10,000 miles – that was the approximate distance I was to cover from San Francisco to Dar Es Saalam, Tanzania.
I arrived at the airport all business. I was far too preoccupied with checking in and ensuring I had everything I needed for my trip to process what I was actually doing. I checked my 20 pound bag and walked toward my gate, boarding pass in hand. As I slumped down on an empty seat, all of my suppressed thoughts began to surface. As a young girl, I had dreamt of adventures like the one I was about to take off on, but I never fathomed it becoming a reality – especially under these pretences, as winner of Passion Passport’s The Bucket List Initiative. “How is this happening right now?” I thought.
I vividly remember staring out the window on the plane. My fingers reached for the necklace I religiously wear, but they found only skin; I had decided to leave my jewelry at home. East Africa, with its archaeological and paleoanthropological discoveries dotting the landscape from north to south, always enchanted me. A lifetime of anticipation and a month of preparation had me feeling both ready and anxious to finally be in Tanzania.
My deep-seeded excitement and jitters were only amplified over the course of my 44 hours of travel; at times, it was almost too much to endure. When I finally touched down in Dar, I was utterly exhausted. After being approved for my visa and claiming my luggage, I headed out to find a taxi. Greeted with warm, humid air and an enthusiastic driver, I was thrilled to be heading to my hotel to get some much needed rest.
As we drove through Dar, I was surprised to feel trepidation. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what I was seeing and feeling. Everything was dark. Street lights flickered as we drove by, lighting up small groups of men on either side of the street. My driver made a point to tell me that I should not go out at night, which really pushed my quieted anxieties to the forefront. Even now as I reflect on this moment, I am unsure what it was that gave these anxieties such power and life. Perhaps it was as simple as this being my first solo trip abroad, but nothing could have prepared me for the self-doubt I felt. It grabbed hold of me and completely swallowed me up. I was embarrassed and ashamed to be feeling these things; to be doubting myself and my own abilities. At this point I couldn’t quite discern between exhaustion-induced concerns and reality, and I spent a sleepless night trying to shake whatever it was that had me so spooked.
The next day I awoke groggy and confused. I wasn’t sure if the sun was rising or setting, but a glance at my watch confirmed it was the latter. The hotel staff, like the taxi driver, had repeatedly recommended I not leave the hotel past dark; I was traveling on my own and there would be no one to escort me out. This in no way calmed my already established fears about venturing into the city alone, but I was starving. My stomach growled at me mercilessly and my head felt foggy and sluggish. Against every subconscious plea to stay in the hotel, I decided to leave the comfort of my room and search for a restaurant.
Equipped with a map of the city, I embarked on my quest. Despite not having to go very far, the warnings of all the people I had encountered resounded in my head and each step I took was made with conscious effort. My eyes memorized every street sign and turn. I wasn’t going to get lost, and all of my senses focused on that single goal.
While I was nervous to be out at night, it was impossible to not notice the life of the city, densely populated in all of its nooks and crannies. Mothers and their children sold fruits and other household goods on corners. Men talked excitedly with passersby. There were infinite new sounds and smells that I wanted to explore, and I berated myself for having slept through the majority of the day when there was so much to do and see.
I eventually stumbled into what I presumed was some sort of buffet. Men and women were cast about the restaurant haphazardly and there seemed to be no order; it was unclear who was sitting where and with whom. Fortunately, not long after I arrived, a table cleared and I graciously took it. I sat for a long while trying to deduce the correct method of ordering, but nothing really made any sense to me. I locked eyes with a waitress, who made her way over and ushered me up and over to the food. She couldn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Swahili so she simply gestured to all of the options, of which there were many. Flustered, I pointed to rice and some stew. Satisfied, she nodded and led me back to my table. I sat, stared out and laughed to myself: “Wow, I’ve finally made it!” In that moment, I could feel how far away from home I was. It was liberating, terrifying and empowering all at once, and for the first time since I had arrived I felt confident in my abilities and my intentions. I contentedly sat with these newly discovered sentiments and waited patiently for my meal.
As a steaming plate of food made its way over to me, my only thought was: “Holy sweet mother of chicken!” I was both shocked and amused by the American-sized portion, and truth be told, a bit worried as well. I had an inkling – no, I was certain – that the 10,000TSH I had on hand was not going to cover this Mighty Khan-style portion. Concerned that I couldn’t afford it and reluctant to even take a bite, I asked how much the meal would cost. The waitress shook her head, assured me that all was fine and that payment would be due after the meal, and continued to encourage me to eat. Another audible plea from my stomach came just then, temporarily assuaging my worries. I decided I would deal with this after I finished and I did what any sensible person would do: I ate.
I was soon joined by two Tanzanian men. It seemed common to share a table with other diners, and I embraced their company. They were amused by the fact that I was eating there alone, this strange mzungu with that doe-eyed, fresh-off-the-plane look plastered all over her face, and I was happy to entertain them as they instructed me on the do’s and don’ts of Dar Es Saalam. At the end of the meal, one of the men offered to escort me back to my hotel. “You shouldn’t be out here alone!” he scolded. I trusted him, this gentleman who had pleasantly interrupted my dinner, and didn’t think twice at the offer. “So I’ve been told, rafiki (friend). So I’ve been told.” Together, we walked back to my hotel.
As I reflected on the myriad of emotions I felt over the course of just a few short days, I came to a peaceful realization that what I experienced was perfectly normal. It was okay to have felt trepidation and anxiety, as well as comfort and contentment. One of the most important features of travel, I believe, is that it requires an individual to feel – I mean truly feel. Venturing into the unknown is a great adventure, and no amount of research can adequately prepare you. I was learning to trust myself and my instincts and that was a great relief. Growth is impossible without some struggle, and so long as you don’t let that struggle paralyze you, it can be an important aspect of humanity that keeps you alive.
It was this newfound sentiment that propelled me into the next leg of my trip, and I was beside myself with excitement and anticipation.