The intercom at the animal hospital boomed, “Attention, Grendel’s mom is here, Grendel’s mom is here.” I smiled a bit and inside my head laughed while wondering if anyone else there was laughing.

Why was I laughing? In high school and college I read and liked the story of Beowulf and my sense of humor is a mystery to some, but I find irony funny at times. Grendel is a character in Beowulf who is depicted as a monster. Large, hairy, mean—this monster invaded Hrothgar’s mead hall and eats his Viking warriors for breakfast. After the hero Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel’s mother goes mental and causes even more destruction before Beowulf has to do battle with her as well.

Grendel driving

Grendel driving

My Grendel may have been very hairy and big for a dog, but he was the most gentle, kind, loving creature you could hope to love. When I brought him home as a puppy, my one cat tolerated him and the other went out of her way to smack him in the nose at every opportunity. He would sit and take it, even though he could have eaten her in two gulps. Grendel outlived them and had the experience of getting love from several new kittens in the house who adored the big guy.

The absence of Grendel’s presence is so pronounced in my house. He was always right in the middle of the action—whether that was lying down in the kitchen as five people worked their way around him trying to cook a meal, or blocking the doorway of my bathroom every morning to await his breakfast. He would never hurt a fly on purpose but he did take me down by the knees going down the stairs as a puppy. And he liked to play that game where he sits behind someone who doesn’t know he’s there and they turn and trip over him and fly to the ground as he hopes they drop some food.IMG_5731

One of my favorite activities to do with Grendel was to walk on the beach or in the woods. No leashes, no rules—just sniffing away at all the smells. I laughed when the experts told me to get him a dog bowl on a tray up off the ground to help ease the strain on his neck. Well then what do I do about him every other minute when we are walking and his nose is on the ground sniffing?

g-surfingOn the off-season down at Bethany Beach, we would head out sans leash and he would trot alongside the dunes as I walked along the surf. The dunes provided more smelling opportunities and then sometimes he would venture into the waves to fetch and surf. A water dog at heart, when we visited the lake, he was all about jumping off the steps of the dock to swim out and save me or to chase a duck. I never worried about his wandering up on Walloon Lake and even met some neighbors who lived several houses down because he had first made the introductions and of course gave everyone a great first impression.

At home I was embarrassed at times when he would just run into my neighbors’ houses and before we could grab him, would gobble up any food left out for their cats or dogs. He was part of the Briarleigh pack, letting the little dogs bark at him and running around the children with a delightful look on his face.4188_83427987487_6046940_n

Grendel was a quiet dog—very much to my liking. He barked only on special occasions—like when he would see family or friends approaching, or when he was at the dog park and wanted his buddy to run and play, or at home when someone knocked on the door. Just one definitive bark—nothing ongoing and noisy—just enough to warn away the bad guys and let me know a friend was at the door. And my gentle giant would sometimes bark at the little cats who would venture too close to his bone. He would put up with a lot but he was not okay with them messing with his bones. Even though the bones were as big as the cats themselves.

10398500_57849267487_1153483_nWhat a comfort and joy he was to me for 11 wonderful years. Lying with me on our sofa, riding along with me to the beach or Michigan, or just on some errands as we did a few days ago. He saw me leaving and rushed the door—standing in my way determined to go with me, so I brought him along and he had a happy last ride sticking his head out the window.

God gives us what we need and I believe He gave Grendel and me to each other at the right time. I finally was settled with a house and ready to take care of a puppy. Lab Rescue had a male yellow lab puppy who needed a home just at the time I was ready. I drove up to Baltimore to meet him at a vet office. The woman said I could spend a few minutes with him and decide if I want him or not and that she had three other people lined up if I didn’t. He burst into the room—a ball of energy running around sniffing and licking and his happy tail knocking over everything in its proximity. I took him home and soon realized I needed a bigger car. So instead of getting a little sports car, I got a big SUV to hall me and my baby and all our stuff on our adventures.10398500_57849252487_6768651_n

Nine years ago I remember sitting in my room crying out to God to please save Grendel for me. I had come home from work with a bad back only to realize that Grendel had gotten up on the counter and eaten through a large bottle of Advil I had just bought. He ate 200 times the toxic dose and somehow still managed to survive. Praise God. I cried again last week when the doctor told me he had cancer. For a few days it seemed maybe this would be something they could fix and he would live a couple more years. But just as life brings us unexpected blessings, so too it gives us unexpected blows. After a routine visit for a cat scan things progressed rapidly and no one could figure out why. In a blink of an eye I had to decide whether to fight a seemingly losing battle and keep him around for a little while longer or to stop the pain and suffering he seemed to be in. I am going back and forth about the wisdom of that decision now. It may be just because I miss him and I’m hating the uncertainty of what the outcome would have been. And some moments I am at peace knowing that it was his time to go and I just hate that it happened.10398500_57849257487_5295814_n

Thank you—all of my dear friends and family—all of the wonderful supportive words and actions you have given me. Yes, he’s a dog and not a human. But anyone who loves animals understands the loss of a beloved pet. They are our companions, they comfort us and love us and are part of our families. Thanks to all my human friends and thank you God for giving me a wonderful decade with the Grendel dog.

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Coming to the end of our wonderful safari, we flew to our last stop, the tent hotel in the Masai Mara. Roughing it is not how I would describe these gorgeous canvas covered hotel rooms along the Mara River. Once again, getting there was via a little air strip and as we arrived, the Masai had set up a “duty free shop” selling spears and other chotchkies. I kept my tent flaps wide open all during the first night, listening to the animals—including the hippos who were floating by in the river below.

The next day I spotted what looked like a young/baby crocodile. It was actually a massive monitor lizard, several feet long. It freaked me out and after explaining that my tent flaps were open all night and that kind of creature was roaming about, Eric said I shouldn’t have kept them open. I guess the sleeping outside thing didn’t apply to the Mara Safari club tent camp. Next night I was zipped up tight!

Distract the Rhinos!

Our game drive in the Masai Mara was one of the best of the trip. Yes, the bar was raised once again. Eric had the group drive up a mountain side toward a ranger station where we got to see two white Rhinos up close and in person.

We had to be quiet so as not to disturb the female. She couldn’t see us (they can’t see very well) but she could sense us and if she knew we were close, she might not like that. You probably haven’t been next to a rhino before so trust me, you want them to be happy and distracted or not see you at all. And that is exactly what the rangers did to the male rhino so we could get up close and touch him and take a photo. I won’t go into details but it was a happy ending for Mr. Rhino and we left our tips in the rhino tip box for the hard working ranger.

Back down on the plains, our driver Abdi, who I dubbed, Happy Abdi, was awesome. He knew where a number of animals hung out so he took us over the a pride of lions and their cubs. We were the first to arrive so got some excellent shots and great views of the little guys nursing and playing. The mamas got tired and would roar and show their teeth—frightening but it didn’t scare the cubs too much—they just moved on to the next set of nipples to try out auntie and her sister. I dubbed them the itteh bitteh African kitteh committee (a line taken from LOLcats). One of the mom’s sneezed which made us laugh—her response was to give us a “look” and then settle back down again. Glad she wasn’t up for some whooping.

Moving on, Abdi drove us over to where a Cheetah was hanging out under a tree. He was getting up from his day of napping and stretched and yawned (which looked frightening in the photo I snapped). This guy just walked around our jeep and got so close we could have touched finger to paw if I was feeling stupid enough—which I was not.

More giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, a Secretariat bird, and more dotted the landscape on our way back to the tent camp for the evening. We needed a good rest for the seriously early wake up call the next and final morning.

Up Up and Away

Before the sun was up—a looooong time before—we got in our jeeps and drove out to the bush where the balloons awaited us. It was freezing at that time and the wind was up so we had to wait before getting started. The process for getting into the basket was such…they tipped the basket on its side and one by one we climbed in and sat on our backs with legs up—like the astronauts do on lift off. The basket is divided into five parts—the middle for the captain, and two compartments on each side that hold 3-4 people each. I held onto my hat, closed my eyes, and pressed my ears shut while they inflated the balloon. A few peeks told me this was not something I wanted to witness—loud blowing fans, fire spewing out of the machine in the middle—yeah, just tell me when we’re up. And then poof! we were up!

What a ride! We flew low for the most part—an occasional lift into higher elevations had my dad gripping the sides with white knuckles. I was somewhat okay with the whole thing because the balloon drifted very slowly down—no hard crashes were in store and I felt pretty secure inside of it. Not that I wanted to go any higher though. Along the way, the fire blowing into the balloon scared the bajeesis out of the animals who all fled as we approached. Kind of cool to see them from above. We also saw a number of Masai bomas and people waving at us from below.

The touchdown was very smooth and our drivers met up with us to take us over to our champagne breakfast they had set up in the middle of the Masai Mara. Before we stopped, we saw a big buffalo carcass. The vultures were all hanging out and started to leave–one by one like planes taking off—as we approached. The hyenas also took off—with a leg of course—can’t leave good food behind! This was all just yards from where breakfast was being set up.

As we walked around the breakfast site, I noticed a tremendous amount of poo. Maybe this was a hot spot for taking their morning coffee breaks or something, but you could not walk two steps without hitting a pile of poo. It really amazed me as I did a 360 turn and saw miles and miles of grass lands stretched out before me. Was there really that much poo out there?

After a bumpy ride back we relaxed by the pool, watched the hippos swim and snort and then got back on the road, up the mountain for a beautiful evening of wine and treats by a big bonfire as we watched the sun set over the Masai Mara. A truly exhilarating site to see. Again, Tauck knows how to treat their guests and create exceptional experiences.

Off to Nairobi and the first leg of the trip home.

As we climbed aboard a plane with the smallest seats in the world for a quick (thankfully) trip back to Nairobi, we said goodbye to the animals, the Masai people, and our jeeps. We flew in over a sad steel-lined ghetto where about a million people live cramped in poverty. The traffic in Nairobi is similar to D.C. so I felt at home and was entertained by the vendors. See they have a great system going on over there. The police hold up traffic at the roundabouts (causing more congestion) to give the street vendors time to run up and down the line of cars. Once they’ve done a circuit, the cops let that line go and the process starts over again with a new set of potential customers. I didn’t see anything I was really interested in—the hello kitty dolls and Elvis Presley photos seemed less than authentically African so I passed. After a brief rest in the hotel we were off again to the airport where we arrived precisely at 7:59 when Eric said we would. Man he was good!

Final Thoughts

Go. Save your pennies and go. Africa is so amazing and you’ll never experience anything like it anywhere else. The people were lovely, wore beautiful clothes, and even though most were dirt poor, seemed content with their lives. The animals were extraordinary—seeing them in their environment up close was so different than any zoo experience. The vast and endless sky—that included the Southern Cross which I got to see for the first time—was breathtaking. Over and over again I just found myself saying “Thank You God for your beautiful earth, for letting me experience this, and for all Your blessings!”

Tauck Tours and our guide, Eric, were exceptional as usual. Our fellow travelers were fun and added much delight to our trip. The hotels were top of the line and the service was beyond expectations.

Throughout our trip we had some laughs about the toilets. Many were heard to say as they were coming out of a facility, “Well now I can finish writing my book about toilets.” In some places where you would think an old outhouse would be a treat if you could get it, you’d find a clean, full toilet with flushing water and paper. And then you could drive an hour later and stop somewhere more civilized and find a closet with just a hole in the ground. Yup, I tried that just to say I did. I worked my muscles good on that one! In any case, the toilet situation was as diverse as the animal species and you never knew what you were going to get.

The trip over and back was long. I don’t love flying and am extremely uncomfortable in planes (big butt and long legs with arthritis make sitting on them very painful). But even with that and the root canal pain I had the first several days, it was completely worth it. I’ve been culling through the couple thousand photos I took, trying to pull just a few out to share—it’s so hard when you’ve had the experience of your life.

Well, happy anniversary mom and dad. We lived our dream trip and can continue to dream about it for a long time to come!

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The wonderful African Safari continues with a nice stay at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club. During the few days we were there we went out to Nanyuki, the town nearby and did a game drive.

Ol Pejeta and the Chimp Orphans

We started off the first morning on the look-out for the final animal on the Big 5 list, the Rhino. We spotted some elephants and the normal characters—gazelles, baboons, wildebeest and more. Then we were treated to a beautiful site—the reticulated giraffe. This giraffe has different markings than the ones we had been seeing and they looked as though they were wearing socks.

A little while later, as we drove through the Ol Pejeta Conservancy we made a stop at the Chimpanzee sanctuary. Guides took us around the area to view a few of the chimps who gave us a bit of a show. One had a bad attitude and threw sticks at us—but seeing how these guys were rescued from a life of slavery and abuse, I think some patience and forgiveness was in order.

On we went searching for the Rhino who had so far been hiding way off the beaten path, when suddenly we saw several of them hanging out with some Grevy Zebras. These were called “white” rhinos and not because of their color. The name “white” was yet another mistake stemming from those German accents. They were calling the rhinos “wide” because of the shape of their mouths.

The grevy zebras were also a new site for us. These zebra’s had slightly different stripes—narrower—and their stomachs were white. This area was the only place we saw this kind of zebra.

Our final stop was at the big equator sign. We got our photo op and straddled the line, so now I can say I stood on the equator and at one point was standing on both the northern and southern hemispheres. It may have been cooler than it sounds—call me a geek, I don’t care,—it was cool.

Spinners and Weavers

The next day we drove through Nanyuki (what a fun name) to the spinners and weavers guild. More than 140 women who are widowed or come from a bad domestic situation have found employment through the Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers. Their children have a place to go while they are working and there is a girl’s school there as well. This organization has grown quite a bit over the years. We got a tour of the areas where they were spinning and weaving wool into beautiful rugs, shawls, and place mats. They grow the plants that are used for the dyes, they have sheep on site that provide the wool, and every step of the process is controlled through the guild. Our group donated some cash (in addition to the stuff I bought that was made there) so they could buy a new computer and step up their online sales.

The Children’s Rescue Center

Our final stop of the day was a heartbreaking treat. We visited a children’s rescue center. It’s not an orphanage per say but some of the children were in fact orphans. The adults that work there take care of the kids who they have rescued from abandonment, abuse, and other sad situations. They work with the families to rehabilitate the parents and kids so that the children can be returned to the families. I was astounded to hear that—who can possibly be rehabilitated after abandoning their children on the side of a road to fend for themselves? This is one of those things that culturally is hard to understand. What I do know is that the children were absolutely sweet and full of smiles.

Our tour director, Eric, had the kids hold up letters that spelled out Happy Anniversary Greg and Carol. It was so sweet I cried. After that he gave them noise makers and scoops of ice cream. The fun continued with a game of soccer (Eric brought along a new soccer ball as well). Once again we had fun taking pictures with the kids and then got big hugs before we had to leave.

Africa was a showcase of God’s artwork—through the animals, the grand scale of land, sky, mountains, and desert and also in the people. These people are really poor and many work what we would consider boring, unskilled jobs. But I saw a lot of contented and happy people—especially the kids. Now maybe some of that was the special occasion of having tourists come by with treats, but all in all I would say for sure I am blessed and am finding it hard to hear anyone in our country (with the exception of the truly poor and homeless) complain about not having enough material things or money. I’m not saying that we can’t want things or have things, but I just have a different perspective of needs vs. wants.

An Upscale BBQ in the Bush

When Tauck Tours says we are having a BBQ for dinner, you should raise your expectations. But seriously, whatever they deliver will be much cooler than what you were thinking. Our last night at the Safari Club was topped off by a wonderful dinner under a tent on the Conservancy along a flowing creek. Bonfires and lanterns lit the way to our tables and free booze flowed. That last part is what probably lead to the singing and animal imitations that followed. We had a wonderful guitar player who played everything from the Beetles and Kenny Rogers to Neil Diamond and the Lion King. One fun family we were traveling with entertained the group with imitations of the various animals (ostrich, zebra, lion, and so forth) that we saw on our journey. Hilarious. And I’m not saying that because of all the wine—I have photos to remember it by. I only wish I had recorded the Hakuna Matata (no worries) song. What a great way to end our stay at Mt. Kenya.

Ice cream for all the kids at the rescue center in Nanyuki.

Ice cream for all the kids at the rescue center in Nanyuki.

George the chimp poses for the cameras at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

George the chimp poses for the cameras at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

A reticulated giraffe.

A reticulated giraffe.

Giraffe eating the acacia tree.

Giraffe eating the acacia tree.

The equator sign in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The equator sign in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The spinners and weavers guild in Nanyuki.

The spinners and weavers guild in Nanyuki.

The kids hold up a Happy Anniversary sign.

The kids hold up a Happy Anniversary sign.

Kids at the rescue center  love the noise makers.

Kids at the rescue center love the noise makers.

The kids on our tour join the kids at the center for a game of soccer.

The kids on our tour join the kids at the center for a game of soccer.

Dad hangs out with the kids and takes some photos with his camera.

Dad hangs out with the kids and takes some photos with his camera.

Watch George entertain our group.

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