Yesterday I traveled by jet. Today I fall into line behind an elephant. My mind is having a hard time keeping up with a change greater than eight time zones and one hemisphere. I’m clumsy in this world. My old life, the one of concrete and cell phones, trails me like a lost dog. I kick at it, but it circles back to nip at my heels. It just won’t leave me alone.

The six of us follow a well-worn path east, into the morning sun, which warms my face and trails long blue shadows behind us. Tufts of grass nod gently and the fingers of a slight breeze hold my hair up to the sun.

Morula stops, turns, and takes a single step toward me. Somehow, with her ears spread, she doubles in size.

My heart leaps, captive within its ribs, desperate to flee. I know Morula is not wild, not truly. I know she has spent half her life with Doug and Sandi. Nevertheless, I’m paralyzed. I forget how to breathe. Everyone else is up near the front of the herd, as far away as another continent.

Although Morula is a creature of habits, just like me, she must retain instincts like mine — fight or flee — friend or foe — but I hope it’s just her curiosity that made her turn around. Is she just checking on me?

Morula stands in half-profile, stares at me with one nut-brown eye. A feathery tuft of hair sticks out from her ear canal. Her mottled forehead glistens like cracked mud.

Slowly she blinks her eyes, flaps her ears, and a lifetime later swings around to join Thembi. I exhale as they entwine trunks. As I start breathing again, my old life turns tail and disappears, run off by an elephant.

Cicadas chirr, stirring up the morning. I stare down at huge round footprints in the dust. I look up; the elephants are receding. Last in line, I’ve been left behind.

Wait for me! shouts every cell in my brain, as I scramble to catch the herd, take my allotted slot in the order of march.

From the rear, Morula looks like an old woman in wrinkled baggy pants, an old woman bent over, pulling weeds from her garden, waddling from weed to weed. Mud stains discolor her left hip as if she sat on something unpleasant. Folds of her pant legs rub together at her thighs.

Her tail, ticking like a pendulum with each step, mesmerizes me. It’s longer than I expected, kinked halfway down and ending with a whisk of sparse, wiry hairs. Soothed by its tempo, I slow to the pace of an elephant’s saunter, pluck random spikes of grass, and chew on their ends.

We approach a mud flat in the middle of a dried up lagoon leftover from last year’s flood. The Okavango River’s seasonal floods can be highly fickle; dry cycles lasting twenty years give way to wet cycles, which can last equally as long. A channel once full of hippos becomes a brackish backwater swamp in a dry cycle. A lagoon, once cut off by sand, can become part of a meandering elbow of the main river in a wet cycle. Repeat this pattern over five thousand square miles and the complicated geography of the Delta is revealed.

One behind the other, the elephants cross the mud flat and follow a compressed path the width of overlapped elephant footprints. As we make a careful traverse, a congealed odor, a fusty essence of dung, rises from under our feet.

Mud holes in the Okavango drainage attract flies. Not the big bluebottle flies, but the smaller, nearly silent kind. The kind that seeks moisture, any moisture, to lay their eggs — moisture such as in the corners of your eyes, the corners of your mouth. One of them tickles the hair on my upper lip. I bat at it over and over again.

Rich, melted, milk-chocolate mud trembles next to Morula’s ponderous footfalls. Pea soup mud quivers. Goulash mud slops. The network of cracks upon the mud’s surface is as big as the pattern on a giraffe’s skin. The cracked slabs also conceal quagmires.

“Stay on the path,” Doug warns me, “Stay behind the trio.”

Several weeks earlier one of their guests stepped off the path and sank up to his armpits.
“He had to strip to his shorts,” Doug says. “From then on we called him Dung Man.”

I shudder and look across the lagoon.

Globs of mud are stacked against its shoreline like giant chocolate squares. Baboons scamper on all fours along the shoreline’s sandy beachfront. One baboon baby rides atop its mother’s haunches like a relaxed little jockey, while another is upside-down, clutching his mother’s belly with desperate hands.

The baboons halt to watch us. Some sit with their legs straight out, arms crossed on their round bellies — a row of scowling grandmothers on the front porch. They’re bracketed by a couple of shotgun grandfathers scratching themselves. Dismounted and bored, the kids begin a game of tag. One of the grandfathers yawns, shows us long, knife-edge canines. The stench of dung fills the air around us.

Despite all the distractions, I stay on the path.

The sun no longer has spokes on her head. She is simply a blazing torch. Sweat trickles from under my cap. No matter how many times I survey the path ahead, it remains the same two dusty ruts. A fine powder dissolves out of the air and coats my boots. Once brown and loamy with polish and sealant, they are now dry and gray.

Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.

Because of her body’s size, Morula produces enough heat to warm a small house. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her flapping ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature.

Each of Morula’s ears has a huge network of arteries covering its surface. As air moves over those swollen arteries, her blood cools as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body. When she opens her ears, her body size increases by roughly twenty square feet.

Where they attach to her shoulders, wrinkles give way to swollen vessels pumping five gallons of blood per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of those arteries is as unique as a fingerprint and often used for identifying individual elephants.

Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.

The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.

My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers; we both have an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. However, I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.

Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.

The elephants move forward in unison, huge soft machines, ears in constant motion. Churning along in the rear, my feet shuffle through the dust. Blood thuds in my ears. I step on a fallen leaf and it crackles into powder.

Whoosh-thwack . . . Whoosh-thwack . . .Whoosh-thwack.

Mistaking me for a four-legged, light-hocked plant-eater, a horse fly lands on the leg of my pants and tries to bite me through the cloth. I swat at it and raise dust. The suspended motes are in no particular hurry to settle.

The list that once filled my daily activities is nonexistent now. Minutes pass as slow as honey drips from a spoon.