Alpine Desert I
Its 2:55 A.M. I’ve been traveling for 21 hours and it’s hot. I’m standing in front of a glass panel like that of a bank teller or county fair ticket stand. Behind it, a man is asking for $200 US (twice the amount he should) for my travel visa into Tanzania. I’m mind numb and already worried about malaria. Especially here; the airport. I’ll be in Africa for 60 days, the visa, good for 90. I contest his price point and he sends me to the single-file line traffic control officer in charge. He sends me back. 100$ US. I don’t even care.
The plethora of ceiling fans above my head make me wish of something more. A gentle cooling breeze. I snap back to reality as my passport is stamped for the first time. I’m here. Though, at this time it seems more of a dream than reality.
I pick up my bags and head towards where I hope Malleta will be waiting. Malleta’s first name is David or Davi to the locals. He is a wiry rugged thirty year old who perfectly threads the line between mountain guide and what you would think of when you hear “surfer bum.” Dave is a veteran of the Iraq War and will be my only guide into this foreign place. We met this summer while guiding in Alaska and though, we hardly know each other, we are now brothers. Brothers far from home. I have less than 48 hours to learn everything he has in the past three months.
I’m in Tanzania as a Mountain Guide. The first time I actually think I have earned the title. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve guided on rock, ice and in the alpine, but this time it’s different. It’s real. It’s for time and the clock is ticking.
Throughout the next 48 hours, I learn my new world; New people, new places and most of all, new relationships. Already there are individuals who stick out, along with the way things work. Not like they work in Arkansas or in the states, but how they work here in central eastern Africa. In Tanzania. How there are distinctly two different worlds; That of Moshi and that of the Mountain.
Reality and Idealism.
Kilimanjaro. At 5895 m (19340 ft), it is a solemn giant. The roof of Africa. Here, the mountain is king. It is the tallest mountain in Africa and one of the world’s seven summits. The man of the mountain is John Chitanda, or Johnny. He has guided the mountain for twelve years and is the most experienced guide we have on Kilimanjaro. John is the epitome of an African man; stoic, strong, beautiful. He is a charismatic leader and has a heart of gold. This climb will be my first time above 14,000 ft. Johnny will be on his 302nd summit. That is if we make it to the top. Six years, he has lived on the slopes of this mountain. On its trails and in its camps. He is my mentor, my friend and my brother. We are a team, bound by experience. We are bound by the reality of our work and the seriousness of our ventures. Together, we are their safety. No matter who they are or where they come from, it’s up to us to get our clients up and down the mountain safely. To learn of their experiences, their loves, their fears and to give them something each of us will never forget. This is the nature of our work. The nature of experience, of struggle, of challenge. Nothing makes us feel more alive. Nothing but the mountains; the bonds created within ourselves and between others on their flanks.
The town is dirty and rough. The fine sand everywhere. A thin veil of reality over my sea of idealism. There are no rules here. No traffic signals, no riches. There is trash everywhere and sometimes I hide in the compound that is my home. The kind out of a movie. A British compound in Africa. A hotel for foreigners whose wealth, if even only average, exceeds everything surrounding it. It has ten feet high concrete walls and a steel gated entrance that nothing can see through.
At first it was a sanctuary but alas there is a beautiful world outside. If only I learn to look. The beautiful African babies chase me around saying, “Hello hello,” like my own entourage. I stick out like a sore thumb. Not just because I’m white but because I’m not a local. This world outside of the compound is made of networks and bribes; trades for work and for rank. You can find anything you want. if only you know the right people. Everyone is so nice but not everyone is so well intentioned. Finding the right people? Key.
The ones to trust.
That is the dark side. There is a beauty here, though. I see it. Where there is more than just monetary value. More than late nights and headaches. A place so distinctly different from where I’ve come from. A revitalizing breath of fresh air. If only I’d have the courage;the courage to leap; the courage to fill my lungs and rejuvenate my soul.
Maybe that’s why I’m here?
A place I have never been. With people I have never known. What if that exact feeling, that moment of existence, is why we are all here? To chase that deeper love. That part in all of us beckoning to see what we, ourselves, are capable of. That feeling that pushes us forward to experience that next day; the hope,the drive,the wonder. Maybe it’s everything. Or nothing at all. Maybe I’m chasing the unattainable. Maybe that feeling is living.
Or maybe it’s just the wind.
Alpine Desert II
It’s 5:30 A.M.and I wake to the sound of my name, “Georgie. Water for washing.” It takes a second for me to realize where I am. After a moment I gain my bearings and realize it’s Amiry. I respond in Kiswahili, telling him “Thank you.” I ask how he is and how he slept. Amiry is youthful, happy, and full of energy. After delivering my hot water, he runs, or skips, from tent to tent. This is not unusual. Amiry is short even by American standards. A distinct characteristic of the Sambaa tribe from which he hails. The Sambaa tribe is one of 127 tribes native to Tanzania and, for the locals, each easily distinguishable by facial features alone. To a foreigner like me? Impossible. Amiry is one of our nine porters. He is our waiter, but most of all, he is my friend.
This day starts like many others; early, in the dark, in the cold. I lay my head on my makeshift pillow and put off moving for the next five minutes. Not from malaise but from familiarity. My sleeping bag is my home, my sanctuary and it has been that way for the past year . It has always been there. It has gone everywhere with me. It came from my home in Arkansas, throughout the states, Alaska, and now, lies here in Africa. In many ways, it is like my friends and family. Each time, I’m reluctant to leave the comfort and security behind, but just like today, there is a part of me that knows I must. A pull to experience the world outside and the drive to do so.
I flip on my headlamp and jostle myself awake. I put on what I will wear for the day; most likely shorts and a jacket. I pack my bag and escape into the mountain air. It’s crisp and makes me feel alive. The sun’s rays creep over the horizon. They light the world around me just enough to remind me of the frost that covers my tent in it’s entirety. My thoughts wander from the beauty in front of my eyes to the coming cold in my hands. I pack everything into my backpack and wait for the burn as they thaw in the warm water Amiry delivered fifteen minutes prior. An unnecessary luxury, but welcomed nonetheless.
For the next hour, I wait in the dining tent enjoying hot drinks, warm food and the company of my clients. They come from all walks of life;young and old; wealthy, and others not so much. I talk with them, learn from them and wonder why they are here. Why I’m here. I think of wilderness, challenge, and adventure. I think of a girl back home. I sip a hot drink, eat a slice of mango and snap back to reality. Sometimes my mind drifts to far off places and I forget that this is my job as a guide on Africa’s tallest mountain. I take each person’s pulse ox reading (a measure of their heart rate and oxygen percentage) and send them off to finish packing their day packs and porter bags. During this time I take notes on my smart phone, talk with my local guide and his porter team and sometimes we even play hackey sac with a rock. But most import of all, I finish another cup of coffee.
The sun shines bright today and like most days I’m in a t-shirt by 9 A.M.. I’m carrying all of my personal gear, tent, med-kit and extras of everything. My pack comes to weigh from 27-30 kg, or just over 60 lbs. My client’s packs? Hopefully not over twenty. Today’s hike is a short one, somewhere around four hours time and 1000 feet of elevation to gain. During the hike, I’m constantly alert, constantly adapting. I keep tabs on everyone; their mood, their eating and drinking, their gait. Are they guarding a hidden injury? Are they exhausted and should I take their pack? Today goes smoothly and everyone is in high spirits.
Not everyday is so. I walk and think of longer, harder days. I see clouds and think of my longest day yet. We hiked for 16 hours from camp to camp. Into the dark, we walked; into the night, into exhaustion. I am reminded that this is a mountain. That people get sick. That some quit and some cry. Others even die. That, at 19000 ft., no matter what people say, no mountain is a walk in the park. I am reminded that this is my job, these are my clients and my responsibility. That anything can happen at any time. I am reminded that out of the last 41 days in Africa, I have spent 35 on the mountain. I’ve experienced every type of weather and precipitation. I’ve had long days, out run wildfires, and even explosions.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had this chance in life to experience first hand the wonder of Africa and, without a second thought, I took it. I had a chance to learn from people who live halfway around the world. The chance to experience what life is like for others not as fortunate as I and to make life-long friends who have taught me more about myself than I ever thought possible. I have three more weeks to learn everything I can from these wonderful people. I have the opportunity to experience life through other’s eyes and to forever search for the answer to the question, “What is necessity?”.
Strangers in a strange land. Together in our oddities.
Alpine Desert III
It’s 930 P.M. and I’m wide awake. I should be asleep. I’m at 15,100 ft, and in an hour and a half, myself, my team, and my clients will attempt to reach Uhuru Peak; the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro. It will be a long night. For many people, the hardest thing they’ve ever lived through. But this is not why I lose sleep. The next time I am here, right here will be my last before flying home. My mind races. I think of past climbs, other clients, friends and family. I think of questions. Who was I when I left? Have I changed? Have I stayed the same? I’m sure in many ways the answers to these questions could be yes or could be no, but I don’t know. I have come to realize that in every avenue of life, everyday, the answer to a simple question like, “Have I changed?” can and should be yes. That for better or worse, we always change. No matter who you are, where you live or what you do, we all change. For life doesn’t pick favorites. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, white or black, have everything or nothing to lose.
There is a commonality between us all. It is what makes us human. There is a drive in all of us, even if we haven’t found it yet. A change, even if we never took the time to notice it was there. What is necessary in life at it’s most basic is the acknowledgement and acceptance of change. Or, if you may, the “rediscovery of the self.” The understanding that everyday we awake anew. We awake with all the opportunities of the world at our feet. It only takes this belief, acceptance, and the drive of self discovery to push us forward. To help us flourish in this sea of chance. To unapologetically gaze into the possibility of tomorrow and not the permanence of yesterday.
I have learned that in all decisions in life, it’s not right to ask ourselves if our choice was right or wrong. The decision has been made. Our path? Changed. The past is stoic and unforgiving. The future? The future is unwritten, now and always. We must understand this fundamental law. As simple as it seems, this idea, when truly understood, has profound consequences. In short, it’s the ability to roll with the punches and accept all of life’s challenges with open arms. Life is an opportunity to rediscover, again and again, who we really are and what we might become. Who we can become. We have opportunity. We must realize,no matter what, our lives will always change. More importantly, though, we always have the power to change our lives;our own and each others. The understanding of that distinction is beautiful. We may not have the power to change the world. What we can do, however, is impact the life of every person we have the pleasure of meeting. We must remember, that, big or small, we all make a difference. With every chance encounter,every stranger on the street, every time our eyes meet, we have the power to make a difference. Each time we interact with each other, be it up close or from afar, with someone new or a lifelong friend, we have the power to light a spark. To give them an idea; to give them hope, to show them that someone does care and that they are never stuck. We have the chance to show a person that they, too, have the power to change. To give them the courage to leap even if they don’t know where to land. The important thing is that we all land. We all change. That every interaction we have with each other changes lives. I will leave Africa with a smile on my face knowing full and well that I have changed lives and those same lives have changed mine. I am thankful for yesterday but, again, I am eager for the chance of tomorrow.
Sometimes the one who has nothing has the most to give, they may never have been taught but are the greatest teachers.