Soft Focus

Originally published on Sojournal

Boat alongside lake

I’m a planner. Always have been. I keep lists and lists within my lists. I covered one kitchen wall with chalkboard paint to accommodate schedules and reminders. On each flight home from vacation, I brainstorm the next.

Naturally then the Tanzania trip was methodically arranged and while my husband was eager to see all parts of the country, I held one fervent goal: to view chimpanzees in the wild.

Articles dedicated to jungle trekking in the Mahale Mountains described hours of bushwhacking along rugged, often ungroomed terrain in hot, humid temperatures. For months I planned accordingly, running at incline and refining my diet. In good physical shape and with my shots in order, malaria meds, Bismuth on hand and insect-repelling clothing purchased, I felt ready and excited when departure day arrived.

During a multi-day layover in London though, a vague anxiety replaced my typical travel giddiness. I strolled the vibrant neighborhoods unusually detached, my subconscious whispering that my “true” destination was still a continent away. At night I eschewed life outside the hotel to reread Tanzania guidebooks. They warned that chimp sightings were ‘common but not guaranteed’ and restricted to one hour. Preoccupation gave way to worry that my preparation would prove pointless.

My concern receded somewhat as we crossed northern Africa at 35,000 feet, the gorgeous red desert soil of Libya butting up against the striking blue Mediterranean. I soaked in vast fiery stretches of earth and felt pleasantly small and far away. Then a gnawing invaded my thoughts. “This place is not for you,” it intoned. I sat back and returned to my guidebooks.

Three flights later we touched down on a dirt landing strip. A waiting boat carried us for two hours past the rolling Mahale Mountains to a neat row of thatched huts tucked furtively inside the sprawling jungle. We tossed our bags into our cabin then quickly returned to the beach. “This may be the most remote place we’ve ever visited,” Jeff said contentedly as we sat on the banks of a blindingly blue Lake Tanganyika. Our pilot had described it as the world’s longest. I nodded, but, honestly, the lake meant little to me.

Early the next morning the chance to meet my objective had at last arrived. Following our guide, Sixtus, and a park ranger, we ascended and descended through dense, snarled vegetation. I know from my photographs that the landscape was wild and verdant, but that day I focused only on my increasing frustration. Four hours. Five hours. Six. Seven. No chimps. Sixtus came to a hard stop. “Challenging this time of year.” Then he smiled. “Tomorrow.”

Against the jungle sounds behind our tent and the soft rippling waves before it, my exhausted body should have been soothed to sleep. Instead, I lay awake questioning the logic of travelling over 10,000 miles for a shot at sixty minutes of bliss.

The next day began promisingly when Sixtus spotted fresh dung. He seemed confident. Three hours later the calls of the great apes echoed through the trees. “They’ve left the trail. We will too,” Sixtus announced. For an hour we traversed tangled vines and mud before reaching a dry waterfall. Bathed in dirt and sweat, we scrambled up the steep, slick slope to stumble, almost without warning upon a group resting among the brush. We donned our face masks and watched in wordless awe until the ranger directed us further down the ridge.

There stood a screeching chimp whose mother sat around the corner. “He doesn’t see her,” the ranger whispered as the youngster’s shrieks pierced the thick, gummy air. I nodded and took in each slow-motion moment. The mother’s long wrinkled fingers slowly scooping fresh fruit into her gaping mouth. The son’s black sunken eyes darting frantically about the dense forest canopy. The lumbering group reached us and dropped drowsily to the wet ground. Two females silently and meticulously groomed each other. The muscular male violently yanked out blades of ginger grass only to chew them daintily. Each mindful moment felt like one hundred so that when it was time to leave I felt immensely satisfied, not sad.

Along the descent I took in some of what I had missed on the way up: the emerald bush, the towering trees, the giant leaves that coated the fertile ground.

That afternoon on the beach I absorbed my surroundings as if for the first time. I had traveled for days to reach this lake, had floated along it to reach the lodge, had swum in its clear waters. Only now, squinting into the sinking sun, did I feel its warm tidy waves curl over my sandy toes, watch it retreat in a jumble of gentle foam and hear in its placid lapping the call to slow, slow, savor.

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