By Anne Korkeakivi
Months before our trip to Tanzania two-and-a-half years ago, first on safari in the Selous Game Reserve and then to the beaches of Zanzibar, I began my campaign to keep our daughters, then aged thirteen and fifteen, from peril.
I made sure the girls had booster shots up to date and received jabs against yellow fever. One by one, I lined up bottles of 50+ sunscreen and 50% DEET bug repellent, pocket-sized dispensers of hand sanitizer, and LED flashlights, like ready soldiers, on a shelf in my closet. I purchased new sneakers, pairs of tube socks, and long-sleeved but lightweight blouses.
I ordered regulation-size duffels in impenetrable material, and then hovered over the girls’ efforts at filling them, although—having grown up mostly as expats because of my husband’s work as a human rights lawyer, and having traveled often—they were used to packing. Because our weight allowance was small for the prop-plane flights we’d be taking once in Tanzania, but also to limit the possibility of loss or theft, anything of monetary or personal value—other than cameras and my younger daughter’s totemic baby blanket—was deemed verboten.
For clothing, Internet forums advised against taking on safari: black (too hot), dark blue (attracts tsetse flies), bright (scares the animals), and white (too many problems to enumerate) clothing. Bare legs and shoulders would be no-nos on Zanzibar (about ninety-six percent Muslim). Oscillating between the girls’ bags, I nixed and naysayed.
“You do realize,” my older daughter finally said, “you aren’t leaving many options.”
I moved on to my husband. His employer, the United Nations, provides him with an emergency First Aid kit; I insisted he empty it onto our bed and explain each item. After, I raided our medicine cabinet and made a trip back to the pharmacy, scoring Norfloxacin and Azithromycin, Loperamide, paracetamol, a topical antihistamine, an oral antihistamine, water-purifying tablets, rehydration salts, an antiseptic gel, a thermometer, bandages, and a small mountain of Malarone, the pricy but side-effect-free anti-malarial prophylactic.
Had I thought of everything?
“Remember,” I told the girls, “these are wild animals.” I went through a litany of behaviors they mustn’t exhibit on safari, finishing with, “At all times, you do what the guide tells you.”
The night before our departure, we watched a biopic about Bethany Hamilton, the champion surfer girl who lost an arm to a shark attack at the age of thirteen. When my younger daughter, during the closing credits, asked, “Are there sharks around Zanzibar?” the better, saner parent inside me realized I might have freaked out the children.
“Honey,” I said with a laugh, “don’t you worry about it.”
Then I went into my office and googled “sharks” and “Zanzibar.” (To note: offshore, there are reef sharks, tiger sharks, lemon and white and whale sharks, and hammer-heads. Stingrays and barracuda are also known to Zanzibar’s deeper waters.)
As largely expat parents, my husband and I are set up for giving our daughters broad and varied experiences of the world, something I deeply want for them. I just don’t want any of those experiences to leave them hurt or unhappy.
I am not a tiger mother. I am a lion mother. I do not fight with my children, but—from the moment I insisted one be birthed by Caesarean, rather than forced to turn in my womb, and the other be nestled, against all local convention, in my French hospital room as a newborn—I’ve fought for them.
As my kids were growing up, there were times when some people told me I was being overprotective. Maybe there were times when I was.
We set off for East Africa.
Over five days in the Selous Reserve, we came eye to eye with lions, elephants, buffalos, warthogs, wildebeest, hyenas, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, baboons, crocodiles, hippos, and impalas. I was having the time of my life—except for that moment when a crocodile slithered directly beneath one of my daughter’s feet as we putt-putted along the silty Ruffiji River in our flat-bottomed boat. Or, when my other daughter absent-mindedly stood up in the back seat of our Jeep to get a better view of a group of seven young male lions—about six feet from us. (In fairness, this was the only time I saw our usually very calm guide lose his cool as well. “Get down,” he hissed) Slowly, I began to trust in the experience. In potentially hazardous situations, I saw my daughters learn fast and listen carefully. Like the heat, it sank in. By the last day of our stay in the game reserve, I had relaxed enough to leave the girls to their own devices while my husband and I joined an armed ranger on a walking safari, proscribed to kids sixteen or under. They had a good time. Amongst giraffes and whistling thorn trees, my husband and I did also.
We left the next day for Zanzibar exuberant and unscathed. I thought the most perilous part of our trip was finished.
Somewhere over the dusty red expanse between the Selous and Dar es Salaam, our flippety floppety twelve-seater prop plane hit turbulence. Miles above the wide earth, we were flung up and down like puppets. It hadn’t escaped my notice that of the two “pilots” on board, the one actually flying the plane was receiving instruction from the other.
“Look,” I said, pointing out the window, while gripping my seat. “There’s the Ruffiji!”
As I successfully diverted both the kids’ and my own attention from worrying about falling out of the sky to appreciating the beauty of the river snaking its limpid brown way through the acacia-dotted landscape beneath us, I thought: Maybe I’m finally becoming a cool mother.
At our hotel in northern Zanzibar, there was a problem with the reservation. Sleeping quarters were located in two small, whitewashed structures in an “L”-shaped configuration, separated by a thatched-roof reception area. Despite having booked adjoining rooms, my husband and I were put in one building; the girls in the other.
My mouth dropped. “No way.”
“We like our room,” the girls said.
“We don’t have anything else,” the reservationist said. “They’ll be fine,” my husband said, patting my shoulder.
By the time we were ready to move on to Kizimkazi in the south of Zanzibar, my family was laughing at my fussing, and I was laughing a little at myself also.
Our arrival in Kizimkazi was the stuff of dreams. Placid monkeys played around thatched-roof villas of the resort where we were staying, sheltered by huge gnarly baobab trees. Green-blue water glistened just steps from our villa’s patio. The feeling of peace was as soft and sultry as the weather.
When the girls asked to go surfing off a reef in open sea at sunrise, I personally zipped up their wet suits, and waved as their little boat disappeared towards the lightening horizon.
That’s when it happened.
Halfway through lunch, with my daughters back on land, the thirteen-year-old announced, “I think housekeeping took my blanket while I was out surfing.”
Since her birth, this daughter had slept entwined in a soft white cotton blanket with a turquoise trim, bestowed upon her by a doting aunt in America. That blanket had been everywhere; every move we made, every journey, every overnight visit. I’d turned whole houses upside down searching for it, a baby perched on my hipbone, small trusting hands clutching my shoulder. In a life with a lot of transiency, that blanket was a constant. There was no coincidence in it having been the only object of personal value either of the girls was allowed to bring on this holiday.
An investigation was launched. After discussing strategy with the hotel owner, I joined my thirteen-year-old by the pool, where she was sipping passion fruit juice over Jane Eyre, her blue-painted toenails dangling in the water.
“They’re going to look for it,” I said, keeping my voice level.
“Okay.” She smiled. She went back to her reading.
“Okay?” I searched her face, ready to offer comfort and assurance.
A few hours later, the owner had news: Yes, housekeeping had taken the blanket. They would wash it and then leave it in my daughter’s room.
At dinner, my daughter said, “My blanket’s back.” She added, with a wry expression, “I think it was used for cleaning.”
Back at our villa, she showed me the once snowy-white blanket. It was now gray, threadbare in places to the point of being almost transparent. Swathes of the satin trim hung loose from the cotton. The housekeepers must have washed down the whole resort with it.
I gathered what was left of the blanket and gingerly tucked it into a plastic bag. “I’ll fix it up as soon as we get home,” I promised. “I’ll bleach it and patch it, and I’ll make it okay again.”
“Great,” my daughter said, serenely. “Thank you.”
All that night, I churned under my bed’s swirling mosquito netting. There was no one to blame—mistaking the blanket for a cleaning rag had been a careless but innocent error by housekeeping. But, I knew no matter how I sewed or patched, I would never be able to turn that blanket back into the pristine unbroken white square with continuous green-blue border it had been for the thirteen years previous.
The more I thought it over, the more upset I became. And the more upset I became, the more I began to wonder. Of all the things to go wrong—this was something I’d never even thought about. Was my daughter more upset than she was showing? Was she less upset because she trusted me to be able to make the blanket all right again?
As the eastern skyline turned from periwinkle to pink to bright blue, and quiet dhow fishing boats appeared on the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the truth dawned on me.
I was more upset than she was.
During the years I’d been busy trying to give my daughters the world at the same time as shielding them from it, a curious thing had happened. Even my baby daughter had grown older.
The blanket sits on a shelf in my office cupboard now. When we returned home to where we live in Switzerland, I bleached it white again but didn’t try to patch it. I decided, instead, to see what would happen. Sure enough, my daughter never asked for it.
I catch a glimpse of what’s left of the blanket sometimes, when I’m extracting a copy of my novel to mail or looking for a new ink cartridge. I know my daughter sees it too, because she keeps things in that cupboard. A little part of her surely misses her old blanket and would like to see it whole again, but not enough to ask me about it.
She’s dealt with the loss in her own way, just as I’m learning to deal with it in mine. Allowing your kids to grow up is a slow letting go that continues all through their teenage years. Next year, my older daughter will leave for college. Two years later, my husband and I will be empty nesting.
“Don’t worry,” my younger daughter remarked recently to me, as I was marveling over how she and her sister both tower over me. “We will always need you.”
And they will. And they won’t.
As I learned in an unexpected way, under the shade of baobabs and at the feet of lions.
Author’s Note: As a journalist, before becoming a novelist and before having kids, I travelled far and wide. I can only once remember feeling real fear. Becoming a mother may have increased my sense of peril, but it has also enlarged my appreciation of going out and about in the world. My daughters are great travel companions! Everywhere we go, they share not only laughs but also unique perspectives. Becoming a mother has enriched me as a writer too, bringing out the gentleness and vulnerability that allows me to ponder a trip to southern Africa in a way I would never before have expected.
Anne Korkeakivi is the author of the novel An Unexpected Guest. Her work has been published by The Atlantic, New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among others.