By now all the rabid George Clooney fans have oooh-ed and ahhhh-ed over his schmoozy Ryan Bingham persona in Up In the Air. The Golden Globes are always a convincing force, pushing everyone else into the theatres to see the greedy award-grabbers like Avatar, The Hangover and Up in the Air for themselves.
So I went, because I like to be pop-culturally informed. If you are holding out for the rental so you don’t have to pay $12 for popcorn, there’s no spoiler here. Ryan Bingham’s life revolves around flying. In fact, being grounded leaves him unbalanced and twitchy. However, when love tempts him, he begins to reconsider his whole life. Maybe everyone else has it right. Maybe love, permanency and a home with a full fridge and drawers is attractive and natural. Bingham’s solace had long been the routine and simplicity of airline travel. He had no baggage other than what he checked in at the airport. Or did he?
His motivational speeches on the absurd weight of the physical and emotional baggage that we carry turns as flat as an open Coke left on the counter overnight. His sister’s impending marriage reveals his estranged relationship with his entire family. When he meets his match in Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), Bingham re-evaluates his life spent in the sky, travelling 320 days of the year.
The movie should have convinced the audience that baggage is good. It represents a life well-lived, friends and partners well-loved, dogs, cats, the whole sloppy and gorgeous mess.
So, why did I find myself in the travel section of Indigo Books minutes after the movie ended? Up in the Air reminded me of the anticipation that pulsates in airports. I wondered where I would/should go next. I pulled a guide book from the shelf on volunteer opportunities abroad and decided to play a game with myself. I let the book fall open to a random page, and decided that would be my next destination. I averted my gaze (to avoid cheating myself). I looked at the page that fate had opened to: Thailand’s Elephant Sanctuary.
Because I’m a Switzerland when it comes to making decisions, I’ve decided this will be my new tactic. The 100-acre sanctuary is located 50km from Chiang Mai in the Mai Taman Valley. Many of the elephants are rescued in an injured state from poaching activity, as seen with one individual who arrived with only one tusk. Once rehabilitated the elephants are released into “Elephant Haven,” a 2,000-acre natural forest where they can live safely with the herd of 25 that has already found a forever home in the Haven.
Volunteers stay in bamboo chalets, collect fodder with machetes during the dry season and can accompany a vet on the “Jumbo Express.” Working elephants kept by remote hill tribes receive veterinary care during such missions. Mornings begin with car-washing the elephants in the river. Because they are prone to parasites and other skin conditions, they require a daily squeegee job. At noon, when the pick-up truck rolls in with papayas, pineapples and bananas, “you are covered in fruit pulp and elephant snot” in minutes. Awesome!
I walked home from Indigo in the spitting rain, inspired and imagining elephant snot. I went online and read more. I checked out the Tennessee elephant sanctuary again and made notes in my not-so-official Five Year Plan book. Then I saw a Facebook posting from PASA Primates in need of volunteers at the Drill Ranch in Nigeria, working with orphaned chimps and mandrills. I jetted off an email immediately for more details. Then I received news that the J.A.C.K. sanctuary in the Congo (where I volunteered in July) has three more chimps arriving after being found at an abandoned captive facility in DR Congo. That made me want to fly back to Lubumbashi tomorrow.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I will probably volunteer more than I will work in my life.
It was just over a year ago that I watched Entebbe, Uganda disappear below me. The tears in my eyes made the few lights of the ‘city’ double. Landing at Schipol and taking the train into Amsterdam was a rude slap. Winter! That hospitable African sun no longer warmed my skin. I immediately forgot about the nuisance red dust that came with that lovely sunshine.
I rented Out of Africa the very next day. I looked at all 800 of my pictures on a regular basis and cried for the dogs and pals that I left behind. I missed the frenetic pace of the Tuesday night market. Having a warm Nile beer with a bowl of salty grasshoppers as the sun dropped into Lake Victoria. I wanted a Stoney Tangawizi (fiery ginger beer) and a rolex (an omelette with chopped cabbage and tomoato rolled into a greasy chapatti) from a shifty street vendor. As I ran in the sopping BC rain along McKee creek, I wanted to feel that stupid dust in my eyes and ears. I was sad to not be dodging scrawny goats and fleet-footed chickens and ‘boda-bodas’ (mopeds) with 400-pound Nile perch flapping on the back. I missed Africa in an almost pathetic way. Like a heart-broken lover.
And then my friend Heidi reminded me of all the things I had casually forgotten about when living in Africa. Travelling as a videographer with World Vision, she spent the last two weeks in Entebbe, Gulu and Kampala. I was thrilled to tell her about each place—what she had to eat (pizza at Anderita Beach, Nee’s green curry at the Gately) and how the sunsets would catch the sky on fire. My only warning was about the darling vervet monkeys who were prone to stealing bananas from your hand, or anything else that they assumed was edible.
And I think I mentioned that Kampala was a zoo, but I didn’t want to be like a movie reviewer with a spoiler in the first sentence. I did send a photo of the Kampala taxi park as a subtle warning though. It’s a football field of ‘matatus’ (mini-van taxis), each with a horn which is blared in response to other blaring horns. Just like barking dogs, one starts, and the rest join in. But Heidi had been to Zambia, she knew the drill.
The flight to Entebbe alone is enough to cause exasperation in any sane person. Sitting upright for what seems like 108 hours is the first hurdle. Sleepless and rattled by disappearing time zones, you arrive in the vacuum cylinder that is Entebbe. It smells like one big armpit. The skeletal dogs you pass by are like a non-stop Humane Society commercial with some achy Sarah McLachlan song cooing in the background.
The dust begins to blow, the sweat begins to drip until you feel like you’ve taken a dip and are stuck wearing your wet swimsuit for the rest of the five hour car ride.
Heidi’s first post mentioned her exhilaration in finally arriving in Uganda, despite the cold shower (yeah, I forgot about the frequency of those too). She was looking forward to sleeping on her single bed with the lumpy foam mattress. I nearly spit wine all over my laptop screen. I remembered the foam mattresses well. They make you sweat so much that when you wake up, you think you’ve pissed the bed. And then there’s the mosquito net to wrangle with. If they are hung from the ceiling on a hoop, there is a fantastic chance that by morning, there is a huge gap somewhere in the netting and 500 malaria-carrying mosquitoes are trapped inside the net with you.
Heidi’s Twitter-ed dinner reports were the most dramatic (and realistic). I think after being in Entebbe for four months, I had become used to the starch intake. A typical lunch or dinner would include: matoke (steamed green plantain), potatoes, yams and rice. Served with, as Heidi eloquently described it, “chicken parts.”
Yes, there were always mystery parts. I think I had part of a goat’s stomach in some broth once. But I conveniently forgot about the stench of fish for sale on the sidewalk in Kampala. The body odour that permeates all air molecules. There were several matatu rides where I had to do a lot of self-talk in tandem with my iPod and The Killers at a deafening level.
And then there was the internet and electricity issue. The patchy communications home made my mother routinely WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS. In Entebbe, the power went off in the airport as soon as I arrived. The luggage carousel was halted, but speech was not! The airport was alive with the raised voices of wilting missionaries and UN workers and Tilly-hatted tourists in safari suits fanning themselves as they complained to anyone who made eye contact.
I forgot about the crappy internet connection. I forgot about the stretches of three or four days without electricity. And the hurried cold showers that accompanied them.
When Heidi returned to Nashville, I relived my return home. Clean sheets, clean surfaces, meat without flies on it, ice cubes, soap! Deodorized people! No one yelling “Mizungo! Mizungo! Give me money! Mizungo, buy this!”
And I had space. I have probably only yelled twice in my life, and not even at a dog the other time. However, when I was flying out of Lubumbashi in July I had to yell against my will. Maybe it was more of a really loud voice than a yell, but, the man behind me had his passport pressed into my back. His jacket was practically slung over my shoulder and I could feel his hot, stale breath on my neck. I could feel myself cracking my own molars, trying to resist an eruption. “STANDING CLOSER TO ME DOES NOT MAKE THE LINE GO FASTER.” I erupted. It happens to the best of us when travelling.
And this is another blessing of North America (besides meat without flies and reliable wi-fi). We give each other personal space. It’s an unspoken rule that doesn’t exist everywhere in the world.
But, if we don’t travel and put ourselves in unfamiliar landscapes, how do we ever appreciate laundry detergent, $5 coffees and toilet seats? Or being served chicken instead of chicken parts? Distance from comfort, family and friends refines gratitude.
Even though I was reminded of all the nerve-fraying aspects of African travel, I am still halfway there in my head. I can always come home to a toilet seat and pocket-coil mattress again. It might be time to rent Out of Africa again. Apparently I miss corruption, using 500 Q-tips a month, parasites, starch and riding in matatus with 19 people, 6 chickens, blaring gospel music and an oily car-engine half on my lap.
“Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” –Pat Conroy
Heidi’s World Vision Zambia footage featuring “All the Days” by Jann Arden: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYidUQIY0r4
Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/
Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee: http://www.elephants.com/
The Drill Ranch in Nigeria: http://www.pandrillus.org/projects/drill-ranch/
J.A.C.K. in Lubumbashi: http://jack.wildlifedirect.org/