A note from the field
### I’m still getting sorted out in Tanzania – here’s a post I wrote from my first full field season when I learned how to drive a Land Rover. Excitement. ####
“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 Land Rover 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. Dala dalas 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. “Twende!” 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 Land Rover 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 off road. “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 Landy 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 that’s a hole! Oh, okay, we are alive. That’s just grass.” …Except when it’s not.