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The Carletonian

A chance to redeem ourselves

<ne who has spoken with me about my study abroad in Botswana knows that I have mixed feelings about the experience at best. It is true that I took a risk by choosing something out of the ordinary. I knew I would be camping in the African bush with the same four instructors and seven students for three straight months with very little contact with society, but I thought I was a low-maintenance, flexible kind of a person. Turns out the logistics were frustrating as hell, with 16 hour car rides back and forth across the country every 10 days. Then there were the unrelenting 110 degree days and not-much-cooler nights that left you feeling ill no matter how much warm, bleach-smelling water you consumed, and the ubiquitous dust with no shower for relief. And finally, the four particularly impossible personalities, including a cry baby who couldn’t take criticisms but had no problem dishing them out, a debbie downer who somehow managed to end every conversation on a negative note, a wise African leader who refused to share his wisdom, and an infuriatingly self-righteous American instructor. Each of our imperfect tendencies were magnified in those living conditions, and our frustrations with each other had nowhere to diffuse. We got to know each other really well … maybe a little too well.

And yet, through all this, I have this deep, inexplicable longing to return to Botswana. I can not place my finger on why, but it is something about the feeling of the place. Botswana just seem happy. Not the frivolous, superficial kind of happiness, but a deeply contented, confident, at peace with the world kind of happiness that is contagious, and I think that that happiness seeped into my bones too. Sure, I was uncomfortably hot, sweaty and dusty (and stuck in the car much longer than I had hoped to be), but in some ways I felt more alive than I had ever felt.

This is in part because I got to live so close to the animals that I practically felt like an animal myself. Wild dogs ran right through camp, and hyenas, hornbills, baboons and vervets were constantly trying to steal our food. A baboon spider decided to spend the night in my tent with me, much to my dismay when I found out in the morning. An elephant herd knocked down tens of trees just a hundred feet from our tent in the middle of another night, and more than once we nearly crashed the car into a hungry lioness. The mixture of fear and awe that I experienced when looking into the lioness’ eyes or waking up next to a giant poisonous spider made me feel as though I had reconnected with the origins of life on Earth.

There was something about being immersed in a world so isolated from the pressures of society, without the overwhelming bombardment of media images, or the endless cycle of consumerism that never satisfies. Instead, all that my eye could see or want during my time studying conservation science and ecology on Botswana’s nature reserves was sky and grass, baobabs and acacias, cape buffalo and zebras, jacanas and plovers. I felt like I had space to breathe, and for some reason the space made me feel like I had all the time in the world. Of course, it was frustrating when I first realized that “soon” really meant “a few days from now,” “now” meant “in a few hours,” and “now now” was the closest in meaning to the American phrase, “now.” But before I knew it, I too was on Africa time. I was so relaxed that I forgot about the past and future and could only focus on the present. And I realized that when I was truly immersed in the present, the present was infinite.

I recognize that this is naive, but the vastness of the land and the hundreds of species of animals I saw every day gave me a small dose of hope that the world could still be wild. That there were still wild animals who freely roamed the earth. That humans didn’t kill all of them off, at least not yet, and that maybe we humans still have a chance to redeem ourselves.

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