That’s when the hippo surfaces. We’re in a dry sports utility vehicle; the hippo is fully submerged in water except for its eyes and ears, and yet we are – in what will strike me later as an incredibly strange configuration – nose to nose and eye to eye. Its ears start wiggling. (In South Africa, instead of saying “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” you say, “That’s just the ears of the hippopotamus.”) Our windows are open. Our windows are open! I freeze, sure we are safe – we are safe, right? We’re enclosed in a metal case. The hippo would have to throw itself across the ledge to get to us, stick its head in through the car window. Impossible.
It disappears under water. When it resurfaces, it’s closer – so close I can’t get the telephoto lens I have on my camera to focus properly.
Sometimes, he said, a male hippo will settle in a muddy water hole after it rains
It doesn’t jump, of course. We stare at each other for a few long seconds, and then we go our separate ways, but there is this – an image, slightly blurry, of the time three oblivious animals (one of them wet, one of them cold, one of them hungry) noticed each other across the bizarre equalizing plane that brought them together and kept them, thankfully, apart.
I open the windows and flood the car with warm humid air
That’s the universalizing explanation I’ve come up with; that’s my sense of how I participate in The Way We Live Now. And yet, I’m not convinced that mindfulness – my generation’s answer to the generic version of this problem, this disconnect from the body – is the perfect panacea. It’s a step. A valuable step. But it can have pitfalls.
I don’t know what it is, but in the meantime, I’m trying to recover the animal responses I’ve shut down, using the three questions (am I cold? wet? hungry?) to check in periodically and make a habit of what was once an instinct. Same goes for making Yes the default instead of no.
A ranger in Kruger Park had different advice as we walked with him through “the bush” (a phrase I can never say without feeling like an asshole – same applies to going “on safari”). He had a Winchester with him and, while tracking zebras, showed us some fairly fresh hippo tracks. He will decide it is his, and will indicate this by spraying his poop everywhere, using his tail as a sort of propeller. Sometimes, especially lately, those muddy water holes dry out, but the hippo won’t leave, because it’s his. So if you should encounter a male hippo in such a spot, know that his skin is cracking from exposure to the sun, that he is not sweating because he’s the only mammal that can’t, and that he has committed to defending what once was a wallow and is now just a dry hole. Know that you are in mortal danger, but do not run.
This particular dam is built such that the cement wall retaining the water on the left comes three-quarters of the way up the car. I’m driving slowly, nervously. I’m eyeing the right edge of the shelf, it feels too narrow, like we might slip off, when I realize (unprompted!) that I’m cold. It’s a small victory for my animal self, and the drive across the dam suddenly seems less harrowing. My dad is typically unconcerned about the crossing: a diabetic, he is testing his blood sugar, which he suspects is a little on the low side. (It is.) We’re halfway across the dam when I stop to take a photo of some water lilies in the water at shoulder-level on our left. I’m excited about the angle; it’s like a frog’s-eye view of a lily-pad. I say this to my father, who, unimpressed, starts to unwrap a Lunch Bar.