I was inundated with premature nostalgia as I secured the final buckle of my backpack. How can I extend my stay, I wondered. I had so quickly fallen in love with Tanzania, and especially with the island of Pemba. Not only was it stunning, but it had a unique and highly sought after quality: it was removed. In today’s world, I’ve found that it has become increasingly difficult to find those sorts of hidden gems, but here I constantly felt like I was the first to discover its beauty. I missed Pemba before I even left, but I felt solace in knowing I’d one day return.

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As we flew to the mainland city of Tanga, we marveled at the erupted sandbars below us. They were met with calm, aquamarine waters that stretched for miles before turning into darker turquoise pools. It was fun imagining what it would be like to man a dhow and take it out to one of the many islands below, making it mine for the day. I knew that if I returned, I would have to make a point to fulfill that fantasy.

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We spent only one day in Tanga – it was a stopover of sorts before heading to Arusha. We lodged along the sea where we ate a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and toast. In the afternoon, we meandered through the city’s streets, talking with locals and making plans for the days to come. We eventually stumbled upon a hidden cove where we skipped rocks and collected sea shells before seeking out dinner nearby. Our time was calm and easy – exactly what we needed before heading off to our next destination. I was excited for what was to come, and particularly eager to see how drastically different the landscape would be as we flew inland for the first time.

In stark contrast to the jaw-dropping blues and white-sand islets of my flights to and from Pemba, on the way to Arusha my eyes were met with infinite nothingness. It was an interesting dichotomy. The cracked terrain was etched with roads that stretched for miles, a mix of earthy pastel browns and chalky reds that drew a maze atop the landscape. The homogeneity of the land only added to its vastness, and as the plane’s engine roared, thundering us onward, I studied it thoroughly. I felt lost in the enormity of this place and wondered what paleoanthropological treasures lay below me. While I’d so enjoyed my time amidst the sea, it took but an instant to be reminded that I prefer to be among the desert, where colors dance exhaustively with the setting sun, whispering secrets into the wind from times long passed.

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Stepping onto the paved airstrip in Arusha, I felt surprised. I hadn’t anticipated just how mountainous and fertile the landscape would be. The miles that stretched around us were stippled with soft green rolling mounds resembling enlarged mole hills. They sprouted up every which way, giving the East African Rift Valley a topography unlike any other I’d seen. I came to learn that these features were caused by millions of years of volcanic activity, but in that moment I stood digesting their unfamiliarity. Overall, though, the terrain was redolent of my home in Idaho and I felt instantly at ease among Earth’s natural giants.

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Driving through town I felt nervous excitement. When it was announced that I was the winner of Passion Passport’s The Bucket List Initiative and would be traveling to Tanzania, I received countless emails from community members offering tips and recommendations for things to do. One of those came from Sophie, who also graciously offered to host Zach and I for the few days we’d be in Arusha. We were thrilled to be staying with her and her boyfriend, Willy, in their house just below Mount Meru, and couldn’t wait to arrive.

Sophie and Willy’s house was charming and cozy – a crisp, stark white contrasted beautifully with the green of the trees and the red of the flowers – and it offered a convenient, quiet respite from the busy city center of Arusha. If the area wasn’t so characteristically jungle-like, I’d have thought I’d made it to the Mediterranean. Once we’d settled in, I pleasantly succumbed to African time. It was late afternoon and the fog was making its slow descent, bringing with it a wet, penetrable cold. We decided on Ethiopian food for dinner and made our way to the restaurant, each of us taking in the light purple hue that shrouded the top of Meru. Dinner was casual and relaxed, and once we’d returned home it took no time at all to fall into a much needed sleep.

In the morning, I took long, slow sips of coffee as I journaled on the porch. I relished the cooler inland air, feeling its shock as it washed over my exposed skin. Boomer, Sophie and Willy’s dog, kept me company, parading the walled perimeter surrounding us in pursuit of the ever-present vervet monkeys. Between pen strokes, I made conscious efforts to look up to appreciate where I was. As was frequently the case, I felt so amazed by my circumstance. I was here – in Tanzania and at Sophie and Willy’s home – for a number of reasons but they could, in essence, be chalked up to Instagram: it was through that platform that I had learned of TBLI and that I connected with our wonderful hosts. That realization, which struck me often, made the trip seem that much more unreal.

At Sophie and Willy’s recommendation, we decided to trek to Mount Meru Falls. To save money, and also because it was way cooler than taking a car, we opted to travel to the trailhead by motorcycle. I was elated as I hadn’t had many chances to ride a motorcycle before so it was a special treat for me. Not long after we set out, I began to feel the burn in my legs from holding them up alongside the bike. I was definitely conscious of my screaming muscles, but in truth the sensation didn’t compare to anything else I saw or heard around me. As we made our ascent I took in all I could. Monochromatic streets were lined with people running errands and going about their morning business. With time, the hustle waned and the congested streets faded into a slower pace customary of agricultural villages. Never before had I seen so much fresh fruit, coffee, maize, and other vegetables, all common staples in Tanzania.

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As we continued our ride, it occurred to me, not surprisingly, that there was nothing mundane about this place. Life was languid and lavish; tremendous color decorated the scene before me and I tried with all my might to slow time so I could retain as much of its distinct aesthetic as possible.

Finally, we arrived at Mount Meru. Standing just shy of 15,000 feet, Meru was palatial with its grandeur and enormity. I couldn’t wait to explore it. We began our hike, my fingers constantly locking with the proffered hands around me which belonged to the boys responsible for guiding us to the waterfall. “Pole, pole,” they kept repeating, encouraging me downward. The viscous mud that had adhered to the bottoms of my hiking boots made for a perilous, albeit entertaining, trek down and the boys didn’t have to tell me twice to go slowly. Between bushes of African stinging nettle on either side of me and the weight of my overly-packed bag dragging me under encroaching branches and twigs, I was careful to make it down in one piece. It wasn’t long before we met up with the gentle stream below and I took a moment to rinse my boots and hands before continuing onward.

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While I had silently admonished myself on our way to the falls for having on far too many layers, I quickly learned that it had been a wise decision. Once we’d reached the cascading stream of water, which lashed tirelessly against the rocks before us, I was shaking with cold. It pierced me straight to the bone but it in no way took away from the beauty around us. We gave ourselves a moment to silently appreciate our surroundings before unloading the cameras from our packs, jumping from rock to rock, and running around the base of the falls in pursuit of the ultimate shot. A short time later, I turned my back on Meru Falls with tingling, burning fingers, just like the ones I’d get from hours out in the snow. My hair, I knew, was wavy and wet from prolonged exposure to the humid, chilly air and I looked forward to venturing out of the dense foliage where I was sure to find sunshine – and the sensation in my toes.

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Our ride to the trailhead, the entrance fee to the falls, and the tips we offered our guides had left us shilling-less, but I was so entranced by the sweeping villages before us that I didn’t mind having to find our way back home by foot. Caked dirt flaked off my shoes as we journeyed toward Sophie’s, having baked in the now beaming sun. As I began to warm up, I removed my layers once again, the feeling returning to all my extremities. Vanquishing just about every other thought I had, though, was my hunger, and I daydreamed of french toast for the majority of our way down.

Before we had left for our hike, we had told Sophie of our strong desire to make a trip to Lake Natron – something that had been exceptionally hard to plan in advance. Not long before we had reached her house, she called. “I’ve found a man who is willing to take you to Natron!” she exclaimed. Beaming, I quickened my pace, anxious to hear the details of our next adventure.

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Shaylyn is a recent anthropology grad and aspiring bioarchaeologist passionately pursuing a life full of cultural exploration, travel, and adventure. Follow her on her Instagram.

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