Once upon a time I may have been an adventuress, but that was a very long time ago.
The Okavango Delta
It was a time when I was young, carefree,and as far as I ever thought of it, immortal. As a mother now, the stakes are extremely high. My teenage desire for risk taking has been satiated, and now comes the payback. I have to guide my own children through that sense of indestructibility. Although they are still a ways off….we are creeping closer. My husband and I call the teenage and young adult years The Gauntlet. We realize all parents need to get through the gauntlet, to reach the holy grail of happy, healthy adult children. I remember the moment that switch flipped for me as a young adult, and hope that realization comes to my own children in a much less dramatic way.
Homemade brew at a local market.
The moment of my mortality struck as I sat alone atop a boulder in Central African Republic. I was lost in the jungle, and sunset was fast approaching. We were two months into our overland trip across the continent. There were fourteen of us, from five different countries, in an old English Bedford army truck. We slept in tents or out under the stars, shopped for our food at local markets, and cooked over the open flame fire we would build each night. That afternoon as we set up our camp, my friend and fellow traveler, Ross, had fallen over a waterfall, into the raging river below, and disappeared.
Our truck stuck in the muddy main road through the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The group immediately dispersed down the riverbank, and fanned out to search, hoping he would be caught in a fishing net, at best. I started off with two others, but wading through the river’s edge was slow going, so we agreed to split up. They would go up into the jungle, to cut back down to the river further ahead. The current was fierce, and as the bank grew steep I had to grasp from vine to vine to wade forward, up to my thighs, then waist. The current had seemed to pick up in one spot, and nearly dragged me under; I caught onto a branch and had to fight to pull myself out. Soaked, I realized that I would be swept up and drowned if I preceded along the river’s edge any further. I thought of the local legend we had heard, about the spirits in the river who would catch you by the feet, and drag you under if they could.
A different, calmer, river edge on the trip
Now I too had to cut up into the jungle to try to make some ground. Time was of essence. I broke my path in the underbrush by barreling through, head down, arms out front, climbing the steep bank. Finally I reached a plateau, where the forest met a field of grass that rose above my head. Now I could neither see the river, nor get my bearings, I knew I had to find some height to see where I was. In the distance was a large boulder protruding from the high grass of the plain. Aware that I was in central Africa, with snakes, and wild animals, and lord knows what else hiding in the tall grass, I bee-lined to that rock. I climbed atop, and when I looked about I saw that the river had now snaked far from where I had somehow ended up.
I saw nothing but a vast African plain yawning to the far off river that slithered away from me. It was then that I realized the sun was lowering in the sky, and Ross was most likely gone, and I would be too if left here in the night. I wanted to just curl up to cry, and tears began streaming down my face.
Photo by Elizabeth Atalay
When I was thirteen, my father died, and ever since, I have childishly believed that he watches over me. So in this moment of desperation I prayed to my father, and begged him to save Ross, and help me find my way back to camp. It struck me that there was no 911 here at our beck and call, we were in the middle of Africa. The signs we had all laughed about on our way to where we would set up camp, that read, “Danger du Mort” were real warnings, and no one was going to come and rescue me now. Certainly not my dead father. I scolded myself, I did not have time to sit and cry, the sun was setting, and I had now gotten myself into a situation that I had to figure my way out of. Back in sixth grade I had gone on a field trip with school to a New England mountain range. I remember being taught if we were lost and separated from the group to listen for the river. If you could find the river, you could find your way back to camp. You never think you will ever have to use those little survival tips they teach you on team building school field trips, but then again, I guess you never know when they could come in handy. So I stood atop that rock, mortal for the first time in my 24 years, and looked for a way to the river. I could see its serpentine path far off in the distance, and then I noticed two African figures along the bank. I was sure they were fisherman, who may have found Ross, and could help me find my way back to camp. I scrambled off that rock and went in what I thought may be a straight path through the tall grass until I met the jungle that sloped down to the banks. Keeping the figures in sight as best I could, I now crashed through the underbrush again, heading down with all my body force, calling out to them the whole time. I waded through a waterway, and back over a small island to reach the fishermen. Pushing through another wall of tangled vines and scrub, I came crashing out of the bushes. Branches stuck now in my mane of curly blonde hair, dripping water from the waist down, my bare arms and legs were scraped and bleeding.
Washing clothes with the locals, by the a different river, at another time during the trip
I burst upon the flat riverbank where the African’s I had seen stood. Two young boys, maybe eight and ten, stood agog at the apparition that had just burst out hollering before them. They jumped back. Hoping they knew French, I tried to ask for help in some of the only French I knew (based on how to ask for where the bathroom was located). The older looking boy was practically naked and had been bathing in the river…. I pleaded to him ”ou et le homme comme un poissan”?!, “ Vu et le homme comme un poissan”?! Which I think roughly translates to “Where is the man like a fish?! Have you seen a man like a fish?!” When the boy shook his head no, eyes wide, I realized what I must have looked like, and then truly seemed mad as I laughed at the absurdity of what these poor children must have been seeing. In these small boys I instantly rested all my hopes of being rescued, and finding Ross. When I could tell they had not seen Ross in the River, I formulated my next question, using an old rock song. I tried to break down the lyrics (“voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir”), and asked “voulez-vous avec moi a le grand truck rouge ce soir”? Cryptically asking something like “do you want with me to the big red truck?” The older boy motioned for me to wait. They bathed in the river as they had come to do, my urgency clearly not theirs. Then the older brother sent his young protesting brother home, and hiked with me back to where we had camped with our big orange truck, at the top of the waterfall. I was bitten by tsetse flies the whole way back, and the boy pointed to his long pants, and nodded, in the hot setting sun.
It was dark when we got back to camp, not everyone had returned from the search for Ross, but no one had found him yet. I thanked the young boy who had escorted me, and gave him some money for the two-hour walk, that he would now have to take back in the dark to his home. When I looked up into that African night sky, as Ross and I had done many nights with our star charts, it blazed with stars blurred by my tears. You cannot imagine how many stars can be seen without all our light pollution. I thought I could feel that Ross was gone then. He died on the Fourth of July.
A Village Market. Photo by Elizabeth Atalay
As one of the few Americans in our group he had helped to negotiate the purchase of a pig to be delivered by a village farmer, and roasted that night in celebration. Days later some fishermen did find Ross’s body; waterlogged and bloated it had popped to the surface. The men on our trip fished him out of the river, and we all dug a grave in the village graveyard where we buried him with a hand made wooden cross.
We were in the middle of Central African Republic; five days drive from the nearest town. At the first missionary station we came to, we radioed the American Embassy to let them know. And then we went on. I think that was the hardest thing to do, to drive away from that village without him and just keep going. We just lost one along the way, simple as that. I spent another four months, as a mortal, as I have been ever since, traveling through Africa. After C.A.R. we went through Congo, and what was then Zaire, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. To this day I drink a silent toast to Ross every Fourth of July. That day was the day that I became aware that not all places in this world have the bumpers and safety nets around its citizens as we do here. I became highly aware of the fragility of life, and that I am fragile too. As a mother now, I can only imagine the torturous worries I put my own mother through with all of my adventure travel. She never once asked me not to go. She never tried to reason that my money would be better spent like most other responsible young adults, paying rent or buying a car, or saving for my future. I am so grateful to her for letting me be a dreamer, as a mother I don’t know how I will ever let my children go.
Do you remember that moment that you realized your mortality?