AFRICA, PT. 2 – Takeoff
I forced myself to sleep during the flight from Portland to Amsterdam despite it being the middle of the day, and when I deplaned into an early-morning sea of guttural Dutch voices, it felt surreal. I rubbed my eyes and wandered over to the gate for my connecting flight, bumbled my way through security, nearly leaving behind my fleece jacket and kikoy in my zombified stupor, and finally slumped over to the bathroom to relieve myself and brush my teeth, staring blankly at the dark circles holding court under my eyes.
Feeling only marginally refreshed, I found a spot near the boarding door and surveyed my fellow passengers. There were a few younger people with overstuffed backpacks, but most everyone around me blended into a pale, middle-aged blur of beige, khaki, and affluence. I didn’t conduct a scientific survey, but I’d wager that at least 60% of those present had a Tilley hat attached to their person in some way, shape, or fashion. There were also a lot of brand new cargo vests on display, which made me wonder – why do they need all of those pockets? I made a silent bet that some of them never even put one single item into one single pocket of their vest during their entire trip.
I suddenly felt very alone, and in my tired state I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I began pondering this emotional dilemma when I felt something at my back. I turned to see a short, stout elderly woman vigorously shaking her hand at me and speaking in what sounded like rapid-fire Russian.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand?” I said, throwing my hands up in the universal gesture for “I dunno.”
In response, I received more angry Russian and a strong slap to my backpack, which was nestled snugly against my back.
“Hey! Excuse me! Why did you just hit my backpack? I can’t understand you!”
This time, she returned my inquiry with a disgusted look and proceeded to stand directly behind me, her forehead gently resting on my offending pack. Completely confused, I inched forward…and she followed. Someone nearby snickered.
I turned around again. “Pardon me, but would you mind giving me a little bit of space?”
More Russian. One more backhand to the pack.
Perplexed and frustrated, I was about to relinquish my spot in the waiting area when a younger man rushed up to apologize. “It is my mother,” he said in broken English. “I am sorry for her.” With this and no other explanation, he led her away to an open spot several feet ahead where she spent the last ten minutes before boarding turning towards me in 30-second intervals, her face set to various levels of loathing.
I was incredibly grateful that she was nowhere to be found when I finally boarded. Instead, my seatmate was a young twentysomething from Atlanta named Susan who was returning to Tanzania after spending a few months back home with family. Curious, I asked what she was doing in Africa and she replied that she spent over a year volunteering with the O’Brien School for the Maasai, which educates several hundred children from a nearby village. As she explained the school’s mission, I snapped out of my airport fugue and back into reality:
Tanzania. Maasai. Africa.
In eight hours I am going to be in Africa.
Once Susan fell asleep, I stared out of the window and after some time, realized from the flight tracking display that we were coasting over Northern Africa. From where I sat, the slice of Egypt below appeared an unending, undulating canvas of pinkish sand, and I wondered how Tanzania would look from the top of Kilimanjaro.
In between daydreaming and a few tiny naps, I tried to learn a serviceable amount of Swahili from pages I’d impulsively torn from my guidebook and shoved in my purse on the way to the airport back in Los Angeles. I mumbled the foreign sounds under my breath, tossing words like habari and kwaheri against my tongue to see how they felt, grateful for the pronunciation guides printed alongside them. When Susan woke, she taught me what turned out to be the most useful word of all, “mambo,” an informal greeting I would end up using upwards of two hundred million times a day.
As the plane finally dipped through the night sky towards Kilimanjaro International Airport, I felt adrenaline flood my weary body; this was as awake as I’d been in the last twenty-four hours. I strained to see anything at all, but it was just too dark. With a quick jolt, we were on Tanzanian terra firma. I followed Susan off of the plane into the warm, heavy air and peeled off a layer. It didn’t seem like I was in Africa; was I really?
Inside, I shuffled over to the visa line, waving Susan goodbye and promising to call her if I had any free time during my trip. Now I was a stranger in a strange land, running through my limited Swahili in my head, hoping I didn’t lose it in my mental chaos, hopeful for the chance to use it as soon as possible. Nobody knows me here, and I know nobody. Mambo, Tanzania, mambo.
The line crawled forward and as I turned a corner, I saw the cranky Russian lady and her son waiting a few rows back…and she was standing nose to zipper with someone else’s backpack. It was fascinating, like watching history on rewind – the pack’s owner gave her a few sidelong glances, then reacted exactly as I had half a day before…and the old woman reacted as she had earlier: angry Russian, backpack slap, repeat. It was mesmerizing to watch this unfold, almost an out-of-body experience. Or maybe that was just the jetlag.
Preoccupied with the drama, I almost didn’t notice that it was my turn to step up to the window. “Mambo!” I said a bit too loudly to the unenthused man behind the window. I waited for “Poa,” which Susan explained was the typical response, but all I received was silence and an impatiently outstretched hand into which I nervously deposited some paperwork, my passport, and five brand new twenty-dollar bills. Apparently government workers in Tanzania aren’t all that more excited about their jobs than government workers in the United States.
Within thirty seconds, the hand shot back through the opening in the window and flung one of the bills back at me with no explanation. I felt strangely offended as I studied Andrew Jackson’s face. I knew Tanzania required all U.S. bills to be intact, unmarked, and from 2006 or sooner – and I meticulously inspected all of my cash before I left home. Nervously I scanned the twenty until I found the tiniest of tears along the edge. Seriously, buddy? Seriously? Exasperated, I rooted around in my bag until I found my emergency stash, then covertly slipped out another twenty and placed it into the hand, which retreated back under the window as if spring-loaded to retract under the weight of perfectly unblemished money.
Visa in hand, I blew through customs and exploded into the muggy night under the weight of two weeks’ worth of mountain-going, safari-seeking luggage, scanning faces for any sign of familiarity. Who was I kidding?
But there – a placard reading SALABERT.
Pure, unfiltered, overtired relief flooded my entire body.
I was no longer alone in Africa.
The sign holder was Anthony and he was my one-man welcoming committee. I waited in the front seat and reflected on reality as he paid the parking attendant: I was sweating profusely in a modified safari jeep in a foreign country, ready to be driven to a nearby village by a strange man, with a soundtrack of cackling monkeys booming in surround sound. Surreality check.
After a few minutes, Anthony returned, slammed on the gas, and lurched from the brush onto a semi-paved road lined with pedestrians carrying all manner of things, mostly on their heads: bundles of wood and baskets of produce, bags of this and boxes of that. My new friend was a chatty fellow and with barely any prompting, I learned that he used to be a park ranger (but quit after two of his fellow ranger buddies were killed by poachers), then a guide on Kilimanjaro (until the cartilage in his knees called it quits), until landing at his current position.
Once disposed of his work history, Anthony turned towards me and asked what I later came to understand as The Most Popular Question Asked By Tanzanians Of Women Traveling Alone:
“Are you married?”
I paused for a few seconds – was this a trick question? Was it bad that I was traveling alone and didn’t wear a wedding band? I decided to go with honesty to see how it played out.
“No, I’m not.”
“Oh, yes, I understand – the men are snakes! They want the cake, they eat it, then they leave! How do you control the tomcats?” He threw his hands up and laughed. “You don’t!”
I guess Anthony wasn’t going to be judging me, after all.
“The problem with marriage in Tanzania is that because of our religion, you cannot get divorced, and that is why a lot of women die wondering why their life was so bad.”
Wait a minute…is Anthony a feminist?
Tanzania was already full of surprises.
Turns out my new buddy had several daughters and wants them to get an education so they can support themselves and not rush into marriage. He said that Tanzanian families used to be a lot larger, where the children were an integral part of helping out at home and in the fields – not unlike the situation my great-grandmother faced with her children back in the day in Arkansas, I told him. But now, families tend to be smaller because it’s very expensive to send children to school.
Some time later we drove past a ramshackle guardpost, a gaggle of women in colorful dresses, and a monkey or two, then pulled up to Rivertrees Country Inn, the de facto home base where I’d spend the first and last evenings of my trip, plus one night in between my safari and Kili climb. A swarm of helpful people descended upon my luggage and carted it away into the dark as I was greeted by a youngish guy named Samson.
“Mambo,” I squeaked out.
“Poa,” he responded with a smile.
“Habari za jioni,” I squeaked out.
“Nzuri, asante,” he responded with a smile.
Phew. My Swahili doesn’t totally suck.
In the midst of this exchange of foreign syllables, a waiter pressed a small glass of frothy pink liquid into my hand – watermelon juice. I studied it, thought for a moment about intestinal distress, then threw it back like a shot of tequila. I felt dizzy with excitement – I Am In Africa And I Just Spoke Swahili To Someone And They Totally Understood Me And I Am Drinking African Watermelons!!!! – but Anthony crashed my high when he turned towards me with stern eyes and intoned, “I’m sure they are very clean here, but you do not want to eat fruit or vegetables the first two days you are in Tanzania.” He gave me a hard look. “And definitely do not eat any salads they give to you.”
I looked at poor Samson, who was clearly trying to compose himself after this culinary insult. He straightened up a bit in his chair. “I assure you, we wash all vegetables with purified water.” Suddenly, all I wanted in the world was a vegetable. All vegetables. I spent over twenty-four hours on planes and in airports, eating things that were flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed, and reconstituted. Visions of glistening tomatoes and neon-hued lettuces danced around in my brain. I didn’t just want vegetables, I needed fresh, delicious Tanzanian produce.
So despite Anthony’s mini lecture about food hygiene, I ate fresh, delicious Tanzanian produce about ten minutes after he waved goodbye. Samson set the biggest, most incredible salad in front of me, studded with superhuman quantities of avocados, squash, onions, feta, tomato, cucumbers, and chutney. I shoveled in every single morsel, then turned my attention towards emptying a giant piping bowl of pureed butternut and potato soup, finishing it all off with a heaping plate of zucchini casserole. Vegetable smackdown complete, I then waddled towards my room, suddenly recalling Susan’s warning on the plane that people often gain weight when visiting Tanzania.
After some time showering and divvying up what I’d take on safari and what I’d leave behind for the mountain, I shuffled over to the huge four-poster bed, wiggled past the mosquito netting, and curled up inside my gauze cocoon, feeling the weight of the day and the massive dinner pulling my eyelids lower and lower. In my fading consciousness, I registered the quiet buzzing of any number of unspecified and potentially disease-transmitting insects, the gentle murmur of the Usa River, the whir of the ceiling fan, and…
Oh my god, what the hell is jumping on the roof?!
To be continued…