“Well kiddo,” my dad said as he hung up the phone, “looks like my meetings for the next two days are canceled.”
On any other day this might mean he’d try to coerce me into a round of golf or drag me out to lounge on the farm my parents had bought in rural Virginia, but not today. We were in Dar es Salaam, the bustling urban epicenter of Tanzania, so instead he asked “What do you say about heading up to Zanzibar or Kilimanjaro?”
I was trying hard to maintain my role as the angsty-teenage daughter, but found his adventurous suggestion difficult to scoff at. My mind flitted to images of tangled vines, misty mountains, and lanky Masai in full war regalia. Specifically, I thought of the cover of my 11th grade anthropology textbook that first drew me to the field: a smiling red-clothed Masai holding a tall, wooden walking stick in one hand, and a cell phone up to his ear in the other; provoking students to ask “how strict are cultural boundaries anyways?”
That sounds amazing! Of course! Let’s go! I thought. “Sure,” I replied.
So like that, we hopped a plane to Kilimanjaro via Zanzibar the next morning. Shuffling through the grey, shabby airport, my father repeated the new joke he had learned in Swahili – I love you forever, but only today! – to anyone who cared to listen. Meanwhile, I practiced looking aloof, jaded, and not-entirely-with-this-guy (although it was mostly the anti-malarial meds and sleep deprivation kicking in). When we finally took off over the early morning waters of the Zanzibar channel, a terrified, Tanzanian, toddler clutching his toy truck began to shriek throughout the entire one-hour flight. My dad, half deaf anyways from what he claims to be a bit of shrapnel lodged in his ear, seemed totally unperturbed.
We landed in Zanzibar and with less than a day to explore set out on a cliché-ishly touristy route. We were shown a plant that coils in its leaves when you touch it, hid from a sudden downpour under large banana leaves, and were led on a tediously slow stroll through a hot, stench-ridden fish market. Throughout it all, he demonstrated how taking the time to learn a few words in a local language can brighten people’s faces. He learned a new phrase – no worries, my friend – from our dwarf-sized driver. It was as though the sole purpose of his Swahili vocabulary was to make people crack up and slap him on the back. He was animated than he ever was at home.
The next day was my birthday. I woke up in our hotel near Kilimanjaro to discover a hand-drawn birthday card from my dad in the bathroom… right next to a live scorpion. I don’t believe the scorpion was intentional.
Although the trek to base camp (in an unsuitable pair of sharpied-on Chuck Taylors) was exactly the misty, green rainforest I had expected, what I remember most was my dad taking an avid interest in our guide’s personal life. “How often do you do this? Only twice a month? What do you do when you’re not a guide? You grow coffee? How much is it? You want to work with computers? How can I help?” On the way back to the hotel we stopped by a small cluster of houses to buy a bag of coffee. Some months later, he sent the guide a computer. His joke “I love you forever, but just for today,” had become a gesture of generosity and compassion.
Travel is often a pursuit of self-discovery, illumination of the familiar by interacting and tramping through the unfamiliar. And while future vagabonding would eventually allow me to test my capabilities, and the extent of my self-reliance, this trip shed light on something else. I finally figured out what the elusive and vague “business” trips my father took consisted of. Suddenly, I was a character in the bedtime stories about adventures in Laos, Cambodia, or god-knows-where trying to out-drink a band of Russian pilots. Amongst the crumbling buildings of Zanzibar and muddy paths of Kilimanjaro something that had been so familiar all my life made more sense.
Originally hailing from Washington D.C. and having called Costa Rica, Malta, and Seattle home, Jessie currently lives and teaches ESL in small town Madagascar. When not at work, she spends her days chasing chickens our of her house and chatting about the weather in Malagasy. She also blogs at beatnomad.com.