Walking out of the plane onto the tarmac, the first thing that struck me was the stifling, humid heat. When I finally got through immigration and customs, I met my lovely host family, and we walked to the car. It was so dark I almost lost them in the parking lot. That was the first of the many small things that have surprised me during my exchange; I had never thought about the fact there is no light pollution here, and nighttime is pitch black unless the moon is full.
My host mom got in on the left side of the car, the driver’s side in my mind, but there was another man behind the wheel on the right side of the car. He was clearly too young to be their father, but they only have one son who sat beside me. I sat in confusion and stared out into the dark night, answering questions here and there, the sound of Arabic and laughter overpowering the torrential rain. It was not until the next day that I discovered the identity of this strange man. Franky is our driver. It is normal here to have a driver, even cooks. When we arrived, Franky pressed the horn several times as we waited outside a gate. Every house here has a gate, tall walls surrounding the house, locks on cabinets and drawers, bars on windows, and dogs for protection not companionship.
The gates were opened after a good deal of horn-honking, and I went to get my bags, but the driver and two other women took them from me. I counted—there are only three girls and one boy. Who were these women? I soon found out that they were maids, which is again, very normal here. I was definitely struck with a “Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling.
My first night was full of confusion, culture shock, and tears, but I quickly grew to love it here. I have gotten used to the maids taking my shoes to clean them every day after school, used to unpredictable temperatures in my showers, killing mosquitos around the house, locking away my valuables, using napkins as toilet paper. Many of these things seemed so shocking, so foreign when I first arrived, but I now appreciate the simplicity of life here. Life moves slower here, both literally and figuratively. People walk slower, which annoyed me to no end my first week at school; after three weeks, I am accustomed to it. They aren’t in a rush to finish one task and get on to the next; they allow life to happen. The pace of life here is really admirable.
After four days at home, I had my first day of school on a Thursday. Overwhelmed would be an understatement. I was learning so many names that I still can’t pronounce well, I found out that sarcasm isn’t realIy understood here. In many ways, I felt that I was back in elementary school. School begins with registration, ten minutes with everyone in your grade and house. There are four houses, and I am in Athens. Wearing a uniform wasn’t that much of an adjustment, but I can say that I am not a fan.
The hardest adjustment for me is eating at 1:20 everyday. Each class is an hour, with no passing periods. That doesn’t mean we rush to class, people just usually arrive within five or ten minutes after the bell rings. That means I have five hours of classes before I can eat, and my host family doesn’t really do breakfast. The nice thing is we usually don’t have academic classes after lunch. Between 2 and 3:30, we have electives, sports, P.E., or more time with our registration class.
This school is very different from Athenian. Uniformity is one of the words that comes to mind. Everyone dresses the same and sits in the same blue and brown chairs and desks arranged geometrically throughout each classroom. I feel that uniformity implies certain coldness, but it does not feel that way at school. There is so much color here, and the school is full of trees with orange and yellow flowers. The sun hits this part of the world in such a beautiful way. I have this saying that it is always golden hour in Tanzania. I see life through a warm, yellow filter that makes everything look beautiful. Although school is not the best, I really do love it here.
That is not to say that everything has been easy. Exchange is hard. That is why we go, because it stretches and challenges us and makes us more well-rounded individuals. School here is beyond different, and at times I struggle with how different it is. I have definitely grown to appreciate Athenian so much more. Although school is infinitely easier here, it is also infinitely less engaging in many classes.
My experience in school and in daily life here has taught me so much about my privilege. Before I came here I liked to think that I was self-aware when it came to my privilege, but I was not. I have encountered so much that my life in the Bay Area has cushioned me from: homophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism to name a few. It is hard to draw the line of when to excuse certain beliefs as cultural differences and when to call out bigotry. I am struggling with that.
These past three weeks have been a lot for me. I have tried so many new foods and met people from all around Africa and, for the first time in my life, I am a visible minority. I have had so many “firsts” all ready. I can’t wait to see what these next four weeks hold.