Lioness and Leopard

“Allen, don’t make any sudden moves,” B. said, looking up into the tree above us. Africa is that way. Most of the time you have no idea what’s watching you. And what it’s going to do next.

On that morning in Maasai Mara Reserve in Kenya, our driver got a message that a lioness and her cub were working on a fresh kill. That’s the kind of thing you’re dying to see, of course – a mama lioness, her face and whiskers pink with blood, teaching her kid about the juiciest parts of a wildebeest. Wanna suck on a sugar bone? Go right ahead, it’s all yours, she says…

Our jeep with its slightly deflated tires turned off the dirt road and slowly made its way across a rocky stretch towards a grove where the lioness was supposed to be. Judging by the fact that there was already a jeep there ahead of us, she was still there. Allen got his two cameras ready and moved his sunglasses to the top of his head. The first jeep pulled away, its passengers looking at us like they’ve won the World Cup and second place is only second made hushing noises.

It was the kind of place where you’d expect for a mom and baby to hide in the middle of savannah, but then again, with waste-high grass, they are safe pretty much anywhere. Hidden by the trees, a cub with furry ears and eyeliner eyes was gnawing on what used to be a hoppity-hop animal a few hours later. When it went for a particularly sumptuous but hard-to-reach part, its snout turned all wrinkles with a wet black nose in the middle. Mom tore a piece off here and there but mostly watched and helped and cleaned him with her rough pink tongue.

As we stood there mesmerized, B. turned around to look at Allen and saw something in a tree above us. As in three meters above our heads.

“Allen, don’t move,” he said, still looking. “There’s a leopard right above you.”

All color left Allen’s face. The leopard, a young one or a cub, was stretched out on a branch, obscured by the greenery, and surveying the kill situation just like we were. Except for it had different feelings about it.

“Oh, so that’s what happened,” said our guide. “It was the leopard who killed the wildebeest and the lioness decided that she wanted it more. So the leopard just walked away. He always likes higher ground.”

Why is the picture of the leopard blurry? Because the lens couldn’t focus that close…

Photo by Allen Widdison

Photo by Allen Widdison


Photo by Allen Widdison

Photo by Allen Widdison


How to Piss Off a Hawk

hawk in las vegas

Photo by B.

Last night, as we headed out on our evening walk with Kolja, I just about tripped over a dark mass on a concrete paver in our back yard. On closer examination, I realized I was looking at feathers and feet and what would have been guts.

It was examine it further and puke or let it be and send B.  I opted for the latter.

B. got a flashlight, inspected the mess and suggested I got a shovel and a trash bag, because this was going to be a “two-people job.” Or we could wait for the gardener to take care of it, which sounded like a much better idea.

As I was finishing The Goldfinch this afternoon, I noticed something gliding by our window into our garden (don’t ask why I notice things like that while reading…). The wings seemed too big for our regular pigeons and robins. And there it was, on the branch of a pine. A hawk. In the middle of Las Vegas.

It ruffled its feathers and scratched an itch on his back with a mean beak. Then it took a launching position and torpedoed down to our iron fence next to where the feathered mass had been. He turned his head one way and then the other, and did a little sidestep dance with his yellow claws.

His prey was gone. Only a few dried up guts, that looked like worms, left.

He changed a vantage point one more time. Still nothing. He came down to the cement, looking for the decomposing flesh tenderized by a warm fall day.

B. said, “No dessert, huh?’

The hawk turned his head 180 degrees, gave us an evil eye and took off.

How I Met the Bartender

crabs in cabo san lucasWhen I saw the paddle boards tied to the top of the SUV that was supposed to transport us to the beach, I could taste breakfast again. Just one gulp of saltwater disturbs the delicate fauna of my stomach for days, and no amount of food or alcohol seems to calm it down. It’s like having a hurricane that’s always with you.

Looking at the boards, I knew I was screwed. Members of our group were smoothing on sunscreen and looked forward to the caresses of the ocean. I was thinking about pervasive nausea, skinned knees and a heatstroke.

“Do you want to go snorkeling first of paddle-boarding first?” asked our driver as we made our way to St. Mary’s Bay past the beautiful hotels of Cabo San Lucas. Watching the cacti go by, I was thinking about breakfast in bed and the pool, oh so far away.

Then I had an idea. “Can I just go snorkeling?” I asked. That part, especially in a life jacket that makes you bob like a buoy, I could deal with. “Can I just go snorkeling twice?”

Then I looked around our group, with all its shapes and sizes and virgin enthusiasm, and heard the voice of Sir Richard Branson. “Screw it. Just do it.”

On the beach, I picked out the pink board because it matched my toenails. It had indentations in vague shapes of footprints, and I stuck my feet in them to see if they were a match. They were. We were on.

The surf crushed against the shore with enough ferociousness to smack you against the sand or at least tear off your bikini. That didn’t seem to bother our muscly guide who was in charge that our little group of first-timers wouldn’t sink. We did sign a disclaimer but my Inner Pessimist was screaming,” Really?”

The guy pushed my board forward across the waves, and I tried my follow him and not get knocked over. The salt water was stinging me like an evil form of acupuncture but I figured it was working its magic on my pimples.

“One, two and go!” the macho commanded, expecting me to jump right onto the board and not tip over. I held it with both hands and just about got smacked my face as the next wave rammed us on its way to the shore.

“The trick here is to get on it and stay on it,” I thought, remembering the embarrassing surfing lesson in Hawaii when after watching in-flight commercials, I assumed that surfing was akin walking. Just look at all the people who do it. After two days of lessons, I had a rash even with a rash guard still hadn’t caught a wave.

“Ride it like you mean it,” suggested the macho. I swung my leg over the board and leaned onto my hands for balance. I was also supposed to hold the paddle while performing this, but the macho man took pity on me and waited till I was on my knees.

Getting up and using the ore as my third leg turned out doable. But then the horizon started to tilt. “Imagine you’re on a subway,” I thought. “When your train is going fast and you have nothing to hold on to, you keep your balance by shifting the weight.”

Another wave. Tilting horizon. Muscle memory kicking in. So that’s why the board had indented footprints. “Get on and stay on.”

Keeping my eyes on the horizon and not on the people diving off their boards and showing off their pushup skills, I began to wonder how I was supposed to move forward, towards the cliffs that supposedly harbored marine life. Because there’s only one paddle, the board never goes straight. Two strokes on the right – you go left. Two strokes on the left – you go right. Add the waves working against you and you’re standing still.

But the promise of marine life was too enticing. “Get a rhythm,” I began to hum, counting strokes on one side and then the other. “One, two, three… one, two, three.” Oceanic waltz.

Sweat was leaving a wet trail along my spine. My legs, constantly balancing, screamed for a break, but that meant a potential dive. No dice. I hadn’t been writing a newsletter for my yoga studio for almost two years for nothing and had to have some muscle. The gig came with free classes. Now if only I’d actually gone…

My eyes began to adjust to the glimmering surface of the ocean and as my basic needs were met, I began to wonder about the promised wildlife. In all honesty, had I been a sea turtle, I’d keep this cove with all its novice paddlers and snorkelers and jet-skiers way out of my route. Had I been an octopus, I’d probably not care because no one would be able to get to my anyway, and if they did, it would have been their fault.

Then I saw what I thought were wings, but very close to the water. They went in and out, a whole group of them. I stepped back on my board to give it speed and went to row like a New Zealand native. They were manta rays. Big. Black. Leaping out of the water and going back under. Leaving our little cove in a hurry. My treat from the ocean.

Once the rays were gone, it was time for me to head back too. Everyone else was still paddling around as I made my way toward the macho, who caught my board and invited me to come surfing with them sometime. I said, “”No thank you. A woman has to know her limitations.”

Back at the hotel, I didn’t even take off the wet swimming suite before heading to pool. Why bother, right? Floating like a giant turtle, I made my way up to the swim-up bar and ordered a Virgin Sunset (a sad thought, if you think about it, but tastes great). And that’s how I met the bartender.

lizard in cabo san lucas. marriott hacienda hotel

Nature Tuesday: The Giraffe Kiss

A few years ago, I had a photo of a girl kissing with a giraffe as my wallpaper.

Then about two years after that when we were thinking about going to Africa, our travel agent Susan Weisberg suggested that we visited Karen Blixen’s Museum in Nairobi, Kenya, the historic home of the Danish of author of “Out of Africa.” Next to it is the Giraffe Center, home to several endangered Rothschild Giraffes. There are only a few hundred left in the world, mostly because their natural habitat is in Kenya and Uganda, and even though they are protected, conservation in volatile political environments is hard.

An easy way to tell them  the Rothschilds from other giraffes? They have no markings on their lower legs, making them look like they wear white stockings.

At the Center, there’s a special platform for getting close to giraffes and being at their eye level. But how do you get one to kiss you?

“Take a piece of giraffe food into your mouth,” suggested B.

“You mean you want me to taste their food?” I wasn’t convinced. Somehow the kiss itself didn’t seem gross but the dry food did.

“To him, it will be like getting fed from a hand,” B said.

I took a deep breath, placed the end of a dry giraffe pellet between by teeth, and made sure it stuck out far enough for the animal to be able to grab it. And stuck my head out.

Within seconds, the giraffe came up close and with its warm tongue, rough like sand paper, licked off the food and sent it right into its mouth. It felt more determined, practiced and also gentler than my first human kiss.

Afterwards, the giraffe didn’t go away and even let me pet its soft furry nose.

“Why did you close your eyes?” B. wanted to know.

“Because I always close my eyes when I kiss.”

giraffe kiss at karen blixen giraffe center nairobi kenya

Nature Tuesday: Three-Headed Giraffe


Three  headed giraffe Masai Mara KenyaThis is not PhotoShop: It’s an actual photo that Allen W. captured in Africa.

These giraffes were super curious, but being on the shy side, hesitant about “sticking their neck out too far.”

This is how it happened: Our guide in Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya had spotted a group of giraffes excited about something (aka a bunch of giraffe heads floating above the tree canopy) and turned off the dirt road onto the golden savanna grass to check it out.

“They are probably mating,” he said.

We got our camera ready, excited now too to see giraffes have sex.

When we got there, it turned out that a couple was indeed trying to accomplish that, which wasn’t not an easy fit when you have such long legs and a shifting center of gravity.

But that’s not what had captured their friends’ attention. Three men had gotten out of their truck and were trying to fix a water pipe.

The Monsters of Thailand

I am a total chicken when it comes to three things: bugs, snakes and being late. Maybe it has something to do with being a control freak and the fact that all of these things can catapult you out of your comfort zone and into the stratosphere of “horrible things that can happen,” a special haven for people with overactive imaginations and a tendency to panic.

What better place to confront your anxiety monsters than Thailand?

It all started with trusting the alarm clock on my phone. In retrospect, my phone probably was probably in some nearby time zone, maybe India. In retrospect, setting an alarm at 2 am after over 24 hours of traveling was like drunk driving. But at the time, it seemed perfectly normal that when it went off,  I got dressed and went to breakfast even though I could barely make out the skyline.

At the restaurant, a few sleepy strangers were drowning their jetlag in miso soup and coffee. As the rising sun turned the skyscrapers a warm shade of amber, I had the presence of mind to ask a waiter what time it was and discovered that it was 6.30 am. At this point, my choices were infinite coffee, an infinity pool on the 10th floor, a nap or a walk in the park.

lumpini park bangkok

An hour in the Lumphini Park in the heart of Bangkok was a gift from my time zone-challenged alarm clock. Before it got too hot, locals were practicing tai chi and yoga on its green expanses, and what looked like social clubs were gathering around picnic tables. A packed food court featured roasted ducks, little plastic bags with soup-like substances, and all sorts of fruit, including what looked like pink golf balls with green hair.

What at first I took for a log in the pond turned out to be a Monitor lizard, and then another one, and then one sitting in a tree right next to me, and one poking its head out from a water pipe. It seemed like the only two people who took notice of them was me and the guy who shot this video:

Which brings me to a question of snakes.  As our group made its way among the bungalows of a resort at Railay Beach, until recently one of the most expensive ones in Thailand, I couldn’t help but scan the tropical forest for wildlife. And there it was – green, thin and dead in a water feature.

“Oh, it’s just a viper,” informed us the director of marketing.

“Is it venomous?”

“Yes, but it’s pretty rare.”

Obviously, not rare enough. For the next hour, as we inspected luxurious accommodations for perfect honeymoons all I could think about was what snakes are not rare here, and exactly how not rare. But then we were at a beach that where it was sinful not to go in the water, and my anxiety temporarily shifted to the question of bathing without a bathing suit, which I had managed to leave at the hotel.

Bugs can take many forms. In Africa, I was so preoccupied with not getting bitten that I turned out bedroom into a gas chamber every night. Our nephew Allen did get bitten by a spider on the very last day when he walked across a lawn in his sandals without socks. Five meters of green grass was all it took. On the plane ride home, his foot began to change in shape and color, and my imagination was going into overdrive with CSI-style pictures.

Some of my most favorite bugs are bacteria that live in food and can turn your body into a microbrewery of new forms of life. Cue in Thai

ducks at lumpini park

street markets, where curries of all kinds are prepared in giant aluminum dishes, unknown meat is waiting in 95-degree heat to be roasted on skewers, and roasted ducks take the place of rotisserie chickens.

My guide Jintana asked if I wanted to try any of these goodies. I said I was happy taking photos. She offered to pay. I still said no. She began to talk to a vendor roasting bananas and bought three little rectangulars made of green banana leafs stapled at the ends. Tamales Thai style. I pretended I didn’t notice. We walked into an air-conditioned café for a cup of coffee, and she placed them in the middle of the table. I was already living through the repercussions on a 15-hour flight home. She took one and began to unwrap the leaf. Curiosity got the better of me and I followed suit to discover inside sweet, sticky, uber-delicious rice, way better than my emergency Cliffhanger power bar.

And I didn’t die. And didn’t even get sick. Not until a taco salad at LAX.

What a Wonderful World by BBC

The first time I saw this video, our boat was rocking so hard it felt like we were on a giant rollercoaster in the middle of the Southern Ocean, a day away from Antarctica. We were trying to lay very still in our bed, not exactly easy with the ocean going nuts. On every up, we’d slide a little towards the pillows. On every down, we’d slide away from the pillows. The trick was not to lift up the head too much. Sitting up, for example, created an instant communication crisis between the brain and the stomach and resulted in a dash for the bathroom.

The only thing we could do in this “just so position” was watch TV, which had BBC Frozen Planet series. We learned all about the secret lives of whales and seals and ocean birds, and it was hard to imagine that theoretically we were right in the epicenter of all this wildlife action. All we knew was the ocean going nuts.

But then the next morning, things calmed down. We discovered Dramamine and even held breakfast down. Myriads of birds began to trail our ship and we trained our cameras on the white patterns on their chocolate wings.

And then right before teatime, the whales came. At first all we saw was a spot in the sea turning from steely gray to green. Then their black, leathery backs came up. Then they blew their plumes, and we tasted the brininess of the ocean. Of course, they’d been here all along. We just had to get up to see.