We’re tracking elephants. The jitney is bouncing along through the reserve, windows rattling and chair bolts slide in and out of place threatening us all with a tumble to the rusty floor.
There is an old tv that has clearly not worked in at least a decade, if ever, being jostled in a too-big alcove about our heads. It’s obviously going to jump out and smash our skulls before we get to see elephants.
We’re too late for lions. They hunt early and the jitney has been plagued with difficulties since we left camp. We aren’t sure what difficulties exactly. Have we run out of gas? Engine trouble? The sliding van door is tied on with rope so… it could be anything.
We don’t know. Our guide and driver don’t speak English and the only Namibian girl in our group says they speak a different dialect than her. I think she is lying because they were talking earlier. I think they said something leery and pervish to her and so she doesn’t want to speak to them anymore. Or maybe they tried to include her in their plan to drive us into the middle of the reserve and steal our passports, paracetamol and ramen and she stood up for the odd visitors.
Either way, we’ve stopped about 22 times and Caz just talks louder and gestures more, in hopes it will transcend the reality of Babel and they will understand.
“What TIME (points at watch) will we arrive at FIELD BASE (makes arms into pointy triangle over her head)? WE (waves arm in circular motion to indicate all of us) are going to have to CAMP (tilts head and presses to pillow prayer hands) at the PARK (thinks about a possible gesture but moves on). WE (once again, circle arms) can NOT (shakes head vigorously) DRIVE (steering wheel hands) at NIGHT (wiggles fingers down like a waterfall, which I guess is meant to look like stars?)!”
Our drivers sniff and look away from the pantomime, embarrassed for Caz. She looks at me and I am of no use, having dissolved into a heap of laughter at this one-sided game of charades.
What she’s saying is true though. The expedition rules state we can’t be on the road when it’s dark. Drivers are crazy and we can’t risk it. The later it gets, the more clear that we will not make it back tonight. We should be halfway there but… well we have no idea how far away we are and we are still in the reserve looking for elephants which doesn’t bode well. We’ll have to camp out.
The driver puts out his cigarette, wipes his face with a dirty rag then closes the hood of the van. Only Caz and I had gotten out this time, so we shrug and climb back into the first row of back seats. The group asks what’s happening and we pretend we don’t hear… we have no f’ing idea.
We’ve already seen some wart hogs, giraffes and other African-ish animals. My camera broke days before so it’s like this whole experience isn’t happening anyway. If a tree falls in the forest, but there’s no photo to post on Facebook, did it actually happen?
In other words, I’m over it. The feel-good vibes of having spent three weeks building a school in the middle of a remote village is dissipating. We stink. We’re hot. And field base holds the promise of showers. Weird spigot showers that have a wick you light to heat the water… but still. Any form of running water is a luxury at this point. Weighing it up against the ever-decreasing chance we’ll see elephants, I’m bout ready to abandon group and take my chance hitchhiking.
When suddenly the driver and co-pilot guide yell out a gleeful noise as the van pulls to the side.
Everyone leans to the windows, cameras at the ready (#bitter). Is it an elephant? Is it a cute baby elephant and his mama? Are they spraying each other with water?
The co-pilot jumps out and we see he is standing in front of a ginormous mountain of steamy elephant dung.
We’re disappointed, but we get it… the poo means an elephant is nearby, so we’re on the right track. Check us out! Using centuries-old tracking skills. We are such adventurous explor…
Um wait… what’s happening? Why is co-pilot kneeling in front of the poo? Um. He’s lifting the pile of poo. Are you seeing this??!!! Of course we are!! Who could miss this scene of a man lifting a giant heap of doo doo??!! Maybe… is he going to smell it… perhaps it’s an old African hunting technique. There must be a valid reason.
In seconds it becomes clear that he is planning to keep the poop for his very own. Co-pilot gingerly carries the pile of doots to the van, climbs in, and puts it between his feet. Then he closes the van door and off we go.
The stunned silence at our new passenger echoes around the jitney. We are literally traveling with shit. Is this happening?
I’m sitting behind the copilot, Caz behind the driver and we are mouthing to each other and blinking furiously in morse code, covering our mouths to muffle the shocked and nervous laughter.
And then… oh so casually… Copilot hangs his long arms over the back of his seat, his hands inches from my face, dangling above my lap.
What. The. Fuck. Is. This.
Pieces of doo-doo are clinging to his fingers and I slouch down as far as possible, pulling at Caz’s sleeve, mouthing, "Switch with me Caz… switch with me." She is in full-blown hysterics, tears streaming down her face, as my eyes widen at the sight of his dung-caked fingernails. His hands tremble along with the jitney bumps and poo particles breeze off and lazily float into my nostrils and mouth and ear holes.
Don’t breathe. Don’t bounce forward and scrape his hands with your face. Don’t get elephant shit in your eyes, for god’s sake what type of pink eye would that result in??!!
I ride the whole way to the campsite inches from the worse case of conjunctivitis the world would’ve ever seen. Everyone takes naps or plays car games or talks about their dream meal. But all I can do is stare straight ahead at the shit mitts dancing in front of me.
They drop us off and miraculously our Namibian girl is able to understand our drivers tell her a different van will get us in the morning. And they trundle away with their treasure, while I sit on the grass harshly blowing my nose and flushing my eyes with bottled water.