Flat-topped umbrella trees dot the hillside to the right of the faint track at Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Preserve. To our left, tall trees seem to meld into the
blue sky. The driver/guide stops the Land Rover. On closer look, those aren’t stately trees; they’re giraffes. While the other travelers focus their cameras, I focus my full attention on the animals. When my trip mates shift to get better angles and views, I pull out my binoculars for a closer look.
I feel totally free because, for the first time in my life, I’m traveling without a camera. Instead, I packed an extra pocket-sized notebook and pen. After all, I’m a writer, not a photographer. When I worked as communications director of a non-profit, my boss used to tell me I was the world’s worst photographer. He was okay with it because he valued my writing skills. So I have decided to liberate myself and go with my strength.
The tower of giraffes appears tranquil, strong, graceful. How I’d love to take one home to reach the top shelves. “What if I promise to keep our kitchen
skylight open so you can stretch your neck?” I call out to the closest, not mentioning snow, ice, or other complications of an African giraffe’s existence in upstate New York. “Or maybe you’d lend me your baby? Already he’s much taller than under-five-feet me. He could reach my top shelves easily. If only he’d stop growing!”
Silently, the giraffe munches an acacia branch, thorns and all.
That afternoon, at the tented camp, the others review their photos. I jot some notes about giraffes, lions, and the leopard we drove behind as it sashayed down a path. I have never felt so free on a trip. What is it, I ask myself, that is so liberating about traveling camera-less? I remember the time on Sandia Peak near Albuquerque when my camera wouldn’t open. I stood, transfixed, memorizing the successive stages of the sunset. Later, when I looked at my husband’s photos, I saw that they didn’t capture the sensation of an island floating in molten glass as well as my verbal description.
I wonder what I will absorb through my senses on this trip, aided only by binoculars, that the cameras will fail to reveal. Will I remember more or less of what I see without photo documentation?
At Nairobi’s Giraffe Center, I have a chance to greet a giraffe in a “photo op.” As I climb the steps to the second-floor balcony of a wooden building, I watch the giraffe’s legs. I barely come up to its knee. I imagine looking it straight in the eye. Really? Me? Face to face with a giraffe?
With pounding heart and trembling fingers, I follow the guide’s instructions and place a food pellet between my lips. It feels like straw and has no flavor or odor. Apparently Daisy likes it enough to swipe it from my mouth with her long, rough, black tongue in a fluid movement that, in pictures, should resemble a kiss.
When we review my husband Julian’s video of my big, romantic moment, however, all we see is a blouse moving nonchalantly across the screen. Someone has stepped between the camera and my heart-thumping moment. Now what? What good is a giraffe kiss without a picture to prove it?
You’d think that as a former public relations officer, I’d know better than to fall for a photo op, especially when I am unlikely to forget the sandpaper-like feel of a giraffe’s kiss. Besides, I thought I had freed myself from cameras. But I’m not taking the picture, and this is an unusual event, I argue with myself. How many chances will I have in my life to be kissed by a giraffe? I find that I want—no, need—a visual record of this moment. I may recall the exact shade of brown as her face closed in on mine and the texture of her coarse tongue on my mouth, but I won’t have an observer’s image.
Julian reaches to the floor, picks up a pellet, and hands it to me. “Here, let’s try again.” He has no camera compunctions.
“Ewww….no way. Not from the ground,” I say, as if having a giraffe’s tongue sweep my face is totally sanitary. I should have listened to the internal “no camera” voice. Instead, I take the pellet and offer it to Daisy on my extended palm, expecting her to kiss my hand like a knight-in-armor leaning over his lady.
But instead of a kiss, I feel a bite. Love bite? Only if love bites leave you with a deep, v-shaped, bleeding gash. I step back and hold out my hand toward our trip leader, Jabiri, who stares at the layers of exposed flesh. “What? Impossible! She’s never done that. Can’t be!” he says. I grab the Purell container from my pocket and pour it into the wound.
“Let’s wash it off. Come.” A concerned Jabiri leads me down the stairs to a water hydrant. As the cool water flows into and over my hand, all I can think is that this is the water we’re forbidden to drink.
Later, Julian shows his video to our travel companions. “She held her hand the wrong way,” he says. “B.J.’s fault, not the giraffe’s.”
I refuse to view it. I don’t want to see my own stupidity, if that’s what it is. More to the point, I’m annoyed that I enslaved myself to the tourist’s supposed need for a photograph.
The Giraffe Center’s director of education cleans and dresses my hand. She assures me that giraffes have extremely clean mouths. “When they nibble on acacia trees, they eat the thorns as well as the leaves, so their mouths constantly produce anti-bacterial saliva.” Does this make sense? I haven’t a clue.
We returned from Africa in early March. It’s now December, and the reality is that I have no giraffe to reach the upper shelves. I have no gash and not even a trace of a scar. Instead of a permanent mark, however, I have memories and notes, also the stuff of stories.
For six months I wove accounts of our African trip into my “cancer safari” at www.caringbridge/visit/bjyudelson. Only twice did I need to look at Julian’s photos to clarify a memory or a notebook jotting. In Africa I looked so intently, with such concentration, that the images are still embedded in my mind.
Recently, Overseas Adventure Travel, the group we traveled with to Kenya and Tanzania, asked for travel tips. Most people wouldn’t like my advice, if I had offered it: leave the camera behind and enjoy your experiences with your full sensory being.
I didn’t need that visual record of a giraffe’s kiss after all. The freedom I experienced without a camera was exhilarating.