Safari: a Kiswahili word that means “trip” or “journey.”
While I write this I am seated in a small cafe-like restaurant attached to an Oryx Gas Station in the Kilimanjaro area of Tanzania. More specifically, I chose the closest and cheapest place to plant myself and my few bags for the next six hours as I await the arrival of my parents from the Kilimanjaro International Airport. The next six hours seems equivalent to the almost year and a half I have spent away from them so far. From my vantage point at a table sipping good Kilimanjaro coffee, brushing off the stray ant here and there that cannot distinguish my arms and legs from their regular lawn furniture highways, I have observed countless safari vehicles of “Wazungu” being carried into and out of the airport. I have more than once in my life been the traveler, the visitor carted around in gas guzzling monstrosities, curious of the things outside but also cautious of the unfamiliar terrain.
My first lessons in being a tourist came from my parents, who found a way each summer of taking my brother and I on a trip. Those earliest years I remember trips to the beach, and the four hour drive down to the coast feeling like a lifetime. I remember being instructed on the rules of the Beach: always make sure a grown up knows where you are, don’t go in the water alone, don’t pee in the water ( I may have broken that one), and remember that the ocean is nature and cannot be controlled. I remember lessons about how to follow a riptide to shore, and how to treat jellyfish stings. Later we did trips to the Smokey Mountains, these were family gatherings, with Granny and Grandad and the cousins. I remember questioning if it was fair that we got to do private family worship services in our rented cabins, complete with communion just cause Grandad was a Minister. (It did not occur to me that more importantly, two members of the family were Roman Catholic.) I remember reciting “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but tracks.” I remember lots of bandaids, old movies, daring each other to dip our feet in the cold creek water, and how that one time, Philip saw a Bear Butt! Or was it a Bare Butt? Or a Bare Bear Butt? The details are fa bit foggy.
As my brother and I grew older, we expanded the scope of our trips: South Dakota, Maine, New Mexico, Utah, Arkansas. I had to learn how to be a tourist differently in each place, and each time I grew in my resolve that I disliked tourism and “being a tourist,” although I liked visiting places and learning new things. The child that enjoyed Disney World seemed to have disappeared in the teenager that preferred hikes of several miles and later the young adult that chose to camp alone.
At the table next to me there are two young men speaking what sounds like Portuguese. A mother and son were seated next to them several minutes later, also speaking Portuguese. As far as I can tell they did not know each other before, but in a place where there aren’t many Portuguese speakers, this making of new friends is a joyful thing to observe. Watching them order food in English, and the servers take their orders in English (neither side seeming that confident in their English speaking abilities), is also an endearing interaction.
My senior year of High School I upped my game, going to Italy with my choir. I learned that as a choir you get to cross a lot of velvet ropes that restrict the masses. We even sang for the Pope. It wasn’t until after that I learned he had blessed everyone in the audience. I had wondered if it was possible to respectfully turn down the blessing, or pass it on to someone else? Perhaps this making up for all of those United Methodist services my Catholic family members had to endure over the years. I remember singing in places that felt spectacular and unexpected- we didn’t always ask permission. I remember gelato, and walking through cities with fountains and statues lit up. I remember the wine on every singe table we sat at, and that I couldn’t drink any of it. Four years after this I would again travel with a choral group. This time as a college student. I remember how the velvet ropes were unhooked for us. I remember hearing the rumor that David Whitacre lived down the street from the dorms we were staying in at Cambridge, I remember the pints that I could (and did) drink. I remember slipping out early in the mornings to jog. I remember the greasy chips shops I chose over McDonalds (not all in our group as strong as I was). I remember an apple orchard, an engagement, and how Baton Rouge was flooding as we drove to the airport.
On my flight here to meet my parents ( I live on the other side of the country), we passed over Ngorongoro crater and it was visible out of the plane window. A gentleman seated in front of me leaned back to let me know what I was seeing. Later, as we both disembarked, he gave me what I have come to call the “Mzungu Test” which usually consists of as many Kiswahili greetings as possible until the Mzungu (me) exhausts their knowledge of the language. Having passed the test, we had a lovely conversation about what brought us both to the city. It was his suggestion that has brought me to this peaceful and unexpected little cafe.
Interjection: Some poor woman (I assume American) with a petite frame just struggled into the passenger seat of a large Safari vehicle only to realize the steering wheel is on the opposite side from cars in the US. She is now repeating the process on the actual passenger side.
The first time I sat in a Safari vehicle was in Kenya. This journey began in New Orleans with a group of 12 and by the end I was one of two, the others having arrived after us on several different flights. Twelve was the smallest group I had ever traveled internationally with. And arriving with just one other traveler, at a time not expected by our hosts, was alarming but we got there. The sun was bright and there was so much dust and there were many people who offered us taxi rides, none of them the person we were looking for. Eventually we sorted it out and left in the right vehicle. A safari vehicle of tan color, high off the ground, no seatbelts. It was the capsule that held us protected from the searching faces of every person outside. Throughout the week it would hold cartons of drinking water, translators and guides, our belongings, the rest of the group, and bag lunches. This vehicle took me to places I would never have reached otherwise. It was also the vehicle that permitted me to eat ugali with a spoon, leave the stewed goat untouched, and most importantly, experience lifestyles and circumstances much different from my own, and then leave again.
Since being in Tanzania, I have had two surprise visits from friends. My first surprise visit was from the Rev. Jessica Lowe who came to Tanzania for a conference. Interesting that it was happening at the same time I was not only in Tanzania, but planning a trip to the same city she would be in! Her visit got me through several months of homesickness. Later, I received word that a childhood friend of mine, Jacqueline, and her mother would be coming to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They went so far as to come to my village and meet the people I work with every day, again, I hadn’t realized how much a little bit of home meant. Safaris can bring joy to those visiting and those who receive visitors.
I have ridden several safari vehicles since the “Kenya Incident” as we fondly call it, and I will again in the next two weeks. I will not spend my time with my folks feeling guilty about the opportunity to see in person some of the most beautiful places in the world. However I shall be reverent, respectful, and gracious of these opportunities. I hope that in all of my “safaris” after this, whether my transport is a bus, a car, a scooter, or my feet, that I shall be aware and joyful of the opportunities to learn, and see and remember, even as I go on with a life that is distant and different from these adventures. I used to hate being a “tourist,” I felt babied, cliche, predictable. There is no shame in being a tourist, especially if you are the kind that picks up after yourself, tips generously and asks good questions. Yes, sometimes the locals will laugh at you, but don’t let that dampen your fun.
Well, just two more hours now…