A few months ago, if you were to tell me that I’d be flying business class to Ethiopia, I would have asked you to kindly share the drugs you were on.
Why on Earth would I be going to Ethiopia? And business class? Are you out of your mind? I don’t own a business. I don’t even own a hairbrush. But alas, there I was at 10 in the morning, drinking champagne in motherfuckin’ business class, on route to Ethiopia, with 37 dollars in my bank account.
You see, this was not my seat that reclined four different ways, nor was this my trip. It was my dad’s and I stole it from him. Or at least that’s how it felt when he couldn’t go and I took his place. I was a con artist, goodbye Meredith, hello Miss Hardie in seat 3A. Only I broke the one rule every good con artist knows – don’t draw attention to yourself. Which is pretty easy to do when you are dressed in full safari gear. You know how people wear Hawaiian shirts ironically when they’re on vacation, yeah it was like that, only I was serious. So serious that I had not one, but two things strapped securely around my neck – my camera and my sun hat, so I wouldn’t lose them, obviously. I wore orthopedic running shoes and my pants, my hat, and my shirt were beige. I looked like a moron, a beige moron.
About half way through the flight we were served traditional Ethiopian food. As I picked up my fork, one of the flight attendants looked at me and said, “in Ethiopia, we eat with our hands.” I stared at her blankly, trying to figure out if she was messing with me, this was business class, not Medieval Times. She smiled coyly and walked away. I sat there conflicted for a brief moment before I dropped my fork like I had just won a rap battle and ate with my hands like the adult-baby that I am.
I met my mom at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. She spotted me right away, probably because I was the beigest person in the airport. We were quickly informed that our flight to Nairobi had been cancelled and, if we hurried, we could make the next one departing in ten minutes. Bye.
The call to prayer echoed through the busy terminal while we ran as fast as our little legs and my orthopedic shoes could until we reached the gate, just as our flight began to board. Standing in line, heart pounding, forehead sweating, I noticed that the girl next to me was holding a Canadian passport. Once I caught my breath, I asked her what part of Canada she was from. Turns out she lived down the street and went to my high school. This crazy World never ceases to amaze me. I had never been this far away, yet home was right beside me.
“Thud.” The plane’s wheels landing on tarmac jolted me awake. I didn’t remember taking off from Ethiopia nor did I remember drooling on myself. Great. I looked out the tiny window and couldn’t believe my tired eyes. I’m here. Holy shit.
I slowly gathered my belongings and exited the plane with the urgency of an intoxicated sloth. My body was on sensory overload by the time I made it to my mom waiting for me on the tarmac. My heart was beating way too fast for a walk that short, I was sweating profusely, and I had somehow already managed to get sunburned…it had been a long winter. My mom and I continued our glacial pace as we walked aimlessly through the Nairobi airport, trying to take everything in. Clearing customs was the easy part, baggage claim, however, was what I imagined Hell to be like. My tiny mom shoved her way through a wall of sticky, sweaty, yelling giants to collect our bags, “EXCUSE ME!” she screamed as she hurled our bags off the carousel and onto the cart like Superman lifting up a car to save a kitten. Supermom. God, I love her.
We beelined for the exit at a much faster pace than our entrance, our time in the Nairobi airport was thankfully coming to an end. We walked into the blinding sun and scanned the sea of people for Ikua or “guy in blue shirt.” There were lots of guys in blue shirts…
“Hardie!” I heard someone yell amidst the noise of the crowd. I frantically looked around, half expecting to find my mom standing on the hood of a car, when instead I found a man in a bright orange shirt walking towards us. “Ikua,” he said through a big, perfect smile as he reached out his hand, “I’ve been waiting for you.” Waiting is an understatement. He had been standing outside in the sweltering heat for two hours and he was smiling at us the way I’m sure I would smile if I ever saw Channing Tatum in real life. Ikua was so genuinely happy to meet us, that the time, the temperature, or the fact that we were complete strangers did not matter. He could have chosen to be annoyed or upset, instead he was calm and welcoming and, in turn, made us feel that way. Ikua is the type of person who you would immediately trust with something really important like your child or a chocolate bar. I had never been so out of my element, yet he made me feel like I had no where else to be, except for right there, smiling with him.
The car ride from the airport to our hotel was a surreal blur. I fought sleep the entire way, often succumbing to the weight of my heavy head. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, I wondered if what I was seeing was real. The bumpy roads were a clusterfuck of people, animals, and cars all heading in various directions, usually right towards us. I gripped the holy-shit-handle for dear life as we swerved to avoid an oncoming cow and nearly hit people selling bottled water and snacks in the middle of the highway – Nairobi’s version of drive-thru. “@*$%(#@&!!!!!” I screamed, awake now. Michael, our driver, laughed as he looked at me in the review mirror,”Hakuna-Matata,” he said, a giant grin glued to his face. Huh? Hakuna-MaWhat? How about hakuna-we-almost-died-three-times-Michael. To an outsider like me, it was complete pandemonium, but to Kenyans it is simply rush hour.
Driving in Nairobi is a lot different than driving in Canada. In Canada there are right of ways, speed limits and rules. In Nairobi there are right of ways, speed limits and rules…probably. There is one thing, however, that the roads of my homeland and the roads of Nairobi have in common – baboons. Except in Canada, they can drive.
I collapsed into the comfy hotel bed at the late hour of 2 pm and woke the next morning at 6 am with absolutely no recollection of where I was. My one hour nap had somehow turned into 16. Four more hours and I would have qualified for lion-status, those lazy fuckers sleep for 20 hours a day and are still king. Goals, I tell ya. I opened the curtains like I was opening a Broadway show, “NAAAAAAANTS INGONYAAAMAAAA!!” The morning light and The Lion King soundtrack filled our room. Today was going to be a good day, especially since my mother let me live after that wakeup call.
And what better way to start the day than with elephants. Baby. Elephants. With the concentration of a brain surgeon, Michael navigated our Toyota Land Cruiser through morning traffic. It was only half past 7 in the morning, but it felt like the entire city of Nairobi was up. The roads were lined with shops and stands selling everything from plastic buckets to goats. Those same plastic buckets balanced precariously on heads or were used as chairs that sat next to a fire – pop up restaurant. Bright green M-Pesa (mobile money) huts on every corner – Starbucks. And brightly decorated Matatus (mini buses) zoomed by, collected coins, and jeopardized the lives of everyone within a 500 meter radius – Mario Kart?
We drove by Kibera – the largest slum in Kenya and the second largest slum in the World. There are as many as 1 million residents within a 2.5 square kilometer area. You don’t have to be good at math to know that’s not enough space for that many people. The sunshine reflected on the slanted tin roofs of homes and shone a light on the poverty and the large income disparity in Kenya. I sat there, forehead pressed against the window and wondered what on Earth I did to deserve being on this side of the glass. The answer is nothing by the way. A big, fat, heavy nothing that sank to the pit of my stomach.
I noticed a man dressed in a three piece suit walking beside a man without shoes, both with somewhere to be, both hustling, one to feed his family, the other for shoes. The answer to this riddle cannot be solved with your eyes or with perception at all for that matter. Because perception is so often fooled by our preconceived notions. I assumed that the man in the suit was rich, because to me a suit signifies wealth, professionalism, and success. But the man in the suit and the man in bare feet were both walking out of the same slum, so who am I to judge who works harder, who is more educated, who has a family to feed, who needs shoes, or who just likes walking barefoot. I did not know these people I was passing by. I did not know this city. I did not know this country. All I could do was try to keep my mind as open as my eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Elephants.
A few more twists and turns, banana peel traps and floating gold coins before Michael delivered us to the front gates of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi’s National Park. I could barely contain my excitement. BABY. ELEPHANTS.
For one hour each day, this special place opens its gates to the public. In that one hour you get to watch baby elephants play in the mud, sip from giant bottles, and, if you’re lucky, they will come up to you and let you touch them. One hour. And you walk out of those gates a completely different person.
These baby elephants don’t just touch your hands, they touch your heart and make you feel all mushy inside. Each elephant has a different story of how they got to the nursery, but the common denominator among them all is that they are orphans. And all too often, humans are the ones to blame. It is such a paradox that the same gentle hand that reaches out to nurse a baby elephant back to health, looks exactly like the hand that killed its family.
When the elephants are ready, they are transferred from the nursery to the rehabilitation units in Tsavo East National Park or the Kibwezi Forest where they are carefully integrated back into the wild. The reintroduction process, like all good things, takes time, but man is it ever worth it.
Looking into their eyes, you understand why people believe elephants can grieve. I dare you to look into the eyes of an orphaned baby elephant and not feel something. As I stood there in a puddle of my own tears, watching these sweet creatures play and cuddle up to their keepers, I realized that perhaps it is not elephants who are among the most endangered species, perhaps it is humans. I mean we invented the selfie-stick, we’re the worst.
We have become so far removed from nature that we are single handedly destroying it. This sense of entitlement and ownership over things that do not belong to us has plagued our species for generations. An elephant, a person, a person’s sandwich (I said a bite) is not yours to keep or kill. We are tenants of this Earth, yet we act like the shitty roommate you met on kijiji who uses your dishes and leaves them in the sink. We gotta stop being assholes to each other and to our planet. Let’s be the hand that reaches out to help, not to destroy or to hold a selfie stick – please, for the love of elephants, use your arm.
After we left the elephant nursery, I spent the rest of the day making out with giraffes (fun fact: giraffe saliva is antiseptic, so if you ever find yourself in a situation where a giraffe asks you to make out, you should most definitely say yes), eating copious amounts of barbecue, and contemplating the meaning of life. I never did get my answer…instead I spent the better part of the day feeling like an over-privileged, over-sensitive, beige asshole. I also felt like a bit of a giraffe player because I made out with about four different ones in five minutes. Don’t hate the playa…what can I say, giraffes love me. The treats I put in my mouth had nothing to do with it, I’m clearly irresistible to anything over 6 feet, except for male humans, I have yet to figure those ones out.
Anyways, back to the meaning of life, nope, I did not get my answer. Which sucks cause I was really hoping to find the answer in Kenya, you know, the place where humanity got its start and all. But what I did get that day was a new perspective that comes from the introduction to a new place. A place that loaded my senses with information my brain is still buffering. A place that “is what you will and withstands all interpretations,” as the great adventurer Beryl Markham so eloquently wrote. A place that is as beautiful as it is broken – and the realization that this contrast lies within all of us. Demanding neither to be fully understood nor fixed, but perhaps, just meant to be felt.