Today is Sunday, August 19, 2018

Memoirs of an Accidental Tourist

By J. Mariano C. Del Castillo

It was the May 18, 2008 wedding of my daughter’s best friend Helen to a South African gentleman named Preston that goaded my entire family to pack our bags and journey to Africa. For someone already more than half a century old, a 17-hour long dauntingly difficult plane ride plus all the waiting time in various airports naturally made me hesitant. And naturally, as the neck of the family, it was my wife who tilted me to look forward to the thought of a Safari, thanks to her persistent nagging.

And saying yes to my beloved Cynthia turned out to be the opportunity to once again appreciate God’s Workmanship. Everything that I then only watched in National Geographic and Discovery Channels unfolded before me.

The first leg of our trip took us to the Royal Malewane, a resort located at the 10,000 square kilometer Thorny Bush reserve of South Africa where we had our unforgettable 4-day safari. We saw wildlife in person and were amazed seeing the “Big 5” (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) and the other animals (zebra, giraffe, antelope, mongoose, civet, hippopotamus, honey badger, cheetah, warthog, bush baby, monkey, wildebeest, etc.) roaming free in the wilderness. Our ranger- guide taught us the law of “Just Look and Shush, But No Touch,” i.e., while it was OK to watch them, we should never disturb or harm them in their natural habitat. We should never stand up or get down from the vehicle while the animals were around, nor make any sudden movements. We must also avoid unnecessary loud noises as this might alarm or cause nervousness among the animals.

Our native African black tracker astonished us with his skills. He could read animal tracks on the ground from atop our moving vehicle and showed us how to differentiate tracks made by a lion from that of a cheetah or leopard; a giraffe or a wildebeest, etc. He could also distinguish droppings of a rhino from that of a buffalo, or a day-old dropping from a two-day old, indicating how near or far away the animal was. He described to us how an animal behaves when it is on a hunting mission, simply patrolling a territory, or looking for a mate. At night, when he would scan with his powerful floodlights the area we were driving thru, he could readily spot an animal playing possum, lurking in the bush or perched on a tree branch simply from the glint of its eyes.

We learned many useful things about survival in the jungle. For example, in case we got lost at night, we could use the oldest compass known to man by looking at the position of the stars in the sky. From both the ranger and our tracker, we learned by word and by deed how to preserve and respect the environment; about forest fires and flash floods; about the classic Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest.

From safari land, we flew back to Johannesburg where we took a 4-hour ride into the countryside and proceeded to the chalet-like lodge at Kiara Resort to link up with the would-be bride Helen. As the wedding was at 4 p.m. the following day, we had time in the morning to explore a UN World Heritage Site, a cave in a nearby mountain which has pre-historic paintings of animals on its walls. We climbed the top of the mountain and saw antelopes and wildebeest roaming freely in the valley below – most likely the same animals that were seen by the native bushmen and which images they painted on the walls of the cave.

And finally, the main reason for the family trip: Sharing Helen’s joy. My daughter Ann served as the bridesmaid while I and Cynthia served as Helen’s sponsors and surrogate parents. The Methodist Pastor’s message was straight to the point and applicable to all couples: Married life is not a never-ending la vie en rose, but involves major sacrifices; and the spouse should never take the other for granted. And so we left the newlyweds with wishes of hope that their marriage would indeed last and succeed.

The next day, we flew to Cape Town, the southernmost tip of the African continent where the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans meet. Cape Town, which I consider one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is famous for its table mountain and unbelievably clean Victoria waterfront lined up with fabulous restaurants, trendy bars and shops.

From strolls around the waterfront to shark diving to visits to the Penguin and Seal Islands, and of course to the notorious Robben’s Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned 27 years - Cape Town was truly memorable and wonderful. For my children, the highlight was coming face to face with the great white sharks in the cold waters of Gansbaai, a two-hour drive from Cape Town. As a father, seeing my grown-up children having the time of their lives as kids again was a special moment.

The last leg of our trip was a short stop at Dubai, where the only 7-star hotel in the world, the Burj Al Arab, a man-made structure representing luxury at its perfection, lies. Luckily, my niece works in the hotel, so we got a substantial discount. Thank God for the ubiquitous OFWs! Cha-ching!

Our stay in Dubai involved sand safari in dune buggies, bedouin dinner complete with belly dancing, shopping at the Mall of the Emirates, a visit to its unique museum and sight-seeing at the famous black palace of the brother of Sheik Mohammad. The country showcased the future of the Middle East, boasting of its tallest building in the world and the future biggest mall in the world.

It was one great travel time. The pressures of work most of the time eats me up, but saying ‘yes’ to my wife to be with my family made me realize how important it is to relish and to take care of the small and big things in life that brings you happiness. Nothing beats the exhilarating feeling of getting up close and personal to a pride of lions, or being on top of a mountain and viewing the whole panorama of nature below. There is something that uplifts your soul as you ride across the red dunes of a desert and as the day ends you watch the fading sun dip into the horizon as it envelops the sky with its golden glow. You remember the feeling of peace while strolling lazily in the sand and listening to the gurgling waves of the shore. And with all these wonderful things, you realize that these beautiful natural creations were not done accidentally, and you tend to believe that there is a Higher Power that is behind all these, humbling even the grandest and most magnificent creations made by men of gifted intelligence. This ‘accidental tour’ was a blessing and an enriching experience.

Through it all, I could not help but reflect on how intelligent man is and how grand his dreams can be as visibly shown for instance by the fabulous man-made structures standing on earth. I likewise think of how wonderful the world is with all its flora and fauna and, at the same time, how stupid man can be in disrespecting the environment by destroying little by little the very same world that feeds him, and I retain the hope that there is still time to preserve what is left for the next generations to come. I acknowledge and cherish so much how important it is to spend quality time with my family and to bond with them while I’m still around and show them my love, and how important it is to share someone else’s happiness and to keep faith in a happy ending fairy-tale romance and to laugh and to have fun, and, lastly, I think of the joys of traveling. Because no matter how tiresome and expensive that could be, it is all worth it because it will edify you and will release you from a confined culture, broadening your perspective.

Yes, one has to survive, but one must likewise learn to take time to smell the flowers.

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