Arrival

// Excerpt from journal entry in January, 2018
One week after moving to Mozambique

Maputo, Mozambique

Maputo, Mozambique

I’m trying to figure out why Africa is so familiar.

Not just familiar because I have, of course, been here before — but that kind of deep, down-to-your-bones kind of familiarity you get when you find a haphazard shoebox of childhood photos, or walk into a room that smells like that worn, red carpet from the living room floor of your childhood home. Every time I step off the plane in Africa, even the air is sweet and heavy and verdant and overwhelmingly nostalgic. The sensation feels so deeply embedded inside of me that it feels like I could find my way around the streets and the savannas with the same familiarity and ease of someone driving through the town where they grew up, decades after they left. It makes me homesick for something I can feel, that I’m sure exists, but can’t pinpoint its origin. Whatever it is, I know it smells like the air here.

That was the first thing I noticed when I came to Africa for the first time, to Tanzania nine years ago. Stepping onto the tarmac around midnight, into the warm, still night: the air was just different. It was something I didn’t know air could be. It was some perfume of woodsmoke and wet acacia leaves and jet fuel and dust. If I could bottle it up and keep it forever, I would. Though maybe that would defeat the purpose of what makes the air here so affecting: you have to come here to have it. It’s the first mark — the first sign — that you’ve arrived somewhere very special.

It’s the same way now. Stepping off the plane in Maputo was like stepping into every good memory I’ve ever had, all brought to the forefront of my mind. It makes every hard thing not only easier, but right. The chaos of the airport (where it takes two hours to get a visa and the power goes out twice and a lumbering, lazy, fat fly won’t stop trying to land on my cheek); the 3:30 a.m. bus journey up the spine of the country (with one stranger’s screaming baby on your lap, a chicken and a bag of grain by your feet, so many near head-on collisions that you lose count, and some cracking, muffled Nigerian tune blaring on loop for eight hours over the speakers). Being faced with a new life to adjust to (the privileges and familiarities and rituals of a comfortable life in the U.S. unceremoniously traded in for a whole new world and whole new life with a lot of unforeseen challenges to come). Anywhere else in the world these problems feel heavy, but here they feel welcome. It feels naive to fight against the current of a continent that doesn’t belong to me, that I am a guest on, because it’s a privilege to be able to choose it and to build a life for myself here. Africa is a practice of patience, but if you’re willing to be patient, the rewards are tremendous.

On my first night in Tofo — the little seaside town I’ve chosen to call my base for awhile — I went to a little bar in the market, where I shook hands and accepted hugs from a wide breadth of expats, from all over the world who, much like me, decided at one point or another to make this place their home. Mostly though I was surprised by the number of “welcome back!”’s I received from people I had only briefly met in the previous year, when I first came here, having no idea that someday I would give it a shot as my home.

The air smelled robust, of piri-piri and hot embers, of bug spray and sweat, of saltwater rolling off the Indian Ocean in heavy, humid clouds. Somehow, familiar.