Travel Essays

Critically Observe

I wake to the sound of a nearby imam singing the early morning prayer. As I pull back the mosquito net, a moth flies past my face and I suddenly realize I am as far from home as I have ever been. A rooster crows.

We leave the lodge in the early morning light and I can barely see. We turn off the main road, down an escarpment and are now in Queen Elizabeth National Park, on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I feel like I’m dreaming.

So it is.

I look out the window of the van to my right and see the sun peeking above the horizon. I am now on the floor of the Eastern Great Rift Valley and iconic acacia trees lie frozen in silhouette against a mahogany and coral hued sky. I am in a place teeming with life both past and present.


Miles away from my concrete home, I am in the wild.

Our guide Martin says to look closely, there is a single elephant just off to the right. I squint to see, but the morning light is a thick haze and it all looks the same to me. Thicket, bush, grass – hues of brown, green and yellow all running together to my unseeing eyes. We continue west in the direction of the glacial Mt. Rwenzori. As we move slowly on, we pass a man on a bicycle heavily laden with enormous bunches of green bananas.


I think, where could he be taking these bananas so deep into the bush?

Martin points to three Egyptian geese in the tall grass.


I see nothing.

Then, we come upon an area dense with trees and Martin says to look closely to see the velvet monkeys and baboons. I strain to see what he sees, but I only see traces. Why can’t I perceive what he does? I strain again and purposely try to quiet my racing mind. Then he says, “you must look, but then critically observe.”

Look, then critically observe. Then I remember that this is the wild – not at all my territory so it seems. My eye is untrained to see in such a setting. I look again, then critically observe with the utmost intent and concentration. Something only possible in this moment free from the daily distractions of Western life.

Then I begin to see, they are all there.




I had to use my senses, not my intellect. Once I did, what was here all along came into focus. It was as if a veil had been removed from my eyes.

And I could see.

A warthog far in the distance among the grass.


Hippos waiting just below the surface.


A child in a fishing village on the shore of Lake George, to whom the man on the bicycle is bringing those bananas.


A monitor scurrying along the banks of the Kazinga Channel.


And a green mamba easing into the water.

Now on a boat, my head rests upon my hand and my eyes scan the banks of this shallow channel that links the two lakes of Queen Elizabeth National Park. I look, critically observe and turn my head slightly to the right.

And there they are.


A bachelor herd of adult African elephants in silhouette against the afternoon sky and not-so-distant shore of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I watch them without moving, completely in their wild, and the beauty overtakes me.

We linger for a while longer and watch teams of local fishermen depart for their overnight shift, their nets ready to receive their bounty. I wonder if one of them is related to the baby girl or the man bearing bananas we passed on the bicycle.


As we ride back up the escarpment and rise out of the valley, I look out the window from where we had just come, but this time my eyes serve me well in this exotic land. As the sun sets over the teeming valley, I think of my father.


I am so far from a life I know, but I am not alone. I take one last look, critically observe and feel him dancing on the blowing winds of East Africa. Completely and utterly in the wild.