On our last night in Tanzania, our Trip Leader asked everyone in my travel group to share their favorite memory from our African adventure. I had a very eloquent speech in mind—about Tanzania’s unexpected beauty, the locals’ inspiring spirit, and my deep appreciation for our tremendous guides—but I couldn’t even get the first sentence out before I lost it.
I’ve been sad at the end of vacations before: I got choked up on my last day in London (glorious London!) and was distraught to leave my fellow travelers and favorite crew members after my river cruise. But Tanzania was different. Tanzania was the first time I actually broke down: full on quivering voice, wiping away mascara, “pull it together, Sarah, you’re embarrassing me” crying.
In some ways, my tears were tears of mourning: We spent 10 days traversing the country with three fun-loving and brilliant Tanzanian guides. I joked with them on our game drives, I learned about their lifestyles and their families each night at dinner, I connected with them over our shared interests and skills—and then I realized that I’d probably never see them again. (If you like meeting cool people from around the world, don’t go on a guided tour. It’ll smash your heart to pieces when you have to say goodbye forever.)
But I was also crying for the paradox of everyday Tanzanians. So many of them are poor beyond reason—poorer than anyone in the United States will ever be. We’re talking no electricity, children-coated-in-dirt poor. But these people—people who live in mud huts and walk three miles to school and carry buckets of drinking water home on their bikes—they laugh and dance and hug and welcome others openly. They don’t need the newest iPhones and the biggest cars and closets full of clothes. They have so much less than we do, yet they seem just as content—if not more so.
And then, of course, there’s the heartbreaking injustice of Tanzania. Many of the locals work so much harder than I do. They make mud bricks in the hot sun for 10 hours each day and they earn one dollar for their efforts. Afterward they walk back to their two-room shanties and go to bed with the sun. I, on the other hand, take the air-conditioned subway to my air-conditioned office, where I sit in a chair for eight hours. Afterward I go for a run in a perfectly manicured city park and then eat dinner in front of my flat screen T.V. Why do I get the better deal? Because I was born in a country with highly developed infrastructure and social support systems, limited institutional corruption, and more educational and economic opportunities. In other words, I got lucky.
It’s been about a week since I returned to my comfortable American life, but my head is still very much in Africa. No place has ever moved me so profoundly or taught me so much about the world I live in. When I try to get back to business as usual, I’m reminded of just how unusual my business is, in the global scheme of things. Because in spite of all the ugly political maneuvering and simmering racial tensions and abhorrent gun violence, we’ve really got it pretty good in the U.S.
Now every time I brush my teeth with unlimited, drinkable tap water or queue up endless entertainment options on Netflix or order entirely too much food at a restaurant, I give a little nod of gratitude for all that I have, and I send warm thoughts to the people of Tanzania, who are probably giving nods of gratitude for all that they have, too.