excerpt from Fear & Grieving in South Africa

“Okay everyone,” Dan walked into the lecture room carrying a green satchel. “There is a yearly tradition on this trip. When you enter Kruger, you need to have a totem bird. So we brought some guides for you.” He started pulling books out of a bag and setting them down on the table for us. “Look through these and pick a bird. It is our job, and yours, to make sure you find this bird before you leave!”

We all gathered around, each picking up one of the books and beginning to flip through it. I opened one to see an array of strange, brightly colored birds. I was immediately overwhelmed with choices, and for some reason I had decided that this one would be significant.

“Look at this.” Sarah said. She held up a pamphlet of birds seen in Kruger, and the next sentence came between laughs. “It’s a go away bird!”

“That’s awesome,” Taylor chuckled as she looked at the picture of the big, grey bird. “I relate. I might pick that one.”

“See if you can figure out what my totem bird is.” Dan said, a spark in his eye. “I think you’ll know it when you see it. We have a likeness.

We immediately began flipping through the pages, trying to find this mysterious bird that shared a likeness with Dan. Eventually, we all saw it.

“Dan,” Bard asked, a cheeky grin on his face. “Is your totem bird the saddle-billed stork?”

Dan guffawed. “What makes you say that?”

The saddle-billed stork was tall and lanky, with a long neck. It looked a little goofy with its pin needle legs and knobby knees. And to add to the hilarity, it had an incredibly lengthy beak and small, beady eyes that made it look like it was constantly surprised.

“Well it does look a little like you.” Brad continued.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Dan said, still laughing. “My totem bird is totally the saddle-billed stork.”

I flipped through the pages and finally found the bird that I knew would be my totem as soon as I read the name: amethyst sunbird. I smiled, thinking about how my mom’s favorite gemstone had always been an amethyst and how the sun had always been this important sort of spiritual symbol in my life. The bird itself was gorgeous, with the male being a striking black with a curved beak. The name came from a small, glittering patch of purple on its chest. It felt like the right choice. I smiled and set the book back down on the table as everyone else packed up to head to breakfast.

We were a few game drives in at this point, and while we had seen some birds, some monkeys, and a few impalas, I was anxiously awaiting something big. I kept my eyes peeled for a leopard, trying to get a good look on hidden tree branches as we drove past. There seemed to be this deep sense of knowing that I would find the leopard and help create that story for everyone. It was due to this overwhelming urge to spot a leopard that I almost missed the huge giraffe standing in the middle of the road as we came around a curve.

I heard a few quiet gasps right as the engine cut off. That’s when I saw the giraffe, just standing there eating leaves from a tree alongside the road. It was alone, and it was close, though as it moved closer, Dax adjusted the GDV to give it plenty of room.

“Giraffes are very curious.” Dax began. “She might try to move closer, but they can kick from surprisingly far away.”

“How can you tell a female from a male?” Julia asked as she snapped some pictures with her camera.

“Look at the horns,” Dax said, his eyes upwards on the giraffe’s head. “If they’re covered with dark hair at the top, that’s a female. The males usually have bald horns.”

I rested my head on my arm, draped over the side of the GDV, just staring up at the giraffe. She was gorgeous. I was used to animals scattering as soon as humans were anywhere near it. In rural Arkansas, all things are hunted, and the animals learn that. I hadn’t ever been much of a hunter, and while I knew it was an important element of a sustainable ecosystem when done right, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to point a gun towards a creature as lovely as the giraffe in front of me.

Before we had come on the trip, we had talked a lot in class about trophy hunting, and its effects – both positive and negative – on the ecosystem, the economy, and so forth. I had approached it from a place of trying to understand stakeholders and putting my own feelings below that. But as I sat there, watching this creature live fearlessly, it was hard to find any sympathy for someone who wanted to threaten its survival. It was hard to feel like the spirit of the creature was any lesser than my own as she towered above me.

After a long time, Dax slowly turned the engine back on.

“Alright,” he said, “We’re going to head to breakfast, but I promise you’ll see lots more giraffes before you go home.”

Whether it was true or not, I would have spent my entire day sitting there watching that giraffe. Despite all the things that constantly rattled around my brain, giving me anxiety or otherwise distracting me from living my life, that giraffe kind of made all of them seem a little less important. At least while I was sitting there watching her.

We pulled into the small gravel parking lot outside of the cafeteria and all hopped out of the GDV. The morning was cool and crisp, and the group collectively decided it would be a nice morning to eat outside on the patio instead of in the cafeteria proper. We all walked from the single-room cafeteria, balancing plates full of food with very full cups of coffee. As we took our spots on the wooden deck, there was a rustling in the trees.

“Now,” Dax said, looking up into the trees and slowly grabbing for a spray bottle full of water. “Here is South Africa, we love our lions but we hate our monkeys.”

We all chuckled as a monkey came down dangerously close to our table, eyeing our fresh fruit and pastries. I casually picked up my hot cup of coffee, taking a sip and holding it away from the table, should the monkey decide to attack. Meanwhile, Dax was slowly making his way towards our table.

“Here in South Africa,” he said, his voice quieting. “The monkeys like to steal things.” He whipped the bottle in front of him and squirted the monkey, immediately causing it to recoil back into the tree, just as another on a tree opposite our table moved closer. Dax dropped low to the ground, finding just the right angle to squirt it through the foliage. That one along with several more monkeys, unseen, retreated to safety.

The battle won, we continued our breakfast peacefully. Eventually I went back for some orange juice, and as I walked past the picnic tables, an unusual pattern caught my attention from my peripherals. I glanced over at a picnic table to see a long and dangerous-looking snake, lounging right on top of one of the tables.

I jumped, spilling some of my orange juice and making a helpless squeaking noise. Dan, Scott, and Dax all immediately surveyed the area for something dangerous, with everyone else looking at me in confusion.

“Snake!” I pointed at the table, though at the same moment realized something off about the snake.

At first, its lack of movement seemed understandable, but as I got a better look at the body, it suddenly dawned on me that what I was looking at was the very rare, very dangerous rubber snake.

Dax chuckled, walking over to it and picking it up to demonstrate just how rubber and not real it was. I laughed to cover up my deep sigh of relief.

“Sorry,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t leave fake snakes out where they might scare someone.”

I drank what was left of my orange juice, recalling that I had meant to look up what a black mamba looks like and resigning to do it later, once my heart stopped beating so hard.

Once we were back at the dorms, I decided to take some time to myself and head outside to relax before lectures began.

For an anxious only child who grew up with no neighbors and a heat intolerance, I was pretty conditioned since childhood to stay indoors. I have always loved nature and wanted to be close to it but being close to nature often came with humid summers that made me feel like I was going to faint as soon as I left my doorstep. Beyond that, rural Arkansas is teeming with hornets and wasps and ticks and everything else that makes being outside often feel like more of a hassle than its worth, at least for me.

The dry season in South Africa was nothing like that. It definitely got warm out, but for the first time in my life, I was excited to be outside. I wanted to be in nature, to smell the fresh air, to smile idly at the little bugs I found. It was childlike wonder at the natural world that I had never really had the opportunity to feel before.

I sat on a picnic table, off slightly to a corner and hidden a bit behind the lecture room. I had sort of deemed it my private picnic table, to sit and think and admire the world laid out in front of me. I didn’t think about anything, really. Just meditated on the smell of the fresh air and the sounds of the monkeys running on the rooftops.

Just as I was getting ready to head to one of our lectures, I spied a feather on the ground. It was large, with long and soft grey barbs making up the vane. I picked it up, twirling the quill between my fingers and watching the barbs dance through the air. I had no idea what kind of bird it belonged to, but it had to have been huge. I grinned, excited to ask David what it came from and even more excited to show off what I had found. It felt almost like a gift.

I tucked it into my folder and rushed into the lecture hall, taking a seat and waiting patiently for David to arrive.

“Hello everyone.” He walked in with his arms full of more books and set them down before addressing the few of us already there. “How was breakfast?”

“It was delicious.” Ruth replied. “We ate outside, and Dax shot at the monkeys with his spray bottle.”

David laughed, nodding his head. “That sounds like Dax.”

I waited for the idle chatter to subside, and then I carefully pulled the feather out of my notebook.

“David,” I began, “I found this feather on the ground outside. What does it belong to?” I held it up and he took a quick glance at it.

“Ah,” he said.

I straightened in my seat, excited to hear what rare treasure I’d spied with my impeccable sight.

“That’s an ostrich feather.”

I grinned wide, ecstatic to have found an ostrich feather. My mind reeled with how nearly I might have missed seeing an ostrich.

“They use those to make feather dusters,” he said. “You must have found a feather from one of the cleaning crew’s supplies.”

A couple of people giggled at that and I pursed my lips.

“Oh, well that’s less excited than I thought.” I said quietly and more to myself than anyone else. I ran my hand through my hair and laughed. Louder, I said “Well I suppose I’ll keep it anyway and make up a cool story about how I found it for people back home.”

I tucked the feather carefully back into my folder, deciding that maybe it wasn’t a gift from nature but it was definitely a souvenir I’d be keeping.

Published by Erica Kriner

Enterprising and enthusiastic student with superior skills in leadership, research and organization. Eager to bring value to my employer through hard work and commitment to precision. Offering demonstrated success in self-driven research through a strong history of quality results.

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