Expectations are funny things. They tend to be more counterproductive than anything, usually leading to disappointment. It’s rare to match reality with imagination. But as I watch the sunrise over Nairobi, that’s exactly what’s happening.
The sun rises orange, hot and magnified by an immeasurable amount of atmospheric dust stirring beyond the horizon. Pillars of black smoke, at home a harbinger of trouble, rise innocuously from sporadic garbage and tire fires throughout the city, injecting an acrid taste into the air. The streets teem with noise and movement and energy. A generator chugs to life below, delivering electricity to the building.
This is exactly how I pictured Africa.
I drink a cup of rocket-fuel-coffee and watch the sun ascend. I like how Africa looks under the sun.
After sufficiently soaking in the scene, I grab my bags from the room and head downstairs to check out. Frederick is already there waiting. I told him I needed to grab a shuttle to Arusha in Tanzania, he just nods and loads my bags.
As we drive, I discover he’s never left Kenya, not even to Tanzania. This guy knows exactly how to get there, he knows how close it is, but he’s never been.
“I must always work. But perhaps one day, I would very much like to go to America,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road. Driving in Nairobi is worse than a stereotypical Michael Bay chase scene. It seems as though every turn brings another obstacle that must be dodged, braked for or run through. Only a passing interest is given to traffic signals and the road paint has faded, along with any desire to maintain orderly flow. Cars without damage are like albino alligators. Fully one-third of the pedestrian population has a death wish.
“This is the largest traffic circle in East Africa,” Frederick proudly proclaims. I’d argue it’s more like a traffic centrifuge. Once a vehicle enters, said vehicle is immediately forced to the inside of the circle until it can build an escape velocity that will allow it to dart across four lanes of traffic, smashed into the space of three lanes, and turn onto the desired road. I saw something like this in a movie once.
We turn onto a street lined with shuttle vans. As we drive down this street, I’m confronted with my first bit of African bedlam as dozens of different guys rush up to the window trying to get me onto their van. Frederick parks the car.
“Just stay here a minute, do not listen to these men,” he said before walking up the street. Meanwhile, one driver after another pitches his services.
“Where to go? Mombasa, Kampala, Arusha?? I take you there.”
“I take you, where do you need?”
“Come follow me, I help you find your way.”
I waved them off, but there was no saying no. I’m still green in the ways of street negotiating and denial. Frederick came back.
“Ok, follow me,” he grabbed one of my bags and parted the sea of drivers. We walk up to a van and before I can confirm that this is my shuttle, some guy grabs my bags and ties them onto the top. That’s as good an answer as any. I tip Frederick again and he smiles and walks back to his car. He was all hustle, and he worked harder than he needed to, and he was integral to making my initial impressions of Africa good.
They manage to cram twenty-five people into this van, but I’m lucky, I’ve scored the seat next to the driver. This means an extra inch between my knees and chin, no worries about vibration induced osteoporosis caused by sitting over the rear axle and I can skip the awkward spatial invasion conversation that comes with cramped seating.
The bonus of the seat was a gigantic window that slid open enough for me to hang out. And hang out I did, for most of the ride like a gigantic yellow lab with my tongue dangling out. As everyone else slept, my eyes widened with every mile: this was Africa passing by me at an alarming speed.
Matatas sped by even more overloaded, darting in between traffic as at least one person clung to the outside of the vehicle. They don’t even stop, they just slow down enough for someone to dive out while another person dives in. They have slogans painted on the windshield in gaudy glitterized paint: Jesus Saves, Inshallah, Wayne Rooney. If I could have painted one it would have read: Just Pray!!:/.
The first rule of overtaking in Africa is that there is no rule of overtaking in Africa. My adrenal glands are working overtime, and I sit ready to bail out the window instantly should the situation warrant.
There is no sound in the van, aside from the ever-present rattling and jostling of a moving vehicle. The driver, Joseph, had the conversational skills of a cactus, and yet for a guy that didn’t talk his phone rang constantly—So this is Christmas…I figured him for a Christmas-lights-up-all-year kind of a guy.
A snaking line of trucks sit parked on the side of the road, the body of this snake leading into a town. Nmanga, the border.
The last three hours of empty landscape yields to a mass of humanity crowded against an invisible line. Maasai women with bald heads and heavy necklaces, doubling as earrings stretching their lobes, tried to pawn bracelets and necklaces and wooden sculptures. My open window was a magnet for anyone trying to sell anything.
Joseph pulled up to the immigration building and killed the engine, he got out and opened the side door and said nothing. One by one we filtered into the building to get our exit stamps. One sign read: Do Not Take Pictures Around Here! Another warned of con men and swindlers on the road ahead. After getting stamped, I went outside and sat on the curb, a dozen different men trying to get me to walk over to their shop. Con men! Swindlers! I got back on the van and closed the window avoiding eye contact with anyone who approached.
A football field separates the two borders, about a hundred trucks sit in transit limbo waiting on paperwork or bribes to continue onward. Pedestrian traffic kicks up a dusty mixture of Kenyan and Tanzanian soil.
I walk into the Tanzanian immigration building, it’s formerly white walls now covered in dirt and dust, a fan above churning time-and-a-half off-kilter in it’s waning days of service. The slightest of tremors will surely send it into the arms of gravity, falling and chopping off the head of an unsuspecting tourist in Final Destination-esque fashion. The customs official snatches away my passport and $100 before disappearing for close to twenty minutes. In spite of the fan’s best efforts, the room is sweltering, everyone inside is saturated in sweat. There was little relief outside as beggars begged, peddlers peddled and inspectors inspected.
The official came back with a stack of passports and started shouting names, inaudibly behind the bank-teller-thick glass. I just waited until a US passport was held up, hoping it’s mine. Success.
Back on the van we continue through a Tanzanian town, the mirror image of its Kenyan neighbor. People flock to international frontiers as these towns provide a steady stream of passersby who might buy a soda, a shirt, a hand-carved giraffe. It also provides a steady stream of suckers who are likely to fall for a million different scams at the border. It’s like reverse cellular mitosis as people push together at the membranes of these countries, finding nourishment on the fringes.
The drive is alien,while still incorporating familiar aspects of my past travels: Golden hills reminiscent of California, the deep red earth of the Australian outback, the low desert shrubbery of northern Arizona. It’s also transfixing, my seat offering the perfect vantage point. I probably took about a thousand pictures of acacia trees. I was enjoying the moment, not caring if anyone looked at me as a snap happy tourist. The road stretches ahead rippling softly like a grey ribbon blowing in the wind. Dust devils swirl on both sides giving the scene an eerie apocalyptic feel.
Scanning the horizon to my left I notice the ground sloping at a gentle incline growing proportionally steeper as it continued…until it disappears into the clouds. The effect is mirrored opposite where the first half disappears. This was a mountain, a gargantuan mountain, it had to be Kilimanjaro. But it didn’t seem impossibly high, as I continued following the incline looking for the top, which I assume to be veiled in the clouds. That is until I look above the clouds. Shimmering brighter than the clouds below atop a dark grey tower were the glaciers of Kilimanjaro. My stomach flips, a new dose of adrenaline coursing through my veins—I signed up to climb that?!?!?
I stare at it for close to an hour until the road turns to the southwest feeding into Mt. Meru, Kili’s little sister blocks the view. Scattered villages along the roadside appear with their mud brick homes and thatch roofs. At regular intervals traffic yields to herds of goat and cows crossing the street, led by a Maasai herder clad in red. Women balance unthinkable objects on their heads walking to what seemed like nowhere in particular.
The road itself has been shockingly good for the most of the way, thanks to the Chinese. Small sections reverted to dust and boulders, but they were always short diversions. The road didn’t really fall apart until it wound around Meru towards the town of Arusha. The last hour of the drive is how I anticipated the entire drive to be: spine-crushingly bumpy. The traffic became less predictable as I watched calm, silent, peaceful Joseph transform into Mr. T with road rage, deep guttural curses bellowing from his mouth. Our quiet van became a combat vehicle bouncing about the road dodging traffic, animals, ravines and whatever else popped up. It was the country version of driving in Nairobi. Joseph’s black knuckles turn white as foam dripped from his mouth, the steering wheel violently spinning left or right as the corresponding two wheels on the turning side would become momentarily the vehicle’s only point of contact to the earth. Meanwhile, the white people onboard turn whiter with every A-Team van turn, and the Africans sleep.
Just as my heart was about to quit working on me we land on pavement again and soon enough we are passing through the bustling center of Arusha town. Arusha is famous for three reasons: it’s the gateway to the Serengeti, it’s one base point for Kilimanjaro and it’s the place were peace in Rwanda was brokered. There is a United Nations sanctioned prison in Arusha designated specifically for criminals indicted in the Rwandan genocide through the early and mid-90’s. The town is also considered to be the mid-point on the Cape-Cairo road.
For me it marks the point where I change to another van heading to Moshi. I unload my bags onto the other van and grabbing the front seat again. Hordes of peddlers try to offload a Walmart variety of touristy souvenir knickknacks probably made in China. These guys are aggressive, and drunk. One guy tries to sell me a bracelet, and I still had yet to learn how to just…say…no…With even the slightest opening these guys will exploit you, and fifteen minutes later you’ll own an entire curio shop and wonder what the hell happened. If these guys were Americans they’d be sales force all-stars making six figures, but instead they are in Arusha, drunk, pushy and trying to sell items barely worth $1. After fifteen different rebuffs this guy finally resorts to the nuclear option of African sales pitches.
“Come on, just help me out. You can really make a difference in my life,” he said looking me square in the eyes. And he had me. Until the new driver of the van, a young Tanzanian Simy, pushed him away shouting at him in Swahili. The guy backed off to the curb standing with the rest of the rejected street vendors. I felt strangely bad about how this played out for days, until I heard that line repeatedly along my travels. A single line targeted to exploit European and Anglo-American white guilt for financial gain, an extraordinarily savvy sales technique…one I witnessed work time and again.
The final trek into Moshi is only about an hour and a half, although it feels disproportionately longer. Passing through the center of town we wound about a traffic circle, sponsored by Coca-Cola. Through the circle a wedding procession complete with brass horns and drums dances its way through the traffic. A German behind me frantically digs for his camera, but by the time he reaches it we are already past, he curses auf Deutsch.
We cross a set of railroad tracks and the road returned to dust. The dirt in Moshi is chalky and red, easily rising into low orbit with the slightest disturbance. The tracks only see a train from Dar es Salaam once a month, the rest of the time they are pedestrian super-highways. They are busy with kids walking to and from school, adults doing the same to work and others just walking.
The van turns into a gated complex, my destination for the day. It was the Springlands Hotel, the base used by the company I am climbing with. Inside, the courtyard was bustling with activity, as groups of climbers had returned from their trek. Gear was being off-loaded while a few of us were checking in. I met a representative from the company, Gap Adventures, that I was climbing with. He gave me the lay of the land and asked that I attend a meeting the following evening.
I didn’t sleep a bit on the way down, the drive was just too interesting…even though it was comparatively boring to what I’d see later in my travels. Needless to say, a few days worth of exhaustion caught up with me. I dropped my bags in my room, which had another bed in it…that other bed had been slept in by a mystery roommate whom I would never meet.
The only impulse more powerful than sleep at this point is hunger. The “complex”, as we came to call it, had an on-site restaurant serving a buffet every night. Easy enough. I walked in and sat down next to two people who were on the shuttle with me. We hadn’t talked throughout the ride, and now I knew why: they were about as interesting and engaging as goats. I was too tired to drive the conversation, so we sat there and ate in silence. Well not exactly silence, there were two tables, with eight or so victorious climbers each, basking in their collective accomplishment.
It may have been the exhaustion, but a bit of a panic attack set in.
I was here alone. What if the people in my group were as boring as the people I just ate with? What if the people I just ate with are in my group? What if I hate everyone I climb with? Why are none of my friends here? What if I don’t make it to the top? If I don’t make it to the top where am I going to find a blue screen where I can take a phony photo of me at the top?
A billion more questions race through my head at the speed of light. I got up, walked to the bar, ordered a Tusker, sat at a table in the courtyard under the stars, drank the warm beer and took a deep breath. Kris, these questions will answer themselves in due time. You’re here for the experience of the mountain, whomever you meet is complimentary to the experience not determinant to it. Enjoy the southern hemisphere sky and upside down Orion. Finish this warm, warm beer and go to sleep.
And that’s what I did.