Sunday, July 4, 2010

In which I am gobsmacked

Memory is a funny thing.

Being back  in Arusha is  all  kinds of bizarre. Maybe it's just  because your first adventure is always the one you fall in love with, but Tanzania was so huge for me in so many fundamental ways that I've spent the last four years thinking back on it so much that my memories had taken on a bigger-than-life dreamlike quality. So when I found myself yesterday walking up the steps the Meru House Inn, sitting down for a coffee at the Patisserie, and rounding a corner to see the clock tower, I kind of couldn't believe it was real.

There were all sorts of little details that came flooding back to me that I hadn't realized I remembered. The way the windows of some  of  the rooms at the inn look awkwardly out on the courtyard walkway. The little  Indian restaurant underneath that served me that one salad I later regretted. The road to the SIT office. On my way to the Phillips daladala stop, I was nervous I wouldn't remember how to get there. But just like how sometimes you can't remember a  locker combination until the  lock is right in front of you, or how now that I'm using Swahili again words sometimes present themselves to me out of nowhere - a lightbulb went on as soon as I saw the row of  gates, with our little blue and white one down at the end.

Baba Jack wasn't there; he's in the States now  that it's SIT's off-season. But I met Doreen, the new assistant, who was really friendly and helpful and who seems to be the go-to person if you need to get hold of anyone at the office (cough cough Baba Jack). There was a student from this past semester still hanging around, fresh off one last visit with his host family in  Bangata and literally on his way to the airport when I got there. I asked  him how the semester was and he shook his head with a look I  recognized.

"Oh, amazing," he said, grimacing like he wanted to say more but really, even if he had more time, how do  you explain it?

There seem to be more wazungu around Arusha than there are  in Nairobi, although maybe that's because in Nairobi they're all hiding in the suburbs. There's certainly a LOT more Swahili  spoken here; it's  been a bit jarring but also refreshing that when my language skills desert me I don't have the safety net of resorting immediately to English; I have to make it work.

The amount of nostalgia I feel is out of control. I think back to the 20-year-old me, flushed with every new sight and smell and just beside myself with the freedom I felt here, glowing everyday with the sense that I was finally getting to be the person I'd always known I could be. You know. Intrepid, confident, blah blah blah. Every blond ponytail I saw yesterday, I thought for a half second was Caty or Katie from my old group. I kept thinking of all the SITers who I wished I could share this craziness with, because they're the only ones who could really get it.

Most of my old group knew that I was coming here from messages on Facebook and such, but it struck me yesterday that there was another SIT Tanzania alum who I should have contacted: Matt, who did the program the year after me and who I met through a random twist of fate when he turned up in Durango two years ago working for Mark Udall's campaign while I was volunteering with the Obama campaign. What WAS his last name? Matt... Something-With-An-R. That was so random, I remember how astonished I was when he said "SIT Tanzania, yeah,with Baba Jack." And then there was his partner in crime, Mike Kenney, who left Durango after the election and now lives just a few minutes away from me in Williamsburg. Life is funny.

So I was back at the hotel last night, brushing my teeth in the communal sink that's situated rather oddly out in the hallway, and the door across the hall from my room opened. A tall mzungu guy stepped out. With my mouth full of toothpaste, I glanced over to give my neighbor that half smile of acknowledgment, and almost choked, because it was Matt Something-With-An R.

In reality I think I spat out my toothpaste in  the sink before yelping, "No.Way. NO (expletive deleted) WAY!" But I was very close to spraying it all over him, so great was my astonishment. Probably the most accurate word to describe it is "gobsmacked." I was gobsmacked, gaping at him, and meanwhile Matt Something-With-An-R is giving me this helpless, shocked look, like he KNOWS he knows me but we're so far from the context of where he knows me from, and I'm no help, freaking out and gasping incoherent things like "I can't believe this, this is too much, holy crap..." and finally he says, pleadingly,"You're going to have to help me out," and I'm able to collect myself enough to sputter, "Durango. SIT. Emily!" And he goes, "Ohhhhhhhhhh!" but he's still not nearly shocked enough to do justice to the ridiculousness of this moment.

And I mean, okay. It's not so weird that an old SIT student would come back to work here for awhile, and  it's only natural that he would stay at the Meru House Inn; it's cheap, and it's where most of us stayed when we were here. But the room across the hall from me? The same day I was trying to remember his last name? Really?

Anyway, we met up later when I was able to form complete sentences again to watch Spain play Paraguay and caught up a little. It was good to have an old friend to talk to.

Okay, time's almost up on this internet cafe computer and I have a host family to visit.

Happy Fourth!

Phillips daladala stop and Mount Meru.

The clock tower got an upgrade.

The Patisserie... or the Hot Bread Shop, as it's apparently known now.

1 comment:

  1. This made me miss Tanzania so much! It does feel like a dream sometimes, and I wonder if it really happened at all, it was such an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiance. Hope you have a great time in Kenya, I wish I was there this summer too but going to do lab work for my thesis instead of field work, which means that I will probably be heading to California for 9 months!