Why did the hippo cross the road?
On a rutted, dusty track through Akagera National Park in northeastern Rwanda, the answer to this question raised more than the aberrant mid-morning snacking habits of a wandering hippo. For me, it revealed the delicate balance between expectations and limitations, and learning to trust a grander sense of timing.
My 20-year-old son, Patrick, and I were in Akagera for one-and-a-half days of big game viewing at the end our latest trip to Rwanda--for Pat, an internship as a videographer, and for me, to do some writing and volunteer work. Although Akagera lacks the scope and majesty of, say, the Serengeti and the wildebeest migration, it is a jewel of a place that will soon complete its Big Five offerings by adding lions and rhinos later this year, to supplement cape buffalo, elephant, and leopard--along with giraffes, zebras, numerous species of antelope, baboons, monkeys, and a greater diversity of birdlife per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world (or so we were told by our guide, certified birder Kirenga Kamugisha).
With its beautiful lakes and marshland, Akagera is also home to hippopotamus amphibius, the third largest land mammal after the elephant and rhinoceros. Hippos are related to whales, which explains why these sub-Saharan herbivores spend so much time in water, typically emerging at night to travel inland to graze. To see hippos active on land--instead of just semi-submerged eyes, ears, and snouts--you have to get up pretty early in the morning.
And, we couldn't. All that travel, jet lag, and long days had simply caught up with us. Sitting outside the tent camp on the morning of our day-long safari, while a monkey in a tree rained down branches and a hard-shelled green nut at me, I felt the squeeze between timelines and expectations: Big game viewing means getting up with the sun. We hadn't had breakfast yet, and the sun already had a good head start on us.
I know this pressure well; as a writer, my life is laced with constant deadlines. Each day, I awaken to the reality that if I don't get cracking, I'll soon be behind. At Akagera, which presumably was my downtime, I was pinned in that same collision between time and to-do. Fortunately, our guide, Kirenga, is also a bit of a philosopher. "We'll go when we go," he said, "and we will see what we see."
We set off, the three of us, later than anticipated and with diminished expectations, through savannah with plentiful antelope, which became as commonplace as squirrels back home. A little while later, we saw our first giraffes and zebras, and then cape buffalo. Kirenga pointed out numerous species of birds--white egrets, African sacred ibis, lilac-breasted rollers, African fishing eagles, and so many more.
And then we spotted the unexpected.
"Is that a hippo?" I yelled out, seeing a large gray-brown mammal foraging in the vegetation up ahead.
"What's he doing there?" Kirenga exclaimed.
By then it was ten-thirty in the morning, when any self-respecting hippo would be up to its ears in water. But our hippo looked up from his mid-morning munch and started trotting toward the road. He passed right in front of us, mid-stride on his short legs as I snapped a picture.
We hadn't even quelled our exclamations when we rounded the bend and came upon a truly rare sight: mama and baby hippo, just hanging out in the grass. And just for good measure, we found no less than eleven hippos--a whole pod of them--lounging in the tall reeds along the marsh, lined up like a convoy of school buses just before dismissal time.
"I can't believe it! Hippos are not supposed to be out at this time of day," Kirenga told us. His only explanation: "This is a blessed day."
Some zoologist might have a theory or two, but I prefer to think that the hippos came to teach me a lesson about the tyranny of always trying to time things perfectly, and learning to trust that, by surrendering both expectations and limitations, sometimes a hippo crosses the road at precisely the right moment.