"Kait, please stand there, beneath that acacia tree," Tilas, our guide for this early-morning walking safari, instructed my daughter.
"Jackson, you must stand over there, beneath that acacia tree," he continued, giving instruction to my son.
"Kathleen, go there and stand beneath the shade of that little tree...and, Harry, stand here, under this tree," he said to me and my daughter's friend Harry.
Not sure what was to come, we four followed Tilas' instructions and dispersed to our four trees. When I turned to face back toward where Tilas had been standing, he was gone.
I looked around at Kaitlin, Jackson, and Harry, all positioned dutifully beneath their trees, even young Jackson standing still, staring straight ahead patiently. What is Tilas up to, I wondered...
We four remained in our spots for what seemed a long time, not sure why but not wanting to move or even to speak.
Then, some minutes later, Tilas reappeared, in a flash, from the bush. He motioned with his arm that we four should come over to him.
"Now, you must tell me, Jackson," Tilas began when he'd gotten us all back together, "what did you think about standing beneath your own tree? What did you see? What did you hear?"
"I was trying to get the bitter taste from my mouth," 13-year-old Jackson replied.
"Ah, the taste of the gum I made for you from the acacia gum tree," Tilas remembered. "You still have that flavor in your mouth?"
"Yes," Jack said. "I spit and spit, but it won't go away."
Tilas, still chewing his gum from the same tree, laughed.
"Harry, now you must tell me. What did you think standing beneath your own tree?"
"I knelt down and looked at the ground," Harry explained. "The rocks, the branches, the bark, the leaves, the earth. There are so many layers to the ground here."
"Yes," Tilas agreed. "All time is layered in this earth."
"Now, Kait, please, you must tell me. What did you think standing beneath your own tree?"
"I looked around at the shapes, the figures, the textures, of the plants, the bushes, the trees. Everything has a design, and even the dead trees are beautiful."
"And I thought of the stories you've been telling us," Kaitlin continued, "about the uses for all these plants, how your people use them to treat themselves when they are sick or wounded."
"Yes, we find all the medicine we need here," Tilas said. "The bark from this tree stops pain, instantly," he said, pointing to a tree nearby.
"A tea from this bush helps women who have just given birth," he continued. "And the twigs from this tree are good for cleaning your teeth. We call it the Toothbrush Tree. I have never used toothpaste or a plastic toothbrush," Tilas explained, "but I have all my teeth, and they are all strong. I am a carnivore, and I can eat all the meat I like," he assured us proudly, flashing a bright, white smile.
"Now, Kathleen, please. What did you think of standing beneath your own tree?"
"I looked around the landscape, to the far horizon in each direction, and I tried to think how I would write about the great expanse of this place...about how I could relay the feeling of being here, standing here, out in the open plain, with the savannah all around. Feeling, at once, so small and so grand. Feeling a part of all things, of all history. It will be difficult to convey that sensation without sounding corny or cliché."
Tilas, a member of the Samburu tribe here in the north of Kenya, was our guide during this visit, our first to this part of the world. Out on the plains where Tilas led us on foot one morning, we saw dik-dik, gerenuk, and impala. We watched a lone, sleeping lion from just a few feet away and stood silent and still as a pride of lionesses stalked a kill. We saw families of elephants with as many as five babies among them and a dozen giraffes that passed us by single-file, as though on parade. We saw a male ostrich raise his tail feathers to impress his partner and a pair of ostriches sitting on their nest. We saw Nile crocodiles up close and soaring eagles. Zebras, hippos, leopards, jackals, mongooses, baboons...at times, the landscape before us included dozens of animals at once.
"Your first visit to Africa is a special thing," a friend in Nairobi told us our first evening in Kenya. "You get this place, or you don't, and you know instantly one way or the other. If you do get it, once you've experienced it, Africa is impossible to resist. She will call you back again and again throughout your lifetime. You will return."
"Please, you must stay in touch with me," Tilas our guide told us during our morning walk across the savannah. As he spoke, he reached out and peeled off a piece of the top layer of the bark of the tree before us.
"This is the Paper Tree," he explained. "You can peel its bark in thin pieces that you can use as paper."
Then Tilas pulled a pen from his belt, laid out the thin strip of "paper" he'd just pulled off the tree, and began to write.
"There," he said when he'd finished, handing the small piece of paper to Jackson.
"That is my e-mail address," Tilas said. "Write to me to tell me when you will be returning."
We'll be back as soon as we're able. In the meantime, thanks to 21st-century technology, we can stay connected with this place that transcends time.