KENYA. TANZANIA. SAFARI! AH, THE romance of it. After years of dreaming,
I finally had the wherewithal to book the trip of lifetime. My head was filled with visions
of wild African terrain, grand, ivory-tusked bull elephants and—be still my beating heart—the chance to wear all those great bush clothes.
"Forget about the fashion show" my travel agent cautioned. "All you'll need are a couple of those handy wash - and - wear numbers, a good functional jacket and brimmed hat, and
a sturdy pair of shoes. You can't take much more. There's a thirty-two-pound weight restriction on the internal African flights."
"Thirty-two pounds'" I shrieked, trying to quell a rising panic attack. “My makeup will weigh in at at least thirty."
"Makeup!" he snorted. "You won't need any of that stuff. Just throw in some sunscreen and mosquito repellent."
Easy for him to say! Does he know what it's like to face the world without even a touch of blush and the tiniest dab of mascara to dress up the picture? What if I run into Robert Redford filming a prequel to Out of Africa? Or the ghost of Ernest Hemingway at the foot of Kilimanjaro? No way. And what about my plethora of, pardon the expression, “age-retarding” creams? You can take away my passport, but do not —I repeat, do not— event think about messing with my alpha hydroxy cream. Some things are simply not negotiable.
I started mentally sorting through my two filled-to-the-brim Bendel’s striped toiletry travel bags, which have served me loyally everywhere from Southhampton to the South of France, thinking about what I could possibly jettison. Well, I don’t need a complete wardrobe of lipsticks in their heavy metal cases. I’ll leave the Deep Rhubarb and Bright Fuchsia at home. A single Tawny should do nicely in the bush. Now, what about eye shadow? Should I take the gray, the beige, the taupe or the mocha? I think I’ll go with the taupe: it’s very “gazelle.” And what about mascara? Waterproof? Lengthening? Curling? Where’s “all-purpose” when I need it?
I gazed into the bottomless bags. I would never be able to do this. There was simply too much stuff. Then I had an epiphany. I’ll be out in the bush, for Pete’s sake. Unless an incredibly seductive wildebeest takes a shine to me, I won’t be needing to bat my eyelashes at anyone. I won’t be needing mascara. I won’t be needing any makeup at all, for that matter. Hallelujah! The prospect was equal parts exhilaration and down-right fright. Steeped as we are in a culture that preaches the sanctity of the well-made-up face—and, as a former cosmetics-industry executive, having been one of its chief evangelists—the realization was, for me, a defining moment. Can I really do this? I pondered. I meditated. I reached deep into my soul. Yes, I decided. I really can.
“Oh, there is one night when everyone does tend to dress up a bit,” the travel agent advised. “At the Mount Kenya Safari Club. You may want to pack a little something
“Oh dear . . . movie stars again. Do they still come, I wondered, now that fonder Bill Holden is gone? Perhaps I’ll through in a lightweight black pullover and just one little lipstick. After weeks of scouring dozens of outdoor-apparel stores, army-navy shops and sporting-goods emporiums, I came up with the prescribed neutral-colored wash-and-wear outfits, a pair of divinely comfortable but terribly sensible-looking lace-up shoes, and my one big splurge and nod to fashion, a smashing khaki-green safari jacket from tony
Hunting World. “Akuna Matatta,” I quoted from The Lion King. No problem. I was ready for the bush. But was the bush ready for me?
After a journey of nearly a day’s duration, my traveling companion and I arrived at our hotel in Arusha, Tanzania, and were introduced to the others with whom we’d be spending two weeks on safari. All of the couples were American, and all, with one exception, were on the other side of 40. Each was quite different, with one easily notable exception: every one of the women was wearing makeup. Well, I thought, they have just come from New York or Chicago or L.A. Surely tomorrow they’ll get with the program and venture forth au naturel. But the next day proved no different. When we all met for breakfast prior to taking our initial intra-Africa flight, which would place us in the heart of the Serengeti, the ladies were all still done up, including a few with high-maintenance hairdos. How in the world were they going to negotiate these coifs for two whole hairdresser-less weeks?
The following days were full of wonder. Newly born Thomson’s gazelles suckling at their mothers’ breasts . . . herds of dazzling zebra grazing on the slopes of the eons-old Ngorongoro Crater . . . totally turned-out ladies in the prescribed lightweight neutral clothing, many with earrings, and all with faces carefully made up and hair nicely lacquered in place. I marveled.
How were they able to accomplish this feat, day after day? Surely each must have deprived her husband of at least twenty-two of his thirty-two-pound limit to make room for the necessary paraphernalia. One woman was practically in full kabuki. The tools to accomplish that look alone had to weigh in at ten pounds. But the good news was that she probably had been able to save some weight by leaving the sunscreen at home. Even the rays at midday in equatorial Africa would be unable to penetrate that fortress. What’s more, she sported a giant helmet of ash blond hair that stood proudly as testimony to the wonders
of modern trichological science. However could she accomplish this? Could it be that she’d actually brought along hot rollers?
Another women’s hair was simpler and her makeup more modest, but she reeked of some terribly sweet aroma. “No perfume,” the pre-trip literature had warned. “Mosquitoes are attracted to the smell.” In the States, mosquito bites give you bumps and itches and irritation. In the bush, they give you malaria. Indeed, all of us had devoted more than several ounces, if not pounds, to prescription drugs of various kinds, including antimalarial medications—which don’t actually prevent the disease, I learned much to my dismay,
but merely lessen its severity. Not to mention the various medicaments for the frequently inevitable tourista, which one does not wish to get on any trip, let alone one in which the facilities—where there are facilities—generally consist of a shed of sorts hovering over an astoundingly rank hole in the ground. (Trust me. You don’ts even want to know the drill when no facilities are to be found. “Embarrassing” takes on a whole new meaning.)
The safari was one long exercise in togetherness—kind of like a fortnight-long blind date. Each day we would go on a game drive in the morning and again in the late afternoon, traveling in groups of five in hatch-topped Range Rovers. Terribly cozy. Then, of course, we took ll of our meals together— breakfast, lunch and dinner. After several days, we exhausted the usual topics of sex and politics, politics and sex, and the vagaries of the stock market, aided by a once-daily reception of the BBC World Service, courtesy of our British guide’s shortwave radio. One day, after I disclosed my former career path, we actually got around to discussing makeup.
“Oh, you don’t need makeup,” I was told. “You have wonderful skin.” How kind of them not to mention my unadorned, skimpy eyelashes and my no-statement eyebrows. “Everyone in my family has nice skin,” I said demurely. “It’s hereditary. And then, of course, I have a lifetime supply of all the best skin care products.”
“Well, you’re lucky. I need to wear makeup,” the kabuki lady said. “Me too,” another piped in. “Just a little,” she added, wiping a dab of lipstick from the corner of her mouth. “Oh, I don’t wear any makeup either,” the very attractive tour leader seated next to me chimed in. A witty, charming European woman of a certain age, she flashed her warm smile at me and I smiled back, taking note of the healthy dose of light underage concealer, subtly tinted moisturizer and artfully applied warm brown eyebrow pencil. She gave me that “I know that you know” look and smiled coyly. “But don’t you love the way the Maasai look with all that red powder?” she continued, referring to the glorious glow the native tribespeople give themselves with ocher.
Yes, I did think it looked good. And totally appropriate—a good deal more so than the colors my companions were wearing on their faces. For days I had been astounded by the beauty that surrounded me—-the people, the birds, the animals, the vast expanses of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara National Reserve. There is simply no way to compete with that grandeur. Why even try?
Oddly enough, the magnificence we saw was rarely discussed in depth, which was a relief to me. I found being so close to the animals in their natural habitat overwhelming, and I had no wish to dilute the experience with any kind of chatter. Hippos wading in reed-laced pools formidable lionesses tending to playful cubs; graceful giraffes eating the uppermost leaves of slowly swaying trees; magnificent leopards draped languorously over the boughs of flat-topped acacia trees; families of wart-hogs cavorting comically across the plans, their tails standing straight up like beacons in the blazing sun; scores of flamingos lifting up in unison to form a medley of pink and white against the late-afternoon sky; a lone violet-breasted roller soaring to the top of the tallest nearby bush, displaying his regal chest in the age-old search for a mate. I wanted to keep these images unsullied in my heart and in my memory, where they are now firmly lodged.
I’m home now, and the majesty of Africa stayed happily with me. Just last week, I gazed out my window across the patches of the Hudson that have not yet been obscured bu the barrage of New York building “progress,” and I was sure I spotted impalas leaping on the water’s edge on the wild New Jersey side of the river. It brought tears to my eyes, and I reached into my pocket for a tissue to stem the ensuing tide of running eyeliner and mascara. Eyeliner and mascara? Well, yes. Of course. After all, I am back in civilization, and a girl needs all the help she can get in a terrain where the daily migration includes maneuvers by some of Earth’s singularly most attractive — and predatory — creatures.