Originally published on Voy Study Abroad on September 23, 2015.
As I turned the corner, there he sat. His dead stare rendered me unable to move, unable to breathe. I froze as I tried to remember what the guide instructed us to do in this situation. I remembered nothing — my mind was as empty as the space between us. I noticed another set of eyes, and another, and another. The main figure was completely visible from where I stood, able to thrust forward at any moment. The others were hidden in trees. Feeling my heartbeat from every part of my body, I slowly stepped back. He remained a statue.
Time regained its rhythm as I slid silently through the threshold of the visitor center at the entrance to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. I gasped for air. Oxygen filled my lungs and brain, and I finally realized what had happened. The animal I locked eyes with was a male baboon. When they said we would see “wildlife” on safari, I did not truly comprehend that the animals were wild, untamed, and free to roam where they please until this heart-stopping moment. There was no barrier between us.
My first trip to Africa was spent in Tanzania. You hear stories about what is within the continent, but all the articles and journals in the world cannot really prepare you for the experience of actually being there. The trip was the focus of a class through Boston University, studying the tourism industry and development strategies of the country. Even after the 300-page preparation of studies, articles, and other academic works, none of us thirty-five students were ready for the journey we had in store.
The San Diego Wild Animal Park, National Geographic, and even Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” music video can all set the scene, but the surprising scope of physical beauty and wildlife hits you like a ton of bricks. On our first day of safari, many of us were silent, trying desperately to take it all in. By the second and third day, however, it was very much like the Lion King song “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”– “Everybody look left”… a herd of zebra and wildebeest migrating along with our 4WD vehicle; “Everybody look right”… lions, hippos, elephants lounging casually, merely a few feet away. After the initial shock and awe, we were able to truly appreciate and enjoy the harmonious nature of the wildlife.
The ecosystem of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where a large part of our safari took place, is the definition of the circle of life. Not only is there an incredibly high degree of biodiversity of flora and fauna, but the pastoralists called Maasai also live amongst the wildlife. We were fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the Maasai villages during our trip and their way of life was a huge eye-opener to all of us. These semi-nomadic peoples reside in small communes with their livestock under cow dung-covered huts. Since witnessing their village, I will no longer worry about my phone dying, the train breaking down, or waiting five minutes for the waiter to take my drink order. Although we view these things as essential to our daily lives, I’d venture to say that having to walk an entire day to find water or hoping that an elephant doesn’t decide that today is the day it will charge over the village are much more important concerns.
If you ever have the opportunity to travel or study in Tanzania, I suggest you take it! There was something new, something exhilarating, and something amazing each and every day. From the breath-taking view on the top of the Ngorongoro Crater to the close proximity of the wildlife, you are able to feel and see such a different life than your own.
Without completely knowing what will happen next, sometimes you just have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and jump.
Fear and uncertainty are essential parts of traveling and studying abroad. I find that fear and excitement are similar feelings–it’s just a matter of how you allow yourself to experience your heart racing from the rush of adrenalin. You will not fully appreciate or enjoy a new continent, country, or city unless you are at least a little afraid or anxious to travel there. Harness the fear and transform it into thrill. We all have the ability to decide how to channel the emotion. Which will you choose to embrace?