Awaiting the challenges of solo travel in a “developing country”
It’s been two weeks since I landed in Dar; two weeks since I’ve published a post. Loving texts, calls, and emails remind me of this fact. “Looking forward to reading your blog!” “When’s the next post coming?” and “Can’t wait to hear about your adventures!” flatter me more than my writing is worth. But they also leave me wondering — why it is that I haven’t written more?
It’s not for lack of excitement, because every day brings a new rush: dodging night time traffic on a motorcycle taxi; receiving my first marriage proposal from a stranger on the bus; scouring crowded market stalls for the brightest kitenga; being twirled around a loud Tanzanian bar; jogging daily to the Indian Ocean’s shore; hiking the hillside to an old German fort; confronting watoto hoards who storm our office weekly, demanding to meet Mama Ndege and Ubongo Kids’ celebrities.
Every experience — even walking down the street — has been chaotic, and visceral, and beautiful; requiring me to be refreshingly present. Dar es Salaam and Tanzania have only exceeded my expectations.
I suppose that’s why I’ve refrained from writing. I’ve been waiting for something deeper to share; something more meaningful than factual descriptions of everyday joy. I’ve been waiting for struggle, and triumph, and reflection — that beautiful sequence creating growth from despair. “You are going to feel a complete sense of ‘otherness’.” “You are going to feel shocked and alone.” “You are going to question the very premise of your summer.” As I prepared for this fellowship, advisors and friends warned of challenges ahead.
But I have yet to experience the soul-crushing struggle I expected (and hoped) to find. Sure, there are moments of discomfort: sitting totally lost in all-Swahili meetings; wondering if my bajaj driver is shortcutting or trying to mug me; falling silent as expat friends converse in French; growing homesick at the mention of California; wandering ‘round the local bus station, hoping that I catch the right one this time. That is the extent of my “struggle.” And that fact fills me with gratitude, but also frustration. I hope that I am growing and learning and becoming stronger with this trip, but it’s hard to know for sure… there hasn’t been a challenge to which I can point and say, “Yes; I overcame that by myself.”
Last Thursday was Saba Saba, a Tanzanian holiday. I went with Sophie and Marie to Kariakoo market, a bustling expanse of fruit vendors, fabric stalls, auto shops, meat butchers, beauty salons — really any store you could imagine. Rain poured upon the city that morning, and the street was pocked with muddy puddles. We danced around cars and people, searching for rocks and concrete to balance on. Admiring the colors and odors around me, I lost focus and stepped ankle deep in mud. Shloop. “Ah, my sandals!”
The slime pushed between my toes and clung beneath my foot. I greeted the mud as I have most surprises in Dar: first with shock (“What did I just step in?!”), then acceptance (“There’s mud all over my feet…I think that’s mud all over my feet”), and then a smile. Because maybe — just maybe — this is exactly what I came here for.