Friday, July 30, 2010
“Oh Dear God, we are going to DIE” Part II
I have been convinced of this fact many times during my short stay in the Serengeti. Whether it was upon being startled awake in my tent by the sound of nearby lion roars, or attempting to cross the yawning abyss of the Ngare Nanyuki river in our 1980’s era landrover, my brain fights a turbulent battle against my sympathetic nervous system. Intellectually I know we are not going to die. In the Serengeti at least, lions do not break into tents, even though they are kind of like twinkies, a plastic yellow shell with soft human marshmallow stuffing. And the Ngare Nanyuki, even though I cannot see the ground below me as we drive forward, has been crossed many times before. Norbert laughs at me sometimes, “Ali,” he says, “Do you really think we are going to die? To die is hard work.”
Today though, as I sit frozen, staring at the smooth cement in front of our bathroom door, my brain knows that one wrong move, and someone actually could die. The texts and calls roll in. “GET OUT. Go to Cheetah House if you have to. GET OUT of the house!” Writes Laura. “Close the door with a pole and break the window so it can escape.” Writes Anna. I talk to Megan on the phone. “I don’t want to leave,” I say, “because then I don’t know if it has really left.” She agrees. It is either a Cobra or a Black Mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and it is hiding in our house.
I liked snakes when I was a kid. I still do, actually. I think I have my mom to thank for my strange affection towards these scaly, slithering creatures. Unlike many moms, she had no fear of them, often rescuing them from the middle of the road where they had ill-advisedly decided to sun. We had a 6-foot long garter snake in our backyard for many years, and tried to catch him and tame him on many occasions. He always broke out of the terrarium and slithered off into the oaks and maples and poison ivy. My only mishap was when a tiny baby green snake bit in the soft tender tissue between my pudgy child fingers. Even the rattlesnakes I’ve almost stepped just curl up into themselves and give a halfhearted warning and watch me leave. Unlike spiders, which give me this involuntary, visceral shudder – what a friend calls the spinal heebie-jeebies – snakes spike my curiosity. Somewhere there is a picture of me, as a toddler, in Bali or some other exotic location, with a 12-foot boa constrictor curling around my mother and me. I like snakes.
Until now. In Tanzania, poisonous snakes are the rule rather than the exception. And the poison here makes rattlers and copperheads look like as mild as a paper cut in comparison. I did not know this until speaking to a friend who had grown up in the bush. Making conversation, I once asked her what animal I should worry about the most, as I go about my days in Serengeti. I expected her to say buffalo or elephants – both of these are ubiquitous, aggressive, and unpredictable. I am more likely to run into a buffalo or elephant than a hippo, which kills more people than any other mammal; and these are more likely to attack in daylight than a lion. But without hesitation, she blurts out “Snakes. Black Mambas.” There is no question in her mind. Walking off paths is dangerous because you cannot see what reptilian bringer of death might be lurking underfoot. Apparently, so is walking around in your house.
The snake in our house is easily 6 feet long, a deep charcoal gray. It is almost certainly a black mamba. I was catching up on updating some lion photos on the computer, singing along to Josh Ritter, with my back to front door. George and Norbert were coming home soon, and leftovers were warming on the stove. The strange swishing noise took some time to sink in. It wasn’t a coming car, and it wasn’t the wind. It wasn’t any part of the normal animal chorus that plays outside our house. Finally, I stand and turn to investigate and catch the thick gray shimmer of a snake undulating across our cold cement floor. There is no visceral shudder that shakes me, just the cold, knife-like stabbing fear. If a black mamba bites you, you will be dead in less than an hour. I am no more than 10 feet away from one of the most dangerous animals that I will ever encounter. I hold my breath and watch it slither into the bathroom, and then I make the calls to those who have been here for many more years than I. I close all the other doors in the house, and then climb up onto the table, off the ground, and watch the smooth, empty cement in front of our bathroom door. I am still waiting. 30 minutes. 45 minutes. 60 minutes. George and Norbert promise they are coming, that they will bring our next-door neighbor JumaPili to help. Yet over an hour later, they still do not show up, do not call. It is one of those many moments that I am more than a little annoyed with the lackadaisicality of Tanzanian culture. 30 minutes. 45 minutes. 60 minutes. It is now 3pm. The malaria retrovirals are making me dizzy and I want to curl up in bed, but I’m not sure where this snake is. Eventually the men show, armed with kerosene and a long pincher-pole. The splash the gas in the hole that runs beneath the bathtub, where the snake is almost certainly curled up. Eventually it will tire of the smell and leave. So they say.
So life goes back to normal, more or less. George starts to wash vegetables in the kitchen, I return to staring at the computer screen. Craig calls to talk about permits. “Oh, the snake,” he says. “It’s probably just a spitting cobra – not that poisonous, really. If you catch it in the face, just wash it out. You’ll go blind for about 12 hours, but nothing permanent. Least of your worries. Now, can you please send the data for…” he goes on to talk about permits and data analysis. I am only half listening, and with the corner of my eyes I am watching the cold, smooth cement outside our bathroom door, smelling the antiseptic aroma of kerosene.
Least of my worries? I can think of a million things that I am less worried about than the spitting cobra hiding beneath our bathtub. But okay, I am not going to die today. Which is good, because I have way too much work to do.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
“Oh Dear God, We are Going to DIE.”
I remember that phrase on constant repeat in my head during my unprepared and ill-advised ascent of the Polish Tatras. I had decided to climb a mountain in late May with little more than a t-shirt and ultralight rain jacket – the kind that costs an arm and a leg because it weighs no more than a paper clip and fits in a tea-cup - a coarse park map and no compass. Just as I was convinced of my imminent demise then, I am now. “Oh God, we are going to die.” I mutter it under my breath to myself as the ancient Landrover steering wheel ricochets between my hands. We are on the long road from Arusha to Serengeti, and I am convinced that at any moment the wind will blow us straight off of the fresh tarmac. Even on the best road in the district, the landy pulls and sways, as though yearning for the ditch along the road, and I constantly remind myself to breathe as I focus hard on staying straight. Daladalas stuffed with passengers pass by effortlessly but I am scared to turn my head lest I lose my tenuous grip on our straight path forward.
It is June 22, 2010. Today I am 27 years old, crossing that bridge from “mid-20’s” to “late-20’s,” and while I joke about how my bones creak and short-term memory is fading, I am still too young to die. Meshack laughs quietly beside me – he is our prized fundi, our expert mechanic, and is making the long trek to Serengeti for no other reason than to make sure that I (and the car) make it there in one piece. “Tuende!” he says, motioning forward. Let’s go. I gulp loudly and clench the wheel tighter. There really is no respite from the terror – on the open tarmac I have to go faster; as we slow for villages there are pedestrians and bicyclists, peddlers and Maasai and livestock that weave alongside the road erratically, and I am convinced that at any moment one of them will meander into the path of my Monster Truck. Winding up the gnarled and pockmarked Crater road are blind turns and oncoming trucks that only further the terror of the already perilous ascent. I am torn between the urgent need to reach the park gates before they close, and my desire to remain alive and in more or less one piece. When we stop at the Crater rim (in part for Patriki to take a picture, in part for me to try and restart my heart), Meshack glances at his watch nervously. Ever so gently, he offers, “Maybe it would be faster if I drive?”
I almost kissed him. The passenger seat in a Landrover has never felt quite so luxurious – before or since – though I still question my lifespan on a daily basis from the driver seat. For example, George, my coworker on the Lion Project, has been teaching me to drive offroad. “It is just fine,” he assures me as we begin to climb the veritable of dusty soil and clumpy vegetation. Except when it is not fine. As we circle and spin and weave through aardvark hole-ridden hilltops, I can see him clutch the window frame suddenly in panic, his foot involuntarily slamming down where the break pedal should be. The landrover falls into the abyss where ground once was. Ka-thunk. I hold my breath and resist the visceral urge to slam on the accelerator and clear away from the danger as fast as I can. The landy keeps chugging forward, powered by the magic that is low-range. The rear tire plummets to the depths of hell and haltingly crawls back out. We are alive. Barely. George laughs. “Avoid that green grass!” he reminds me. I am lost – it’s all green. “That’s green!” I point, “and that! And that over there!” It is all green and it all looks the same, but George sees some magical difference. I’m told that in time I will see it too. In the meanwhile, however, I maintain my running commentary. “OH dear GOD, we are going to die!...oh, okay, we’re okay. OH GOD that’s a hole! Oh, okay, we are alive. That’s just grass.” Except when it’s not.