I’m going to Africa. I actually still haven’t processed that, in less than a week, I’ll be touching down at Kilimanjaro Airport. Maybe that’s because this whole trip, or at least my participation in it, has been something of a last minute thing. You see, it’s always been my mother’s dream to go to Africa and see the animals. But she also doesn’t like being too hot. Or too cold. Or having to walk long distances. Or having uncomfortable beds. And she doesn’t like the Masai because she heard once on Sixty Minutes that they were poisoning lions that killed their cattle. You can imagine that her idea of an African safari is very different than the safari plans Andy and I have been putting together. So we were thrilled when the Alumnae Association of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (my Dad’s Alma Mater) contracted for a special “luxury safari” open only to its members. (Well, Naval Academy graduates will be allowed — grudgingly — space permitting.) As we leafed through the brochures, it seemed the perfect solution. My 80-year-old mother, a bunch of old soldiers and their wives and maybe an old sailor or two. At the very least it seemed encouraging that she’d be traveling in the company of people trained to operate fire arms should there be a revolution or poaching incident or a rogue elephant. Actually political unrest wasn’t a concern because the trip will be entirely in Tanzania which is very stable and safe. It also features no roughing it out in the bush. Even the safari camps look more luxurious than our barn living loft in Sonoma. No this would not be the kind of safari where we are running through the veldt after Springboks. This is the kind of safari where we will probably be standing around with old soldiers in mufti, drinking gin and tonics and looking at Wildebeests through binoculars. Which is just fine for an 80 year old with two artificial knees.
Where I chiefly come in is to get her to Tanzania and back again safely. You’d think a woman who was married to a career Army officer and moved herself and her family every two years — often while my father was away in far-flung postings — would have no problem negotiating a three flight journey. You would be wrong. If you don’t know the U.S. Military, you don’t know how well they take care of their own. Sure, the Army had a habit during my Dad’s career of always making his next posting as physically far as possible from the last one. But moving the household from Alaska to New York, or Washington D.C. to Tuscon Arizona wasn’t as difficult as you’d imagine. As soon as the transfer was official, all the base apparatus swung into gear — arranging the movers, packers, travel arrangements, etc. You basically packed your suitcases and handed your the keys to your base housing back to the Post Engineers. Move done. And granted, it’s been awhile since Mom’s done even that. So a transfer in Los Angeles, a transfer at the International Airport in Amsterdam and locating the tour in Kilimanjaro Airport seemed really daunting. My brother and I had nightmares of Mom disembarking in Amsterdam and finding herself headed to the Red Light District rather than the Ngorongoro Crater.
But, in truth, I’m sure my mother could rise to the occasion if she had to go on her own. The greater concern was modifying the travel style to which she has decided she will become accustomed. She has apparently defaulted back to travel techniques that haven’t been seen since the Prince of Wales went on safari back in the 20s. Or at least hasn’t been witnessed since Elizabeth Taylor last traveled with her mountains of Hermes luggage. My mother has come to believe that any trip of any duration — even a weekend trip down to see me — must involve a complete wardrobe for all seasons. I figured, if I was going along on the trip, I’d have some leverage to make clear to her that we would not have Elizabeth Taylor’s entourage in the airport and, once in Africa, we would not have a string of native bearers like in King Solomon’s Mines. I am losing that battle.
1. No matter how many times I point to an atlas and reference The Weather Channel, I can’t make her believe that January and February are actually summertime in the lower hemisphere. And that summer in Africa pretty near the equator might, just possibly, be hot. She’s taking several coats and a vast number of sweaters — including casual ones for animal scouting trips and a variety of formal ones for cocktail hour.
2. My mother takes to heart Thoreau’s maxim “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”. And since she’s on the wait-list to be featured on A&E’s Hoarders, she always has a complete wardrobe at the ready from any of the various decades she’s lived through. Turns out there was a brief safari craze back in the Sixties when khakis and bush wear became the fashion. Mom was on point with that trend and she’s pulled out all her gear. Just to update, she’s purchased a bolt of faux leopard print cloth and has been busy lining everything for that extra safari chic. I’ve tried to explain that hard experience in the hot Sonoma sun picking grapes has taught me that cotton is death and only microfiber UVB barrier clothes can keep you comfortable, cool and dry. They also have the added advantage of being much lighter to pack and carry than heavy cotton. She’s not buying it. After all there are all those native bearers. So it seems I’m going on safari with Karen Blixen.
3. Speaking of suitcase weight, my mother is taking KLM’s weight restriction as a personal challenge. Since the airline says the main suitcase can only weigh 30 pounds, she feels obligated to pack at least that much. In vain, I’m pointing out that the in-country flights between camps require a much lower weight limit. But in my mother’s world, KLM’s word is law.
4. Then there is the Masai village that we are visiting as part of the itinerary. The tour company suggested we bring some gifts for the children — perhaps school supplies such as notebooks and pencils. My mother seems to have relaxed her anti-Masai stance recently, but I’ll be checking her suitcase to make sure she doesn’t have any PETA or World Wildlife Fund brochures on lion killing that she’ll be slipping in with the notebooks. Not that I imagine our villagers will be able to get through the verbiage in a PETA brochure (I barely can). But my mother does sometimes subscribe to the notion that talking very loudly to a non-English speaker will make them understand better. So I’ll be vigilant for potential international incidents.
So there you have it. I’m not only crossing continents and oceans, I’m going back decades in time. I’ll be departing San Francisco Monday with Elizabeth Taylor, who will then morph into Karen Blixen at Kilimanjaro Airport. Hopefully the extras from King Solomon’s Mines will show up to transport our luggage to the first camp. Because from there, it’s all Mogambo and Hatari! where old soldiers sip gin and tonics on the veranda and everyone dresses for dinner.
Photo of lions in the Masai Mara from Wikipedia Commons.