Thursday, August 1, 2013

A lion's eyes

Brutus and Nala - yes, I took this photo

Hello, all!  Sorry I’ve been out of touch for a while.  The past week wasn’t so great for me (or my family) and I had this awesome blog post all planned out, but never got around to it.  My family had to put my cat down last week, which was really hard for me since I am so far away.  I’ve had Lucky since I was 7 years old and he has always been MY kitty.  Even since the beginning, for some reason he chose me.  And I felt so horrible that I wasn’t able to be there with him when he passed.  I always thought he would be around to nip at my kids’ heels like he did mine when I was young (and sometimes when I was grown up, too, just for the heck of it – because he was a cat, why the heck not?).  But he lived to be a ripe old age of 16 and I’m glad he didn’t have to suffer.  It will definitely make going home hard and him not being there to say hi when I walk in the door.

Then to top the week off I got extremely sick and had to take two days off of work to recover.  I’m pretty sure it was a sudden bout of the stomach flu, which I haven’t had since I was in the 4th grade.  I have fond memories of running around the hospital with Mom (when she used to work there) throwing up in front of elevators, into the entrance of the bathroom and then missing the toilet entirely.  It’s definitely different not having your mom to take care of you when you’re feeling especially crappy so far from home.  But my family here did a fantastic job taking care of me.  Paul and Cam sent me right back to bed when I got up the morning after spending the whole night bent over the toilet.  Elzette brought me nausea medication, Roman (an awesome volunteer from Switzerland) checked up on me three times in one day, Jason brought me Sprite, and of course Karel would bend over backwards for any need I had.  He was constantly coming to see how I was, running around to get me water and soft drinks, making sure that I ate, and then sitting with me and talking with me until I couldn’t stay awake any longer.  Even Paul came and checked up on me the second day of my sickness to make sure I was eating and not throwing up anymore.  He made fantastic impressions of me bending over and throwing up, doing his best to give me a laugh and make me feel better.  My new family here definitely puts the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” and that’s a fact!

Most of you already know this, but just in case you didn’t see my big announcement over Facebook last week I wanted you all to know that the lion park has offered me a full time job.  So I am currently in the process of figuring out everything I need to do to be able to move here and live and work here.  I am terribly excited!  I never dreamed that this place would become my home and the piece of heaven I have been searching for so long, but I’m sure you’ve been able to pick up on how happy I am here.  It had always been my plan to come here for the experience, and then return to the US to find a job at a similar place with this fantastic work experience under my belt.  But the job happened here, in the place that I’ve loved since I first stepped foot on solid ground, surrounded by the lions and tigers that I have fallen in love with.  The lions and tigers that have come to know who I am, to recognize me and my voice.  They may not love me the way I love them, but I find myself so incredibly blessed to have found this place and a path laid so perfectly at my feet.

Now, back to the animals!  I have a few experiences to relay to you from the past couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy hearing about these awesome experiences that just continue to make my cup overflow.    

As you may remember, I have been working with the animals at Chimp Haven as well as the lions.  Well there are two caracals over there that were actually hand raised by their previous owners, but due to spotty care and inconsistent feedings/enclosure cleanings on our end, we weren’t sure if they could handle human contact anymore.  (Caracals, by the way, are a smaller species of big cat – not much bigger than a regular housecat, but much more muscular and faster)  Cam asked me to go in with them to see if they could still handle being around people.  This was a big step not only for me, but for the cats themselves.  It also meant a lot to me that Cam trusts me enough to take such a big risk.  First, we separated the two cats (one gets jealous if the other gets attention, so we will never go in with both at once), then Jan (the park manager of Chimp Haven) and I went in together.  We were in and out pretty quick, because the female we were in with gave Jan a nip and we didn’t want to push our luck.  A few days later, I was told to go in on my own.  I separated the two, then took a big breath and went in.  Cindy (the nice female) met me at the door immediately.  She rubbed against my legs just like a regular cat would, purred and followed me around my work.  She lets me pet her along her back and sides (their fur is very coarse, similar to what a yellow lab’s coat would feel like) and while I pet her, she stood on my feet and my broom so I couldn’t go anywhere until she said so.  Then she let me go about my work (cleaning out the water, picking up poo, looking for bones etc.) and just sat there and watched me.  When I was ready to go, she came back for a few more pats before going on her way.  It was a truly incredible experience and I was excited about it all day.  Cam, after hearing about my success and excitement, told me that he would like me to get more involved with the chimps, more hand’s on.   He has told me that the chimps really like me and my presence and the next step is for me to spend time with them face to face (through a fence of course).  So all exciting things, gaining new experience with different types of animals. 

Then this week I had an amazing experience with a couple of the lions.  I was busy at work between fences, so basically there was just the lion fence and electric wire between the lions and me.  I was working on scraping old names off the adoption boards by Brutus and Nala, which are two young white lions.  They were laying in the way back of their enclosure while I was scraping away.  Nala spotted me and got up immediately, walking her way down along the fence to stop right in front of me.  The thing about white lions is that they are quite a bit bigger than regular lions, so Nala stands quite tall as it is.  But she is tall enough to actually arch her neck over the top wire of the electric fence.  And that was exactly what she did.  She made eye contact with me and was just standing there watching me and smelling me.  I of course greeted her and started talking to her, she was so interested in me being so close.  Her face was literally inches from me, I could have reached through and patted her head if I wanted to (but of course am not stupid).  Then she started talking back.  Just a very soft moan in the back of the throat, not a threatening growl or a roar.  It was absolutely incredible.  Then Brutus wanted to see what was so interesting and came over to say hi, too.  The cool thing about these two is that they have blue eyes, which are so different to look into than the yellow/amber pools of raw electric power of the brown lions’ eyes.  It is absolutely captivating.

An incredible shot of Asad I took the other day

I mean I honestly have the coolest job.  I get to work with incredible animals every day, and work FOR them.  I get to be their caregiver.  And I get to have these amazing experiences every single day.  Nothing compares to walking alongside a lion just an arm’s breadth away, he looks over at you as you walk together, then he starts roaring and roars until your walk together is done.  That roar reverberates through your chest, infuses you with such power and is unlike any animal/human relationship in the world.  These are wild, fully grown, intelligent LIONS.  And I get to be with them every day.  It is everything and more than I ever hoped it would be.

So, dear family and friends, I hope that you are all well and enjoying your summer.  I am definitely enjoying my winter here in South Africa (currently sunny and 90 without a cloud in sight) surrounded by the most amazing creatures that God could ever have created. 


Sunday, July 7, 2013

A little adventure

King - living up to his name
Hello, dear friends and family!  Life couldn’t be better here in beautiful South Africa.  We’ve had some really nice weather the past week; it’s a lot like a Michigan fall, so I am even further in my heaven.  This week, I’d like to talk about a wonderful day off I had (it just so happened to coincide with the 4th of July), so I hope that you enjoy my ramblings and musings for the week! 

Firstly, I have probably dropped over twenty pounds since being here.  I have literally been working my butt off every day!  I am so tired at the end of the day that I am in bed asleep by 9:00 every night.  I probably walk over ten miles every day, lift heavy things, throw heavy things (like chickens), push wheelbarrows every single day.  I’m actually really proud of myself because I put on a lot of unneeded weight because of breaking my back a year ago.  I feel like I’m finally back to where I was when I was playing year round soccer in my early high school years.  I am eating extremely healthy, drinking tons of water, working hard and enjoying every bit of it!  My pants actually fall off if I’m not wearing a belt and I swim in my shirts.  Anyways, where I was going with this is that on Thursday, my boyfriend Karel and I spent the day running errands in the morning and going on an adventure in the afternoon.  Naturally, I needed to get new pants.  Went to the mall and tried on some jeans, found some great cheap jeans (TWO pairs for about 15 USD), and found that I dropped not one, but TWO pants sizes!  I haven’t been a size six since junior high school.  People, it can be done!  If you work hard, eat right, drink plenty of water, and live every day happily and fully, you can do anything! 

We went to downtown Paarl to get lunch and pick up “take-aways” or carry-out for Jason for lunch (kind of as a thank you for letting us use his car all day).  After delivering Jason his lunch at the lion park, we decided to go for a drive!  On our own little adventure!  And boy was it!  I really enjoy driving here.  I kind of see it as a challenge driving on the left side of the road, the driver’s side on the right side of the car.  Plus most cars here are manual transmission, and stick-shifts are way more fun than automatics!  We lucked out with a gorgeous day.  It was sunny and close to 70 degrees with a fierce wind.  Some of the trees are changing here, and it smells like crunching leaves, freshly mown grass, and FALL.  We drove with the windows down so we could hear the leaves blowing and smell and see everything.  Since I’m “The Boss” as Karel says (and the driver), I got to choose which way we went.  We decided to hug the mountains and see where the road took us. 

We ended up driving into an old wine estate.  I felt as if I was transported into the plantation south.  I was instantly reminded of a place my family went to every year when we vacationed in Biloxi, Mississippi.  If any of you know about the Confederate Army leadership, Jefferson Davis had his home right on the coast in Biloxi, MS.  His estate was named Beauvoir (beautiful view) and there was this spot as you walked to the back of the property toward a large cemetery where you were surrounded by a canopy of trees.  This wine estate we drove into was like that.  We drove down this lane of trees that curved over the road to create a tunnel.  Leaves were swirling in the sun, and vineyards backed up to the huge hundred-year-old trees.  This lane stretched for over a mile and curved up the mountainside.  I drove slowly so I could just listen to the wind and take everything in.  I wish I had thought to bring my camera, but this moment is one that will have to live in my memories and not on film. 

After that we continued on the road along the mountain (I call it “Our Mountain” because it’s the mountain I see every day as I work and I use it as a landmark) until we found a crocodile farm.  My favorite part of this place was while we waited to tour and see the crocodiles, we sat overlooking this gorgeous manmade reservoir and had coffee.  The crocodile part wasn’t so great because this place basically breeds crocodiles, keeps them in a space WAY too small for two thousand crocodiles, in nasty conditions, then when they get big enough and fat enough they are sent off to be chopped up for meat and skin.  I hated that part and almost pushed the tour guide into the pond to be eaten because he poked a baby crocodile in the eyes and ticked me off.  We drove around a little more before finally returning to the park.

Even though we didn’t do much, I just loved the day for what it was.  And that I got to spend it with someone special.  This week I am turning 23!  And Karel is taking me to hike up Table Mountain – keep your fingers crossed for a nice day! 

Anyways, dear family and friends, you can rest easy because this chicky is still as happy as ever.  I hope that you are all enjoying a beautiful summer and know that you are all missed and loved dearly.

Karel and I - happy as clams

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Something new!

Hello, friends and family!  I’m sorry that it’s been so long since my last post.  It has been an incredibly busy past couple of weeks and I have been absolutely exhausted!  Plus today is my first day off in 9 days, we’ve been that busy!  I wanted to share with you some of the awesome things that I have gotten to take part in recently.

Table Mountain view from Blaauwberg - two crazy surfers in the water

Some of you that have researched Drakenstein Lion Park may know that this past November we took in several animals from a zoo that was closing in the area.  They gave us two tigers, two white lions, goats, llamas, an ostrich, Shetland ponies, two caracals, six chimps, New Guinea Eclectes parrots, wallabies, duikers, spoonbills, ducks, and marmosets.  The tigers and lions were incorporated into the lion park, but the chimps, marmosets, parrots, waterfowl, duikers, and wallabies we built a whole new part of the park to accommodate them.  So this area is Chimp Haven.  Now that you all know this I can go on with my story!

The past couple of weeks I was taught how to care for all of the “small animals” on that side.  So everything minus the chimps.  The chimps are highly intelligent animals and we have to be careful about new people around them etc.  In the morning I dice fruit and vegetables into tiny pieces for little mouths to be able to eat.  I start with the parrots.  I go right into their enclosure with them and switch out food bowls, give them fresh water, pick up discarded food.  At first they didn’t like me at all.  They screamed in my ears and buzzed around my head constantly.  But after two days, they came right around to me.  The males especially will follow me around, begging for the best tidbits of food, nibbling at my clothes and hair, trying to rip open my rubbish bag.  They are really quite sweet! 

One of the males begging for the best bits of food (sorry for the poor quality)

The little antelope, wallabies, waterfowl and spoonbills are very easy to care for as they only need horse/duck pellets, lucerne, and chicken (for the spoonbills).  The marmosets are my favorite though.  At first, they hid from me when I went into the enclosure to switch out food bowls and clean their water.  But now when they see me coming they start chirping, follow me along the enclosure and wait for me by the door, all lined up in a row along a branch.  It’s usually five of them, the mother and her baby are still wary of me.  One of the young ones climbs all over me, and they all want a specific piece of food.  So one will want a raisin, while another will want a pea, another cheese, another a little slice of banana.  I love how I can hold out a little piece of food, they curl their little hands around my fingers and take the food gently with their mouths.  I’m also starting to see a difference in personalities with them as well.  I just love them, even though they stink like a European man that hasn’t bathed in a month.  

Daddy marmoset with baby peeking over the back - I think the baby looks like an ewok

I am coming around to the chimps.  First of all, the chimps absolutely terrify me to high hell.  I’ll be walking around the lion park and will hear all six of them start screaming/going-freaking-insane at once and it makes the hair stand on end all over my body and all I want to do is run for shelter for fear that one escaped and will come rip my arms from their sockets.  Besides that, I was told that the chimps actually genuinely like me and they watch me go about my work all the time.  Angus will wait for me to come inside the night room (where their night enclosures are) to get feed and lucerne, and then he will wave at me from his enclosure.  As soon as I go outside, he goes outside to wait for me and wave to me again before he goes about his business.  Charlie, the youngest of the chimps, watches me while I clean the parrots’ enclosure and will ‘dance’ with me through the fence.  When I talk to him he will also sit there and grin at me like a little goblin.  Then Emma sits and watches me work as well and just smiles at me.  They really are extraordinary animals.  It amazes me at how much speech they understand. 

As for the lions, well they have been great as usual.  With the weather getting cooler and wetter, the lions become more and more active.  They are always extremely loud at night, although it has become my own little lullaby.  And they are up and about much more often during the day now.  I’ve also gotten the chance to feed more lions, which has been fun.  I guess Paul has decided that my aim has improved enough for me to throw more (hah).  Paul is still just as chipper as ever – always speaking to me in his best redneck “American” as possible.  He even does it over the radio, which is hysterical. 

I am still very much loving my life here in Africa.  I constantly marvel at my surroundings and always find myself wondering if this could possibly be real.  I’ve been here for two months already and it still hasn’t sunk in yet that this is my life!  I’ve found a great circle of friends that have become family, I’m constantly surrounded by lions, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.  I hope that you all find joy in every day, no matter where you are.


Monday, June 10, 2013

The little things

Continuing on the Game of Thrones note (and, no, I have not been keeping up with the show, but I am through all 5 books) I wanted to share a nerdy connection I made today.  I am currently working at Drakenstein Lion Park.  The lion park gets its name from the Drakenstein Mountains in the area.  And the literal translation of “Drakenstein” is Dragonstone!  All of you GoT people out there will catch that reference.  I’m LIVING on Dragonstone, people!  Not that I fancy myself a Baratheon, honestly I think I’m more of a Tully, but it’s cool nonetheless.  

Asad - one of the young lions

 Anyways, back to life among the lions.  This week was pretty exciting in that we did some heavier building.  But first let me explain a little about our younger lions.  When lions are less than two years of age, they tend to climb a lot.  They are learning, exploring their territory, testing their limits.  We currently have two lions under two years of age (and they are cute boys too!) and they are both starting to fill into their manes.  But you can tell there is still a lot of cub left in them.  Little Leo is one of the young boys, and let me tell you – he is a character!  Every time you walk between the perimeter fences he stalks you in the grass, totally oblivious to the fact that you can see him quite well.  You will see his shoulders going up and down, tail flicking back and forth before he rushes the fence to scare you. 

Every lion has what is called a holding camp, which is connected to their larger enclosure.  The holding camp is used to hold them while we go into the large enclosure to clean (pick up feces, feathers, fill in holes they dug, clean water trough, fix any broken fencing, etc.).  We lure them in with a chicken for them to eat, so we can safely go inside.  With Little Leo, though, he doesn’t like to go into his holding camp.  We think he fears going in because he doesn’t know how he can get back to his territory (his safe place).  So we worry that because of this fear, when we do get him into his holding camp, he will try his hardest to get out and back to his territory – at no matter what cost.  This is not only unsafe for us, but it’s dangerous for Leo to climb, get nasty shocks from the electric fence (which HURTS, by the way – it knocks you flat on your behind – and I would know because it happened to me last week), destroy the fencing, and be under such stress.  The last thing we want is for the lions to be stressed or unhappy.  So Paul (aka Dr. Xavier) decided that we needed to build him a house in his holding camp.  

Johan putting on finishing touches with Leo right behind him

 It took us about two days to complete the house, but we had so much fun doing it!  We built it right up to the sliding gate between the holding camp and the large enclosure, so that Leo can just go right inside his new house, eat his chicken, and not panic.  Basically the house is four-sided with a top and just an entrance.  It’s all thick half-round planks, too, so we did a lot of heavy lifting and hammering in 6-inch nails.  Jason (aka Flash Gordon) and I had races to see who could pound in the nails the fastest.  And I beat him more often than not.  That’s what happens when your dad loves construction and uses his children as his little minions (and also when you work in set construction in college for 4 years as well).  Poor Jason. 

But the coolest thing in the world about this whole building process was that Leo was right at the fence the whole time, watching what we were doing!  How many people can say that they spent the whole day being inspected by a young lion?  He hasn’t quite developed his roar yet, either, so he spent a lot of time “snarling” at us and telling us who was boss (just picture Simba in The Lion King trying to roar).  Honestly, I think that it’s the most amazing thing.  And I don’t think that anyone can understand unless they have sat, mere inches away from a lion’s face, and felt the sheer power of just his gaze.  (Sidenote, Leo has the coolest eyes – they are a deep reddish brown)  There is something about staring into such a powerful and intelligent animal’s eyes.  I will think more on this thought, and elaborate more in another post.  

Leo watching us work

 I am quite tired from today’s work!  Anyways, dear friends and family, I hope life is treating you all well and that you are finding happiness in the little things.  Because that’s what life is, isn’t it?  A whole bunch of little things strung together?  And everyone deserves to be just as happy as I am right now.  So, God bless.  I wish you well all the way from South Africa.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"You don't throw like a girl, do you?"

Well I guess it’s finally winter here.  I was thinking today that I must be a character in Game of Thrones, because I’ve put myself into a year of eternal winter (the Starks’ motto is “Winter is Coming”).  I guess I didn’t think about that when I was planning this trip, but it’s true.  I left Michigan just as winter was about to leave, come to Africa for a few weeks of paradise, then hey!  It’s winter again!  However, I think I’d take an African winter over a Michigan winter any day!  The days are pretty mild – usually some rain and a cool wind.  But when it rains here, it either mists or pours, sometimes with hail that makes it look as if it snowed.  The wind cuts right through you, so much so that I broke down and bought a pair of rain pants I was so cold during the day’s work.  I’m thinking about getting a new rain jacket as well because my so-called “rain jackets” from the North Face aren’t actually completely waterproof OR windproof as they were advertised to be.  What a waste of money, I’m telling you.    

One of my favorite things: riding in the back of the bakkie down "gum tree lane"

The nights are incredibly cold without any sort of heating in my cabin. My grandmother found it exceptionally funny when I explained to her what I wear every night to bed under not three or four, but eight blankets, so I figured I would repeat it to you.  Two pairs of socks, leggings, sweatpants, under armour shirt, sweatshirt with hood up, hat and scarf.  Yes, it’s excessive, I know.  But it’s necessary. 

A small part of me dies inside when I think about leaving here and returning to snow on the ground.  My year of eternal winter.  I’m gonna punch you in the face and skop jou kop af, Winter.  Ok, end of slightly-depressed-but-really-rubbing-it-in-your-face-that-I’m-in-Africa-and-you’re-not rant.

Yeah, that's right.  This is where I live. TIA (This. Is. Africa.)

This past week sank into a routine, but one thing different about it really stood out to me that I thought was exciting.  You might not, but I’m a nerd about lions, so I’m going to tell you anyways.  Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 4 o’clock, the cats are fed.  It’s actually the most popular time of day for people to come to the park, and rightly so because the lions and tigers are extremely active in the hours leading up to the feeding.  Paul, the owner (“boss-man” as I like to call him), rides on his quad-bike with a wagon of dead chickens behind it while the staff follows closely to either throw the chickens to the lions over the ten foot tall fences or to monitor guests and make sure they don’t irritate the lions/get in the way of us.  On Wednesday I approached Paul and I’m just going to reiterate the conversation because I found it so funny.

K: “Hey Paul, think I could throw a chicken sometime?”
Paul: “You don’t throw like a girl, do you?”
K: “Paul…do I look like I throw like a girl?  I mean, come on, I have three brothers.”
Paul: “You won’t hit the electric fence?”
K: *Sassy eyebrow look*
Paul: “Ok, Friday then.”

Friday, Paul points to me and tells me to throw to Simba (female).  I launch the first chicken perfectly over the fence, grab three more and put them all in a neat pile in front of Simba.  I look over at Paul, who looks at me completely surprised, smiles and says, “Ok, you’re throwing to Ziyanda, too.”  I carefully throw my chickens to Ziyanda (you have to be cautious not to accidentally hit her because she would try to go through the fence and kill you if you did) and manage not to hit her. 

Paul: “Well, I admit it, you have quite the arm.  But your aim is s**t!”  He grins, throws six chickens for Ares (our blind lion) into a neat pile, salutes me and gets back on his quad-bike.

He had me throw again on Monday.  I guess I wasn’t so bad after all. 

Anyways, my friends, that’s all I’ve got this time.  I have a lot going on the rest of the week, including an exciting girls’ night out on Friday, to look forward to.  So next time will be more interesting I’m sure!  Hope you’re all well and enjoying every moment of life as much as I am!


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Rediscovering Ultimate Joy

I’m going to start off by reiterating something that struck me earlier this week.  I find it so amazing when the arrow of life feels like it's dragging you further and further backwards to the point you feel like you’ll break from the pressure, when all of a sudden the taut string of the bow launches you forward into something you never dreamed could ever exist.  I am calling this rediscovering ultimate joy.  Joy: happiness, delight, pleasure, elation, exultation, rapture, heaven.  

Those of you that know me well know that I haven’t exactly had the easiest road to travel by in my life.  Don’t we all have our burdens?  But they affect us all differently.  To me, life has been one tragedy/heartbreak/death after another.  Not that I have trouble finding happiness!  I consider myself to be incredibly and deeply blessed by those around me and the experiences I’ve had.  And I am thankful for these blessings.  But I didn’t know until now, now that I’m in Africa doing exactly what my heart has wanted to do for as long as I can remember, that something was actually missing.  A large hole in my heart had never really healed…that is, until now.  

The biggest tragedy in my life was losing my grandfather during my freshman year of college.  It was something that struck me to the core and refused to heal.  My grandfather was one of those people who could see into you, he saw the real you.  I don’t know if any of you have been blessed with someone in your life that loves you more than anything else in the world, would do anything for you, could see into your very soul, and change you, but that was what my grandfather was to me.  He was many more things to me, but those memories are for me.  He was the one person that I loved more than life itself, and I’ve never had such a connection with another person since his passing.  Of course I love my mom, dad, siblings, grandparents etc. but the love I still have for Grandpa is in a league of its own.  And I don’t expect to find it again.

So my grandfather has been a huge force in my life, even now.  Every big decision I’ve ever made has been made with him in the forefront of my mind.  I think if it’s something that he would be proud of, would he agree with the decision, you get my point.  Grandpa has had his hand in my life every moment since his death.  When I traveled to Scotland to follow his footsteps to his favorite place in all the world, he was there with me every step of the way.  And it was in that moment when I stood staring over his little piece of heaven that I found I was finally healed.  Healed from every other bad thing that had ever happened to me, but most importantly healed from the loss of Grandpa.  Little did I know that he had something else planned for me. 
Goliath basking in the sun

Now as I’m on my own again, traveling on the other side of the world, I find Grandpa with me in a stronger force that I haven’t felt since Scotland almost three years ago.  He knew it was a dream to travel to Africa as well as my passion for big cats.  And now that I’m here, my goals have all culminated.  I’ve made it.  Everything I worked so hard for is now sitting happily in the palm of my hand.  And Grandpa knew all along!  But the thing is, what I have discovered here in the wide-open country, surrounded by lions, was so unexpected.  I never even hoped to dream that it could be SO great here. 

I’ve found my heaven.  I’ve found my ultimate joy. 

I think we all search for that sense of belonging.  That need for acceptance.  That home away from home.  The thing is, the moment my foot touched solid ground here I was home.  Everything from the smell of the rain, to the way the sun hits the mountains in the morning, to the incredible relationships I’ve been developing, to the cats roaring so loud it reverberates through my body, has brought me to the realization that I am exactly where I belong.  I have become that lion-hearted girl.  That hole in my heart was searching for this.  For its ultimate joy.  And I’ve found it.  That arrow of life tends to catch us by surprise, doesn’t it?  Thanks, God. 


Monday, May 20, 2013

Into the Lion's Den

Hello, friends and dear family!

Wow, what a week!  I don’t know if I can even begin to describe to you just how incredible this place and its people are.  This week I want to talk about meaningful things that happened this week and how different Africa is from the US; the culture, the people, the earth, everything.  So here goes!

This week we did a lot of cleaning of lion enclosures as usual.  Every morning we cover at least two as you may remember from last time.  This week we cleaned my favorite lion’s enclosure (Gaucho).  I was immediately struck by how different this lion is from the others.  By the way, I’m going to go on a tangent for a second.  These animals each have their own personality, they are so charismatic in their own way, and anyone who goes so far to say that an animal doesn’t have a soul, well you couldn’t be more wrong.  And honestly, if you think that, then I dare you to crawl into the lion’s den like I did this week.  Anyways, Gaucho.  He doesn’t eat the bones of his chickens.  He completely strips the skin of feathers and the flesh from the bone.  I found several perfect little chicken skeletons (sans the heads, he seems to like those) in a neat little pile.  Then his “house” as they call it here, or his den, was full of feathers.  So many that you couldn’t see the earth beneath.  I crawled into his den on my hands and knees and gathered the feathers.  Then I sat there laughing because I was literally in a lion’s den, seeing what he sees.  You may not find that quite so funny as I do, but it was something that struck me pretty deep this week.

Ringo and Aneta

Also something that shines pretty bright in my memory of last week was a little Dutch boy.  I was “monitoring” people during the feeding on Friday and saw a little boy hugging a fence post having a tantrum.  I could tell he was really tired.  This boy was maybe 3 or 4 years old.  His mom stood there asking him if he wanted her to carry him, which only made him cry harder.  So I crouched in front of him and asked him if he wanted me to carry him.  He immediately dried his tears, grinning from ear to ear, and ran to me for me to pick him up.  He started blabbering in Dutch and pointing to the lion on my shirt.  It was really sweet and his mother kept thanking me for saving her back the trouble.  The boy, Guy, finally talked in halting English about the lions.  His older brother came running over to tell me about how all the lions in the park are his brothers and sisters.  And that he was born a lion, but can change between a boy and a lion.  So I asked him to give me his best lion roar, he got down on his hands and knees and roared (a lot like Simba in The Lion King!).  I carried Guy all the way back to reception while talking with his parents.  Then he kissed me on the cheek, thanked me and they left.  It really made my day. 

Ok, onto my next topic for this week.  Everything is different here.  First of all, the food is incredibly good.  And very healthy.  I have a jar of peanut butter here and the ingredients are as follows: peanuts (99%), water.  That’s it.  No sugar, fats, corn syrup, salts, nothing.  My body went through serious detox when I got here, even though we eat as wholesome and organic as possible at home.  It’s comforting to know I’m not pumping my body full of plastic and preservatives and cancer.  The meat doesn’t have red slime added to it.  It’s just meat.  Everything is a product of South Africa.  Even Coke products, which have an ingredient list 4 ingredients long. 

Then there are the cars and trucks (or bakkie as they say in Afrikaans).  The driver is on the right hand side and they drive on the left side of the road!  It definitely took some getting used to, but now I know I could drive safely if I ever need to.  You just have to think of everything opposite.  My only problem is that I don’t look the right way when crossing the road on foot.  I’ve very nearly gotten hit a few times when out and about. 

Then there are the people!  I am quickly falling in love with everyone I am surrounded by every day.  Everyone here speaks both English and Afrikaans, usually a smattering of the two mixed together.  I am quickly picking up Afrikaans, too.  I understand more and more every day, though I’m sure speaking it will be a very different process!  Anyways, they swear up the wazoo and throw insults at each other constantly.  I’ve found that in the Afrikaans culture (at least Western Cape) sarcasm is a way of showing that you like someone and enjoy his or her presence.  So if an insult is thrown your way, you better well have a good comeback and fast.  Luckily, those of you who know me very well know, sarcasm is my “love language” as I like to call it.  So I find that fitting in here has been the easiest transition for me.  I have witty battles with everyone here constantly, and we laugh a lot.  That’s what I’m beginning to love about here at the park, that we laugh often.

Then there’s the environment itself.  I am surrounded by mountains on every side, which are bare rock and backed by forests full of a population of leopard.  Yes, leopard!  We have scrublands on all sides, with a wine vineyard to the South.  The nearby town of Paarl is nestled in a rocky valley.  The land is truly beautiful, the earth is red.  There has been the most perfect weather every day I’ve been here.  Only one day so far was rainy, and that rain was truly blessed!  Did you know that Toto was right all along?  Also African rains smell different than back home.  Maybe it’s because the Indian Ocean is so close, or the mountains, or the different plants.  But it smells sweeter, and more raw if that makes sense.  This place is absolutely charged with a deep power that you can feel if you’re looking for it.  And the wind is different too.  It’s strange to think that a wind from the South brings cold, and wind from the North brings heat.  Plus the wind buffets around the mountains, it seems a fickle thing as it constantly changes direction.

Lastly, there is the night.  My old friend Orion watches over me every night, my friendly winter warrior.  He’s been my favorite constellation for as long as I can remember.  He appears only in winter back home, and winter brings so much joy to me.  So it makes sense that he would follow me to an African winter.  But he’s the only constellation I recognize.  The stars to the South are completely alien to me.  And it’s like staring into a void.  The night sky is so deeply black it’s almost blue, and you can always see the Milky Way (which Nina told me in German literally translates to “Milk Street” – fun fact of the day).  When I turn my light off every night, I am surrounded by the night noises of this piece of heaven I’ve found.  There are peepers (frogs), little mice that squeal to one another, once in a while a squawk from one of the swans, a chirp from Rupert the caracal, the scream of an owl or kite (not sure which), and the lions.  Oh, the lions.  There is nothing so powerful or bone shaking as the roar of these lions at night.  Once one starts, the rest follow.  And they’re usually the loudest around 3 or 4 am when it’s the darkest.  And I love every bit of it.

The beautiful night sky

So that is where I leave you, friends.  My heart is truly happy here.  And knowing that I’m right where I’m meant to be is all I need. 

Ps. 104:21-2  “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.  When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.”

I’m working on being a young lion.  Seeking, seeking, seeking.



p.s.  Random thought of the day:  I want to learn how to play the banjo.  Eric James, start learning!