Ever have a dream where you end up lost in a foreign land, but then realize that you weren’t really lost…you just so happened to find your way back ‘home’? Well, that’s what my trip to East Africa felt like: rediscovering home.
Gearing up for the trip in January 2016, I remember feeling a wave of ambivalence and anxiety after discussing my travel plans with family and friends. Everyone thought I was nuts to have booked a round-trip flight to and from Tanzania for 3 weeks. What freaked them out even more was that I’d be traveling solo. When I purchased the ticket, I was certain my friend Tom (a translator I met in TZ five years ago when I studied abroad there) would be there too, but a family emergency had changed that. A panic set in then because I had been banking on Tom being my go-to guy for this trip back to Tanzania which I had promised the people there, and myself, I would do five years following my UAlbany study abroad experience.
Fast forward to May, I’m getting all my documents in order. I’ve acquired my visa from the Tanzanian consulate in Washington, D.C. and I’ve purchased my anti-malarial pills (which I failed to use correctly 5 years prior and contracted the disease, oops!). At this point, I’m feeling a bit more prepared, but still nervous as hell because I don’t know what to expect. I reconnected via email to a woman named Anande, whom I also met in 2011. I decided to email and let her know that I would be traveling to Tanzania soon and to ask if we could link at some point during my visit. To my surprise, Anande not only offered to hang out once I got to Tanzania, but she even invited me to stay at her home in Arusha.. In that moment, I decided that I was not going to let anything or anyone influence my expectations of my upcoming trip. I decided that I was gonna let go and let things flow.
Two days in at Anande’s home in Kwa-Mangusha (a rural region of Arusha) and I was ready to pull my hair out. Now a newlywed, I found out that her husband, Josh, was a Member of Parliament and would be hosting visitors from Tanzania, Switzerland, and Wisconsin to discuss how to better represent his constituency in Arusha. As much as I really enjoyed meeting and dining with these important people, I couldn’t help but feel like I was trapped in a genie’s bottle. I had been inside for two full days and while no one was keeping me trapped there, I felt like I owed it to Anande to spend some time with her family (husband, Josh, and her stepson, Gian) before I got started on my adventure. That night, I packed a little travel bag, and made plans to hit the road early the next morning to head into the city center of Arusha (about an hour east of Kwa-Mangusha).
I arrived in Arusha’s city center with no agenda other than to wander the streets surrounding the Clock Tower, which was something like a base for myself and the other volunteers when we were in Tanzania volunteering with the Global Service Corps (GSC) five years earlier. I was once again entranced by how much of an impact Western pop culture had on other regions of the world as I took in all the faces of American hip-hop/R&B artists like Tupac, Beyonce, and Eminem plastered on the windows of dala-dalas (public taxi minivans). Not to mention hearing Rihanna’s “work, work, work, work, work, work!” blasting from the speakers of local restaurants and hair salons. It felt so good to wander around aimlessly, taking in the sights of mamas regally balancing full baskets of produce on their head tops and teenagers in their school uniforms recapping the day’s drama while taking the long way home. While stopping for some tea at a café I’d been to before near the popular Arusha Hotel, I remembered that Tom, who was unable to make it, told me to reach out to his friend Mao, who worked at the Maasai Craft Market nearby. Little did I know that Mao was about to become one of the many guardian angels I would encounter during my three-week journey.
A couple shopping trips for Masai beaded trinkets and a few days later, Mao managed to get me signed up for a 4 day/3 night safari to the Ngorogoro Crater, Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks. I’d be lying if I said I was anywhere near prepared for the camping trip. Despite having no warm clothing (I clearly packed just for the beach!), backpack, hiking shoes, nor flashlight, I was elated to be heading into the wild for my first, ever camping trip. Mao and I had breakfast the morning of and he dropped me off to Nakumet Supermarket in the city to meet the other six people who I’d spend the next couple days with. I met Daniel (a Chinese guy from San Fran), Mikte and Nanda (two young women from Holland), Muhammed (a guy from Egypt), his girlfriend, Kristina (a lady from Lithuania), and our guide from Tanzania, Anwar. Our group was pumped and ready for the adventure to begin! The next few days were filled with excitement, anxiety, insight, curiosity, energy, fear, and amazement.
Driving through what seemed like endless terrain, I witnessed so much natural beauty; both living and nonliving. One of the stops our group made during the safari was to the village of a Maasai family to get a better understanding of what their daily lives consisted of. Visiting this family of 19 (1 husband, 5 wives, and 13 children), I understood how primarily self-sustainable these people were. Our host, Msafiri, explained that outside of the weekly Thursday market trip into town to sell beaded jewelry and purchase the week’s necessities, the children shepherd their animals, women built new bomas (huts) for their ever-expanding family, and the men carried out their duties as protector and leader. Ducking under the thatched roof and stepping into one of the bomas with one of Msafiri’s brothers, I noticed that everything the family needed was located arm's length away from the other object: the bed, hot plate, stool, table, broom...to name a few. It was an amazing experience to learn about the livelihood of the Maasai people who were so humble, gracious, and proud to share their cultural identity with us. I left their village with a renewed sense of modesty, appreciation, and respect.\
Soon after the safari, I was in dire need of a warmer climate because northern Tanzania, where I was based, would have temperatures as low at 48 degrees at night. Thanks to the popular travel pages on instagram, I had my mind set on visiting Zanzibar at some point, so I booked a 13-hr bus from Arusha to Dar-Es-Salaam, where I would get a 1.5-hr ferry ride to Stone Town, Zanzibar. As a thought, the task seemed like a walk in the park, but in all actuality, it was quite lonely and challenging. I boarded a bus at 7am from Arusha to Dar with no itinerary of where I’d sleep for the night before boarding my 10:30am ferry to Zanzibar the following day. This was when the millennial neurons in my brain began to activate. When my bus got to Dar, I eagerly took advantage of the wifi at the station and contacted a friend in Brooklyn who was from Dar and within an hour, he had his best friend, Dallazy, pick me up, help check me into a comfortable hotel, all while refusing any form of payment outside of a hug, handshake, and farewell. I could’ve never dreamed of an act so kind from a complete stranger.
Weary from my scary bus experience to Dar, I flew to Nairobi, Kenya after leaving Zanzibar because I couldn’t travel that far away from home and not take a trip to the place I am named after. Once again, I was in a new land with no travel agency company driver waiting outside the airport for me with a sign displaying my name, so I took to Instagram to connect with someone...anyone! I remembered that I ‘follow’ a Kenyan wildlife and reggae event photographer based in Nairobi so, nervously, I sent him a direct message and gave him a succinct story of my situation, asking if he’d be willing to meet up and show me around. Sambu, the photographer, gladly accepted and my Kenyan exploration was off to a start! In the time I was in Nairobi, Sambu found me a bed and breakfast owned by a family friend, introduced me to some of his colleagues, brought me to a reggae concert at the botanical gardens, plus a hip, local hangout in the city center of Nairobi. We even found time to squeeze in an impromptu photoshoot on one of Sambu’s favorite streets with a graffiti-decorated wall, which boldly read “UMOJA,” meaning “unity” in Swahili. Though my trip to Kenya was only five days long, I got more than my share fare of fun and exploration.
Traveling over 7,000 miles away from my Brooklyn home, my expectations were that I’d be a lone wanderer trying to make my way in a land that was barely familiar to me. However, what I experienced couldn’t have been more far from the truth. I was blessed with a magical expedition with some bumps in the road, but also including a few miraculously placed fairy godparents (i.e. Mao, Dallazy, Sambu) to help me along the way. Though I was excited to be heading back to NYC to see my loved ones, I still felt as though I was leaving the home I’d just found my way back to. But I know I’ll come “home” again soon.