When the idea to finally go to Africa came up, I was admittedly a little daunted. It is, after all, an entire continent. So how does one choose where to go, assuming this may be the only chance you get to visit it?
I’m thrilled to do the safari, of course, and get a glimpse of the Big 5 if I’m lucky: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, cape buffalo. But the deciding factor in going to Tanzania, the one need that pulled me there more than the desire to see the Great Migration or watch a lion take down a zebra, was the chimp camp. It’s not part of the average safari. Even so far as safaris go, this is considered a little off the beaten path. Which is why, naturally, I want to do it.
I suppose it’s a little telling that when given the choice of getting the one shot trip of a lifetime, you choose where, I point to the place most removed from civilization I can realistically get to. The shore where Dr. Livingstone, I presume, hid for 6 years until H.M. Stanley tracked him down in 1871. A place accessible only by prop plane and dhow. A place where, if I fall off the mountain, well, I fall off the planet.
There is something inescapably romantic and quaint about the notion of dropping off the grid, if only for a moment. There has to be a reason a young Jane Goodall left behind the civility of England at 18 to go digging around the Olduvai Gorge with Louis Leakey- and what did she find, out on the shore of one of the world’s deepest and most remote lakes? Some marvelous truths- such as the fact that our humor, our capacity for tenderness and kindness and savagery and selfishness, all those things that make us human, are not entirely our own.
Our lives are a vast morass of cacophony, noises and yammering and demands. In this world, there’s little escape. Even in the quiet moments, there’s the non-stop buzz of things to be done, chatter to be filtered, and people to be satisfied that is a constant intrusion on my ability to think. Apparently I have to go across the world to get away from it.
I think one of the reasons I work so well with animals is that they don’t talk. They just sit, and look at you, and communicate in ways that don’t require you to come out of your thoughts and talk back. When I’m examining a pet, after talking with the owner and getting a history, I pop my stethoscope into my ears and retreat into the silence afforded by those little rubber earplugs.
In that place, I can look a pet in the eyes and assess where they are, frightened, wary, tired, happy. My stethoscope slides down the left side of their chest and I listen to their breath, the whoosh-whoosh of their heart as it drums out its pattern. My fingertips slide through their fur, pressing, rolling, waiting for a sign that something there is not as it should be. The subtle rise and fall of a pulse against my fingers, strong and sure, or weak and thready, or bounding ferociously. I can’t afford the distraction of outside babble when I’m focusing on this.
And when I am done, I pull the earpieces out with a silent wistful sigh and let the noise roll over me like it always does, the questions, concerns, the demands to respond in kind, to say something.
This will be my own long-awaited, and probably much too fleeting, cocoon. It has been a very long time since I have heard my own heartbeat.