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Friday, November 7, 2014

How to Pet a Cheetah

Dear Mom,

I was a bit surprised and embarrassed by the number of comments I got on Facebook this week when I changed my profile picture to this shot from South Africa:

It was mostly things like...

Wow! That's awesome! You are a brave soul!
For real? You know that's not a kitty cat, right?!
Did they drug him?
You look so calm!
Is that the "before" shot?! 

As I started to read the comments, I was embarrassed! "It was no big deal," I thought. "It was practically a Disney photo op!"

But then I stopped to think -- was I selling myself a little short? How do you draw the lines these days between humility, a humble brag, and shameless self-promotion?

Having been so fortunate to travel to so many exciting places, I am occasionally chagrined at the way some of us "collect" fabulous photos and experiences of our global adventures. And, for people like me, who enjoy extended chapters of being single, with the time and funding to indulge our wanderlust, there can occasionally be a bit of Keeping Up with the Joneses and suble one-upmanship.

I'll see your Machu Picchu, and I'll raise you Kilimanjaro! 

You backpacked through India? Oh, that's nice. I did all of Southeast Asia, and I started a food program for orphans in Bangladesh. 

You stayed at the Four Seasons? Did you get that big suite in the corner, with the butler, and did they still have those little croissants they bring in at sunrise? 

I'm exaggerating, but you have to laugh at times at the subtle boasting that goes on in lots of aspects of life. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be well-educated travelers try hard to prove we're not just on the same old beaten path.

Or, avoiding the been there, done that, got the t-shirt syndrome that takes the shine off of new discoveries. That jaded "anything you can do, I can do better" attitude that makes frenemies throw subtle elbows and engage in clever digs.

You're at Versailles? You must take the gare west to a small town run by midgets, look for the restaurant in the old farmhouse, and ask for the asparagus soup. It's not on the menu, but tell Pierre I sent you. 

Okay, I mostly made that up, but it's not terribly far from the pompous comment on a dear friend's fantastic photo in the Hall of Mirrors last year.

But that's Facebook. Back to real life.

On safari this summer, I wanted to knock one of my seatmates right out of the vehicle. Our terrifically handsome guide stopped to show us a particularly lovely bird.

Speaking of particularly lovely -- here's another shot of that dreamy guide.
Anyway, back to the bird. Now, funny thing about birds. I've not been able to explore this scientifically, but I think there is a DIRECT correlation between aging and becoming more interested in birds! Toward the end of my time in Charlotte, I became so infatuated with birdwatching, I couldn't help but laugh at myself. Was I a 30-something spinster already, a granny before my time?

Maybe it's because birdwatching could be the American equivalent of being on safari? Complete with appropriate "costume"?!

Or -- who knows --  perhaps being tuned into birds is a sign we're tuned into life? Taking the time to stop and notice the things around us that are, in fact, rather lovely and remarkable and worthy of wonder?

Things we don't bother to notice when we're running from place to place with our trusty list of terribly important things to do?

Anyway, this was a spectacular bird! I didn't have a great camera, but here's a glimpse. It was terrifically colorful, almost a cartoon version of a bird worth watching.
We stopped to take photos, and the woman beside me sighed audibly. She might as well have let out a big fart, but she let this loose instead:

"I saw enough birds in the Galapagos to last me a lifetime," she said dismissively.

I hate to be ugly in writing about anyone on the Internet, but this lady was one of those people who seemed to have a nasty, negative take on pretty much everything. She'd been raining her sour attitude on us all morning.

"Really?" I wanted to say. "You paid thousands of dollars to travel to Africa, and you have something better to do than to enjoy the beautiful creatures who inhabit this place?"

Now, granted, prior to the brief bird stop, we'd had a pretty magical morning. We'd watched lions feasting on a fresh buffalo kill. We'd seen rhinos amble across the road in front of us. We'd hidden in a viewing shed to watch giraffes sipping water.

So, the bird wasn't exactly a highlight, but still.

I'm sure I annoy people at times with my Lemonade Lynsley approach to life -- the idea that if we just dig enough we'll find the bright side of most bad things. And I've certainly done my fair share of complaining about life's adversities and inequities. But I simply cannot stand people who are jaded and grumpy on vacation. Or -- people who sit around on vacation planning their next vacation.

Can't we all just enjoy the moment for a moment?

So, back to that cheetah shot. I'd been loath to make it my Facebook profile photo, as it seemed sort of trite. It happened when our group visited a facility that rescues and rehabilitates wild cats. And we all sort of moved through the cheetah petting opportunity like an assembly line.

Or did we?

Looking back and remembering that moment, it was, after all, a bit scary. I lingered a bit with one of those "okay, I know this is safe and hundreds -- or maybe thousands?! -- of people have done this, but WHAT IF I am THAT ONE UNFORTUNATE TOURIST who just smells and/or tastes really delicious?!"

There were two cheetas in the enclosure we were allowed to enter, but one of them didn't seem to be in the mood to play with tourists that day. So, the guide left that one alone and gave us a safety briefing with the more willing participant.

Once we'd been given a few key points, the most important of which was to approach the creature from behind, the bravest, most eager members of the group went first.

Occasionally, the cat would get bored and move around, so we'd let it settle down again before the round robin continued. 
I took pictures as my roommate Jeanette had her turn... 

And was my turn! By that point, I'd contemplated just taking a pass, as it felt like such a staged photo op. To be blunt and foul, it was almost a sort of tourist gang bang. (Oops! Maybe I do have a bit of that jaded Galapagos lady in me after all...)

But that attitude seemed (a) snobby and (b) a waste of good money. So, I carefully took my steps away from the group and toward the animal.

I wouldn't say it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, but it was pretty neat, and the fur felt really, really cool -- much thicker and coarser than I'd imagined.
And maybe, for just a minute, I was a kid again.

Is your dog friendly, Sir? What's his name? Is it okay if I pet him? 

Remember what it was like to be little and to want so very, very badly to reach out and pet an animal? To touch that soft, luscious fur? To walk that balance beam between your fear and your curiosity? To go outside of your comfort zone, take a chance, and pray that you wouldn't get bitten? 
After the big cheetah petting event, we saw some servals and bobcats, and we watched some wild cats leap up and catch some raw meat for their dinner, which was pretty cool. 

So, as you can tell, I'm not quite sure what to make of my terrific photograph. Was it just a photo op? Wasn't it a bit unfair that a few of the braver souls who went first didn't get quite as brilliant of a shot? It seems like a complicated little souvenir, an unlikely confluence of elements: luck that the cheetah was so perfectly posed, a little bravery on my part (but not as much as it appears), generosity from the cat sanctuary and its supporters. 

I love both the photo and the story it tells. Because the truth is, when you are bold, when you take risks, when you step inside the fence and face the wild, you will sometimes be ripped to shreds. 

But sometimes, you'll end up with a cool picture, a surreal experience and a fun story. 

In the end, isn't life a lot more fun when you take a chance and pet the cheetah? 



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