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Published: November 23rd 2012
As soon as I stepped out onto the tarmac at Dar es Salaam airport, I was assaulted by an olfactory stew of vegetation, sweat, dust, and burnt charcoal. I felt blanketed by nostalgia. I don’t have full sense of smell (Woods calls it “smell blindness”), and most of the time I don’t smell anything at all, but those specific smells have a strong association with the Tanzania of my memory. And there was certainly no mistaking where I was once I entered the airport and dealt with customs. There was a disorganized crowd standing in a cluster by a row of windows and armed security milling about looking bored. Customs agents called out names, and one at a time people shuffled forward, then shuffled back to the crowd, and then shuffled forward again, etc. There were no instructions and no apparent order to the chaotic bureaucracy happening in front of me. While I waited, I chatted about tattoos with a South African diamond mining consultant about my age. He threw around his “Fuck it, it’s Africa!” attitude with relish while talking about his thrilling experiences all over Africa with guns and danger . I couldn’t help but
think about how guys like that can revel in the dangerous aspects of Africa because they experience it all from behind the safety of their white skins and their money while the majority of Africa doesn’t have that same luxury. But then again, I’m pretty ignorant to all of that and probably shouldn’t judge what I don’t know. It was an interesting conversation regardless, and helped pass the over an hour wait to have my passport stamped.
As exhausting as the flight and the hassle at customs were, that all faded away as soon as I was whisked off by the taxi driver (holding a sign scrawled with “Mel. Steven.”) to Mikadi Beach Lodge, south of the city. I got in too late to really appreciate my surroundings, but the next day I opened the little wooden door to my thatch roof banda and beheld the brilliant-green turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. My banda was simple, but had electricity and a little fan which went unused. The breeze off the ocean cooled my banda enough at night so that I actually needed a blanket. There was a chill beach bar restaurant with huge, comfy lounge seating and various
flags hanging from the thatch ceiling. I spent most of my time there in one of the hammocks or beach chairs reading. I ordered fresh caught fish for dinner one night and ate it Tanzania style, picking the meat off of the bones with my fingers, which earned me approval from the bar staff. I tested out some of my Swahili, but it was apparent that self-study in Philadelphia did not do much to prepare me for actual conversations.
There was a beached dhow (boat) right in front of the Lodge, which tourists could rent out for fishing or sight-seeing trips. The difference between low tide and high tide was staggering. I’ve never seen water recede that far before. The boat was named “Vagabundo” and locals lounged on its deck, dangling their feet over sand empty of any water. In the evening, couples and groups of young men or women would stroll the beach. There wasn’t that many Wazungu (white people, foreigners) there because it was entering the low season. I almost had the place to myself.
I was relaxed and grateful to be where I was, but I was also overwhelmed and a little lonely as the
realization of actually being in Tanzania sank in. The whole idea had been so abstract when I was preparing. But now that I had finally arrived, the distance between Tanzania and home, and everything known and comfortable, felt preposterously far away. But I was also buzzing with anticipation, and although I felt isolated, the isolation was almost soothing. The months leading up to the trip were so chaotic and filled to the brim with activity and intense feelings (grief, joy, anxiety, etc). I didn’t have much time to be alone and take stock of everything. As I spent my days on the beach finally taking the time to reflect on everything, I felt incredibly grateful, for what I have back home, and for what I have waiting for me here.
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