09 September, 2011

Mamasita, Mamachita

The truck rumbled to a stop, under a shady canopy of Acacia trees. I could feel the strength of the sun's rays on the back of my neck, as if someone was holding a spy glass, to magnify the sunlight into flames. It was really hot. No surprise, as close as we were to the Tropic of Capricorn, the most southerly latitude on the planet. The air was still but unlike the climate at home, it was lighter, not the heavy humidity that we were accustomed to but drier...really dry. A large cloud of brown dirt,  kicked up by the truck's wheels, enveloped us completely, insuring that later on, we would be sneezing and coughing up more dirt than we cared to. I fanned the dirt-filled air away from my face, as best I could. All of a sudden, we heard the roar of a lion, which got our full attention. No doubt about it, this was no Busch Gardens. The sound reminded us that we were truly, in a wild place. My friends, Tommy and Brett, looked at each other in disbelief.

The native plants caused the air to smell completely different. It was the freshness of the earth, spiced with a hint of wildness, amplifying the intensity of the fragrant air.  The colors of the landscape, made brighter by the sun, reflected a diversity of colors not found in any crayon box. I was enchanted. Africa was every bit as beautiful as I imagined it to be. "WOW guys, check this out...look around, there is nothing like this at home! Hey Tommy, can you believe it? We're in Namibia man...NAMIBIA!" I proclaimed.

Tommy laughed and said, "this is incredible, absolutely incredible. I feel like I jumped into a PBS Nature documentary on TV. And you know, this dirt will protect us from the mosquitoes, just like the elephants were doing on that show, remember?" We all laughed, remembering well, that day and how at the time, we were unknowingly closer to fulfilling a childhood dream. For longer than I can remember, maybe going back to when we were in middle school and preoccupied with playing games like street hockey, we dreamed of Africa, we talked of Africa and one day, we made a pact that we would see Africa...together. About 2 years ago, Brett had met a travel agent through his job at an accounting firm. He asked her for help in making this dream come true, a surprise for his closest friends. After much secret planning, Africa seemed more doable than ever before. He called Tommy and then, he called me.

"Yo, Scotty, what if I told you that I found a way for you, me and Tommy to go on a safari?" he asked excitedly. I admit, I was half listening, as I was still at work, in a middle of a brain-twisting email that I just had to send out.

"That's great Brett, you mean like when I win the lottery and what's the first thing I would do with the money?" I shot back and then said with a tease, "I think Disneyland might be first on that list, like in, Scott Williams, you just won the Super Bowl and what are you going to do? and I say, I'm going to Disneyland!"

"No man, I am serious. I've been working with a travel agent and she has scored us a big deal, in Namibia!"

"Huh? Are you playing me man?" I asked. "Because, I am trying to get this email back to my boss and I'm short on time, with no patience for getting pranked."

"C'mon Scotty, you know me better than that. I swear, it's no joke. I couldn't believe it, when Narcia Marquez told me. So, let me tell you what we need to do...." as Brett started to explain all the details and my jaw kept dropping lower and lower, with every word. "We were going to Africa!" I shouted in my head.

Namibia is located on southern Africa's west coast. The country gained its independence from South Africa in 1990 and is bordered by Angola, Zamibia, Botswana and South Africa. Namibia is also home to one of the largest Cheetah populations in the world. And here we were, approximately two and a half hours north of Windhoek, in the Waterberg Plateau, nestled among the Omboroko Mountains at Okonjima, a private farm owned by Wayne, Donna and Rosalea Hanssen. Their farm, originally started as a cattle farm by their parents, Val and Rose Hanssen, is now home to the AfriCat Foundation, the world's largest Cheetah, Lion and Leopard rescue and release program. It would be a great place to see Cheetahs living in the wild.

The rich baritone voice of Tangeni brought me back to the present moment, as lost in my thoughts as I had been. Tangeni worked at Okonjima and had invited us to join him, to check on a group of Cheetahs that had been rehabilitated and released on the preserve a few weeks ago.  The preserve was enormous, encompassing approximately 54,000 acres; an enormous amount of land for three guys from the suburbs, where a half-acre lot was really big and like living in the country.

"A cheetah's face is much different from a leopard's face." explained Tangeni. "if you look closely, you will notice black marks that run from the corners of the eye, down to the corners of the mouth." he continued, as he unloaded walking sticks, a radio transmitter, a heavy backpack filled with medical supplies and enough water for each one of us, from the back of the truck. As Tangeni spoke, I thought of a cheetah and tried to focus on the face, to notice exactly what Tangeni described but I was too overwhelmed by the sounds, the smells and the sights of Africa which now surrounded me.

"Do you know why this mark exists?" asked Tangeni. The three of us looked at each other, wondering if any of us knew the answer to his question. After a few seconds, we shrugged, conveying to Tangeni that no, we did not know the answer.

"The Ovambo have a legend about the good mother. This mother gave birth to four cubs. This was her first litter and her labor was long and difficult. She almost died giving birth. Three of the cubs did not survive the long and painful birth. The fourth and final cub however, did survive. He was strong and the mother cheetah was in love with her cub. She licked him and smelled him. She fed him and made him stronger. At night, she cuddled him and kept him warm. Soon, it would be time for the mama to leave her cub and hunt. She must keep up her strength. She must make good milk for her cub. While she was gone, the cub disappeared and when the mama comes back, she searched and searched, calling and crying for her little cub to no avail. "Where have you gone, my sweet little baby?" she cried over and over. Despite her anguish, the cub was never found by her. He was gone." Tangeni had our full attention.

"She grieved for a long time, maybe, for the rest of her life. Her tears were endless and so intense, that it stained her face, leaving marks which resembled stripes. Ever since then, in honor of the good mother, all Cheetahs have these tear marks." Tangeni finished with a warm smile and the three of us, now standing on African soil, were smiling broadly in return, with tears in our eyes that threatened to run down our dirt-covered faces, leaving marks of our own. Africa would help us to find something that had been lost among ourselves. Africa would help us to connect with something foreign and wild that still existed within us but had been forgotten. We were ready to encounter Cheetahs and more, as we set out on foot across the savanna. The three of us had waited a long time for Africa and Africa, had waited patiently for us. Yes, Africa was going to be more than we ever dreamed of.


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