Jan 7 2013

Finding Out

We stepped one foot at a time into the harnesses and pulled the bulky belts high around our waists. The tall men buckled us in, pulling straps tight, double-checking that the fit was snug. Everyone was handed a helmet and a pair of suede gloves, worn from use by many hands pressing down on wire cables. Because the electricity was out, we couldn’t watch the introductory video. Instead a guide, who spoke English fluently but with a dark velvet accent, did his best to show and tell us what would happen. hiking_in

We piled into a safari truck, wearing all our gear, helmets already a necessary protection from knocking our heads against the roof during the bumpy ride that took us to from the lodge to the drop-off point. A 15-minute hike brought us out to a cliff overlooking the ravine. We climbed on to the first wooden platform, where the ropes connected to our harnesses were clipped to the guide wire at our feet.

Never at any moment was anyone not fastened on to something, either to a line on the ground, attached to the rocks by giant pins, or, in the moment we’d come to experience, on to the long wire that stretched over the open gorge. A large pulley unit was the primary device, that’s how you rolled along the cable to the platform at the other side of the ravine. But there were always two other clips in place, for security. We’d been told this was one of the safest places for Canopy Touring, and that seemed to be the case.

“Are you ready?” the guide would ask when you were sufficiently latched on and secure for your ride across the abyss. “Enjoy!”

All you had to do was step off the edge of the platform and gravity would take over. A flight through the air, only the sound of the mechanism driving along the wire and the water cascading over the rocks below. Fifteen seconds of flying freedom.

~ ~ ~

Our friends had been to Swaziland before; it’s an easy weekend trip from where they live in Maputo. Things change almost immediately after crossing the border from Mozambique. The hills and mountains rise around you, and the land shifts from dusty brown to a palette of greens. A house just outside of Mbabane, the capital, was offered to us from a friend of a friend, one with many bedrooms that easily accommodated our two families of four. We did a big shop on the way there, the kind when you buy way too much food that you never eat because you end up going to restaurants for more meals than you expected. We spent the week taking hikes, visiting various tourist attractions, like a revived glass factory or an eccentric candle-making workshop, and then, of course: zip-lining at the Malolotja Nature Reserve.
album_cover
Our friends’ kids had already tried zip-lining, and loved it, so we knew the activity was child-friendly. But our girls have a different appetite for adventure, and it’s not as vigorous as ours. A little cajoling is almost always required. I knew for this to work it had to be well positioned to garner their enthusiasm.

It was Short-pants I was most worried about. She is thin and spindle-like, slightly uncoordinated. She’s aware of her lesser athleticism and though we work hard to keep her moving and confident, it’s her nature to avoid physical activity. I fully expected her to resist, until I thought of her role as Grandpa Joe in last year’s school play, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. After drinking the fizzy lifting drink Grandpa Joe sings a duet with Charlie called, “I’m Flying.” This was my entry point. We talked about how zip-lining might be a bit like that scene in the story, when they’re flying through the air. She said she was game. I couldn’t tell if she was truly interested in this adventure, or if she was just humoring me. Or maybe she was afraid of disappointing me. I worry about that, sometimes.

That morning, as we donned sunscreen and sneakers, it was Buddy-roo, though she’d been instantly enthusiastic about the idea when it was first proposed, who came to me with her head bowed.

“I don’t want to go.” She can make her voice so little and glum when she wants to.

“It’s natural to feel nervous before you do something new,” I told her, “I bet you’re going to love it.” I was wondering, myself, if I was going to love it.

“I’m worried about my sister,” she said, trying to think of another excuse. “What if she gets scared and freaks out?”

“You just worry about yourself,” I told her, though I wondered, myself, about the very same thing.

~ ~ ~

There were eleven zip-lines zig-zagging along and across the ravine, eleven chances to sail through the air. This meant it wasn’t a one-time shot. Once you started, you were committed. There was no way to turn back.

While Buddy-roo masked her fears by whining about her sister, Short-pants stoically adjusted her harness and her helmet, listened attentively to the guide as he reminded us of where to place our hands – and where not to put them – while gliding along the cable. We’d all gotten a lot quieter as we approached the first wire. I looked over at Short-pants and she bared her braces in a broad smile. If she was feeling frightened, she wasn’t letting on.

De-facto went first and I followed; we both had cameras and were charged with capturing images of the kids and cheering them in as they came across the ravine after us. Our friends stayed to the rear, ready to coach the youngest members of our squad as each one took their turn. The first zip-lines were shorter and the drop below them not too steep – like having two starter flights to get used to the feeling and to figure out how to use your glove, with its leather palm, to slow down at the end for a good landing.
she_flies
It wasn’t hard to get a feel for how to speed and slow yourself along the cable. The guide at the receiving end was there to catch you if you barreled in too fast, or to coax you if you’d slowed too soon to make it all the way to the platform. He unfastened and quickly re-fastened my ropes to the ground cable and I quickly turned to snap shots of each child, as they came into view, one at a time. Short-pants, long and lanky even with her knees bent, glided and landed effortlessly on the platform. She raised her arms in a jubilant victory pose. Buddy-roo sped in a few minutes later, smaller and more compact, but fast and confident and just as exhilarated by the ride.

As we followed the rest of the course, the cables got longer, stretching over the wider, steeper parts of the gorge. The hurdle of how-to-do-it had been cleared, and both girls were beaming. Much like our family hike last summer, the self-esteem of both daughters expanded, visibly, after two hours and eleven rides dangling from a cable strung out over a deep ravine. I’ll never know if they really wanted to try zip-lining, or if they were just afraid not to. But I’m reminded of how important it is to encourage our children to try to do new things they might not (at first) believe they can do. How else will they find out?


Dec 30 2012

Unnecessary Narration

It is inevitable that spending several consecutive days in close quarters with the people you know most can be disastrous – even though you love them – if you don’t get a little space from each other. Vacations, they say, can make or break a couple. Too much togetherness reveals our most interesting habits. I remember an early getaway trip with De-facto; we went skiing in Switzerland and then took a train to Naples where we rented a car and drove around the boot of Italy. There was a moment during that trip when I said to myself, he’s a nice guy but obviously we are not going to work out. I’m not sure exactly what happened to turn that prediction around, but (I think) I’m glad for it. family_on_bridge.jpg

There have been some parallels on this trip, our holiday in Africa. They are a nice family but obviously this is not going to work out. I’m not afraid to admit to an occasional fantasy that they are absent from my current reality. It is short-lived, but a luxurious thought. It is free of little voices and constant questions. There are no demands for help to find or fix something that all of a sudden is dear to them, and then ten minutes later it is left behind on the floor for me to trip over. Most of all, in this fantasy, there is quiet. The chattering in the back seat ceases.

“She won’t play with me,” Buddy-roo complains even though she ignored her sister’s overtures to engage in a game, less than twenty minutes earlier.

“Can’t you just be quiet?” Short-pants screeches, even though an hour ago she was the one driving us all batty with a constant stream of words, attributing wild animals to her favorite literary characters by their first initial: “Hermione and Harry are hippos, Ron is a rhino, Neville is a nyala…”

Now it’s Buddy-roo who keeps on talking, spiteful in her aim to punish her sister. “Look! We’re all wearing something blue except Papa! I’ve got blue shorts, you’ve got blue pants, and mama has a blue shirt…”

From the backseat a litany of inconsequential facts continue to pour out of Buddy-roo like water from a fire hose. Everything is delivered with authority, especially the facts that she makes up on the spot. As an extrovert, she only really knows what she’s thinking if she says it aloud. She requires constant stimulation and if something isn’t filling the space, she will.

Short-pants, on the other hand, is a bona-fide introvert, à la Susan Caine, and if there’s too much of anything for too long – too much talking, music, tree_roots_entangled.jpgnoise, chaos – the meltdown can be impressive. But she has a sense of her own preference, usually removing herself from an over-stimulating environment with a polite, “I think I just need a little alone time.”

It’s hard to remove yourself politely from the backseat of an economy car in the middle of a wild game park, so the meltdown is unavoidable.

“Enough!” Short-pants slaps the car seat hard with her hand. “I’ve had it with the unnecessary narration!”

De-facto and I glance sideways at each other, suppressing our laughter. Her angry outburst shocks Buddy-roo into silence, bringing a temporary peace to the car. Two beats later, the both of them start crying in tandem.

~ ~ ~

When Short-pants was ten months old, we took her to the United States to introduce her to our family up and down the east coast. De-facto’s brother loaned us his 1970’s Volkswagon bus, an iconic touring vehicle that broke down every other day. Half of the photos from that trip are of De-facto with his head stuck in the rear of that bus, trying to sort out why the engine wouldn’t run much faster than 45 miles per hour.

It was slow going, but Short-pants was a good sport. When she got a little fussy, I’d entertain her with a crew of little plastic wild animals that had been given to us by one of our friends who hosted us along our route. There was a tiny impala, a giraffe and other wild, hooved beasts. Short-pants was fascinated by them, especially when I moved them up and down her legs and thighs, as though they were walking across her body. We must have discovered this simple distraction while near our nation’s capital, because I started humming Hail to the Chief as those little hooved creatures made the trek around her lap. I did not know the words to this anthem, so I used crooner syllables dah-dah-doo-wah throughout the entire song. I played this game with her for hours, while she kicked and giggled in her car seat.
distant_hippos
Six months later, Short-pants’ was on another trip, this time to South Africa where De-facto and I were working at a conference. Our hosts organized a game drive and we took her along, on my lap. The open-to-the-air truck barreled down a long dirt road beside a grove of trees and made a sharp 90-degree turn. Right in front of us, in the middle of the road, stood a tall giraffe, nearly twenty feet tall. The truck halted and we all lurched forward, staring up, speechless, at the long-necked creature.

“Dat-doo-waaaahh!” Short-pants’ little voice expressed the awe of everyone on the drive.

That was when we realized she’d associated my lyrics of the President’s theme song with the little plastic animals. Now that she’d seen a real one, it had been named. Our family has its own words, and this is one of them. We don’t say giraffe; we say dat-doo-wah.

It happens now and then, these days, that she’ll mention a dat-doo-wah in the company of friends who then give her a blank stare, not knowing the folklore of this word in our family. She’ll laugh nervously, at her own joke, wondering why nobody else is laughing with her.

“You can’t just blurt it out,” we remind her. “You have to tell the story, or people won’t get it.” In this case, a little narration is necessary.

~ ~ ~

This morning the two siblings were attached at the hip in an amicable game of pretend fairies, but now they’re at each other’s throats, having strung up shirts from headrests of the car seats to draw the boundaries that shall not be crossed in the backseat of the car. The tears have abated but their sniping continues, an ongoing (and unnecessary) soundtrack of stay on your own side! and don’t touch me! dahdoowahThere’s nowhere to stop and let them out to run off their angry energy; we’re an hour away from our camp and we have to get there before the gates close, in just about an hour.

As if on command, a long, lanky giraffe appears on the side of the road.

“Look! Up ahead.”

Short-pants and Buddy-roo lift their eyes to see what I’m pointing at.

Dah-doo-wah!” their voices in tandem.

In an instant, the bitterness between them gives way to excitement. The words they exchange now are enthusiastic. Together they admire the elegant animal standing tall before them. Short-pants reports that the dah-doo-wah has the same number of vertebrae as a human. Buddy-roo wonders how this could be true, with such a long neck. Their chatter, as constant as ever, but at least the incessant narration has turned friendly again. Obviously, if this is going to work out, that was necessary.


Dec 24 2012

Flight of the Reindeer

They’ve gotten good on planes. They should be, they’ve been on enough of them. We take them back to the states every two or three years, they’ve flown around Europe and to the Caribbean. They’ve both been to Cambodia when we took an extended 5-week trip there in 2007, when it wasn’t a problem for either of them to miss school. This is Short-pants‘ third trip to Africa; Buddy-roo‘s second time. They have always done well on overnight planes and 12-hour drives. A perfect merger of nature and nurture; traveling is in their genes, and we’ve given them plenty of practice to get used to it.
20121224-141401.jpg
It’s a lot easier to fly away to an exotic place for the holidays when the myth of Santa Claus no longer needs to be maintained. We managed a Christmas in Cambodia, but it required an extra suitcase, a good amount of advanced planning and a tiring amount of conversation about how would Santa know where to find us? Fortunately we were staying with friends who had not one but three Christmas trees set up in their otherwise tropical apartment, which added enough magic to mask the charade. But now that the girls know about Santa, we saw the possibility of a holiday trip with only carry-on luggage, and seized it.

“Why did you have to tell me?” Buddy-roo has been giving me grief about last year’s revelation about Santa. I tried to remind her that she had asked me, no less than five times, directly, “Who puts the presents under the tree?” I tried to evade her question but it seemed clear that she already knew and to continue would be a bold-faced lie. She was almost happy to be in on the secret, at least at first. Now her short-term revisionist memory has taken over – or else she figured out she’ll get less booty now that Santa’s been outed – and she wants him back.

“I liked believing in Santa,” she said, “you ruined it for me.”

Short-pants, too, wishes out loud that we hadn’t had our discussion about Santa, but she’s gentler on her mother. Her sadness is occasionally expressed, followed by, “but it’s okay, mama.”

My sister, who still believes in Santa, in the way that adults who still love the magic of Christmas do, sent over a beautiful book, The Flight of the Reindeer, thinking it might help heal the wounds of my children’s scarred Christmas. The book is filled with evidence that someone who really wants to believe can point to as concrete. In a whimsically factual way, it winks at every reader: Sure, there’s a Santa. If you want there to be.
santa_violin
It was my peace offering.

“This is a book about the magic of Santa,” I said, as they unwrapped it, “to keep his spirit alive.”

Short-pants’ eyes widened and she flipped the book open, ready to devour it. Buddy-roo studied me with pursed lips. “Why would you give us a book about Santa when you already told us he doesn’t exist?”

“I never said he doesn’t exist.”

“Yeah, Santa lives in our hearts.” She rolled her eyes. “But I want him to be real and I wish you hadn’t told us he wasn’t.”

“You can still believe,” Short-pants’ angelic voice. “I do.”

~ ~ ~

We opened all but a few of our presents early, the day before we got on the plane to Africa. We knew Buddy-roo wouldn’t stand waiting until our return after New Year’s, and we wanted to travel light. Dragging the gifts with us, even though there weren’t that many, and explaining them to various border guards between South Africa and Mozambique – our Christmas destination – felt like a hassle to avoid. We opened our gifts in rapid fire after dinner, rather than unwrapping them leisurely, with breaks for ice-skating and Bloody Marys, two of our usual Christmas day rituals. Although a few thin items were slipped in my suitcase to be opened on the 25th, it feels good to dispense with the merchandise aspect of Christmas. Maybe, we’ll just be happy to be together. Well, and being someplace warm and sunny; that’s a gift, too.

Short-pants has deliberately decided to believe again. The book from her aunt has given her permission. It’s too heavy to take along with us, but up until our departure she had her nose buried in it, reading out factoids that helped her build a case in his favor. She tried to share her revived faith with her sister, who would have none of it.

“Stop,” she’d snap. “You’re only making me miss Santa more.”

~ ~ ~

The friends we are visiting in Mozambique – the same ones we stayed with in Cambodia years ago – keep moving to far-flung places. They used to live across the street from us, and the friendship between the adults and the children of our two families has endured since they left Paris, for many reasons, but certainly aided by the fact that we keep traveling to visit them almostSanta_in_Africa everywhere they light. As we prepared for this adventure together, I brought up the subject of Santa Claus. Were there still believers amongst us?

It turns out – to my surprise – there were. Two believers, the younger one for certain, the older probably just hanging in for the gifts. I’d alleviated the problem of carrying Santa’s goodies for our kids to Africa, but now I had a new one. Would the girls spill the beans?

When I brought it up, Short-pants grinned and started hopping around, singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town. This was just the excuse she needed to carry on believing. Buddy-roo scowled and crossed her arms. I braced myself for the if-you-hadn’t-told-us-we-wouldn’t-have-to-pretend retort. But instead her pout turned into a smile.

“Does that mean Santa will bring me presents in Africa, too?”

~ ~ ~

The flight was long, six hours to Dubai and another ten to Johannesburg. I can’t tell you how many hours we were in a car, either driving through Kruger Park admiring wild animals, or making our way across pot-holed roads or winding in and out of the dangerously crazy Mozambique traffic to get to our friends home in Maputo. We held our breath and crossed our fingers at the Mozambique border, hoping that the valid-for-6-months passport rule we read about on-line wouldn’t keep Short-pants out of the country, since hers is a temporary one, expiring in three months. Turns out it was a non-issue, or the charm offensive worked, as everyone got a visa and made it into the country. That our load of loot was light helped a lot; we meant it when we said we had nothing to declare.

Or I might declare one or two things: That I wish every one of you a merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is warm – if not in temperature, like ours, certainly in spirit. And no matter how far Santa’s reindeer have to travel to find you, may you be there together with the people you love most.