In the third year of my University degree I found myself sitting in a lecture hall listening to a pitch about a Cultural Anthropology field school running that summer in Arusha Tanzania. I figured it was a long shot; because while it sounded great, I was focused on archaeology, not cultural anthropology, and being a university student, I was perpetually broke. Despite these setbacks, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and applied anyway. As it turns out, applying for that field school was perhaps the best decision I’ve ever made.
I applied alone, and knew only one person before the trip. I knew virtually nothing about Tanzania before going and hadn’t even looked up Arusha before the trip. I had no idea what to expect; of Arusha, of Tanzanian culture, of the program, the food, the accommodation or my fellow travelers.
When the plane finally landed, after so many hours of travelling, it was as the sun was setting. By the time we finally stepped off the plane onto the tarmac it was dark, and on the way into Arusha from Kilimanjaro airport the only surroundings we saw were the many small lit up bars or houses along the road, playing loud, lively music and full of people sitting around drinking and smoking. They were like bright little windows into this place we had just arrived in, and they looked so different than anything I knew. I can feel that anticipation and excitement still when I think about that first ride from the airport.
That first morning in Arusha, waking up at 6 am to the sound of the birds and that fresh smell of humid air, seeing the lush surroundings for the first time, and the people walking past with their bananas and their sugar cane; that was the best morning I can recall. I still can’t think of a day in my life that I was happier than that first morning, or many of the mornings that came after.
We settled into a routine, waking up at 6, having breakfast, going to work for the mornings and listening to lectures in the afternoons, on blankets in the sun. On the weekends we went on day safaris, or into town, or on trips further afar. In the evenings we drank too much, and stayed out too late. We spent every minute of every day together, and before a week was up it seemed we knew each other better than our own families did. Although it was a university trip, I think it meant so much more to all of us. I struggle to remember the lectures, and yet if you ask me about a drunken night by the campfire, a camping trip, or the time we spent with our local guides, I could describe every minute. The academic portion of this trip was not what had such a profound impact on my life, it was the relationships I made, and the love I found for Tanzania.
I’ve never met better people than the ones I met in Tanzania, or been to a place where people are more fun and open. Tanzanian people are vibrant and colorful and always smiling. They may not always have very much, but what they do they are willing to share. They will always invite you to eat with them, or to share a drink and share their time with you. I have found that nowhere I have been since has paralleled Tanzania in openness to foreigners. There are no judgements or hostility towards foreigners (and trust me, we stand out), only excitement at meeting someone new. Everyone wants to take photos with you, to invite you to their home to meet their families, and to be facebook friends. I was even dragged into wedding photos with people I’ve never met before. The children in the streets passing would stare in fascination at us and follow us around with their huge wide smiles and shouts of “mzungu,” which basically means “white.”
We were cautioned before arriving in Tanzania that we might have to be conscious of how we talk to people, to be culturally sensitive and to wear conservative clothing. As it turned out, this advice was not warranted. No matter where we went, or who we met, there were no issues with clothing or talking to people in the streets; in Tanzania, anything goes. My Tanzanian friends would say “hakuna matata” in response to everything – it means no worries (which I assume everyone knows from The Lion King). There really are no worries in Tanzania.
This has been just a brief introduction to my trip to Tanzania, and I will write many more posts about more specific aspects of Tanzania, Arusha, the culture and the adventures we had. For now though, this is how I ended up in Tanzania, and how I fell in love with the country and the people. There is no place that has ever felt more right to me than Tanzania, and I am so thankful for the times I had there and the people I met. This trip changed my plans, my ideals, and my outlook, and the friends I met on that trip have stayed with me and remind me every day how lucky I am to have them in my life.