Clank! Crash! Clank! Shouting in Swahili. Clank! Clank!
Rachel Ray is teaching me to cook in Swahili moments before I wake to what has become my de facto alarm. As I begin to comprehend reality it feels as though I’m levitating. I’ve become so rolled up into the mosquito netting that I’m partially suspended above my bed. It’d take me a few minutes to escape from this trap. The escape required enough mental energy that my brain was fully awake and engaged. I took another cold shower, this time by choice. The room was oppressive without a fan. I had probably entangled myself subconsciously as a defense mechanism to avoid dying of heat stroke in my sleep. A cold shower suddenly became a welcome luxury.
I joined the girls for breakfast, all of us wishing Mark good luck on his climb. He’d need it. He had half as much gear as anyone else, he was planning on wearing socks as gloves!! And he probably already contracted malaria from one of those thousands of mosquito bites on his feet.
Mark left looking a bit sad. Again I felt bad for him, it’s tough anytime you meet people that you get along with, only to be sent with people who you might not get along with. Much less, when the trip involves climbing 20,000 feet to the top of a mountain.
After breakfast, I felt as though I was going stir-crazy. While I was happy that I’d be climbing with the girls, the anticipation of the climb was overpowering. Sitting around and waiting on it was driving me insane. The girls had set up a jungle walk with a Maasai guide and I joined them. Anything to escape the compound.
Our guide wore the traditional red and purple Maasai blanket, in fratastic speak it’s a colorful toga. He had indentations under both of his eye sockets, marks of manhood through extreme pain. A gap in his front teeth gave him a zany cartoonish look.
We followed him as he carried a stick, too short to be used for walking. He used it along the way to point out interesting things, or get somebody’s attention or scare off monkeys. Through most of the walk the stick rested on his shoulders in the traditional way. We walked first to a spring. The water bubbled the surface after a thousand years of percolating through the igneous rocks of Kilimanjaro. This water was clean. I don’t think the same could be said for the water just a few hundred meters downstream, as the spring is used for laundry and drinking water. But this is where many people in town walk to get water. Some walk over a mile everyday to fill buckets of water for drinking, washing and cooking.
“Does anyone have questions?” Our guide asked, leaving what seemed like a minute-long gestation of silence broken by, “Supa dupa!”
We continued on a path through a thick stand of trees, coming around the corner the landscape opened into expansive rice fields. We stepped into another dimension as we left the browns and reds of Moshi just behind us. It was a celebration of green, boasting every intimation of the color. Looking across the fields I couldn’t help but to think of the arcade game wack-a-mole, as farmers would pop up from this sea of rice plants to stretch their backs or take a break. Heat visibly radiated distorting the distances, giving the illusion of a larger space. We walked on a dirt path separating the paddies, water flooded the plants slowly flowing down the terraces.
The pathway was narrow, and busy. Women would walk towards us with what seemed to be the remnants of an entire tree balancing on their heads. Without fail, they would stop and move aside for us, this was a trend I found unsettling. But even as I stepped aside they refused to move until I passed.
Claire pointed her camera at an elderly woman walking. The woman replied by hoisting her machete up in maniacal fashion, the action was complimented with the craziest set of crazy eyes I’ve ever seen. She walked straight through as everyone practically dove out of the way of her. That woman would haunt my dreams.
We continued through the stifling heat of the rice fields into the adjoining forest, the jungle if you want to call it that. The high canopy negated the direct powers of the sun, providing ten degrees worth of relief. The floor was scattered with desk sized leaves fallen from the tropical branches above. In the heat of the day the jungle stood still. Periodically entire sections of the trees above sprung to life. Leaves rustled and branches snapped, as monkeys jumped from one tree to the next.
Our guide pointed his stick to the sky shouting, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Monkey! Hey! Monkey! Come here monkey!” I’d like to say this approach worked, but then I’d also have pictures of these monkeys…
As our guide continued through the forest, Claire made a connection.
“I can’t help it, but with the walking stick he reminds me of Rafiki from the Lion King,” she said.
And with that, for the rest of the excursion, all I could think about was the Lion King. Innocently enough, my mind had been poisoned by the mere mention of a Disney movie. For the rest of the trek, throughout the climb and overlanding throughout Africa this song would be my head splinter, and would come close to driving myself and all around me mad.
Standing in the middle of a jungle path humming The Lion Sleeps Tonight, another strange incongruency occurred…a phone rang. With one deft motion, a phone emerged from within our guides Maasai blanket. He answered, and proceeded to have an animated conversation in Swahili. We all looked on wondering how he had service, and none of us had a single bar. This guy is dressed traditionally, belonging to one of the most traditional tribes in Africa, leading us through the jungle and he’s on a phone?!?!
After a bit more wandering through the foresty jungle place, we headed towards a clearing. The ground was littered with, well, litter. The place was trashed and it smelled like dead fish wrapped in rotten banana peels topped with burned hair. I came within one wretch of a hurl. As we walked into the opening, the source of the smell was evident. We had just walked into the town’s landfill. There was no fence, although there were fenceposts. Garbage was spread about a space of three or four acres. Gigantic birds stood ugly, governing their kingdom of refuse. About a half dozen people picked through the garbage, looking for anything of value or use. Africa recycles everything.
I’m not really sure why he led us along the landfill, but in a weird way I was happy he did. It served as just another reminder that every action we take while traveling has an impact, negative as often as positive.
We walked by smoldering piles of what appeared to be rocks. In fact they were making bricks from wood chips and mud. There were several such ovens in a field adjacent to the landfill. The largest ones responsible for the omnipresent columns of black smoke dotting the horizon.
From here it was a short walk through a neighborhood of nice homes and manicured lawns. I felt as though I had just wandered onto the African Wisteria Lane. This was one of the wealthier neighborhoods I would happen across in East Africa, just steps away from a landfill and mere blocks away from the mud-brick/thatch/corrugated iron architecture of the slums. The first big lesson I’d take away from Africa was starting to seed. I was beginning to understand that Africa was an enigmatic contradiction, simultaneously living up to the preconceived notions of the west, while also doing everything to dispel them.
The seeds of this lesson would only germinate as we walked past the aforementioned mud-brick homes and into the compound gates. The last fifteen minutes of the walk had jarred my senses and relative understanding of the world in which I live. It’s not that I hadn’t seen these things before, I suppose it was just the order and timing that sent me into a bit of an introspective mood.
Once back in the compound there wasn’t much else to do, aside from sit poolside. We grabbed a table under shade and hung out until the pre-departure meeting.
The three of us were anxious to meet the others we would be climbing with. Our meeting was set up at a group of tables off to the side. There were a lot of people there, definitely more than I had anticipated. The climbing groups were supposed to be capped off at eight, but there were 13.
Our guide walked in, followed by four other men, pulled a chair from one of the tables and placed it in the aisle. He sat down without saying a word and looked us over for a moment, counting underneath his breath. His eyes looked tired. His name is Dixon.
“This is a big group, I think,” he said, the ‘I think’ not a declaration of uncertainty, but rather a method of addressing the obvious. “And so there are more assistants with us.”
With that, he introduced the assistant guides, each one standing and waving briefly without uttering a word.
Everyone looked a bit apprehensive, and more than a few anxious questions were asked.
“Do not worry, you will be safe. We will take care of you. Every night after dinner we will talk about the next day. I will tell you what you will need and how long we will be hiking,” Dixon said softly, wringing his hands.
It was clear that Dixon was tired. Later he’d tell me he had just finished a trek earlier that day.
“Drinking water is important, you should buy a few liters before you leave tomorrow and keep the bottle. And then every night we can fill them after we boil water,” Dixon said.
He went around the group asking everyone to introduce themselves. Five Canadians, three Americans, two Brits and three Swedes. I couldn’t help but to size people up as each person introduced themselves. It’s the most useless of all human impulses to believe we possess the ability to read a person within moments of meeting them. Only a select few have inherited the ability to accurately predict the actions of a person whom they have just met. I am not one of these select few. This rush to judgement is constructed by our natural selves as a means of protection. Our minds, usually subconsciously, try to determine the dynamics of a group and our place within it. It’s an inclination that resides in the same corner of our brains as the fight or flight response. It’s instinctual, and requires conscious effort to overcome. I am not good at this conscious effort, too many years carting around groups of tourists around North America has jaded me.
After everyone is properly introduced Dixon wraps things up by encouraging us to get a good night sleep. After the meeting breaks I head back to my room to finish packing everything up. I brought two bags to Africa, one duffel for Kilimanjaro, and one backpack for everything else. Collectively throughout the day, I spent close to two hours paring down the weight as much as possible, and now everything was neatly tucked away in it’s place.
I went back to the courtyard to meet the girls for a drink. As I walked out one of the guys from the group walked towards me.
“Well I guess we’re tent mates, I’m Glenn,” he said holding out a bear-claw of a hand.
“I guess so, I’m Kris.”
“Do you snore?”
“Yeah, at least according to my girlfriend.”
“Good! So do I, now we don’t have to worry about that,” Glenn said. We sat down to grab a drink and dive into the perfunctory introductions.
Glenn was Canadian, and keeping with the national reputation, he was affable and excessively nice. He also towered over me with the frame of an NFL linebacker. Glenn is a police officer in Toronto, a member of a tactical squad (the equivalent of SWAT in the US).
I told him I was a tour manager for Contiki Holidays.
“Really, that’s awesome. I always wanted to go on one of those trips, I’m too old now. I keep telling one of my buddies back home that he’s gotta go on one. I bet you have some stories.”
“Yeah, just a few.”
“Well, something tells me we’ll have a lot of story time in the next week.”
Two more guys from the group sat down with us. Peter and Toby, students from Stockholm who were climbing in between graduating and starting their jobs. If they had been anymore relaxed they would have been in a coma. Claire and Emily joined us and we had a few beers talking about expectations, exchanging whatever tips we came across and generally diffusing whatever nervousness existed.
After a few drinks we opted for reason, and went to bed.
So far, so good. I think I’m going to enjoy these people.