here alone

Ice cream in Nashville

Dark night, bright parlor, long line. I step in and take my place behind all the couples and families. I am the only one here alone.

Flavors are handwritten on a chalkboard behind the counter. I scan the list, pick two I want to try, and then settle in for the wait. My hands are too full to check email, Twitter, or Facebook, like everyone else is doing. So I default to people-watching and eavesdropping. Common pastimes for a writer.

The girls behind me are trying water yoga tomorrow. One of them can’t swim. Another one is named Avery, and she has the best hair. Wavy and blonde, with a braid framing one side. All of them are stylish and thin, somehow managing to look both hipster and preppy at the same time.

There are a lot of maxi dresses in here.

It’s been a long day, but I’m avoiding my hotel room. I’d thought it would be wonderful to have a clean, quiet space to myself. Somewhere new but predictable. Somewhere without responsibilities.

Instead it feels lonely.

After checking in, I escaped to dinner. I chose a place that I had been to once before, years ago, with people I loved. But even the memories of them aren’t enough to keep me company tonight. I text one and call the other. It helps.

Finally it’s my turn, and I ask for wildberry lavender and “Buckeye State.” I like complementing fruity flavors with chocolate. When the cashier hands me the receipt, I accidentally sign in the wrong place. I feel like an idiot, but she just laughs. It’s a good reminder to find the humor in things.

Tales from Botswana (sort of): Livingstone, Zambia

It wasn’t my intention to drag out these safari stories, but I realize that after a month, enough is probably enough. So, don’t worry! I do have one more batch of photos lined up, but with this post — the one you’re reading right now — my tales from Botswana are coming to an end.

(Also, these bits are set in Zambia, so it doesn’t even really count.)

On the last day of our safari, we took the Kazangula Ferry across the Zambezi River. It’s the place where four countries meet: Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. It doesn’t look like much, but for those fifteen minutes, we were everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

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The moment we stepped off the ferry, we were bombarded by Zambians trying to sell us things. Carvings, purses, paintings, t-shirts, keychains. “I give you good price, sistah.” “How much you want?” “Two for ten kwacha.” “Three for ten kwacha!”

The relentless noise of their voices, and uncomfortable pressure of their bodies, were a sharp contrast to the laidback quiet of Botswana.

From the ferry landing, we drove for an hour to Livingstone, where we would spend the night in a hotel — with real showers! real beds! — before flying back to America. Our hotel was just outside the city, right on the river, with a view of Victoria Falls. Or at least, the rising clouds of mist that the waterfall produces. Mosi-oa-Tunya.

The smoke that thunders.

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Victoria Falls was incredible. Though it is neither the tallest nor the widest waterfall in the world, it is overall the largest — spanning more than a mile in width and falling from almost twice the height of Niagara. On both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides, you can walk across bridges and forested pathways to get a magnificent view of the massive cascades.

(If you’re brave, you can even bungee jump.)

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Nothing I say can really do justice to the rumble of the water, the beauty of the lush greenery, or the staggering depths below. The mist is so thick and constant that it may as well be rain. (Fortunately the Swiss couple on our safari had warned us, so we wore our shower shoes and rented ponchos.) There are rainbows — and even double rainbows! — from every angle. In a moment of wonder, we spotted a hippo walking among the rocks near the edge of the falls.

In spite of our experience at the ferry, we optimistically entered the curio market at Victoria Falls — and were promptly bombarded again. “Sistah, let me show you what I have.” “This bowl would look so beautiful in your home.” “Maybe you want some more for your friends.” “I need money for my family.” “You would be supporting a whole village.”

It was hot and cramped, and the haggling was intense. My mood dipped drastically in the short time it took us to negotiate for gifts and mementos. But we managed, and we got out, and we took another short walk through the fresh air along the falls, to clear our minds and spirits.

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Put off by the pushy peddlers, as well as the trick our taxi driver had played to ensure that we would use his — and only his — services, we decided to stay at the hotel for the rest of our time in Zambia. From the back deck of our room, we watched monkeys playing in the trees. We had dinner next to the river and shared a sundae for dessert. We slept in late the next morning and took a second shower, just because we could.

The last story I’ll tell is that of the French toast-stealing monkey.

Andy and I were enjoying our breakfast, emotionally unwinding from our wonderful trip, and mentally gearing up for the long plane ride home. While we sat there, listening to the falls and fending off the advances of the hotel cat, a vervet monkey jumped down from a nearby tree and perched on the light pole to watch us. I snapped a few pictures, and then we ignored him.

As usual, Andy finished his food before me and stood to go pay the bill. As soon as he walked away, the monkey scrambled down the pole to the railing next to our table. Sensing his mischief, I stood, shouted “No!” and threw my hands over Andy’s plate to protect it. Well, that monkey was no fool. He ran right around my arms and snatched a slice of French toast off my plate. He was back up on top of that light pole before I knew what had happened.

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After hearing me cry out, Andy had stopped and turned around. He watched the whole thing unfold. And oh how he laughed.

Tales from Botswana: The kill

It was halfway through the safari, and everyone was starting to get nervous. We hadn’t seen any lions yet. What if we didn’t see them today? What if we didn’t see them until the last day? What if we didn’t see them at all?

Mike, our guide, kept telling us not to worry, but I’m sure he was feeling the pressure too. After all, it was his job to show us the animals. Every day he would point out tracks in an optimistic tone — small thrills to tide us over.

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“Hyenas came through, maybe two days ago.”

“Leopard passed by, just yesterday.”

And then, finally:

“Lions here, very fresh.”

The enormous cat prints were unmistakable, even to us. Mike followed the tracks through the vast, dried-out marshes of Savute, our Land Cruiser throwing up a cloud of dust. Ahead, another group was already on the same trail. But when we all came to a fork in the road, the other group turned right. Mike paused, eyed the horizon, double-checked the tracks, and went left instead.

Five minutes later, we found the lions. Two of them — large, graceful females lounging almost invisibly among the yellow grass. We drove right up to them, close enough to see whiskers, and the rise and fall of their chests. They paid no attention to our excited whispers, or the furious clicks of our cameras.

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Suddenly, a family of warthogs came trotting down the plains. Mike noticed them first and alerted the rest of us. By the time we picked out their silhouettes in the distance, one lioness was already sitting up, angling forward with interest.

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Without a sound, she stood and began to walk in a wide arc around our Land Cruiser. She was moving downwind, Mike explained, so that the warthogs would not smell her coming. Her body was low and lithe, a mere shadow slicing through the savannah.

The second lioness sat up but stayed in place, waiting for her cue. She watched, as we all did, while the first lioness got into position. Then it was her turn. The second lioness made her own arc in the opposite direction, smaller and quicker, but just as deadly quiet.

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After ten minutes of this stalking, the lions had trapped the warthogs between them. The unknowing prey continued to sniff the area for food, until one warthog caught a different scent. He walked upwind, toward the second lioness, and raised his nose into the air. Something was wrong, even if he didn’t know quite what. Still concerned, he went downwind and sniffed again.

That’s when the first lioness pounced.

Fluid as water, she sprang forward, and the warthogs fled for their lives. In their terror, they ran right into the path of the second lioness, and she was ready. Within seconds the chase was over. A young warthog dangled from her jaws. The trap had worked.

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The other three warthogs did escape, sprinting away with their tails straight up in the air so they could follow one another to safety. Meanwhile, the second lioness held their fallen brother, teeth sunk into neck, and she lay down to wait until he died.

The whole thing was remarkably calm, brief, and gentle. Beautiful, in its way.

We continued to watch and record as the second lioness feasted on her kill. We heard the crunching of bones and tendons, saw the pinking of paws and snout. For a while, the first lioness kept a respectful distance, but by the time gray entrails were being pulled from the warthog’s body, she had moved closer, and received a warning growl for it.

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Almost an hour had passed since we’d first found the lions, and we ended up driving away before they traded off on the meal. But that didn’t bother us. Nothing bothered us anymore. Because we had seen lions, had seen a kill from start to finish. The rest of the safari would just be icing on the cake.

Tales from Botswana: Daily life (on a mobile safari)

You wake to the sound of water sloshing into the washstand outside your tent. The sun has not yet risen; everything is dark. “Good morning,” comes a man’s voice through the canvas walls. “Good morning,” you say back to him, even though you are still half-asleep.

The air is like ice on your neck and face. Reluctantly, you push back the blankets, reach for your headlamp and clothes. Once dressed, you step out to wash up while the water is still somewhat warm, and to use the toilet tent before everyone else.

Breakfast waits on a table by the campfire. Toast with butter, jam, peanut butter, or syrup. Yogurt and muesli. Tins of hot water for coffee and tea. You eat while standing by the flames, soaking up wisps of heat while the sun spreads gold across the horizon.

With your bellies quieted, everyone climbs into the Land Cruiser. You bump along the dirt roads, searching for movement, for wildlife, for beauty. Maybe for a window into yourselves.

A swaying line on the horizon — giraffe. Curved horns peeking out from a broken mopane tree — kudu. The crunch of leaves, a trumpeting — elephant. Your eyes water from staring so hard. Your heart dances at the sight of every animal.

You return to the camp for lunch and a rest. Cold cuts and white bread, beans and sharp yellow cheese. You marvel over what you have seen so far; you talk quietly about the things you still hope to spot.

While the other couples take turns chatting in their mismatched languages, you slip away to a shower tent. Turn the knob to release a trickle of the recently heated water. Soap up. A breeze seeps in, raising goose bumps all across your naked skin. You shiver and squeal and hurry your scrubbing.

The next hour or so is spent journaling, reading, napping. Then it’s coffee and tea, and back into the Land Cruiser for the evening game drive. As the temperature drops, you zip up your jacket, wrap yourself in a thick wool blanket. You squint into the setting sun.

A sliver of shadow on the water — hippo. Wings stretched out over a branch — stork. Thousands of dark shapes enveloped in a haze of dust — buffalo.

Finally the sun is gone, and your headlights bounce over the rugged terrain, headed back to camp. Spiced meats and stir-fried vegetables wait for you in giant pots, and you scoop generous helpings onto your metal plates. You eat by candlelight, once again recounting the day’s sights, the country’s gifts.

Crickets sing and hippos growl nearby; jackals bark in the distance. After dinner, you sit in a horseshoe around the campfire, leaving a space for the smoke to billow away. The stars keep you company, bright and clear overhead.

Though your watch reveals it is still early, exhaustion has settled in. You say good night, brush your teeth, use the toilet one last time. Zip up the tent. Tuck into bed. Fall asleep, already hungry for the next day’s adventure.

Los últimos (the last of the Spain sketches)

The subway isn’t too crowded at mid-afternoon, but it’s busy enough that there are no free seats. We all shuffle around the metal posts, angling for a handhold. Our bodies sway as one whenever the car stops and starts.

At Antón Martín, a white-haired couple comes on, looks around, and settles for leaning against the wall. A woman in her 30s notices them and stands, offering her chair. When the older woman shakes her head, the younger woman gestures to insist. The older woman declines once more, this time with a wave of her hand. Her husband smiles at the younger woman, who nods and retakes her seat.

Courtesy, pride. Youth, maturity. All of this passes in a matter of seconds. Then it’s on to the next stop. We shuffle and sway.

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We wait in line to enter the small Egyptian temple that sits in the middle of Madrid. (A gift from one country to another, says the official story. A pity purchase during poor economic times, says the rumor mill.) Beside us, sandstone arches rise out of the water. Scattered around the pond, a group of students sketches.

Inside the temple, there’s more waiting. The old passageways are so narrow, only a few people can pass at a time. In line behind us is an American family with a Midwestern accent. “Meep,” says the older son. “Meep,” echoes the younger son. “Meep. Meep. Meep, meep. Meep, meep. Meep meep meepmeep MEEEEEEP!”

The parents scowl and tell the kids to hush. Andy and I turn to each other and share a silent laugh.

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An autumn stroll through Buen Retiro park. It’s a quiet way to close out our trip. My choice. My favorite place.

We walk past the lake, through the twisting green paths, down to the Palacio de Cristal. There’s barely enough sun — but barely enough is better than none — and dim rainbows glisten off every pane of glass. We circle the pond, stepping around teenagers who hang about as confidently and unconcerned as the cats.

From here we will go back. Back to the subway, to the hotel, to the States. But for now, the leaves are changing, and the air is cool and damp. I’ve never seen Retiro like this before. I wish I knew it better. I wish I knew it year-round.

But barely enough is better than none. I soak it in.