If you’re a millennial (or even if not), you know wanderlust is a real thing. It leads us to travel to Europe, North America, Asia and Australia and interact with the local people. We’re familiar with the European café culture of sitting on a street corner at 4:00 pm on a weekday and people-watching; and chatty Americans with their constant ‘how do you do’s. We know Asians for their perseverance and flavorful food; and the infamous Australian resistance to dangerous animals, and of course, their egregious creation Vegemite. But what about Africa? It’s a completely new continent, at least to me. I knew nothing about the people or the culture before my trip to Tanzania this summer. All I knew was I had to get a $200 yellow fever shot before flying out.
In early August, my dad conquered his lifelong dream – painstakingly putting one foot in front of the other atop the highest free-standing mountain Mt. Kilimanjaro in -10⁰ Celsius. At the same time, my mother, sister and I were marveling at the breathtaking blue-green water of the Indian Ocean, visible for miles along the coastline of Zanzibar. We were there with two objectives: to take in as much of the postcard-worthy waves as we could, and to see every single species the country housed. Starting with the playful dolphins, our 5-day safari brought us face to face with Africa’s big 5 (named thus for being the hardest animals to hunt on land) – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. We also saw in abundance wildebeest, impalas, zebras, giraffes, warthogs, baboons, ostrich, hippos, and a range of birds. Stories of the excitement evoked by the first gazelle we spotted, of the two giraffes swinging their necks at each other in a tiff over a lady love, of the baby elephant falling in the mud before proceeding to shovel the mud into its mouth and others are all stories for another day. For now, the topic of discussion is the African people.
While the wild animals definitely took the cake, the people of Tanzania were endlessly gracious for the entirety of our stay. In fact, we were so spoiled by their hospitality that if the waiter forgot to say “Karibu” (Swahili for Welcome) our faces would fall. Since Tanzania has more than 50,000 Indian residents, the locals were accustomed to seeing faces like ours. Never before has my family been the subject of so many ‘Kem cho?’s (the expression for How are you?in a specific Indian language). But there was something even more surprising: never before had we encountered such politely insistent salesmen! They would approach us and offer their wares, and if we shook our heads, they would obediently approach the next visitor, as opposed to the badgering and bargaining we are inured to in most Asian countries.
The country as a whole is well equipped for tourism. Despite the local people living humble lives, there are provisions in every corner for tourists. In the middle of every national park is a resting area carved out for picnic lunches for the hundreds of guests passing through every day. It is replete with round tables shaded by big umbrellas, tuck shops selling Magnum ice cream, and most astounding of all: clean toilets that don’t smell rancid! As somebody whose bladder’s life goal is to visit every possible toilet, this was a delight to me. It was impressive to see how well-kempt toilets were in the remotest of areas. Tanzanians have clearly mastered the trick to draw tourists – make things comfortable, even in the middle of the jungle. Each afternoon, the safari guides would bring out packed lunch boxes for their respective guests, and depending on how premium your tour package was, you would get either bread and a juice box or a great spread of spaghetti and meatballs, along with wine glasses and a checkered table cloth. It’s not just the safari companies that know this trick, the Maasai people have learned to market their villages too.
Among the many native tribes of Africa, the Maasai (after whom Maasai Mara in Kenya is named) is the most famous. We had seen evidence of them all over Tanzania, pictures of the women with about 340 piercings in their ears, exaggerated souvenir magnets of the long faces of the tribal people and men wearing the typical checkered cloth walking or cycling through the rural parts. It was while we were driving to the Serengeti that we came across a Maasai village. Upon shelling out 50 USD, we were greeted by a traditional performance, where men and women in a semi-circle would sing and dance, followed by a jump-off. Apparently, the village men impress women by jumping vertically as high as they can, and the women do it for fun too. None of the 70 people in the village spoke English, except for Taté. Taté had been selected when he was young to go to the nearby town to receive an English education, funded by an American couple who wanted some way to communicate with the villagers. He explained the Maasai lifestyle to us in impeccable English. Many things he shared with us were shocking: the huts for each family were tiny and dark, men were granted the duties of a Warrior at age 15 and retired at 35, and all children had their two lower front teeth knocked out so that they could be fed water, milk and blood when they were sick!
After asking Taté questions about education, water availability, tribe wars and marriage, I was shown to the special visitor toilet – a hut made of tarpaulin sheet on sticks, inside which was a ready-made hole for me to squat over! I had no complaints; it beat relieving myself behind a bush in the Serengeti, home to numerous sharp toothed, poisonous creatures that would greatly enjoy a late evening snack.
The indigenous species of wild animals are as valuable to the African countries as their native tribes. In northern Tanzania, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area protects the Maasai, and within it lies the 18,000 sq. km. Serengeti, where human interference with the animals is forbidden. The preservation of both wildlife and culture is unique to Africa. The Maasai village is anachronistic, frozen in a period years behind our digital age. It is remarkable to note how our consumption-fueled lifestyles have completely escaped entire sections of society. Despite being exposed to tourists and some form of education, they have retained their early traditions, providing the likes of us a fresh perspective.
Through this trip, I got to see an Africa that is welcoming, has a great deal to offer by way of natural marvels and is proud of its heritage. One of the oldest continents is no longer “new” to me now. If you’re looking for your next holiday destination, get that yellow fever shot and book your tickets to Africa!