In 2018, I was co-facilitating a retreat at a South African game reserve when I learned that the US Fish and Wildlife Service was actively planning to reverse a ban on importing elephant body parts from Zimbabwe and Zambia. I was sitting at a table in our camp after a morning game drive when I overheard a group of loud and mocking interlopers at a table nearby cackling about it. Truly, the irony of hearing this news while I sat in a place devoted to the conservation of land and the restoration of the natural habitats for its animals felt almost contrived.
The lodge where we were staying was nestled next to the Sands River in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve within the Greater Kruger National Park, which is one of Africa’s largest game reserves. Every morning the playful vervet monkeys—perched high in their trees—would help us greet the day, while the occasional miracle of a lumbering elephant would quietly traverse the dry river banks next to us as we stared in shock at one other given its proximity. We would almost wordlessly mouth over the breakfast table to each other, “Can you believe this is actually happening right now” before leaping up to race to the railing, stretching ourselves out as far as possible to catch a better glimpse of this magnificent creature—thankfully with all of its body parts still intact.
On this particular trip, we learned that a large group of African Wild Dogs were hunting in the area, with several adolescents pups and numerous adults in the pack of approximately 12-20 dogs. Now African Wild Dogs are one of the world’s most endangered mammals and it just so happened that on this trip they were active and visible on our private game reserve. From that first evening game drive that took place just a few hours after our arrival throughout the next several days of our trip, we were tracking the dogs as the dogs were tracking their next meal.
On that first evening drive, the dogs had just been spotted nearby and we couldn’t believe our luck to find ourselves barreling down the pitted, bumpy roads, nearly bouncing out of our seats, giddy with excitement at the prospect of spending time in the company of these rare painted beauties. We found them then—relatively in the open—the pups moving on a fresh carcass while the adults surrounded them, watchful and protective. We were so close to their evening meal that occasionally a pup or two would grow bored and come sniff our land rover before an anxious adult would round it up, yipping at it to return it to its meal. We sat there stockstill, mesmerized by the scene all around us, with our hands tucked in our laps or closely holding our cameras and phones to our bodies as a soft rain pinged off of our rain ponchos— while we tried to capture the sheer magic of this moment in whatever small way we could.
I’m so lucky to have videos and photos of this trip, although there were many moments that happened for which I have no documentation or any proof that it occurred other than the occasional surfacing of a latent memory that comes bubbling up when I’m in between waking and sleeping. Or the transactional memories I share with my fellow travelers when we reconnect and reminisce about our experience together, building on each other’s stories, reminding each other of our time together.
I did buy a small bronze statue of an African Wild Dog for far too many South African Rand that sits in its special place on a shelf, right next to a carved wooden hippo from a dear friend who also accompanied me on that trip, with a small pewter sculpture of a dung beetle and its prized piece of dung between them. But that’s it. I took nothing from my time in South Africa except of course dozens of photos and hundreds of precious memories that changed me. I took no ivory. No tusks. No body parts of its animals. Nothing from the land that was not offered freely. And I left nothing of myself except a piece of my heart, a whispered promise of a return, and what I’m sure was a paltry tip when compared to the transformation I underwent from my time there.
I’ll be honest: I’ve never understood the mentality of big game hunters. I’ve never understood the desire to stalk, kill, destroy, stuff, or own a piece of a magnificent beast while conveniently ignoring the impact of its slaughter on both the animal and the society forced to commodify its culture and legacy due to the White man’s voracious appetite for dominance.
I’ve never understood the appetite to own something rare and precious at the expense of another life, to steal beauty from a country, a land, or a person so I can possess it all for myself, to take more than I need and leave nothing but ruin and heartache in my wake.
I’ll never understand hoarding money or ostentatious displays of wealth, or consuming vast amounts of precious natural resources, when each day, 25,000 people, including more than 10,000 children, die from hunger and related causes.
I’ll never understand how a demographic of people could possess so much wealth that just a 5% increase in their annual taxes could potentially lift 2 billion people out of poverty or near poverty—saving more than 25,000 lives a day—but instead they use the money to buy off lobbyists and politicians so they can retain their wealth for frivolous, soul-less pursuits that solely benefit themselves and their families at the expense of the very soul of the world.
I’ll never understand any endeavor where one’s driving motivation is to “conquer “or “collect” experiences for the sheer pleasure or mere novelty of it—simply because they can—which in turn may eventually require putting another person in harm’s way for their salvation or an entire population at risk simply for the slavering, starving animal that has become their greed.
That’s not to say people can’t have nice things. That they shouldn’t travel the world. Experience new cultures. Enjoy incredible, breathtaking adventures. I’m not saying you can’t collect rare and beautiful things. I’m not knocking the numismatists or the philatelists, who collect their coins and stamps, or the audiophiles who will do almost anything for an original press vinyl of Jimi Hendrix.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t enjoy the things you have or take advantage of the opportunities the access your personal wealth provides to you. Enjoying the beauty of the world and having experiences that transform us in some way, expand our view, shape our vision, create more understanding, compassion, and appreciation for the diversity of life is an extraordinary gift and privilege.
But do it mindfully. Reverentially. Take the time to understand your motivation and figure out what meaning you can receive from the experience. Be present. Bask in its wonder and let yourself be awed. Fully partake of the moment so it can change you for good. Let your experience make you a better person and, in some small part, the world a better place. Let your soul be transformed and your skeleton bear witness to its revelation.
Just don’t take more than you need. And don’t do it just because you think you should or just because you can. Don’t do it to check some item off a bucket list. Don’t do it because you think it will make you happy. Because it won’t. Not if your motivation is external or comes from a sense of lack. Don’t do it because you like to collect beautiful, extravagant experiences simply for the sake of saying you have or because that’s what people like you do or because you have more resources than you should.
Don’t go to Paris and then complain loudly in public about how rude Parisians are.
Don’t climb up the sacred steps of a Mayan Temple just because you can—even though it’s forbidden—only to have the locals beat you with rolled up papers and shout “shame!” at you in their native language.
Don’t take photos or film inside a sacred site when the locals specifically ask you not to or take goofy selfies at a Holocaust memorials where millions lost their lives.
Don’t trespass on sacred land to steal the eggs of endangered coastal birds.
Don’t pay $5.5 Billion for 4 minutes of suborbital space while the workers who made you rich can barely afford their rent.
And don’t browbeat your 19-year-old son into taking a frivolous $250k trip to the bottom of the ocean in an uncertified submersible simply because you think it’s cool. Because I can guarantee his mother felt his life was worth far more than that.
Not every experience is worth it. Not everything is meant to be experienced by everyone or anyone at all, even if they can afford it. Not everything is for sale—available to be bought or borrowed for your own pleasure and purpose, no matter how much money you have.
In our dogged and endless pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment, we too often turn to the rare or the novel—forgetting our ability to derive deep meaning from ordinary life. We forget that the simple pleasures of life are endlessly accessible and often completely free. Because our inherent and often unconscious motivation to dominate, oppress, and collect beauty and experiences leave us unseeing and unknowing of how to access awe in each moment. The mindless questing for something new leaves us panting and sightless in alone in the darkness of our own ego instead of illuminated and transformed by the lightness of our shared existence in this extraordinary world.
So when you find yourself yearning for your next adventure or when that next rare and alluring opportunity crosses your path—calling you forward to bear it witness—go ahead, grab hold of it. But be mindful of it. Be present to it. Allow its beauty to seep into your bones and transform you. Speak of it. Take time to understand what you’ve learned not through your singular lens but through the lens of the global viewpoint. Allow it to change you. To help you see things differently. To help you understand how other cultures and ecosystems vary. How history informs the present and how our understanding of the past can free us from the tyranny of our futures. Let yourself learn from it and then let yourself teach it.
Don’t just collect these experiences and display them in virtual glass cases on social media platforms or hang the heads of your conquered experiences like trophies on your walls. Don’t just take a flurry of pictures of the feast in front of you so you can share them with your 5000 friends. Let yourself taste every morsel and then paint us a picture of yearning and fulfillment with your words. Use your direct experience with the beauty of the world to be a catalyst of appreciation and kindness—to help bring about the transformation of the world so it’s here long after you’ve taken your place among the ancestors.
And from time to time, don’t forget to pause and look up. Let yourself partake of the exact moment in which you find yourself. Let yourself feel the wind across your face, as it whispers through the canopy of trees above you. Or let yourself drink in the blue skies and the white cumulus clouds that take the form of bunnies, and faces, and sailing ships as they float across your view. Let yourself become transfixed by the trilling of the bird’s song or the low hum of the miraculous mowing machine that cuts grass in your neighbor’s lawn across the way.
Let yourself walk this world in wonder. Let yourself sit and be present with its beauty long enough that you find yourself in even the most ordinary moments of life gasping in awe, quietly whispering to yourself in hushed and reverent tones, “Can you believe this is actually happening right now?”
And then hardly let yourself believe it, breathing in and breathing out, feeling the miracle of the air in your lungs and the mystery of the blood pumping through your veins until you find yourself completely surrendered to the precious miracle that is you.
Trust me. It’ll be worth every minute or your money back guaranteed.