A few weekends ago I was sitting in a noodle shop in midtown, with two friends who have been my food partners throughout this City for some time now. We’ve eaten B Grade to 3 Star Michelin, sirloin to cassoulet, and every ethnicity in the spectrum from Cantonese to Korean to Southern Italian to Dominican. But they hadn’t been to this ramen place, so we went. There’s nothing inviting about this place from the outside. It’s in a basement between two apartment buildings and another Japanese restaurant next door. It’s crammed, typically with tens of people waiting on the steps trying to get one of the coveted few seats inside. We put our name down on the list, which was about an hour long, and killed time at this Vietnamese spot up the block and ordered some spring rolls and Thai beer. An hour goes by and we head back to the noodle shop and after a few minutes of waiting – and a dash to the ATM because they only accept cash – we’re seated at the bar where three Japanese dudes in black shirts are stirring vats of broth with a freaking oar, and blow-torching pieces of pork until they’re nice and juicy. I mean, it was heaven. We gawked like fucking Jesus himself had risen from the dead and asked us to happy hour on Tuesday. There was some serious staring going on. We stared at the pork hard, like, “holy shit the pork is about to whip off its undergarments” type of staring. This was no joke.
The ramen finally arrived. Three bowls of steaming noodles and pork. We’d been waiting for this meal for over an hour now and here it was, in all its glory. Time to go to fucking town.
Yet, I hesitated.
You ever have those moments where everything becomes silent, like time has stopped and you’re the only one moving? As soon as the bowl was put in front of me, everything ceased to exist, but my mind was moving faster than ever.
“Why does this feel so familiar to me? This right here. Eating this bowl of noodles, in this restaurant, during this time of year?”
It’s because two years ago to this day, I sat at the exact same bar, in the exact same seat, eating the exact same dish, and then wrote about it afterwards.
And then I began to think about everything that has happened to me between the last time I sat here and now.
This was a horrible summer, my least liked summer of all the summers I can remember. I was frustrated, confused, agitated, self-pitying, self-absorbed and generally miserable. I’d lock myself up in my room for days on end, look for jobs and watch the screensaver go by on my laptop, an ever-cycling array of photos from year in Tanzania. This was bad. I’d see photos and reminisce, but not the good kind of reminiscing. I’m talking about the kind where you see a photo, a memory, and you relive all the emotions that turn your insides out.
My grandmother has kept a diary her entire life, and she’ll read entries she wrote decades ago and it will stir up all these feelings and get her so riled up that she’ll suddenly stop talking to someone because of what’s happened 20, 30 years ago.
That’s what I was doing. Trying to pick fights with people who weren’t there, let alone on the same continent, in the same hemisphere. Trying to reconcile stupid arguments that I had with someone in Arusha months ago. It was unhealthy. It was depressing. I was unemployed, living with my parents again and putting myself through this cycle where I’d want to go back but couldn’t. Worst of all, it was amounting to a massive blockade for a path forward.
I’d physically come home, but my mind was still in a town on the other side of the world. It was still running down dirt roads at 6:30am, the sun just about to peak across the valley illuminating the churches and chicken coops and Mt Meru to the east. It was still traveling during dusk on a dala. It was still falling asleep to the comforting silence of East Africa, assuming you’ve killed all the mosquitoes in the room first. The earth smells different over there and the air is cleaner and brighter. I’d wake up in the morning, walk out of my room and just breath. Close my eyes and breath because what I did for 13 months, what I lived and let change me – everything about me – was liberating. Things I thought I cared about suddenly fell by the wayside. New causes and goals and ambitions replaced old ways of thinking. What I care for now, who I care for now, is decidedly different than two years ago.
There was never any decisive point during this past summer where I finally began to dig my way out of my own head and reconnect with the present. It just happened. Time happened. It’s now November 24, 2013 and I’m sitting at my desk, wrapped in my red shuka because it’s bitingly cold outside, with laundry on my bed I have to iron to wear to work tomorrow, and my head is finally clear enough to write this all down. Sure, I still think about the past and miss it dearly. That will never change, and I hope it doesn’t. I’ll reminisce and look back fondly, but not dig further than I need to.
It’s Thanksgiving next week and Christmas a few weeks later. Last year I spent Thanksgiving climbing Mt Kilimanjaro – we were in a tent on Lava Tour and eating chicken wrapped in chapatti with roasted potatoes. That was my Thanksgiving meal. Last Christmas I was in Marrakech eating couscous, khobz, and vegetable tajine with people from the UK and Serbia in a hostel. I mean, what is that, it’s crazy and I love it and it makes me smile. But that’s all it is. Happy memories. Things that make you smile. People that make you laugh. But I now live in the United States, tomorrow I have to go to work and I have to buy presents for my niece and nephew for Christmas.
This is where I am, until where I am going next, and, if I’ve learned anything from Tanzania, is that “next” is better left unscripted. I have some thoughts about what I want to do, directly because of my time spent abroad, and I’ll try my hardest to get there. But for now, this will do.
I looked down at my bowl, this spicy cauldron of amazingness, and took my first bite, again.
Snark. Funny snark.
Yelling. Fake. Pretentious.
Instagram. Twitter. 24/7 news. Congress.
Roadside curbs. Roadside construction.
Stop signs. Actually stopping at the stop signs.
Street lights. All of the lights. Green, red and yellow.
Fruit wrapped in plastic.
Fruit with tags; specifically, pineapples.
Cars, very big SUVs and trucks. Hummers. Oh, the hubris! Hummers as big as safari trucks speeding along the highway in New Jersey. Why?
Garbage pickup. Garbage trucks.
Pine trees. Banana trees and banana leaves? Sadly, no.
Long bridges that serve as a backdrop instead of glorious mountains with lingering, white clouds.
Television. Binge-watching TV shows. Game of Thrones. Dexter. The Newsroom.
Commercials selling things. Advertising life.
Fancy watches and three-piece suits and tie-bars and leather briefcases and mahogany bars in mid-town.
Beers from all over the world. People from all over the world. Mexican, Irish, German, Japanese, American, Cambodian, Korean. Tanzanian? Hapana.
Chinese food. Authentic. Spicy, bubbling soups. Heartburn.
Complaining. So. Much. Complaining.
New York City. Ambition. Lots of ambition.
Expensive apartments in very tall buildings.
Headphones in every ear. General chitchat? Nonexistent. Greetings? Mutterings underneath the cold, harsh breath.
Baseball. Is there anything as relaxing as watching baseball with a beer on a Sunday afternoon? I think not.
Dermatologists and CVS and pharmacies and health insurance and rules and regulations and parameters and being boxed in.
Uniform currency, color green.
Summer houses and the shore.
Treadmills and sweaty machines and the elderly doing yoga.
Children’s museums and whining and fake McDonald’s next to the fake Hospital for the children to transport their fake friends with pretend high cholesterol to the fake emergency room to be patched up with plastic bandages.
Tipping 15 percent for every meal and beverage that is brought to you by a stranger. Figuring out how to add 15 percent on a meal split between 9 people. Math? What math?
I haven’t seen a single star in nearly six damn weeks. That’s one of my favorite memories of Tanzania - walking home from dinner, wrapped in the comfort of your girl, and staring up at the stars and just gazing. Awe struck by the vastness and indescribable beauty. Looking at them and feeling good about life and all that nonsense bad love songs are made from.
And yet, the States have places where they mash all sorts of ice cream together and serve it to you in a big waffle cone with sprinkles and chocolate syrup and a cherry on top.
I don’t know, readjusting has been weird.
His name was Warsame. He was blind, diabetic and lived in Bologna, Italy but his ethnicity was Somalian. He was Muslim and he dressed impeccably well for a man with no sight, his suit looking tremendously fit, playing perfectly with the crisp, white Kofia on his head.
I know all of this because he sat next to me on my flight out of Tanzania. The plane was scheduled to depart at 4:20AM for Istanbul. It was 4:15 and I had just settled into my window seat. The plane wasn’t particularly full, with one person to a row on either side of the aisle. And then Warsame walked on board at 4:18, strolling ever so slowly, with the help of a male airline attendant, right to his aisle seat of row 15 on Turkish Airlines flight 675. He explained to the stewardess that he didn’t want to be touched by a female attendant while praying. They left him in peace as he rolled the prayer beads in between his fingers, and then muttered his prayers while bowing, his face never touching the seat in front of him. I watched him pray as the plane took off, until I fell asleep among the grazing clouds above a country I had entrusted with a part of my soul and my heart.
I was awoken by rough turbulence a short while later. Warsame had finished giving his thanks to Allah and sat rigid in his seat. I watched him for a few minutes longer, trying to catch a glimpse of his eyes hiding behind the sunglasses, to try and get a sense of this man. Was that impolite, to stare at a blind man? Perhaps. But I couldn’t stop looking, at least until he reached into the vacant middle seat between us and started searching through his bag. Feeling around for the zipper, he opened it, and rummaged around, pushing things aside until he grasped them, a box of needles and a long tube.
He turned his head right and said, to no one in particular, “Excuse me, does this say ‘Humalog’ on it?”
“Yes, it does,” I said.
“Thank you, sir.”
He unbuttoned the top two buttons of his white dress shirt, clicked the tube three times, placed the needle into its slot, and then stuck the needle into his right chest. Pushing down on the needle, he sighed. After putting everything away, he thanked me again for helping him.
I spoke to him the rest of the eight-hour plane ride.
I helped him eat his meal and walked him to the bathroom to the back of the plane and got him more water when he was thirsty. I opened up to this man, this stranger, and told him of my adventures in Tanzania. About the school where I worked, the people I had met and the mountains I had summited. I told him about Zanzibar, about Arusha, about the food I had eaten. I told him about my family, where I was from, what I wanted to do with my life and everything in between. He was kind and listened with intent so real and honest, it scared me. He asked questions that made me think before answering.
We landed in Istanbul around 1:15PM. As the female flight attendant helped him up to leave, he said to me, “Matt, thank you sir for talking with me.” And then he walked down the aisle and out of sight.
I was shattered. Partially because I had been awake for more than 24 hours straight by that point, but, honestly, because this man was the last link to my 13 months in Tanzania. I knew the second I stepped out of that plane and into the Istanbul airport, my adventure was over. The air would be different. My life would change completely, and I wasn’t ready to accept this.
We drove to the airport through the darkness, as you do driving through East Africa. It’s pitch black dotted with burning rubbish on the side of the road, and flickering lights from inside the roadside shacks selling phone credit and sugar. The night smells of dust, recently unloosened by the end of the long rains. My taxi driver – a wonderful man named Bahan – played a mixture of Westlife, Celine Dion, and Akon, three local favorites. I should have told him to pass the airport and keep on driving east towards Moshi, towards Dar es Salaam. Upwards and onwards through the endless plains and Maasai lands. But he didn’t, and now all I have left is to reflect.
As I stepped onto the tarmac ready to board, I felt her pulling me back.
Don’t go. Stay.
I don’t know if anyone is ever really ready to leave Tanzania – or any African country for that matter – after spending a significant amount of time there. Granted, mine was only 13 months, but it was the most exhilarating, emotional and exhaustive 13 months of my entire life.
We must have been somewhere over the French Alps. Looking out the plane window you could see the ice-capped peaks running along the mountain ridge. The boy sitting next to me was oblivious, glued to the soccer game he was playing on the airplane entertainment system. I should have told him to look and see how stunningly beautiful it was. It reminded me of standing on top of the African continent, all the way up on Kilimanjaro and feeling nothing but utter bliss.
I know this feeling and I want it again, now, at this very moment. But all I have left is to reflect.