Dear Aman and Semra: Safari! Animals!

Hi, Aman and Semra!

Thank you so much for your Christmas greeting. As I told your mom, the recording of Silent Night brought a big smile to my face, and I immediately shared it with the rest of my family. Aman, hearing your booming “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas!” at the end made us all giggle. And Semra, what beautiful playing!

I have been thinking of you both, and your family, throughout my trip in Africa so far. In part, because I don’t know very many people who are from Africa, and though I am not traveling in your home country, there are parts of the places I’ve visited in both South Africa and Botswana that I think would be very familiar for you. The way the land looks, the way the food tastes, the way the people speak, the colors people wear, and the way the music and the birds and animals sound. It has been fun to imagine what it would be like for you to travel here.

I am excited to tell you a little bit about my trip. For the last 5 days, we have been in safari in Botswana, and WOW, has it been an incredible experience!

First, I want to lay out a day in the life of safari. We wake early in the morning, around 5am. The sun hasn’t risen yet, but by around 5:15, there is a bit of rosy color in the African sky. We eat breakfast around 5:30am, and by this time, the sun starts to peek above the horizon line. At the place I am at now, in Ghoha Hills, we have an amazing view to the water hole below, where there are usually elephants visible, drinking in the early dawn light. Around this time, the birds also start making a lot of noise, singing many different songs: some beautiful, some noisy and raucous like crows (the La-De-Das are the loudest and most startling). Once we have packed up our waters and hats and snacks, we head to big open-air jeeps and pile in, preparing for the drive ahead. And then, we’re off! We start driving, and spend the next few hours passing through lots of different types of terrain: some grassy, some with heavy shrubs, some very open and sandy. As we drive through deserts and savannahs, we stop the Jeep whenever we find something exciting to look at. Occasionally, we pass giant acacia trees, whose trunks have been stripped by the elephants.

After several hours (or today, we were out for 8 hours straight! With a stop for a mid-morning snack and then for lunch), we come back, and have some time to relax, take naps, and have another afternoon snack. Usually, we go on another shorter drive before dinner, and then get back to our base camp around sunset. We sit around the fire for a few minutes before a late dinner, and then eat a big feast with the other guests who are also at the camp (at the place I am now, there are 8 other people staying here, along with my family). We have been eating so much delicious food: lots of bean dishes, some meats, spinach and other vegetables grown in the area. After dinner, it’s dessert, and then straight to bed–because we have to be up so early the next morning!

Okay, and now, without further ado: ANIMALS!! Finally, the animals. Let me tell you about them! We have seen LOTS of animals. Many different types of antelope are the most common: kudu, springbok, steenbok, tsessebe, impala. Have you heard of any of these? They are varying sizes (steenbok are the smallest we’ve seen–full grown ones are about the size of baby deer or foals!), and have antlers and markings that look very different. They also have different styles of living: some of them have one kid for each mom and dad, some travel in groups with almost all mamas and only one papa. It is really fun to watch them spring across the plains! If you are curious, I recommend you look them up in one of your animal books and see what you discover.

Another very common sighting is zebras. These are so cool. As you probably know, each zebra has a unique set of stripes, much like our human fingerprints. It is so cool to examine them and see the subtle differences in size and shape of markings. I also think it’s amazing that the pattern of their stripes continues up into their manes, which stick straight-up in the air! The zebras are very skittish, and often run away when they hear a Jeep approaching, but sometimes we have been able to get very close to a small group of them. They hang out and graze in the open fields.

We had a few “super-sightings,” animals that are very rare to see. One of them was the honey badger! We tracked it as it scuttled across a field with its baby, hunting for things to eat. They are really funny-looking animals, and apparently also ferocious, which is surprising given their small size. Many other animals both large and tiny are afraid of them! We also witnessed an exciting “face-off,” when the honey badger came too close to a mama fox’s den. The fox stood its ground, aggressively fending off the honey badger to protect her babies.

African giraffes were also a common siting, and we usually came across them in groups with males, females, and babies. Seeing them close up in the wild, I was so impressed by how tall they are–WOW! They make even elephants look small. They also looked so beautiful when they ran, loping along gracefully with both left feet and then both right ones. Because of their dimensions, though they were running quickly, they looked like they were in slow motion.

At the last place we visited, there were elephants, elephants, and more elephants! On each big drive we went on, we came across several big groups of elephants (10-15), along with other elephants walking alone down the road. Because it is rainy season right now, the grass is high and plants and trees are bursting with leaves–so the elephants are in heaven having a huge amount of lush foliage to eat. An especially exciting siting was when we came across one big young buck, making its way toward us as it headed in the direction of a watering hole. Since elephants have very bad vision, and we were upwind and it couldn’t smell us, the teenager didn’t know we were there until it was about 10 feet away! At that time, it was clearly startled, and made a big commotion: shaking its head, whipping around its trunk, stomping its feet. A little scary, because it was so close by, but quite a spectacle.

One more thing to say about the elephants: from our camp up the hill, we had a great view of a watering hole below, where elephants drank, splashed themselves with mud, and when the sun went down made a huge ruckus with loud moans and bellows.

Another noisy animal we saw a lot of was the mighty hippo! Our second camp, in the marshy Botswana Delta, had a set of big ponds in the back yard, where the hippos hung out. They were quieter during the day (we would mostly hear big splashes when they moved from sunning themselves back into the water, or big exhales when they came up from being under water for several minutes at time), but when night came, they would start with mighty groaning. Even the sound of their mouths as they chewed could be heard reverberating through the camp site, and there were several times when I woke up during the night that I thought the hippos were just feet from my tent, because they were making such a racket! Apparently, sometimes they do come

Big cats are definitely rare, and a special bonus to see. Our first day out in the Kalahari Desert, we had the amazing privilege to see two cheetahs, walking gracefully in the early morning light. At our last safari location, Ghoha Hills, we had numerous lion sightings, including one papa and one mama lying by themselves under small shrubs, and a pack of three teenage females hunting in the field. In all of these situations, we were less than 15 feet from the mighty cats, which are at the top of the food chain of all the animals in the whole region! The papas looked more majestic than the mamas, but the mamas are actually fiercer and stronger hunters. When they yawned, it was easy to see why: those teeth are gigantic.

The list of animals we saw goes on–fierce water buffalo, scuttling, snarfing, warthogs, mangy wild dogs, and more! There are also so many different types of birds: eagles, vultures, guinea fowl, ostrich, and huge varieties of smaller songbirds. And lots and lots of insects, too! Both the birds and insects are often brightly-colored and have many interesting patterns on their wings and bodies.

Before I close, I want to change the subject and mention briefly the African languages I have hear being spoken everyday. Many people we have met in both South Africa and Botswana speak 3-8 languages fluently! Most everyone shares English, but the others are a broad range of the many African languages. The people who were born in small villages always speak the language of their mamas and papas (generally, these have lots of clicks), and most others speak Zulu or Setwana (the official language of Botswana), and then there are so many others that are either variations or combinations of the above, or are completely different! You are two of the only children in the United States I know who are tri-lingual, but here in Africa, you would be right at home–and would probably be learning even MORE languages, so you could speak to your friends from different places.

I miss you both! Being your piano teacher has been a highlight of my teaching career. It is such a joy to see you both grow and evolve as students–from small versions of your animal self, into slightly bigger versions, over the past few years. Your playfulness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, humor, insight, and intelligence are surprisingly similar to many of the animals I have seen in these African deserts and savannahs. And you bring out animal parts of me, too: sometimes I teach you through gentle nudges or stronger directions, sometimes I goof off with you, sometimes I support you as you move past your comfort zones and explore new areas of learning. In the groups of wild animals I’ve been hanging out with in the past several days, this dynamic is certainly at play: bigger ones in the pack or herd lead by example, and show the younger ones how to listen well, and be on the lookout for predators or prey, and how to respond in situations of danger. Your parents and teachers do this for you, just like their other animal kingdom counterparts, and it’s a great honor for me to be a member of your pack.

And one last word, related to the above: Aman and Semra, you have great parents. They lead your pack with wisdom, strength, warmth, and such generous love. I will take a moment to say “thank you” to them, on your behalf.

Happy New Year! Looking forward to returning to our lessons later this month. I know we will both have lots of stories to share, and lots of music to make.

With happiness,


PS This cover photo is from our safari camp in the Botswana Delta, Sango, where we were lucky enough to encounter that mighty elephant.


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