Her hands held the steering wheel as a ray of sunshine glinted off her silver bracelet, catching her eye. It was a Pandora that her kids had chipped in to buy her for Christmas a couple years ago. She looked at the book charm that her husband had added to the bracelet. There was also an apple from a former student and a little boy and girl representing her grandchildren. On a whim, for her birthday she had bought herself an airplane and suitcase charm. These were her favorite although she would never tell her family that. She realized that she usually didn’t even remember the drive to work anymore. It felt like one of her favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time. She got in her car in the morning stowing her big bag and settling her coffee in the cup holder. Then before she knew it, it would be like the road folded up and she was already pulling into the parking lot at work.
Today seemed different. What if? She thought. What if I just got off at a random exit and had an adventure instead of going into work today. She’d driven this same route for ten years, every single day, driving past all the exits she had never taken. Maybe today I’ll take exit 21, she thought and started making up stories about the cars that took exit 21. She decided that they’re probably going up to the mountains to a little cabin in the woods to sit by the fire in their pajamas, reading and drinking hot chocolate as they watch the snow fall outside. They don’t even care if there’s a storm because they don’t have to get up an hour early to shovel the drive and scrape the ice off the car windows. Or if it’s summer, she pictues those lucky exit 21 people heading to a lake to sit on the dock sipping white wine and snacking on expensive cheese and crackers. I could be those people. Maybe today’s the day. My car will veer off at the last second. To hell with exit 54. Where has exit 54 ever gotten me? Exit 21 became the stuff of dreams.
I’m doing it she decided. Exit 19, 20, 21. She steered her car off the exit, her heart beating fast. She seemed to be the only car on the road. I wonder where this will take me she thought. She followed the winding mountain road until she saw a roadblock ahead. As she got closer she could read the sign, “Road Closed”. She stopped her car, climbed out and started laughing. “Figures, “she said out loud. She plucked her coffee mug out of its holder and leaned on the hood of her car, sipping the coffee and contemplating the sign. After she took her last sip, she got back in her car, turned around and thought, well maybe tomorrow I’ll try exit 38.
I’m eight and a half months pregnant. It’s the end of June and it’s hot. I alternate between sitting in our small 3rd floor apartment in front of a fan and driving to air-conditioned places. Lately these places have been stores…Target, malls. I am on a quest for a floppy, white, cotton, baby, sunhat. For some reason, this has become all-important. I can’t rest until I find this item. It’s my Holy Grail. Fear of the unknown and this huge upcoming change in our lives has morphed into the need for this little sunhat. It seems to be the one solid thing I can focus on right now. Making sure this little baby has a sun hat will make me a good mom; I’m convinced of this.
I have always wanted to travel to Africa. I find a volunteer organization that places people in Tanzania and send for information. Somehow this leads to me signing up for this trip! How did this happen? I’m so excited though. I find skirts and flip-flops and special heavy-duty bug spray. I plan and plan. I write out my boys’ schedules and have back up people for every eventuality. I am leaving things well-organized. The week before I am scheduled to leave for three weeks, I go grocery shopping. As I wander down the aisles, my eyes begin to tear. What the heck is going on here? I am holding back a big, messy cry. I end up at the meat display and begin filling my cart with burgers, pork chops, chicken, sausages and bacon. All of a sudden I feel that stocking my freezer with meat is the most important thing ever. What if I die? What if I never make it back from Africa? Well at least my family will have meat. This makes no sense what so ever but I feel a little bit less panicked now.
I did find the perfect sunhat and I’m sure it made all the difference in my parenting skills! I also did make it back from Africa safe and sound. The freezer was still stocked with meat.
On my trip to Tanzania in 2008 I felt that although I was volunteering at a school for students with disabilities, my main function turned out to be to provide unintentional comic relief for the people I met there. We all have skills!
When I was there, it was the start of the short rainy season. Each morning, a van drove all of the volunteers to their placements. One morning it was pouring and the already rough dirt roads were becoming pretty challenging to drive on. At one point we got totally stuck in the mud. I jumped out with a couple of other brave, or crazy, souls to push. We braced our hands on the back of the van as we pushed it out. In the pouring rain and with mud flying from the spinning wheels, we finally felt the wheels find traction and the van rolled out of the mud. We were proud, we cheered, we high fived, and then we realized that the van was on the other side of the dirt road, which had become a river and we were left on the opposite side.
My friend Jean and I shrugged and hiked our long skirts up as we held hands to help steady ourselves as we crossed the rushing, knee deep, muddy water. About half way across my flip-flop washed off of my foot and went shooting away. I clambered out and ran along the river chasing my flip-flop. Another volunteer was able to rescue it and bring it back to me. We climbed back on the van, victorious! Across the road we could see some locals under the overhang of a building, cracking up at our show.
I made it to my school before any of the teachers and sat under the small concrete building’s little overhang, watching the pouring rain, looking at my wet, muddy skirt and flip-flops and thinking about what a fabulous time I was having.
We are standing at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro with our guide, Bakari. We’re all set for our day hike, or are we? He gives us a hiking pole and we start off. I’m wearing sneakers and low socks, which immediately sink down so blisters start to form. Luckily my friend Janice has packed extra, heavy socks, which I put on. I am not a hiker! But off we go, up and up. Bakari wears his iPod listening to Justin Timberlake and walking like this is just a spin around the block. Janice and I not so much! “Polepole,” (pronounced polay polay) Bakari reminds us, which means slowly slowly in Swahili. So we continue hiking bit-by-bit, so excited as we spot 2 blue monkeys who stare at us and follow up above from limb to limb wondering what strange creatures we are and why we’re so slow.
I revel in the quiet, and I’m sure it’s only partly because we’re too winded to talk. I smell the air, which is saturated with the scent of flowers and leaves and coffee. The coffee smell might just be my imagination though because although a lot of coffee is grown here, most people seem to drink tea and I am seriously dying for some dark roast. The look of the forest suddenly changes and the tall, dark green trees that surround us open suddenly to beautiful flowing silver-green grasses and bright flowers.
It takes us 4 hours to hike to the first base camp. I can’t even begin to imagine how people climb this whole mountain. Happy but so tired we sit and pull out our boxed lunches which turn out to be cold hamburgers with fried eggs on top and a piece of chicken. I’m so hungry that a seafood pasta dinner (my favorite) wouldn’t taste any better. A huge black bird soars down and takes a bite of my hamburger. Hey! As I move to defend my burger, the bird picks up my chicken and flies off with it. Isn’t that kind of like cannibalism. That’s just wrong!
We head back down the mountain to finish our 18 Kilometer hike. I’m freely using my walking pole to keep from sliding down any slippery parts. Bakari makes it clear that he is not promising to carry us out if we break an ankle. We’re kind of silly after our fortification of burger and egg. Janice stops to swing on a ropy, twisted vine as I take pictures. Our kind, funny and patient guide starts to become an annoyed parent trying to get silly toddlers to get a move on. “No more polepole!” he says. He doesn’t want us all stuck hiking in the dark. It takes us 2 1/2 hours to hike down with lots of, “No more polepole!” on the way.
We finally make it down. It may be getting a little tiny bit dark. Bakari is relieved. Janice and I are both so happy to have had this experience and both declare that we will never, ever do it again!
I sit in the seat of the plane, tired after hours and hours of travel but so excited as I watch the map on the screen that illustrates our descent into the Kilimanjaro International Airport. I don’t know anyone on the plane so I turn to the nun sitting next to me and, unable to stifle my excitement, tell her that this is my first trip to Africa. She smiles and says; “Now it will be in your heart. You will be back.”
I look out the window as we bump down on the runway. The lights of the plane flash on, off, on, off, creating a strobe effect. My eyes scan the ground. Grass, dark, trees, dark…are there lions roaming around, giraffes, and anaconda? I’m sure the nun would laugh if she knew what I was looking for.
Climbing down the stairs of the plane and onto the dirt, I stop as people rush by me to the path leading to the small airport building. I don’t move, trying to commit this scene to memory. I feel the solid ground under my sandals. I smell the night air, a combination of burning rubber and flowers. I look up at the bats flying around above my head. I feel the hot breeze on my face. I walk slowly forward, full of anticipation and joy, into the unknown…
Self Portrait in Tanzania