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Silvery-cheeked Hornbill

February 20, 2012

Some people, when they travel, dream of five star hotels. Others dream of luxury spas or personal masseuses or seventeen course dinners at Michelin-starred restaurants. I had thought, as I pushed my way through customs with my exhausted mother in tow, that I dreamed of Africa, and that the trip itself would be the fulfillment of that dream…but I was wrong.

I have arrived in my share of foreign countries over the years, and most of those arrivals were ordeals. A jetlagged American honky who turns up after dark at a chaotic airport or train station or ferry landing or bus depot, unsure of her final destination, possessing only a few local phrases, needing to change money, uncertain what the going rate is for a taxi or whether, in fact, the buses have stopped running (as the taxi driver invariably insists) or whether there is a nice cheap one headed right to a charming little guesthouse parked right around the corner, is at an immediate disadvantage. As much as I love travel, the first few hours, while you get your bearings wherever you are and try to figure out where to sleep, are usually the most stressful and tiring and fraught.

So, I braced myself reflexively for an unpleasant scene. The airport was hot, and I was pulling my mom’s suitcase as well as my own. My mom claimed that someone from the hotel was going to meet us, but I wasn’t sure I believed her. It sounded lovely, of course. Having someone meet you always is. When I flew back to boarding school or college, which I did several times a year beginning when I was fourteen, I was always a bit homesick. I missed my brother and sister, with whom I would have stayed up as late as possible the night before I left, and I was tired from the flights and the plane changes and the cold, miserable arrival. From the airport, I’d take a subway and then a commuter train and then walk several blocks in the dark to my dorm. I used to look longingly at the people who were being met by friends or relatives–friends or relatives with CARS, no less, who’d lift their heavy suitcases into the trunk and bundle them off to their final destination. I’d buy a subway ticket, hoist my duffel bag, and resign myself to the lengthy and lonely post-arrival schlep.

Foreign travel is, of course, quite different from traveling home. Getting a brand new stamp in your passport is exciting, as is the first step you take outside the airport or bus depot or train station, when you see the throngs of people jostling to get you to change money with them, and use their brother’s taxi service, and come to a special good and nearby guest house just for you.  When I arrive, I’m invariably grinning like an idiot, so happy am I to hear a new language, and smell all the new smells and goggle at the  people.  My dopey grin makes me a perfect target, and a few minutes later always finds me arguing with a tout over whether the backpackers hostel I’ve marked in Lonely Planet is, he’s sorry to say, closed, but the hotel of his brother’s cousin’s friend, thank goodness, is right nearby and he will make a very special price for me. This is a bit of a comedown. (Finding out the next day from some smug asshole in the lobby of the not-at-all-closed hostel that whoa, dude, that cab driver totally ripped me off, the going price from the station should be, like, a third what I paid, is even more depressing.)

Still, this is how I usually travel, inconvenient though it may be. I’m suspicious of overt luxury. I prefer to spread my travel budget over as long a period as possible, even if it means sleeping in dingy places, taking buses, and eating as cheaply and infrequently as possible. But wouldn’t it be possible to be met at the airport without sacrificing all my street cred? Whenever I read a book by someone intrepid (or faux-trepid–you be the judge) like Peter Matthiessen or Paul Theroux or even P.J. O’Rourke back in the days when he actually went places, they always seem to ally themselves rather quickly with a personal driver and interpreter. This person shows up at the airport and shepherds our fearless writer hither and yon. If Paul Theroux gets met at the airport, dammit, why can’t I?

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I stopped on the sidewalk outside, panting a bit with the effort of pulling both suitcases, and looked up smack into a hand-lettered sign bearing my mother’s first and last names.  “I told you so,” my mother said, sweeping past me to shake the driver’s hand. He was a tall, handsome guy in a green army shirt, khaki pants, and desert boots–his name, he said, as he shook my hand gently before relieving me of both suitcases and my backpack, was Walter. My mom and I glanced at each other–we hadn’t pictured many Africans being named Walter–but followed him happily to the car. “These stars are not the precise stars you see in your firmament,” Walter said, as he loaded the bags in the back. “And you will notice there is one constellation that you do not see at all: the Southern Cross, which at present is located rather low on the horizon.”

I climbed into the car feeling as pampered as Cleopatra, and rolled down the window. The air smelled more strongly of woodsmoke as we drove along a good, flat dirt road, and the stars in their unfamiliar African firmament blazed ahead. “There is a great deal going on just to either side of this road, although in general most of the people who live here tend to go to bed early,” Walter said. “Because they do not have electricity, often they go to sleep. But just to the side of the road you will find many people walking about and meeting one another, and these people, because they are quite used to getting around by night, do not require specific lights to see by.”

We arrived in time for a small supper at the hotel, which was a converted coffee plantation, and though we were happy to have made it, we were both sorry to say goodbye to Walter. At the hotel, the smell of flowers overwhelmed the smell of woodsmoke, and there were enormous bats swooping gracefully overhead. Our room was its own circular thatch-roofed hut down a winding path edged with bougainvillea hedges and obscenely flowering banana trees. There was mosquito netting–I felt like Karen Blixen–hanging over the bed. We climbed inside, and though I thought I’d never go to sleep, the next thing I knew it was dawn.

And the first thing I saw, when I opened my eyes, was this absolutely fucking unbelievable bird.  He flew back and forth a couple of times with his mate, and then landed, with much fanfare and crackling of twigs, on a tree right outside our window. I yelped and cursed and bolted from the bed, waking my poor mother up, who laughed and laughed at me as I  lunged for my binoculars. The birds posed, preened, made horrible croaking noises, flapped loudly from perch to perch. In the distance behind them was a lake, glittering through the trees; all among the trees were thousands upon thousands of birds making a tremendous racket, and I had never seen any of them–not a single one, every single bird was brand new–before in my entire life.

Behold, the first bird I saw in Africa. I did not take this picture, but I promise you, this is what he looked like.

Tell me you would not have nearly dropped dead. It was too early to be up, but I couldn’t go back to sleep after that. I went outside with my binoculars and the goofy-looking sunhat I’d brought (my mom rejected its twin, preferring the blazing equatorial sun to looking foolish) and tried, with the help of the bird book my boyfriend gave me for Christmas (this one: Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania) to figure out what strange avian creatures were flying all around, everywhere. I was utterly out to sea. I even had to look up what turned out to be the African version of plain old Barn Swallows, because they were so beautiful, so bright, and so brilliantly feathered.

When it got late enough, I wandered over to the main lodge and had a superb cup of coffee. The hornbills followed me there.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2012 11:21 pm

    When I travel I dream of planes that are on time, legroom, and a speedy transition from airport to hotel. And interaction with people that is polite and friendly, in a non-invasive way. That, and soft (but not too soft) feather pillows…

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      February 21, 2012 7:53 am

      I got carried away by the hornbill and forgot to make it clear that when I dream of travel I will forevermore dream of being met, wherever I am, by Walter himself and none other.

  2. February 21, 2012 4:53 am

    This is wonderful. I would TOTALLY have nearly dropped dead.

  3. marnie permalink
    February 21, 2012 8:59 am

    It is unlikely I will go to Africa myself, in this life at least, and even if I did Africa is such a vast and various land that I would undoubtedly see a very different place. It has long been a magical and yearned-for destination of mine, and I am so thrilled and grateful to read about your experiences there. Every detail! Please remember everything!

  4. mephistofaust permalink
    February 21, 2012 2:15 pm

    That is one funky looking bird =)

  5. Becky permalink
    February 21, 2012 3:09 pm

    I think you went to the land of birds and honey! I worked in a zoo that had Rhinocerous Hornbills and they (all hornbills) are the most incredible birds. So lucky one woke you up!

  6. February 21, 2012 5:04 pm

    I haven’t come across a blog that excited me for a while!

    I know EXACTLY what you mean about someone meeting you at the terminal. I was raised in Greece but I studied in London and it was the worst feeling to get off the plane and know I had a long ride home until I got to an empty, dark house. Sometimes I would scan the crowds just in case. It’s especially bad it’s you’re homesick like I was.

    Africa sounds incredible! Looking forward to reading more about your adventures!

  7. February 22, 2012 12:28 am


  8. March 6, 2012 3:41 am

    Having grown up in a quaint colonial town outside of Boston with a boarding school walking distance from a commuter rail….. I can’t help but imagine its MY town.

    Maybe it is 😉 I have been reading your blog (from the beginning) these past few days and do hope to comment a bit more intelligently in the future. As a child of a very messy divorce, I really admire your amicable relationship with your ex-husband and your co-parenting – it sounds like an ideal situation for your children given the circumstances. For the first six years of their divorce (when I was 6-12) we had a similar custody set-up (although the houses were 40 minutes apart) and it was nothing like how you describe your interactions (or lack thereof) with your husband. I wish my parents had been big enough to set such a positive example, at least in view of the children. I’m sure this is why your kids are (knock-on-wood) so well-adjusted!

    Also, I now live in (West) Africa so I’m very excited to read about your impressions of the continent, especially a region so unfamiliar to me! Now back to catching up….

  9. May 7, 2012 8:19 am

    Waoh! This has been my first time to access your ‘bog’ and I must say that I really envy you a great deal:-)
    You are and will be a big inspiration to making me become your number one fun in the ”Irretrievably Broken”…Great stories here.

    Now that you have been fortunate enough to visit Africa and have written such a tremendously review of your first time to the continent, it is my hope that you will be able to continue with the rest of your review on the continent.

    I have been hanging on every single word that you wrote about your first day in the African country.
    I look forward to following up with avid interest on the rest of your story!

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