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Every animal interaction we had showed me that wild nature is sacred, and we are connected to it. There were so many breathtaking moments with the wild animals in South Africa. On horseback, we would share dusk with a rhino mother and her calf grazing a few feet away. We would gallop straight through a herd of zebra. I would look into a lion’s amber eyes and let them take my breath away. In these moments, I never felt like I was just “observing” these animals as one would do in a zoo. I was in awe of their presence, and even more in awe of the reality that I was sharing it. My feet touched the same dirt path, we breathed the same air around us, we felt the same sun warm our skin.
Over and over again we were told “only prey runs.” This phrase would be used when a ranger was reminding us what to do if you encounter a lion or other predator on foot. If you run away, you are mimicking the predator’s prey, and so their instinct is to chase after and attack you. Even though this was drilled into our heads, when situations came up, instinct took over.
We spent two nights camping in Kruger National Park. Our campsite was fenced in, and at night we could watch the hyenas come right up to the other side of the fence. We would sit, speaking only in whispers, and watch them sniff around the fence, attracted by the smell of our dinner. Hyenas have massive shoulders and small heads, giving them a monster-like appearance. I felt a combination of fear and mesmerization being this close to such a creature. As we stared, transfixed by their presence, the rangers told us stories about vicious hyena attacks on humans (“You know the guy at the gas station with only one ear? Hyena.”)
Our campsite was meant to be fenced in so that animals were kept out. We slept in tents, and there was a separate bathroom facility. One night I, along with two other girls, was brushing my teeth when we heard the unmistakable laughing-call of a hyena. I felt a shiver along my spine. It’s eeriness rang so loud we joked that the hyena was right outside of the bathroom. We finished in the bathroom and I along with another girl started to walk back to our tents. As soon as we walked outside, she stopped abruptly and pointed, grabbing my arm. I looked up and saw the unmistakable silhouette of a hyena right in front of us, inside the camp, less than fifteen feet away! We didn’t say a word to each other, I think I screamed, and together we sprinted back inside the bathroom and locked ourselves in a bathroom stall.
Even though we didn’t apply the “only prey runs” philosophy in that moment, this phrase struck me as I think it’s a policy you can apply to life in general. When you are confronted with a problem, it needs to be faced head-on. Running from it is neither wise nor effective, because the problem will eat you.
I would often stop and marvel at the fact that I was living in this wild, incredible place. One day at Bush House, I walked to the clothing line with my bag of wet clothes and sweat forming above my upper lip and at my hair line. The clothing line was at the edge of the "bush"- the area where we were forbidden to walk in unsupervised or even walk near at night. You couldn't see much but thick trees and bushes but you could hear the orchestra of insects humming and you could feel the tension that comes with knowing what inhabits it. I was looking down at my feet, navigating the grass that was nothing like the grass at home. This grass was rough and tangled and unpredictable.
I started to hang my clothes up on the line and almost laughed out loud at myself in these surroundings. I was thinking of how last time I used this laundry bag, I was carrying it to the laundry room of the dormitory I was living in Washington, D.C. The room was air conditioned and held rows of white washing and drying machines that stood tall in their modernity. My days were filled with speeding trains that carried me to a skyscraper building in which I spent my day looking at a computer screen and checking numbers. Everything was predicted, scheduled, measured, calculated and checked again to make sure the predicting, scheduling, measuring and calculating was done correctly.
Where I was now, the grass grew as tall as it wanted. The temperature rose as high as it wanted. The wildebeest roamed where they wanted; last night where they wanted was underneath this clothes line. Who was I, hanging up my laundry in the African bush, with my burnt face sweating in this kind of sun I hadn't met before?