When I was around sixteen or seventeen, my parents asked me what I wanted for my eighteenth birthday. In the Philippines, girls typically have a coming-out party called a “debut,” similar in concept to the debuts held in American high society, but in execution much closer to a very elaborate Sweet Sixteen. I had, however, vetoed this choice after finding out that the cost for one such party could amount in the millions – money which I thought could be better spent on something that would last me more than one night of my life. My parents then offered to get me a car, but this was something I knew I could purchase on my own, eventually. So I asked them for the one thing I knew only they (and the rest of my family) could give me at the time: a trip to Europe. My parents found this decision acceptable, though they did warn me they’d only let me go on the trip once I had graduated from university, making it a combination eighteenth birthday/graduation gift. I didn’t complain, and a few weeks after I’d graduated I went on the three most amazing weeks I’ve ever had in my life so far.
My younger sister was of the same mind for a while, but she was not very interested in Europe – she wanted to go on a safari trip in Africa. This is completely in keeping with her personality, as she’s always been more adventurous and independent than I’ve ever been, and while we’re both equally fascinated by wildlife and nature, if I were given a choice between the Louvre and the Kalahari, I would pick the Louvre. My sister, who isn’t as interested in churches and museums as I am, would go jump into a safari jeep in a heartbeat.
Due to the exigencies of life (and parental concerns), my sister never did get to go on that safari trip, but that doesn’t mean she’s uninterested in doing so someday – and just because I prefer the Louvre to the Kalahari does not mean I am utterly uninterested in the same idea, either. It was with this hope to one day go on safari – whether in my sister’s company or not – that I picked up Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide by Peter Allison. The book is essentially a memoir, a collection of Allison’s favorite anecdotes from his time working first in South Africa and then in Botswana as a safari guide. Each chapter is an individual story, arranged in a loose chronological order, starting with a handful of stories from Allison’s time in South Africa, before moving on to stories of his time in Botswana, where he spent most of his years as a safari guide.
One of the greatest pleasures in reading memoirs like this book is to get a peek into how someone else’s life works – and, more importantly, how they deal with it. I very rarely read memoirs because, more often than not, they bore me to tears because the author takes himself or herself too seriously. In some cases I have to put the book down because it becomes all too clear that the memoir is nothing more than the author stroking his or her own ego, and expects everyone else to appreciate him or her while doing it. To date, the only memoirs I’ve read and found fun are those written by Anthony Bourdain, and that’s not only because he focuses on food. Bourdain has one vitally important thing: the entertaining voice of a born storyteller, capable of turning what would otherwise be boring stories into fun, insightful anecdotes. Not all memoirists have this gift, but fortunately, Allison does, which means Whatever You Do, Don’t Run is a very, very fun read indeed.
Let me be clear, though: Allison’s voice is nothing like Bourdain’s. It might be easy to argue that they wouldn’t be the same, because Bourdain writes about food while Allison writes about safaris and wildlife, but voice has very little to do with subject matter. It does, however, have everything to do with personality. While I won’t deny that a great deal of editing that went into Allison’s writing before it was published, I do believe that he has a unique storytelling voice, one that I find just as entertaining and easy to read as Bourdain’s. I like Allison’s sense of humor, and found myself constantly chuckling and snickering to myself while reading. Take, for example, this gem, wherein Allison describes the first time he realized just why the Cape buffalo is considered one of the most dangerous animals in Africa:
Bleary-eyed one morning, with caffeine still missing from my system, I fumbled my way along the dusty paths to the guest tents, calling out “Good morning!” in as cheery a voice as the hour would allow (it was barely after five o’clock and the sun had only just cracked the horizon). I heard a rhythmic thumping, getting rapidly louder, and I turned to find 1,600 pounds of pissed-off cow bearing down on me. Clearly it disagreed with my assessment of the morning.
There is setup before this portion, of course, describing how Allison didn’t really think much of the Cape buffalo because he had so little experience of them in South Africa, and how he has thought of them as nothing more than cows, which just makes the above very funny – and it gets even funnier when Allison describes how he escaped the “cow’s” ire. The above is typical of Allison’s writing, and though it’s not always as clean as the passage I’ve just quoted, it’s still just as entertaining, and tinged with the same wry humor that really makes reading the book a joy.
Another great thing about this book is how loosely connected the anecdotes are. They are organized chronologically, but beyond that, there is very little, narrative-wise, to connect them. This means that the reader has the pleasure of jumping back and forth throughout the book, without the usual constraints of a stricter, more traditional narrative format. If the reader does not enjoy a particular anecdote, the reader is free to skip on to the next one, and their understanding and enjoyment of Allison’s narrative isn’t affected in the least. It also makes it easy to put the book aside for a while, and then revisit it without having to reread the previous anecdotes. Books that permit this relaxed reading approach are few and far between, and are rarely as entertaining as Allison’s book.
Finally, what makes this an enjoyable read is what makes all memoirs, when well-written, enjoyable: the author’s insight into the characters around him – and in Allison’s case, those characters include his co-workers, his bosses, his clients, and, naturally, the animals he encounters, willingly or not, in the African bush. Allison has a self-deprecating sense of humor, and that is something I enjoy in all my narrators, but his is a gentle humor, in no way mean-spirited or demeaning. He pokes fun wherever he thinks it’s warranted (especially when it comes to certain irritating clients), but he never singles anyone out for reasons of race or gender – something I greatly appreciate. And inasmuch as he pokes fun on occasion at certain aspects of African culture, he’s just as ready to show appreciation for other aspects, as well. Moreover, his love for the animals shines right through, whether he’s relating the actions of the camp’s resident honey badger (and the staff’s equally hilarious reactions), or expressing the wonder he feels while witnessing the matriarch of his favorite elephant herd giving birth.
Overall, Whatever You Do, Don’t Run is a perfect light read to sink into, one which does not tax the reader overmuch but provides large doses of humor and education, along with touches of bittersweet emotion every now and then. Allison’s voice is enjoyable to read, and he has the chops of a more-than-decent storyteller, making his anecdotes a pleasure and a joy. If one is about to embark on a safari; is thinking about doing so; or likes the idea but would much rather not deal with the bugs and the stink and the dust, then this book is sure to please.