t need dinner. I didn’t need anything else. I just needed to be somewhere.