Jolted Into Journeys

What I most like about travel is it keeps me on my toes. No matter where you go, whether it’s two counties away to check out a local event, or two days away on a unique adventure, you always have new sensations to feel, new ideas to ponder, and new people to enjoy. In being human, many of us like to get comfortable, I know I sure do. I sleep best on my own mattress, feel better when I can cook my own delectable foods, and I savor the utter peace of my little home in the woods. But I can’t get too comfortable at home or I start to slide into ruts, complacency, and can tend toward being less tolerant. Traveling may not be for everyone, but it is definitely a joy for me. There is a whole world out there, after all, and it’s full of extraordinary wildlife, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating, diverse cultures.

I grew up in a household where we took road trips several times a year, so I absorbed some of the travel bug at a young age. Then in college I worked two jobs and saved up enough money to spend a semester in Austria. But here’s the real dirty secret that set my life on course:  I was jolted into journeys by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

It was a regular work day in downtown San Francisco, October 17, 1989. At that time I was a freelance writer in the mornings, and in the afternoons I had an administrative job in a big law firm downtown. I was in a high-rise building, in a room with six or seven other people when we were all literally knocked off our feet. I knew to go to the doorway and stand under the jamb where it was safest, but trying to get there was like walking on an airplane in extreme turbulence. The cubicle walls were swaying so savagely that I couldn’t grab onto anything to stay upright. The whole building jumped and jerked:  file cabinet drawers flew open, desks were dancing, and people were tumbling like dominoes. My co-workers and I huddled in the doorway watching out the window at the next door high-rise swaying dangerously close to us; we watched a Coke machine in their breakroom get flipped on its side.

After 15 seconds or so (it felt like a lifetime), the violent shaking stopped. We all knew that it wasn’t over, though, because aftershocks would inevitably follow. Attorneys and professionals in business suits were screaming and crying, many folks were huddled on the floor, and through it all an announcement on the public address system instructed us to leave the building immediately. I got to the appropriate stairwell but I smelled fire, and my instincts flared up a warning. I looked at the masses of people in that crowded stairwell and didn’t know what to do. Were we walking into a fire?  But elevators were out of service and the crowd seemed to be moving. I was also disheartened by a five foot concrete wall hanging that was on the ground in broken hunks crowding the stairs.

Eventually I got out of the building, found my girlfriend who had been working on the 21st floor. We got to the sidewalk but this was no safe place either. Bricks were popping off of buildings and plate glass windows were exploding. With the flying bricks and broken glass, the center of the streets started to fill with people emptying out of the buildings. We all walked, not exactly knowing where to go. It was 5:15 so fortunately it wasn’t yet dark. Traffic lights were not working, unattended alarms were screaming, buildings were in piles, people were stunned—some cut and bloody, some speechless, some sobbing uncontrollably.

As we walked along in the flustered crowd, we learned that the World Series baseball game, playing across the Bay that day, had experienced live coverage of the earthquake. The world had watched our earthquake. We also learned that the Bay Bridge, one of the two major bridge arteries to the City, had collapsed.

We kept walking. I remember one particularly busy intersection that was thrown into chaos without the traffic lights. Several homeless dudes had taken to directing traffic and restored some order. All the buses were filled to capacity and there was mayhem everywhere, so we just kept walking toward home, still miles away. The street was loaded with walking people. After awhile residents with pick-up trucks opened up their back tailgates and allowed whoever could fit onto the truck bed to hitch a ride down Market Street. We hopped on for the last mile or so.

After that day I started to eat dessert first. I decided to go for the gusto first, in case an aftershock took my life and I wouldn’t make it through the entire meal. I started to think differently. Some people had died that day; everyone had stories of friends or family who didn’t make it through that day. And I noticed a few people at work who had a difficult time recovering from the emotional trauma; some poor folks went out on permanent disability.

I glued myself back together, just like I glued broken items back together that I had found shattered on the floor of my apartment. With each new day I felt better, I survived the aftershocks, and although there was some looting, mostly the community did well and we helped each other. I did have to stop going to a certain Pier One store, though, because it happened to be located under a commercial gym. And the shaking of those walls when someone upstairs put down their barbells was entirely too unnerving for me to stay in the store. As long as the walls and floors didn’t shake I did okay, and fortunately there was never a really big earthquake like that again.

We all have these situations in our lives at one time or another, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Natural disasters that rip the roof of your house, ghastly terrorist nightmares, devastating experiences, accidents. They remind us that life is fleeting and there might not be a tomorrow. That can be a very humbling, but useful, reminder.

Usually, however, there is a tomorrow. Most of us cannot afford to stop working and just do fun things. Bills have to be paid, we have responsibilities and aspirations like education, career, dependent loved ones. It’s a difficult balance of immediate gratification vs. future goals, and a lifelong conundrum of how to manage our time and funds to embrace both.

In the decades that followed the devastating earthquake that rattled me into adulthood, I have found that if I am still yearning for something six months or a year after I started thinking about it, then it’s something I need to attend to. Travel, career change, relationship, whatever. Sometimes it’s a matter of researching it fully and discovering the truth about my dream before I actually embark. In regard to travel, for instance, if I realize that a place may be too touristy for me or what it would cost to get there is not worth it to me, I change the dream. Other times, the more I look into it, the more I realize that this is a place I really want to visit. Then I set down the plans for doing it and stay focused on my goal.

LandIguana.BTPhelanLike a trip to the Galapagos Islands. To be up close to something like this land iguana, well, that was a total thrill. That trip was something I had always wanted to do and it was really really fun. It had its moments of discomfort (like throwing up my dinner every night when we had to return to our rocky boat), but many more moments of wonderfully freaky creatures and crazy adventures. Right now I am working on a mystery novel that is set in Africa, but there is definitely a novel-in-waiting set in the Galapagos.

The world is a gigantic place. Sometimes it’s hard to get going on the specifics of just where to go first. But keep at it and it gets easier, because you become more familiar with what brings you the most joy.

Once when I was working at a shop on a busy street in Oakland, I was walking down the sidewalk to get something to eat for my break. It was a part-time evening job after a long day of working my “day job.”  I had started my own business and I wanted to keep it going but I couldn’t support myself with it entirely, so I worked this night job for the extra income.  That night I had my head down, deep in thought about something, and a homeless guy was spread out on the sidewalk. I had hardly noticed him. He said in a deep voice, and very clearly, “Keep your eye on the prize.”  I’ve been doing so ever since and I hope you are too.

Let’s Go on an African Safari

Many people say they want to go on an African safari. Some people talk about it their whole life, but what does it take to make it happen?  I have been on four safaris spanning five different African countries, and although there is a lot more to see and I have only barely scratched the surface, I can give you a brief overview. I would like to add, though, that I am not a wealthy person. My partner and I worked hard and saved money for years prior to each safari, had to close some doors and make sacrifices, never lost sight of the goal, and made it happen. And you can too.

I’ll be talking more about Africa and safaris in posts to come, but today it’s just an overview of what a good safari is all about. First of all, there are many types of safaris, as you will see once you start googling and looking at ads for safari adventure travel companies. Some people go to observe and photograph wildlife, others go to shoot a trophy animal. There are people who go but don’t necessarily want to be too far out or in too many inconvenient or rustic venues, and others who only want to experience a safari on foot. It’s just a matter of personal preference.

There are safaris in many parts of Africa, and many parts of the whole world for that matter. I’ve been on safari in the Amazon, the Galapagos, and many other places in the world. A safari is merely a journey, an expedition. But the most popular place to go on a safari is East Africa. South Africa, Botswana, Zambia—these are also great places to go, but the quintessential African safari is in Tanzania or Kenya, the Serengeti. So that’s what I’ll talk about here. (I find hunting the animals abhorrent, so I will not even address that kind of safari.)

In some parts of East Africa it is a crime to shoot wildlife, punishable by death. That is why there are still many animals left in the Serengeti. Although there is indeed a devastating amount of poaching and illegal massacre of wildlife, there is a concerted effort even by the government to save the wildlife. It is an attractive and lucrative tourist activity, and they do take this seriously.

When you go on safari, every day and every night is about the wild animals. This is what I love. Your tour company reserves accommodations that are as close to the wildlife as possible. Your day is based on the weather, the migration, where the animals are, and the light. The time of year your trip takes place is usually based on the great wildebeest migration. The weather is a big factor because the water and food are what attract the herds. When you go to sleep at night you hear the animals, and the next morning talk about what you heard, try to identify who was outside your sleeping quarters. You forget about home, cell phones, work, and do nothing but think and talk about one crazy creature after another.

Often times people sign up a year or more in advance. In that year prior to departure they prepare:  study the mammals and birds they hope to see, buy safari clothes and field guides, learn Swahili, invest in extensive camera and optical equipment for observing, practice using the new equipment months before departure, buy new hiking boots and break them in, eat less and get their body in shape, don’t engage in any dangerous or super physical activity prior to departure. For most people there are various inoculations and malaria medication to consider. It is an expensive investment and therefore a wise move to be as prepared as possible.

Because it is so far away from the United States, you usually go for no less than two weeks, and three or more are advisable. It takes 15-20 hours to get to the Serengeti depending on where you live in the States, and with layovers and transfers that usually equates to one to three full days of travel. So you don’t want to turn around the next week and do all that to get back home. If you are a working person, it is not so easy to get three weeks off of work; this is what I mean by sacrifices. You may have to risk getting passed over for a promotion one year.

If you choose a good company, here’s what they will do:  they will take you out in the field for the maximum amount of daylight hours, provide you with a reliable vehicle that provides protection from the sun and ample viewing, have excellent drivers who know where the animals are and park the vehicle to maximize the best light for photographing, employ intelligent and friendly guides who can share their love of the wildlife with you, and supply you with food that is fortifying. Is it necessary to go with a group?  The short answer is yes.

Shoot ahead to the day of your first game drive. You’re out in the field after breakfast and it is still dark out. You climb onto the cruiser with your daypack filled with sunscreen, snacks, water and equipment, find your seat. The vehicle bumps along on the grass or dirt roads, and you all start waking up, looking for wildlife. Every hour of the day you’re looking for wildlife. Good drivers have sharp eyes and see things far in the distance, and have communicated extensively with other drivers to know where the herds are. Your driver spots something in the dim light and off you go to get as close as possible without disturbing the animal. From the first time you see your first animal, you will be on your feet, hanging on with one hand, the wind blowing through your hair, an excited attempt to see every possible wild creature that is out there.

Here’s a possibility of what you might see. In the dark morning, nocturnal animals are heading back to their lairs after a night of hunting. Successful lions have full bellies and are lethargically laying beside a small lake, digesting, yawning, dreaming. The hyenas still have bloody snouts, the leopards are climbing into a tree for a nap, the cheetahs are returning to the kopje (a group of rocks) to tend to their pups, and the three foot tall vultures have found remnants of a dead zebra and are in a feeding frenzy. The light is just starting to liven up the landscape, baby fox are coming out of their dens and frolicking, raptors are still in their nests waiting for the thermals, giraffe are grazing on acacia thorn shrubs, the wide open sky that is devoid of wires, planes, and human structures is lit up in a pink glow, enfolding you in the magic that is the Serengeti. And that’s just the early morning.

Every time of the day is a different array of wildlife to observe. In some parks it is illegal to go out at night so you go out at dawn or dusk instead. The heat is a consideration, because the animals are affected by it. But every time of day is unique to some wonderful activities and most game drives cover a variety of hours of the day; some are all-day ventures, some are half day, some are just a few hours in pursuit of a specific species, and there’s usually some combination of all these.

The wildebeest migration is the major activity in a safari because it involves hundreds of thousands of wildebeest on the move. A wildebeest is a four-legged animal, not unlike a horse, and they cyclically move across the African grass savannahs, birthing the next generation, and following the abundance of food and water. Their cycle is predictable and their vulnerable young are prey to the other wildlife.

On the great savannah grasslands of the Serengeti all of life is before you in the most raw and untamed form. There is life and death, mating and birthing, terror and sweetness, beauty and cruelty, tiny and gargantuan creatures…and everything in between.

BotswanaZebraThis photo was taken by my partner, it is closer to southern Africa, and the significance of this shot is that it is two countries. The zebra here are crossing the Chobe River going from the country of Botswana into Namibia. I like this photo because it is two African countries, and yet when you look at it all you really see is an open grassland with peacefully grazing zebras near the beautiful Chobe River.

I’ll have more photos and African stories to tell in upcoming posts. I’m steadily working away on the next novel, Sinister Safari. It’s fun because the reader goes on a game drive every day, and yet there is the underlying element of the murder mystery to be solved. While I work away on that, you can take an Australian safari by buying my e-book entitled Wicked Walkabout. It talks about the kangaroos, crocodiles, platypus and other wildlife from Down Under, and a captivating mystery is threaded into your Australian visit.

And after you’re done buying the e-book, you might also want to invest in a good World Atlas. It’s the best and most inexpensive way to start thinking about the places in the world you really want to see, and begin scheming about how you will make that dream a reality. Dreams don’t become reality, ya know, unless you make them happen. Go ahead, make it happen.

G’Day Australia

Today I am bidding adieu to my Australian blog posts, at least for a short time, simply because I don’t want to go schizoid. I suppose the experienced novelists can have their heads in all kinds of different countries or time periods simultaneously, especially when they have a staff to do their research, a separate marketing and advertising team, and an agent to guide them along the way. But I am solo here, and I find it a bit tricky to schlep groceries and take out the garbage in winter California, market a book set between the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, research and write a tropical mystery safari in East Africa, and prepare for an upcoming birding trip to Central America.  Worldly head goes haywire.

My Australian mystery novel is over now and I am at my desk earnestly working on the next novel, based in East Africa. If I’m not careful I’ll start inter-mixing Australian remarks with Swahili.  It’s okay for me to wander around the neighborhood giving a Swahili hello to the animals (“Jambo!”) and “G’Day” to the neighbors and no one will be the wiser, but my readers are a LOT more sharp than the robins, and they will definitely notice.  ha.

So here is a salute to the AustAustraliaFlagralian flag and all my fictional and not-fictional friends from Down Under. All the adventures we had in the many different territories of that majestic continent will not be forgotten:  searching for the platypus, the cassowary, the forest birds, and numerous parrots; the majestic Opera House in Sydney and the Esplanade in Cairns, the black bogs and  swamps, berry-painted rock drawings, 110 degree days, clouds of mosquitoes, rowdy Aussies, and menacing crocs…what a wild and wonderful place.

As an independent publisher and an entrepreneur, marketing my first Anne Lamington novel will never stop.  My virtual “trips” to Australia will always be as vivid as the grazing kangaroos along the roadside, and there will no doubt be more posting about Australia too.  There may even be a day when I have a staff to help me out with everything, like the big-time authors.  But on this day in this new year of 2013, I am the leader AND the pack…and I have to keep my head on straight.

For now, it’s time to take the kangaroo hologram off the desk, put away the Opera House notepad, and make room for the Maasai warriors outside the tent, and the sleeping leopards in the overhanging acacia tree.  The wildebeest are on the move, charging across the Serengeti, there’s a serious murder to investigate, and a Serengeti police detective who hates Americans and lions too.  Time to instill some order on the Sinister Safari.