05:00am. It was so cold. I blinked when I woke up in my three-person dome tent that I shared with three other girls, Stephanie, Whitney and Kate. But we are in Africa. The Serengeti plains in Tanzania, to be precise. This may not be a surprise to some more seasoned traveler, but the twenty-five year-old me had never been to Africa. This trip to Tanzania had been a last minute decision, as I had initially wanted to go to Kenya or Rwanda, as most of the books and articles I had read was on these two countries of East Africa. But the riots in Kenya had just died down in 2009, and my parents felt more comfortable with Tanzania, having not read anything negative on the news. So as foreign as it was, it seemed safer than the neighboring Kenya.
On that morning, June 23rd, 2009, I woke up in the Seronera public campsite, along with eighteen other volunteers who joined the safari. For some, going on a safari while in Tanzania might be a no-brainer, but I had no idea what I had signed up for. Truth to be told, before I went on a safari, I couldn’t distinguish a female lion and a tiger. I was that clueless, and obviously nature and wildlife were not my strong point. But nonetheless, I was excited at the prospect of seeing wild animals, and camping under the stars seemed a romantic enough setting, that I made my decision on a last minute whim. Later, my friend Greg, who was in the same safari jeep as I, mentioned that his friend was actually eyeing my spot, so had I not joined, she would’ve been his safari mate. Sometimes, one small decision could later your life. If I had decided to stay back at the volunteer house after my teaching placement, and explore the town of Arusha instead, I would’ve never gone on safari. I may have never woken up in the Serengeti, chilled to my bones, wishing I had brought a better jacket. I may have never met my safari guide, Sam. If I had not met Sam on the safari, I don’t believe that our paths would’ve crossed, and I would not have fallen in love and married him. Nor would I have returned to Tanzania for the second, third, fourth time … My life would’ve been completely and utterly different.
Luckily for both him and I, I followed my gut instinct, fueled by the crave of adventure in a distant, foreign land. And so, we did meet. And eventually, we got married and started a family together.
So let’s rewind and go back to the very beginning of this life-altering safari trip.
It had been about just over one week since I arrived in Tanzania for my volunteering placement, and yet, I found myself still a bit “new”. Many of them had already been in Arusha, Tanzania for at least a month, and I could tell that some had already formed a strong bond – the kind of companionship that sort of becomes impermeable since it was forged in a foreign and distant land. There was this one girl, Emily (who happened to share the same name of the friend I was meeting in Athens after my Tanzania trip), who I befriended, but didn’t sign up for the trip. So when it came to choosing a safari jeep, I was outside chatting with Greg and Jeff, who were both super friendly and interesting, and we just all ended up going into jeep no. 2. As we got into the jeep, still busy chatting, I didn’t even notice the driver guide sitting up front until later when I settled into my seat. He looked young, clean-shaven, and wore a cap that made him look even younger. The other three jeeps were all manned by older, more experienced-looking safari guides – Sam, who soon introduced himself to us in fluent English – seemed to be the youngest and least experienced.
Apparently, partly because of the way I dressed, Sam thought I was probably not even 20. I wore my glasses throughout my time in Tanzania, make-up free, and wore a large t-shirt, a hoodie and a pair of sweatpants that read “dance” across the bum area”. It was, let’s say, not my finest moment, and I didn’t even bother trying to impress anyone, myself included. And the first day was just a lot of introduction, between the volunteers, and Sam would occasionally chime in. At one point, I remember one of the girls mention that Sam was “quite good-looking”, and I think it was at that exact moment I paused to look at him and concurred. But I didn’t give it much thought afterwards. There wasn’t much interaction between Sam and myself on that first day. He was quiet when not guiding, and just seemed to be very focused on his driving. Better for us, I thought – the last thing I wanted was a reckless driver in the middle of the bush, so I was thankful for that, at least. We didn’t see much wildlife as our “real” safari adventures started the next day.
That same morning, we drove from Arusha to Seronera public campsite, a 7-8 hours long drive, with a majority of it on rough, bumpy road. Once we got to the campsite, it was time to set things up. Because this was a “budget” camping safari, our accommodation was not the romanticized glamping experience, but the basic three to four people dome tents. Once Sam parked the jeep and got ready to unload the camping gears. I stayed behind to see if he needed any help. And according to Sam, it was at this exact moment that he took notice of me.
Until this day, he probably won’t admit the below ever happened, but luckily for us, I have an impeccable memory and I also kept a journal during my time in Tanzania. When I saw him opening the trunk, I jumped off the jeep and followed him. Casually, I inquired if he needed any help unpacking.
Turning to me and smiling, he said, “Hapanasante, mrembo.”
The last word was spoken so quickly, and since that I didn’t speak any Swahili, it was unlikely that I even heard that last word. Unfortunately (or was it fortunate?) for him, I am a linguist at heart, and I caught every word – especially the last one that I had never heard of. During my week of volunteering, I learned a few basic, conversational Swahili words, like ‘hapanasante (‘no, thank you’) – that was pretty basic. ‘Mrembo’ was new.
“What does that mean?” I asked, curious, and always eager to add to my Swahili vocabulary.
“What?” His eyes flickered. He totally didn’t expect this, I could tell.
“What does the word ‘mrembo‘ mean?” I pressed. I still had no idea, and honestly just wanted to learn a new word.
“It means, ‘cute girl‘.” He said with a smirk and continued unpacking.
So that was Day 1.
Stay tuned for Day 2!
Here is a group picture. Can you spot Sam and I in here?