If you can race a chameleon, anything is possible

Limuru, Kenya in 1983 was not exactly an all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment options. There were no amusement parks, roller rinks, mini-golf courses, movie theaters, or playgrounds.  There wasn’t even a single television in anyone’s house. If there had been one, the only thing to watch was the evening news, during which an announcer of dubious credentials read a monotone narrative of President Moi’s activities set to footage of him doing charitable-looking things in front adoring onlookers (the political prisoners were off-camera).  After that, there was a weather report, equally unremarkable in a country that sat on the equator.  The entire nation was like a somnolent small town.

But I was never bored.  I had Laura. 

My older sister’s vaunted place in my life only increased after our parents decided to move to Kenya as missionaries when I was eight and she was eleven.  We could only bring a few toys with us, but Laura’s imagination and energy were like an entire Toys R Us. Our first home in Kenya was a conference center, where my parents studied Swahili with other new missionary families, putting us in an instant community of children who were likewise bored and hungry for leadership.  As always, my sister capitalized on the ennui and aimlessness, like some kind of low-tech Steve Jobs. 

The natural world gave her much with which to work. We kids could roam through gleaming, emerald tea fields, climb any number of trees, look for elusive colobus monkeys in the forest, or simply roll around in the prolific, rust-colored mud.  But our favorite thing to do was to collect chameleons, which seemed to be tucked into every bush.  Their tiny, prickly hands gripped the hairs of our arms as they carefully ambled along, their skin modulating in color ever so slightly, their vigilant eyes swiveling like balls on sockets.  They had the bearing of erudite scholars condescendingly lecturing the ignorant. 

As a chameleon, I gotta say, I’m skeptical.

What they did not appear to be were athletes of any kind, but that was of no consequence to Laura. Her vision had never been stymied by physical realities. And she had a vision when it came to chameleons.  She would invent a new sport, an entirely novel spectacle inconceivable to mankind heretofore, that would fascinate and thrill the masses and more importantly, pass the time, and that sport would be chameleon racing. Because as everyone knows, chameleons are strongly inclined toward physical activity, as well as highly trainable.  Her next scheme was going to be producing a Broadway musical starring hyenas and sloths if this hadn’t worked out.  

If you are thinking to yourself that when racing chameleons—a subject I am sure you have given much previous thought—you can’t have a traditional, linear, start-to-finish route, you would be correct.  A chameleon isn’t terribly linear, more like a heavily sedated Robin Williams.  My innovative sister had a solution to that dilemma, however.  She drew a large circle on the ground with a stick, and on the count of three, everyone put their chameleon-athlete in the middle of the circle.  Whoever reached the edge first won the race and advanced to the next round. 

Before long, we were all stockpiling chameleons like beanie babies at the height of the craze, putting each one through a series of tests to gage their prospects on the racing circuit.  We kept our supply in an enclosed courtyard/sewage dump in our house, so they couldn’t escape but had a self-service food supply.  The baby chameleons were optimal because they were cuter, faster, and much less grumpy and bite-y.  My favorite one was a slightly aggressive but still adorable chameleon named Akiki.  The worst were the three-horned chameleons.  They were like Sam the Eagle on a day full of grammatical errors and constitutional violations.  You only raced a three-horned chameleon out of desperation or morbid curiosity.  

Some of the races were quite thrilling, in that they might only last ten or fifteen minutes.  Others were real snooze-fests. Like literally, all the chameleons fell asleep in the middle of the circle.  The main spectacle, other than the candy-based betting market, was the throng of screaming kids, jumping up and down, while the competitors made their way toward the finish line with all the alacrity of an animal who evolved specifically to evade predators without ever moving.  To more casual onlookers, most of the event’s suspense probably derived from a concern that the children would accidentally trample an athlete in their enthusiasm.  

But now I’ve dredged up a painful memory indeed.  Akiki turned out to be a champion racer, but just like Apollo Creed, Akiki was doomed.  One day I was playing with him in my room with my friend Amanda.  Amanda didn’t usually have violent tendencies, but she is nonetheless guilty of murdering Akiki.  She says it’s my fault for letting him roam freely.  I say, How hard is it to avoid stepping on a chameleon?  We are still friends, but I’ve never quite forgiven Amanda for gruesomely ending the life and career of Akiki, the gold-medal chameleon-runner.  

Despite this tragedy, I cherished every moment of my time as a chameleon racer, just one of many experiences I wouldn’t have had without Laura.  It wasn’t the first or last time she pulled a rabbit out of a hat for me (or in this case, a chameleon out of a bush).  As long as she was around, I knew I’d never be bored, but more than that, I’d never be sad or alone or afraid.  Through all the changes we endured as we moved across the world and settled into a life unrecognizable from the one we had left in America—and then as we did it in reverse as adults—she was my ever-optimistic guide, assuring me that if you can race a chameleon, anything is possible. 

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