This morning I woke up thousands of miles from home.
I was curled beneath a thin blanket, surrounded by pillows, a fan laboring mightily overhead. The weak air conditioning struggled to cool the equatorial air. I could hear women in the hallway, cleaning the tile floors. As fallen aspen leaves carpet my lawn in Colorado and fall is fully ushered in, here in Dar es Salaam it’s hot.
Just outside my window, workmen walked down the narrow alley. Five years ago this month I stayed in the same small airport hotel, in the same room. When our power went out (this happens often in Tanzania), I had opened the window to the outside breezes, what of them there were, and sat sweating in the heat of the day to write. The shower had also been turned off, which meant that I couldn’t cool off that way either.
It was miserable.
As one way to deal with the oppressive heat, I stripped. That worked until I stood up from my small desk and walked across my room to my suitcase. Right about the time four workmen happened by.
They glanced in just as I reached the window.
To say they were surprised was an understatement. To say that I was caught off guard is another understatement.
Back in 2013 I didn’t know that the alleyway alongside the Transit Motel was a favored walkway. Everyone in Africa walks.
I dove for cover right about the time I saw four pairs of Tanzanian eyebrows go skyward.
Back then I probably wasn’t as travel savvy as I am these days. While that might have been understandable-after all, our flights arrive late at night and the in-country visa process is a bureaucratic nightmare that takes several hours- there was no way to anticipate the popularity of any given spot in a city that was, at least near my motel, sleeping when I arrived.
As a way to escape both my embarrassment and to search for the errant breeze, I dressed and headed out to the main drag near the motel. There, open shops were cooking on grills, the smells of spices and cooking meat filled the air.
Photos of Barack Obama and American rappers (their names unknown but their faces familiar), Beyonce and other high-profile African Americans were taped or nailed to the posts, displayed proudly in windows up and down the street. Most of the shacks were wide open, the smoke wafting into the midday air. Women in brilliantly-colored fabrics sauntered up and down the street, kids perched on their substantial hips, chattering with the cooks and sellers as they ate and fed their babies.
When I got back to the motel, I noticed that there was a small crowd gathered outside my room window. Men eating lunch. People had found chairs. The curtains moved in the breeze. All eyes were on its folds.
Hope springs eternal. Like it does everywhere. All over the world.
No wonder that little walkway is popular.
Little has changed. Today, as then, I am beginning a journey to the summit of an African mountain. In two days I will take my first booted steps up the steep sides of Mt. Kenya, Africa’s little sister to Kilimanjaro,which I summitted in 2013.
As then, there’s no guarantee I’ll get there.
As then, this is about the experience. Taking in the world around me, the sights and sounds and smells of a world half a world away.
As America wakes up to a new Congress, a fired Attorney General, the increasing chaos of a deep divide in our differences, I am immersed in Africa.
There is chaos here, as well.
As I had breakfast in the common room, the BBC regaled us with news of religious hatred in Pakistan, recent murders in Turkey. Nothing changes. Not really.
Some things do, however.
Today I wear the simple beaded necklace of a ancient Masai guide. One night under the shadow of Kilimanjaro, while we were on a horse riding trip, he was cooking a goat leg in a huge fire. He burned his hands, and I held them in my own to cool and soothe them. He allowed me to purchase his necklace, a necklace he has worn his entire life, full of memories and magic.
Today I carry the memories of years of travel all over the world, of cultures and colors and dusty hills walked by millions of sandal-footed peoples, of mountain valleys shrouded in mists and mystical beliefs.
Today I bear the burden of my mistakes and missteps. The scars of accidents and injuries. I ache in new places. I hurt in many more. I bear the burden of misjudgment and misplaced trust, as well as life lessons about how good people are all over the world. How I am home no matter where I travel. How when I step onto an international flight, I am going out to meet my family.
And lessons about the dumb shit people do when they travel in new worlds.
So this morning when I walked by my window, I kept my shirt on and the curtains closed.
But hey, at least the air conditioning works.