Monthly Archives: August 2013

Xanax Safari (Part Seven)


Dear American readers, here are some things you should know about a road trip in Zimbabwe before you set out:

  • There is not a McDonald’s, truck stop, or rest stop every 25 miles, so you might want to go easy on the liquid intake.
  • Carry your own toilet paper (“loo roll”) because when you do find a place to use, the facilities might look like something from the backside of a U.S. National Park that the rangers haven’t cleaned up or restocked lately.
  • Don’t assume that a clean restroom means there will be running water. I’m still not sure what the protocol is for this situation, but my preference, upon discovering a toilet will not flush after I’ve used it, is to leave as quickly as possible with my head held high and my travel-size hand sanitizer clutched in my hand.
  • Sometimes a baobab tree is as good as it’s going to get. Try to situate yourself away from any oncoming traffic and check the area for wild animals.

This was our first stop on the drive back to Z’s hometown after leaving Kariba:

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This is known as “the Big Tree” because it is big and everything around it is small and scrubby and offers no real cover from passing traffic.

I can’t tell you how badly I needed to go, but I crossed my legs and prayed that Makuti and its dodgy but serviceable loos would appear on the horizon sooner than I knew possible, while my braver companions made use of these more natural facilities.

On the list of things we won’t speak of: the amount of loo paper surrounding its base. It’s a popular spot.

Road trips in Zimbabwe are different than they are in the U.S. Though I first read the motto “the journey is the destination” in a book about Africa (Dan Eldon’s illustrated journals, which are not to be missed), it is a road trip motto that I am more comfortable with in an American context, where there is a seemingly endless supply of pecan logs from Stuckey’s, giant balls of twine, and outlet shopping. Here, you climb in the car with a cooler at your feet full of cheese sandwiches and Cokes, and you drive and drive and drive until you get where you are going.

On the drive home, we reversed through the landscape that had haunted me on the way up. Even more of it seemed to have burned up while we’d been enjoying Kariba. Eventually we made it to a place called Lion’s Den. This is the name of an actual town and not a restaurant or a game park, like I thought, though what is there mostly is a good restroom (sorry the water isn’t working), a place to buy good biltong (like beef jerky—a family favorite that I skip because it isn’t “jerky” enough), and a great gravel parking lot for the brother-in-law to change a flat tire he didn’t know he had until he got a hankering for biltong.

On the drive we’d gone through three police roadblocks, where we were waved through in our vehicle, but the brother-in-law was pulled over because there was something irresistible about the fishing boat he was towing. (The purpose of the roadblock has yet to be explained to me in a satisfactory way, but because I was raised during the Cold War with stories of Checkpoint Charlie, my posture always improves when we approach one.) Later, on a nearly deserted road, we passed a policeman with a radar gun. Again, not entirely sure what the purpose of that was, since we were the only car on the road and it wasn’t a road you could go particularly fast on because of potholes, not to mention the rogue cows and goats, who roam about freely.

We drove through Murombedzi, which I was told is a “Growth Point.” I had big expectations. Something that had grown out of control, perhaps, but instead, what I saw was a few shops, a bottle store, a grain depot, ZimPost, some more goats, and a jacaranda tree that was beginning to bloom. It turns out “Growth Points” were really just places in rural areas in the 1980s that got designated as such so rural people wouldn’t have to travel to larger towns for needed services. Interesting.

About an hour from Z’s hometown, the trip was starting to feel unbearably long. I’d lost the ability to ohh and ahhh at balancing rocks (so cool) or the roundy, thatch-roofed huts (exactly how you want places in Africa to look), or even the joy of uncontained livestock leaping in front of your vehicle.  So I suggested we play the alphabet game. You know the one, where you find an “A” on a billboard and then move on to a road sign with a “B” on it. When you get to “Q” you pray for a Quick Lube or a Quality Inn.

It turns out you can’t really play the alphabet game on a rural Zimbabwean road. We made it to “D.”

Perhaps the best thing about a long road trip—aside from the joy of good plumbing—here or there, is that if the journey is long enough, you are so happy to arrive home that you forget how sad you were to leave whatever hunk of paradise you just left.

Xanax Safari (Part Six)


Yesterday we said goodbye to Tambonette. I was sad to disembark and say farewell to Nhamu and Aleck (who makes the best bacon ever), but I wasn’t disappointed to be heading back to the Wild Heritage lodge. Once there, we weren’t greeted by our own personal elephant or zebra, but there were buffalo lounging around on the flood plane. I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I should have been. Apparently, you don’t see these often, and it wasn’t until later that I realized these were the buffalo with the big curly horns that make them look like cranky English barristers.

The non Americanized Zimbabweans were shrieking that the water in the kidney-shaped pool was too cold and insisted the bathwater-like jacuzzi was perfection. This is the single area where I was able to prove myself on the trip. It was cold, but it wasn’t freezing. Z and I have waded in the ocean off Washington coast, so we know cold. We splashed around in the water, listening to the hippos do their weird snort-gargling in the distance. There was an ominous-looking pool brush floating around the bottom of the pool that gave me a bit of a fright, but on the whole, it was a body of water that didn’t cause hyperventilation.

As we left Wild Heritage, I started to work myself into a pout because it was the only day out of the five in which I hadn’t seen an elephant. Before I could get my lips properly pout-shaped, an elephant moved at the side of the road. We quickly saw three others, flapping their ears and chewing whatever the elephant version of cud is. Further down the road, my newly trained elephant-spotting skills were put to the test and I saw a few more elephants high on a hill. They were waving goodbye with their trunks.

And now, I can say it, I miss Kariba. It was hot and made me cry. I’ve probably got scars from mosquito bites that I’ll carry the rest of my life. My sister-in-law could have been trampled by an elephant. I nearly shat myself when Mistresses was interrupted by something that went crunch in the night.

But it was something special. I’d say it was a trip of a lifetime, but I’m married to Z, so whose to say?


Xanax Safari (Part Five)



Bats, it turns out, are great heroes at Kariba. Even the ones who live by day in the hollow tree between the Tambonette and the crocodile slide. When the mosquitos started biting us last night, a whole colony of bats took to the air and helped themselves to a smorgasbord. I wasn’t exactly cheering along with the rest of Z’s family, but it is the first time when they’ve ever seemed like a good idea (outside of Halloween decorations).

Though I warmed easily to the other spots we harbored for the night, I can’t say the same of Crocodile Creek. After the bat festival, Z and I retired to our doorless bedroom and sat in chairs on the three foot deck, watching Mistresses on my computer. (I realize there is probably a passage in a 21st century Girl Scout handbook about how you should not take electronic entertainment on an outdoor expedition, but since I was a Girl Scout before such things existed, I’m grandfathering myself into the “movies okay for insomniacs” clause.) So we sat  side by side, sharing a single set of earphones, enjoying the tempestuous lives of the mistresses. The problem with sharing a set of earphones, however, is that your other ear is free to hear every wave, shriek, and crunch. About halfway through, I realized that not only were we blinding ourselves by staring at the computer screen, but we were also illuminating ourselves, like a couple of dinners under in a well-lit warming tray at Golden Corral. Z was oblivious, but then there was a particularly loud crack in the brush to the right of the boat, and I leapt up and begged Z to finish the show within the safety of the mosquito net, because mosquito nets keep one safe from big game. It’s a fact.

And yes, Xanax was taken. Don’t worry—it’s prescribed. I’m going to have to ration myself or find some plant in the bush that has a similar nerve-numbing quality though.

Xanax Safari (Part Four)


Oh, that right there? That’s a crocodile slide. You know, the indentation on a sandy bank where a crocodile slides into the water. It’s less than ten feet from my bedroom. You know, the one without a door. But don’t worry about it. They aren’t interested in us really and they can’t board the boat when the gangway is hauled up, and Nhamu and Aleck are bound to haul up the gangway before nightfall.

The one thing I’ve expressed a real hatred for here (other than heat and eating fish) is crocodile. I don’t mean to sound racist, but I don’t like their looks and I liked Peter Pan as a kid, and that crocodile was no sympathetic character. Last night when my brother-in-law flashed the spotlight into the weeds so I could see how many of their beady eyes were glowering at us, I got chills. So imagine my disappointment when Nhamu decided that our nightly docking would happen at a place called Crocodile Creek. He’s done this with no irony. The fish are meant to be biting here, but I’m pretty sure the crocodiles have gobbled them all up because Z has been fishing for an hour and hasn’t hauled in anything larger than a minnow.

There’s hippo poo on the bank too, so that’s promising. Maybe there’ll be a real Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom moment for me to report.

P.S. Did I tell you about how despite my careful packing for every eventuality on this trip to Kariba I left my delightful book back on my bed at Z-ma’s? All I have with me is Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, the Blogess. I’ve had to limit how much I read so it will last. I’d estimated this as a two-book trip. One of my biggest fears, aside from death by wild animal, is running out of reading material.


For most of the day, there wasn’t a single crocodile sighting, or any other non tiny-fish wildlife. My sister-in-law decided she’d venture off the boat to have a quick look around. She was gone, perhaps, a minute and a half before we saw her running in what appeared to be slow motion, clearing the rope that kept Tambonette tied to the shore, cigarette clutched in her hand. Z yelled, “What is it?” and she yelled, “ELEPHANT.” Remember how quiet I told you they could be? She nearly walked right into one. We couldn’t quit laughing. We wouldn’t have been laughing, of course, if the elephant had followed her.

Awhile later, the same elephant came out of the brush, nibbling on trees, followed by a smaller one. The larger male, noticed us, and expanded his ears and raised his trunk. Did I mention that the boat was only about eight feet from the shore? I was quaking in my flip flops. But then my brother-in-law talked to me (and I think the elephant) very calmly and said, “That’s just bullshit, there. He’s just saying, ‘I see you. Stay where you are.’” And sure enough, when we made no move towards his territory, the elephant went happily back to his tree munching. Aside from Crocodile Dundee and Indiana Jones, I’m convinced that Z’s brother is a little like Dr. Doolittle, only without the top hat. (And yes, that was a reference to the original movie of my childhood and not the Eddie Murphy version. Because I’m just that old.)

Xanax Safari (Part Three)



I woke up to even more elephants. Z and his brother went out in the little boat to fish, and I did my best to not think about the log-like crocodiles or how invisible the hippos are until two seconds before they surface. Or how huge their mouths are. Though I hadn’t seen them load the boat, I pretended they were packing the big machete, just in case.

Aside from death around every bend, the lake is huge and lovely. I generally loathe man-made lakes because they give me the heebie-jeebies. They don’t look real, and I’m plagued with thoughts of the farms and houses (and I always imagine people too) at the bottom. At Kariba, though, the only thing that reminds me that it’s man made are the tops of these sticky looking trees that come out of the water in places in haunting kinds of ways. It’s so vast that it doesn’t look like the smaller reservoirs I’ve grown accustomed to seeing scattered across America.

Eventually, we left our little spot and headed towards Palm Bay, where again, we saw a whole other host of elephants, and Z’s family said again that this was unheard of, to see so many at once. Z-ma’s prayer group really outdid themselves. We docked by the shore and there was a teeny little bay with a lone hippo bobbing up and down, that we could watch from our bunk. Z sat near the foot of the bed and fished, while I read.

What I like about fishing is that Z can do it, I can sit beside him, and there is no expectation that I pay any attention. If he were a tennis player or racecar driver, I’d be screwed. (I used to feel so sorry for Ashley Judd, sitting under that hot sun in those big hats, watching Dario drive his loud racecar in circles.)

The heat situation was better in that our side of the boat was parked in shade and in that I actually listened to Z when he suggested I take a cold shower before dressing myself in my mozzie-wear. It was so refreshing I never once thought about how I was washing myself with lake water. We watched the hippo bob some more. He popped up with some regularity and looked only mildly annoyed that we were blocking his view of the larger lake. After another delicious Aleck-cooked meal, we played games and sang the praises of the breeze that kept us mosquito free. This really was the perfect night. Even with the hippo twenty feet away from us, I needed no pharmaceutical help to calm me. Nature seemed like the perfect antidote to all the worries and car horns that keep me wide awake at night in Seattle.

Xanax Safari (Part Two)



I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little sad to leave the comfort of our Africhill bedroom at the lodge, particularly after we got lost on the way to Andora Harbor and everyone we asked for directions told us what they thought we wanted to hear instead of offering actual, helpful directions. (It’s a bit like Ireland, that, though I think the motivations are different. When you ask an Irishman for directions and he says, “Ah, sure, it’s just up the road, you can’t miss it” he spends the rest of the afternoon amused with himself for sending the tourists on a path to nowhere.)

Eventually, we arrived at the sweet little houseboat that would be our home for the next four days and three nights. The Tambonette had an open upper deck with a big table, where we’d congregate and where my brother-in-law and sister-in-law would sleep, and on the lower deck there was a kitchen, a bathroom, a small area where the nephew would either sleep or fish, and then two bedroom cabins. Z and I took one of these and Z-ma had the other. The whole port side at the foot of the bed was wide open, which was both beautiful and unnerving for a clumsy person such as myself. One misstep getting out of my mosquito net in the night, and I’d be in the drink.

My first houseboat failure was actually getting on the boat. My husband’s family were all heave-ho-ing boxes and bags like sailors, and I took two steps up the gangway with my backpack and a bag with nothing in it but a pillow, and I froze. The gangway had no sides and I have bad balance. Z gave a little bark, warning me that people were behind me with actual heavy loads, so I leapt off onto solid ground. Then he came and got my backpack, the bag of pillow, and held out his hand to walk me up the gangway as if I were four years old. He then announced that I was relieved of unloading duties and could stay on the boat with his mother unpacking. It took awhile for me to quit hanging my head in shame. Who can’t walk up a gangway with a pillow?

Before we launched, Z had to go with the captain, Nhamu, to get petrol. They set off in a little motorboat. I love water but I mostly enjoy being beside it, reading a book. One of my first memories was of a little kiddie boat ride—about five little boats in a circle of dirty water—at Lesourdesville Lake Amusement Park in Ohio, where I was not happy, being lifted off of solid ground by my father and dumped into a boat by myself. I can’t remember now if there were tears or just unspoken fear, but what I do remember is peering down into murk thinking that anything could be lurking down there. So despite the fact that Z had on a required life jacket, I figured there was a 75% chance I’d never see him again. I stood at the stern, hands on hips, saying a little prayer of please Jesus, bringing him back safely. Then the motor cut out and Z and Nhamu were just bobbing around in the harbor. I wasn’t sure if this was answer to prayer or not, though it looked to me like eventually the little boat would drift right back to us. Finally, Nhamu was able to get the motor started and they puttered across the harbor, not out of my eyesight, not in crocodile-infested waters, but instead to a little petrol station that I could have swam to if need be. Z was back aboard the Tambonette in just a few minutes and all was right with my world, since I’d mostly forgotten about my gangway failure.

Eventually, everything was loaded and we set sail. This, I loved. The breeze was cool in a way that made me believe it would always be cool and reports about the heat at Kariba were overstated. The size of the lake was shocking, and the landscape was gorgeous. There really just aren’t enough adjectives. It was much more lush than the drive up the day before, and eventually my brother-in-law and nephew were pointing out lumps in the distance that were elephants. We docked somewhere between Spurwing and Fothergill Islands, and within minutes we’d seen upwards of twenty elephants on the shore. Some were splashing in water, some were eating. Our favorites were the babies, one in particular who seemed impossibly small. When the herd crossed from one piece of land to another, all of the grownups surrounded the baby to protect her from predators as they waded through the water. In the far distance was the silhouette of another long line of elephants that reminded me of the puppetry that Z and I had seen last year when we saw Lion King in Las Vegas. Hippos dotted the bank too, just in case we got bored with the pachyderms.

We won’t speak of the lone crocodile that floated by like a log, fooling no one.

Then it got really hot. For me. Everyone else suggested that it wasn’t hot at all and my sister-in-law told me about a trip there in summer during which she was so sick from the heat she couldn’t move. This did nothing to make me feel cooler. I worried I’d have a stroke and based on the desolate drive in, it didn’t appear to me that anyone would be medi-vacing me to a state-of-the-art hospital to cure my ills. I got even more panicky as the sun started down and I heard that boats had to be docked by 6 p.m., so it wasn’t like Nhamu was going to be zipping me back to civilization even if I begged.

The the sun went down, which was gorgeous for almost ten whole minutes before the mozzies started biting, and I had to go downstairs and cover my hot self in long pants, long sleeves, a scarf, and a dousing of DEET. Mosquitos can’t get enough of me—I am delicious. So I got hot again and sat in our little wall-less room and cried. This is NOT the way of Z’s family. Fortunately it was dark by then and there were no lights on (see “mosquitos” above) so when Z came down and said, “You must tell me if something is wrong or if you are just hot and itchy” I was able to say convincingly, “I’m just hot and itchy” when what I really wanted to say was please, please, please can we go back to the Wild Heritage lodge with the Africhill air conditioner above our bed, and then can we please drive back to your way cooler hometown, and then can we please get on a plane and fly to, I don’t know, Greenland, because even Seattle is too hot to live in and I can’t ever be anywhere hot ever again. But then he rubbed my back and I rubbed his and it got cooler and the wind kicked up and the mozzies started biting less, and it was all good again. Also, I took another Xanax and no longer felt like I needed the Holiday Inn Express with AC, and wi-fi (though it should be noted that animals can be seen there on the Discovery channel without fear or heat or insect bites).

Xanax Safari (Part One)



Since this is my second trip to Zimbabwe, I had minimal anxiety other than concerns about whether I’d packed enough reading material. We arrived in Harare at night, I got my visa after a short wait, we were greeted by Z’s mother and brother, our suitcases were all accounted for, and because people who were apparently going to be doing big game hunting were in front of us at customs with all of their equipment, we easily breezed through the line and didn’t have to justify the various dog treats we’d brought Skampy that may or may not have been made of meat by-products (a customs no-no, apparently). For two days, I was pleased with myself and my adaptability, and how genuinely happy I was to be with Z’s people and staying in his boyhood home. Yay me.

Back when I was in love with Z and he thought we were just friends, he’d told me a lot about trips to Lake Kariba, the massive human-made lake and reservoir on the border with Zambia. It’s a favorite spot of his family’s, and given the lack of power cuts since my arrival, I’m grateful for the hydro-electric power it provides too. This morning when we loaded the truck and headed northwest, meeting Z’s brother, sister-in-law, and nephew on the road and driving towards a five day holiday there, three of which would be spent on a houseboat, I was excited.

The drive up was a long six hours. The main roads are “good” and by “good” you should imagine an American country road in terms of narrowness and random potholes, and this one is heavily trafficked by long-haul trucks moving goods from Zambia to Zimbabwe and South Africa and back. (This was nothing compared to the bush road we took into Kariba National Park once we arrived, which I do not recommend with a full bladder.) The last time I was in Zimbabwe it was summer, and though Z-ma had warned me before I arrived that the country is very brown now, I wasn’t really prepared for how dead everything looked on the drive to Kariba, particularly the burned up stretches of land where there had been veldt fires. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s “Don’t Give Up” that was on a continuous loop when I was in college started playing in my head and threatened to put a damper on the adventure buzz. Zimbabwe was beginning to feel hostile towards human habitation.


What helped, however, was arriving at the holiday home where we’d be for the first and last nights at Wild Heritage. It was a beautiful, two-story house with a huge second story thatched verandah off of our Africhilled bedroom that overlooked the lake and the lush flood plane. When we arrived, there were about fifteen hippo grazing peacefully in the grassy expanse.  Because I’d been told that more people are killed by hippo than any other animal in Africa (not counting mosquitos), I was surprised to see people walking in what seemed to be close proximity. It was very serene, though one baby hippo chased away four zebra that he thought got too close to his patch of grass. It was like something Disney had imagineered just for its guests in terms of how amazing it was to see so many animals all at once: hippo, zebra, buffalo, monkeys, baboons, crocodile.

My new favorite sound: hippo voices. Google it. I can’t even describe it. I was more than a little annoyed when some folks who wanted to fish there shouted voetsak (“buzz off”) and the whole group of hippo went scattering.

Seeing elephants was my primary goal for the trip, and Z-ma had had her prayer group on the case, asking God for an elephant sighting for her American daughter-in-law. We hadn’t been there an hour before I saw my first elephant. I was quite pleased to have been the first to have seen it and to have seen it without binoculars. This probably seems like a no brainer—elephants should be the easiest things to spot on the landscape because of their size, right? Well, you’d be surprised. They move so gracefully and with undetected speed, that one minute there is nothing, and then suddenly, this grey mass appears, flapping its ears and noshing on leaves. Just as quickly, it disappears.

Not long after the first sighting, my brother-in-law came and got me because there was an elephant going through the dustbin of the house next door. He is kind of like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Indiana Jones (my brother-in-law, not the elephant), which I mean as compliment, though how could that ever be anything but a compliment? That is: if you find yourself standing fifteen feet away from a wild animal the size of an elephant, you want someone like him there, telling you confidently that it’s fine, the elephant won’t be charging you, and even if it did, you’d be safe because elephants have horrible eyesight and your white shirt blends in nicely with the truck you’re standing next to. Plus, he has this really low, soothing, animal-talking voice. The elephant soon grew bored with the dustbin and moved on to a decorative tree before sauntering off towards the water, as if it were perfectly normal to be hanging out in a holiday home community with humans. Here’s hoping someone encourages the elephant that such behavior is not in its best interest. (We won’t speak of what happened to the last Dustbin, who got too friendly with the humans.)


After the sun went down, something ugly happened in my brain, and I got anxious thinking about the next day’s adventure on the houseboat. My fears included but were not limited to: will eight people (six of us and two crew) want to kill each other when staying on a houseboat? will a roving gang of hippos capsize our boat? will a crocodile come aboard and gobble one of us up? will I have a heat stroke? will I get bitten by a malaria-infested mosquito, whose strain of malaria won’t be contained by the anti-malarial drugs I’m taking?

Most importantly, I worried that Z would look at me and realize what a terrible mistake he made three and a half years ago, hitching his wagon to my big, pasty creature-comfort-loving American star.

On the drive up, Z-ma had regaled me with the myth of Nyaminyami, the Zambezi river god who was none too happy when the dam was built and separated him from his other half and thus wreaked havoc while the dam was being built and, it is said, will eventually destroy the dam. And also, why exactly did my brother-in-law think it was a good idea to pack that giant machete and big cudgel? Who or what was he planning to need these things for?

Z assured me that I didn’t need to worry about any of these things, but Z is an optimist and while he is safety conscious, he has more faith in the goodwill of other people and nature than I do. So I took a Xanax and then, before it took affect, worried that there’d be some emergency in the middle of the night and I wouldn’t be able to protect myself against the elephant stampede or hippo invasion. The voices in my head kept saying, I don’t belong here. I can’t ever come back to Kariba. Then it cooled down and eventually the voices quieted. We spent the evening playing Tenzi on the verandah, and I didn’t really want to be any other place on the planet.

Basically, what I’m trying to establish here is that I have very bi-polar reactions to Zimbabwe. One minute I distrust it and can’t understand why God even bothered with Africa at all because it seems broken beyond repair and has caused strife for people I love, and then the next minute we’re bouncing down the road and my hair is flapping in the wind and Z’s hands are firmly on the steering wheel and I think, Hell yeah, this is my life and it’s so good. How lucky am I? and then, Oh, a monkey not in a cage—look at that! I’m still trying to operate under the assumption that one day Zimbabwe’s wonderfulness will stick with me without the mood swings.  Why else would God have put all the most amazingly unique animals on the planet right here in this one spot? There’s nothing on any other continent that compares to an elephant or a giraffe or a hippo. (Well, I suppose the Indian subcontinent has elephants, but it’s just a subcontinent and those elephants are smaller and more subservient. Not that it’s a contest).

The Pattern


Here’s the pattern:

1)    Make brilliant travel plans or plans for some new experience.

2)    Either look forward to trip/experience or ignore the fact that it is impending until the departure date.

3)    Depart.

4)    Freak out upon arrival. (This “freak out” could include but is not limited to: mild depression, anxiety, weeping, or need to call all manner of friends and loved ones for reassurance. Self-absorption is a given, as is possible hatred of everyone in surrounding area who seems to be enjoying self.)

5)    Calm down.

6)    Enjoy self minimally but count down hours until ordeal will be over.

7)    Realize trip is almost over and get morose because no longer wish to leave.

8)    Go home and wax nostalgic about what a good time it was, completely forgetting hours spent wailing and gnashing teeth because just want to be home.

Keep an eye out for it. It’s going to happen. Again and again and again.  I won’t remember myself that this will happen, and I probably won’t appreciate it if you remind me. But you’ve been warned.

Be Prepared


When I was a kid, I thought the scouting motto Be Prepared was excellent. My single mother had a lot of fears, and so I grew up being prepared for all sorts of eventualities: tornadoes, boredom, how to put out a kitchen fire with a box of Arm and Hammer baking soda, strangers with candy.

The downside of being prepared is that when you pack for three weeks in Zimbabwe to visit your husband’s family, this is what the suitcase situation looks like:


When I met him, there were a lot of shortages in Zimbabwe. Now, you can basically get what you need for a price, but on this, my second trip there, I’m still inclined to think I ought to pack entire boxes of Band-Aids, peanut butter crackers in bulk, and a lot of hats, even though I’m not a hat-wearing person. But you know, there’s all that sun. Also, my tiny stuffed turtle named ShellE, goes on all trips with me for photo ops and makes me feel guilty if she gets forgotten.  A set of cobalt blue prayer beads that I never really use have to go because I’m too superstitious now to leave them home. My carry-on alone is stuffed to the gills because I’ve imagined all sorts of eventualities for the 24 hour flying time and I want to be prepared for that too, even though I’ll basically be eating, sleeping, and watching B movies the whole time. (But what if we get stranded in Amsterdam for a night and need extra pairs of underwear, more reading material, and bonus peanut butter crackers?) Z, on the other hand, carries a green man-purse with a magazine, his passport, and three cough drops on most trips.

I remember how disappointed I felt when my Girl Scout troop leader explained that the motto “Be Prepared” was selected because the first letter of each word corresponded with the initials of scouting founder Baden Powell. First of all, I was annoyed because the Girl Scouts hadn’t bothered getting their own motto, and they were willing to take boy castoffs instead of using JGL for Juliette Gordon Low, the woman who got scouting for girls started in the US. More importantly, even when I was ten it seemed an arbitrary way to pick a motto. What if his name had been Xavier F. Allen? Would the motto be Xylophones for All? (Of course if they had gone with JGL, what would the motto have been? Just Get Lumber?)

It doesn’t matter. I’m as prepared as I can be, and we’re off. On my first trip to Zimbabwe not long after we got married I was hoping I’d fall in love with it for Z’s sake, but I didn’t. I loved seeing where he grew up, meeting his extended people, and my first zebra and giraffe sightings, but the land itself didn’t speak to me the way I imagined it would when I was in college and Bono was forever talking about it. But I’m open to new discoveries and allowing myself to love more than one spot on the globe.

Who Are You and Why Are You So Reluctant?


When I was a pre-teen in Indiana, I read an article about then TV Heartthrob Dirk Benedict, who said his ideal woman was one who could throw some things into a backpack and spend three weeks with him in the desert without worrying about her hair. I was certain I could do this, despite the evidence in front of me: I hate heat, I’m a pack rat who has never learned the less-is-more rule of packing, and I’m allergic to the outdoors. The only quality I really had going for me, then or now, that would have met his needs was not caring about my hair. I’ve got that one nailed down.

So, I did things like sign up for Girl Scouts, an experience that was mostly torturous. I loved collecting badges and following a code, but I wasn’t crazy about my troop mates, had gastrointestinal distress whenever we had an overnight, and generally looked completely wrong in the uniform. After two months in Troop 91, I should have known it wasn’t for me, but instead, I wanted to add Girl Scout Camp to my list of accomplishments (and also, there was an awesome camping badge), so I signed up for a miserable six days at Camp Wapi Kamigi, where I was damp, homesick, cynical, and just wanted to be home with my mother, watching Dallas.

I still sign myself up for things and then spend the first day and a half crying because I’m homesick and hate it. What’s worse, I have no idea why I do it. For my first forty years, my adventures were mainly of the Girl Scout camp variety and I lived as low-regret as possible. I didn’t marry. I never left my hometown. I took trips to “safe” places for short durations. A lot of my clothes were black.

And then I met the Zimbabwean, and despite all my very best feminist training, I changed everything. For a man. He’s a good one, though to be with him, I had to move to the Pacific Northwest, and I’m now earning (metaphorical) badges in City Life, in giving-up-everything-I-know-for-something-new, in cross-cultural marriage, in travel, in quitting my eighteen year college teaching job for the question mark of a year off writing, and in a lot of stuff I haven’t even figured out yet. While he hasn’t dragged me to the desert yet with only a backpack, he has introduced me to Zimbabwe and a continent I thought I’d only ever see in Out of Africa. He’s introduced me to other things too: being content in a moment, eating an occasional green vegetable, and the value of a well-honked horn in Seattle’s ridiculous traffic. (It seems so impolite. We sometimes still argue about this one.)

What I write here is true, the best I can remember it. Unless it really annoys you. That stuff is all a big lie, meant only for entertainment purposes.