Before sunrise, a man called through our tent with a “good morning” light enough not to capitalize or punctuate with an exclamation mark. His was the most polite wake up call you’d ever heard, as he carried freshly steeped tea and a tin of biscuit cookies into our tent to perk us up before our morning game walk.
The morning was so proper and civilized; we almost forgot that we spent the night sweating under oppressive heat in a vinyl den of brain-melting stagnant air.
Usually, I dress in dingy sweats and haphazard bright colors, you know, like how teenage boys look when they return from paintballing. But in the bush, that kind of irreverence may get you gored by a water buffalo. So I put on my most neutral colored clothes, sprayed myself with bug spray, and walked to the reception area ready for a long day of safari excursions, on foot and by jeep. There, Josh and I were set to meet up with Apollo, Laura, Andy, and as many wild animals as we could encounter.
An interesting German couple had joined us this morning. They had come with their son to Tanzania for the year, and had spent months exploring the various parks and regions of the country, just for perspective. Despite being twenty years older than all of us, they fit right in. They were funny and outgoing and jovial, disproving every generalization I wanted to make about Germans. Very disappointing.
Apollo carried a shotgun. We tried to make light of it, asking Apollo how many rounds are in there and whether we were to kill our own breakfast, but I’m not sure he understood our nervous sarcasm. He answered in earnest every time. Most demonstratively when Andy asked him if he’s a good shot.
“A very good shot,” he said with a smile. It was confident but not boastful, which is exactly how I’d want to describe the guy holding the shotgun, protecting us from territorial creatures with hooves and claws and small brains. Baller though it was, Apollo’s answer stuck me right in the sternum. I saw Andy’s big, expressive eyes open even wider, and I reflexively did the side-lip face and pulled an imaginary collar that suggests “is it hot in here?” (Trick question: it was hot everywhere).
There was something cinematic about six neophytes following a man named Apollo into the bush. We tucked closely behind him, first and foremost because we didn’t want to die from a hippo mauling, but also because Apollo’s voice didn’t carry very far. It got caught in the trees, perhaps by design, not wanting to disturb the wildlife all around us.
As we approached animal footprints, velvety Christmas mites, or hideous piles of impala shit with a three-foot radius, he explained not just what it was, but why. Later that afternoon, I poured everything I remembered into an unintelligible document in a desperate attempt to capture every bit of information Apollo gave us. I didn’t want this whole experience to simply be on loan from the library; I wanted to own it, to be able to pluck it off my shelf and recommend it to friends, to relive it whenever I felt claustrophobic and the same. I wanted to keep it.
In rereading my notes, I could almost hear Apollo’s pleasant, steady voice lifting up from the paper. The kind of voice that carries a smile and just enough of an accent to make me lean in and listen more intently. The kind of voice I’d like to read me children’s stories. With every new fact he spurted, I nodded like a sycophant. He could have told me anything, and I would have believed it.
But Apollo is too earnest, too passionate about wildlife to make things up. Besides, he didn’t have to. He could identify every species of plant and animal, and some incredible adaptation that it had evolved to survive in this extreme climate with brutal competition and predators.
Like how ants nest in the thorns of one type of acacia plant to protect themselves from being eaten. And if an impala chomps into their branch or thorn, they dispatch with a vengeance, climbing onto its face and punishing it with thousands of angry ant bites.
Or how impala and zebras like to kick it with giraffes for protection. While tall people mostly annoy me for their relative lack of coordination, poor dancing ability, and for obstructing my view at concerts and sporting events, giraffes are veritable heroes of the grazing world of Animalia. They have superior eyesight (for starters, they can perceive color); their long necks makes it easy for them to see longer distances; and they almost always travel in groups so they can survey in all directions and warn each other if a predator approaches. It’s like a alarm clock. WOO WOOOO.
And, with apologies to the avid birding community, he told us things about birds too, but I zoned out. I just can’t get into birds. I’m a good student, but even an apple-polisher like me has to draw the line somewhere.
The sun climbed higher in the sky and baked the ground beneath us. Our footsteps grew heavier, and if some other group had been tracking us, surely they would have believed we’d been hit by a tranquilizer dart. We slowed to a sweaty, overheated crawl, and our stomachs grumbled with every step.
Having just listened to the dire daily conditions of animals living in the bush, I thought it might be a little tasteless and selfish and aggrandizing to casually announce how hungry I was. We had been walking for four hours, and no one had complained. I was too stubborn, principled, and annoyingly conscious of my American privilege to be the first. I wanted it to be the Germans. Please, Germans, do us all a favor.
I fought off that brownout feeling, like when you give blood and your body slides off its chair and onto the floor where it feels cooler and you can sleep; I believe it might be called ‘passing out.’ I did, however, have my first and only angry thoughts toward our beloved Apollo, when he told us we’d have to walk another hour before getting back to camp for breakfast.
Predators be damned! I was certain that my body had already begun to eat itself from the inside out. Surely, I thought to myself, my remains will be left here for the vultures. It had been a great run, but no mortal could fight the circle of life. You know, the one that moves us all?
We walked just around a bend, into a tree-covered alcove where I thought about lying down in the shade to die of starvation or mauling, whichever took me first. But that sly pup Apollo had tricked us. There, in front of us, was an oasis. Heaven, thy name is a perfectly set breakfast table and a kitchen crew lined up and ready to cook eggs to-order. So much for my rebukes of American privilege!
We sat down together, Apollo next to the Germans while Laura, Andy, Josh, and I yuk-yukked around at the other side of the table. Between bites of biscuits and jam, and the juiciest papaya you’ve ever tasted, we got on famously.
Our energy restored by the calories and thirty minutes in the breezy shade, we walked back to camp the way I like my eggs, sunny side up.