It was the mid 2000's, and I was getting ready to graduate from college. My mom, my college roommate (and great friend), and I went to Tanzania together over our winter break.
We didn't know what we were getting into. It was our first trip to Africa, and my first trip to anywhere except Europe. I remember driving down the road after being picked up at Kilimanjaro airport, in pitch black, with that unique, signature smokey smell drifting through the car.
Going to Tanzania the first time seriously changed my life. Yup, it's that cliche and I'm sheepish to re-read what I just wrote, as I'm not particularly nostalgic or emotional. Still, it's true. I learned so much on the trip, but perhaps more importantly, it made me want to learn so much more. About other places, other cultures, travel, animals, everything.
Here are seven important (and not so important) things I learned on my first safari, my first trip to a less developed country, and my first trip to Africa.
1. Most everyone has a cell phone, and shockingly enough, service! Yup, at my childhood home in Wyoming there still is no cell phone coverage. You read that right. If you get lucky you might be able to get a voicemail, but forget about making a call. But I learned in Tanzania, cell phones work, even in the middle of the Serengeti. One of our guides grew up in a Maasai village and was explaining how his family members–who still live in a traditional Maasai village–used their cell phones to exchange/buy cattle, arrange marriages, buy supplies etc. I'm sure I sound naive, and I was! But I thought it was so cool.
2. I can pack in a duffel for two weeks and survive. Prior to Tanzania, I was one of those people that packed the kitchen sink. But what if I need thiissss? I'm sure I'm going to wear thattttt. However, there were weight/size restrictions on our trip to Tanzania, and it was the first time I had to fit all my crap into a single, carry-on size duffel. Not only did I succeed, I had exactly what I needed (sheer luck, I tell you). It made me seriously wonder why I was packing a huge suitcase for 5 day trips. Silliness. Has never occurred again.
3. I'm obsessed with African animals. So I was interested before I went, but I became obsessed when I started seeing them roaming on the plains in their natural habitat. That obsession, for better or worse, has gotten a bit out of control, seeing how frequently I reference warthogs on this blog and in my daily life. The number of African animal knick-knacks in our house is sort of disturbing, and I think I've lost count. Warthogs are my favorite, but Tanzania remains the only place I've seen dik diks up close, which rank a very close second. They are the coolest little creatures. I've also become much more interested in following conservation efforts and trying to support associated organizations.
4. The toilets at Olduvai Gorge were (and remain) the scariest thing I've experienced…pretty much ever. Do I need to explain this one? Do I really? Hmmmm….not sure how to describe this is any appropriate way, but I'll try. If you put five people in a room with horrible food poisoning, that's pitch black, and left them there with nothing else but the concrete, then allowed that room to bake in the Tanzanian sun for three days then repeated the process, that's pretty much how they were. Of course, at this time they were building brand new toilets–they just weren't ready yet. The toilets at Olduvai Gorge still give me nightmares. (I'm not going to rehash this further. I have some decency).
5. Tanzania isn't all unicorns and rainbows. While Tanzania has so much natural splendor, it's an undeveloped country with critical issues. We saw so many children begging in Tanzania, and a lot of children who did not have parents (we were told) due to HIV/AIDS. Female circumcision is still incredibly common in villages. Treatable diseases such as parasites and malaria are rampant. Children and younger adults also threw lots of rocks at our car in Arusha–in part, I think because we didn't give them candy/pens/money. Tanzania is a common stop on the safari circuit, and it was definitely clear that we were expected to provide something. Our guides were clear in their guidance about only giving things in a controlled setting (i.e. to a school headmaster), but that doesn't undo the precedent set years before us (or one stupid couple we were with that insisted on handing out something).
6. Glamping is awesome. Nope, I had no idea what glamping was then. (Ok, I'll be honest, I had no idea what glamping was until about three weeks ago. Yup, I'm living in the dark ages. Thanks to all those travel bloggers who actually know what they are doing.) These lodges were stunning, wrapped around enormous trees, built into the plains, and blended into the wilderness. Fluffy towels, soft beds, absolutely incredible fresh food made from local ingredients and in many cases in a very simple kitchen or over a fire?! I can even take a bucket shower successfully from a 10 gallon bucket (if it comes out of a shower head and the water has been warmed, of course). I was in love. I'm still in love.
7. There is SO MUCH more I want to see. They say you either fall in love with Africa or you hate it: I definitely did the former. I do understand people (yes, I know a few) that will never go back. But despite its roughness, it's serious problems, it's failed states, it's health crises, etc. etc. etc., it's a stunning and inspiring place. It's a destination you can see both resilience and failure, elephants and monkeys, and such a wide variety of cultures (and thousands of languages!). This trip to Tanzania made me want to not only return to sub-Saharan Africa, but to see more of the world in general. To explore and to experience new things.