This one time, I went to Tanzania for three and a half weeks with eleven other people, and it was kind of awful, but I also loved it. Let me tell you about it.
I've been wanting to write this post for a long time - pretty much since I got back from the trip, which was in January of 2014. While I really wanted to write about it, I hesitated until now, because I have such mixed feelings about the experience and I worry that I won't be able to explain what this trip was like for me. I worry that you won't understand, or will think I'm pathetic or weird. But I've decided to write about it anyway, because I'm angry. I am so, so angry that I was treated this way, and I can't stand to blame myself for it for one more day. So this is me, officially saying: it was not my fault. I can't control how other people treat me, and I can't always control how I feel. But I can sure as hell control how I respond. Here is my response.
I traveled to Tanzania as part of a service-learning class through my university. The class spent the semester before the trip studying the psychological effects of poverty within the United States, and then applied what we'd learned to the more abject poverty we witnessed in east Africa. The academic portion of this trip was awesome. I learned a ton about social psychology, and compassion, and the subtle but powerful ways in which we dehumanize those around us.
So I was pretty psyched for this trip, and I was almost equally excited for all the preparation the group would do in the semester beforehand. On the first day of the prep course, which all of the people traveling were required to take, I walked into the classroom, sat down, and realized pretty quickly that none of these people wanted to talk to me. A sizable handful seemed to know each other, and my attempts to get to know anybody within that group always ended in a smirk and a poorly disguised eye roll from whomever I was trying to get to know. It was humiliating.
The other sign of trouble during the prep course was the relative apathy the majority of those in the travel group showed toward the academic aspects of the trip. I'm sure some of them cared a lot, and probably loved the research components as much as I did, but they were overshadowed by a handful of individuals who really seemed like they couldn't care less. They participated in the class, they completed assignments, but they always had a smirk on their faces, and were always rolling their eyes or whispering to their equally unimpressed friends. It drove me crazy, and it made the prep class its own special kind of hell. I was bad at learning Swahili, which was pretty much the entirety of the course. I was really, really bad. And being terrible at a new language in a roomful of people who think you're a weird loser is not pleasant.
So I was pretty nervous about this trip before it even started. I had never traveled outside of North America, and I was about to do so with an entire crowd of people who really didn't like me very much. And I wasn't allowed to be away from them. That was one of the rules - no going anywhere by yourself. This is a fine rule in theory, and I understand that it was intended to keep everyone safe. It's just unfortunate that this rule existed for me, in my specific terrible situation.
It took many, many hours to get from Spokane, Washington to Bagomoyo, Tanzania. I think the flight from Seattle to Dubai was fourteen hours long. I started the trip extremely nervous, but once we were on the first flight, something kind of magical happened - I stopped being nervous about the trip. Apprehension is always so much worse for me than the actual event I was worried about. I realized almost immediately that I really like traveling. I already kind of knew this, but had never had the opportunity to really test it out on a trip of any significant distance or length. This was one of the very best things I took away from the trip. I am unafraid of getting on a plane and going somewhere I've never been before.
Unfortunately, I was tethered to eleven other humans. Walking through airports and strange cities, I didn't feel intimidated at all. I saw this constant stream of strangers who didn't know me and who I'd never see again, and I felt awesome. I wanted to keep doing it forever. But the people I was with? Those people terrified me. We had been put in semi-unofficial pairs in terms of airplane seating and hotel rooming for the first couple days, and I'm pretty sure I saw the person I was paired with lamenting that she was stuck with me to one of the crueler members of the group. So I spent the duration of this initial travel period feeling torn between the awesome freedom of travel, which I loved so much, and the feelings of shame and embarrassment that were being visited upon me by my travel companions. It made me antsy and awkward and shy and embarrassed and weird. I didn't know how to act. And the more awkward I felt, the more these awful, awful people seemed to shove me away. I would have loved to just walk away from them, but I couldn't. We were stuck together for the next three weeks. And the worst part was, everyone interpreted my nervousness as a product of the trip, as if traveling was what I was afraid of. And they acted like that made me pathetic.
Do you remember third grade? Do you remember the mean kids in your third grade class? The ones whose smiles seemed mocking and whose whispers could destroy you and your entire social life? Yeah, I was on a plane with those third graders. At one point during the trip, one of the other girls got mango all over her hands, and I offered her a hand wipe. She took it, thanked me, then walked over to one of the other girls and began whispering and laughing while "subtly" pointing at me. As if I had done something bizarre by offering her a wet wipe. That is the type of person I was stuck with.
It's important to me that you understand that I did my best. I tried, at first, to get these people to act a little nicer toward me. I tried being friendlier, I tried being more aloof, I tried being louder and quieter and more helpful and less intrusive and more than anything else, I tried not to care. I tried so, so hard not to care what anyone thought. But it was like their third-grade level bullying had trigger my own inner third-grader, and that girl was a loser. A loser with very poor emotion regulation who really, really cared what everyone thought of her. I was a mess.
Things got marginally better as the trip wore on. The first week was spent at a really, really great orphanage outside of Bagamoyo called the Baobab Home. It's run by a woman from the States and her husband, who's a native Tanzanian. They were amazing, and the kids were sweet and fun and such a huge respite from the people I was traveling with. Of course, nothing on this trip could remain unsullied. When I tried to spent time with the kids, one of my travelling companions was always there to verbally shove me away. They would talk over me, direct the kid's attention away from me, or just "suggest" I go do something else. This happened constantly.
At this point in the trip, I felt so torn. I was emotionally wrecked, while also feeling liberated and exhilarated by the new places and people and experiences. I felt like a small child with no friends on the playground, but was also gathering valuable information to use in my research paper. I was an independent adult being treated like a needy child and I felt pathetic for letting it bother me. I blamed myself for the way I was being treated. No one gets picked on like a child unless they somehow put themselves in that position, right?
No. Some people choose to be mean. Some people are probably perfectly nice usually but get carried along by the more dominant personalities in a group. I've thought about this a lot since the trip, and I'm really sad that I didn't get to know a handful of these people individually under different circumstances. We probably would have gotten along fine. I've also thought a lot about how much I'd still like to slap some of the individuals who took pleasure in making my life hell for three and a half weeks.
Tanzania was breathtaking. The warm, humid air smelled sweet, and the sky was a color I'd never seen before. Everything was red sand and towering, spiked plants. It was so, so beautiful. Plus, I felt physically healthier than I ever had before. I have migraines and back pain and horrendous allergies to everything that grows, but in Tanzania, I had none of that. I was allergic to nothing. I didn't have a single headache. My back felt amazing, especially considering I spent the first week of the trip sleeping in a tent on the ground. I don't know if it was the low altitude, the humidity, or if some weird placebo effect was responsible, but it was awesome.
And to add to my sudden physical health, my anxiety levels about anything that wasn't related to my traveling group were at an all-time low. I've always been a nervous person, but suddenly, the only thing I was nervous about was being judged by the jerks I was surrounded by. I wasn't afraid to try speaking Swahili, or to ask one of the workers at the orphanage for help with something, or to dive into the Indian Ocean. It was like living as two people, one who was a socially-awkward nine-year-old with no friends, and one was a fearless adult. The few minutes I could get alone were amazing.
After leaving the orphanage, we moved into a hotel near the beach in Bagamoyo. Bagamoyo is an awesome town. We walked to the beach most days, and I loved sitting on the shore by myself, forgetting the people I was with. I waded into the water without fear - despite my inability to swim - and tread water without a second thought. The water was warm and sandy and I could feel it rubbing against my skin like velvet. Always before, when I was in the ocean, I couldn't shake the fear that something was under me, or in the sand, and was about to jump out and bit me or pull me under. But that fear was completely gone, and I loved it. I know this was probably just a product of directing all my nervous energy toward the people I was with, and there was no anxiety left over to devote to anything else. But I'd like to think it was just the magic of travel. Being a stranger in a faraway place is so freeing. I didn't have to be the same person I was in Spokane, or Montana. No one knew me, so I could be anyone. And why not be someone who's unafraid of the ocean?
I slowly started to gain a little more self-assurance. I had realized by this point that my situation was not entirely my fault; I just happened to be traveling with a group of awful people, and that was unfortunate, but I certainly didn't need them to like me. It still really, really sucked, because rejection always sucks. (For me, anyway. Maybe you're some sort of superhuman who is never bothered by such petty things.) And I was rejected over and over, in little ways. No one talked to me. No one asked if I wanted to do anything. No one ever saved me a seat, or even remembered I existed. And they always seemed vaguely annoyed by my presence. Some days were really really bad. One day in particular, we were supposed to be doing a volunteer project that involved cleaning the garbage off a beach, and people kept taking things out of my hands and telling me to go elsewhere. I ended up just sitting on the beach for most of it, because I couldn't even get anyone to let me hold a garbage bag. But I was starting to tune all of that out in favor of the warm sun, and kind, interesting people, and the most delicious pineapple in the entire world. I was still an awkward, emotional mess, I just wasn't quite as bothered by that anymore.
So I spent our week in Bagamoyo sitting on the beach, and walking through town, and trying new things and meeting new people. We went to an open-air art market, where I saw amazing paintings and carvings and paid far, far less for the ones I bought than what they should have been worth. (Side note, turns out I'm terrible at haggling, but I didn't really mind. The artists still deserved more than I paid.) We took a bus tour of the city, and went to a nearby museum, and saw the remnants of a settlement from hundreds of years ago. I did my best to pretend that I was alone, and when I really, truly couldn't take it anymore, I broke the don't-go-alone rule. Just once. I went with another girl in the group to the internet cafe near the hotel, and then promptly left her there and went to the beach alone for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. It was glorious. The beach was nearly abandoned because the tide was in, and I sat on the stone wall that held back the crashing waves, and wished I could stay there forever. Then I got up and went back to my travel buddy. It was maybe a vaguely irresponsible thing for me to do, but I assure you, it was necessary. I think even if I had loved the people I had traveled with, twelve people in a group would have been too much for me. I'm a solo traveler at heart.
The next leg of the journey was spent in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania, and Stone Town is a very old, originally European settlement, so it looks like something out of "old world" Europe. The streets are narrow, everything is made from stone, and laundry lines hang over alleys. It looked like something out of a movie, and I loved it so, so much. It's also crowded with tourists and people trying to sell souvenirs to tourists - very aggressively. I learned quickly that avoiding eye contact and walking quickly, with purpose, was the best way to avoid getting caught up in a sales pitch. And then there were the cats. Zanzibar is full of stray cats. They're scrappy and sick and skittish, but I loved them. There was a young cat who liked to wander into our hotel lobby and say hello to people. I named her Samahani - "excuse me" in Swahili.
The other people in my group mostly just wanted to shop in Stone Town. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but it did irk me a little bit. They had whined and complained through the past two weeks about having to do class activities and things related to our research on poverty. They had rolled their eyes and muttered annoyances behind the professor's back at every opportunity. They had ignored the purpose of the trip - studying poverty - and now they were spending hundreds of dollars and many, many hours on souvenir shopping. (Side note - do you know how hard it is to spend hundreds of American dollars in Tanzania? The exchange rate is insane.) It felt like perhaps the purpose of the trip had eluded them.
My status as a social outcast was marginally improved during this portion of the trip. There were a couple of people who, when away from the others in the group, were fairly kind to me, and I ended up rooming with them in the hotel in Zanzibar. I had also begun to truly despise the crueler members of the group, and that somehow made me feel a little better. It's easier to brush off the biting comments of someone you hate.
The last part of the trip was the "vacation" portion. We traveled to the Selous Game Reserve - a trip which took several hours in large vans - and stayed at a resort for a couple of nights. It felt like a miniature culture shock to suddenly be staying in a nice resort, run by European people, and with European food and amenities. It was also a little bit of a relief, because I was really and truly exhausted by this point.
While at the resort, we spent a day visiting a fairly isolated local village and the local school. We visited with the younger classes before they were sent home for the day, and then walked over to the nearby building where the older classes met. The younger children, freed from school for the day, walked with us to the upper school. They didn't speak English and none of us really spoke Swahili - me especially - so it was mostly smiling and waving and giggling rather than conversation. One girl in particular had the largest, brightest smile I had ever seen. She did nothing but grin, and then she skipped up and slipper her hand into mind. I grinned back, and asked in my broken Swahili what her name was. I'm positive I got the words right, but she just looked shyly down at her feet and kept grinning. So we just walked together, and swung our hands, and smiled, and forgot all about our names. I got someone to take our picture, and of course, that split second that it took to snap a photo was the one second in which she wasn't smiling. Oh well.
That afternoon, we crossed the wide, muddy river to an island inhabited by a semi-nomadic tribe. They lived on the island during the warm season, and the mainland during the cold season, when the river swelled up too deep to cross anymore. They didn't speak a word of English, but they were used to tourists visiting from the resort. They were unfazed by our arrival, and simply led us over to a shady spot, where they laid down grass mats and motioned for us to sit. One of the women grabbed my hands and pulled me over to where a pile of long, dried reeds had been set. She sat me down, put the reeds in my hands, and started moving my fingers back and forth. I realized she was teaching me how to weave a grass mat. She said something to our translator, and he told me that all young women must learn how to weave a mat before they can marry. Watch out, eligible bachelors - I'm marriage material now.
I caught on to the weaving pattern pretty quickly. It was so calm and meditative, and so nice to be communicating in this way with someone I couldn't even speak to. We wove the grass together for a few minutes, the woman eventually dropping her hands but continuing to lean over me, watching me with hawk eyes and tapping my wrist when I messed up. After a while, I glanced up, and realized the entire village had gathered around to watch as this funny white girl learned to weave. They were commenting and pointing and nodding to each other, and it was such a surreal moment. But the funniest part of the whole experience was the tiny baby strapped to my teacher's back. The woman's baby couldn't see me when she sat up, but each time she leaned forward, the baby would catch sight of me and scream, sending the entire village into a fit of laughter.
I eventually got a decent length of mat woven, and the woman told our translator something that made him laugh. He turned to me and told me she said that I should stay with the tribe and help with the weaving because I was good at it. I laughed with them, and shoved down the little part of me that wished I really could stay on this island forever.
By now I was truly beginning to love Tanzania, and the thought of leaving in a few days made me ache. I wished that the rest of my party would just go on without me and leave me to melt into the Tanzanian culture. I felt like if I just had a little more time, preferably without the wilting comments of the others in my party, I could really get into the culture and start to learn the language. It killed me that we had to leave just as I started to feel comfortable.
As an ending to our trip, we went on a safari and saw giraffes and elephants and chimps and hyenas and lions, and it was so amazing, but my favorite part was standing in the big, open jeep as it sped through the game reserve with bee-eater birds swooping like blue and orange ribbons around us, snapping at the insects that flew out of our way. I could feel the other people in the car, how they turned away from me and whispered about me, but it was easier not to care.
Our last night was spent in a boat on the sprawling river that gurgles by the resort. We watched the deep orange sun set over the strange landscape, and I felt overwhelmed with happiness and longing. I was hurt and angry about all the rejection I had faced over the course of the trip, but I also felt liberated, because now I knew I could do this. I could travel, and not be afraid. And I knew for certain that as soon as I was able, I'd be back on an airplane headed to somewhere new. But next time, I'd go alone.