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May 21, 2010 > Africa, an experience of a lifetime

Africa, an experience of a lifetime

By Annette M. Fagundes

The pummeling of hooves, the animal screams and the clouds of dust engulfed every sense in my body. The earth was pounding and pulsating as a blur of zebras and wildebeest clambered into the river single file, thousands of them crashing through the water nose-to-tail. It was easy pickings for the crocodiles massed on the opposite embankment. The predators splashed into the water to pick off their prey at will, but their thrashing and snapping did nothing to deter the endless line of animals that plunged straight across like the cars of a runaway train. The magical epic was heart-stopping. Tears streamed down my face.

It was another Alice in Wonderland moment for me, plopped down in an exotic location that many people only dream of seeing. My fortune is that such places are where my loved ones live, work, and play, so my dreamscapes are real life. Since my family members have moved to Europe, Asia, and Africa, it's been one long journey for this local born-and-bred gal of Portuguese descent.

Perhaps I was born with vagabond genes. A visceral need for adventure descended from my grandfather, Manuel Joseph Medina, who arrived in America as a 12-year-old stowaway on a ship from the Acores, Portugal. Or perhaps I long for a better life like my grandmother, Ema, who landed in 1955 from the Acores with one suitcase to her name. In another time we might have been a clan of gypsies, but in this world I am the wife of a retired Delta Air Lines employee who has the privilege of traveling around the world in style.

So it was without invitation that my husband Ed and I found ourselves making the 39-hour flights to cross the globe. Awaiting our arrival was my sister, Monica, principal at a State Department school in Nairobi, Kenya. It was to be a family reunion of sorts as my daughter Angela and her husband Robert were employed at the same school. An ordinary family visit turned out to be a more dramatic trip than we ever could have anticipated; the experience of a lifetime that I marvel at nearly 10 years later.

From the moment we touched down in mysterious Africa the surprises began, shifting my focus from the familiar to the curious as I felt its rhythms pulsing though my veins.

We arrived at 5 a.m. and looked out at a mildly dilapidated airport with a slight sense of apprehension. I looked at my husband and thought, "It's gotta be better than this. My daughter loves it here." After locating a working phone and tracking down my sister through bosses and colleagues (land lines are not as reliable as I'm used to), two oddly pale faces emerged from a sea of black skin. On our drive to the house, Kenya began to reveal itself. Vivid colors, bustling traffic, and stone houses flanked in luscious ivy conjured images of British colonial days... of Karen Blixen and "Out of Africa."

A few days later, we boarded a flight to the infamous game reserve, the Maasai Mara. Flying over one of the largest slums in the world was a stark contrast to the lush landscape witnessed at my sister's home. The 45-minute flight revealed a glorious landscape. Flying over the Great Rift Valley is a magnificent sight, much the same as the Grand Canyon. Slow, sloping hills are edged with small circular villages (called bomas) where the Maasai live in familial tribes. The landing gear dropped from our 10-seater plane but there was no runway in sight. Minutes later, a herd of elephants could be seen just 500 feet from my window as the plane slid onto a small dirt landing strip.

As our 10-day safari began, breathtaking images greeted us as we moved from airplane to four-wheel drive Land Rovers, an up-close experience with a world we had never known existed. The colorful fabric and texture of Africa took hold as we moved over, under, and through some of the most pristine landscape in the world, teeming with every wild animal known to East Africa. From the glorious plant life, majestic hippos and elephants to the wispy elegance of the myriad and abundant bird life, we were witnessing the delicate balance of nature on the 100,000 square kilometer savannah.

We loaded up the Land Rover and were introduced to our driver, Peter. He took us on a brief safari as we made our way to the tented camp. Within minutes of disembarking from the puddle-jumper, I had seen a herd of elephants, baboons, warthogs, and mongoose. As we drove up to the tented camp, the pit in my stomach returned. I DON'T DO CAMPING! I was greeted by a Maasai woman clad in rich red wool and layers of colorful beads who offered me a magical juice concoction and walked me to my tent. With stone floors, electricity, running water, and a bathroom, I rediscovered "camping." We were given time to enjoy a relaxing lunch by the hippo pond, where the lazy beasts bellowed and belched in musical fashion. Across the pond, young Maasai boys were whistling gentle tunes as they corralled their grazing sheep.

After a relaxing lunch, Peter greeted our group and asked us what we were interested in seeing. My daughter, who had already been on her fair share of safaris, joked that she'd love to see a leopard in a tree with a kill. We all laughed at the ridiculousness of her on-demand expectations. With slight sarcasm, Peter said that he would try, but suggested we make our way to the Mara River as he anticipated a special and rare event. You see, we arrived during "crossing season," the time of year when the escarpments of Kenya have been stripped of their grazing grasses and zebras and wildebeest migrate in the millions to the border country of Tanzania where fresh grasses await.

Peter came across the river bank and showed us the evident food shortage. At the riverbank were thousands of zebra and wildebeest milling around; a sense of urgency buzzed in the air. Peter turned off the Land Rover and we settled in to wait ten feet above the embankment. The air was still as the animals began to mass, strung out one by one for miles. At the front were three frisky little zebras, circling as though they were waiting for a green light from an authority figure. Time passed. We ate lunch in our vehicle, took photos, and I must admit, even snoozed a bit, waiting with the animals for this looming moment. Downstream, dozens of hungry crocodiles lay in wait for the chaos of the crossing.

Abruptly, the first three zebras jumped wildly into the running river and began to jump across. Being drawn across the river by some supernatural force, the other animals began to follow. Each jumped to the tail of the one before until it was a steady blur of fur and movement in the river. At the shoreline the crocs feasted on the slow or weak swimmers. We all sat motionless. Even my young nephew knew this was a majestic sight to be revered and respected.

For three hours there was incessant motion; screaming, splashing, barking animals continued their crossing for hope of a better grazing life in Tanzania. Then, just as quickly as it began, the crossing dramatically ended. When it was over, after what seemed like only 10 minutes, no one moved or spoke for a very long time. When my heart and mind were back in my body, I realized tears were flowing over my face. I can live to be a thousand years old and travel every continent on the planet, but I will never ever experience anything quite so life changing as that day's crossing from Kenya to Tanzania. It was the most incredible vision and experience of my life. In that instant I understood the delicate balance between life and death, white and black, young and old, rich and poor, the here and now.

Peter brought us back to reality when he told us sundowner cocktails were waiting for us by the hippo pond. As we drove back to our camp, Peter got a call on his radio and changed course abruptly. We flew over the savannah, through gorges and over hills. And then we stopped. Right before us was a twisted tree, hyenas circling its trunk. And what do you know? Up in this huge tree was an elegant leopard digesting a recent dinner of baby wildebeest hanging from a branch.

I have dozens of amazing moments in my heart from our many trips to Africa. I have fallen in love with the place, the people, the sounds, the music, the food and the animals of the Savannah and the Maasai Mara.

What else can I tell you about Africa? Pack your bags and go there; you will be forever changed. The world will shift for you. Life as you understand it will never be the same.

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