A visit to Tanzania challenges Peace Corps nostalgia

I climbed out of my seat and crossed the aisle to get my first glimpse of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’d never been to Tanzania before, but I was as excited as when I went to Guatemala with the Peace Corps some fifty years ago. Of course, it wouldn’t be the same but I was getting back to a third, or was it second-world, country? Whatever, I was getting out of my comfort zone at last. Noreen never understood my longing to revisit that life-expanding experience. Fort Wayne was as much of the world as she needed. Well, with her gone, I was free to explore and could hardly wipe the grin of anticipation off my face as we started our descent.

From my hotel room on the third floor I could look down on the swarming busyness of downtown Arusha—women draped head to toe in kitenges of shrieking colors, dolla-dolla buses crammed with people, stringers of fish and baskets of fruit on top, cutting in and around and through pedestrians and traffic. I used to love riding chicken buses and tuc-tucs around Panajachel—literally in touch with the locals. I felt different riding in from Kili airport. Maybe riding in a cab isolates you in a detached bubble. Squeezing a fourth person onto a two-man bus seat integrates you the way lighting up a cigarette blends you into a smoke-filled room.

And the confusion. At one point my driver had to hit the brakes to let another car cut in front of him, which had to stop to let a pedestrian slide by in front of another car waiting to proceed. Somehow, what used to feel like a fun computer game of dodgeball traffic now just seemed chaotic and unnerving. My plastered grin was beginning to droop. Had I forgotten how it really was? Or had things changed? Or had I turned into a testy old fart?

The next day my flight to Zanzibar was delayed. I was asked to show my passport and boarding pass to four different people in the course of an hour and go through two security checks including a pat-down. Things were definitely different these days. But once I got to the island, I kept telling myself, and hunkered down at the beach, I’d be okay.

The resort was built on the protruding edge of a cliff undercut from centuries of waves pounding across the Indian Ocean. From the roped railing, I could watch kite sailors flitting back and across like swallows on a feeding frenzy. Dugouts with balancing outriggers tugged on their tethers in the gentle waves. The Peace Corps me would have been embarrassed by my posh surroundings—beach chairs, waiters, flowers decorating the bedspread in my room. And I experienced a wave of self-reproach when a young woman called from the beach. In her eyes I must appear as a king at his castle parapet surveying one of his serfs below. The incoming tide purled around her ankles. She held a square of puce and tangerine dyed material between her outstretched hands—table cloth? shawl? I shook my head. She smiled sweetly revealing brilliant white teeth then tucked the cloth away and stroked her arm, calling something else. ‘Message?’ ‘Massage?’ I shook my head again. She held up one finger and scurried under the shelf.

A branch fell on my shoulder. Monkeys in the tree overhead. I counted five. The next thing I know, the girl is beside me with that dazzling smile. I say “No. No massage. No cloths.” She shrugs. That’s when she really surprised me by asking, “What you think of Donald Trump? I like Clinton.” I’m somehow pleased that this woman living on the edge of Africa is informed about our politics. I’m also a little embarrassed that I don’t know who her political principals are.  And I’m also abashed that I had underestimated the interest and intelligence of basically a street vendor.

Her eyes suddenly rolled up and she started jerking convulsively before she collapsed, her forehead smacking the edge of a stone step. Blood. More twitching. I knelt next to her. Several of my students had seizures and I knew to check her tongue for choking and to time the length of the episode. The cut was superficial but as happens with head lacerations, effusive. I applied pressure with a towel and then could do nothing more than watch and wait. Her blood dribbled more color into her green and yellow and orange shawls. A strange thought flashed. Why is it that dark skinned people are drawn to garish colors? Where did that racist, politically incorrect observation come from? But I wanted to play the thought out to the end. Does African black and Latino brown skin called for dazzling hues to offset it while us fish-belly whites just seem to suck in the color palette and neutralize it?

The girl finally lay still. Several other guests at the resort gathered around. The manager showed up with a first aid kit. As I watched him fumble with rubber gloves and alcohol swabs, I had another thought. I used to like open-air markets. Bartering was fun. How much for one bracelet? How about for three? Not anymore. I find that I resent beggars and street vendors—people making me say no. Makes me feel stingy or rude or somehow beholden. I don’t want your beaded necklace or carved giraffe or help carrying my bags. You go your way and I’ll go mine. If I need a shirt or a watermelon I’ll go to a mall or grocery store and look over the passive products awaiting my choice. If I don’t want it or need it, I can walk away with no hurt feelings, no human interaction.

A Scandinavian woman in a bikini knelt to cover the girl’s exposed panties when a heavy-set woman—her mother?—came storming up spouting angrily in Swahili and giving us dirty looks as if all this was our fault. I felt like shouting, ‘Hey lady I’m on your side. I’m open to you and your culture. I don’t like treating your village, your beach, your way of life like it was Disney World for me to stroll through and say, ‘how quaint’, ‘how interesting’. I’m trying to be open, helpful, like the young man I used be who was so eager to be imprinted by another way of life, on a mission to teach, to dig a well. Now I just feel like a wealthy pasha lazing in a litter peering down on the rabble. And I don’t like that feeling.

The older woman helped the girl up, gathered her clothing around her and walked her away with a last accusing glance over her shoulder. I’m an intruder here. A voyeur. Like when I was on a game-drive last week bouncing along rutted roads stopping to photograph lions. Instead of putting animals in cages and walking around them in zoos we rode around in our mobile cages and the animals pretended not to notice us. Nostalgia trip over, I was ready to head home.

Qatar Airlines flight 357 direct to Chicago had me in the middle seat of the middle row of a jumbo jet. I was facing fifteen hours in a strait jacket. How come I never seemed to remark the length of a flight when I was younger? Maybe I was geeked back then and didn’t have to pee every hour and a half. Maybe that’s why. Instead I compared my current situation to post surgery bed-confinement, to a jail sentence, to slave ship quarters, to a woman in labor with no way out until it was over. I had a long talk with myself about centering, living in the moment as the teenaged boy next to me knocked my elbow off the arm rest for the third time and we hadn’t taken off yet.

I watched the GPS read out on my TV screen. We were going from Doha to Chicago by way of Moscow and Helsinki and Sault Ste. Marie Michigan. Fifteen hours. I noticed the young African woman on my left. She sat primly with her hands in her lap and the self-satisfied smile of a righteous doer-of-good on a mission. It takes one to know one. “What are you going to do in Chicago?” I asked her. For the next half-hour she explained that she had trained as a nurse technician in Kenya under a program that required two year’s service in return. She would be working in a clinic in Chicago’s South Side.

After she pumped me for details of life in the big city, I wished her well, pushed my seat back, closed my eyes and gave myself over to the steady throb of the jet engines…more power to you, young lady.  Ride the wave of optimism and energy. It’s your time. Your turn, turn, turn.

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