I'll back up to 2009.
I was standing by the mailbox. There was an open envelope in my hand and a letter in the other, with the National Geographic stamp at its head, announcing that I'd been accepted onto an expedition to a country I'd only really known about through magazines and Animal Planet documentaries. I was young; I had never really traveled before. I recently had gone through the process of selling my horse and putting an end to my goal to be a professional equestrian in order to trust in the promise something else, something different, something out there. Around this time, I heard of an opportunity through a friend of a friend to travel as a photographer with National Geographic to an obscure nation in East Africa. This came at a time when I was deciding whether or not I wanted to give up my life as an equestrian — a path I'd been pursuing since I was a little girl — in exchange for a chance to go abroad. At the time, I'd already been working as a photographer for several years on the horse show circuit, so even if I knew my way around the back of a Nikon, I was a stranger to the idea of Africa, of leaving the safety of New York, of going out there.
But I applied.
I was accepted.
And I waited.
In the months leading up to my departure, I enveloped myself with the looming idea of Tanzania, overflowing with daydreams of sloping golden savannas pinpricked with acacia trees, lions purring outside my tent walls, tangled jungles falling way to the foothills of Kilimanjaro. These images saturated my mind as I poured over guidebooks, documentaries, and my stepfather's stories and photographs of his time backpacking through East Africa in the 70's. And when the day finally arrived, after 19 hours of flying across three continents, when I stepped off the plane into that heavy, thick African air on that humid night in July, I was surprised by something. I wasn't afraid. Instead, there was this quiet sense of belonging. Like something was tapping me on the shoulder, saying, Finally. You made it.
Karibu nyumbani. Welcome home.
It's taken me years to be able to put into words what I feel when I think of my experience in Tanzania, and still, I always feel as though I fall short; I've come to terms with the fact that I may never be able to properly say just what it really feels like to fall asleep with a mosquito net draping your bare arms and why it took me weeks to be able to fall asleep without that once I was back in New York, or just how right it feels to crawl into a tent at night, your skin heavy with dust and freckles and sunlight and remnants of sweet chai on your lips, sleepy and warm and listening to the owls and the hyenas as you zip into a sleeping bag. But I'll give it a go, because on this evening in 2016, it's worth a shot.
I consider my time in Tanzania as the changing point, the turning point, of everything. The point when my life did a complete 180. It seemed like every aspect of that country became apart of me, filling my veins and my chest and every corner of my being; from the red soil etched into the palms of my hands, to the rich smell of woodsmoke and ginger chai, woven perpetually into my hair, my clothes, laying soft on my skin. The markets, vibrant and crowded and laced with the heavy scent of roasting chapati, towers of garlic and colorful peppers, and the singsong of Swahili echoing over the cooing of children and baboons stealing bananas and retreating to the canopies. The evenings spent sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the roof of our Land Rover, watching herds of hundreds — maybe thousands — of wildebeest and zebra migrating against the backdrop of an orange sky with a red sun so plump and heavy it looked like it'd burst at any moment. Moonlight cast on the backs of lions, soccer in that field just beyond the sunflowers, card games by the fireside. Beauty so brilliant it makes you drunk with heartache. And the one afternoon when we spent six hours climbing to the top of a mountain in the northern savanna, just to sit at the rocky summit and listen in silence as a herd of elephants trumped from somewhere indiscernible in the valley below, and I decided as I sat there that this was what I would dedicate the rest of my life to, that this was what I was being lead to my whole life, that this would be where I'd return to stay someday, and it was as simple as that, the end of one part of my life, the beginning of the rest.
I still have never been so sure of something in all my life.
In the years that followed that first expedition,
I had recurring dreams about going back to Tanzania.
However, in the dreams, I never made it back. I always got caught in darkness, only to find that my flashlight was broken, or the street lights were out, or I would get hopelessly lost, and I'd wake up before I'd reach those warm fields of sunflowers and stand in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro again.
This went on for years.
When I first left Tanzania in 2010, I wasn’t just nostalgic for the memories I’d made there. It was more than that. It was homesickness. It was extraordinary. It was overwhelming. It was everything. I was deeply devoted to that land, and it felt like my whole heart was waiting for me to come back to it. I was sure I’d never feel that kind of overwhelming sense of home again. And sixty countries traveled later, I have never, not even once, doubted that.
In those years following as my momentum picked up as a travel photographer, I’d been to the African continent on almost 10 occasions, and each visit was measured — in my mind — by its distance to Tanzania. How close was I? How long would I have to sit on a bus, on a plane, on the side of the road with my thumb upturned, waiting for a ride, until I was back? Africa continues to be my favorite continent to explore, discover, and photograph, but nothing held anything to Tanzania. It felt like every step I took was considered, even if only slightly, to taking me back to the magic of that nation in East Africa.
Then there came a point when I decided that it was time to go home, and to stand in those fields of sunflowers again, to feel the shadow of Kilimanjaro cast on my bare shoulders.
The magic of East Africa was even more palpable, more magnificent, more soul-stirring than I remembered.
In 2014, I spent two months backpacking through Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda; which is a whole other story entirely, that I'll write about one of these days. The point of this post, I guess, is that we can travel to some beautiful, sentimental places; I know for sure that the adventures and experiences I've had while on the road have all left me with some kind of nostalgia that's spurred and particularly heavy every now and then. But I truly believe that there is one place that is home for each of us. Where we step off the plane and know, immediately, that we are being welcomed home. It feels familiar, and it's a sensation strong enough to bring us to our knees. We don't realize that we've been looking for these places, or that they even exist, or where they may be, until they find us. You'll be grateful for every decision you have ever made, because it brought you there. You'll thank yourself for the rest of your life for taking the chance to go. You will spend the rest of your life pointing every step you take, even if only slightly, in the direction of home.
And you'll be welcomed, with fields of sunflowers.