We stepped off the plane onto the runway – one breath and I felt life rush into me. There is no other way to describe it. The air of eastern africa is like none I’ve ever experienced. It is thick, clear, invigorating. And the smell is never the same. Every inhalation is unlike the last. The hours and hours of sitting and waiting (I never actually calculated it), suspended in space, (literally) disappeared from my mind and my emotions. I knew this trip was the right decision.
Seconds later, that moment of peace vanished as the 40 of us and the rest of the plane were crowded into Kilimanjaro Airport’s small immigration room. We rushed in with excitement – we were finally here! – and then stopped suddenly and looked at one another. Now what? We had no idea what to do next – and no one was there to meet us. After a few minutes of chaos we realized we were early and soon enough Mr. Kabudi flashed his SFS sign and started collecting our passports to get our VISAs. Another half hour of confusion later our luggage was loaded (only one girl lost hers and it was quickly retrieved!) and we were crowded, stunned, into jeeps beginning our journey to… Arusha. We stayed in Arusha for the night because the center in Karatu is a three hour drive away. If there is one thing I have learned so far about Africa it is to go with the flow – nothing ever progresses as you expect it to.
The ride to Arusha felt like a dream. The warm air flooded the car with the smells and sounds of the countryside we couldn’t see through the dark. And the stars. I can not begin to explain them so I am not going to try.
The next morning we crowded back into the jeeps and drove to the center. For three hours we sat quietly, still unsure of one another, extremely jet-lagged and in absolute shock at the sights presented to us. I felt as I imagine Alice felt after stepping through the looking glass – as though life had been overturned – and that feeling has not yet vanished.
I am in Wonderland, really.
The drive out of Arusha was pavement for the first hour, dirt the second and pavement again the third. No highways anywhere. We passed herd after herd of Masai cattle and goats. Small villages appeared every so often, full of life and color. Every other person wore traditional Masai garb and was as normal as the man wearing business garb next to him (or honestly, probably more normal). I am beyond excited to learn everything I can about their culture and the other cultures in the region.
The environment is unbelievable. Nothing I look at is like anything I know or have seen. Tanzania is home to 310 species of mammals and 1,060 species of birds – all of which are new to me. I want to carry field books wherever I go. It is home to the “Cradle of Man” where our species was probably born, the largest and deepest lake in the world, and over 40 million people. The sounds are different, the birds are strange. The compound is small and dense and claustrophobic. I am surrounded by strangers, both American and African. The language is strange and beautiful. The air is warm. The days are long. The sun sets fast.
My world has turned upside down. It is overwhelming – especially with jet-lag but it is exhilarating. I have so, so much to learn and I am ready to get started.