Gearing Up

April 9, 2010

Kathleen Ryan, Associate Curator of the African Section at the Penn Museum, approached me months ago about going to Kenya with her team to video tape her research on the Laikipia Plateau. “Sure!” I said, thinking I would never get approval from above. It seemed like too much of a fantasy opportunity to ever materialize into reality.

Baby Kibo at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
Baby Kibo at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage

In 8th grade, I hung a poster in my bedroom that my Environmental Science teacher gave out for free that said “Don’t Buy Ivory” above a herd of elephants. I remember thinking maybe someday I’ll go to Africa and pet an elephant. Now I am actually going to Kenya and I definitely intend to pet multiple elephants (at the elephant orphanage). Not on some touristy safari in which they rake over the tire tracks from the previous group of tourists to fake a sense of rugged adventure. We will be deep in Maasailand and digging in the Laikipia Plateau.

I have discovered, since my last trip to a developing country, that I am a highly fearful person. And in my advanced age, I find myself expecting the worst and preparing for the worst. Which is not so bad because I’m always pleasantly surprised when I uncover my eyes and realize that I still have all appendages in tact after experiencing all the many frightening tasks throughout my day. Silly suburban adversity like getting lost in state parks, operating a snow blower, or driving on I-95. (I don’t cover my eyes for that though.)

The Museum is full of experienced world travelers. Almost all of my colleagues seem to have stories of bushwacking the Amazon. Even Shawn from IT survived an attack of fire ants in Laos. And Janet Monge, our Physical Anthropologist has apparently had malaria three times. Since she seems to live in Africa part time, I asked her what I should be afraid of most. She answered, “You really don’t have to be scared of anything. Except the buffalo.” Okay, buffalo don’t seem like such an exotic threat. I asked Jen Chiappardi, our Photographer who accompanied Kathleen last year as well. What I should be afraid of? “Well,” she said, “the Maasai aren’t afraid of lions so much as the hyenas. They attack in groups, you know.” Hyenas seem too silly to be a serious threat. So far so good. I put the same question to the Kathleen. Kathleen has been described to me as a “tough lady” although “tough” would not be the first word that comes to mind upon first meeting her. She has been given a Maasai name meaning “strong woman,” even though she would stand at about 5 feet in heels, if she wore them instead of her comfortable loafers. She answered my question with her infectious Irish accent, “Well, nothing,” she said, “except for the puff adders.”

So the threats are adding up, but so is the excitement. That song “Africa” by Toto came on the radio while I was driving on I-95 last weekend and my fear of the maniacal drivers dissipated as I thought about the more primaI adventures ahead. I may stick that song in my ipod along with some more serious travel guides and podcasts about the socio-political environment.