Clank! Crash! Clank! Shouting in Swahili. Clank! Clank!
The racket existed somewhere deep in my subconscious, permeating my dreams, until at last subconscious merged with reality, and I woke up. I tried to reach for my phone, but my arms were bound in the mosquito net, as was my right leg. I could see this routine getting old…quickly. I wriggle around like a moth trying to escape from a cocoon, until I can sit up.
It’s still dark outside, but the lights from the kitchen beam into my room. I look at my phone, 5 a.m., they’ve started with breakfast. The noise is something I will have to live with.
I put my earbuds in and try the sleep playlist. An hour later, and no sleep gained, I decide to seize the day. I’d fallen asleep the previous night before 8 p.m. anyway. I took another cold shower, this time due to my own stupidity. There was a switch next to the bathroom door marked ‘water heater’. If this switch is in the on position hot water magically comes out of the shower. I was sick for that class.
I went to breakfast in the same place as dinner. Only 12 hours in, and the “compound” has become a fairly predictable place. At breakfast sat next to a quiet, young British girl, Emily, and a very talkative American, Steve…oh the stereotypes. Steve was trying to hatch a million fiendish plots so that he could watch the Super Bowl in Tanzania. I think he was excited there was someone finally here who could feel his pain…except I really didn’t care that much. I humored him to keep the conversation flowing.
As we ate breakfast, another English girl, Claire, joined the table. Her and Emily would be climbing together on the same route as me, except a day later. We started talking about what to expect, and what we might need and who was going to freeze to death on the mountain…enter an English guy named Mark. The girls had talked about going into Moshi town, and he came to see about sharing a shuttle with them. They were polite and asked me to come along, I was definitely in. Anything to escape the “compound”.
We met back outside the gate to take a van into town. As I walked through the gates, I felt as though I was cast into an obscure sci-fi show about sliding into some weird parallel universe. Inside the gates everything seemed orderly and organized and planned. Outside was unpredictable and adventurous and notable. The three of them were already standing next to the van staring to the north, mouths agape. I looked to the left, following their gaze, to see a completely unobstructed view of Kilimanjaro.
“That thing looks a lot bigger than it did yesterday,” I say as we load into the van.
“That’s actually my first time seeing it, there were clouds covering it yesterday,” said Claire.
We bounced our way back along the red dusty road to the town center. The driver dropped us at the “Coke Clock Tower Circle”, which was the rally point if we wanted a ride back.
This was my first unsheltered look at Africa, wandering through a town without a driver or a guide. The town was dusty and busy and colorful. We walked aimlessly, one peddler or another running up and trying to sell his wares.
Beggars sprung to life for a block or so, shadowing us for money. Vendors on the streets sold second-hand clothing and CD’s and drinks and snacks. One vendor sold only Barack Obama underwear. Shopkeepers shouted from the front door trying to get us into their store. The sidewalk was only a sidewalk about thirty percent of the time. It transformed from storefront, to trash heap, to sewage to dirt…in just about that order.
We wandered into the bus station, where the matatus queued up. Matatus are an African version of semi-public transportation. They exist in the realm between hitchhiking and public transportation. Each bus has a route, but the route is never promised. Each has a fare, but the fare is never advertised. Each has stops along the way, but one must know the correct hand signals to ask for a stop. And stop is a misnomer, it should just be called, “we’ll slow down just enough for you to jump and roll on the side of the road.”
Matatus are also known for their penchant to mysteriously make a wallet or camera disappear.
The bus station wasn’t a bus station in the Western sense of there being a structure and a ticket window and a line. Here a bus station is a parking lot, with a number of matatus and a few legit buses parked, their drivers shouting for fares. The bus station was anarchy. A million different people stood around shouting for a million different reasons. The shouts were all in Swahili, so there was no way of knowing. Vendors crushed into and on top of each other competing for even the smallest pieces of real estate. The sidewalks were crowded with interlopers. I was followed by at least six different men trying to sell me something I didn’t need. I was overwhelmed, everything within me ached to get out.
We walked straight through and to the next street, where everything calmed down. There was space to breath. I have mild social anxiety, and when I’m in a confined space among people in unfamiliar territory I tend to freak out a bit.
We stopped by the ATM to pull out some cash, there was a guard sitting lazily outside armed with a fully automatic. I pulled out 400,000 Tanzanian Shillings and according to my account balance was a Tanzanian multimillionaire…bling, bling.
With no real plan we continued to wander the streets looking for anything that might catch our eye. On one street there was a guy sharpening machetes using a modified bicycle. The front wheel was used as a lathe, sparks flying into the street as he pedaled. Another guy carried a cart full of pineapples up and down the street selling them and slicing them, probably using a machete sharpened by the other guy. We stepped into an Indian restaurant for a quick mid-morning break. Sitting on the deck we enjoyed some drinks looking down over the town we talked about what motivated us to climb Kilimanjaro. The restaurant would have a spectacular view of the mountain, if not for a massive sign straddling the main street advertising Airtel. And so instead of the retreating glaciers of Kilimanjaro, we are treated to a guy talking happily on his cell phone…nobody ever looks that happy when they’re on the phone, except in Africa. At home, people just look irritated about having to hold the phone up to their ear, except people with hands free…and then they either look like a paranoid schizophrenic or a douchebag.
Through the conversation about motivation the answers ranged from “just because” to the personal. There has to be a reason for doing something like this. People don’t just look in a vacation brochure and think, “Yeah, I’ll torture myself for a week while on holiday.”
After lounging for close to an hour, we decided to continue on with our discovery mission. Mark had to find a travel agent to change his flight out of Tanzania, and he needed to shop for some sunscreen and bug spray. His feet were covered with about 50 mosquito bites. Sunscreen was surprisingly hard to find given the equatorial nature of our location. Tailors lined the streets with sewing machines eager for work, I was wearing some horribly ripped shorts and considered just taking them off and getting them mended.
As we walked from store to store, looking for sunscreen, we continued talking. Having become more comfortable with each other, the conversation became more meaningful and interesting. While traveling to interesting places, it’s easy to meet interesting people. Not just from the place through which you are traveling, but also people who are attracted to these locales. Dull and uninteresting people tend to stick to the safe route, the path beaten by the tourist horde.
Mark was an interesting person, the sort of person who, upon hearing his tales, motivates you to go out and experience more of the world. He served in the military and had been stationed in the Congo, as well as other places throughout the world. He was climbing Kili because he saw it advertised at a bus stop, or something along those lines, and thought why not? And so only a few weeks ago, with no preparation, no training and just the desire to do something adventurous, he booked the climb. And as such, he had nothing he needed with him.
Claire was another one of these interesting people. Her job sounds dull when she answers the obligatory, “What do you do for a living,” question; however, when asked what the job actually entails it gets a bit more interesting. Without giving too much away, her job is to fly into and out of exotic, and usually hostile locales, to extract assets owned by her company. The more she explained it, the more it sounded like accounting meets the A-Team.
Emily was traveling through her gap year, the year off between college and career taken by many non-Americans to travel. She was quiet, but usually equipped with a well-targeted sly comment tucked away for the relevant moment. And she always seemed to be happy. All in all, I really enjoyed these people, and it was a shame that I wouldn’t be climbing with any of them. I was slotted to start climbing the next day, as was Mark, but on a different route, the Marangu Route. The girls were climbing the same route as me, the Machame Route, but on the following day.
Mark never found the travel agency he was looking for, but he did get the sunscreen. The shops are more like cubby-holes crowded with merchandise, most of which is useless. There are no prices listed, which means you have to ask the shopkeeper. In many cases the price will change depending on the customer. In our case, being white tourists, there was a sizable markup. The rules of bartering in these shops are not as well established as on the street. The shopkeepers will contend that everything is much more expensive due to shipping costs. Mark ended up buying the sunscreen for about double what it would have cost at home. He knew he got ripped off, we knew he got ripped off, but there was little choice in the matter. This is Africa.
As the sun reached its peak in the cloudless sky the temperature soared.
We decided to head back towards the compound. Instead of returning on the shuttle, we opted to walk. The town seemed to crumble with every block radiating from the center. The roads grew potholes and wide cracks, which eventually became larger and unavoidable to vehicles. Within three blocks, the roads would be reclaimed by the red dirt, barely discernible from the surrounding walkways.
Shopkeepers beckoned us into every store along the way, regardless of what they sold. I was pretty sure I didn’t need animal feed. There was a market on the outskirts of town selling produce and fish to be bought and resold in town. The market swarmed with people and the smell of dried fish. The girls trailed behind us, taking pictures and enduring an almost constant cascade of cat calls.
We crossed a large vacant lot, tire fires burned on its perimeter. The path led to the railroad tracks, which run parallel to the road out of town. This was the way back to the compound. The tracks were full of people walking to and from town. We veered back onto the road, walking past a number of mud-brick homes with corrugated iron roofs. The homes seemed to rise from the surface as an extension of the earth, rather than a structure built upon the earth. There was no contrast in color, except for tattered second hand outfits worn by children running and waving from their homes. They formed an impromptu reception line along the road, shouting with hands held out.
Pipi means “sweet” in Swahili, and was by far the most used of all the demands as we walked by a growing crowd of children. Cows lazily grazed on whatever grass sprouted through the dirt, as chickens pecked through piles of garbage.
I saw a little girl playing with barbed wire as her mother looked on. It was fantastic. The sun grew proportionally more powerful with every minute, perhaps aggrandizing the scene’s surrealism.
The walk seemed longer than any of us remembered, and the buildings blended into one everlasting mural of amorphic brown and rust-red structures. For a moment we considered the prospect that we were lost, except that the train tracks definitely ran by the hotel. And so we continued walking until the compound was upon us. The gates were closed, with only a slat that slides open when someone knocks. I expected them to ask for a password, or a secret knock or the answer to an incredibly impossible riddle. Instead they saw that we were white, and they opened the gate.
As we walked in, the representative from Gap came running over to me. Everyone else kept walking to get changed into pool attire.
“You are not leaving tomorrow, we have to put you with another group. You are leaving the next day,” he said shyly, probably expecting a tirade from me.
“Is there a reason why?”
“I do not know, I only know that I was instructed to tell you that you are leaving a day later,” he said.
“So no meeting tonight, no leaving tomorrow. Right?”
“Yes.” And with that he gave me a fistbump and went running off someplace else. My climb now postponed, I was faced with the very real threat that I might be bored to death. I changed and headed out to the pool.
“What was that all about?” Claire asked.
“Apparently, I’m not climbing tomorrow. They’ve postponed me for the following day.”
“Which means you’ll be climbing with us!”
I hadn’t really thought of that. If anything I was more focused on trying to occupy myself for an extra 24 hours before climbing. But this was a huge positive, I already knew I got along with these girls. This was a blessing, I would only understand later in the trek. Mark came out and we told him the news.
“So you guys all get to climb together, and I’m climbing alone with some other random people,” Mark looked slightly dejected over the matter.
Sweating, roasting, speedo-clad Europeans populated the pool, sipping beers and water and coke. The waitstaff looked on to fulfill any needs. This was not exactly how I had pictured Africa. This place was more like a resort, albeit basic, than I had anticipated. It was a hyperbaric chamber that was really messing with my cultural adaptation. I retreated back to my room to read and write. The combination of exposed cellulite and flabby sunburned skin covered only by tufts of body hair was ruining my eyesight.
The four of us met up later for some pre-dinner drinks. As Claire, Emily and I sat in the courtyard sipping on Tuskers, Mark wandered over from his pre-departure meeting.
“One guy seems cool…” he said pointing across the courtyard to the table where some of his climbing group were sitting. Two of them were the two I had eaten dinner with the previous evening. I really felt sorry for him.
“I’m going to get my camera, so that we can take a picture and I can prove that I did have friends here,” Mark walked off.
The sun was setting fast. Kilimanjaro spends most of the day shrouded in clouds, but sometimes the peak makes an appearance in the morning and also in the evening.
“I’m going to see if I can get a good picture of the mountain,” Claire said, getting up.
Emily and I decided to join her. We walked out the front gates of the compound, and up to the railroad tracks, only to see that Kili was still hidden. As the girls looked at the mountain I watched a car speed down the dirt road on the opposite side of the tracks.
A cloud of dust kicked up behind it, as it suddenly fishtailed and started heading directly at us. I started backpedaling, probably screaming like a four-year-old girl at an Exorcist screening. The car hit the grading of the tracks and went airborne, sending the front fender flying off to the side. The car came down on the other side of the tracks, still driving straight towards a woman holding a baby. The woman dove out of the way, holding the baby like Jerry Rice held a football while trailing his toes in the endzone on a touchdown catch. The car was stopped by a pile of dirt, airbags deployed. The woman rolled over and stood up as though nothing happened, she wiped some dirt off the baby’s head, the baby looked as emotionless as the mother. People came running from every direction, a few men started shouting at the driver in Swahili. For a moment, it looked as though the driver would be beaten to death right in front of us.
We looked at each other, speechless. Mark came walking out.
“It doesn’t look so good when I say I’m going to get a camera to take a picture proving I have friends, and when I come back they have all left,” Mark said as he walked out. We stood and watched the drama play out. It would be the most interesting thing to happen all day. The story would grow more riveting and fanciful with every telling. By the time we hiked back down Kilimanjaro, the story incorporated machine guns and helicopters and a guy holding onto the hood. After enough drama we retreated back into the compound to have a few more Tuskers and some dinner and eventually some sleep.