Normally, I would have jumped at the chance to spend my summer vacation away from the watchful eyes of my parents, but that particular summer I craved their presence. I’d attended the community college in my hometown in Louisiana for the last two years and was ready to stretch my wings. The fresh air of independence invaded my nostrils as I planned my move to the University of Portland in Oregon next semester. My junior year was approaching and I was a botany major with a minor in zoology. My mom and I were going to do some serious bonding before I went off on my own. Shopping would kick-start that process. My Aunt Katie lived in Portland so my parents were at ease with my relocating.
Plans for the summer included hanging out with my three best friends. Those plans were completely crushed when my parents insisted that I accompany them to Nairobi, Kenya. My father, Roger Madsen, a Structural Engineer, landed a three-month contract to help oversee the final phase of a bridge being built over the Ewaso River. My mother took a leave of absence, to volunteer her services as a nurse in one of the village hospitals outside of the city. They hoped that their hard work would make a big impact on the health and lives of the people.
I couldn’t crush their excitement by telling them that I’d rather stay behind with Aunt Kate to learn my way around Portland before classes started. Instead, I pretended to be just as thrilled as they were. Deep inside, however, I knew this was an opportunity that so many people only ever dreamed of, to travel abroad, and of all places: Africa. Maybe I would discover a new plant species, or maybe an animal that can only be seen under a microscope.
~ * ~
From the moment I stepped off the plane, a new sense of freedom took over me. Though I was a stranger in a new country with different languages, my sudden urge to discover overshadowed all other emotions. The airport was located in a rural area away from the city. Closing my eyes, I inhaled the stagnant air. The heat slammed into me as we stepped outside and waited for a taxi, and a tingling in my spine made me fear that I was being watched. The crowds moved quickly, like colonies of ants scattered about, all focused on a certain destination. The vibrant hues of their attire instantly attacked my retinas. Everyone surrounding me was swathed in colors that soothe the soul, but I couldn’t find where the uneasy feeling was coming from.
There were people crouched on blankets, waiting to entice the tourist to buy their handmade ceremonial mask and other crafts. Tables of fragrant spices and curries sat next to piles of raw meat. Some of it had hooves. Yuck! A young woman was making sugar cane juice by pressing the stalks between something that looked like the top of my grandmother’s old
washing machine. My mind ventured back to when I used to watch the wet clothes go through two wooden arms and came out on the other side, flat and nearly wrung dry.
Mom looked on nervously as I sampled the sweet treat. It had a thick consistency that nearly made me gag. She laughed. “It’s going to be great!” she said. Her squeaky voice caught me off guard, and I jumped. She looked tired with her circle-shadowed eyes. “We’ll be talking about this trip for years to come.”
From the airport to the hotel, the road was sandwiched between dense trees and the open plains. To our right, the sounds of hidden creatures echoed just inside the trees, keeping me alert. Monkeys screamed, birds chirped, and alluring blood lilies leaned out through the humid wall to greet us. I rolled down the window to listen closer, only to be attacked by mosquitoes. A brief dust storm blew in from across the plains to our left, leaving everyone temporarily blinded. The
driver had to come to a brief halt. It was as if we were caught between two seasons at once.
“Gabby, honey,” Mom said,” let’s keep the windows closed until we get within the city limits, okay?”
The transformation of the surroundings from the wide open country to the modern, busy city was like walking through time. It was hard to not be smitten by this place.
My father and I checked in at the Wasini Hotel. Its colorful exterior and welcoming rooms filled with ethnic artifacts, provided an insight into the traditional lives of the indigenous people. My mother insisted on taking an efficiency apartment near the village hospital in order to be closer to the patients that she would care for. Most of them were much younger than me.
Making peace with the fact that this was where my summer vacation would take place, I began reading books about the country and its culture. There was a lot to learn about the diverse lifestyle of the tribespeople. Though I wasn’t a very outgoing person, I was, however, a very curious one. That little flaw sometimes landed me in deep trouble. I never really believed in the super natural, voodoo and black magic, even though they were common enough terms back home. I’d always wanted to know what brought a person to the point of actually succumbing to so-called black magic. The people of Africa held on to their many superstitions throughout the generations. Excitement rushed through me at the thought of discovering how they held onto their ideas of magic and witchcraft for so long. What kind of strange magic did this land possess? My unbridled curiosity made me yearn to explore this raw land, to view nature’s playground up close, and hopefully, live to tell about it.
My first few days in Nairobi had felt like a lifetime. Dad was away all day on his bridge construction project, and my bedroom window became my source of live entertainment. It faced a colorful landscape with red-orange blood lilies, star grass with trumpeted yellow florets, and huge, African junipers that sandwiched themselves between larger, more dense trees. This diverse collection formed a wall on one side of the hotel grounds. By day four, I was suffocating from boredom, so I decided to venture out and see if I could find something interesting among the foliage. Maybe my new discovery was lurking right under my nose.
Half-way across the well-kept landscape, something moved just inside the cover of trees. I continued to approach, trying to make out the image hidden among the colorful plants. A low snarl made me stop on instinct, feeling the vibrations move right through me. The sound triggered a chemical reaction in my body. My spine stiffened, releasing adrenaline that this animal could no doubt smell. The fragrant breeze from the blood lilies became still and my arm hairs stood erect. After a few startling moments, I managed to unglue my feet and I backed away until I was brave enough to turn and run. Never looking back, I entered the hotel lobby and made my way inside the elevator. My heart thudded in my throat as I visualized being snatched by a wild animal and disappearing forever. At that moment, my promise to myself was to never go out alone again, though I knew my curiosity always took center stage.
After the twenty-four hours of jet jag wore off, I made an agenda for the coming week. The clerk at the hotel desk had a list of activities that tourists found most entertaining. At the top of the list was a trip to the botanical gardens. The next bus was in two hours. I left a note for Dad and hurried to the tourist center.
~ * ~
During the journey to our destination, the all-female group was a constant source of chatter. Most of them appeared older than me. Many shades of yellow, purple, red, and green cloths swathed their bodies. Some of the materials had a satiny shine and beautiful lace with exquisite etchings. Others were what appeared to be tie-dyed cottons. Only a few miles down the road, a mother deer and her fawn darted across our path. As the driver swerved the van to avoid them, I closed my eyes and we all screamed at once. Luckily the brave pair would live to see another day, I hoped.
“The gardens have an exquisite sculpture of a giraffe,” the driver said. “It’s all inlayed in a pathway made from chipped glass, alongside breathtaking wood sculptures.”
“Please tell me they have the spider population under control,” a little woman with a loud yellow blouse asked. She then focused on the dusty surroundings outside her window.
“They do their best, Miss. It’s not like an enclosed greenhouse,” the driver replied.
An hour later, the bus made a left turn and came to a halt.
“Holy, Toledo!” I shouted, as my head tilted backward.
Laughter rang out and the gates opened to an oasis of towering palm trees with smooth trunks that seemed to extend right up to the sky. Their giant leaves swayed in the breeze. Like soldiers, they lined a swerved concrete drive that ended at a shrub-arched entrance into paradise. The light blue sky formed a backdrop that made this scene a perfect cover for a travel magazine.
For a moment I felt ashamed. The news reports had always focused on the war and carnage that has ravaged this country for hundreds of years. I was sure that not only myself, but millions of others wouldn’t imagine that beauty of such magnitude existed there.
We exited the van and ventured in different directions, each of us attracted to a theme area that depicted our individual interests. I stood still for a moment, imagining what a bee would feel like, not being able to decide which fragrance was stronger and what color was more appealing. At each area, visitors were wowed by large birds in wrought-iron cages. Toucans, peach-crested cockatoos, blue and gold macaws and purple herons were among the residents. . The cages were strategically positioned near foliage and flowers from their native countries. My favorite was the African grey parrot. The intelligence of this avian still baffles scientists today
There were Helichrysums, mounds of white flowers sporting yellow centers, the Aloe Turkanesis, waving red-orange tentacles that reached upward from a flattering, pink stalk, and a huge pond of Water Hyacinths with lavender flowers, growing out of control. I read that they were used as a raw material for generating electricity. I sent Aunt Kate a picture of me, surrounded by untapped beauty not yet introduced to our society back home. She shared my love for plants.
“Where are the carnivorous plants?” I asked one of the ground keepers. He smiled and pointed me in the right direction.
I entered an area that I considered a restaurant, where the clients were silent predators which had adaptations to lure its victims by utilizing their most preyed upon senses, sight and smell. In this land of the unexpected, I was re-introduced to the Venus fly trap. It had been mutated into so many different colors that it could blend in with any of its surroundings. The pitcher plant uses its fragrant nectar to lure its victims inside, where it absorbs the nutrients from their bodies. For the first time, I got to witness a spectacular species doing what comes natural in its own habitat. I remembered the man-eating plant from an old movie that my parents had on VHS, called Little Shop of Horrors. It made me snicker.
Away from the open menagerie was a path surrounded by dense trees. It was just across a narrow decorative bridge that was built into the landscape. The thick greenery provided a shady side to the open garden. A spot-light created by the sun beckoned to me from inside and I walked away from the others. My eyes were fixed on the pink and red groundcover that glimmered with a hypnotic seduction. I ventured toward the fragrant breeze, unaware of how far I had strayed.
After only a few yards inside the cover of the trees, my body was seized again by a rumble and a frightening snarl. A chill blanketed me and I couldn’t move. I didn’t dare look around, for the back of my blouse had already been saturated by the heated moisture from the breath of the beast. My first instinct was to scream, but fear had stolen my voice. So I took a deep breath and held it. The scent of the horror filled my lungs. It was familiar. Was I being stalked by the animal that lurked outside my hotel grounds?
Help me please, rang inside my head. My eyes squeezed shut as its sharp fangs pinched my shoulder. Tears filled my eyes and my hands formed a fist. I waited to feel my bones snap when suddenly, it let go. The leaves crunched. The sound grew fainter by the second, then, nothing. My eyes remained closed as I trembled and listened.
“Miss?” A woman’s voice severed my nightmare. “I saw you come out here. We’re getting ready to go to another area. You don’t want to be left behind.”
Without hesitation I ran past her, clutching my throat and sobbing. The other tourists were boarding the van and I made my way to the back. The woman I believed saved me from certain death, came and sat beside me.
“Hi. My name is Kara. Are you okay?” She placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Did you see anything?” I searched her eyes for a confirmation. “An animal? It was behind me.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see anything,” she said and smiled.
“Was it a spider?” the little lady with the blinding yellow blouse asked.
“No. Never mind, Kara. I guess I’m just tired. Thank you for checking on me.”
“You’re welcome, you take care.” She quickly returned to her seat.
~ * ~
I ran from the tourist center to the hotel. Once inside the bathroom, I stripped and examined my shoulder. A painful bruise was both in front and in back. I cried out loud, shook convulsively, and then laughed hysterically. Was I going mad?
The next two weeks I spent in near seclusion, with no desire to venture any farther past the hotel pool. I did a lot of reading and watching television, all while screaming on the inside. I wanted desperately to tell Dad about my scary endeavor. But was it real? He would worry too much anyway, and maybe stay home from work to keep an eye on me. I certainly didn’t want him to think that I was incapable of taking care of myself when he was away. So I suffered in silence, trying to make sense of the whole ordeal.
The next thing on my agenda was to familiarize myself with the local wildlife.