Walter Mitty was introduced to the world in 1939 by writer James Thurber. In Thurber’s short story, Mitty is a dreamer, not a doer. And his fantasies attempt to compensate for his lack of real life adventure and accomplishment. He never does find fulfillment. Not only do his dreams fail to replace reality, but his real-life struggles and insecurities inadvertently infect his dreams.
In 2013, actor Ben Stiller starred and directed in a modern version of the story. He played Walter Mitty, an employee at Life Magazine, whose dreams of outside-the-office adventures are inspired by the photographs he sees in the pages of the magazine. He finds the images of a particular adventurer particularly compelling, and lo and behold, Stiller (Mitty) is tasked to go find this adventurer in Greenland.
This take on the story adds the distinct element of allowing Mitty to live out his fantasies of adventure. And it was this idea of adventure that inspired me when I was in Arusha.
I followed my new friend Innocent along the sidewalks of the suburban-like section of the city. Bigger and broader roads, parking lots, and buildings–and the buildings newer, nicer, and designed to attract the tourists. We walked past a couple of clothing stores to our right and then this mini-mall made way for the “Walmart” of East Africa, Nakumatt. We entered it to get some food.
Inside the brightly-lit, spacious and modern retailer, I stopped to see the electronics for sale along the left hand side as you entered. Playing on a loop on one of the fancy new flatscreens was the trailer for the movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In snappy, trailer-like fashion, it showed Stiller’s Mitty jumping into a freezing ocean, boarding a large ship, hiking through snow-covered mountains, and meeting interesting and incredible people directing his mission along the way.
In just this handful of clips, I was inspired by the notion of living in that rhythm of being on an adventure: open to and seeking out the opportunities around you, participating in activities that you’d normally miss or turn down, and doing so with a belief that there will be no dead-ends on this path. For this rhythm has a way of beating on.
This is counter to the idea of what most people normally live by, because when we domesticate, we replace such opportunistic openness and adventurism with a priority on plans, security, and certainty. And these are likely influenced by the fact that we now have people (family, coworkers) who depend on us. This is true whether at home or away. You can’t just up and leave your job at a moment’s notice. Nor can you abandon your family when traveling just because a good opportunity arises.
But a single guy on the road has no such concerns.
Having been a bit weighed down and prevented from fully enjoying this trek in East Africa, I realized that my only restriction was my mindset; and happening to just pass by and notice this looped trailer revealed how I had been leaning too much on security and certainty thus far. I was turned off by a tardy bus at the outset of this trek. I was angered by my luggage getting soaked from the rains we drove through entering Arusha. (In the trailer, in fact, was a clip of Stiller dropping his bag in the ocean.) And then I was concerned about money, because on my budget, I knew I wouldn’t be able to spend as freely as I would have wanted.
Inspired to flip my attitudinal switch to the adventurous, I suddenly realized how little I had to be concerned about. I had my plane ticket home already paid for. And I had enough money to get to Nairobi from where I’d fly home. There was literally nothing to worry about unless I chose to to do so about a lack of emergency fund. Emergency fund. This thinking was anathema to the spirit of adventure.
So I asked, “What adventures will take me to Kenya?” And as important, I reminded myself this wasn’t a vacation. A vacation would have been spoiled by the conditions on the ground. But an adventure recognizes such conditions as part of the fun. I committed to this travel philosophy which life had been hinting at and offering me a taste of when introducing me to Innocent, who in turn, introduced me to camel rides and the Maasai Tribespeople.
And with this mindset, the opportunities I will share in the weeks ahead include visiting two slums in two cities, getting to teach at a slum school, and taking a canoe out to see a fish farming operation on Lake Victoria. East Africa is a land of adventure—of randomness, of living for the day, of being okay when things don’t go your way or when things aren’t all nice and comfy. And I was ready for the adventures ahead.
The next step was getting to Mwanza. Actually, the next step was seeing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain.
On a clear day one can see in the eastern distance from Arusha the icon of African topography. Many come to climb her, but for about $1500 to do so, this view would be as close as I’d get.
To get to this view, I asked Manu, my Chilean Italian world-traveling host about the best place in town to see Kili. He recommended a hilltop just a walk away from his home. So my final evening in Arusha, just before that reliable 6:00 pm equatorial sunset, I started my way along the dirt roads and then the fields gradually elevating to this hilltop.
While there I took a couple of more shots.
Like looking into the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, I tried not to think too much, but just let the beauty of a great natural marvel sink in. Though distant, this was still Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest point on this incredible continent and the place I’ve heard so much about before and during my time in Tanzania. I looked at Kili and felt wonder–and loss; of imminently leaving this place I may likely never see again. This was an awaking to the sadness of mortality and things being gone forever.
As darkness approached, I cherished each step I took down the hill with an invigoration for my time in East Africa. Comforts and emergency fund be damned.
The next day I had to wake early to catch a motorcycle taxi to the Arusha bus station. As the sun rose, so did the level of activity.
Testing my dedication to my new adventure attitude, my bus was two hours late. While waiting, I sat on a bench and played with my phone. I also worried about being late to the place I planned to meet my new hosts in Mwanza. My rigidity was rising again. I thought to break away from the isolation and bought some bread and tea from a lady nearby selling to other riders. I enjoyed them until the bus finally arrived.
Depending on how I faced these unexpected bumps in the road would determine my appreciation for this part of the world. When I maintained a malleable idea of where I wanted to go/what I wanted to do, I’d be shown remarkable slices of life unseen by the other tourists in Land Rovers heading to and from their four star hotel and the safari parks. And when I stayed open to the idea that this trek was an adventure, I’d face the inevitable inconvenience and discomfort as simply being part of what makes an adventure memorable and livening.
This would be my travel philosophy–and it was a good thing, because there would be many literal big bumps on the road ahead to Mwanza…
Finally, to see that which inspired my adventure spirit, I found that movie trailer on YouTube: