Love in Tanzania

Closing that 9,045 mile-long gap

Have you ever been separated from someone you loved for an extended amount of time, and then when you meet again, it was as though it were only a day since you last saw them? While the waiting was long and gruelling, being reunited somehow made everything instantly bearable. I like to compare my long-distance relationship with Sam to coming home. For me, when I go somewhere, especially to a new destination, the journey there would always seem excruciatingly long. But when I take the same route home, essentially going the same distance, the journey then becomes so effortless, and before I know it, I am home again. This was what it felt like when I met Sam again in six months. It was as though he had just dropped me off at the departure gate at Kilimanjaro airport, and now we simply just switched the gate.

I still remember him standing by the luggage reel by the arrival gate, with his hands in his jacket pocket, and a beaming smile to welcome me back. Beside him, stood a young girl, not older than seven, grinning and holding a small bouquet of flowers. I was confused at first, but the girl was Ilhu, his niece, and she had asked to come along to pick me up. Ilhu was bright-eyed, and wore her light brown curls short, and was having a hard time to hide her giddiness at seeing a “mzungu” (foreigner) standing so close to her. Sam stepped forward and greeted me first in Swahili, and then took my luggage in his hand. There must have been an exchange of a quick hug in between, but I fail to remember the order of things.

Every now and then, I like to reminisce with Sam on the early stages of our relationship. And it wasn’t just because I missed it (who doesn’t love those “first dates” butterflies, right?), but also because I enjoy hearing his side of the story, which, sometimes, differs than my version (see this post about when we debated on who made the “first move”). So when I first saw him again, I thought, okay, he was exactly as I remembered him. That same kindness glimmered in his eyes, the same relaxed smile that I find incredibly reassuring (or was I just young and really gullible?), and the same gentleness with which he spoke. From the moment I saw him again, not once did I have a feeling that I made the wrong decision of coming here—which, in all fairness, could’ve been the reality, and what a bad gamble that would have turned out to be. As for Sam, I think just me showing up at the airport, and that he was not stood up (that would’ve been embarrassing, in front of his niece, no less!), gave him such a relief and I suppose, an overwhelming gladness, that he was unable to think of anything else but—“Ok, she is finally here. What happens next?”

We haven’t exactly talked about how this would work. I was to stay at his cousin’s house, where he was living at the time, but were we—all of a sudden, in a serious relationship? How was he going to introduce me to his family and friends? Fortunately, neither of us thought that far. We were simply ecstatic to have be in each other’s company again, closing that 9,045 mile-long gap between us.

As we drove on the impossibly dimmed road (there were no working road lights for a good part of the drive), I couldn’t believe that I was here again. Only six months ago, I landed at the same airport, with the idea of simply exploring this part of Africa for a brief, two-week period before I embarked on my meticulously planned Europe trip, and I had not expected to ever return. But here I was again, with my former safari guide, with no plans on the horizon, and very little knowledge of what was in store for me tomorrow. And as I think back now, I actually didn’t even know what kind of a house awaited me, I half-expected to be brought to a small, hut-like home, like the ones I’ve seen on the way to the schools when I visited last. But when Sam pulled over, I was surprised to see a quaint bungalow with blue tiled roof inside a large compound with tall banana trees amidst a lush, green garden.

When I was led into the house, I was met by Nixon’s wife, Abby, who I later realized that everyone referred to as “Mama Ian”, and a tiny baby with large, curious brown eyes, Ian. She welcomed me with a warm smile and brought me to the dining table, where a warm pot of Tanzanian stew awaited us.

Having been gone for six months, I was oddly delighted by the taste of Swahili cuisine, the tomato-base beef stew with okra and a vegetable I still love to this day—called Ngogwe (Sam told me that they are also known as green tomatoes, but they taste nothing like tomatoes, rather, has a very bitter taste akin to bitter melon). As we sat next to each other, enjoying our first sit-down meal together, this intimate setting felt strangely familiar, although we had never dined like this before. Was this really going to be the guy that I will have all of my future dinners with?