Fear & Ecstasy in Tanzania Part 2: The Gastrointestinal Lottery

Sometime after I consumed my partially intact 3am La Bamba burrito off of the gum-littered pavement back in college was about the same time I began to discover the precarious nature of the intestine. Positioned cosily between the stomach and the anus, and resembling what might be the crossbred spawn of a rattlesnake and a fruit roll up, the intestine digests food while simultaneously destroying your dreams. 

No other organ in the body can be held responsible for such blatant disregard for one’s self image, except for perhaps the colon. Which is equally in cahoots to demolish your soul. The intestine cares only for the digestion of food and nutrient release into the bloodstream and has little regard for its host body’s psychological or emotional wellbeing. Bad timing is its most pronounced character trait and as it’s an uncultured and uncivilized biological structure, it unsurprisingly has zero interest in the refined art of subtlety.

Before one particular mammoth car journey from the city streets of Arusha to the far away Maasai villages of northern Tanzania, I decided an indifferent approach to the intestinal lottery was the most rational. Having spent the previous day within embarrassingly close proximity to the lavatory, and not feeling especially confident that the present day should be spent in any other way, I determined that I would face the predicament head on. Whatever would be would be, and if it decided to be, I would “let it be.” A pathetic philosophy for a traveller with stomach issues, so much for whispering words of wisdom, but I figured mainstream John Lennon credo was good enough for me, and so on I went.

Three of us headed off on the journey in the seven seater 4 x 4 and it became clear early on that we would be filling the space. A fourth and fifth jumped in with two small bags of belongings and what started as a reasonably tame and spacious interior soon became quite social. Not having yet left the confines of the city, we navigated our way around neighbourhoods and began to acquire more bodies and personal affects. Five people turned into seven, plus a baby. The floor of the car was now a hold all and the roof began to shake as items were chucked up and ropes were tied to steady the load. Soon, every square inch of available space was as valuable as Manhattan real estate and with our bodies now involuntarily molded into positions a contortionist would envy, we headed off into the bush. The first 30 minutes went by quickly. With the frenzy of urban activity going on outside, staring out the window proved a most effective time travel. But by the time we’d reached the edge of the city and embarked upon more suburban-like pastures, my intestine made itself known with a few ominous groans. Not promising, I thought, but distracted by the life outside the next hour passed uneventfully. By this point everyone had grown accustomed to the seating arrangement and were quite comfortable in the realization that for the next nine hours their sweaty flesh would be pressed against anothers. Because of the time it took to round everyone up in the city we’d gotten on the open road quite late and I could gather from my limited (note: nonexistent) Swahili, it seemed everyone was anxious for an early lunch. As we piled out into a roadside hut for goat stew and rice it was quite obvious to me that by indulging in this early feast I was making a potentially mortifying experience ever more likely. But I was hungry, and over the past few weeks I’d rather grown to like the taste of goat. Logic took another backseat to food as it commonly does in my life, and the lunch was enjoyed with great gusto.

We finished up, repositioned ourselves in the car and as we waited to leave, we clocked three more people approaching the vehicle from the other side of the road each with a shoulder bag, one with a baby, and another with a large sack of rice. Surely not, I thought. I mean how? Is it even physically possible? The answer was yes. As the final three and a half passengers liquidated themselves in order to fit into our miraculous clown car, we once again set off, stupefied as to how the laws of physical matter had been disproved right before our eyes. Once the shock wore off, there it was again, a rumble. The intestinal kind. Please, not now. I couldn’t even get up and out of the car if I’d tried. With a sack of rice between my feet, camera equipment on one thigh and a baby on the other, I’d have needed at least a fortnight’s warning to pry myself out of our hotel on wheels. Not to mention we were in predator territory, making roadside squatting ever so slightly panic-inducing. And so, as humans do in times of despair, I began to beg. Dear sweet beautiful intestine, if you behave yourself I swear to feed you nothing but organic fruits and vegetables for the rest of our time together. No processed sugars, pinky swear. I’ll even throw in some wheatgrass juice twice weekly and on special occasions. But another rumble was its reply. Now the anxiety properly set in. With beads of sweat dripping down my temples, I opened the window hoping the fresh air would improve my critical thinking skills. I still believed diplomacy and some hardball negotiations with my organ would be a plausible way out of this, but I was willing to try anything. I’d once read that if you firmly squeeze the fleshy area on your hand between your thumb and index finger you can get migraines to go away. Though my problem was located slightly further south, my knowledge of DIY acupuncture was unfortunately limited to just this one tidbit and so I began to desperately squeeze my hand in the hope that perhaps the trick had more of a whole body effect. Sadly, it did not, and the cramps continued to assault my insides. Just as I was beginning to sink into new levels of despair, we screeched to a halt. I didn’t know why until I saw them, gliding delicately across the road one after one utterly indifferent to our presence, was a tower of giraffes. They were silent and graceful as they put one long leg in front of the other and their necks moved back and forth as if independent from the rest of their gargantuan bodies. We sat and watched with our necks craned upwards and our eyes focused as these creatures went about their daily regime oblivious to how glorious a sight they were to us unsuspecting humans.

We carried on hastily into the countryside and found ourselves amidst the famed Serengeti plains. Galloping buffalo, inquisitive Zebra and a horizon sparsely dotted with Acacia trees greeted us as we sped towards our destination. Mere minutes must have passed but so too did the wrenching pain in my stomach. But I wasn’t so convinced at my apparent stroke of luck. I waited for the daggers to return. I listened for the rumble. Nothing. Had my lucky number come up? Was I being spared a lifetime worth of dark and shame-filled memories of the day I forgot to pack Immodium? It seemed so. I remained perfectly still for the next hour to assist nature in ratifying the peace treaty it had just negotiated with my bowels. Signed, sealed and nothing was delivered, thankfully.

Two hours passed as we rode through the undulating fertile hills of northwest Tanzania and I couldn’t believe my luck. I was out of the danger zone and on a flight out of the gastrointestinal war zone. I’d won the lottery. It was one of the most beautiful moments of relief a human being can experience besides surviving rush hour on the tube in central London on a Friday. Once again I’d crossed the psychological threshold of fear and ecstasy and lived to tell the tale, confidence intact. It was my crawling-out-of-the-sewage-pipe escape from Shawshank. It was my descent from the summit of Everest. I’d won the lottery and I hadn’t even bought a ticket.

Life in Contrast

The best thing about a city is retreating to the coast.

Two hours outside the wonderful madness of Saigon are lavender skies and the loveliest stretch of beach you ever did see.

Nothing is peaceful unless there’s chaos. Nothing is quiet unless there’s noise.

Contrast is one of life’s greatest devices.

Fear & Ecstasy in Tanzania Part 1: What Not to Do on a Budget Safari

A car breaking down in the middle of a national park in Tanzania is different than, say, a car breaking down in the middle of a national park in Vermont. In Tanzania, things eat humans whose cars break down. All that was heard from our Safari driver for the last several hours was that when spotting animals he’d stop long enough for us to take photos but that we should “never stop for too long.” Very encouraging information given the set of events that was about to take place. I suppose the guttural clanking of the engine before its wildly dramatic death should have clued us in that we were about to become Lion finger food. Or at the very least, playthings for the hundreds of baboons that had quietly assembled on the road before us as if they’d been anticipating our arrival and plotting our demise. Our demise happening sometime after their late afternoon butt picking session. (Visual aids below). Luckily for all of us, I’d recently finished the complete Planet of the Apes Box Set Collection, which gave me the confidence to realise that with a bit of humour, understanding and implausible Hollywood plot twists, humans and monkeys really can be best friends.

What I was worried about however, after the car screeched to a halt next to a Hippo watering hole, otherwise known as death’s door, were the words that next came out of my guide’s mouth. They sounded distinctly like “get out of the car and push.” I thought I’d been mistaken, but in fact I had not. Never before had the phrase “you get what you pay for” been so wholly, painfully clear to me. It reminded me of that time I bought a discounted bra at a street market in Kuala Lumpur. It did about as much for holding up my boobs as a sieve does for holding water. Apparently I NEVER LEARN.

After three failed attempts at pushing we took a break, and seeing as though we had the time, we had run out of things to do besides pray for survival, we walked over to inspect an ant hill at the side of the road. This was no ordinary northern hemisphere ant hill the size of your fist. This was the Everest of ant hills. It wasn’t a neighbourhood in there it was an ant universe. It’s size was impressive enough to render us speechless for a few solid minutes and as the ants diligently made their way to and fro I began to wonder if the ant world had it figured out better than the rest of us. Are they happier living in commune with one another and working towards one common goal? Is it insulated enough inside there to keep them warm on a cool evening but airy enough that it doesn’t get too stuffy? And if there’s some sort of ant mutiny rebellion against the establishment do they drive out the ousted leader and appoint a new King ant? Or is it more of a socialist self-governing society? I never saw the movie Antz, so I don’t know. These are the kinds of existential entomological questions that I didn’t know I cared about until I thought I wouldn’t be around to think them any more. Amongst all of this thinking, I began to wonder if the ants, should I meet my fate inside the mouth of a lioness, would carry my lifeless and mangled body into their ant hill for refuge as to spare me from total annihilation by the vultures above. They seemed forgiving and empathetic like that. But one would hopefully never know. Fear of death has a quirky way of turning avoidant defense mechanisms into mildly interesting topics of conversation.

At this point we were beginning to feel quite optimistic about things and a bit lighter about the fact that with no phone service and light falling fast, meaning most of the other safari cars had already turned back, that our chances of having to spend the night in the car were increasing. No problem! It’s fine. So we’re in Lion territory, no big deal! So we’re fresh, vulnerable meat already perfectly seasoned with the salty sweat from a full day in the bush, who cares! It’s all good. Our faux confidence was as pathetic as the engine we road in on. After a last solid attempt to free ourselves and a death defying three quarters of an hour very literally trying to push a 4 x 4 out of a Safari park, the engine decided to return from the dead and reincarnate as a somewhat improved though still incomprehensibly crappy version of itself. As we drove away, the ant hill becoming a speck in the distance, our gratitude and joy quickly metamorphosed into an inexplicable urge to sing the “Circle of Life.”  Apparently, challenging experiences in the wild can make you wiser, but they can’t make you less of a cliche.

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