Problems Everywhere and the Lodge Just Outside the Gate

The day had two beginnings.

The first was at 10:49 pm, after having only been in bed on my quasi memory foam African mattress for less than two hours.

I was on the bottom bunk, Mackenzie was on the top, and the door to our tiny bedroom was locked. Earlier in the week this room had been an escape for six of us out of a small opening in the window bars when the door to our side of the home was unexpectedly locked permanently. That was our first of many #problemseverywhere. We broke the lock, we broke the hot water heater button, we broke the toilet lid, we broke the button on the newly installed fan, we tore the floor covering when we moved the bunk bed to escape the room through the window, the oven broke just because we were around. Don’t invite Americans to your Kenyan home unless you want us to break everything.

IMG_5312After our window escape

Back to the first beginning. 10:49 pm I hear a phone from the other bedroom making a noise. Then I hear Cheryl knocking on our door.

“Girls, are ya’ll up?”

No, I think to myself. I haven’t fallen asleep yet. Up already?

More knocking.

“Girls, are ya’ll awake?”

I get up to check my phone. I had my alarm set for 4:30am and wondered two things: why did my alarm not go off? why do I feel like I haven’t slept at all yet?

I unlock the door and remove the door stopper (safety first) and open the door to Cheryl laughing loudly because the sound she heard on her phone was not the alarm. It was just a sound. And we could, in fact, go back to sleep. Or go to sleep. Since none of us had actually been asleep yet.

The second beginning, which should have been the original beginning to the longest and scariest 24 hours of my life, was at 4:30am. We woke up and left by 5am to have breakfast at Beth and Shadrack’s house. At 5:45 we started the potty train and by 6 we were well on our way to an exciting African safari full of zebras, elephants, meercats, giraffes, lions, water buffalo, wildebeasts, and gazelles. Expectations = something way better than the Birmingham zoo. The safari day drive would end at a lodge with a delicious buffet dinner, a hot shower, and a good night of rest on a comfy bed before a morning safari the next day.

Sounds like the perfect ending to a week of mission work with the most beautiful and joyful people God ever made.

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John the Baptist (JtheB) and Shadrack (Shaddy) were the drivers for this safari excursion. Two trustworthy, capable, and experienced drivers on tricky African roads full of meth holes (because pot holes are not a heavy enough description of the road conditions). We were in good hands.

Two hours after leaving Migori we arrived at the first gate entry into the park. We started another potty train, because rule #1 is use the restroom when you can because who knows when the next opportunity will present itself. Rule #2 is bring your own toilet paper.

Once you have paid, you have 24 hours in the park, so instead of paying at the first gate we were issued a transit ticket. This means we had two hours to get from one gate to the next. We planned to pay at the next gate to ensure we could have a later check out the next day. (Yay for sleeping in!) Technically, we weren’t allowed to stop and look at animals while in transit, even though we did a few times. If we didn’t arrive at the next gate within two hours I assume we would have to pay a penalty in addition to our gate entry fee.

It was a beautiful drive on flat grasslands that went on forever and ever. It was like looking at the ocean until the horizon meets the water. Grasslands and trees as far as the eye could see. We saw gazelles, zebras, giraffes, and elephants.

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We arrived at the next gate and we all got out to pay our gate entry. We could see the Mara river from this gate.  Robert, a safari guard, asked if we wanted to walk across the river while JtheB and Shaddy drove across.

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Sure! Of course! Why not?!

Our “short walk” across the river involved sightings of several hippos, a 20 foot crocodile, and monkeys conspiring against us in the tree branches just above our heads. I’ve loved monkeys my entire life up until this exact moment. I was 100% out of my comfort zone and Robert only had four bullets in his gun. I stayed with the gun and told him to use his bullets wisely.

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Little did I know that much later in the day I would learn what it’s like to be 492% out of my comfort zone. These hungry hungry hippos, crocodiles, and maniac monkeys had nothing on the end of this 24 hours.

We met up with JtheB and Shaddy at the end of our walk and we continued our drive through the safari. The American in me was desperate for some road signs. I needed to the know the name of our lodge we were driving toward and I needed some signs for how many kilometers until we arrived. If I asked, 30 minutes or 1 hour would have likely been the answer, which would have been incorrect. To the Lord a day is like a thousand years. To an American 30 minutes is like 300 African hours. I kept seeing signs for lodges (not knowing if any of them were the ones we were driving to) and would see things like “58 km” or “32 km” so I did my mental math. A 5k is 3.1 miles so 58 km is like 40ish miles? And we aren’t driving 60 mph, so it will take longer than 40 minutes to get to this lodge, IF in fact that is our lodge.

A total of five hours passed. We had driven from the north to the south end of the park and we were now exiting the park driving toward a lodge on the side of the mountain with golden roofs. It looked beautiful and I was sure this is where we were headed.

We drove through a Masai community and asked them for directions to our lodge. And all the while I’m thinking, “Follow the road to the golden roofs!”. The Masai gave us directions along a indistinct pathway to an area under trees with tents.  Tents that had “amenities”. Beds, flushing toilets, and a shower inside a large green tarp. We seemed to be the only campers planning to rest their heads in this obscure location managed by a few Masai men. Had a bunch of women been prepared to sleep in tents among Masai men, we would have stayed. But we weren’t. At all. In fact we were hesitant to stay. The tents had no locks and we had young teen girls with us. It was unsettling.

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But at this point in our day, we had been driving for 7 hours. We had not had a potty break in 5 hours. We had driven across grasslands with no building or structure in sight and had not eaten anything since breakfast that morning before we left. We were tired, hungry, and “under pressure” as JtheB described needing to go to the bathroom. The dismal situation was described by one of our team members as the scene in a horror movie. We were beginning to feel a little hopeless.

The decision was made to stay at another lodge thanks to our advocates JtheB and Shaddy, but first we would potty in the tents and eat lunch in their cafeteria hut since they had already prepared our lunch.

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The lodge we were relocating to was gracious to us and gave us a reduced rate due to our situation. But, would you care to guess the location of this gracious lodge? The north end of the park, where we first entered for a transit ticket several hours ago. Actually, this lodge is located “just outside the gate”. Famous last words.

Cue Pocahontas’s “Just Around the River Bend” because that is the song that was stuck in my head en route to our lodge that was just outside the gate.

It was 3:00 in the afternoon at this point. The park closes at 6:30. So, we had to re-enter the park, drive 5 1/2 hours to the north, and exit the park in a 3 1/2 hour span of time. Somehow we had to shave two whole hours off our drive time. Not only were we pressed for time to exit the park, we needed to arrive at the lodge in time for the dinner buffet. Priorities people. Golden Corral African style.

We began our trek back through the Masai village toward the gate entry on the south end. JtheB realized he needed pressure in one of his back tires. He attempted three times to put air in the tires in random places throughout the village but to no avail. So we re-entered the park at the edge of the Masai village with one flat, shredding tire. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but driving on African meth holes with a flat tire isn’t an ideal situation. Neither was the situation we were about to find ourselves in as the tire was changed. We re-entered the park and stopped just on the other side of the gate so JtheB and Shaddy could replace the tire. This minor repair required all of us to get out of the Land Cruiser. This would be no issue,  but the Masai women were at the gate to sell their handmade goods. Our vehicle was surrounded on every side by these women with their faces and goods up against the windows with them begging for us to buy their things. JtheB told us to get out of the vehicle to fix the tire. We were hesitant but he assured us that everything would be sawa sawa (ok). There we were, standing in the midst of these Masai hagglers who refuse to take no for an answer and we had no escape. It was so surreal, like we were on a reality TV show. Where were the cameras? Was this The Truman Show, African Edition? We just stood close and stared at each other with awkward giggles, ignoring these women like we just enjoyed laughing in each other’s faces. Rodan and Fields needs to expand to Africa and recuit these women. Their persistance is unreal. Ten minutes later, or what felt like a brutal and uncomfortable eternity that included an appearance from Sassy Missy, the tire was replaced and we got back in the Land Cruiser.

IMG_5528I no longer care about the safari at this point. Neither does Mackenzie. 

We TORE through that park for an exit. Stirred up all kinds of dirt and dust. Blew past all the wild animals like they were a jaded sight. We certainly exceeded the speed limit and we finally arrived at the gate by the river with the hungry hungry hippos, 20 foot long crocodile, and maniac monkeys. And this is where JtheB coined the phrase “problems everywhere”. The gate authorities would not let us leave without us all paying another $80 entrance fee because we were not going to make it to the final exit gate by 6:30pm. JtheB and Shaddy were not going to allow that a) because it was wrong and b) because none of us were prepared to pay the fee twice. While they discussed the matter with the gate authorities, we began our survival planning– a night spent in the vehicles in the dark surrounded by wild animals. We took inventory of our snacks and water and discussed the safest way to pee in the bush with the hungry hungry hippos. Our other option was to drive back to the tents three hours away. Our options were looking unpromising.

I was at about a 300% level of out of comfort zone at this point. Legit fear was starting to settle in my heart.

Another eternity passed and God allowed us to leave that gate without paying another entrance fee. Praise hands from all of us!

We drove even faster and pressed on toward the final gate so we could rest at the lodge just outside the gate. Around 7 pm we made our exit. After feeling like we had been held hostage at the last gate, we were feeling free and hopeful to leave the park for good. Onward, we Christian soldiers drove, to the lodge just outside the gate. We climbed a hill and Cheryl pointed out some buildings on the side of the mountain that she thought was the lodge we were driving toward. Yay for an end in sight!

We turned down a road at the top of the hill and from my somewhat keen sense of direction, it seemed that a left hand turn would lead us to the lodge Cheryl pointed out, though we couldn’t actually see it anymore. We passed many left hand turns and I began to wonder if JtheB and Shaddy even knew where we were going. After about 40 minutes of driving to the lodge just outside the park it was now dark. We passed a Masai village and asked for directions. A pikipiki (motorcycle) driver agreed to show us the way, so we began to follow. He eventually made a left hand turn, so I was thinking we must be arriving soon!

We were now away from all civilization and all lights, buildings, bathrooms, shelter, food, gas, people, or any hope for help if lost, out of gas, injured, or near death. I had bandaids and Advil–basically a hospital in my backpack so hakuna matata (insert sarsasm). It was complete darkness other than our headlights and the faint red brake light of the pikipiki ahead of us. The billions of stars that God showed Abraham were visible to our eyes. We were completely lost in the dark and at the mercy of the pikipiki stranger.

We quickly realized this pikipiki was taking us on a path that wasn’t really a path, it was just a slightly cleared way in a unknown direction. We began to wonder if he could be trusted. What if he was leading us to be ambushed in some uncivilized village? That may seem extreme, but for several women lost in the middle of Africa at night, we were utterly terrified at this point.

To add terror to terror, the “road” we were on was more like the riverbed to an Olympic-rated white water rafting river on the side of a mountain. We forged four strivers (striver = less than a river, more than a stream). It was like some kind of psychotic Oregon Trail. I’m positive there were many times we did not have all tires on the ground and keeping our vehicle from tumbling down the side of the mountain was directly dependent on how we leaned and shifted our weight inside the vehicle. Every muscle in our bodies was tense and our hands hurt from holding such a tight grip on the handle.

It was at this point that I reached my 492% out of comfort zone level. I was actually fearful that we may not survive the night. Legitimate fear that we would be harmed by some uncivilized natives to whatever land we were driving on or our Land Cruiser would slide and tumble down the mountain and we would be killed.

I think all of that fear settled in our hearts at the same time. We didn’t know it at the time, but JtheB and Shaddy were fearful as well. We began to sing and pray aloud. I could hear God saying over and over again, “Do you trust Me?” We prayed for a straight path. We prayed for no more strivers. We prayed for wisdom for our drivers. We prayed for deliverance from this situation. We prayed to arrive quickly. We sang aloud many praise songs to keep our focus on our almighty and trustworthy Protector and Provider.

I can say that I have never needed to trust God like I did on this night. No person had any control and we trusted our lives into the hands of the only One who is in control. In a very odd way, I had peace in the midst of this frightening situation because I knew I had Someone holding me that is absolutely trustworthy and able and only allows things that are for my good and His glory.

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. Just to take Him at His word. Just to rest upon His promise and to know thus saith the Lord. 

After 1 1/2 hours of hazardous driving conditions we saw something I never thought would bring excitement to see. Cement. A bridge. A pathway to the entrance to the lodge. We screamed. We shouted. We clapped. We thanked God loudly.

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Arriving at the lodge feeling frazzled and wondering what on God’s green earth just happened to us

We arrived with the warmest welcome by the lodge employees. Their smiles and handshakes and greetings were like God himself was hugging us and saying, “I heard your cries and I have delivered you. Let’s celebrate!” I hugged one of the employees and said, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you!” We ate a delicious dinner and we even we had cake to celebrate Beth’s birthday. The kitchen staff sang happy birthday in Swahili and English. We were joyful and we were humbly grateful to be safely in the company of people that made us feel like family. It was all grace.

Oh for grace to trust Him more. 

And we were promised by Johnston, a Masai man, that he would lead us on a different path down the mountain the next day.

I could sleep well that night, knowing there was a safer way to get down the mountain and on our way to Nairobi for our flight.

Until…

It poured rain all night long and I couldn’t sleep for thinking that the rain would either make the path down the mountain worse or prevent us from leaving at all.

The next morning came early as part of the team woke up to leave for Nairobi. The night rain was not going to prevent us from leaving, so we ate breakfast and loaded up the Land Cruiser one last time.

We saw the sun rise over the Serengeti and God reminded me that without the terror-filled drive to the lodge, I would have never seen this stunning view of His creation. His goodness prevails always. And without that drive I would also not have had the opportunity to trust Him as deeply as I had the night before.

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I have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. He is trustworthy. He is able. And maybe He allowed the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad drive so that I could experience His abiding presence through the warm greeting at the lodge, the dinner celebration, and the sunrise.

Johnston, the Masai who promised a different path back down the mountain? He rode with us that morning and took us on the exact same path. I guess you could say it was different though. The rain turned the dirt to mud and the strivers were higher. The driving was also different, ya know, with a lot more sliding and fishtailing. There was no “turn around, don’t drown”. It was all “clench your butt cheeks, hold tight to your OS bar, and hope for the best.”

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It was sawa sawa.

No worries.

Hakuna Matata.

John the Baptist, you are my hero. I will be forever grateful for your diligence in muddin’ precious cargo through the mountains in Kenya.

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Next time I want to see an elephant or a giraffe, I’m coming right back here to see my pictures. Mark my words. Brittany will not be attending the safari next time. Just give me one more day with those precious kids at Golden Gate Academy because I miss them terribly.

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