Tanzania, here we come
The plane to Kilimanjaro is an imperfect simulacrum of Africa. Americans, in hiking boots and fleece-lined pants, lean over the seats to talk about the big climb up the snowy mountain. They radiate excitement and anxiety, the desire to impart the novelty of their adventure. Is it your first time up the mountain? It’s my first time up the mountain. Is it your first time in Africa? Me too! Then there are Europeans most of whom work in Arusha, a biggish town near Kilimanjaro, where the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda presides. They are French or Swiss, slim of build in blue blazers with thin scarves flung over their eyes to block out the excruciating Americans. Professional tour guides, tall and tanned South Africans, seem to occupy all the aisle seats, stopping the stewardesses every half hour to ask for beer. Scattered in the back are Lebanese businessmen clutching their briefcases and snoring through the racket like pros. What is missing, and why this simulacrum is particularly imperfect, are Africans.
I suppose Africans don’t fly into Kilimanjaro, because it isn’t a real place in Tanzania (like Mount Rushmore isn’t really a real place in the United States) but still I am surprised, unnerved even. It feels like the authenticity of the experience has been compromised. What if I land in Arusha and find no local inhabitants at all? What if it is all just loud-mouthed New Yorkers, exhausted Frenchmen and enormous, blond South Africans?
There is a middling to high chance that this entire trip is folly, but I certainly don’t want to admit it. Several months ago my husband and I decided that life in Europe was too hard, sad and unchanging for us to continue on in the same manner. We arranged for him to take a three-month leave from work so I could do research for a novel set in East Africa. I am going to Arusha to scout out houses where we can live for the summer, as a family.
The thing is when you embark on this type of trip the critics and naysayers come out. What will you do with your things? Where will you stay? What about malaria and tetanus and things that go bump in the night? I can feel the small community that sustains me–friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances –pulling the giant balloon of my aspirations back to earth. My mother, quite a good traveler herself, sends along the State Department’s security warnings on Arusha. It recommends that expats install a safe room in their house should they find themselves invaded by burglars or worse. Mostly I ignore my mother, but here I pause a moment. A safe room? Like the Jodie Foster movie?
Going to live somewhere else for a little was the rallying cry of my 20s. Then I had children, found a job, settled down, and the cry became more of a whimper. Still, it escapes my mouth from time to time. Washing the dishes, bathing the children, I find myself mouthing the words in shameful silence: I need to get out of here…or I am going to lose my mind.
Tanzania appeals because I have already spent some time in West Africa and loved it. I need an expat community of boozy, slightly decadent NGO workers and diplomats to do research, and, to be frank, I love Isak Dinesen but am really too chicken to take small children to Kenya these days. So Tanzania, a kind of predetermined compromise, will become host to our family adventure.
Eventually the plane quiets down. The American climbers succumb to fatigue. The Lebanese businessman wakes up to have some dinner, then promptly falls asleep again. I stare out the window, looking at Africa racing out beneath me, wishing there was a light. But there is none, over Egypt, and Sudan and the corner of Ethiopia we go, and finally at midnight we land in Arusha. It is windy and warm, the air thick with the smell of extinguished cooking fires. A baboon skirts around the edge of the tarmac and sleepy guards hustle us inside. In minutes I am processed by customs, welcomed by immigration, and pushed out in to the strong, thick night. I peer into the blackness, trying to see something, anything. Somewhere out there, is my home.