It's barely dawn in the Maasai Mara, and in the wooded hollow beside the river, our camp is still capped in blackness. Within minutes, it's morning. That's how it works at the equator: night to day, in a blink. Kenya has no time to waste on transitions.
Fittingly, I'm here in Africa on a self-help safari, a two-week journey intended to un-stick me from the glue of my regular existence and loft me into the life of my dreams. Created by life coach Anne Loehr and her business partner, Brian Emerson, Safaris for the Soul operates on the premise that adventure travel can shock people out of their comfort zones and inspire them into action. The program combines safari life -- game drives, eco-conscious lodges and camps, and plenty of interaction with local tribal groups -- with intensive life-coaching sessions, in which we assess our past, create our vision for our future, and develop strategies to fulfill our goals.
Right now, midway through our second week, we're in the thick of yet another soul-jolting experience. From 300 feet away, we see the fearsome lioness, before the impalas smell her. She crouches and begins to stalk. Every 10 feet or so she stops, sits, watches. She's in no hurry. Ten minutes go by, then 20. Suddenly the impalas start running. The lioness leans back onto her haunches, unperturbed.
The lioness is my totem. Or is it the warthog? I can't decide. Then again, I don't need to: Our main purpose is to explore life's biggest questions -- a convenient goal, because I happen to have plenty of them.
Call of the Wild
We spend our first full day with a group of Maasai women who have formed the Dupoto Women's Group, a beadwork cooperative that sells handmade jewelry and crafts to fund their daughters' education -- a radical concept in a country where female circumcision and polygamy are still the norm in some parts. In a shady yard near the school, the women help us bead our own bracelets. Each color represents a high, low, or so-so point in our lives, and when we're finished, we'll have a visual map of where we've come from and where we want to go.
In the days that follow, we travel north to El Karama Ranch and settle into a comfortable safari rhythm that includes group learning sessions and individual coaching sessions sandwiched between game drives. Clustered on oversized couches in the open-walled living room, we draw on powerful symbols from nature -- a clear-flowing river, a sheltering acacia tree -- to sketch out our life's purpose. To do this, Emerson leads us through powerful exercises to help us formulate our vision. In one, he asks us to close our eyes and picture ourselves at the age of 85, surrounded by the people we have known over the years. Listening to these imagined voices telling my future self how she has touched their lives fills me with an awesome sense of pride I haven't felt in years.
Then, of course, there are the animals. Before each game drive, Loehr and Emerson encourage us to look for insight in the wildness around us. One evening just before dusk, a pack of stubby warthogs bursts out of a hole and darts across the road in front of us. In their goofy, erratic mania, I'm reminded of my own desire to play more and worry less, to be occasionally zany and unpredictable.
As for my own thorny questions, I've come with the Big Three: What will make me happier at work? Why am I afraid to get married? And how come I'm so hung up on success and recognition? I begin to see answers everywhere I look. During a private coaching session with Loehr, for instance, I fret about my need for recognition -- and how my fear of failure is holding me back from going off on my own, professionally.
"Does Africa need recognition? Does it need to be famous and fawned over to be Africa?" Loehr asks. It's a twist on the old "if a tree falls in the woods" adage, but she has a point. It was Africa before I ever arrived, and it will be Africa after I go home. Even if no one sees it or knows it, Africa will always be its awesome, complicated, flawed, inexplicable self. Why should I be any different?
One day, at Leleshwa, our tented camp just outside Maasai Mara National Reserve, I ask our spear-carrying guide, Ddapash, if he's ever scared to walk the plains. He killed his first lion, traditionally a rite of passage for Maasai boys, at 16. "Yes," he says, "always." Later, with the group, we talk about our greatest attributes and weakest links, and it makes me think about Ddapash. How is it that someone who appears so fearless is also afraid? I realize that both my strengths and weaknesses make me who I am -- and that it's okay to be insecure, worried, energetic, and passionate, all at the same time.
Facing the Future
As the last week comes to a close, Loehr and Emerson suggest that we write down our goals, strategies we'll use to fulfill them, and a completion date. It takes me nearly a dozen tries to put down what it is I actually want: to devote myself to my writing and to create a job that supports my primary values of adventure and expression, truthfulness and connection.
"You know you are going to leave your job," Emerson tells me before I even realize it myself. "It's not a question of if, just when." Before I can chicken out, I give myself a due date of eight months from now. On our last night as we commit to our intentions out loud, it's clear that we are different people than when we arrived two weeks ago. But at the same time, we are also more ourselves than maybe we have ever been.
Days later, I've barely landed on U.S. soil when I hurl myself back into a waiting maelstrom of job drama and wedding planning. For the first time in months, though, I feel strangely peaceful. My worry hasn't gone away, but I'm channeling the lioness's patience, the Dupoto women's vision, the Maasai warriors' courage and conviction, and all the perfect authenticity of Africa. At my wedding five months later, I'm happy to report I'm 100 percent warthog. And when I give my notice five weeks after that, I realize that I'm finally, completely, all me.
For more information, visit safarisforthesoul.com.
More Self Journeys
Mind Over Mountains offers five-day women-only yoga and adventure retreats in the Colorado Rockies. mindovermountains.com
Babes in the Backcountry hosts three- to five-day women's hiking, skiing, climbing, and yoga workshops in the American West. babesinthebackcountry.com
Text by Katie Arnold
© 2013 Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. All rights reserved.