I cried for the first time today in nearly 10 years. I admit that I teared up at my wedding, seeing Leah step out into the sun. She looked amazing in that dress. But I’m not sure any tears found there way beyond my eyes.
See, I turned 34 today.
The mara was barely alive when we were drinking our coffee looking down on it. At 6:30 am on a Monday morning, barely anything is alive. The eager anticipation of what we were about to see made us chug our coffee in just under a minute. Then 5 of us piled into a Landcruiser and headed out. Gordon showed up a tad late, but when he jumped in he handed me a traditional Maasai Shuka. It’s there signature garment. This one carries the pattern of Gordon’s Maasai tribe. I had been wanting to ask him where to get one, knowing that it belonged to his history. He already had it for me. I don’t even know if he knew today was my birthday. He didn’t mention it and neither did I. I just thanked him and told him how much it meant to me.
Within minutes we came across a water buffalo. Just sitting there chewing the grass. So we moved on. Then, as if by some insane possibility, we spotted three lions sleeping in the grass just off the road. We couldn’t believe it. We had hoped the day before to spot some lions, but no luck. Now, within minutes of leaving the lodge, there they were. This wasn’t a bad way to start a birthday.
We kept moving. We saw many of the things we had seen the day before. They were all just as spectacular this morning. Giraffes, Gazelles, Impalas, Elephants, Zebras, hippos, crocodiles. All these animals within a two hour tour around the lodge. I still couldn’t believe it. This was by far the most memorable birthday of my life. The only thing that would have made it better is if Leah had been there with me.
We made it back to the lodge just before 10am. Just in time to gorge on the breakfast buffet. This place had it all. They even had watermelon juice next to the avocado juice.
While we were sitting there digesting our amazing meal, the rest of the group showed up fresh from their morning game drive. We exchanged stories briefly and heard about their second flat tire. Which led to there “nature walk”. Which led to them seeing a 20 foot crocodile on the river.
Gordon mentioned to me, also, that he had another gift to give me. Something his mother made, but it was back in Nairobi and we would get it at the end of the week. I was starting to get a little emotional about it.
In the midst of this there was some noise building in the background. I began to notice faint drums and chanting from what sounded like the other end of the restaurant. Must be the radio.
To be honest, I hadn’t given this trip much thought until the day we left. It’s been so busy at home. Just like any regular person, stress has been weighing me down. I’ve had so much on my mind. I tried to get some things squared away before I left, but had to leave them hanging. Plus, I miss Leah tremendously. We’ve never been apart this long since the day she moved to California with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about her all weekend. We’ve had minimal contact. Every bit of energy I had left goes into updating the blog, so at least she knows what I'm up to, along with all the other families who are reading this. And to top it off, I’ve just been bottling it all up. Putting it away for some sunny day.
I could hear the chanting and drums getting louder. I thought to myself “This place spares no expense on entertainment for the morning brunch.” I haven’t slept much since we’ve been here either, three hours a night with 12 hour days. Then getting together when we return to go over the days events. I’m starting to feel a little burned out and fragile.
And then the chanting turned into singing. I could hear the yipping and the drums beating. The entire restaurant staff filled the room behind me. I could see Jamila in the middle of it all, singing right along with everyone. I grabbed my camera and took one photo then I noticed the cake in the hands of the waiter. Four lit candles and “Happy Birthday, Jason” written in chocolate on top of thick white frosting.
I couldn’t hold it back. My eyes welled up and I started shaking. They put the cake on the table in front of me and went from singing in African to a full blown American Happy Birthday. I could swear the entire restaurant was singing along, including everyone in our group around me. My watering eyes turned to Bo, who put his hand on my shoulder and gave me some comforting words. It reminded me of something my father would have done had he been the one standing beside me. I held back everything as best I could. When they were finished I found Jamila in the middle of the crowd and gave her a big hug and could barely whisper an “Asante”. Then pulled myself together enough to cut the cake as Bo passed it around. Nobody here knows what that meant or how I was feeling. They’re not old friends who’ve known me for years and years. They’re people that I had never met until this trip who pulled it together and gave me one of the best surprises of my life. They couldn’t have picked a better time. I thanked Boaz, who orchestrated the entire thing, and will probably never understand the significance it had, choked down some more tears and headed back to my room to clean up.
As I started brushing my teeth and packing to leave, my eyes began to well up again and the remaining stress started to roll down my face. I couldn’t keep it bottled up anymore.
I just let it go.
The joy I felt had overwhelmed my emotions. And the generosity of this profound gesture was the tipping point.
We checked out and packed into the van for one last game drive on the way out. We were all saying our goodbyes to the Mara one herd of buffalo at a time, which actually forced us to turn around and take another route since they were blocking our way out. The Mara was stamped on our memories forever. It was rugged and wild and beautiful and wondrous. It turned a small page in my life. As Mike comically said, when he left his camera case on top of the van for the second time, “I must have been caught in the moment.”