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Marriages and Safaris: Beauty. Dung. Sometimes Rainbows.

It’s Valentine’s Day and a friend just asked for advice about planning a safari, so it seems appropriate to re-post this meditation on love, marriage, shit, and rainbows. You know, just your basic extended metaphor but with hippos.

One of the gifts, for me, of being on safari, is all the time spent in the jeep staring out at the landscape as we drive around looking for animals, birds, whatever.  Of course, that’s also sort of the downside, too: you spend a lot of time looking for things and sometimes you’re lucky…and sometimes you’re not. It is the proverbial crap shoot, with a literal emphasis on crap (more about that in a minute).

As it happened, this safari of ours happened a week before Husband and I celebrated our fifteenth anniversary. Fifteen years starts to be a rather long time, don’t you think?  Which is fantastic and also means that we are getting freaking old.

The two things started to come together in my mind as we drove around (or actually, as we were driven by our guides–the marvelously named Jelly, in Samburu, and Daniel, in the Mara), and I started to think that maybe safaris and marriages aren’t really that different, when you get right down to it.

Consider: when you first get married, you’re all we’re married! There’s that whole happily ever after thing, which lasts for …maybe a week/month/year and then it starts to be weird toenail clippings, and undone laundry, and why do you have to straighten up when I’m napping on the couch, and whose turn is it to do the laundry, and why am I taking care of the kids, and for the love of god get off the computer, and no we’re too tired/poor/busy to go to a party/dinner/theater/movie, and who messed with my Netflix queue?  (At least, that’s what I hear from other married people. Husband and I have had fifteen years of uninterrupted bliss.)

Life starts to look a lot like this, except without the little birds:


Consider: on your first day of safari, you’re all safari! And you take pictures of everything, thanking the lord that someone invented digital photography: you’ve got thousands of pictures of the jeep, your camp, the guide, each other, the hotel manager’s pet dog. It’s all vastly, amazingly exciting. You see A LION. You see AN ELEPHANT.  And it’s exhilarating and amazing, until it starts to be a little bit of  LOOK!  A BIG BIRD THAT MIGHT BE AN EAGLE OVER THERE. NO, OVER THERE. And you jounce and jolt along the trails, hour after hour, and it’s mostly amazing…and a lot of grass.  You bounce along, bumpety bumpety, and you get closer and closer to Maybe It’s Something and…it’s a rock. Or a tree. Or a bunch of rocks. Or a warthog. Which is like a rock but with tusks and a little tail.

See the analogy? Bouncing along, never quite knowing what you’re going to find? One day you’re incredibly lucky and fulfill every fantasy you ever had about being a photographer for National Geographic, and then it’s hours of driving along looking at the same trees you saw yesterday and the day before. And they’re very nice trees, you know, and you’re very happy to be on safari but…is this it? Driving around looking for stuff?

Here’s another thing: when you embark on marriage, or on a safari, no one tells you how much you’re going to learn about poo. Whether you’re married with children or without, other people’s poo will become your business. It should be written into all marriage contracts—anyone settling into a long-term partnership, gay or straight, married or just shacking up—that separate bathrooms are a prerequisite. Because really. Do any of us need to know our beloveds that intimately?

On our last safari, we learned a lot about poop, which surprised me and meant that I was a little bit more prepared for stuff that looks like this:


Those of you with cats might have a sense of what we’re looking at: crap with fur in it. Which is to say, furry shit.  You might think, oh my cat who grooms herself and had a fur-ball left something like that in the litterbox (although actually fur-balls make cats puke, so front end and not back end).  Nope.

That there is lion poop. A lion what ate an antelope fairly recently.  Fur, it seems, isn’t digestible.

Aren’t you glad you know that? You’re welcome.

So yes, you get out of the jeep sometimes, look at poop, or at ants, because hey, that’s what the safari threw you that day. And so it is with marriage: roses one day, yelling about the laundry the next.

But sometimes, just as you’re getting completely fed up, there are rainbows in a cloudy sky.



Continue Reading · on February 14, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, family, Kids, marriage, Travel


We went on safari last week.

And now I have to pause for a minute because I still can’t believe that I am someone who can say “I went on safari last week.”

There among the wildebeests, the giraffes, and baboons, Caleb turned nine.


The baby is nine. His last year in single digits looms just as my last year of “forty-something” heads into its final stretch.

While we were traveling I posted something from the archives about Caleb turning six, which at the time, seemed ancient. Of course, my turning forty once seemed worthy of note, too.  Looking back, six ain’t got nothin’ on nine—and forty ain’t got nuthin’ on what’s looming ahead.

On safari, we saw a full complement of amazingness:

IMG_9389a cheetah “cub” whose mother can barely be seen hiding in the bush to the left

IMG_0401the scariest animal in the savannah (seriously): hippo

IMG_0491mama lion dragging what’s left of a zebra to her cubs

Caleb loved it all, snapped pictures endlessly, thumbed intently through our guidebook of Eastern African Mammals, asked our guide Daniel about eighty gazillion questions.

Ask Caleb the best part of the safari, though and he will say without hesitation: ants.

Safari ants.

On our last morning drive out into the Mara, as we jounced along a rutted trail near Oloololo Escarpment, Daniel, who must surely count an eagle or a hawk among his ancestors because his eyes are so sharp, pulled over suddenly and cut the engine on the jeep.  By now we know that an engine going silent often signals that Something Interesting is afoot, but this time, the interest really was afoot.

A thick line of ants marched across the road and in response to the inevitable question, apparently they were going across the road to get to a new anthill somewhere in the tall grass.IMG_7180

Caleb and Daniel climbed out of the truck so Daniel could show him the big-headed worker ants carrying ant eggs, the soldier ants guarding them and then—the coolest thing ever, according to Caleb—the tunnel that the worker ants make to hide themselves from predators.  The ants build a tunnel out of their own bodies, dried grass, and dirt:

IMG_7179the dark line is ants, the slightly lighter line is the tunnel

Caleb loved the safari ants even more than the termite mounds, which pock the landscape in every size from tiny ankle-high piles of dirt to towers that surround trees and reach even further underground than above-ground, like bug-built icebergs.


termite queens lay an egg every three seconds

Ants play a starring role in the epic that Caleb has been writing in fits and starts over the past year, although this epic is currently on hold in favor of the “Star Wars” based novel he’s begun, called “Hyper Space Hero.”  Here is the sound of Caleb at work:


Today Caleb announced that he planned to be a genetic engineer so he could create clones; last month he wanted to work for the CIA. He’s pretty sure that whatever his day job will be, he’s going to be an author.

Unlike his older brother, Caleb isn’t as sure of his many talents; he doesn’t notice that his report card is every bit as good as his brother’s. Caleb is sure that he’s not popular, and I worry that because of his imagination, his voracious reading habit, and his fascination with Star Wars arcana, other kids might think he’s childish, or, you know, weird, and that would be too bad, because then I’d have to kill them. I am hoping that this will be the year Caleb finds a soul mate.

I don’t know what my Caleb is going to be when he grows up but I confess to wishing that he’d grow up just a little more slowly…because at nine, the baby…


is now a boy: hattrying on hats at City Hat on Bleeker

Continue Reading · on August 29, 2013 in family, growing up, Kids, Parenting, Travel

Travel and Leisure

I have a piece in the Travel and Leisure online magazine this week, explaining that “family travel” and “family safari” doesn’t mean that you’re going to end up feeding your kids to the animals.  Click here to read the piece, and please pass along the link to friends!

Continue Reading · on August 31, 2012 in expat, family, Kids, Travel

Out of Africa II: The Search for Carnage

On our safari drives through Amboseli and the Masai Mara, it seemed as if we were in a beautifully tended wild-life park. In the Mara, fields of tall grass ripple into the hills and umbrella-shaped acacia trees dot the horizon, and in Amboseli, on a clear day, the snowy tip of Kilimanjaro creates a postcard-perfect background for grazing elephants. We frequently felt like we were roaming through some artist’s rendering of “Africa,” rather than a real place. This sense of being in a sanitized preserve, rather than in the wild, was heightened by the fact that the animals don’t even blink at the safari jeeps puttering along, as quietly as a jeep in low gear can go.

At one point, however, when Caleb looked as if he were going to climb out of the jeep to get a closer look (probably at poop), the guide warned him back in by saying that in the jeep we were safe, but if we were to climb out? We’d be…meat.

That put a different spin on things.

Meat. The entire ecosystem revolves around food: looking for it, finding it, trying not to be it. We weren’t in a sanitized, idealized wildlife park at all; we were voyeurs at the table, watching the literal enactment of eat-or-be-eaten (in contrast to the metaphoric version of this struggle, which I lived through in high school, usually at the bottom of the food chain).

Liam and Caleb loved the thought that they’d become “lion sausage” if they fell out of the jeep; it thrilled their blood-thirsty little souls, which had been fed, inadvertently, by watching back-to-back episodes of “Planet Earth” in preparation for our trip. A word to the wise: remember that the money shots of those programs–the leopard taking down an antelope, a crocodile feeding frenzy–take days, weeks, months, even years to capture on film. Liam and Caleb, with visions of National Geographic specials dancing in their heads, were waiting for the Big Kill.

Safari brochures don’t talk about carnage; they talk about seeing “the Big Five” – elephant, rhino, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard – but the Big Five got this title during the days when you went on walking safari to kill things, and these five creatures were the ones you’d better drop with one shot, or suffer mortal consequences. Ironically, of course, of these five, only two are carnivores, but any of them could kill you with one well-placed swipe of a paw, foot, or horn.

Looks just like ol’Bessie down on the farm, doesn’t she? Just your standard, 2000lb Cape buffalo. Our guide turned off the jeep and we sat in silence, listening to them whuffle and chew – utterly peaceful, as if we were in a cow pasture in Wisconsin.

But unlike the Bessies of the animal world, buffalo are so big and so mean that they have very few natural predators, although if several lionesses team up, they might be able to bring down an infirm buffalo. Lions, of course, have no natural predators either, but I learned that the whole King of the Jungle thing is, like so many things having to do with men, more style than substance.  Adult male lions are crappy hunters (too slow and those huge heads, with all that flashy David Lee Roth-esque hair, makes it impossible for them to leap after their prey); they steal food from other hunters; they spend most of the day asleep in the bushes. Basically, they’re just glamorous scavengers.

But they start out as just the cutest little things you’ve seen this side of a youtube kitten video:

Watching this lion cub frolic in the grass with its plaything added to my sense of being in some sort of Disneyfied nature preserve, and then I realized that the “toy” this cub was tossing around was…meat. A hunk of meat, probably from a warthog, judging from the skin still attached to the bloody chunk.  (Warthogs, said our guide, are the original lion sausage: a dead adult warthog will provide a nice lunch for a lioness and her cubs.)  This cub kept its hunkahunka bloody meat all to itself, fending off its siblings with growls and bites.

Hippos aren’t listed in the Big Five but they should be: according to our guides, hippos are the most dangerous creatures in the jungle.If a hippo decides to chase you, you’re pretty much toast: they move astonishingly quickly despite their bulk.  Hippos spend the day in the river, clustered in their familial herds, and each family has its own section of the river. Woe betide the hippo who wanders into the wrong section of the river:

This hippo was killed by the equivalent of friendly fire: other hippos. And yes, that is a vulture on its back. Lunch al fresco. Or al hippo, actually.

Eat or be eaten, right? It’s the basic dialectic of life.  It always seems a bit unfair, though, when the eater is a carnivore and the eaten is not. Like apples and oranges, or, in this instance, gazelles and cheetahs.

Thomson’s gazelle:

Beautiful, right? Incredibly delicate and agile; it leaps along through the grass and usually grazes alongside zebras, topis, elands, and all the other grass-eaters–all of which are bigger than the Tommies.

Consider also, the cheetah:

Beautiful, right? Incredibly delicate and agile; it slides through the grass and tries to kill the Tommies.  One amazing day in the Mara, we pulled alongside this cheetah and sat in the jeep almost not breathing for fear of disturbing whatever plan the cheetah had. Perched on an abandoned termite hill, the cheetah’s tiny head swiveled this way, that way, this way…and then it glided into the tall grass and almost disappeared (that dramatic coat becomes nothing more than sun-dappled grass, once the cheetah gets low to the ground).  For about twenty minutes, we watched in amazement as the cheetah moved through the grass, ever closer to an unsuspecting herd of topi and Tommies. It got closer and closer, moving so slowly that it almost didn’t disturb the tall grass. And then? It literally streaked through the grass towards the Tommie it had singled out from the crowd:

That little Tommie leaping with all its might?

Cheetah lunch.

At the end of the cheetah’s hunt, I almost wanted to applaud. The odds against the cat bringing down the gazelle seemed impossible: for almost a half-hour, it had stalked the herd, which at any moment might have gotten a whiff of eau de cheetah and bolted, or might have decided that it was time to head to the river for a drink.  Pure random luck had allowed that cheetah to catch that gazelle.

And then I felt bad for the gazelle.

Our guide said, “you know, photographers wait for days to see a hunt like this. You’re very lucky.”

“That was awesome,” said my darling eight-year-old lion sausage. “Now can we see a crocodile bring down a zebra?”

See what I mean? The animals are never sated. It’s not a park at all. It’s a jungle out there, people, a jungle.

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Continue Reading · on August 23, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, Children, Education, family, food, Travel

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