The safari that was, and the one that wasn't

The safari would stay with them forever. 'Don't you agree?' they asked me. I had to keep reminding them that I hadn't been in the van with them.

A person is very fortunate if she can travel throughout the world. I'm doubly fortunate because I have traveled someplace I never was. My passport needs another mark somewhere near page 10, a little blurrier than (but just as real as) the sticker there that indicates the length of my stay to study in South Africa.

I studied for a semester in 1998 with 11 others in Durban, a port city on the Indian Ocean. On holidays, we often traveled as a group around the country. One of our first excursions was to Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park, a wild animal refuge.

Though it was still fairly early in our semester, six of us had formed a strong bond, which a couple of us are fortunate enough to continue to this day. We tried to stick together because of our similar interests, but on the day of our informal safari through the park, another classmate took the last space in the van my five friends were in, and I had to ride in the second vehicle. This was not a problem, and I wouldn't have even remembered the incident had my friends not started reminiscing about it a couple of weeks later.

Our teacher, a reserved woman, did not offer much narration to the drive, and we students did not ply her with questions; instead, we watched out the windows. A couple listened to music on their headphones.

My memory of the drive consists of three simple images: the white van I rode in, the elephant that appeared suddenly at the edge of the road, and the herd of giraffes striding majestically through the grasses - the last two images I remember well because photographs of both hang in my office. And though the picture I took of the elephant is probably the best that came out of that trip - the elephant appeared just as my van rolled by, and I had a window seat - the memory as a whole is fairly vague. Catching glimpses of my friends' red van bouncing along the road ahead of mine, I assumed they were experiencing a similarly unenlightening ride.

My friends actually experienced much more. The man who drove their van was our teacher's husband, a leader in the African National Congress (Nelson Mandela's party). He was a complex man whose exact sociopolitical views we never quite pinpointed. But one thing was clear: He loved his country.

My friends explained the passionate way he described what they were seeing, and then, they said, they all fell silent. They opened their windows to the warm afternoon air, and someone turned up the music playing in the tape player. Good friends, soulful music, and stirring scenery surrounded them, and they described the drive as magical and spiritual, a memory from South Africa that would stay with them forever.

"Don't you agree?" they turned to ask me.

The first time they asked me that, I had to sadly pull myself out of what sounded like a beautiful memory and remind them I hadn't been in the van with them. They nodded quickly, suddenly remembering I hadn't. We six were always together, so it was difficult to imagine one of us not being present.

At our first reunion after our semester abroad, my friends reminisced about the safari. Again they included me in their memory, and again I told them they were wrong, this time feeling a little angry.

Why couldn't they ever remember?

Did I affect them so little they didn't know if I was there or not?

And stop reminding me so vividly of a trip about which I can only remember a van, an elephant, and a giraffe!

We've reunited several times now, and the story - with me included as one of the passengers in my friend's van - usually finds its way into our conversation. But I have stopped correcting my friends. They do not have bad intentions when they include me; in fact, they have unwittingly given me quite a gift. Hearing their story so many times, I have to admit there is a chance I was in the van with them. Five to one says I was.

The problem then becomes, why don't I remember being as awestruck as they? But I'm not too bothered by that - it's a fair trade to be able to look back and remember more than what I only can see in my office pictures.

At the end of our studies, my friends and I flipped through each other's albums, initialing the backs of those photographs we wanted copies of. Just as they gave me the memory of the safari, I made copies of the elephant picture to give to each of them.

It's nice to think that, just as I tell my story of the magical drive along the African plain, so one of them might be taking pride in having personally snapped that amazing elephant photo.

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