Miriam Beard once said, “Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change, deep and permanent, that goes on in the ideas of living.” After visiting several countries, tasting the sweet delight of gelato in Italy, chasing an orange-streaked sunset down to smoky dusk on a bicycle in Tanzania, touching the shell of a decades-old Galapagos tortoise and seeing myself reflected in his watermelon-seed eye… I agree with Ms. Beard. Such “sights” do more than pass through the retina and reflect into moments of bliss. They remain, sometimes dusty but ever-present, in the archives of the memory and the alcoves of the heart.
And so, I have traveled to find joy after joy, singular scenes of awareness and truth. I’ve snapped pictures, used money so lovely and unfamiliar that it was art to me as much as the thing I wanted to buy, met strangers and said goodbye to them as friends in the course of a train ride, or a dance, or a smile. But my gratitude for the people that have made these experiences possible is what gives them meaning. So before I go, I start by thanking those that make it possible for me to come home, to have a home, and to love my home so dearly.
On September 20, 2009, I will leave Atlanta for Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. My layovers will be in New York City and Dubai. Beyond that, I know very little. I do not know where I will stay, or when my first day of classes will be. I do not know if anyone will meet me at the airport, or whether I will remember a word of the Swahili I have learned in the past year. But I do know this: I will feel reunited with the piece of me that has been missing since I left Tanzania in July of 2007.
I was there for 9 weeks, for the most part in a rural town called Bagamoyo, 45 miles north of the major city, Dar. It was a major sea port for Africa’s eastern coast in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the last place on the African continent that soon-to-be slaves saw before they were shipped as cargo across the seas. For this reason, they named it “Bagamoyo.” It means, Lay down your heart. Bagamoyo was also visited by Dr. Livingstone–once before he traveled to the interior and again after he died, when his body was being taken back to the coast. His last written words were a plea to end the slave trade: “All I can add in my solitude is may Heaven’s rich blessings come down to everyone, American, English, or Turk, who will help heal this open sore of the world.”
My time in Bagamoyo was marked not with sadness but with delight at the purity and simplicity of life there… the kind of appreciation that I now recognize was only possible because of my ability to leave. The people in Bagamoyo were poor–sometimes destitute. They did not idealize it, nor despair in it. I found it hard not to do one or the other.
In the end, I found sorrow and solace in Bagamoyo. I fell in love with the children at the school where I worked, my little brother and parents in my homestay, the way the neighbors sang “Happy birthday to you” whenever something good happened like when they braided my hair into cornrows, the songs Temela played for me on a small acoustic guitar, and the way cornmeal ugali stuck to my fingers as I rolled it into a hot ball in my hand at dinner. Then I left. I left behind true friends. I left behind need. I left behind unconditional kindness and unconquerable mosquitoes. I left determined to come away with some of the optimism and generosity I admired so much in the Tanzanian spirit, and with a promise to give something, whatever I could, back.
Travel is more than the seeing of sights. It is more than the tasting of exotic foods. It is more than listening to a bright city buzz and hum a song your ears have never heard. It is feeling your life touch the periphery of other lives and sometimes watching them intertwine, weave together like rope, and hold together the communities of man.