Though jewelry is part of my typical attire at home—platinum, silver, seed beads, pearls—today I am dusty and drab, devoid of frills, and sitting quietly in an off-road vehicle in Kenya. Just a stone’s throw from me, a dozen elephants drink from a waterhole and fling the gritty earth onto their massive, wrinkled backs. Nothing about me stands out. I am camouflaged in a majestic landscape.
When my brother asked my family to vacation in Kenya with his family, the idea seemed inconceivable. My husband and I had three children younger than twelve at that time. Malaria, yellow fever, tsetse flies, and terrorism were the buzzwords I associated with the country. We already had been planning a trip to Barcelona in celebration of my husband’s fiftieth birthday; viewing soccer games and modern art meshed with our sensibilities more than a safari. And yet we went, thinking those sensibilities may need a jolt. At fifty, there were more days behind us than ahead. I still feel the reverberations of that shake-up today.
On our first night, we stayed at a newly opened hotel gleaming with granite floors and leather-clad furniture in a tony enclave near Nairobi. The hotel sits behind a high wall with shards of glass cemented along its top. Hydraulic barricades embedded in the roadway prevented us from entering the grounds until security guards cleared us. This fortress-like setting validated the narratives of my nightmares—ethnic clashes and kidnappings of tourists.
On our second night, we stayed in tents on the edge of a national park. A small emergency siren, standard in each tent like the Gideon Bibles in nightstand drawers back home, was on the ground by my cot. There were no doors with locks, no outlets for hairdryers, few mirrors for primping, no phones for room service that wasn’t there anyway.
The morning wake-up call came at 5:30 a.m., when someone literally stood outside our tent calling “hello” until we responded. Unaccustomed to waking so early, our kids slept in their clothes so they could gain a little more time in bed. In mere minutes, the kids were able to brush their teeth, pull on sneakers, grab their binoculars, and climb into our rugged vehicles to look for lions eating their fresh kills before they bedded down for the day.
After a few days of these early-morning wake-ups, I decided to give up my neat, well-groomed appearance and follow the kids’ routine instead. I no longer cared if I was rumpled and disheveled. I enjoyed an extra half-hour of sleep, then put my hair in a pony tail, drank some coffee, and joined the others to glimpse the early-morning grandeur of Amboseli National Park, near the border with Tanzania: the big cats in their natural habitat, acacia trees silhouetted by the rising sun, Mt. Kilimanjaro before clouds masked the peak for the remainder of the day.
A Thompson’s gazelle races effortlessly across the plains with the grace and poise of a ballerina, the animal’s beauty derived from its sleek lines and sheer athleticism. Grevy’s zebras stand in the grasslands, their narrow stripe patterns mesmerizing, striking in their tailored singularity. This natural beauty was more remarkable than my manufactured aesthetics, like eyes rimmed with kohl, eyebrows plucked to a sleek arch, my ring finger adorned with diamonds and sapphires.
Perhaps these kinds of embellishments get me noticed where I live in suburban New Jersey, on a direct train line to the glamour and sophistication of New York City. But as each day passed in Kenya, I grew more accustomed to my own natural, unfussy features as a middle-aged mother—dark brown hair streaked with gray, olive skin with tiny freckles, short fingernails that were dull and bare. By the time we reached the Maasai Mara, life had become instinctual. I lost track of precise time, relying on sunlight, hunger, and exhaustion to pinpoint the hour throughout the day. And instead of waiting uncomfortably to return to our camp, I chose nature’s bathroom, just like the kids—crouching behind a nearby bush, ducking behind the off-road vehicle.
I realized my new perspective was transformative when I found a pair of silver earrings with brown beads in a small pocket of my toiletry bag, left there from a weekend away months before.
I put them on. I looked outlandish.
Shirley Salemy Myer teaches part-time in the College Writing Program of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. She spent most of her career, however, on the staff of the Associated Press, The Des Moines Register, the Chicago Tribune, the Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), and the Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, Mont.). Her features and essays have appeared in publications across the country via the AP as well as in the “Motherlode” and “The Local” blogs of The New York Times, Inside Jersey magazine of The Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), and U.S. Catholic, among other publications. Her poetry has appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review.