The international travel planning began last fall, and it was actually the spur for nearly all of the rest. Languages, photography, this blog — pretty much everything. It all began when I decided I wanted to take my family on vacation for my fiftieth birthday.
As with most of my plans, this ended up not working out at all the way it was originally conceived. Instead, it’s grown bigger, weirder, and exponentially more complicated… and probably exponentially more fun. This is also what happens with most of my plans. There is a reason my family has learned to fear a Goat who begins a sentence with, “I had an idea…”
In this case, I quickly discovered two things: first, that it was going to be difficult to afford the cost of taking seven people to anywhere I wanted to go. And second, that my beloved sister-in-law was far too medically fragile to take a major trip, and probably always would be. The first was, with enough wangling, probably manageable, but the second killed the idea as far as I was concerned. I tried to find a way around it — we considered cruise ships, which are designed with a LOT of accommodations for people in wheelchairs and with medical needs — but it just wasn’t going to be safe for her. (This was well before the Covid 19 virus, which makes even going out to the store a bad idea for her right now, but at the time it wasn’t part of anyone’s thinking.) It just wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t bring her with me, which meant I couldn’t bring my brother with me either, and I didn’t want to do a “family” trip without a significant chunk of my immediate family.
So I shifted gears, and decided to travel alone. How far, I wondered, could I get on the money it would take to bring seven people to the Caribbean on a cruise ship for a week? Scotland? Greece?
I didn’t really believe the last for a while, so I didn’t start by considering it seriously. Greece was my first idea, and I got pretty far in the planning stage before realizing that Greece wasn’t someplace I wanted to go alone. My son, who has always been passionate about both archaeology and Greek mythology, would be the perfect travel companion for Greece, and I decided I wanted to wait to see Greece until I could bring him with me.
And Africa kept coming back to mind. I was sure that I couldn’t afford it, but I couldn’t shake it. I’ve always had a fascination with that continent — its amazing wildlife, in particular; but also its nations and cultures that are so different from mine, and so little studied in most American classrooms. I finally started looking up budget safaris — and found, to my surprise, that I could probably just about barely pull this off, if I was careful with my money.
I was jubilant. This was where I wanted to go, where I’d always wanted to go. It would be the perfect fiftieth birthday celebration. I threw myself into designing a Tanzanian safari that would be perfect for me.
There were just two problems. First, my mother freaked out. She was nervous about Tanzania for some reason. She insisted that, if I were going to go to Africa at all, I should look at Botswana instead.
The second problem was, I could afford the trip only if I used budget airfare. But flying from Seattle to Africa requires roughly two days in transit, with three different flights one of which is at least 13 hours straight in the air. My fibromyalgia and a budget airline seat were likely to combine to make this hell on earth.
The two problems, as it turned out, combined to solve each other. My mother offered to pay for business-class airfare for me, if I would at least seriously investigate Botswana. If I looked into it and decided I still had no interest in it whatsoever and I wanted to go to Tanzania, I could still have the airfare. This seemed to be an offer I couldn’t refuse (or at least not unless I was far more stubborn than I was sensible), so I began to investigate Botswana… and promptly fell madly in love with the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s primary safari region.
The Okavango River begins in the mountains of Angola, but instead of running down to the sea like most rivers do, it runs smack up against a tectonic trench and diverts into the northern Kalahari Desert, where it just kinda spills out onto the sand and dies there. This creates one of the largest — and most populated, by the animal world — wetland oases in any desert on earth. On top of that, the length of the river is such that the spring floodwaters happen to hit the Delta exactly at the heart of the dry season, meaning it’s often the only water around for miles. And there is oodles of it. You can boat around on delta channels for days.
For obvious reasons, this makes it a perfect place to watch the animals, pretty much all of whom show up conveniently at the delta looking for drink, plant food, or other animals to hunt, as the case may be. It’s a spot absolutely made for safari. And Botswana has been sensible about it, designating the entire area and then some — about 30-40% of their total land mass — for wildlife conservation. Some of it is public land, other parts are private concessions delegated by the government to private companies, to be used for the sole purpose of protecting and showing off the animal life of the area. It is in everybody’s best interests to take good care of the animals and their habitat, so there doesn’t seem to be a lot of conflict between government and corporations in this case… the companies make their money off of having a flourishing wildlife scene to show to their tourist guests, so everybody is pulling in more or less the same direction for once. It’s nice to see.
And so I abandoned Tanzania for the moment — I’ll go there someday, too!! but not this trip — and began to lay plans to visit Botswana.
There were the usual range of glitches and expansions of plans… my plans always seem to expand; I think I’ve mentioned that already? I couldn’t go for my fiftieth birthday after all, because by then we knew my mother was dying but we didn’t know when. Could be anytime between about November and June. And I couldn’t afford to go in the high season, when prices triple… and high season starts inconveniently in July. It ends around October, but November and December are far too hot for me to be able to function. We’re talking around 115F here. So I eventually scheduled it for January of 2021, over my 51st birthday.
Mom died in December, 2019, on the first night of Chanukah. The kids and I made it to New York in time to see her, awake and very much aware we were there. I’ll always remember how her face lit up when my children walked into the room. She waved to them and smiled at them and bent her head to kiss them when they leaned over her bed to hug her; and we borrowed an electric menorah from the hospice and sang candle blessings in her room. Then we said goodbye and went back to my father’s for the night. By the following morning, she was nonresponsive and I told the kids not to come back. I stayed with her and held her hand and talked to her until she was gone, a few hours later.
Before she died, knowing she might not be around long enough to fulfill her promise of airfare, Mom set up plans in her will for me to get a portion of the money I’d inherit from her in cash and up front. She wanted me to be able to do those business-class flights, for which I am deeply grateful, since they won’t be cheap. I said that the trip had expanded? My safari tour covers the Okavango Delta, the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, and a brief jaunt into Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, but I’ll be flying in and out through Johannesburg. So there seemed no reason not to take an extra night or two and see a little of Johannesburg while I was at it. And since the old Boer cultural connection means there’s a ton of flights between Johannesburg and the Netherlands, I couldn’t resist stopping in Amsterdam to visit my childhood friend who lives there, on the way home.
So I have put down a deposit on the safari, and I’m still waiting to book airfare till Mom’s will goes through probate. If I have to, I can lay it out, but it’ll mean draining our emergency fund, and I’d rather not, so I’m giving it time. I don’t need to book this early for a January flight anyway. I can hardly believe that I’m going to be going to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia (just across the river, on the other side of Victoria Falls), and the Netherlands! Aside from two trips to Israel when I was in my twenties, I’ve never been further from home than England and France.
And that’s just the first of the globe-trotting adventures I’ve gotten myself into this year. Stay tuned…