The brakes on the decrepit old van, in which 19 of us are packed like sardines, are squealing. The girl sitting next to me is sweating profusely. Drops of her warm, odorous perspiration fall onto my shoulder and forearm. As the driver screams in some coarse West African language at the rundown and smoking car in front of us, (perhaps the only other car on the road for hours and hours), I can’t help but think: This is the best day of my life.
Any other day of the week, I may have complained about being trapped in a van for eleven hours with 19 young adults who haven’t had a shower in three days. On a regular afternoon in 105 degrees, it might make me sick to travel an unpaved road for 120 miles in a vehicle, neither equipped with a proper shock system nor air conditioning.
On any other day of the week, the thought of having to yell “Hey bus driver, pull over so I can take a piss in that bush over there,” may have well sent me over the edge. But not today. Today is the best day of my life.
There was something about spending the day in an African jungle that had a positive effect on my mood. Perhaps it was the fact that I had just sat in the middle of a baboon village, while hundreds of the primates continued with their daily activities – in every direction around me. It could have been that I had just gotten to spend part of my afternoon singing Pumba’s lines of “Hakuna Matata” to real, live warthogs.
But most likely, it was the fact that I had an hour standing only ten meters from a herd of wild elephants, majestically basking in the sun of their natural habitat. As the driver in front of us pulled to the side of the road, fists waving in the air and the African equivalent of the “F” word spewing from his mouth, good old American laughter filled the van. It was the best day of my life.
"… just push the freaking snooze button", Linsdey whined in her coarse smoker's voice that I had come to love in a roommate. I was infamous for allowing the alarm to beep until I was finally ready to get out of bed. Considering it was 4:00 a.m., I would have let that thing beep for hours if it wasn't for Kelly belting out her over-the-top Christian songs in the room next door. Lindsey pulled the once-white pillow from over her head and shot me a look that said, "I'm going to kill her". We fumbled out of bed and searched in darkness for any pair of clothes that had been worn less than three times since their last wash. After giving our selections the sniff test, Lindsey and I packed our bags with what meager possessions we had, and headed outside to meet the rest of our study abroad group.
The nineteen of us crammed into a van that wouldn’t have been comfortable for a family of five. As we drove away, I took note to capture every last detail of the campsite-like hotel, knowing it was another thing I would never again see in my lifetime.
"Okay, we go to Mole now", said Faustina, our assistant resident director. Faustina was one of those people who, despite having the personality of an ice cube, you were somehow inclined to love. Glancing over our itinerary, it was hard to believe this day was finally here. We had been living in Ghana for five weeks.
Five weeks ago, we read this same itinerary, and anticipated the day we would get to travel to the exotic African National Park of Mole Reserve. We took a short, bumpy drive along an unpaved road until we reached a "Welcome to Mole" sign. The van squirted us out one at a time until nothing remained inside but retro-colored seat covers and plantain peels.
Mole was the most beautiful place I had ever come across in my 21 years of existence. We were enveloped by trees of every size, shape, and shade of green. Grassy fields stretched out to infinity in all directions. Birds chirped songs never sung by American birds. Breathing was an experience all in itself. As I looked down from the hill upon which I stood, I became overwhelmed with the 3,187 square miles of jungle that sprawled out in front of me. A sense of doubt took over my body, and for a moment, I wanted to cry.
"You think we'll see 'em?" Lindsey asked over my shoulder, "The guide says there's about a 30% chance." Hiding a wave of panic, I clutched the sacred elephant charm on my bracelet and smiled. "It's not important," I said. "We're here. That's all that matters." "Shut up," she laughed. Lindsey and I hadn't left each other since the moment we arrived in Ghana. We had even pushed our cots together to form one big bed. She could tell when I was lying.
Ghanaians have bodies that put Greek gods to shame. You see the upside to being technologically low on the totem pole is that doing things by hand gives you muscles you never knew existed. Samuel was no exception. "Akwaba," Samuel welcomed us. He then went into a fifteen-minute speech on the do's and dont's of an African safari. After confirming that "Yes, Jessica, the big gun on my back is only a precaution," I was ready to go on an elephant hunt. I mean search.
Off we hiked into the African jungle. It wasn’t long before we ran into a group of wild warthogs, about 20 in total. Samuel gave a brief background about the importance of the warthogs, and quite frankly, I didn’t catch a word of it. If I were to develop a list of the most fascinating animals on the planet, I doubt that the warthog would be very high on it.
Samuel, probably noting our lack of amusement, continued up the dirt path. “We find more animals now,” he encouraged. Sara and I stayed behind long enough to sing Hakuna Matata to the little piggies. The warthogs snorted and we giggled. We ran to catch up with the group, laughing to ourselves because our duet left us feeling hilarious.
“Shh!” Samuel warned. He slowly raised his hand and pointed. In front of us was a family of bushbuck, a type of antelope found only in Sub-Saharan Africa. We choked back our gasps, afraid to scare them off. The family of five was huddled in the only patch of bush within miles of open field. Their light brown coats sparkled in the sunlight as they grazed. Each was marked with different stripes and splotches of snow white fur patches. As soon as the bushbuck caught sight of us, they were off. Cameras snapped and flashed as the beautiful creatures gracefully pranced away into the grassy savanna.
Bushbuck are quite a few rungs above warthogs on the ladder of fascination, but still nowhere near what we ran into next. It’s amazing how quickly the scenery can change in only a mile. The trees grew more and more sparse, and the grass vanished into the dirt that now left us feeling as though we were roaming the Sahara Desert. Above us, the sun pounded with fury. We started questioning whether Samuel knew what he was doing. We were walking in the opposite direction of life in order to find life.
“Is this a coup?” Joel jokingly whispered. “I think he’s going to sell us into white slavery,” Sara responded. We snickered at the inappropriate jokes, but Samuel pulled through. “There!” he yelled. He seemed unconcerned about the projection of our voices.
Baboons – an entire tribe of them. “Holy God,” was all I could get out. Samuel was not worried about frightening the baboons whose village we had just entered. “Don’t be scared. They won’t mind you,” he assured us. This was by far the coolest thing I had ever been a part of. I was standing in the center of a baboon village while they carried on with their daily lives, unaffected by my presence. This was so much better than watching National Geographic! I sat on a rock in the middle of the village and watched in amazement.
In one direction, two males were chasing each other atop what Samuel said was an abandoned old school building from generations ago. In another direction, a mother was nursing one baby and cuddling another at the same time. Beside her, two baboons were using sticks to reach into logs for termites. About twenty feet in front of me, three monkeys sat Indian style and picked bugs off of each other.
It was everything I had read about and seen documentaries on, and it was happening right in front of my face. In the tree beside me, three toddler baboons squealed as they jumped from branch to branch. One made his way to the bottom branch, hung there upside down, his face two feet from mine. He looked me right in the eyes until another playful infant swung to his same branch, knocking him from the tree. He toppled onto the ground in a clumsy manner and scurried off to his mother.
I was startled when one of the largest baboons sat beside me – on top of a rock like mine. He crossed his legs. I almost peed. “No way,” I said to myself. I examined every inch of him, from his donkey-like muzzle and dark, deep set eyes to his small, humanlike body. He placed his hands on his knees and stared at me. He couldn’t have been more than two feet from me. I worried that if I took a picture, he would leave, but he was truly unaffected when people around me began snapping photos left and right. He yawned, exposing a giant grin, and I couldn’t help but take advantage of the opportunity. Turning the flash off my $50.00 camera, I took a picture better than those you see in magazines coming from cameras that cost more than cars. He cocked his head, then slowly hobbled away, exposing that signature baboon booty that resembles a human brain.
I turned around to see Lindsey standing right behind me. “Wow,” she sighed. Lindsey is not one of those people who is very easily moved. This, however, moved her. We spent about 45 minutes in the baboon village. For the most part, we were in complete silence – not because we had to be, but because for the first time in our self absorbed American lives, we realized that there was more to this world than ourselves. I have never seen a group of people so vulnerably and openly in awe. “We go look for elephant now,” Samuel said, bringing us back into reality. Sadly, yet excitedly, we waved to our fellow primates and wandered back into the green part of the forest.
The African sun is bearable at 6:00 a.m. At 10:00, however, it’s torturous. If we weren’t surrounded by such beauty, I would have sworn we were in a fire. My clothes were soaked. We hadn’t crossed new wildlife for about a half hour. I was beginning to prepare myself for the possibility of not seeing elephants. In front of us, Samuel examined the plants for breakage, the dirt path for footprints. Things weren’t looking good.
Using my extensive knowledge from several elephant documentaries I had purchased from the Discovery channel store, I suggested we find a watering hole. Samuel appeared offended that I questioned his tour guide-ness. “We go deh last. I know what I do,” he said. We walked for about another half mile in the blistering heat, breathing heavily as we climbed up rocky hills and trudged through swampy creeks. We had no idea how long the safari would last, and it showed as we sipped on the three water bottles we had brought for the entire group. I looked around to see tired faces, squinting from the sun and gasping for breath. Everyone looked doubtful.
We were ready to give up until it appeared from out of nowhere – poop – warm, fresh, steamy. Samuel looked at us and smiled. “Das good,” he said. He studied the atmosphere. He touched the plants within close proximity and searched for footprints in the dirt underneath our feet. “Mmm hmm,” he said. “Yes, deh ah ova heya.” We followed him with our newfound hope. We walked left. We walked right. We walked north, and then south.
“Elephants. They’re the big gray things with enormous floppy ears, right?” Sara asked. “Yeah, why?” “Because I think I see some.” As if choreographed, the group ran to Sara. She pointed to a distant field below us. Sure enough, about a mile away, there they were – little gray speckles amongst the open green plains – next to a watering hole. My stomach dropped as Samuel spoke the most beautiful words my ears had ever heard: “Yep. Doze ah elephant.”
We made our way down the rocky hillside, hardly caring how ridiculous we looked as we stumbled on. Once we had made it to the open field, we skipped in anticipation. The elephants grew larger and larger the closer we came. I was mesmerized. I forgot how to walk. My eyes on the prize, I went straight into a murky pit filled with water. I didn’t even realize I was waist deep in bacteria, and possibly parasite infested watery goo until I heard the screams of my friends.
“Jessie! Oh my God, are you okay?” Lindsey grabbed my hand and helped me out. “Jess? Jessie?” Nothing else in the world had any meaning or significance at that very moment. All I cared about was getting to those elephants. When I pulled myself together, I looked down at my sopping pants and started laughing. Everyone’s worried faces turned to smiles as we laughed at my clumsy fall.
“She has this thing for elephants,” Sara tried to explain to Samuel. It could have been her lousy explanation, but Samuel didn’t get it. “You ah okay. Less go now,” he said. As we silently entered the territory of the elephant herd, I was overwhelmed. I fell to the ground and started to cry. You might find this over emotional, but that is only because you have probably never stood ten meters away from a herd of wild elephants in an African jungle.
I was seeing my dream realized. Lindsey, Sara and Kelly were beside me. Lindsey hugged me. Kelly wiped a tear from my cheek as tears ran from hers. “This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life,” Sara whispered.
Lucky for us, elephants have terrible vision. We sat there for an hour, undetected. The 20-or-so elephants ranged greatly in size and age. Coincidentally, we had come right after their gestation period, which is almost twice that of a human’s. The tiniest baby elephant had to be over 700 pounds. Even Samuel seemed taken aback. He stood behind us, giving us the best view possible, but he too watched their every move. A group of five or so huddled together and flapped their ears back and forth.
“Dey hot,” Samuel said. “Dey do dat to cool down.” Every move they made was majestic and graceful. For such giant creatures, they were so elegant. Their movements were slow and steady. From the wagging of their tiny tails to the flapping of their giant ears, the elephants were just as magnificent as I had ever imagined.
They snorted to relieve their trunks of dust. A mother elephant filled her trunk with water, and splashed her cub to cool him from the hot sun. Another smacked his tail against his bottom in attempt to swat a pestering fly. The only sounds for miles were elephant grunts and the crunching of plants and grass that fell victim to the giant hooves of these beautiful beasts. We never would have left if it were up to us. But it was time to go. “We need to leave dem be now,” Samuel said after about an hour that seemed like a minute. Hesitantly, we all got to our feet and followed him back to the park entrance.
I thanked God for the best hour of my life. I walked backwards in order to watch the elephants as long as possible until they slowly turned into the little gray specks that we had seen from the hilltop. I turned to face the group whose once exhausted looking faces were now filled with satisfaction. We were allowed to speak, but nobody did. We just walked.
My friends gathered around me. Lindsey and Sara, each took one of my hands. “Best day of your life, or what?“ Sara asked. I looked at her and nodded. “Yep.” It was the best day of my life.