The most beautiful place on earth

I don’t normally seek out beauty. I seek out grit, reality, might have a low-level addiction to depressing things like the buzzing neon lights at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I feel comfortable in drabness because there is nothing to lose, no secret terror to unearth. The sameness is comforting and manageable. Life has nowhere to go but up.

Beauty also is hard to write about. It’s impossible to secure, like any moment of excellence that is driven by luck more than ability, and it’s flightiness annoys me. Every life lived should be prepared for the onset of hardship and aesthetic pursuits distract from that. Plus, money always seems to get wrapped up in beauty-pursuit, making it an elite sport, masking itself in higher purpose. To my mind those who seek beauty–in nature, art, food or love—are begging for disappointment or personal corruption.

Nevertheless, there have been a few moments in my life when true beauty snuck up on me like a dirty rat on the bathroom floor. I turned and there is was, rushing toward me, sending hard shivers up my spine. It happened when I saw the Niger River in Mali for the first time, another time as a child by a lake in Sweden. Each time I was startled, weakened and unaccountably angry. For days afterward I felt depressed.

Paris is a beautiful place, I get that, but the solid grey architecture of the city has never really felled me.  In the summer I see the city and think “lovely” or “classy” two concepts with which I can happily co-exist.  I have also lived there for seven years so it really needs to turn out its best self to impress me (grey summertime storm clouds above Place de Vosges can still do that). Otherwise I am mostly immune and because I live in a place where people constantly wander around and say ‘it’s sooo beautiful,’ I’m cynical.

To be clear I didn’t leave Arusha in pursuit of beauty. It was a spontaneous decision, driven by the fact that I hadn’t left an urban landscape in several months. I wanted to see green, any green, and three nights lying awake in bed listening to Kiswhaili hip hop through the thin window of my hotel room had left me exhausted. Somewhere out there is eight hours sleep, I thought, perhaps a lovely tree.

But the sheer gorgeousness of the valley that stretches out before Gibb’s Farm absolutely kills me. I stand bag in hand, coated in three hours of road dust, desperately thirsty and unable to speak. Acres of coffee trees give way to rolling hills of farmland under glistening sunlight and storm clouds that turn the valley into a moving, silver landscape. In these highlands, the air is cleaner and cooler than I can remember air ever being, the sky broader and more imposing. When small grey clouds start dropping drops of rain, the place smells of freshly-turned earth.

Gibb’s Farm was a coffee plantation way before it became a tourist destination. It is still a working coffee plantation and houses an organic vegetable garden. My bungalow, (my bungalow!), looks out on the garden and in the evening I sit on the deck, drink gin and tonics, (which are free! or at least included in the nightly rate) and wait for elephants to arrive. We are at 1600 meters so the evenings are chilly and the managers, two cheerful New Zealanders, light a fire in the main dining room.

Granted, a place this nice – here money and beauty really are intertwined, but it turns out I don’t really care – my solitary presence is a little weird. Most visitors are retired Americans travelling in groups or honeymooners. I eat and drink alone and people look at me in curiosity. One night I sit down by the fireplace with a book and a tourguide comes over and plunks himself down next to me. “What brings you here,” he asks directly.

I hem and haw, talk about wanting to find a house in Arusha, a book but finally throw my hands up in the air. “I wanted a rest. And now I don’t ever want to leave.”

At night the tree next to my house brushes against the roof and makes a creaking sound that sounds like a ship. There are strange calls–birds and monkeys perhaps the growl of a leopard– that keep waking me up but their chatter adds to the excitement. In the morning it turns out elephants made their way down into the garden in search of water; whole portions of the hill by my house have been destroyed as they dug their haunches into the mud to slow their descent.

Perhaps in the past beauty frightened me, but not here. It seems impossible to ever feel blue in such splendor. And now, back in Paris, I keep replaying the vision of the farm in my head. What if there is some expat with a farm on these highlands who is willing to give their place up to me for the summer? What if I can make the most beautiful place on earth my family’s home?


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