Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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Our plane for Nairobi left from Dubai on May 31st. I loved the idea of flying to Africa from Dubai. David has traveled to Africa a number of times, but always from Amsterdam or Atlanta or somewhere not in the least romantic. But Dubai . . . Dubai interested me, even though in the 13 hours we would spend there we would never actually leave the airport. The Terminal 03 Hotel is entered from the airport. So long as you do not leave the hotel, it isn’t necessary to go through security again to board your next plane. Too bad. I was curious about the city, but after more than 20 hours of travel time to get to Dubai, I expected to sleep most of the time anyway.


The journey was to start in Albuquerque at 1:00 p.m. the day after Memorial Day. At 1:30 a.m. on Memorial Day David woke feeling terribly dizzy. By breakfast, nothing had changed. We waited until noon for the local Urgent Care to open. Holiday hours. After a preliminary exam, the doctor on duty sent us to the Emergency Room at a new hospital nearby. Understandably unnerved by an experience he’d never had before, David felt we needed to cancel the trip. Concerned about him, I was also distressed by the thought of calling the two friends traveling with us to tell them we’d cancelled the trip less than 24 hours before departure. Two weeks in Africa is a bit more complicated than two weeks on the Oregon Coast. Permits for tracking Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park had to be procured and paid for months in advance. All the arrangements had been made months in advance.


At the hospital, David was taken at once to a pleasant room in a quiet corridor. Beside a few staff, he seemed to be the only person there. Maybe nobody goes to the ER on a holiday. Maybe people do the holiday first, then deal with emergencies on a regular weekday. The nurse hooked him up to a heart monitor, took blood to test, told us his dog had just up and died, suddenly, the other day while they were walking in the Bosque. A boxer. The nurse was heartsick at the loss of the dog he’d had nine years and had raised from a pup. But he’d already put in his order for a new puppy.


When an animal of mine dies, it is years before I can consider another one. For me, animals are not replaceable. With luck, a new one will enter my life when it is time. Yet, I do understand the emptiness of a house when its dog is gone . . .


The doctor arrived, pleased to meet David. Because his parents had several of David’s books, he had grown up with David’s name and work. Noting the name on his roster, he checked David’s website to make sure that the man he was about to see was the man he imagined he was about to see. No doctor could enter a person’s room more perfectly.


Concerned about the possibility of a stroke, he sent David for a brain scan, but everything checked out fine. No problems with his heart or his brain. No problems of any sort except for being dizzy. Diagnosing vertigo, the doctor said David should not travel right away, and offered to write a letter for the airlines, tour agency, insurance, etc. I asked the doctor if he could include our friends’ names in the letter since they would not have a medical excuse to (hopefully) make their insurance kick in, but, photographers, they couldn’t do the trip without David. Most of the places David intended visiting were not official photography stops. When you go to Africa to photograph animals, any guide can take you. But when what you are looking for is landscape, you must have someone who knows the specific places. These are not places on tourist itineraries. This is not what interests most tourists to Africa.


Our friends were, of course, concerned about David, and understanding about the need to cancel. What else could they be, no matter how pissed at canceling the trip at – almost literally – the last minute?


And I . . . was I relieved, or disappointed? For all the months of planning, I’d never been certain I cared about going. We would be in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. I’d heard that several travelers returned from Kenya in 2012 with African sleeping sickness; that there was a 2012 cholera outbreak in Uganda. Although I knew that Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army were operating in the north of Uganda, away from where we’d be, Kony still made me nervous. So did the grenade explosion near a bus station in Rwanda this past March.


Yet, terrorism and disease are everywhere -- the U.S. as well as Africa. They are reasons to be aware, but not to stay home. Probably more daunting for me is the hassle of travel at this point in history. When I earned my living as a travel writer, long before 9/11, you simply got on a plane and, whatever number of hours later, ended up in some marvelous place. Vienna. Athens. Quito. Paris. It was wonderful to travel when air travel still had an elegance about it. A sophistication. A sense of adventure, of possibility, and yes, of comfort. Maybe if I hadn’t experienced that, I’d feel differently now. Maybe if today’s reality was all I knew, I would accept it more easily. Maybe if First Class was cheaper, I’d accept it more easily, too.


So I was ambivalent about the trip from the beginning. It was only when David suggested visiting the gorilla sanctuary that I felt there was a real reason for me to go. In the course of writing Ask Now The Beasts, I met Tulivu, the little human-reared gorilla being introduced to the other gorillas at the Rio Grande Zoo. When she raised her arms to me, I lifted her from the floor and embraced her, feeling her arms around me, feeling the sturdy, muscular weight of her, and wanting never to let go. Of course I wanted to go to Africa for the possibility of seeing gorillas!


Once I knew David was alright, my first instinct in cancelling the trip was relief that we wouldn’t have to deal with airports, airplanes. In almost the same instant, I realized I was disappointed. It was a huge moment, that moment in which I realized I had, after all, wanted to go.


I was aware all along that when I was actually in Africa, the wonder of traveling, of new experiences, new sights, places, people would take over. It was only in anticipation, I was ambivalent. Yet, before any trip there is nothing but anticipation. Anticipation and preparation. For this trip the preparation was enormous. In addition to having to take all our clothes outside to spray with permetherin ( a pesticide, toxic to cats and fish, but used to pretreat fabric as a method of preventing many diseases), we had to get what seemed an inordinate number of shots: yellow fever, meningitis, polio, tetanus, and we had to start taking malaria pills on the day of the first flight, throughout the trip and for a week afterward. Maybe we’ll go to Africa in a year, but whether or not we ever do, I am sure protected from just about everything but bedbugs. Apparently, there are no vaccines against bedbugs.


And there are no vaccines against ambivalence.


How is it I so often do not know whether I want to do a thing or not? How is it that having the possibility of the thing removed from me allows me to see what I really want? What is it, in fact, that I actually do want? Do other people know what they want?

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner