THE BLOG
07/21/2014 02:40 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

What I Learned From an Adventure in Tanzania

I have only been to Africa once before: at the age of 14 I visited my family in South Africa for two weeks. Every morning I woke up on the foot of a mountain to the smell of the Katjie Piering bush. After stealing an orange from my Oupa's orange tree, I would begin the day marveling at the beauty of the surrounding African Bush as I peeled my stolen fruit. When my time in South Africa was over, I vowed that I would once again step foot upon African soil. While I do not consider myself to be African -- granted I am the only one of my entire family not born on African soil -- I can't help feeling a connection to its lands. Perhaps it is some sort of second generation familiarity from growing up listening to my parents tell stories of their country of origin, or maybe I am just one of those people who are destined to fall in love with Africa, but when I stepped foot in Tanzania I did feel something of a comfort being back on these lands. And so began my Tanzanian Adventure.

With the great mountain Kilimanjaro not only on the horizon but taking up the entire thing, we headed in its general direction as we made our way to our lodge from the small airport. Countless miles of bush, cultivated land and wilderness sped by as I drifted in and out of consciousness after two days of travel and little to no sleep. After waking up dazed and confused, I realized we had arrived at the simple lodge that would be our base for the next fortnight. The rest of that day was a bit of a blur as we settled into our temporary homes and eventually passed out from exhaustion. I was excited but without a great deal of knowledge of the upcoming days. All I knew was that it would involve a great deal of service work.

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In the morning I woke with a smile as I remembered that I was waking up on the foot of Kilimanjaro. After a hearty breakfast of not one, not two, but three Weetabix bars, we set off to start our service work! When we arrived at the site we were met with an apparently empty field within a school. The organizers of the project quickly got us to work digging the foundations of what would be a brand new classroom. The following four days kind of rolled into one as we worked, sweating profusely as we battled against the heat of the African summer's sun, only stopping for water and hallowed lunch breaks. We dug foundations, transported bricks and passed cement down human conveyor belts, dodging rogue spits of cement as the bowls were frisbeed between individuals. Nostalgic teen rock music was played out loud for hours to keep spirits high, but camaraderie had already skyrocketed. Each evening we returned to our lodge, heavy-limbed with a sense of accomplishment. And at the end of our time building the classroom we had achieved far more than we had hoped to in the short time we were there.

The day after we finished our service work we visited an orphanage for the afternoon. My first feelings on this visit were filled with apprehension and slight cynicism regarding the nature of our visit. Why were we visiting these children? Have they been turned into some sort of volunteer tourist attraction? Trying not to be influenced by my first assumptions of the orphanage, I continued with the visit as we were about to be introduced to the children. We waited in the orphanage courtyard, slightly nervous and not entirely sure what to expect. As the gate separating the children from us was opened, twenty or thirty little human beings filed out with somewhat shy looks on their faces, not entirely sure whether to approach or be approached. Slowly we started to introduce ourselves, crouching down, smiling, waving and saying "hello" in the friendliest voices we had.

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It was not too long before the quiet, slightly awkward encounter in the courtyard had turned into a scene of joyous chaos as the little children and we, the big children, ran around and played. Chasing and piggybacks ensued as balls were thrown and kicked. Most of the children were giddy with excitement as screaming and laughter echoed throughout the orphanage. As the visit continued it became apparent to me that yes we were visitors and we would eventually leave them to go back to our hotel, never to see them again. But they most certainly got a hell of a lot more out of our visit than we did. They got an afternoon full of fun and games with people other than the nuns and nurses who care for them and that's got to be a good thing, right? In reflecting on our time spent with these kids, I now feel quite the opposite. For these children, people like us will come and go. They will play with them like we did. The kids will have fun in similar fashion and the visitors will leave. That will happen over and over again. But for us, or at least me, the opportunity to meet these children and play with them will stay with me forever. I feel it taught me something, whether I have realized it yet is a different question, but encounters like these are the sources of inspiration that will drive people to think differently, act differently and hopefully encourage people to act and help children like the ones we met. When the time to leave did come there was a sense of sadness as we walked through the gates back to our bus. As we waved goodbye, I certainly felt something for those 30 little people that will one day grow to be big.

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If there is one thing that is always an iconic part of an African holiday it is the safari trip. Leaving the Kilimanjaro region our group headed towards Arusha and eventually the Tarangire National Park. It was a four-hour drive, which, for the most, was spent watching the country go by. Towns turned into wilderness. Hills rose and fell. Masai villages flew by as we passed pastures and livestock. It was easy to tell we were approaching the national park as the roads continued to decrease steadily in quality.

There is something slightly peculiar about a game drive. Being among nature's creations. Aw-ing and Aah-ing at these creatures' majestic nature, their beauty, their sense of peace, but all the while shut away inside a moving box that acts as a bubble from the outside world. Like a constant reminder that these are wild lands and no longer where we are from. But all that philosophical talk aside it's still pretty cool to watch elephants walk by just meters away.

--Joseph Hartley