I read this poem in the blog of a friend and I was immediately captivated by it:
Once you have flown,
you will walk the Earth
with your eyes turned skyward;
for there you have been,
there you long to return.
- Leonardo da Vinci
I think about it metaphorically as well as literally. Most Tanzanians have never been on a plane, yet watch all of the expats like myself arrive and leave on planes, as if Amsterdam were just a day trip to the market. Several times on my way to work, I’ve stared out the blurry window of the dusty dala dala (bus), to find men pointing upward and staring at these metal birds as they take flight and disappear from the small tarmac just outside of town. The literal translation of ‘airplane’ in Swahili is ‘bird’, after all. What do they imagine we see from so high? It is perhaps just another way that we with wealth can look down on the rest of the world, thousands of feet between our understandings of each other.
But with whom else now do I feel a distance? At times, my own culture-- my own home. “Once you have flown…” I do love Tanzania because I feel as though I am free, flying without limits or boundaries, where I can explore endless amounts of new things. And I think anyone who has fallen in love with traveling, with meeting new cultures, with being caught off guard and forced to reevaluate all that is comfort and familiar to us- people who feel home sick for a place that was not home for most of our lives, they will understand “you will walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward” … perhaps it’s not skyward, but toward the south where dusty, tropical Nicaragua lies, or to the east where you can hear the clicks of shoes upon French cobblestone streets, or west toward the snowy peaks of Kilimanjaro.
I spoke with a friend last week and she said, “that’s why I love it here: because you never feel settled. Everything is always jarring!” And I realized how right she was! How ironic it is that nervousness can become so appealing. It’s a nervousness of the unexpected, which transforms into excitement for those of us who become addicted to the lifestyle here. I think I should keep a journal each day of what I see on the dala dala because it’s so unique, so individual to each dala dala. A lot of people here don’t want to ride the dalas because they’re dirty, smelly, slightly dangerous, and crammed with people. But that’s exactly why I love them. They are jarring- you don’t get to become blind or closed off from the realities of life and how difficult it is for so many people. While being crammed in with Maasai women carrying massive baskets of fruits and vegetables (and wondering how on earth they manage to carry such heavy goods), I stare out the window and see infants in the ditch playing with vegetable scraps discarded by their nearby mamas selling fruits. I see an old man alone whose clothes are dark, stained, and full of holes, leaning against a pile of cement blocks, rocking himself back and forth. I see people with shrunken feet from a disease unknown to me, pushing themselves around in old wheel chairs in the road as giant trucks and motorcycles blow by them dangerously close. I see men standing in joyful conversation, holding hands as they speak. I see the mommas with their little and quiet babies wrapped in bright colors to their hips and backs. I see beautiful butterflies dancing over rooftops and bright sunsets that paint mount Meru pastel pink. It’s also beautiful and so horrific at once some times. But I smile because I know that I’m seeing life- that I’m getting a chance to fly and never again will I have the desire to have both feet on the ground.