Let's back up to the beginning.
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 on its letterhead, informing me 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 giving up my horse and putting an end to my goal to be a legitimate 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 join a photography workshop and expedition with National Geographic to East Africa. This came at a time when I was deciding whether or not I really wanted to give up my life as an equestrian — something that had been so embedded in the fundamentals of me — 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 this looming idea of Tanzania, overflowing with daydreams of sloping golden savannas adorned with scattered acacia trees, lions rolling onto their backs in the midday sun, tangled rainforests giving way to the foothills of Kilimanjaro. These images saturated my mind as I poured over guidebooks, documentaries, and my stepdad's stories and photographs of his time backpacking through East Africa in the 80's. And when the day finally arrived, after 19 hours of flying across three continents, when I stepped off the plane into that heavy, humid air on that incredibly still night in July, I was surprised by how unafraid I actually was. Instead, there was this quiet sense of comfort. I took a photo of a sign hanging askew outside the airport, next to a blooming marula tree, which read, "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.
I consider that experience as one of the most monumental changing points in my life. It was when I made a radical shift in how I saw my future, and what I wanted to curate and build for my future. It seemed like every aspect of that experience became apart of me; from the red soil etched into the palms of my hands, to the new world of documentary photography, 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.
In the years that followed that first expedition, I had recurring dreams about going back to Tanzania.
However, in these 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, I wasn’t just nostalgic for the memories I’d made there. It was more than that. There was a very deep, aching sense of miss, and I was sure I’d never feel that kind of overwhelming sense of home anywhere else ever again. I recognize and acknowledge that this sounds dramatic, and it was, but the point, I guess, was just how real and overwhelming it felt at the time.
In the following years, when momentum picked up for me as a travel photographer, I frequently began traveling back to the African continent for work assignments and each visit — in my mind — was measured 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 would be back? It felt like every step I took was measured, even if only slightly, by its distance to Tanzania.
Then there came a point when I decided that it was time to go back, and to stand in those fields of sunflowers again.
In 2014, I returned to East Africa to spend 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 to reflect on how I know for sure that the adventures and experiences I've had while traveling have all left me with something significant to take away. But I also believe that there are some places on Earth that feel more like home than anywhere else. Places where we step off the plane and feel something something comforting, rich, or even familiar. We don't realize that we've been looking for these places, or that they even exist, or where they may be, until we find that. You'll be grateful for every decision you've ever made, because it brought you there. You'll thank yourself for the rest of your life for taking the chance to go. And you will spend the rest of days making considered steps, even if only small ones, in the direction of home.
You'll be welcomed with fields of sunflowers.