Tag Archives: belonging

Having the Dream

I recently visited Tanzania with a group of outspoken high school students and three travel-seasoned peers. I wanted to find my place; to follow the steps of my grandparents and parents to Tanzania, the central character of my family’s history. I took these notes at night, when only the Maasai guards who protected the camp would witness my mzungu headlamp-illuminated jet lag and delirium.

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We spend our first week camping at Meserani Snake Park, about 15 miles west of Arusha. Meserani is alive with sound. Late summer thunderstorms modulate the volume and intensity. Motorists honk on the nearby highway; herds of goats, cows, and camels chatter and bleat; birds coo in the trees, underscored by the grating call of guinea fowl families that wander the campsite; insects titter and chirp. Only the staccato of sudden rain drowns the sounds outside. Cool, damp air filters through the rain flaps as raindrops bounce off the tent onto wet blades of grass. Bass thumps from a bar outside the park’s gates; the party there is still going strong at 4 a.m. At dawn, a muezzin calls worshippers to pray.

Meserani is, for someone like me, a trial by fire. I’m not accustomed to sleeping in tents for extended periods of time; I don’t find living out of a backpack glamorous, rustic, hip, or especially fun. But, despite frequent nightly thunderstorms, my tent remains dry. I have access to clean water and food that far exceeds what I anticipated. We tour schools and Maasai villages: enclaves, or kraals, of circular houses with thatched roofs and walls made of mud, ash, and dung. Our Maasai guides recycle tires for sandals – an ingenious all-terrain solution against the elements, especially the blistering heat, which sears the skin even in early morning hours. By day three at Meserani, I learn a root lesson: Acceptance is a friend.

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I also learn to look up, literally and metaphorically. When I feel alone, I shift my gaze and change my mood for the better. I become enchanted by the lovebirds at Meserani, who build their homes in the safety of wooden huts. I spend a disproportionate amount of time photographing them, and I am happy to do it. I discover hornbills and hanging nests. I don’t consider myself a textbook bird enthusiast, but it is not lost on me that the universe is sharing so many beautiful things that take flight.

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Our second week urges us out of the park. We pack our already-economical clothing and sundries into even more conservative daypacks, readying for three days of safari. We drive further inland to Mto Wa Mbu, an entry point to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. After a night’s rest at Twiga camp, we drive along the crater’s rim, overlooking what the Maasai termed the “big hole.”

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Lush rounded hills surround the crater – we could be driving through Idaho or Scotland, if not for the wandering tribes of giraffe, who feast from treetops off the sides of the road. I am not sure whether it is the giraffes or the elevation, but I feel buoyant.

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We descend the crater’s base into a valley floor that exposes miles of uninterrupted horizon. I did not expect the entrance to Serengeti National Park to be so vast: tall, yellowing grass rustles in every direction as far as the eye can see.

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We raise the top on the safari truck, giving us shade from the relentless sun and access to a welcome breeze. We drive towards our campsite at Seronera, roughly midway into the park. Zebras and wildebeests flank the road. Most of the noise vanishes; the only chatter here comes from the adolescent creatures inside the vehicle. Standing in sock feet on the truck’s upholstered seats, our bodies pliant and bouncing with the ruts in the road, we watch the late afternoon sun cast rosy golden hues in an all-too-short “magic hour” before setting into a long Equatorial night.

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What soggy tents? What annoying guinea fowl? The Serengeti frees the mind of complaint. We wake up to elephant families, wandering languidly through the dewy landscape, and lionesses fending off hyenas from a recent kill. A herd of purple-grey hippos capitalize on a recently rain-filled pond. Storks line treetops. In the green passageways of the Serengeti, I consider pleading with our guide to let me out of the truck. This is my stop.

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We return to the crater’s rim for the last night of safari. The amethyst sky explodes in milky, bright constellations. Several of us stop in our tracks on the dirt path to and from the restrooms, captive to the stars; our headlamps narrowly prevent our silhouettes from crashing in the dark. Baboons we cannot see scurry through the grass. Hyenas whoop and bark to one another. Lightning flashes in the distance. In the morning, fingers of fog mute the sunrise.

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From the rim’s edge, thousands of animals below appear as slow-moving dots. I hear my father’s voice. He viewed the crater as a “special place, part of [his] secret, psychic African heritage.” This trip connects me to my family’s history through shared images and remembered narratives. I follow paths they traveled long ago: to the Lion Men of Singida; to the water buffalo that nearly gored my grandfather and his friend, a hunting trip gone awry; to the dusty, wide open spaces that Dad likened to his later home on the Wasatch front. I revel in the exhilarating morning air, and send my thanks out with each new breath: asante, asante sana. As Hemingway wrote: “I could not believe we had suddenly come to any such wonderful country. It was a country to wake from, happy to have had the dream.”

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© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Desert Dream

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The drive along Highway 89 from central Utah to Tucson, Arizona, takes about 11 hours, down a corridor between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, to the east of the Grand Canyon, and over the Glen Canyon Dam. It traverses breath-taking landscapes and is, on this March day, relatively low stress, owing to light traffic, good visibility, and ample passing lanes. My husband and I have picked up our children, Kai and Rory, early from school. We are teachers and we are on spring break. We drive.

*

On our first day in Tucson, we visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Kai and Rory quiz me as we drive there. “Is it a museum, Mom?” asks Kai.

I tell him that it is a museum… and it isn’t.

“What? I don’t get it,” says Rory from under the rim of a Hello Kitty fedora.

“You will,” I say. The Desert Museum is a vegetation-rich place where visitors roam maintained paths, spotting birds and animals, and pausing to admire strange and beautiful desert plants. It is a gateway for learning the language of and kindling a connection to a region that bursts with biodiversity, and the best way to understand it is by experiencing it.

We take the kids to the raptor free flight. Falcons, hawks, and owls soar by, inches from our heads. Kai and Rory snap photo after photo. (The museum is also a photographer’s paradise.) The kids rush to acquire a new vocabulary:

saguaro (sah-WAR-oh)

cholla (CHOY-ya)

ocotillo (oh-koh-TEE-yo)

palo verde (pal-oh VER-day)

Rory points to a bright fuchsia wall: bougainvillea. Kai crouches to smell delicate orange orbs that proliferate alongside the prickly pears: desert mallow. We hear a singular chirp, and, after a few moments of searching, find a dusty brown female cardinal in the underbrush. Kai spots an aloe stalk that stands taller than we do and says, “It’s like an alien!” Later, he discovers a cluster of spiny teddy bear cholla: “That looks like an army of renegade muppets from hell!” he shrieks, clearly impressed.

“This is not like the desert I imagined,” says Rory, whose entire stance transmits the sense of buoyancy I’ve felt since we crossed the state line. “I like it.”

I like it too. My husband and I attended graduate school in Tucson, and in those few years formed an abiding love for the desert. We worked our first adult jobs, purchased our first home, and had our first child. Kai is the reason we’ve come back to visit. I want him to know where the story of his life begins.

*

We can’t go home again, but we try anyway. We stand outside the condo where Kai spent his first months. We knock. The tenants have put up brown craft paper as curtains. A gray lizard scuttles by; its throat flares orange. No one answers the door. I photograph Kai, posing outside the front entryway, as he did ten years ago. Though we are disappointed, I can tell Kai’s mind is clicking Tucson into place.

*

In Sabino Canyon, we sway on a flat bench as an aged trolley, groaning and sputtering, carries us into the Santa Catalina mountains, where passengers dismount to explore trails. We begin the downward trek back to the visitor center: 3.7 miles in all. Kai and Rory don’t complain. Tall saguaros surround us. Palo verde trees and mesquites shade a lush carpet of yellow blooms. We hear Sabino Creek trickling by, and stop to cast off our shoes and splash in one of its cold, clear pools.

As I sprawl on a pale, smooth boulder, luxuriating in the rock’s radiant heat, I watch a group of girls playing on the rocks across the pool. They look about Kai’s age. One of the girls, wearing orange shorts and a white tank top, squeals when a male mallard with lustrous, inky plumage alights on the water’s surface. “A duck!” she yells, pointing for her friends. “Look, you guys, it’s a duck!”

She runs to grab a bag of potato chips, then hurries back, stretching over the water’s edge to offer the duck a chip. I call out for Kai and Rory, and splash! The girl’s fallen into the pool, neck deep, mouth in a shocked O. She brings herself to her feet. “That was fun!” she exclaims, and quickly amends herself. “That was awesome!” She dries off and returns to feed the duck the remainder of her chips. Her friends gather around her and giggle, while her mother warns: “Be careful, now!” Within minutes, she dubs herself Girl Who Swims With Ducks.

A second mallard joins the pool and partakes of chips, though they turn up their beaks at nacho-flavored corn chips. The ducks glide along. I leave the scene feeling delighted by a moment of wonder in the desert.

*

I’ve been an ‘other’ for most of my life: immigrant’s daughter, born abroad; minority of Ukrainian descent, presumed Jewish, growing up in the lowest socioeconomic bracket of Coney Island; only child with three half-siblings; non-Mormon working at coffee shop and attending college in predominantly Mormon community; married in grad school; liberal Yankee in a traditional southern family; employee of an international school in a rural setting; interloper in Mormon pioneer country. Even in the classroom, I adopt the role of ‘other’ to provide a more balanced perspective for my students.

In the desert, I am myself. The sand doesn’t differentiate my footsteps from anyone else’s. The saguaro does not hide its spines or conceal the holes burrowed by the creatures it houses. The desert feels as close to home as I can describe on a spiritual level.

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At dinner on our last night, I order a piece of pie for the four of us to share. An elderly couple who’d been sitting at an adjacent booth joins us in line for payment. “I thought,” says the smiling man, “that I was the only crazy who did that!” He laughs. I laugh, because I have a fondness for forthcoming people.

His twinkly-eyed companion says: “Once, in Kansas, he ordered a piece of pie and eight forks. The waitress looked at us like we’d gone mad, but, really, all we needed was a little taste.”

“Just goes to show…” the man continues. “The more you travel, the more loonies you meet!” He slaps a hand against his thigh, chuckling. His face is ruddy and furrowed with wrinkles. I have the impression he’s lived through a great deal and come out on the optimistic side.

“It’s inevitable,” I add, grinning. I resist a strong urge to adopt them both.

*

Is a little taste enough? Three days in the desert is not enough to visit Bisbee, with its iodine-colored mining “lake” or the Inn at Castle Rock, which is a quirky and delightful experience onto itself. It is not enough to visit the artists of Tubac or drink margaritas across the Nogales border or admire the riotous splendor of Madera Canyon’s avian population. It is not enough time to properly explore the Rillito Wash—not east by the Jewish Community Center or west towards First Avenue—or to meet with old friends and co-workers. It is barely enough time for mimosas at the Blue Willow and eggs and gunpowder at the Cup. But sometimes a little taste is just enough to whet the appetite.

As we pack our bags to leave, Kai fiddles with his shoelaces and sighs. “I don’t want to leave, mom.”

I hug him and try not to cry. “Me neither. But it was a good trip, wasn’t it? Would you like to come back sometime?”

Kai’s smile answers for him.

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© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2015

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