Leading groups through the forests of Kenya was a freaking thrill! But the heat, pressure and social anxiety can bring even the toughest explorer looking for a break.
I stopped my group near a patch of clear-cut forest because we needed to rest. I motioned to everyone we were taking a break as I scanned a bulky, felled log looking for ants and other creepy crawlies before sitting down. The sun was directly overhead, cooking us like an oven set to broil. My boots were filled with grit, small sticks and leaves which made my feet itchy and unpleasant. But as I wiped the sweat from my eyes and took a cool sip of water from my pack, I looked around and marveled at the moment… I was leading a tour group through the African jungle! As hot and tired as I was feeling, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I was in my element.
Life as a staff member for a conservation ngo in Kenya, was challenging but deeply rewarding. And I had spent the last 3 months training to lead groups of newbie volunteers through the jungle.
I learned how to calculate deforestation rates, conduct species identification and behavioral surveys, cutting forest transects with a machete, catching butterflies, and health and safety training. And at first, I felt very confident and prepared to handle my new job.
I would take groups of 5- 10 people, outfitted with water, peanut butter sandwiches, walking shoes, and sunscreen and lead them into dense, green forest filled with monkey’s and exotic birds.
Armed with a cell phone and a compass, I’d take point and meander through the jungle, headed east where eventually we’d cross a logging road that would take us back to base. Trekking through the forest this way took 5 or 6 hours every day.
It was hard work, but the things I got to see…
One time I reached a low hanging branch that I instinctively reached for to move out of the way. As I took a step forward, my eyes caught movement beneath my boot, just as I was about to step down. A Snouted Night Adder slithered between my legs! Heart racing and scared for my group, I moved everyone back 15 meters and walked around, afraid of getting bitten by an African snake. Images of Puff Adder bite victims in hospital with terrible sores and oozing wounds filled my mind. I was legitimately freaked!
Later that day I researched more about the snake, after telling everyone how I was a hero for saving my group from certain death. Yeah… that snake turned out to be quite harmless to humans. Still makes a good story… AND I’m still a hero dammit.
Ooh, click here to read a post about Safari ants!
And another time, we were sitting near the edge of the forest taking lunch and a Vol noticed a little, 3 inch, green chameleon on a tree. Everyone stood up and ran over in excitement to watch him slowly climb the branch, hand over hand with not a care in the world, in that way only a chameleon does best.
So busy taking pictures of him, we didn’t notice a skinny, grass-like Water Snake climbing the same branch and heading for him. Uh oh, that’s not good.
We watched in horror as the inevitable unfolded. The snake reached our new friend the chameleon and bit him in the back. He let go and the chameleon turned black at the wound. He turned to face his attacker, lunged forward, as fast as one can expect from a chameleon… and grabbed the snake by the head, fitting it in his mouth!
We cheered for the underdog, maybe thinking he could come out victorious in this battle of nature.
But the snake struggled free and proceeded to devour its lunch.
Sad to see. But this is the nature of our world. I don’t blame a lion for killing a zebra, and I don’t blame a snake for eating its prey.
Ups and downs of my jungle expedition
Time moved along for me in the same way it had since I arrived in Kenya 3 months earlier. My entire existence was fast paced, brand new, overwhelming and exhausting in more ways than I could describe with words. I couldn’t tell if I was tired from being too happy, stressed out or both. But something was definitely happening to me.
My confidence and enthusiasm for leading groups in the forest was slipping. I spent a lot of days tired and thinking only of getting to the bars after work to drink warm beers with my friends.
I just wanted to be left alone to stroll through the forest in my own time. I was sick of answering questions and being responsible for other people. And the slightest criticism of my leadership chipped away my self-esteem and confidence as a staff member. I was falling apart.
Many afternoons, we would go to this small, wooden shack with an outdoor patio complete with chairs and tables to sit and get drunk for hours. It was a “Club” called Smuggler’s surrounded by the forest where volunteers and locals alike would gather to socialize. Parties sometimes lasted until 2 or 3 in the morning, filled with dancing, hot whiskey and cheap cigarettes. In these moments, spirits were so high I never wanted to come down.
I’d stumble home in the dark, using the light from my phone to illuminate any potential tripping hazards, lift my mosquito netting and collapse into bed, only to rise at dawn to work in the sweltering heat of the jungle again. The hangovers were monstrous to say the least.
I had a few hours in the afternoons though, (after returning from the forest but before evening chores and duties began) all to myself. I would try and find a quiet place to write and reflect on things. In these quiet moments, I just shook my head in defeat and poured my heart out on paper.
I knew I had been suffering on an emotional level for months. When I finally pieced together what I was feeling and could articulate it, I decided I just needed time to myself. Lots of time to myself.
Needing time to myself, alone in a quiet place is something I learned in college after living in a fraternity house. I knew this about myself. But in Kenya, I ignored this because I saw no way to do it. I lived, ate and breathed dorm-style experience. I tried to convince myself that there was no way to be alone. I believed there was something wrong with me because no one else seemed to be suffering like I was.
I was partying like everyone, having fun and drinking myself into oblivion. But I was doing it primarily to block out the noise of my intuition, telling me to seek solitude.
“I came here to live life to the fullest and I’m not going to waste a single second of my time in Africa. I made this dream become a reality and I deserve to enjoy it! I should be happy and outgoing and be spending time with my friends. There is no way to find time to yourself right now, so just forget about it. There is nothing you can do!”
I gave myself pep talks like this every day. Slowly, as my mental and emotional endurance began to fade, so did my body.
One day I woke up with a very uncomfortable, nauseating pain in my lower back. It was that kind of dull throbbing you get after smashing your thumb with a hammer, but nearer my kidneys. I wasn’t sure what to think.
I left for the hospital thinking I’d be back that afternoon. But instead it turned into 7 days of physical therapy and one of the odder and more humorous travel stories I have!