Lovin’ the Lions

Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in.  I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!

With my flight out of the country not until Saturday evening, I had two choices for my last day in South Africa: massage and manicure at the hotel spa, followed by a lazy afternoon and then a late checkout, or, an early morning van pickup to the lion park, followed by a fast shower before heading to the airport, thanks to that same late checkout.

There was no question where my money was going.

Lion park or bust!

The lion park was about an hour (in a different direction!) outside the city, but the drive was beautiful and after a week of long days in a classroom, it was nice to see something beyond cement sidewalks and shiny mall corridors. Going to the park early meant missing the major crowds, so I signed up to be there as they were opening. After a quick check-in and getting my paper bracelets showing my admission levels, the first stop was the safari truck. This looked exactly like you might imagine. It was a beige colored vehicle with rows of seating set inside a metal framed cage, the idea being that the animals are free roaming and the humans are the ones with restricted access.  The tiny/mini-safari lasted just an hour, but we got to see several lions up close (it was morning, so they were all lolling about in the grass, sunning themselves, not giving much heed to the truck that rumbles by a few times a day. Dinner had obviously been good the night before, as there was no interest in their visitors, either as entertainment or food.)

The safari in miniature, while billed as lion-centric, wasn’t confined to large cats. Our truck rolled through a large savanna populated by a variety of other African species: gnu/springbok, wildebeest, zebras (a baby!!), giraffes, ostriches, and wild dogs, just to name a few. The itty-bitty zebra foal was adorable- he couldn’t have been more than about a week old, still learning to make all four of those long legs go in the same direction at once and really wanting to frolic with the gnu, who ignored him entirely.

Post-safari-ito, it was time to utilize my second paper bracelet- the one that gave me access to the lion cubs! Just four months old, but already enormous and with paws bigger than my hands, these three guys were available for limited hours each day.  It was a slow morning at the park (it had been a really rainy week in Johannesburg, so tourism was down a bit), so I go the chance to spend time with just the animals and one other person, a CLO from the training who joined me on my last-day outing. The cubs, two yellow and one white, were amazingly soft and loved to be petted on the back and behind the ears, but were not fans of anything beyond the ears! Being morning, they were also not at their most active, mostly lazing about on the rocks and occasionally glancing in our direction, but at one point I did have a small wrestling match with a little guy who decided a bit of play was in order. The handler seemed a bit worried when he nipped at my arm during our wrestling, but I had no complaints! I was bit by a lion while in South Africa for work! (Comp claim??)

With an evening flight to catch and a looming hotel checkout deadline, it was time to say goodbye to my new feline friends, a goodbye that would extend to the city, country, and continent as a whole. Two weeks is a fast first visit to a new place and I know there is much I missed between my tours, museum visits, and market shopping, but I can’t complain about having the opportunity to see and experience and entirely new piece of the world.

After a very long flight back to the States (17++ hour from Johannesburg to Atlanta, seated next to a man on the aisle who seriously didn’t budge for the first ten of them), it was nice to be back home. Again, chatting over our cubicle walls, (no prairie dogging, rather we just chatter back and forth throughout the day, mostly about work issues, but occasionally about life in general), someone started talking about getting back from their last trip to Africa and how they got pulled aside at customs because they marked “yes” on the customs form, question 12 where it asks if you or your family had been in close contact with livestock (touching/handling) while overseas. I asked why she would check yes to this and she said because they went to an elephant park as a part of their trip.

Laughing, but a bit baffled still, I asked about it again and again, she mentioned the elephants.

Okay, so maybe this is an issue of definition. I’m currently reading Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, about the wonders of lexicology, so my brain is steeped in all things dictionary-related and figured maybe it was a misunderstanding on my part, as English is a fluid, living language with every shifting meanings within its scope (side note: I want her job [side, side note- look for a Card Catalog Review on this one in April]).  In my Idaho-bred world, “livestock” refers to farm animals. We’re talking about pigs and goats and cows—things that young Idahoans don white shirts and black slacks to show in rings during county fairs under a green clover adorned banner of their local 4-H club. These are the critters that earn kids top ranking blue ribbons, which the same kids then turn around and betray in an auction to sell them off to the highest bidder, sending them right to the butcher. The kid keeps the blue ribbon and the buyer gets a winter’s worth of meat for their freezer. That’s livestock.

Elephant are not livestock. Although, the mental image of 4-H with elephants is an amusing one, especially at the end-of-fair round robin competition. (Apologies to those not fully steeped in county fair protocol. You’ll have to Google this one.)  Customs does not care if you touched an elephant, cuddled a lion cub, or chased an ostrich. They do care if you kissed a chicken or wallowed with a pig. Barn yard disease- that’s what they’re watching. Bird flu. Swine flu. Not pachyderm flu.

I may be been exhausted and jet-lagged and I have been known to mess up my customs form (hence, the passport debacle in Mexico in January), but I am confident in my reading/interpretation of the regulations. Elephants and lions- you’re in. Chickens and pigs- beware!

Out of flora and fauna, it always seems to come back to the fauna with me. Whether it is a call asking for advice on shipping pets overseas (yes, we get those often in FLO and no, we do not have an answer, the OBC is your best bet on that one!) or recommendations for the best animals adventures overseas, I find myself drawn into critter-related discussions on a regular basis. The question is will I talk about it, but for how long!

Next up on our travel itinerary- Iceland. Do they even have animals?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Playin’ with Pachyderms

Never one to pass up a conversation about adorable animals, I was drawn into a couple different ones at the office over the last few days. Just today, chatting over the tops of our cubicles like we often do, a couple of us were talking about shipping pets. In the Foreign Service, this is a major topic that comes up time and time again- how to get a pet (usually a dog or a cat, but I’ve seen serious discussions about birds, rodents, turtles, etc…) from post A to post B. Never a cheap proposition, flying a pet around the world adds up quickly, with thousands of dollars (each move!) going to meet veterinarian requirements, buy tickets, and endure the quarantine process.  For some though, a pet is synonymous with family and no expense is too great to have them accompany tour after tour after tour.

In this rambling tête-à-tête about shipping between posts, I learned that the Frankfurt airport is apparently the Shangri-La of airports for travelling pets. In addition to nice rest facilities for the critters, and staff who are attentive and actually seem to care (apparently this is not a given), the airport has a top-notch veterinarian on call at all times.

Wondering why an airport would put so much effort into animal transportation had me a bit baffled, until a colleague mentioned that the airport is used as a main hub for circus animal movements in Europe.  Of course, this sent my brain down a widly different path, as the thought of sending circus animals by plane had not really ever occurred to me. Apparently, my childhood selection of picture books, plastic toys, and Disney movies has me eternally convinced at all circus animals travel by train- you know, the one with the red engine, the elephant with his trunk sticking out of the side of a car, the car with the giraffe head periscoping out of the top of his roof, and brightly painted advertisements up and down its length. This is how circus has moved, does move, and will always move. Right?

Welcome to the 21st century, Michelle! Circuses are fancy and travel by air. Sadly, this just doesn’t create the same nostalgic mental image as the train congers up. There are no lions roaring in the belly of the plane, no head/trunk holes in the fuselage for various critter pieces parts, although maybe if it were a private plane it could be brightly painted in primary colors.

Of course, with my recent trip to Johannesburg, the talk of elephants and lions smoothly slid into one about trips to various animal parks in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was not able to get out of town to do full-on safari trip, but I did squeeze in half-day trips, one to an elephant halfway house and the other to a lion park.

Yes, I said elephant halfway house.

Just a few hours outside of Johannesburg is an elephant park that houses a mere handful of pachyderms at a time- those who are awaiting placement in new homes. These giants come from a variety of places: one from a zoo that had closed down, one from a bigger park that was having social issues within its herds, and a couple from private complexes that could no longer house them. The day I went to the park, I was unable to meet the oldest member of the transient crew, as he had apparently “gotten up on the left side of the bed” and was in no mood for visitors. The keepers said the transition from the zoo has not been an easy one and he often opts of our socialization.

But, even if Old Man was grumpy that day, I still got to meet and spend the morning with some awesome creatures. The park is small and has a rolling population, but they have a great visitor program. Paired with an attached monkey park (which I opted out of!), elephant visitors still have to make their way through a free-range monkey enclosure to reach the sanctuary of the big guys. (There were monkeys out and about, but not in the terrifying numbers that still haunt my dreams after a trip to Monkey Forest in Bali. At no point was I concerned for my well-being or pondered the possible full ramifications of a broken-skin monkey bite.)

The tour started with a time to feed two of the elephants, mostly just a mash of pellets that they sucked into their trunks like powerful wet/dry vacuums. Our group was mostly adults and some folks were satisfied after dropping a handful or two into a trunk, so with a half-full bucket of pellets left, I went ahead and took a few extra turns at snack time. (The two kids our group were terrified of the elephants and hid behind their parents, regardless of the amount of coaxing by those they trusted. The adults didn’t seem overly interested, and the way I saw it, those enormous mammals ended some serious calories to survive the day, so really, I was the hero of the morning, at least in the long-lashed eyes of my new friends.)

Feeding time was followed by a really nice informational session in an outdoor classroom. We all plopped ourselves down on wooden benches and learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants (the usual, size, ears, toes, etc.), but also some really cool facts about how elephant skulls help cool their brains and about their five sets of ever larger teeth. Coming from someone who signs up for every imaginable animal outing possible when I travel, I was really impressed with the mini-biology lesson I got from the ranger and definitely came away from the day not only having interacted with elephants, but with a bit more critter data in my cranium.

The highlight of the morning was getting up close and personal (up close and pachydermal?)  with the stars of the show. Having no fear of the enormous animal, I walked right up to him and his trainer, full of questions about his age, history, future, etc. The trainer looked at me and said, “Have you spent time with elephants before?” I could only laugh and reply in the affirmative, as a detailed list of my many animal visits wasn’t on the morning agenda. After some hugs and kisses, it was time to bid adieu to our new friends and their wonderful keepers. (These men obviously loved their charges and took amazing care of them. It was really impressive to see the relationships that had been formed between man and animal and to hear of how hard the reserve works to send their animals away from the halfway house to safe and healthy forever homes.)

Elephants were the itinerary for the first weekend I was in South Africa, but after that incredible outing, it was time to get down to business. I flew to Johannesburg on business and it was time to clock in.  I had a week of community liaison office coordinator training ahead of me- a very full week of conducting training sessions for CLOs posted mostly in Africa, but a few from other regions, who were looking for support and a deeper understanding of their roles in their embassies and consulates. This was an amazing week of teaching (it made me realize how much I miss my classroom!) and networking, but as soon as we wrapped up the last session on Friday afternoon, I was off making plans for a Saturday trip to the lion park!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When Sixteen *IS* Enough

Sixteen hours is a long time to be stuck in a single seat in a winged tin can. Sixteen hours is two full work days. Sixteen hours is two full nights of sleep. Sixteen hours is nearly eight movies, watched back to back. Sixteen hours can be forty-eight episodes of your favorite sitcom. (Currently, that is Black-ish in my world. Fantastic!!) Sixteen hours is painful at the eight-hour mark when you realize you have to do everything you’ve already done again before wheels touch the ground again. Sixteen hours can be a tiny bit of torture, both physically and psychologically.

Sixteen hours.

Sixteen hours means different things to different travelers. For some, it is the amount of time it takes to get back to their loved ones. For others, it is the amount of time it takes to leave one life behind and begin a new one. Some travelers do cross-oceanic flights on a regular basis for business and it is just another blip on the work radar, while some are experiencing their first flight over a couple of hours.

Living in China and Malaysia has given me a pretty good tolerance for looooong flights, although this one ranks right up there in terms of hours spent on one single plane. Stateside, I don’t even blink at a five or six-hour flight on the way back to Idaho. It’s all about perspective! (Heck, I hardly need to pack anything to entertain myself when flying cross-country in the U.S. Between the inflight magazine, the safety card, and the tiny package of peanut-free rice snacks, I’m set for more hours than I’d like to admit.) Unfortunately, the young man with whom I shared a row from Atlanta to Johannesburg (cheers for an empty middle seat!) was experiencing long-haul travel for the first time (Emory student- there were a whole slew of them on the flight). I have no idea what his name was, but let’s call him Kevin. He seemed like a Kevin. Kevin had flown regionally a bit, but had never done an overnight, many, many hour-long flight. I’m not sure where he got his travel advice, but he decided it was best to go the comatose route for the duration, so no sooner at the doors been sealed, he popped a sleeping pill (maybe two?), donned an eye mask and noise cancelling headphones and was seriously not heard from again for eight hours. (Multiple of Kevin’s buddies came by to take photos of Sleeping Beauty throughout his lengthy nap. I am sure some gentle ribbing will ensue.)

In general, I have no issue with Kevin’s choice to sleep away as much of the flight as possible, but it did become an issue after I had two glasses of Coke and really needed a quick trip to the lavatory in the sky. Starting with a gentle nudge to the arm, I tried to resuscitate my row-mate, but to no avail. With a hardier jostle, I tried again, but had no luck in even affecting a position change. A bit baffled and unsure what my next step would be, I happened to make eye contact with a guy standing in the aisle, just stretching and biding his flight time. The guy had watched the whole nudge/jostle routine in amusement and apparently I Iooked like I really did need some time away from 23J, because with a smile, he held out his hand as leverage and helped me crawl over top of Kevin. Kevin didn’t budge an inch or make a sound as I made my way from the window to the aisle. Not even a sleep snort.

So, how does one wile away sixteen hours (other than Kevin’s self-induced coma option)? Just like this!

7:10-7:45PM Watch passengers file onto the plane, fingers and toes crossed that the empty middle seat remains vacant, giving side-eye to anyone to slows down in the vicinity

7:45PM– Internal cheer that the plane doors closed and the middle seat is flier-less

7:45-7:50PM– Unload backpack, storing books and headphones in the seatback compartment, de-shoe, shoving them against the plane side to only come out during bathroom breaks, slide backpack into the middle seat foot space clearing up extra legroom, claim extra blanket from empty seat and settle in for the duration

7:50-9:00PM- Bust out a new book- A Very Expensive Poisoning by Luke Harding in this case (I’d say that saving this book for the flight has been killing me, but given its topic of state-sponsored murder, that might be a bad way to go. Plus, I’d only had it two days. But, I did want to start it two days ago!)

9:00-10:00PM- Eat dinner of pasta, breadsticks and brownie while watching Chip and Joanna be adorable as they fix up a crazy, falling apart property, daydreaming of owning a house again one day (Flying solo meant I only had access to one meal, so no item swapping for me this time around. Usually my salad goes to Thad and I get his roll in return. I was not unhappy to find several items I’d eat on the tray though, including a small bar of cheese and package of crackers, so while I would prefer my favorite travel partner to be along, I did survive and not starve this time around.)

10:00PM– Make acrobatic move to get over Kevin and visit the loo, thanks to the aisle dweller from the row in front of me. This was much more awkward for me than Kevin, as he still has no idea it happened and let’s be honest, it wasn’t pretty!

10:00PM-Midnight– Back to A Very Expensive Poisoning to continue to be both horrified and fascinated with the lengths certain current world leaders will go to in order to maintain control

Midnight- 2:00AM- Attempt sleep- curl up in a ball with feet tucked in until legs have lost all circulation, then switch to the bent-in-half position until either the guy in front reclines his seat, possibly causing a minor concussion, or until both legs have again lost all circulation and toes are tingling

2:00-3:00AM- Too tired to focus on reading but unable to sleep and too lazy to find a show worth thinking about for more than three minutes at a time, I stare blankly at the seatback in front of me, much like Puddy when Elaine breaks up with him after their trip to Europe on the fourth season of Seinfeld

4:00- 6:00AM– It is no longer actually early morning, as in the middle of the ocean time is messed up and I have no idea what time it is or what meal I should be wanting. I eat the banana out of random bagged “lunch” brought around by flight attendants. (Avoid the pre-made sandwich and the granola bar that is more crumb than bar. I supplement this snack with the animal crackers I brought in my backpack, knowing that at some point I would be hungry and left hanging by the offered meal service.)

6:00AM- Realizing that Kevin is up and in the aisle, I take advantage of the easy access to make another trip to the tiny ladies’ room, taking along a toothbrush and facewipe to make a measly attempt at freshening up mid-flight, and do a bit of bulkhead yoga as I await my turn in the tiny cubicle of a water closet

6:00-8:00AM- Continue restless sleep activity. Switch positions roughly every 20 minutes. Mostly be awake and annoyed.

8:00-9:00AM- “Enjoy” breakfast/dinner items from the Delta team. I opted for the chicken salad, eating the cold grilled chicken, pineapple and cookies. Watch another whirlwind house renovation thanks to Chip and Joanna. (This time around, I really could have used the trade-deal I have going with Thad. I am sure he would have appreciated my extra salad-offerings in return for his package of cookies.)

9:00-10:30AM-Finish the last pages of A Very Expensive Poisoning just as the plane touches down in South Africa, silently marking another continent off the checklist and rather pleased at my reading rationing. (Antarctica- I’m coming for you, somehow, some way!)

Not able to bear the idea of eight movies (are there even eight movies out there that I would want to watch?) or forty-eight episodes of a TV show (even the witty and well-written Black-ish), I opted for reading, kinda’ sleeping, and a bit of zoned-out staring. Just ten short days from now, I’ll be making the return flight, getting to go through the whole schedule again. A new book will need to be purchased (why, or why, this one time have NONE of my library books come off hold?!) and I’m crossing my fingers and toes for yet another empty middle seat to give just a bit more elbow room to the seemingly never-ending flight. Coming to Johannesburg I was excited about the prospects of exploring a new place and energetic/anxious about leading my first CLO training. Headed home, I’ll be looking forward to seeing Thad again, getting back into the flow of work, and preparing for a spring-full of DC visitors.

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air.”
― Wilbur Wright