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Poli Poli
By Mary Ann Smyth

Our Land Cruisers bounced along at fifty miles an hour. Speeding to a leopard sighting, they maneuvered deftly over corrugations that jarred back teeth and threatened spine alignment. I threw up hanging out the back window. I was the fifth of our group of eight to fall victim to traveler's 'stomach distress'; euphemism for a state in which the digestive system rules every move. The vile bug hit during an all day game drive in Tanzania, miles from medication.

Seven more hours to endure, I thought, lurching for the window. Pictures to take. Pit stops to make (even Tanzania squat toilets are not readily available in the Serengeti). Fever hit and chills set in. Oh God, I'll die here today and be buried under the shadow of a kopje (stone outcropping). Would the hyenas dig me up and scatter my bones in the bush? At the time, the thought didn't bother me. The fever had triggered fibromyalgia pains in my hips and the possibility of baking said bones in the African sun had a certain appeal.

I managed to raise my head enough to view a leopard straddling a tree limb. Pictures of that beautiful cat were out since the camera slung around my neck felt heavy as a millstone. 'Look at the hippos' I heard as I struggled to retain consciousness, 'That one's opening its mouth. And there's a baby!' I clung to the seat back in front of me and struggled to view the beasts wallowing in a pond. Because it was shallow, they had to roll in the water to keep their tender skin wet. Seeing all four fat, short hippo legs pointing to the sky was worth the effort. Almost.

I was offered all sorts of remedies, which I took in blind faith ... and promptly threw up. I regurgitated water just as fast as the pink stuff that was sure to make me feel better. I viewed lions from my skewed angle in that back seat. I noticed a flash of iridescent blue and was told by the birder in our group I had just seen a Superb Starling. I idly wondered if that particular bird would perch on my bleached skull.

We parked near a distinctly identifiable hippo wallow. I tried to take in air through my mouth, which only prompted a renewal of vomiting. The others ate box lunches - an affront to my sensibilities, but I stoically kept my thoughts to myself; I would be a team player even if I expired in the process. The rest of the afternoon remains a blur of bumpy, dusty roads, with exquisite pain radiating through my body. I spent the time ruminating on why I was there. Had I lost my mind? I actually paid good old American dollars to put myself through this torture. Would I survive it or would my next of kin be notified that I had died with their names on my parched lips?

The first ten days of the trip had passed in a mist of wonder. At our tented lodge, my seven travel mates and I stood on the edge of a rim looking over a peaceful valley and watched a herd of elephants cross the river hundreds of feet below us. It was hard to believe that we were really in Africa! Two days prior to my incapacity, I had stood in the Cruiser as we barreled over the Serengeti plains, in awe at the privilege of being there. Overwhelmed at the vastness and majesty of my 360-degree view, tears coursed down my tanning cheeks.

That night in our camp site, we were kept awake by the roars of lions mating! The next morning, not two football fields from our tents, three pairs of contented lions were too relaxed and sleepy to move when we aimed cameras at them. I saw giraffes necking, twining their necks around each other in an acrobatic fight. Twin leopard cubs in a tree tore at a kill as their mother looked on. Cheetahs perched on the very top of a kopje, imperial in their disdain. Warthogs raced across the plain, tails stuck straight up in the air and short legs pumping furiously. Hyenas finished off a kill as a sated lioness watched from under drooping eyelids. Thompson Gazelles' flywhisk tails were constantly in motion signaling that all was well.

We had been accepted into a country of gentle people who greeted us everywhere with Jambo, the Swahili version of Hello. A woman is Mama, so voices of small children calling Jambo Mama became familiar to my ear and most welcome. The genuine caring of our two guides Joseph and Moses as they admonished us Poli, poli, (Slowly, slowly) made a wonderful change from the everyday rush of our lives back home. Maybe I would survive this trip, I thought, as my seat mate touched my forehead and pantomimed burning her fingertips. I'd show them I was made of sterner stuff than they imagined. I might be the oldest here at sixty-six, but I could keep up.

My resolve was shaken momentarily as a waft of our collective perfume struck my nostrils. The combined scent of insect repellent, sun block and waterless hand wash chased me to the window again. After depositing my last swig of bottled water on the cracked earth of the Serengeti, I hung there for a moment. Huge fluffy white clouds were motionless in the sky. A lioness stalked a warthog that seemed oblivious to her presence. A baobab tree stuck its leafless branches upwards, a five hundred-year-old tribute to tenacity. The pain in my nether regions abated just a tiny bit. I decided to sit up straight instead of slumping like a child's discarded rag doll.

I made it back to camp - a tent had never looked so good. The cot that imprisoned me in its concave depths the previous night was a palatial bed in a seraglio to my fevered eyes. Rummaging in my medical kit, I found an antibiotic to be taken on an empty stomach. Mine was a hollow, shrunken, puckered vessel. I popped a capsule into my mouth. A slug of water and I toppled into bed, fully dressed in dusty safari clothes. When a loyal trip mate removed my boots, I sank into oblivion.

The next morning I strolled into the dining tent for breakfast, ate everything in sight and then looked for more. I was ready to ride the rest of my allotted days over the plains of the Serengeti, sure that I would keep seeing something new and breathtaking. Then I sprained both my ankles at the same time!! I might have done something exotic, such as stepping into the hole of a hyena den on the savanna. Instead I missed a step in a posh safari lodge and sprawled on the path like a toddler trying to find its balance. Good Samaritans oozed from the sidelines, picked me up and brushed me off while I assured them that only my dignity was hurt. At the time, I thought that was the extent of my misstep. Later the pain set in. I wrapped the worst ankle, watching it turn interesting shades of black and blue, and hobbled the last half of the trip. Poli, poli became a necessity, not just an admonition.

If that won't put a damper on a trip, I don't know what will. Finding a graceful and pain free exit from the Land Cruiser became a priority, one that I never really mastered. Lip biting, caught breath and hidden grimaces of excruciating pain became the order of the day. But it was worth every stab of agony to see the rhinoceros in the Ngorongoro Crater; the baby baboons who chased each other by the side of the road, doing somersaults on a broken branch; or the breathtaking beauty of a flock of sacred ibis rising as one into the sky.

I survived a grueling trip that I would nevertheless repeat without hesitation. Even with my travails, it was by far the most exciting one I have ever taken. Therapy on a badly sprained right ankle with a few bone chips floating around the joint was a small price to pay. My stomach gives me a twinge now and again and I have several more doses of the anti-malarial medication to take. Worth it? You bet! Poli, poli.

Notes: The author retains all rights to this article.
Photos were taken in 1986 and are Hilary Williamson

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