I was sitting in the veranda of a coffee shop this morning in Moshi, a town about an hour east from Arusha. Sipping on a double coffee, black, I found myself staring at this family across from my table. By all accounts they were a compact unit, the sort of family that wouldn’t draw any attention to themselves. Mama, baba and their dinti, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, were sharing a Greek salad platter. The mama generously smeared homemade hummus and baba ganoush on warmed pita triangles, while baba went straight for the feta cheese and tomatoes. Their daughter picked at the salad but favored her slice of chocolate cake instead.
I found myself staring at them because I’ve been feeling a faint homesick of late. Tomorrow will be five months since I was dropped off at the Delta terminal at JFK and boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam, with a connection to Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. It will be five months since I packed two suitcases and left my family, friends and life back in the States. It racks my brain to think I’ve been living and working in East Africa for this long, all the while knowing that I’ve got a mere seven months remaining. I’m halfway there and it’s all moving too fast.
I miss home. It’s October in New York City. Autumn. It’s my favorite season because the humidity and heat of summer has begun to dissipate, ushering in breezy mornings and crisp nights. It’s cold enough that the pumpkin spiced lattes provide exactly the right amount of comfort, yet it’s not cold enough for you to miss out on a few happy hour beers on the rooftop of your favorite bar. The temperature is just right that wearing a blazer to work won’t build a layer of sweat while riding the subway. It’s Yankees playoff baseball, October magic, with basketball season right around the corner. It’s Giants and Jets on Sundays. It’s apple picking with the niece and nephew and road trips up north to Maine to take in the foliage. It’s walks through Central Park and hikes up Bear Mountain. It’s the anticipation of Thanksgiving and Christmas, of dining rooms full of family and lights strung on streetlamps, of bitter cold nights in a bar with a whiskey to warm the insides. It’s comfortable. It’s home.
But as I observed this family sitting across from my table on a veranda of a coffee shop in Moshi, I spotted a Tanzanian dada across the street walking with a basket of bananas on her head and it brought me right back to reality – that now, at this very moment, I’m home. Tanzania is home because, I’ve realized today, it’s comfortable. It’s mbuzi choma on Tuesday’s after work. It’s dala-dala rides on Saturday morning into town to the Maasai market. It’s bagfuls of fruits and vegetables for eflu saba shillingi. It’s bartering for every single damn thing for sale, including hotel prices. It’s mid-morning coffee and cold mandazi during tea break on Tuesdays. It’s hanging laundry across a line on Sundays. It’s Thursday drinks at the Hole and multiple entrees on Friday. It’s weekend trips to Moshi for hikes to tucked-away waterfalls and swims in a nearby river. It’s kangas and kitenges and Kenyan steaks and Kijenge and Kiswahili. It’s comfortable. It’s home.
Eventually the family got up and left, and I snapped out of my momentary home-sickness. We ordered a slice of that chocolate cake the girl was eating and a few cappuccinos. I picked up my book and finished the third chapter of north toward home by Willie Morris, while across the table came laughter from reading the hard-copy version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Later we would brush the dry mud off our bags from hiking in the rain the day before and ride a bus for elfu mbili shillingi back to Arusha.
We walked for forty minutes last week along the main road. It was dusty at 6PM, with children in their dark purple and dark green uniforms walking home from school. There are no buses at most of the government schools, so the children walk, as we did. We walked past shacks selling tomatoes and warm cans of coke. Every so often, near the dala dala stops, there would be mama’s grilling maize over a single flame, shucking and staring as we walked by. These women will sit in the sun for hours, the bright yellow and red kangas keeping them cool when the sun is hottest. We passed hairdressers, car washes and pubs, all uniquely Tanzanian, unlike any first world establishment. The hairdressers don’t have polished floors and pristine mirrors when you enter. There’s no air conditioning, no comfortable couches ready to pamper. The car washes aren’t automated. If you’re lucky enough to own a car, you pay a few men some shillings to throw water over your dusty tires, perhaps some soap, drying done by that big burning ball of fire in the sky. The pubs don’t have luxurious, timeless mahogany bars, with chick themes or exotic home brews. There are a few plastic tables, a few plastic chairs, and a limited selection of beers.
We walked for forty minutes last week to the pub. There were three of us, two men and one boy. The two men, full of stories and character, strolling along at a leisurely pace, a Tanzanian pace – they never rushed. They blended in with the dusty roads, the weary passerby’s their kakas in the long stroll towards home. The boy, he moved quickly, anxious, fidgety, afraid he might be missing a moment if he didn’t get there fast enough – the boy has always been like this. The three males made a comfortable triplet, willing to fight for each other if necessary. This was an unspoken agreement between the two men and one boy, all ready to prove their loyalty and commitment to a bond forged through storytelling.
We walked for forty minutes last week to have dinner. Meals are meant to be shared with others, if possible. Nothing bridges cultures and strangers more than sharing food, no matter the price. Drinking, eating, being content with yourself – that’s the power of mealtime. It’s a simple time to share your joys and frustrations, to embrace the foreign and kiss the comfortable. It’s a paradox here in Tanzania – eating for a different purpose. Most eat here because they need to, because if they don’t, they’ll die. We have the luxury to eat in the moment, a notion that takes time to settle into your conscience.
We walked for forty minutes to eat mbuzi choma and kuku choma. Grilled goat and grilled chicken, what I’ve come to learn are the food of Gods. A little salt, a dip in the pili pili sauce and you are transported into a blissful, greasy, meaty place, with crackling, oily chicken skin as crisp as the serving of chips. There’s no red tape, no security guard, no bouncer, no lines; a meal of grilled meats is universal in language, transformative from Tanzania to America and beyond, devoid of restrictions, open to the public. Washed down with beverage of choice, the belly satisfied and mind content – these are the moments you remember five, ten, twenty years down the road. You remember the dala dala’s honking; the dark flames creating shadows, bouncing off the neighboring gas stations; the smoky, greasy smell of fat dripping into the coals, steam rising through the Arusha atmosphere. You remember the conversation between brothers, between kakas, how the journey through Tanzania is just one bullet point in the wider array of life. You remember to smile more often, to embrace the locals without a veil of trepidation, displacing the inner cynic. You remember that your youth is precious, and the experiences of other friends aren’t comparable to your own, that your journey is meant for yourself and the next destination will be decided on a whim.