I have been fortunate enough in my life to travel to many different places; you have my parents to blame when they took me on my first plane ride (to Florida) when I was 16 years old. I was bitten by the travel bug, and I’ve been taking trips ever since.
Even the planning of them is fun – I research the destination, its history, the people and go from there. I’ve always believed that crossing borders helps to break down borders, and that visiting other countries helps us to learn tolerance and respect of other cultures, as well as offering discoveries not only of other places but also ourselves.
“The essence of living is discovering.”
~ Vijay Krishna, Indian Scholar
When I return from a trip, I am usually glad to be home, even though it isn’t long before I am envisioning my next adventure far, far away. But Tanzania was different.
I didn’t want to come home. Really – I didn’t want to come home.
In all of my travels, in all of my adult life, I never felt more at home than when I was in Tanzania. I belonged.
The peace I felt in Tanzania, the quiet, the rightness of it is hard to describe. It was nature as it should be, without the technology or infrastructure or constant noise or smog or fast food or overcrowding. Just the animals ruling their kingdom, and a small number of humans trying to honor them in their habitat, without leaving too many footprints. We were the guests.
When we visited a residential school for Tanzanian children, they greeted us with bare feet and smiles. When I climbed out of our Land Rover, at least (no exaggeration) 100 children surrounded me, smiling shyly. I said hello to each one of them, and some of them shook my hand. But most of them just wanted to touch my arm; they seemed fascinated by my pale skin, and they explored with the gentlest of fingers. Their classrooms were wooden benches in old, plastered buildings, their dorms more of the same. The ingredients for their meals of beans and rice were stacked in burlap sacks in a storeroom.
But each child was so proud of their school, and the opportunity it gave their future. They actually had an old model copy machine under lock and key, but the school didn’t have enough money to buy paper for their final exams. Paper that cost all of around $10 was a luxury they could not afford.
All of the moments were special, but one rises above the rest in my memory, filled with laughter. We arranged a night drive in order to try to track a leopard that had been seen in the area. On this game drive, there were 6 of us in a tiered seat Jeep: the four of us from the USA, our Tanzanian guide/driver and a tracker who sat on the left front part of the vehicle, on a seat attached to the hood. In order to not disturb the nocturnal animals, we traveled without headlights. The tracker had a red light with him, so that if we saw an animal, we could actually “see” it without bothering the wildlife with the harsh glare of a spotlight.
At night. No paved roads. Barely a trail. No head lights. Driving a few feet from the edge of a 12-foot drop to a dried out river bed (Tanzania was suffering another drought). At a high rate of speed. Hitting bumps and tree limbs and rocks and mud wallows. The driver using one hand to steer and the other to hold a walkie-talkie, conferring with another guide driving on the opposite side of the river bed. Eyes glued to the darkness, hoping to see any sign of the leopard’s spots.
Did I mention the high rate of speed in the bush without headlights? Our bodies were literally lifting off of the (hard) wooden bench seats – there are no seat belts in the Serengeti Plain – as we tore off-road. (Note: it takes an awful lot of momentum to get my body to lift off a seat on its own!!!). I’m smiling, my son is whooping with excitement, his fiancé is quietly hanging on, and my husband – always practical – is yelling, “This violates every safety regulation I ever learned…”
All this time, the six of us, with two in broken English, were belting out “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with blistering enthusiasm. Everyone knew the words; this was something that transcended cultures and perfectly fit the moment.
“A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, aweema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, aweema-weh, a-weema-weh… In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight; in the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh… Near the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight; Near the village, the quiet village, the lion sleeps tonight…”
In that moment, there was nothing but sheer joy in the experience. No worries…be happy. That kind of joy. Why worry about safety or being eaten by predators in the wilds of the Tanzanian bush? This was heaven, and the only race here was human.
And I swear that I heard a clan of hyenas laughing along with us…
Oh – I almost forgot – were we successful in our hunt? Yes, we spotted the leopard and tracked him for a few miles, until he disappeared into thick brush.
On the day of our departure, each time we made a stop in our small plane, heading closer and closer to “civilization,” something in me would protest. My heart left a piece of itself imprinted on the land.
Why return to my fast-paced life when I could retain this simplicity – this authenticity – and be part of this more genuine-feeling “Circle of Life?”
Back at my American home, I wouldn’t think of sleeping with the doors unlocked or only a wall of screens between me and my neighbors. In Tanzania, out in the bush, on safari, surrounded by thousands of predators, I felt safe and at peace. I belonged there.
Come to think of it, I probably do.
A few years ago, my husband and I decided to take part in the National Geographic Genographic Project, which, with the DNA of participants all over the world, historical patterns in the collected DNA would be analyzed to learn about each person’s “deep ancestry,” or the migration paths of our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago.
What were the results of my ancestral make-up, my “ground zero?” East Africa. Which includes Tanzania, the place that felt like home. Where I belonged.
My ancestors then migrated to West Africa, to Northern Africa (Egypt), then the Sinai Peninsula, Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, to the Western Mediterranean. This route, from Eastern Africa to the Western Mediterranean, coincides with my paternal and maternal grandparents all emigrating to the USA (through Ellis Island) from Italy and Hungary in the early 1900s.
In Tanzania, my soul recognized that I was home. My cellular makeup affirmed where it all began. It was as if the land and the animals sang a song to my soul, and I answered its familiar refrain from so very long ago.
I walked in the desert but had no thirst. I sat with the animals but had no fear. I watched the Maasai dance, and the rhythm of their drums was already a part of me. Its melody sang and my soul rejoiced.
I will return to you, Tanzania. To your land, your people, your essence. I promised my soul it would once again dance in your sunset and be at peace.