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!

Monday, May 13, 2013

My first week in South Africa!!!

First of all, hello!!!  I am alive and well after my first strenuous week in AFRICA!  I figured I might as well just start and go with it, so hang in there because I have a lot to say! 

The week previous to my departure was an absolute whirlwind.  I had errands, trips downstate, packing, visiting family, packing, seeing friends last minute, packing, spending time with my favorite dog ever, did I mention packing?  It went by so fast, and I send out a huge thanks to those that took the time to call me or see me before I left.  I am constantly blessed by all the love and support I am surrounded by, and I just wanted to say thanks! 

The day of my departure started out great with coffee and donuts and a wonderful visit from the lovely Bridget Bernhard (thanks, Bridgie!).  After she left, it was stressful and I was on the verge of a panic attack as time moved closer to my leaving.  If not for my brother, Eric, I would have had an attack because my mind was swirling about being gone for six months and especially the flying.  Many of you know I hate flying.  Saying good-bye to my cat, Lucky, and my dog, Eli, was I think the hardest part.  Eli has been my buddy ever since I finished school.  He goes everywhere with me.  And my kitty, well he’s been my kitty for over 16 years now; I’m always sentimental leaving him behind.  I know he’s going to be so pissed at me when I get home.  He ignored me for three days straight when I got back from Italy, then finally caved.  Such a cat. 

Mom, Eric, Dad, Loie, and Grandma came to see me off at the TC airport.  It was hard saying good-bye, but I kept it together until Eric started praying over me (thanks a lot, bro…just kidding – I needed it).  It’s beyond me how Mom kept it together the whole time, even after I went through security.  She must have been a faucet in the car.  Gave everybody multiple hugs before going through security without a mishap (I packed my knives in my checked bag, don’t worry).   Once I was on the plane and taking off from Traverse City I calmed down completely and set my eyes toward my goal that was finally, after all this time, coming to fruition (thanks, Russ Larimer, for implanting that word in my vocabulary).  The flight to Paris was awful.  I barely slept, I had only a tiny bit of leg-room, the people stank badly around me and to top it all off, the man behind me would punch my seat forward every time I tried to lean it back.  Lovely guy, truly. 

Paris, though, was wonderful.  I had a 15 hour layover, so took the train into the city center for about ten hours of the day.  I was that annoying tourist lugging around a carry-on bag on the cobblestones.  I was embarrassing, I know, but I didn’t really care at that point.  I started out walking around Notre Dame then along the Seine for quite a ways until I met the Jardin des Tuileries (which is where the Louvre is) where I sat down for a while and just watched people.  It was quite warm and sunny that day; springtime in Paris is gorgeous.  Last time I was there it was December.  I was on a mission to get to the Musée Rodin, for when Mom, Grandma and I were in Paris, it was closed.  I walked probably 2 miles to get there, and thank the good Lord it was open, because I was getting tired and ornery.  The guard at the front flirted with me and told me I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in the world (which I didn’t believe because I had been on a plane for 8 hours and desperately needed a shower).  The Rodin museum was wonderful and everything I had hoped it would be.  I kept nodding off on one of the benches in the garden so I decided it was time to go.  I sat down again in the Jardin des Tuileries then went back to the airport to await my flight for Cape Town.  I didn’t have anyone in the seat next to me or behind me, so I managed to sleep for almost the entirety of the 11 hour flight.  And finally, FINALLY I arrived in South Africa.

I had a wonderful private driver take me out to Drakenstein Lion Park (I was leery of taking a cab all alone) and he pointed things out to me and we talked a lot about Michigan and things that I should do while in Cape Town area.  I have him convinced to visit Michigan if he ever gets to the US (he’s never seen snow, people).  Finally, I made it to my destination.  I was immediately greeted by the loud and boisterous Elzette who is the park manager here.  She helped me get settled in my own little cabin, introduced me to Nina Lange, another volunteer from Germany, and then I was left to get unpacked.  I wanted to see the lions more than anything, so unpacked as quickly as I could before Nina walked with me through the park to see the 35 lions and 2 tigers.  This place is amazing, everyone.  It’s the only true lion sanctuary in the Western Cape and houses the largest lion population as well.  Each enclosure is an acre or more, and houses 1 to 3 lions, a forever home for captive born cats.  I’m falling more and more in love with this place every minute I’m here.

This is my view every day.  Mountains on every side.

I will talk a little about what my days are like, before I start talking about some profound experiences with the cats.  Each day starts out with me getting up at 7:30 am (I know you’re all thinking, Kelsey?  Up at 7:30?!?), eating a quick breakfast, usually toast and fruit, then being sent off to feed and water the ponies and goats.  We have 5 Shetland ponies here, one of which is the sweetest little filly ever, and somewhere around 12 goats, several llamas, and some really nasty black swans.  Following that is a short meeting of the staff and volunteers, then we head out immediately to clean 2 lion “camps” as the staff calls them.  The lions are bribed with chicken meat into a holding camp, so we can go into the larger enclosure to gather scat (“poopies” as Elzette likes to call it) and feathers.  The fence is checked and plants growing near the electric fence are sprayed and removed.    Following the lion camps, we are sent out to cut shrubs down of an alien species of plant for the hooved animals to munch on throughout the day.  Then we do all sorts of necessary jobs like making burn piles to prepare for the upcoming winter, burning the rubbish heap, cleaning swan and pony enclosures, cleaning out holding camps etc.  We have an hour-long lunch break and then do more work throughout the afternoon.  Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are feeding days, so we get to go out and talk to guests, answer questions, and watch the feeding.  The feeding is pretty cool because all the cats are up at once.  It’s the only time that you will see all of them out and about.  But the best times are in the evening.  After the day is over, I take a shower and eat dinner, then usually read before heading to bed pretty early (around 9 pm).  The lions are super active at night, sometimes they are so loud that it wakes me up out of a dead sleep.  That sound is better than any noise in the world.  It is so powerful!

But the cool thing about all of this work is that we are surrounded by lions all the time.  You glance up in your work and meet the gaze of a lion that has been trying to sneak up on you and scare you.  Or you ride by on the four-wheeler or the truck and they hide in the grass, then chase you as far as they can.  When Nina and I went out to burn the rubbish heap, Tigger the tiger came to the fence to see what we were doing, so I went over to say hello as well.  I crouched down at his level and he came right up to the fence, our faces were mere inches away, and he just stood there chuffing at me (chuffing is how tigers talk to one another).  So I did my best to chuff back.  I have never experienced something so profound in my life as sitting at an 800 pound animal’s level, staring into his bottomless eyes, and having a conversation with him.  I can’t even begin to describe what I felt in that moment.  The other night, Nina and I had a small braai (a barbecue) with new friends that work here at the park: Johan (Elzette’s husband), Karel and Jason, the two younger employees here.  We were sitting there watching the flames, when out of nowhere Chippy (the lion in the enclosure out my front door) appears at the fence to check out what was going on and say hello.  Nothing can compare to something like that.  The rest of the night we sat around talking shit about one another.  

This is Brutus, who was badly beaten and had his jaw broken before being rescued.

But Jason said something last night that really stuck with me, and it’s where I’m going to leave you.  He said that his brother is in school to become a doctor and make lots of money, but Jason himself has had experiences with these cats that money just can’t buy.  A lion looks into your eyes so deeply that you lose yourself and you are overcome by the sheer power of the animal.  And there is no place in the world he would rather be.  That, my friends, I can relate with.  I know without a shadow of a doubt that I am where I am meant to be right now, and that this is exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life. 

I miss you all, very much!  Mom, Dad, Grandma and Eric especially.  I did finally get to talk to them over the phone the other day (not Grandma yet), which was a true blessing.  I have access to internet here, but since I’m paying for it myself I will be using it minimally.  I’m sorry, but I won’t be posting too many photos to Facebook as that uses up data too quickly (I will post some, just not a lot).  I will reply to messages and emails when I can and write on here once a week.  I have a tumblr account (linked below) that I will post photos to when I can.  If you want to see all of my photos, you are welcome to come over to my house when I get back for a photo viewing party!  So thank you for listening to me ramble, I will try to keep it shorter next time!

TTFN (Tigger’s truly ARE wonderful things!)