2013
02.22

One of things that appeals to me the most about moving to Asia is pursuing the long-term projects that I have been working on in Burma.  In recent years, the country of Burma (also known as Myanmar) has emerged into the spotlight after decades of isolation under one of the world’s most harsh and oppressive governments.  During several visits over the past few years, I have had a unique window into the lives of the Burmese people and they have made an incredible impression on me.  Among them, I encountered a young Burmese monk who truly is one of the most remarkable people I have very met.

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It was on my first visit to Burma that I was introduced to a tall, lean monk wrapped in saffron robes with his head shaven clean.  He stepped forward, grasping my hand in a gentle grip, and inquired in near-perfect English if he might ask me a question.  I expected the usual curiosity of where I was from so I was taken back when he asked, “What is the meaning of ‘silly-billy’?”  As quickly as I could muster an answer, he responded with another grammatical inquiry, as if the list of questions had long been prepared in his head.  I tried to explain the meaning of “out of the frying pan” and other phrases that he had heard in movies, but could not locate in his English dictionary.  When his questions had been answered to the best of my ability, he pulled his loose robes tight against his slender body and asked, “Now what you would like to ask me?”

Javana was unlike any person I have ever met.  Though only 20 years old, he possessed a knowledge and curiosity of the world far beyond his age.  He was a student of the English language and aspired to be a teacher, spending his life at the monastery where he could educate other monks in both English and Buddhist scripture.  He was intelligent and humble, constantly asking questions and apologizing for his inadequacy of speaking a language that, in my eyes, he had already mastered.  His English was not that of broken sentences and words picked up from tourists and popular movies, as one so often hears in Asia.  Instead, Javana spoke in fluid and proper sentences with such confidence and depth that often I felt our roles had been reversed and the teacher had become the student.  He bothered not with 20120929_Burma_036questions of a trivial nature, but immediately dove straight into philosophical inquiries that even I struggled to answer.  We had met only a half hour before, but already he wanted to know “What makes you happy?” and “What is your goal in life?”  The eyes that fixed upon mine and studied my answers were not one of an average person, but someone so exceptional that I knew one encounter would not be sufficient to fulfill our mutual curiosities.

A week later when we returned to Mandalay, I sought out our trusted taxi driver and asked him if he would take us to find Javana.  I had promised him I would return and spend the afternoon together so that we might talk, as he was eager to practice and improve his English.  I bought some English textbooks and a copy of Orwell’s Burmese Days and together Rachel and I returned to the monastery.  We only knew his name, but among the 1,500 monks, he was an easy one to find.  We were pointed from one building to the next until he emerged, gracefully clutching his robes against his shoulder as he strode purposefully toward us.  He showed no surprise or elation at our return, but instead a strong desire to begin our conversation.  While the other monks looked on curiously, he led us to an empty beach and asked us to sit, wasting no time in asking the questions that surely had been circling his mind all week.

Hours passed, one after the next, as we sat outside the monastery engrossed in conversation.  Rachel provided the list of states and capitals that Javana had requested and he questioned us about U.S. geography.  We discussed spirituality and religion and he explained the finer points of Buddhism.  He laughed when I described our perception of monks and reminded us that many monks eat meat and not all enjoy meditation.  We talked about politics in America and our conversation soon drifted to Burma.  He immediately grew nervous, shifting in his seat, his eyes scanning our surroundings for listeners as we spoke quietly about the political situation in his country.  Above all, “it was improving”, he told me, but there was no doubt that the past had left its mark.

With the sun falling low in the sky, we carried our discussion to the U Bein Bridge.  Over 200 years old and stretching 1.2km (0.75mi) with 1,060 posts, the longest teak bridge in the world connects Amarapura to a small Taungthaman village.  Monks and villagers stroll to and fro while fisherman ply the waters and carry tourists on sunset cruises.  We joined the crowds along the bridge and found a bench on which to sit and admire the setting sun. Our discussion drifted to America and I found myself telling our friend about life within my home country.  We talked about a land of limitless opportunity where people are free to speak their mind and pursue their dreams.  We spoke of the rights guaranteed by law and a government which provides for its citizens.  I voiced both criticism and praise for a country which at times I have both loved and loathed.  Yet, I was reminded just how lucky I am to call America home when Javana remarked that, “Living in your country sounds like a dream.”

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A year later, Javana and I stood on that same bridge, saying goodbye again after a wonderful reunion.  But this time, we spoke of a different dream.  No longer did I want Javana to only “dream” of life in America; I wanted him to experience it.  With the doors of his country finally opening wide, the opportunity was now within our grasp.  Over the course of the next two years, I promised him, we will work to secure his passport and visa so that my friend, the Burmese monk, might finally have the opportunity to experience life outside the only borders he has ever known.  We plan to travel to Southeast Asia so that Javana might visit his neighboring countries- from the awe-inspiring temples at Angkor Wat to the busy streets of Bangkok.  Our plan is to document his travels abroad and his ever-expanding views of the world around him.  Then, if the situation permits, together we will travel to the United States and begin a journey across America.  In documentary style, we will capture the experience of a Burmese monk as he travels through iconic American locations, from the Golden Gate Bridge to the streets of Manhattan, and all points in-between.  It will be a study in contrasts, cultures, and communication, and in the end, I hope that we can compile the material to produce a compelling book or film documenting our journey together.

Granted, this idea is still a dream and, with all the hurdles we are bound to face, it is possible that is all it will ever be.  But, in the end, this dream is not based on a desire for success, wealth or notoriety, but an overwhelming desire to make a difference in somebody’s life.  In my friend Javana, the Burmese monk, I have discovered a person much like myself, full of hope and ambition, dreams and desires.  But while the circumstances of my birth have allowed me to accomplish even my wildest dreams, Javana has never known even the basic freedoms that most of us enjoy.  So I hope that the coming years and potential move to Asia will give me the access and opportunities to expand our dreams into realities, as we work towards establishing an English school at his monastery, building a library in Javana’s village, and giving him the opportunity to travel abroad.  Though our goals might be ambitious or even impossible, I am certain that together, Javana and I, can truly make a difference and leave our mark on the future of Burma and its people.

2013
02.19

In this increasingly ever-connected world, we are able to follow the lives of family, friends, and strangers more closely than ever before.  It is a blessing and a curse, especially for those of us who have come to rely on social networks for the invaluable resources that they possess.  I attempt to balance both my professional and personal life online, but invariably the two cannot be separated, as one is merely an extension of the other.  Those who follow Rachel and I online have a unique window into our lives that most of us could not have imagined even a few years ago.  Now, my life has rarely been ordinary and much of it I would not want broadcast in these reality-show style settings, but these days I have learned to embrace the broad-reaching benefits that social media can bring, but in doing so, I have probably left a lot of people wondering “What in the world are those two up to now?”

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Those who know me best will remember that I have always lived on the road.  In the spring of 2000, I packed my bags and left Gunnison, Colorado with a lot of baggage, both inside me and in the trailer behind.  It would be almost six years before I would have my own place again.  I lived the life of a restless wanderer.  I was forever on the move, rarely staying in one place more a few days, drifting between summer tours and seasonal jobs sleeping in the back of my car and the couches of friends.  At first, we followed bands; a simple yet sublime existence that carried us on a circus-like carnival around the States with fellow adventurers, seekers, gypsies, and freaks.  Though not without its faults, it was a time of discovery and growth, embracing individuality while learning to live simply and endure the simple pleasures of life on the road.

It was in the same spirit that I set out for the Hawaiian Islands in 2001 with only a backpack and a wealth of both enthusiasm and ignorance.  I had no clue what I was doing, which was immediately apparent to the cab driver who spied me sitting dejected on an airport bench at sunrise, wondering what in the world I was going to do?  I had begun my travels abroad in a typically bizarre fashion, without a bit of research or any idea where I was headed except to the Big Island of Hawaii.  Luckily, through a series of fateful meetings, strange encounters and bizarre twists, I survived five weeks hitchhiking across the Hawaiian Islands and, in doing so, I discovered that I had a unique ability to live fully in the moment, embracing spontaneity while overcoming the hurdles that came my way and connecting with the people I met in a unique and meaningful way.

The following year, I traveled to Alaska and continued to hitchhike across the Kenai Peninsula and Interior Alaska.  It was an adventurous period and I learned a lot about the rewards that come when we challenge ourselves and step outside our comfort zones.  I also discovered much about the discomfort and risk.  It was not an easy life on the road. We were virtually homeless and had little to show for ourselves than the ragged clothes we wore and the packs we carried on our backs.  We lived off of hotel breakfast buffets and Subway sandwiches, selling burritos, beer, and homemade jewelry at local concerts and music festivals.  But, in the end, our life was carefree and simple.  We didn’t have rent or bills and as long as we had money for gas, we could always manage to get by and get into the next show.

People have always asked me, “How do you afford it?”  For years I was baffled by this question; that is, until I finally decided to get my own place.  Now, there were bills to pay, furniture to purchase, shelves to stock and a refrigerator to fill.  I had never considered the cost of paper towels, toilet paper, ketchup, and tape.  Suddenly, I felt guilty for all those years that I had lived on the couches of friends and kindness of others.  I had always tried to be a gracious guest, but did I really deserve all these years of carefree living while my friends and family bore the burden of a settled life?

In recent years, I have tried to manage both- maintaining a home base in the States while pursuing my career as a travel photographer and writer.  I will admit that it has become increasingly difficult to manage both and lately we have been making some big choices about our lifestyle and careers.  This is going to be a big year for us and we wanted to start things off in a big way.  Like many people, we have both become increasingly frustrated with the job market here in the States and, more and more, we have been looking to opportunities abroad.  Rachel and I have long dreamed of living abroad and lately we have been researching different locations in hopes of finding the right place to live and work.

During the past few months, we have explored several different options, from opening a b&b in Latin America to teaching English in Asia.  Some of our ideas have produced favorable results while others have been total failures.  It has been a learning experience for us both and undoubtedly that learning and growing will continue for many years to come.  But through it all, we have remained confident and optimistic as we search for just the right opportunities that will be both enjoyable and fulfilling for both of us in the years to come.

Finally, have we settled on a plan? Well, the short answer is no.  But we do have some great ideas and we’re always happy to hear other people’s feedback.  For years, we have dreamed of living in Asia and I think that time has finally come.  Obviously, the biggest question is “Where?” and I am sure we will continue to debate the location for some time, though each of the nations in Asia appeals to us for different reasons.  Obviously, we want to live in a country that fits our specific needs, but perhaps the most difficult question is “How?”  Well, there a number of ways people afford to travel and live abroad, from working at hostels to dive boat crews.  An option that has long interested us both is teaching English.  We have looked into TEFL courses in the past and found there to be a wide variety of opportunities available across Asia which would allow us to pursue our dream of living abroad while having a fulfilling, sustainable, and respectable career.  The 6-week TEFL course will give us a good opportunity to experience living and working in Asia, and then we can make a more educated decision about our long-term commitments to living abroad.  Thankfully, the global nature of my photography career should not be hindered by moving moving abroad; instead, I believe it will greatly enhance my ability to pursue projects in the growing markets across Asia and continue to enhance my business as I look toward the future of photography as a career.

All of this is in the planning stages, but I just wanted to give our family, friends, and followers a bit of an update on the why, where and how our lives have been taking us all over the world these days.  We feel incredibly fortunate (as so do the credit card companies) that we get to lead such a global life, but it is not without its share of sacrifices, most of all, the time away from family and friends.  Though time only seems to go by quicker and those visits grow further apart, we are incredibly thankful to have such a wonderful network of support behind us and hope that no matter how much time and distance separates us, you all know we hold you dear in our hearts.  Thanks for all the love and support.

2013
01.07

This year will mark the 10-year anniversary of my visit to the Fiji Islands, a fateful journey which would forever change the course of my life.  I was 22 years old, on my first journey abroad, when I picked up an elderly woman and her grandson hitchhiking on the island of Viti Levu.  They invited to me stay and live in their village and for several weeks I experienced the incredible hospitality of the Fijian people as I lived among them.  It was during that time that I discovered the true wonders of travel and dedicated my life to becoming a travel writer and photographer so that I could share with others the experiences that had touched me so deeply.  Though I had come to Fiji only for an adventure, it was the education I received from the people of Semo village that would forever define the path of my life.

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This year, Rachel and I will be returning to the Fiji Islands to revisit my friends and family at Semo village and celebrate the 10-year anniversary of that very special visit.  Undoubtedly, much has changed since I stood on the roadside, wishing goodbye to hundreds of Fijian villagers while I stood draped in traditional clothing with a face covered in baby powder at the end of a 2-day farewell celebration.  I have grown from a naive kid, full of youthful enthusiasm and a thirst for adventure, to a grown man with a decade of experience behind me, having seen and experienced more than that young kid could have ever dreamed.  There will be those in the village who have passed; and many more that have grown from wide-eyed children to teenagers and even adults.  It will be a time of remembering and rejoicing; and if my first visit was an indicator of what is to come, I am certain that it will be an unforgettable event.

After publication of my first travel article, “Living A Dream in the South Pacific“, I received an outpouring of support for the people of Semo village.  Many who read the story were moved by the incredible generosity and hospitality that the Fijian people had shown to me.  Family, friends, and strangers stepped forward to offer donations of basic goods, such as clothing, toys and toiletries.  Others made financial donations which assisted in the reconstruction of damaged homes and buildings, including the local church.  These small donations made a big difference for the people of Semo village, from the children who reveled in new clothing and toys to the elderly who benefited from basic medicines and reading glasses, greatly enhancing their quality of life.

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As we prepare to return to Semo village at the end of March, we would like to reach out to our extended network of friends, family, and followers and appeal to those who might have an interest in offering donations that we could bring to Semo village.  We will be posting a list of basic items which would be greatly appreciated and would help provide for those in need.  We are not asking anyone to go out and make purchases, but if you have items such as clothing (for all ages) that you would be interested in donating, please feel free to contact me at kyle@kylehammons.com to make arrangements for donation.

On a more creative note, we are hoping to gather a number of used cameras to donate to the children of Semo and surrounding villages.  This is a project of special interest to me, as I have seen children across the world respond in incredible ways when given this simple tool to express their creativity and capture the world around them (as seen in the Academy Award-winning documentary Born Into Brothels).  Our idea is to bring a collection of used digital cameras, teach them the very basics, and let the children document our return to Semo village through their eyes.  This will give us a unique opportunity to document our experience and the celebration that takes place, while also providing a source of creativity and inspiration for the young people involved.

Please don’t feel the need to go out and make any purchases.  We’re just looking for used cameras (preferably digital) which you might have replaced or stopped using.  We’re not picky about the quality or condition, just so long as they are still functional.  We will be updating this post with more details in the coming weeks, but please feel free to contact us if you are interested in helping out in any way.  We greatly appreciate your help and support and we will be happy to consider any donations that might be appropriate.  Thanks again!

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Contact Info

Kyle Hammons

kyle@kylehammons.com

303.809.5018

2012
05.17

There are few places in the world that bring instantly to mind such iconic imagery as Serengeti National Park.  Speak the word ‘Serengeti’ aloud in any place in the world and someone’s head will be filled with visions of an undulating, almost treeless expanse traversed by an array of exotic wildlife found in only a few places on the planet.  The Masai word ‘Siringit’ means endless plains, an apt description for the Serengeti which covers 5,700 sq miles (14,763 sq km) and is contiguous with Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve.  It is Tanzania’s most popular national park, in no small part due to the over one million wildebeest which migrate across the expansive grasslands.  Though the wildebeest migration may be the Serengeti’s biggest drawcard, the park also boasts an incredible amount of wildlife, including lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, giraffes, and more than 200,000 zebras, just to name a few.

Nature lovers and photographers worldwide time their visit to Serengeti National Park with the annual wildebeest migration.  It is a scene that we have all seen captured on film and video, but there is simply no comparison to actually seeing more than one million wildebeest crossing a vast expanse of treeless plains.  Like a great moving sea, the wildebeest stretch across the southern section of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area during the rainy season between December and May when the wildebeest concentrate on the few remaining green areas.  As these areas have few large rivers and streams, they dry out quickly forcing the wildebeest into large herds that migrate north and west in search of food.  From about July to October, they graze in the Masai Mara before beginning south again in anticipation of the rains.  Then, around February, the eons-old cycle continues as over 8,000 calves are born each day.  At any stage, it is a sight so spectacular we simply cannot comprehend until our eyes attempt to take it all in.

Crossing into the Serengeti and over Naabi Hill, the earth fell away into an enormous plain stretching to the horizon through which a lone road traveled.  Our first impressions of this famed national park were startling on account of its sheer vast and seemingly endless savanna.  There were no trees or anything to be seen for that matter.  It with just an ocean of grass split by a wide winding river that seemed to overflow its banks.  That’s when we realized it was not a river at all;  it was the wildebeests.

Stretching for as far as the eye could see, hundreds of thousands of wildebeests formed an incomprehensible ribbon of black across a sea of green grasses.  The sight was so extraordinary, we could not believe our eyes.  One after the next, a train of horned wildebeests poured across the road, linking with the vast moving herds that congregated together in untold numbers, feeding in plentiful grasses under the watchful eyes of hidden predators.  Scattered amongst the herds were striped zebras and Thomson’s gazelles, both of which number several hundred thousand alone.  To say the sight was extraordinary would be an understatement of truly African proportions.

The size of the annual wildebeest migration is only rivaled by the vastness of the Serengeti.  For after ten minutes driving, the animals had all but disappeared and I was starting to wonder how long we would travel before spotting more wildlife.  Then Baraka turned off the main road and followed another over a small crest where my question was answered in spectacular style.  Stretching across the plains before us was a herd of 50+ elephants dotting the landscape with their unmistakable profiles.  We shut off the vehicle and watched as these impressive creatures walked closer and closer.  Monstrous, lumbering adults passed only a few feet away, ripping away high grasses with their trunks and stuffing their mouths.  Juveniles played with one another, their big ears flopping in the wind as they wrestled together, eliciting the cheerful responses from us that only adorable baby animals can produce.  And, through it all, our vehicle stood silent and motionless, seemingly unnoticed by the giant creatures that surrounded us while we gazed in wide-eyed appreciation and our cameras fired away.

From one unforgettable sight to the next, we traveled down the dusty dirt road leaving the elephants behind to continue their grazing while we scanned the Serengeti for more wildlife.  The beauty of these parks is that the animals are so abundant, there is hardly a few minutes that go by without seeing something.  Vervet monkeys hop through the trees while groups of sinister-looking baboons crowd the roadside.  Small carnivores, like jackals and foxes, pop their heads out from roadside burrows.  Hoofed animals, such as impalas, bush duikers, wildebeest, giraffes, and zebras, are too numerous to count.  Beautiful birds dot the landscape, including lilac-breasted rollers, flamingos, secretary birds, kori bustards, grey-crowned cranes, maribou storks, martial eagles, and vultures.  The abundance and variety is simply astonishing, but there are a few animals which stand apart from the masses, grabbing your attention at any moment they appear.

“Lions… in a tree!” My camera was firing before the vehicle could come to a stop.  We had seen several lions already, but such a fantastic animal is always a welcome sight, especially when it is two females and their cubs perched in the branches of a lone acacia.  Escaping the midday heat, the lions lazed in the crooks and branches, then one by one, they climbed down and together walked right past our vehicle and continued down the road.  We had only been in the Serengeti a few hours, but we were off to a very promising start.

A half mile down the road we saw about a dozen safari vehicles gathered together in one spot.  It was the most people we had seen since our safari began and immediately we knew it was something special.  Up until that point we had been seeing only the animals that the three of us could spot.  But now that we were in the Serengeti, we were far from alone, even in the low season.  The method used by Serengeti guides is to spot and then share the location with fellow guides, either by text messaging or on the radio.  Needless to say, word travels fast and the vehicles come pouring in, jostling for position and fighting to get their clients the best view.  We saw lions nearly get run over and animals trapped between hordes of onlookers.  It is an unfortunate practice, both for wildlife and tourists, but sometimes it is the only way you might find a particularly elusive animal.

In this case, the animal being swarmed was probably the park’s most elusive- the leopard.  While it lazed on the branch of a lone acacia tree, safari vehicles raced up and down the road from every direction.  We were near the back of the pack, content with our distant view, but most of the drivers were not so patient.  While others tried to leave, newly arrived vehicles fought for their coveted positions creating a ridiculous Serengeti traffic jam.  Then, when things seemed like they could not get any crazier, a second leopard appeared in the high grass on the opposite side of the road.  Even our guide became visibly excited, exclaiming how lucky we were to see two leopards together.

The leopard, on the other hand, was not so lucky with its path blocked by a fleet of safari vehicles.  Emerging from the grass, the leopard cautiously stalked its way across the road and between the vehicles while the cameras fired in every direction.  Before long, it had safely navigated the crossing and reached the tree where it climbed up to nuzzle its partner, much to our delight.  It was only a brief moment and then it returned to a spot on the roadside next to the line of vehicles where everyone clambered for a view.  The sighting of not one, but two elusive leopards would be a highlight for us all, though you had to wonder at what expense to the animal.  Three days later, we would find the leopard pair in the same spot, but with road rutted and muddy from the near-constant viewing traffic.  The leopards had obviously been the envy of everybody in the park and I shuttered to think what this scene would be like during peak season.

We spent the next day exploring the Serengeti, searching out the few animals we had still not seen.  The hippopotamus had not been checked off the list, but Baraka assured us that would not be a problem.  Our first stop was a beautiful lake filled with flamingos and surrounded by buffaloes.  A lone acacia tree stood near the lake reflected in its still waters, a scene of simplistic beauty typical of the African savanna.  Time and time again, we remarked how beautiful these parks were, even without the wildlife for which so many visitors come.  I would travel all the way to Tanzania just to photograph its picturesque landscapes; though when an exotic animal steps into the frame to accentuate the shot, I am reminded why so many other people come.

During the first days of our safari we were thrilled just to see an animal.  Our first giraffe was so exciting that we snapped countless pictures, even though it was too distant for a good photo.  A couple of days later we had seen so many giraffes that we rarely stopped anymore.  The real thrills of the safari come not just from spotting wildlife, but by observing their behaviors.  So when we spotted three giraffes in the midst of battle, we shut off the vehicle and settled in for the show.  As if in an awkward dance, the three giraffes crowded against one another positioning themselves for the next move.  Then one of their heads would drop and in a seemingly slow-motion Matrix-like move, their long neck would swing like a golf club and connect with the other giraffe.  Though its effects were not obvious to us, clearly there was a great amount of force behind each blow.  Then, the giraffes would continue their dance until the next neck came swinging in, sometimes finding its target and others missing altogether.  Their fight was a bizarre spectacle to watch and it was difficult to see who the winner would be, but it was just this type of unusual behavior that made each day in the Serengeti an unforgettable experience.

With such a vast area to cover, one cannot expect to see all the Serengeti has to offer.  The guides can communicate the location of animals, but much of what you find is based on luck.  Twice we stumbled upon lions feeding, but someone else might have seen them make the kill.  Stories of incredible encounters are as common as the animals that fill the plains.  One can only hope to be at the right place and time to see something truly extraordinary happen.

Sometimes the best moments can come from the most simple of actions.  We will always remember the baby elephant who flapped his ears wildly, trumpeted and made a mock charge; or when the lion took a break from feeding to lie in the shade of our vehicle; and the baby baboon who jumped on our hood and pressed his little face against the glass of our windshield.  But the most satisfying moment for myself was born only out of patience, a key component for wildlife viewing.  It could not have been more simple or mundane.  All we wanted was the leopard to sit up.

For almost an hour, we watched as it lie sprawled out on a log under the blazing sun barely moving an inch.  With an unobstructed view and a pretty backdrop of acacia trees, it would be the best view we had of a leopard yet; if only it would sit up.  We waited, waited, and waited, sure that at any moment the scorching sun would force him into the shade of a nearby tree.  The scene was perfectly framed and already I had taken countless photos at the sight of a twitching tail or moving head.  If only the leopard would raise himself and show off its unmistakable profile, the photo would be perfect.  But the minutes continued to pass without even a hint of action and several times we considered just moving on.  But then it happened.  Slowly, the leopard drew its paws beneath its belly and in slow motion it raised its body into a seated position.  All one could hear was the inhalation of human breaths and the rapid fire snap of camera shutters.  It only lasted a few seconds before the leopard disappeared off the log and into the high grass below; but that one simple action was enough to fill my heart with joy.

Ironically, after so many unforgettable encounters with African wildlife, the happiest moment of my safari would not occur in the endless plains of the Serengeti, but in the restaurant of the Serengeti Sopa Lodge.  For the heart of Africa exists not in its exotic wildlife, but in the people that make these places so special.  They were there each and every day, greeting us at the hotels with wet towels to clean the dust from our faces and cold drinks to quench our thirst.  They carried the bags to our rooms and served us drinks at the bar.  They waited on us at the restaurant and went out of their way to provide for our every need.  They were the staff of fancy hotels frequented by high-paying customers who expect to enjoy Western standards of service in remote corners of the developing world.  And they were the most under-appreciated part of the Serengeti.

We watched each day as these employees were ignored, disrespected, and mistreated by the same people they worked so hard to serve.  This was their home and we were but guests in their country, yet arrogant and intolerant visitors treated them like servants and they endured it with smiles and apologies.  We were appalled by the lack of respect that some people showed and in stark contrast, we treated them as friends.  We asked them their names and where they were from and in just that small gesture we were offered a small window into their world.  We laughed with them, joked with them, and discovered beautiful smiles and wonderful personalities that were hidden beneath the strict composure of 4 star service.  Our treatment of them was far from exemplary or exceptional.  We simply showed them the same kindness and respect that every one of us deserves.  But our small gestures of friendship and equality brought forth a tidal wave of emotions that followed us everywhere into the hotel.  Faces would light up upon our arrival and I could hardly leave for a few minutes without some inquiring where I had gone.  Bartenders and waiters expressed their sincere gratitude and shared how much they hoped we would come again.  We only spent two nights at the hotel, but when the time came for our departure, it felt as if we were saying goodbye to lifelong friends.

We gathered for a photo while baffled tourists looked on from breakfast tables, probably wondering who we were and what the fuss was all about.  For as we hugged our new friends and bid them farewell, the outpouring of emotion seemed to fill the hotel.  Even the hotel managers looked on with curiosity and wonder as we exchanged emails and embraced the employees.  They struggled to attend to their tables and say their goodbyes, several of them abandoning trays full of food and drinks so they could get another hug.  And when I saw three grown men with tears welling up in their eyes, I struggled to contain my own emotions.  Finally, I had found the Africa of my dreams, not in the endless plains of the Serengeti or its exotic wildlife, but in the wonderful people that call this place home.

2012
05.16

Each morning we were greeted by our bright smiling guide Baraka as we climbed into our private safari vehicle, pushed open the pop-up top, and started off on our day’s journey.  I would take my usual spot, standing in the back of the truck, scanning the savanna for wildlife while the clear, cool wind whipped at my face.  Baraka would follow the dirt roads that snake their way through the unforgettable landscapes of broad rolling grasslands shaped by fire and grazing animals and dotted with lone acacia trees.

It would only take a few minutes before we were spotting 15-foot giraffes munching on high branches and fearsome-looking warthogs disappearing into the high grasses with only their antennae-like trails visible across the savanna.  Groups of Thomson’s gazelle would go bounding across the plains showing off their attractive black flank stripes as they fled.  Jackals and mongoose would pop up from their burrows for a better view at the passing vehicle.  Awkward ostriches weighing up to 285lbs gathered in groups, their heads bobbing up and down while their balloon-like bodies hovered over the grasses.  Distant wildebeests grazed alone, seemingly lost from the hundreds of thousands crossing somewhere nearby.  Pairs of striped zebras huddled together resting their heads on each others necks and confusing even us with their unique form of camouflage and camaraderie.  Nearby, a pair of spotted hyenas would go bounding through the grasslands, instantly recognizable by their long, thick neck and strange, loping gait.  And all this would happen each and every day to the point that we would grow accustomed to vast expanses of open savanna dotted with innumerable exotic animals.

Yet, each day their would be a special find; a discovery in the midst of our African wonderland that would send vehicles racing in from every direction.  If we were lucky, as on the second day, we would be the first to arrive.  At first, I thought it was a lion, but nothing could have excited me more than the two syllables uttered by Baraka:  “cheetah.”  Not one, but three beautiful cheetahs, all brothers, rested beneath the shade of a small grove on the savanna.  They were barely visible from afar, but undoubtedly these were the animals we had been searching for as Baraka had been circling each lone tree over the past hour.  We had heard the rumors of a cheetah with cubs the previous night and knew they were in the area.  Yet, even the advance warning could not spoil the sensation of pulling up next to a trio of these gorgeous animals.

Lazing in the shade and only occasionally lifting their heads to acknowledge the approaching vehicles, it was difficult to imagine these slender cats reaching speeds up to 70 mph (112 km/h).  Their life is one of the most difficult of animals in Africa, as evidenced by the injured hobble of one of the brothers.  They assured us he was getting better and that the others continue to care and provide for him.  But this is no easy task for the cheetah who lacks the strength and teeth to defend its kill or even its cubs.  Unable to hoist its prey into a tree, as the leopard does, cheetahs can only hope to devour their kill before being noticed by large predators and scavengers that will steal it away.  Cubs often go unattended while a mother must hunt and for that reason and more, few of them survive.  Yet, despite their hardships and peril, the cheetah remains one of the most regal of African cats with its elegant fur and teardrop-striped face.  These would be the only ones we would see on our safari and it was undoubtedly a highlight of the trip.

Still smitten by the cheetah brothers, we continued towards Lake Ndutu where fingers of woodland mingled with savanna providing an ideal habitat for animals to find shade and places to rest during the day.  It was in an open field next to a tiny pond that we discovered yet another unforgettable sight.  A pride of lions basked in the sunshine having just consumed their morning’s kill.  Several small adorable cubs were still crunching on bones and licking their lips as they finished up their breakfast.  We pulled up next to them and shut off the engine while our cameras began firing away.  Africa’s most feared predator is also one of its laziest and when we discovered this same pride the previous afternoon they hardly moved a muscle.  But now thirsty and with their bellies full, this group of a dozen females and cubs took turns drinking from the pool and playing with their young.

For myself, no animal in Africa was more fascinating or memorable to watch.  Granted, they did little but lay around and cuddle their cubs, but the sight of wild lions in the African savanna defies any description I can give.  Simply put, they just appeared like over-sized house cats.  Their mannerisms are so similar, it is difficult to imagine these formidable animals as feared predators.  They roll around on their backs with their paws in the air.  They nuzzle each other’s necks and playfully bite and paw one another.  They daintily lap at pools of water, obviously adverse to actually touching it and getting wet.  And the cubs are so cute and adorable, it is hard to believe you can’t just pick one up and play with it (strongly advise against this).  But when the large powerful lioness raises herself and stalks slowly through the high grass, it provokes a sensation that simply takes your breath away.  For in those moments we are all aware who is truly the top predator around- and it is not those of us hiding in the safety of our safari vehicle.