The things that frighten us can be lightened by their common occurrence. Like combustion in our automobiles: a million tiny explosions every day in the engines of our cars.
In one space, there are more animals around that could kill me than I’ve ever been exposed to before; but the proximity of the lion’s yawn or elephant’s trample mute the horror of my mortality. Around, the symbiosis of animal and sky immunize against anxiety and result in the most bizarre of spaces: a caldera they call a crater. Ngorongoro: Gift of Life. A volcano collapsed upon itself.
In the chasm of negative space that makes up the recessed landscape of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Northern Tanzania, it’s easy to ignore that I’m standing in what was once a chamber filled with magma, until the volcano erupted and emptied the chamber so much that it couldn’t support the weight overhead, sinking into what would become this unparalleled ecosystem on planet Earth. This close to where there was once molten rock, this close to a food chain much higher than me, all fear is lightened.
I am again, in Africa.
A splotch on the horizon, one of the world’s last black rhinos stands near still. He could be a boulder. Not 200 yards away, a lioness has just killed a wildebeest and stalks about, red-whiskered, holding on for pride. One thousand flamingos stand oblivious in the nearby lake and elephants, all noble, gaze at the rising 2000 feet of cliff to the rim. A Maasai child attends to more cattle than can be sensible, seemingly unaware but actually attune to what may be perilous around. You would expect anything but quiet here, but quiet is everything you get.
And for me, this is what makes Tanzania.
Leading a study abroad trip has been a backdoor obsession of mine since the very beginning of my teaching career (10 years ago!); subconscious, clandestine, covert—I wanted to wrench students from the dubious caves of Plato’s academe and dive with them into the world. I believed all that time ago, as much as I still do now, that what one learns in the classroom is meant to only supplement what we are to learn out in the world. That booksmart is a companion to worldsmart. The problem is that our world isn’t readily accessible to everyone. Travel is a luxury.
So it makes sense: teach at a community college and push hard for trips abroad. And wouldn’t you know it: my endlessly lovely college already features such study abroad trips, annually, to any students and faculty insane enough to give it a go. Clearly, it took me quite a while to get involved, but get involved I did, nevertheless.
There is a great privilege in leading a study abroad trip. You get to meet brilliant and engaged students who care so much about the world that they risk all fear, all anxiety, in order to travel through it. I mean, East Africa isn’t your typical American tourist destination. Our students don’t often have the opportunity to get out of the country, so places like this become more remote, more exotic, more impossible to travel to. On the plane, when I noticed one student’s lone tear streaking down her cheek, I asked what was up. She’d never flown before. Mixed inside of her were fear and pride: she’d left the Earth for the first time. So, despite the fact that it took a lot of us some map searching to find our destination, we began the year-long process of learning about Tanzania prior to traveling there.
As part of a Federal Title XI Grant, which allows for community college students to engage in international understanding, culminating in a trip abroad, we took a year’s worth of classes and seminars: learning everything from East African History, Literature, Art, Politics, Economics, Tourism, Geography, to Swahili. It was intensive and relentless. Weekly, it seemed, we were diving more deeply into a culture we were looking to visit. We were doing our due diligence, not being Ugly Americans; we were learning about our destination before being there. We were traveling the right way.
In one of our prep sessions, I introduced the students to a motto that would become mantra: travel uncomfortably. What this means is to expect discomfort when traveling, especially to places that harbor cultures so entirely different from our own, and revel in what that discomfort teaches us. Those evolutionary fish growing legs and jumping to shore. Caterpillars crawling, multi-legged and wormlike into chrysalis, struggling to exit, and succeeding, finding beautiful wings. The root concern: to evolve. Indeed, we can travel for relaxation; we can R and R. And although I do not judge people for whom this method of travel brings them their own peace, it has never been my motivation. I love the feeling of discomfort when traveling. Communicating without language; sleeping in tents, hard ground, in the cold; using my muscles; the inability to identify what I’m about to eat; awe at the littlest thing. Being uncomfortable forces us to be focused. The alertness derived from exposure to discomfort engages that part of the brain most interested in the feeling of aliveness.
I’m comfortable on my couch. When I’m walking the world—a little pain prompts the important change I crave like dependence.
In Arusha, Northern Tanzania, we met Muksin. I had been corresponding with him the year previous about a trip to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (because, obviously); but though our plan fell through (I still did it), the weird way of fate had my college build our Northern Tanzania leg around his travel company, which means I met him anyhow. He remembered our emails and what once was a missed opportunity, would emerge as an unlikely friendship.
Arusha is a small but populous town in Northern Tanzania, famous for its namesake declaration, a manuscript written by the widely-loved Julius Nyerere, former President of the country who’s notion of socialist ujamaa (unity) was meant to establish the country as autonomous and independent after European colonial rule. The busy but tranquil streets could place you in any mid-sized city: street-sellers stalk tour buses to purport the selling of bracelets and drawings while waiting for the cue of sideglance to offer their truer, more dubious goods (“Bob Marley bracelet?”; “No, I’m good.”; “Okay, Weed?”). Like most places I’ve been, the locals are reasonably wary of outsiders but friendly anyway. All around the world, difference is unsettling but not enough to turn all the way around.
We ended up touring a private school at the far reaches of the city, which was part of a compound for the more fortunate children of the village whose parents have the money to send them to expensive schools where the courses are taught in English. Very much like the broken and economically segregated school system of the United States, schools are nefariously stratified in Tanzania. In public school, students are taught in Swahili (this part of Nyerere’s notion of an autonomous East Africa) but when they reach secondary school and college, where everything is taught in English, most students cannot persist. The language barrier is too high to overcome. Therefore, it behooves parents to pay for the unaffordable private schools so their children learn English all along, and are better suited to higher education and, presumably, economic mobility. What this all amounts to is the age-old problem of inequitable education: those with money are able to provide quality education for their children that set them up for joining the higher ranks of the social order; those without are forced into the same record grooves of poverty and struggle.
We toured the private school, reveling in the student dorms, the murals, the piles of stacked wood by the kitchen used as fuel for student lunches. The fresh paint job. The kindly Australian principal who ensured things ran smoothly. The basketball court.
I couldn’t help but notice, when we left, the public school literally across the street that looked like a blown out bomb shelter mistakenly built above ground. And I couldn’t even shake my head. Back home, in Philadelphia, in the United States of America, you’d see the same thing.
We ate lovely meals in Arusha. Indian inspired. Curries and rice. Plantains and unleavened bread and French fries and the toughest-skinned chicken you’ve ever tried. People would shake your hand. They’d offer for you what they had. And isn’t that the thing of travel? The problem of it? The spectacle: you get to look but you get to leave. Even when studying, there’s a certain objectification to traveling. Yearning to connect with humans all over the world, to share, if even for a moment, their experience—we can never truly. The lack of clean water, the tribulations of education, the scarcity of paying work. Studying abroad may be the most earnest way of traveling, in terms of honoring the place you go, but it still suggests—in the notion of “study”—that we, the examiners, are the subjects while our hosts are relegated to our objects. This is a pessimistic thought; I grant that. But its intention is honesty; hooked to travel is the impossible-to-rectify paradox: we still have a home somewhere else in the world and we invade, temporarily, the homes of others. And our homes may not be perfect but our taps run water.
If Arusha taught me anything it’s that people in the world are so open to opening. Their homes. Themselves. That I should be, too. That my door, deadbolt and all, is more psychologically unfortunate than corporeally resistant. That I can unhinge it.
The Swahili word “safari” means “journey.” Even in language, we come full circle. And these days, safaris are a bit different than their predecessors. They aren’t nearly as predicated on hunting as they once were (though poaching is still a grievous activity in Tanzania) and they are mostly operated by local tour companies for the benefit of foreign tourists. Before traveling, you can literally book a company, for relatively cheap, that will shuttle you from the airport, into SUVs with roofs that extend upwards for panoramic views, and into the habitats of some of the rarest, most amazing animals that exist. Combined are the landscapes and the animals, and it all equates to Tanzania. There are moments of awe consistent with the inability of the brain to comprehend (the sublime) because the grandiosity of it overwhelms. This is bisected with giddy gratitude. It’s like that too-deep breath one takes in winter: it’s clean but it hurts.
And when you see the Ngorongoro Crater, its vast depression in the expanse of African highlands, and when you venture deep into it, into the flat calmness of the bottom, and when you try to understand the profound and complex interplay of human, animal, and plant species—there is something of a completeness achieved. This famous thing known for its empty space—the negative space of volcano chambers—this non-thing jigsaw-assembles so much variety that it feels like the rightest place one could be.
One evening, in Mosquito Town, the students and faculty were reminiscing about our trip, sort of decompressing from all of the grandeur we were experiencing in such a short time. One student told the story about how the African slaves, in seeing the ships that would remove them to the West, dropped to their knees and began eating sand. He said that while no one knows precisely why they did this, one theory is that they knew they would be taken away from their home, never to return, and so wanted to take a part of home with them. Choking up, he said he feels like he returned to the continent on their behalf.
I am a lucky man. It is my job to travel with intrepid and intelligent humans to the most elegant parts of the world. Most of the time, we do this with books in cinderblocked rooms. Occasionally, we do it in craters.
And very soon, we’d do it on the tropical island of Zanzibar…