Merriam Webster defines an expectation as a belief that something will happen or is likely to happen. Life events can meet expectations, exceed expectations, fall short of expectations, or be contrary to expectations. Expectations can create hope and disappointment, dreams and fears, satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
I dreamed of visiting Africa for almost 30 years, a dream sparked by the movie Out of Africa and later, Isak Dinesen’s book of the same name. This year, that dream materialized and I am now on a month-long trip that starts with a quick visit to Zimbabwe, meanders through Tanzania with a hike to the summit of Kilimanjaro (hopefully!) and a safari in the Serengeti, and finishes with a visit to the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, a land of genocide that would have been an unthinkable destination 20 years ago.
Long-time dreams can create unfulfillable expectations, but my dreams were tempered by the unfortunate realities of life in Africa : genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, crippling poverty, famine, poor treatment of women, and corrupt governments. Family, friends, and colleagues who have visited Africa either love it or hate it. In some ways, I had no idea what to expect. In others, I was weighted down by years of expectations, both mine and others’.
Part One: Adrenaline a/k/a the Appropriate Fear Response Created by the Expectation of Death
The first two days in Zimbabwe are a whirlwind – first, a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Riding in a helicopter is its own thrill, and from the feel of our sharp banks and turns, our pilot was either a stunt pilot or military pilot in a previous life. Seeing the Falls from the sky is yet another thrill (and a useful illumination of the unique geology that created the Falls). Then there is the unexpected thrill of flying over the Zambezi National Park at the end of the flight and seeing herds of giraffe (one with long legs bent in a contortionist pose) and elephant, a large family of hippos, including 4 babies, and a crocodile so large it must have been a relic from the time of the dinosaurs. We hadn’t known we would see game on this flight and we are both giddy as we disembark from the helicopter. Later, we walk through Victoria Falls Park, where the strong spray from the Falls creates its own weather system, a constant downpour from the blue skies above. Very few tourists follow us into the downpour, preferring to watch from afar. Neither of us can resist the temptation to explore every inch of the Falls, and soon our hair is dripping, and our pants, shoes and socks are soaked, but we cannot wipe the smiles off our faces as we walk back towards the exit, dodging the herds of warthogs and hopping mongoose.
On a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, we ooh and ahh over the “cute” yawns of the hippos we encounter, until we discover those yawns are actually a sign of aggression towards our boat. “Back off,” their enormously long teeth warn. Alex wonders why hippos have six inch long teeth resembling lion’s teeth when they only eat vegetables. Our guide laughs. “Those are fighting teeth,” he says. “Hippos kill more humans in Africa than any other animal.” Noted. There is no time to squeeze in a canoe ride on the Zambezi, and perhaps that is for the best. I don’t think either of us could resist it.
Next stop: adrenaline shots over the 300 foot tall Zambezi Gorge. A tandem zipline first. This is what I expect, exciting and just plain fun. A little like an amusement park ride, only much better. It involves fun screaming, whooping screaming, this-is-amazing-screaming. Alex does the gorge swing next. “Gorge swing” is a bit of a misnomer. What it’s NOT: a swing. What it IS: a free fall, feet first, for almost 300 feet, that morphs into a swing at the bottom of the gorge over the swirling waters of the Zambezi River (full of the aforementioned hippos and monster sized crocodiles). I’ve always wavered on bungee jumping, nervous about the jerk of the bungee injuring my already weak back, but this is different. I watch my adrenaline-seeking son. This “gorge swing” is essentially a feet-first bungee jump, but without the jerk at the bottom. This looks… fun? Do-able? Should I try it? Climbing up the rock back to the top after his jump, he is, in teen vernacular, pumped. Breathless, he repeats over and over, “That was insane. I’m not gonna lie, that might have been scarier than the bungee jump I did last week. That was insane.” Pause. Big smile. “You HAVE to do it, Mom! You just have to! You’ll be so happy if you do it.”
I find myself convinced, possessed perhaps by the demon from the Exorcist or maybe just the demon of “I have to do this before I’m too old to do it.” Yes, of course I should do something insane. I know I will not, cannot, jump by myself, and have the foresight to convince Alex to take one more jump, a tandem jump with me. I find myself on the platform, being strapped in next to Alex. The guide instructs me to look across the gorge, not down, as he clips us in with carabiner after carabiner. I, of course, look down. Alex’s Go Pro video highlights my feet sensibly shuffling away from the edge of the platform. “Wait,” I say in the background, the panic rising in my voice, “I don’t think I want to do this.” Alex encourages me, yelling with bravado, “You can do it, Mom! You’re gonna love it! Just think about how happy you will be afterwards!”
“But wait,” I say. “Do other people, I mean other women, I mean other old women, do they do this?” The guide, in his seductively reassuring voice, assures me that many other scared people have stood on this platform and jumped. I am no longer convinced. I won’t be able to scream because I am busy hyperventilating. But for some reason, my feet are shuffling forward. Stop those feet, I want to yell. The guide yells first. “Five, four, three, two, one, jump!”
We are falling. Those darn feet of mine jumped. My eyes are closed. I am holding onto Alex’s hip-belt for dear life, because of course THAT will stop me from falling, as will my closed eyes. The free-fall is short (only 300 feet long, after all) but interminable. I’d like to be able to say my life passes before my eyes, or that, like Jaromir Hladik in Jorge Luis Borges’s The Secret Miracle, I compose a play as time stops for me, but it’s really just holding onto the rope and Alex’s hip belt for dear life and keeping my eyes closed. If I were an ostrich on solid ground, my head would be buried in the sand. Finally, the falling stops and my eyes open. We are swinging at the bottom. Alex is whooping and hollering. I can’t whoop or holler because my lungs forgot to breathe in or out on the way down. But, a tiny little smile sneaks across my face. Then a bigger smile. Then, the realization of what I have just done hits me, and I start laughing and shaking and breathing, all at once.
This unexpected adrenaline shot was surely not a part of my 30 year long built-up expectation of Africa. The unexpected pride I feel (or that maybe I feel for my feet, the non-cranial part of my body responsible for getting me off the platform) will stay with me a long while. At the same time, I know that my fear of jumping off the edge of 300 foot gorge was rooted in the instinctual expectation of death.
Alex had a point. That was insane.