This excerpt, deleted from my final manuscript “A Reluctant Spirit,” details the first day I fell ill with Post Viral Neurasthenia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome while exploring East Africa in 1989. To this day, that safari holds a magic for me, one not minimized by 18 years of illness.
The wind whips my blue cotton skirt as Ken—my partner for the past nine years—and I stand on a rise in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. It’s our last day in East Africa. We pose for a photo in front of Mount Kilimanjaro, but we can’t see it, as a slate-colored cloud obscures its volcanic peak. Ken slides his arm around my waist as we anchor our hats with our hands.
Behind us, the curtain of precipitation marches forward. The Rains—the African equivalent of winter without the cold temperatures—approach.
I woke this morning with the worst flu of my life. It feels as though a machete splits my skull and I can barely stand, so I lean into Ken for support. It’s as if a convoy of semis ran over me, flattening me physically and emotionally while I slept underneath the mosquito net last night. It took a Herculean effort to get out of bed—a disappointing ending to a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
As a child watching Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” on our black and white television set, I’d long dreamt of visiting Africa. Amazingly, twenty-plus years later, this adventure was everything I’d ever seen or read about this continent. I became Marlin Perkins watching lion cubs tug each other’s tails. I listened to the commentator discuss the leopard perched in the sausage tree above our open-roofed Jeep. I was with National Geographic chasing a cheetah across the Masai Mara, witnessing its speed as it pursues then strangles a gazelle.
The insistent wind presses hard against me as whiffs of wet grass reach my nostrils. Ken steadies me as we walk back to the Land Rover. The stroll exhausts me, but I don’t want to leave.
Life stands still here, preserving an antiquity that centers me. I think of the three Masai warriors I glimpsed last week as we drove through withered scrubland on the way to Mto-Wa-Mbu, Tanzania. Each wore traditional red drapes and carried spears as they ran across that remote land looking for a meal, not for tourists. Africa offered up her heart and I embraced it like I’d known her forever.
The jerking vehicle brings me back to the moment. Each jolt over the dried mud craters left by elephant feet jars my beat-up body. My bones jostle, as if my pain-wracked muscles can’t hold them in place. I struggle to sit upright and my neck strains under the weight of my skull. The wind howls through the cracked open window next to the seat in front of us.
“You sure you’re okay?” Ken asks.
Tears run down my cheeks as we pull out of the park and onto the tarmac that will lead us back to the 20th century. He takes my hand.
“I don’t want this trip to end this way. To feel so horrible.” I lay my head against Ken’s chest. “We’ll never have the money to come back,” I whisper, unsure whether Ken hears me over the wind’s whine.
He squeezes my hand. “You never know.”
He’s right and it is better that way. If I had known what I was to face, I wouldn’t have had the strength to carry on.
The Rains truly have arrived.