A Trip of a Lifetime Becomes A Lifelong Connection: Mike Rubenstein, Part 1

Written by Thomson Safaris
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It’s pretty common for us to hear from returning travelers that their safari or Kilimanjaro trek was a truly life-changing experience. But it’s much less common for us to hear about a guest whose experience in Tanzania leads him to change other people’s lives for the better.

That’s what happened when Dr. Mike Rubenstein traveled to Tanzania on safari in 2009. At the time, he thought he was checking another item off his bucket list, but that trip led to so much more…

Thomson Safaris: How did you first decide to travel to Tanzania?

Mike Rubenstein:  Originally, it was for my daughter. She’s always had an interest in wildlife management, and was working at the time as a junior docent at a zoo near our home outside Philadelphia.

At the time, I never thought I’d make it to Africa, but I floated the idea of a safari to my wife, as a kind of “dream trip.” She told me to go for it, and take our son and daughter along (since it’s not on her ‘bucket list,’ she opted to stay home). I did my research, and I made a call to Thomson.

And I’ll never forget that phone call. I was trying to figure out the best trip possible for me and my family, to make it as meaningful and memorable as I could, and Andrew [of the Thomson U.S. team] asked me “well, have you ever thought about volunteering?”

So you said yes. Where did you volunteer on your trip?

I did. I thought it would be great for me and the kids, and would make the trip more meaningful.  After our safari was over, our guide Leonard Temba—who has become a lifelong friend ever since that first safari—took us to Karatu, where we spent three days volunteering at the Ayalabe school.

We helped them paint the walls—it was such a simple thing, but it was really rewarding. Every day, Daniel Tewa, who lived nearby, would come along and tell the rest of the villagers “look, Mike has come all the way from America to volunteer in our school. Let’s chip in, too.” And all of these villagers would come join in. The entire experience was just incredible. Incidentally, that was the start of a lifelong friendship with Daniel, as well.

So how did you connect with FAME (the Foundation for African Medicine and Education)?

Let me take this opportunity to just say how amazing Leonard was during our trip; the entire time, he did everything he could to make anything we wanted—to see, to do, you name it—happen. Early in the safari, I mentioned that I’d really like to visit a medical facility while I was there. So on the second day of our volunteering, he comes up to us all and says “we’re going to visit Dr. Frank tomorrow.” I assumed he meant a Tanzanian doctor, maybe working out of his house.

The next day, we drive up to FAME’s headquarters. They give us a tour, and right at the end, this western gentleman passes by and the person who’d been showing us around says “this is Dr. Frank.” So we talk for a few minutes, and he asks me “are you a doctor?” I told him I was a neurologist, and he says to me “I was just about to run some cases by my neurology fundi [expert in Swahili]. Would you mind looking them over instead?” And I just said “make my day!” After about an hour looking over cases, Dr. Frank turned to me and said “would you ever consider coming back for a couple months and working with us here?”

I was, and am, still working, so I told him I didn’t think a couple months would be possible, but I told him I could probably swing a couple weeks, and he was very grateful. So after this amazing trip, truly the trip of a lifetime, I came home to my wife, and one of the first things I said to her was “honey, I think I need to go back.”

Check back Thursday to read Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Mike Rubenstein!