|Image Graphic designed by Sandra Lopez|
In college a group of four young men establish a tradition: every year, they come together for a week-long trip in search of adventure and distraction. They travel around the world to go hiking, biking, or kayaking. They call it their Man Mission, a sacred ritual dedicated to new experiences and friendship.
In the course of their travels, they hitch a ride with drug dealers in New Zealand, down kava shots on Fijian beaches, come face-to-face with a roaring lion in South Africa, luxuriate in a resort intended only for Vietnamese Communist officials, trek to Machu Picchu, and go ice climbing in Iceland.
Over the years, they all get married, start families, establish careers, and do all the stuff upright men are supposed to do. But when the challenges of real life come into conflict with the perfect lives they are supposed to be living, the yearly Man Mission becomes more than an annual getaway. It's a source of stability and a place to find redemption.
Part travel narrative and part roman à clef, this novel follows four regular guys as they find adventure together, and seek meaning and purpose, in a world where the traditional rules of "being a man" are no longer clear.
Available on Amazon
Imagine venturing on a trip each year to an exotic location and experiment.
“Dull entry-level work was the way to start” and it led to the creation of the Man Mission.
Sam, Daniel, Alec, and Eytan were friends since the beginning of time. Even though jobs and family got in the way, they never strayed from their friendship, which is why they always went on an adventurous trip each and every year.
“We were living life, doing guy things, and being real men.” (LOC 228)
“Ego mixed with adrenaline will drive men to do crazy things.” (LOC 303)
This epic journey was well-written and thought-provoking. It was an exhilarating reminder of why I aspire and continue my own travels, not just being “tied to the clock and hourly billings.”
As the years progressed and the men settled more into jobs, marriage, and family, the trips were more challenging to take, especially with nagging wives on your a#s. The ruggedness of these excursions weren’t always too appealing, but the author certainly expressed them with synthetic wit and inept humor. Story was a brotherly bond through manly idiotic excursions.
Also, the narrative awkwardly skips back and forth, causing slight confusion regarding the proper order of events. Scenes abruptly cut off and then go to another part in time, which was unsettling to me.
An intense adventure of soul-searching and brotherhood. It was just men trying to be men and do some stupid things.
My rating: 3 stars
Late in the second afternoon of our safari, when the sun had dropped below the horizon and we had already begun to make our way back to camp, the jeep’s radio crackled to life.
Philemon cocked his head as he listened to the news and then nodded—one of the other drivers had spotted lions on the move. It was a viewing opportunity not to be missed, so he immediately spun the jeep around and set off at pace into the gathering darkness.
Ten minutes later we came to an unpaved dirt track. Two jeeps were already there, parked on the short grass to the side. Their headlights were on, creating a crescent of light in which a pride of lions was basking.
Closest to the jeeps was a big male. He had a shaggy mane, and was lying on the ground. Four lithe females had arranged themselves behind him, and behind them, a dozen or so cubs rolled about in the dirt. It was a distinctly human scene: a family enjoying time together in their living room.
The last of the light faded. The lionesses stood, stretched lazily, and sauntered off down the bush track. The cubs immediately stopped their playing and followed. Eventually Big Daddy roused himself, got to his feet, and padded off after his clan, too.
We followed slowly in convoy, the headlights of the three jeeps illuminating the procession of lions ahead. The cubs appeared entirely indifferent to our presence. But their moms kept guard, occasionally letting out a low, grumbly roar to remind their little ones, and us, who was in charge.
After some time, the lion procession came to a halt. Our convoy stopped a few feet behind. In the sudden stillness, I noticed that somewhere along the way the big male lion had disappeared. I asked Philemon where that lion had gone.
“He has probably gone into the bush to hunt. It’s the man’s job,” Philemon replied. “But beware—sometimes the male lions get bored, and then they will circle back through the bush and sneak up on the jeep!”
He punctuated his sentence with a cheeky smile—of course, Philemon was teasing. But still, I instinctively turned to look behind us; Sam, Daniel and Alec had all done the same. Together, we peered into the blackness. There was nothing there apart from the cloud of dust kicked up by the jeep’s tires. It was hanging in the night air like a shimmering sheet.
For good measure, Sam turned on his flashlight and swung it around, so as to light up the area directly behind the jeep. Right there, close enough that any one of us could have reached out and stroked his mane, was the male lion. He looked enormous, and was completely still, like a carved statue. But as the light touched his face he opened his mouth wide, bared his teeth, and let out an almighty, ear-splitting, blood-curdling roar.
It was an incredible moment, which on a TV nature show would likely be described as “awe-inspiring” or “regal.” In real life, however? Well, I almost wet myself. Because a lion in the wild, roaring at full volume, not three feet away from my face, was downright fucking terrifying.
It took a full hour for my legs to stop shaking. I’d had a chance encounter with a lion’s naked power—almost the definition of unbridled masculinity—and it had scared me senseless.
Three weeks before we left for Africa, Daniel had organized a family day in the park. The childless Alec had opted not to attend, but even without him it was a big gathering, consisting of Rachel and me, Sam and Evie, Daniel and Pamela, and our combined brood of eight young kids, all under the age of twelve.
The day was warm and sunny. On a worn plaid blanket, we laid out a picnic spread. Within minutes, the kids had eaten and run off to play, leaving the adults to chat, sip drinks, and nibble on cheese and crackers.
Not far from where we had set up our little camp was a group of college-age ladies. They were having a day in the park, too. There was a distinct air of fresh, youthful energy about their whole group, and two of the ladies in particular were strikingly attractive—tall, blonde and athletically proportioned.
Sam, Daniel, and I were huddled at one end of the picnic blanket. Safely out of earshot of our wives, we began making entirely inappropriate comments about the young women nearby.
“She is pretty hot.”
“She has a really cute butt.”
“I wouldn’t kick her out of the bed if she farted.”
But we had obviously miscalculated and weren’t actually out of earshot because after less than a minute of our banter, Evie called out to us.
“Boys, please stop? You are behaving like a bunch of creepy old men and embarrassing yourselves, not to mention us.”
In unison we turned toward where our wives sat, shame-faced. We were like three naughty children having been caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. Rachel’s arms were crossed fiercely across her chest. From the look on her face I knew immediately that I was going to get an earful when we got home. Evie looked equally fierce, glowering at Sam.
Pamela, however, was smiling.
“Come on ladies, let them look all they want,” she chuckled. “Because one thing is for sure: those pretty young things are most definitely not looking back at these sorry-assed, middle-aged specimens.”
Everyone laughed, and the mood lightened immediately. But Pamela’s words were also sharp, like daggers driven right into the gut. An eviscerating, emasculating cut, perfectly timed and expertly delivered. The sound of air escaping from three punctured male egos was practically audible.
We had stopped to watch a family of hippos wallowing in a muddy lake when Philemon received a call on the jeep’s CB radio. He spoke a few words in a different language, and then turned to tell us a leopard had been spotted, not too far away. It was exciting news because we had already seen lions, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo, and only needed to sight a leopard to complete our “Big Five.”
Philemon sped us through the bush until we came to an open plain of tall grass. We weren’t alone there. The prospect of getting to see the normally reclusive leopard had brought ten other jeeps hurtling through the veld. It was a crush, jeeps lined up bumper to bumper. An unexpected traffic jam in the depths of the African bush.
We waited in line, the engine idling, while each vehicle in the queue ahead of us got their allocated alone time with the leopard. All the while the drivers were barking at each other on their radios. This was partly to keep an eye on the leopard’s whereabouts, but mainly to ensure that viewing privileges were being fairly distributed.
When it was finally our turn, Philemon inched the jeep forward. Right there in the undergrowth, no more than fifteen feet away, was a female leopard. Her yellow and black spots camouflaged perfectly against the surroundings, so we had to squint at first to see her, but once we had, it was impossible not to: we were in the presence of the queen of the jungle, and she had deigned to grant us a royal audience. Her mere presence commanded our full attention.
The leopardess was moving in a line parallel to the vehicle track, allowing us to roll alongside her as she walked. Although it didn’t look like she was walking. Rather, she appeared to be gliding, a languid, hypnotic sashay through the bush. Her movement was so smooth she could have been mistaken for floating, passing through the long grass like a soft breath of wind.
Leaves rustled in the breeze, and the leopardess abruptly stopped. It looked like she was sniffing the air. Then she turned toward us, lifted her head, and much as a domestic pussycat might, opened her mouth wide. I expected her to roar, like the big male lion had done the night before. Yet she made no sound. Instead our leopardess treated us to something entirely different: a seductive, feline yawn. A dozen cameras fired in unison, capturing forever the magic of that beautiful, perfectly feminine moment.
In the rush of flashes and clicks, I experienced an unexpected shift of focus, to Rachel. I found myself thinking of my wife—of our life together, our marriage, and our family. Through the long blades of grass I could see the two of us, but from a detached, self-reflective perspective. Like I was studying a photo, or like a doctor might observe a gravely ill patient through a hospital’s viewing window.
It all suddenly seemed so blindingly obvious in that African twilight: Rachel and I had expertly constructed a façade. To the outside world, we looked the model couple. We had a beautiful home and three perfect children. I had a good job. It may not have been as high-powered and remunerative as my previous one, yet it still allowed us a life filled with material comforts, adventures, and privileges. From a distance our relationship seemed warm and loving.
But behind the closed doors of our bedroom it was very different. Cracks had grown between us. They had widened slowly over time, until they had become gaping rivers that with each passing year were becoming harder and harder to wade across.
Alone, there was no camouflage to protect us. We bickered constantly, arguing over small, insignificant things. The flame of romance and lust, which had burned so strongly when we’d first met, had become a faint, intermittent flicker. We slept together infrequently, and more often than not I’d find myself jerking off in the shower for gratification, like a sad cliché character in a B-grade movie.
Our existence had become predictable and boring. We were both slowly losing our identities, choosing to define our relationship in terms of our young children’s blossoming lives. We had allowed ourselves to become little more than the sum of their feeding schedules, their play dates and parties, their swimming lessons, their school events.
Life was being sucked clean out from our marrows, and still we both smiled and continued as ever before. That was what was expected of me as a man. That was what was expected of us as a marriage. We’d signed up to a forever thing when we said, “I do.” The Relationship Playbook required us to be unflinching in that commitment to each other, no matter how dead we felt on the inside.
Nothing was perfect, and nothing was as it seemed—of course I knew that. Even so, I couldn’t help thinking that Alec now had it all: an adoring fiancée, a thriving business, and a six-pack. Daniel also seemed to have it all: a content life of his own choosing. And Sam too: a doting wife, a wonderful house and home, and a brood of perfect children.
I was the one who was failing. My relationship was dying. Rachel and I were dancing a slow, dripping death-waltz. It may have been barely perceptible from the outside, but inside of me my soul was withering away.
Once, ten years before, I’d been a happier, younger version of myself. Back then, I could roar like a lion. Now I was silent and choked up. I had become an interloper in my own life, trying to find a way through a field of treacherous long grass. Only I was not floating in the breeze, but slithering along on my belly, like a snake.
The leopardess paused for a moment. She sniffed the air one last time, and with a swish of her tail turned her back on me. Indifferent to my presence she sauntered off, to continue her walk under the big African sky.
She had better things to do.
***MM X Vital Statistics
Country: South Africa
Location: Otter Trail and Kruger National Park
Mode of transport: Hiking and safari
Distance covered: Hike—thirty miles; safari—lots
Time taken: Hike—four days; safari—three days
Accommodation: Huts and eco-tents
Injuries sustained: Fear