Driving to the Ngorongoro crater floor.
It was about two months before I left for grad school in Boston, a city known for its rich past and vibrant present. I was enthusiastically browsing the catalog of courses that I could be taking in my keen pursuit of tourism-related knowledge. One particular course caught my attention —- AD650 Economic Development via Tourism in the Developing World — largely because its description mentioned the opportunity to take part in an 11-day field trip to Tanzania as part of the teaching and learning methodology. My heart raced, my skin tingled, my eyes sparkled at the electrifying thought of embarking on such a trip of a lifetime. The broad smile that cracked my face must have shown it all.
The joy of anticipation, however, did not last long. A myriad of thoughts must have surged through my mind. But one of the final ones was “This is not for me. There is no way I will ever be able to pay for the trip”.
I abandoned my cherished wish, together with all the good feelings that came with it, right there and then.
The Spring semester was starting soon. It was time to choose the classes that I would be taking for the new semester. Once again, it caught my attention. Once again, joy of anticipation filled me. The only difference this time was I did not immediately dismiss the hopeful thought that there could be a way to prevail over the financial obstacle to taking the class and joining the trip.
A thought occurred to me “Perhaps I could write to the university that is sponsoring my education and ask if they could financially assist me?”. That night, I spent hours on drafting an email to my sponsor. I must be careful with what and how I wrote as it would make or break any chances I might have. When I thought my email was good enough, I hit the Send button before doubt crept in. I did not have a lot of hope for a positive reply from them.
Days passed. I had not heard from my sponsor. I went over the content of my email again and again in an attempt to look for “that” part that might have completely turned off my sponsor. Could it be that part when I wrote “you would have the option to deduct all the trip expenses from my monthly salary when I begin my employment with your esteemed institution?” Did it sound too confident, or even arrogant? I was about to call my sister hoping to negotiate a “loan” deal with her when a reply from my sponsor finally showed up in my inbox. My heart beat faster. My eyes blinked excessively. I chewed my bottom lip, lost in thoughts of what their reply could be. I swallowed down a gulp and read their email.
To my amazement they agreed to pay for all the trip expenses without any terms and conditions applied. I was in a state of disbelief in what I had just read that I had to read it again to make sure I was not hallucinating. I was over the moon about the astonishing news.
Tanzania, here I came!
I did some reading about the country prior to the trip. Our professor talked about it extensively too, specifically in relation to tourism’s economic impact on the nation. Still, I did not quite know what to expect. The capital, Arusha, surprised me with its rather dizzying modernized appearance and pace. Although I was certain there was more to this city than meets the eye, I was glad we were headed to some of Tanzania’s iconic sites and landmarks in short order. Game drives in Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park were definitely a surreal experience for me.
Spotting wildlife that I had only previously seen on Nat Geo Wild channel in their natural habitats was absolutely incredible and unparalleled. The sightings of wildebeests, zebras, antelopes, and gazelles were prevalent as they were dispersed across the great Serengeti plains and the Ngorongoro crater floor that thousands of wild game called home. Seeing the Big 5 — lions, rhinos, leopards, elephants and buffaloes — was an unforgettable experience. I learned from our driver/guide, Sebastian, that African buffaloes were the most dangerous animal in Africa as they would charge at a target at any cost. Along the spectrum of wildlife where one end represented the commoners and the other end the big guys, there were giraffes, hyenas, hunting dogs and jackals, foxes, hippos, and hundreds of bird species.
Sighting of cheetahs in Serengeti. I thought they were very sexy animals.
While wild game was the major pull of Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the natural beauty of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites was impossible to miss. In particular, the wide-open and endless Serengeti plains where the land met the sky cast a spell over me. They were ancient and imposing; and down-to-earth for they did not need a lot of details within them to make them that beautiful to the human eye. As the fiery sun gradually dipped below the horizon, vivid colors of red and orange painted the sky, and cool air settled on the scene. Silhouetted Acacia trees graced the landscape with their eternal presence. Everybody had fallen into silence then, most probably spellbound by the glorious sunset. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming. It was a long drive to our lodge, but being accompanied by such magical, quiet, colorful moments, I could go on forever.
As we drove from one place to the next, it was common to see members of the Maasai tribe wandering across the landscape. Very often, the men dressed in a red robe and held a spear or a wooden stick. I had my first encounter with the Maasai when we stopped at a gas station on our drive to Arusha from Nairobi. She wore a dark blue robe and carried a little child on her back. She seemed to be staring blankly out into space. When she saw our jeep, she walked slowly toward us. Standing next to our vehicle, she extended her skinny hand and begged for money. Her eyes were downcast. At a closer look I could tell the child was a boy and he was in dreamland. The scene was heart-rending, and a reminder of the country’s dire poverty.
Visiting a Maasai village for a cultural experience was part of our itinerary. The men’s robes were red or maroon, while the women’s were more colorful. Both the men and women adorned themselves with loads of colorful beaded jewelry around their necks, arms, and ankles. Both men and women shaved their heads, and most of them were tall and lanky. Older kids were at school. Younger ones were with their mothers or running around the compound. They seemed to have adopted the more modern fashion of t-shirt and short pants. As for the footwear, I noticed that they were either barefoot or sported their simple sandals made of cow hide. Their humble abodes were nothing like I had seen before – small, circular shape built with mud, grass, wood and cow dung. I understood that their houses were loosely constructed and semi-permanent as the Maasai led a semi-nomadic life. We were invited in to their homes where our guide explained the structure and the functions of different sections. There was a lot to take in, but I remembered the dirt floor.
The humble homes of the Maasai.
The highlight of the visit was the performance of adumu, often called the jumping dance. As one leaped into the air, the others who stood in a circle sang. It amazed me that they could jump with such vigor. I learned that the one who jumped the highest would be chosen as the chief of the group. As they jumped and danced, their beads created a catchy sound of a simple, repetitious rhyme. I guess that explained the absence of musical instruments in their dance performance. Some of us were invited to join in the dance. I realized that the jumping appeared much easier than it actually was. I was usually predisposed to feel awkward to dance before the others. However, on that day, I had a good time. I would think it was the Maasai people’s spirit of hospitality and the elated atmosphere that made me feel at ease.
A group of Maasai women.
I had my last encounter with the local people when we visited Oltukai school. The classrooms were basic – simple wooden tables and benches, cemented floor, large windows, and, in some classrooms, the interior walls were painted in bright blue, otherwise in the gray of cement. Most kids, in their blue school uniforms, seemed shy. Some others were more brave to interact with us. But there was one thing that all of them seemed to have in common: they were curious about cameras, they loved their photos taken, and most of all, they loved to see their photos on camera. They would giggle and ask to have more photos taken. The pleasure they had in seeing their own photos on camera was my heart’s delight, and the sound of their giggling was the music to my ears. I dare say even the most miserable persons would feel as if the whole world was on their side simply by surrounding themselves with care-free kids who took delight in simple things. The school kids were also eager to show us their books and to proudly tell us about the things they had learned for the day. Their keen interest in learning was truly a joy to behold and should serve as inspiration to many of us who could take for granted the infinite power of education.
Waving goodbye to these kids, I got all misty-eyed. Deep in my heart I knew the chances of crossing paths with them again would be very remote. I was also quick to recognize that the time had come to say goodbye to the country whose natural and cultural landscapes were once all so foreign but now all so beautiful to me.
I would be home soon, but memories of Serengeti sunset, the adumu, the kids’ giggles would be etched on my heart forever.
I realized the trip was so much more than safaris. The lecture series we received from different individuals throughout the trip had taught me about a lot of things, specifically in association with the concept of national parks, human-wildlife conflicts, and the socio-cultural impacts of tourism; these were the themes that later formed my research interests; and the subjects of discussion in some of my academic publications.
From a wider perspective, the trip proved the integrity of the saying that goes where there’s a will there’s a way. Against all odds, I chose to believe in the possibility the second time around. I was determined to make that possibility happen. I wrote that email which took me to where I dreamed to be two months prior to leaving for grad school.
Oltukai school kids.