By Dennis Drabelle | I don’t actually roll by myself, but otherwise I’m basically the lone-wolf type described by Robert D. Putnam in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. I don’t go to church, I don’t join clubs, and the only associations I belong to are professional ones: a journalists’ union, the National Book Critics Circle, and a society devoted to keeping alive the work of the writer Rebecca West. Recently, however, I threw my lot in with a makeshift group whose members meant almost everything to each other for three weeks.
There were 12 of us in all—seven Germans, one German-speaking Swiss, three French people, and one American (me)—plus three guides, and we’d signed up for a wildlife safari in Botswana only to find ourselves essentially trapped. Owing to danger from beasts of prey, we couldn’t stray from camp at night or venture more than a few yards from our vehicle by day. On two different nights, lions prowled so close by that we were advised to use pee bottles in our tents rather than step outside. Like soldiers in boot camp, we obeyed orders, kept each other amused, pitched in on chores, had each other’s backs.
We’d come to observe and photograph African birds and animals in the wild, where they exhibit behavior not likely to be seen in zoos. One afternoon, a trio of elephants crossed in front of our parked Land Rover and stopped at the edge of the Chobe River. The two adults slaked their thirst in typical elephant style, snorting water up their trunks and transferring it to their mouths. But the baby was short enough to stoop, dunk his mouth in the river, and slurp. To keep his balance, though, he raised a hind leg and held it out at a comical angle.
Those weren’t the only creatures we saw being themselves: a languid leopard draped himself over a bare tree limb like a wet dishrag; a bull elephant protected his harem by menacing us with his raised trunk; an African spoonbill stork and a yellow-billed stork worked a waterhole side by side, hour after hour, inseparable despite their taxonomic difference. We woke up to lions’ roars, drove by water buffalo that stared at us as if we owed them money, and recorded sightings of every African big-game animal except the rhino. As the trip went on, however, we also found ourselves looking inward, contemplating the group. And when a dispute broke out, we were ready.
I owed my presence to Richard and Sylvie, old friends from Toulouse. We’ve fallen into the habit of taking offbeat vacations together, and this was the 2008 edition. Otherwise, the participants were all strangers to one another—except for a married couple I’ll call Otto and Marthe.
Getting to Botswana had been costly, and to economize I opted to share a tent with one of those strangers: easygoing, non-snoring Markus, a college student with whom I had a lot in common despite the four-decade difference in our ages. We shared Latin and Greek, the movie Starship Troopers as a guilty pleasure, a zest for gossip, and a goof-off attitude. Every night we let our tent get messy, and every morning we laughed at our inability to roll it up into the sleek packet achieved by some of our gung-ho comrades.
I can get by in French, have a nodding acquaintance with German, and was the lone native speaker of English in a group for which it was the lingua franca, so from time to time I acted as a human dictionary. During a wildlife drive, Tshenolo, the head guide, would pull up near, say, a herd of oryx grazing a savannah or a pale chanting goshawk perched on an acacia limb, and deliver a short English-language profile of the creature and its habitat. Zhenya, his Russian-born assistant, would then translate this into German, and I would clarify anything that might be unclear to the French speakers.
Not only did this three-tiered approach work smoothly; it also became a source of fun. The French couldn’t get their mouths around squirrel—no matter how often I said it for him, Franck from Grenoble pronounced it “scroll”—but their word for the same animal, écureuil, ends in a pileup of sounds that stymies anglophone speakers. When we asked the Germans what they call the little rodent, they grinned: with its two soft ch sounds bookending an umlaut, eichhörnchen tangles up the foreign tongue. By the time I could get out a passable version of the word, the squirrel itself would have scampered away.
Most of the birds we sighted go by the same name in every language, which was all to the good because some of these amount to poetry. Kori bustard, saddle-billed stork, lilac-breasted roller, white-browed sparrow-weaver, crimson-breasted shrike, scaly-feathered finch, African red-eyed bulbul, crowned lapwing, black-chested snake eagle, pied kingfisher, spur-winged goose, fork-tailed drongo, white-backed vulture—for me, the joy of encountering a new species was almost secondary to that of learning its moniker. Tshenolo is an accomplished birder, and no specimen went unidentified while he was around.
Meanwhile, the group was gelling. We played a rapid Russian card game called durak and shared favorite tunes on our iPods. We split cans of beer and bottles of wine. We reminded each other to drink lots of water and take our anti-malaria pills. You couldn’t sneeze without hearing multiple Gezundheits, couldn’t put on your jacket in the Land Rover without a helping hand. In Internet cafes during breaks from the tour, some of us gave up online minutes so that everybody could email home. We became interdependent, like the members of a jury or the cast of a play.
From the start, however, Otto had been making a nuisance of himself. Having taken the same trip the year before, he felt entitled to pull rank and give unwanted advice. He was also fiercely protective of his belongings. Whenever we arrived at a new campsite, he would snatch his bags out of Zhenya’s arms the moment he began to unload them. Some mornings, Otto and Marthe woke up early and talked loudly in their tent, robbing the rest of us of sleep. Otto repeatedly demanded that our vehicle’s canvas roof be closed because, as he informed Markus one day, “We blonds must guard against skin cancer.”
Markus’ response was to go shirtless the rest of the afternoon.
Otto’s fellow Germans considered him an oaf because he never used the all-purpose Bitte that greases so many transactions in their culture. But these and other infractions would have been ignored or laughed off if Otto hadn’t made a big mistake with three days left to go: publicly humiliating the affable grandmother I’ll call Lotte, who was probably our most popular member. That morning he came bursting out of the pit toilet we all had to share and bellowed at her, “This is the third time I’ve used the toilet after you, and each time you’ve left it dirty.”
The puerile cruelty of this outburst left Lotte in tears and the rest of us outraged. Rather than hold a group meeting or hammer out a common response, however, we simply did what came naturally. From then on, our behavior toward Otto and Marthe was unfailingly, by-the-book polite—and nothing more. When either of them spoke up, he or she got a polite answer, but beyond that few of us were willing to go. (Marthe seemed a decent sort, but because she and Otto were virtually inseparable, there was no way to exempt her from the cold shouldering; you might call it a case of collateral damage.)
How fully Otto understood what had happened to him is hard to say, but he and Marthe clearly took note of their outsider status. Watching them one night, sitting all but ignored at the far end of the dining table, I thought of a catch phrase from the reality TV show Survivor: “The tribe has spoken.” One of the reasons I remember the Botswana group with such fondness is that when the occasion called for it, we rallied around a principle: that even in these confusing and fluid times, there are rules of courtesy and kindness that a person can’t flout without paying a price.
Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.
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