Friday, November 27, 2009

"No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself." — Virginia Woolf

A friend of mine wrote me at one point and said my emails were either written "from the lap of humility or the lap of luxury."

Well, these final few days of my African journey are certainly the latter.

I arrived at The Royal Livingstone Hotel on Saturday. It is, by far, the most spectacular place I have been to in Africa (and quite possibly the world.) I have dubbed the aesthetic "colonial African chic." It's simply gorgeous.

I flew from Lusaka to Livingstone on a pitch perfect beautiful day. Because the flight was relatively short, we flew at a modestly low altitude (keep in mind, I have no idea technically if what I am saying is accurate.) The views were breathtaking. I have developed a slight fear of flying in small planes this month but, on this flight, I didn't even consider my fear. I was so preoccupied and simply in awe of the natural beauty of the lush green and tan landscape of Zambia highlighted by the crisp blue sky backdrop.

We landed at the Livingstone airport that, while tiny, is clearly adept at handling the scores of tourists who visit daily. The driver who picked me up graciously agreed to help me try and find a new backpack. The zipper had broken on mine and my skills to fix it were non-existent. I asked if there was a "sports store" in town. Blank stare. Ummmm that would be a "no". We went into town and "third world shopped." After popping into a few run-down general stores, I finally found a backpack. I had two incredibly random choices: an LA Kings one or a Trooper one? I chose the Trooper. (Not five minutes after purchasing it, I had already broken one of the zippers on the new Trooper. Perhaps, it's me?)

When we pulled into the drive for The Royal Livingstone Hotel, I was blown away. The open air lobby, which offered endless views of the glorious Zambezi River, was stunning. This is the fourth-largest river in Africa and it eventually flows into the Indian Ocean. It also famously features Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I was shuttled into the lounge area which looked like the bar in "Out of Africa". I was seated in a comfortable beautifully upholstered armchair and was offered a refreshing drink and a cold towel while I was checked in.

Needless to say, I settled in comfortably meeting my butler (you heard me) and my driver (you heard me) and was struck by how absurdly different this experience already was compared to the "lap of humility" leading up to this.

The first night I went on a Sunset Drinks Cruise along the Zambezi River. The views of the sun setting over Zimbabwe were magical. I enjoyed a few glasses of red wine and for the first time since arriving in Africa, I relaxed. I remember the moment clearly. I was so cognizant of it. I took a breath and allowed the physical and emotional toll of this trip to release. It was both entirely deliberate and yet perfectly natural.

The next morning I woke up early to go on an Elephant Back Safari ride. My wake up call was at 6 am and it was all I could do not to turn over and fall back to sleep. But for my strong desire and need for coffee, I would have never met Danny. Danny was my elephant and we hit it off immediately. Nothing awkward or tentative. He was the perfect morning companion. The highlight was perhaps the baby elephant who tagged along for the walk with us. He was born in October and was ridiculously cute.

That afternoon I had my first experience with the magnificent Victoria Falls. Aston picked me up and we took the short five minute drive to the entrance of Victoria Falls. It is dry season so the Falls aren't as robust as they will be from March to August. During that time of year, you literally need to wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella because the sprays will drench you. On this day, we were able to walk along the path without any problem. Since it was one of the hotter days since I have been in Africa, we were both dripping with sweat and wishing it were March so that the sprays would relieve us. But, as Aston quickly pointed out, the views in November allow you to really see the integrity of the Falls. These views and the thunderous sounds were something I will never forget.

Victoria Falls was named by the Scottish explorer David Livingstone in the 19th Century in honor of his Queen. The idigenous name, which the locals still refer to as, is Mosi-oa-Tonya ("The Smoke that Thunders").

As David Livingstone, who was the first European to lay eyes on the Falls on November 16, 1855, wrote:

No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.

The next day, I took a short boat ride to Livingstone Island. Here is where David Livingstone actually first witnessed the Falls. It was an incredible afternoon. Alex, my guide, took me literally to the edge of the Falls. I was terrified but he was a sturdy and confident companion who graciously and without question gripped my hand the entire way. To see this natural phenomenon up close and without barrier was surreal. We were standing inches away from the edge where the water was rapidly plunging down. My heart was racing with adrenaline. Thank goodness for Alex who encouraged me as I'm not sure I would have been brave enough to venture so close on my own.

They served us lunch on the Island and the two glasses of white wine helped to ease my nerves. Seeing Victoria Falls from the Island was a complete rush and, once again, something I will not soon forget.

These past few days I have immersed myself in the utter sanctuary that is The Royal Livingstone and its surrounding beauty. I have delighted in seeing zebras hanging out by the pool at cocktail hour and monkeys as ubiguitous as squirrels are back home.

But I am also utterly struck by what P.M. Clarke noted about Victoria Falls in 1925:

A truly magnificent sight, and one which brings home the tremendous glory of the whole mighty work of Nature, and the comparative insignificance of Humanity.

While not his intention, I have felt this "insignificance of Humanity" in the extreme and staggering poverty that blankets this continent. The vulnerable children living in the Gaza Province devastated by the AIDS crisis which has left them homeless and on their own; the women who are struggling to raise their families without means and with gender discrimination; and, the school children who are not able to continue to go to school because they are tasked with putting food on the table. How can we live in a world as wealthy and as evolved as we do and still have the enormous problems that Africa has?

The glory and beauty of Africa is stunning and there is nothing comparable. But the insignificance of the humanity here is equally stunning and incomparable.

I wish, for the people of Africa, that their insignificance is someday soon overcome.