What in the world did you get yourself into? I murmured, trying to dig the grime out from underneath my fingernails. I’d made it safely to Arusha after having spent an awe-inspiring few days at Natron. I walked into the bathroom of my hotel and looked anxiously into the mirror. I didn’t look any different – aside from the wash of dust covering me head to toe, camouflaging what would have otherwise been matted, greasy hair – but I felt different. It’s not everyday that you get the chance to fulfill one of your greatest fantasies, and yet here I was, experiencing this fantastical gift that generously offered more and more with each passing day. Cupping my hands, I placed them underneath the faucet and brought them up to splash my face, silently giving myself permission to break from what seemed like an eternal reverie. I watched the dull, brown water swirl down the drain, having refreshed me for the final leg of my journey. I gazed back up at the mirror, satisfied with the clean glow atop my cheeks. I dried my hands, turned off the light and headed to bed.

I will never forget the days that followed. I traveled down roads that weaved tirelessly through the plains of the Serengeti and heard the low moans of water buffalo as they grazed outside my tent. I felt the humid chill of the Ngoronogoro Conservation Area and saw the most majestic creatures just outside my window. I witnessed stars like I’d never seen before, dotting the sky like a practiced artist does his canvas. I felt the cavernous age of the places I visited; their timeless features persistent reminders of Tanzania’s rich history.

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Anyone who has been following my journey thus far will know that I am inspired by landscapes; I think that being surrounded by diverse natural beauty is immensely powerful, and am aware that people – including myself – sometimes take these opportunities for granted. I made absolutely certain to appreciate everything around me on my last few days in-country, as I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to witness so many different elements of the Tanzanian landscape. I had waited so long to see this Africa, where discoveries of archaic hominin life lay unturned in sand and the Earth melted seamlessly together, bridging grassland with desert and desert with sea.

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A region of particular interest to me was Olduvai Gorge, a small belt of land belonging to the larger region of Arusha. Today, it could be described as desolate, harsh and perhaps even uninhabitable, but that was not the case millions of years ago when lush vegetation spanned the great plains of Eastern Africa. In fact, the area is home to some of our species’ greatest discoveries pertaining to the evolution of man, but you might never suspect that visiting now. The famous paleoanthropologist, Richard Leakey, once wrote: “There is an inescapable and persistent excitement in the search for the origins of humanity,” and I couldn’t agree more. It was this excitement that had me aching to travel there for so many years. Looking out the window, I watched the arid landscape stretch endlessly across the horizon, reaching so far across the expanse that it seemed to drop off the edge of the planet. Heat from the sun permeated the ground and created a hazy, moving filter over an otherwise unchanging landscape. It was like staring hypnotically into an oblivion and being completely incapable of looking away.

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Each day I woke early to the sounds of different animals, always feeling revitalized from a night of good rest. After breakfast, I’d jump excitedly into our car, anxious for the new sights the day would bring. In Tarangire, the populace included the adored tembo (elephant) almost exclusively, though we did see hippos basking in dwindling pools and dik-diks that catapulted precariously in front of vehicles. The Serengeti introduced colors I’d never seen before; they pirouetted elegantly across the sky as lions lay dormant in the bush, only rising with the trilling of raucous birds. Unfortunately, it also offered a gnarly stomach bug and large tick in my back, though I’ll spare the details. In the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, our vehicle hugged corners of a steep, dirt road leading us deeper into the infamous crater. Here we managed to check off the last of the Big 5 by spotting the elusive African Rhino lounging far off in the distance. We also nearly froze in the early hours of that misty, cloudy morning but our layers and hoodies kept us in good spirits. In the evening, we found a reprieve from the cold by hibernating in our tent, which sat atop a beautiful green field complete with zebras and one single imposing tree at its center. From there, we watched bright pinks highlight the deep green foliage that surrounded us on all sides before turning black – carrying us into the last day of our adventure.

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Tanzania had me absolutely reeling, searching for an abyss to dive into that would allow for an eternity of this feeling; a feeling where my heart finds peace in the unfamiliarity of a place so rife with light, life, love, and meaning. Each time I close my eyes, I see the vibrant reds and deep majestic blues of the Maasai shukas dancing endlessly in my mind. They move swiftly with the wind, singing lullabies at me whose graceful intonations wax and wane with the warm light. The breeze, though blown with gusto from the mouths of towering mountains blanket me in an unmatched, unmistakable calm. I feel its strength as it moves through my open fingers and let it hold me steady on this ancient ground. I open my eyes.

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I’ve left now. Back to a land whose sounds, colors and sensations I am much more familiar. It’s strange, but it’s an adjustment I am thankful for. Tanzania, its people, and its land somehow managed to make me feel foreign; like a piece had been added to my being, affecting me in ways I can only wait to find out. Because of this experience – because of this place – I now have the privilege and the opportunity to discover a whole new me in a world I now know has an infinite number of adventures and opportunities to offer. What’s more is I have a lifetime to do it. How much more beautiful and powerful, I wonder, could that possibly be?

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Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5

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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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