The Expedition Commences
Trip Start Jan 14, 2012
5Trip End Feb 12, 2012
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I had to admit that it was a bit unsettling hearing this howling wind that was strong enough to shake the windows and make the walls creak. I had perhaps expected such a windstorm once we climbed higher in altitude. I was certain there would be no escape from the relentless wind at the summit. But if the winds were already beating down on these Swiss chalets at 2000m then what would it be like once we actually started on the trek? The day before I had woken up early in the morning shivering and now on this morning it was the wind that was at fault. If this was going to be the pattern of my Tanzanian mornings then I was beginning to question my survivability in a tent at 4000m.
The winds died down a bit as these thoughts and questions marinated in my head, Eventually I fell asleep once more but then woke up again an indeterminable time later. I was now alert enough to be curious about the time and I noticed that it was just after 7am. Figuring that there was little chance that I would get any more sleep, and feeling too antsy to simply lie there wide awake until the alarm sounded, I got up out of bed to start the day.
We had already organized ourselves the night before . Actually, since we had already pared down our belongings in Moshi there really wasn't too much more we could further organize. All the same it was still good to have ample time to relax before breakfast. Although I took further advantage of the facilities and had a long warm shower. I ensured that I thoroughly enjoyed it and took great pleasure in relishing the feeling of cleanliness knowing full well that it would be my last shower in several days.
We stepped out of our bedroom chalet to make our way to the main lodge in time for breakfast at 8:30am. It was a brilliant morning. The sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky. Moreover the air was eerily still. In fact I couldn't remember when the wind stopped howling. It must have slowed imperceptibly enough that it wasn't noticeable. I would have actually questioned if I had simply imagined the gusting winds or if they were part of some elaborate dream sequence that I vaguely recalled if Duncan hadn't confirmed that he had noted the winds as well.
Unsurprisingly the food laid out for breakfast appeared to be for several people but as usual there was just the two of us in this dining hall. And when Issa came by he didn't lecture us on the importance of eating well but instead began the conversation with the morning pleasantries that one would expect. We were finished breakfast within an hour and by 10am we left this sanctuary of Swiss chalets and proceeded to the gate to begin our hike.
It certainly wasn't a long walk from the chalets to the gate. It took hardly 5 minutes and the only reason it took even that long was because we paused to capture photos of the clear views offered of Kilimanjaro. When we did eventually reach near the trail head Issa instructed us to wait in the tourist shelter while he managed everything that needed to be organized.
One of the benefits of going with the tour agency that we did, an outfitter named SnowCap, is that they allow you to stay at their cottages that are located at the start of this particular route. These were the Swiss chalets where we had stayed the night. Instead of having to do the over 2 hour drive to arrive at this point and then immediately begin the trek, as we witnessed the Germans and others do the day before, we were able to split this up into two separate days. That resulted in a leisurely morning culminating with a meager 5 minute walk to the starting gate for our chosen route.
Another advantage of having stayed at the cottages overnight is that it would have helped with acclimatization since they lay at about 2000m. Although most Kilimanjaro climbers do end up driving to one of the starting gates and starting their hike the same day and many of them make it to the summit. Therefore our night at the Swiss chalets may not have aided our acclimatization much, since that altitude is still low, however even if it was of marginal benefit I was still happy to be accompanied by that advantage however small it was.
The tourist shelter, where we were told to wait until further instruction, was quite an elaborate structure in itself. The floor was completely cement and solid as could be. The lacquered wood wasn't reserved just for the walls or the benches on the inner edge of the shelter but extended to the ceiling as well. It was also quite spacious and appeared to have space to comfortably hold 50 people (with about a third of those seated) thus having the effect of making Duncan and I look small while within its walls. However the structure still maintained its openness since the roof was supported by only a few sturdy tree trunk pillars. Therefore it wouldn't have been much of a shelter from the wind but it may have proved more useful during a rainstorm.Currently it served us by keeping us away from the sun's penetrating glare for the moment.
I was a bit astonished by the amount of obvious thought and effort that went into the construction of this shelter. Moreover judging by the bright sheen coming off the wood finish, that was so lacquered that it looked perennially wet, I was positive that significant work continually went towards regular maintenance and cleanliness of the structure. I would not have thought that a Kilimanjaro trek entrance would require something quite as elaborate considering from this point on we would feel the full ruggedness of the mountain as we hiked and camped our way up its slopes. But perhaps that was just it. Maybe we needed or wanted this shelter as our last bit of luxury before we set off on our pending journey.
For us it was a multi-purpose shelter. It kept us both out of the sun and out of Issa's way. It was also an ideal vantage point to observe Issa as he coordinated every necessary aspect to bring all the pieces together that would conclude in us soon commencing our climb.
Having watched the Germans embark the day before we had some understanding of the preparation process involved when one is imminently about to start the trek. And we nonchalantly watched Issa as he executed a seemingly similar procedure. He would speak with someone official-looking who I imagined was the officer responsible for permitting groups to gain access to this entrance of Kilimanjaro National Park since he wore a uniform and carried an artillery rifle of some kind. He would also talk with people that I presumed could be potential porters for our expedition. From time to time Issa would confer with the individuals whom we had met before and presumably were already part of our group: Ali, Benson, and Gaspe. It was unclear if he was seeking their advice or providing instruction but judging from their collective body language I surmised that it was likely a combination of these two actions at the very least.
All of the items that porters would be carrying on the trip were carefully weighed using the large scale that was present on site. It was done very methodically so that the weight was measured for each porter's cargo, In fact the cargo was subdivided to differentiate between the porters personal belongings and everything else as they were allowed to carry a maximum of 15kg plus an additional 5kg of their own effects. Issa coordinated the effort to balance out the loads to ensure that no porter would bear more than the prescribed maximum while the official with the firearm scrutinized the entire process to confirm that these limits were truly respected. It was all very systematic.
From my perspective, watching from the comfort of the tourist shelter, it seemed like an arduous task but one that was of immeasurable importance given the unjust treatment of porters at the hands of tour agencies, guides and tourists in the past. Conditions for porters have improved more recently, thanks at least in part to organizations whose mandate it is to ameliorate their working environment, however it would be naive to think that all such abuses have been eradicated from this profession.
The tour agency that we were going with, SnowCap, was a partner of the IMEC (International Mountain Explorers Connection) Partnership for Responsible Travel and one of the requirements in maintaining this partnership is that the tour agency must adhere to particular guidelines that promote porter health and well-being. Actually this was another reason why we had decided on this particular outfitter to do the climb. Granted it is one thing to be listed on a partner list for responsible travel and another thing to actually act in accordance with responsible travel. However, judging from what I was seeing here as preparations were made and from what I had observed so far since meeting Issa two days before, I had a sense that not only were Duncan and I in good hands but that all members of the team would be treated well and with respect.
When the weighing task appeared to be nearing its end Issa calmly walked towards and then into the tourist shelter where Duncan and I were patiently waiting. He was usually smiling and generally seemed happy but in this instance his face bore a look of graveness. I had seen him display a similar expression the night before when he decided that we were not eating enough for dinner.
"It appears that we need one more porter than we had first planned." - Issa solemnly informed us - "One of your bags is too heavy."
I instantly looked towards Duncan, as he casually avoided my gaze, since we both were well aware which one of us was the owner of the culprit bag. All the same I didn't think it was the end of the world as had been inflected by our guide's tone of voice. But then again Issa, as the guide of this group, already had a lot to worry about. As a matter of fact he had everything to worry about as he was the complete over-seer of our entire trek. And with the inclusion of an additional porter this would mean more food, more supplies, more expense and one more person to manage. But there was little choice in the matter since the number of porters is directly dictated by the weight of the cargo.
We had been warned to expect neither to see nor have access to our baggage throughout the hiking portion of the day. We were further instructed to bring along a day-pack so that we could carry anything that we might need during the day such as water, snacks, camera or a jacket. Therefore we separated our belongings under those two categories. There would be porters that would specifically carry our bigger bags that we wouldn't need access to outside of the camps. And even though we had kept much of what we had thought was our non-essential possessions back in Moshi it would appear that we didn't store enough away to avoid having an extra porter. Regardless of how disappointed Issa was and how solemnly he conveyed to us the news of the requirement for an additional porter I couldn't help thinking that if this was the worst thing that would occur to us on this mountain then in my opinion we would be doing very well.
"So how many porters will we have?" - I wondered.
"We have 9 porters." - Issa replied.
"But then how many are we in total?"
"With the porters, the assistant guide, the cook and myself that is 12."
"And then with the two of us..." - I stated pointing vaguely at myself and Duncan - "....that would make 14."
"Yes that is right." - he confirmed.
I convinced myself that I successfully concealed the imminent look of shock on my face with the mask of serenity I always keep handy in my personal arsenal for just such an occasion. I had expected the final tally to easily be less than that even given what little I had read on the subject. This was perhaps going to be more like an entourage than a team. I couldn't imagine that for just the 2 of us we required a support staff of 12. Was it possible that we had unknowingly signed up for the luxury tour where there would be both a toilet tent and a shower tent and other elaborate amenities waiting for us at the camp? Or were some of these porters being made available to physically carry us up the mountain if we were too tired to hike?
I suppose there was no need for me to worry about our numbers since the management of this group was abstracted away from us anyways. Issa was in charge and I had no doubt that he was proficient at it. Therefore maybe the size of our entourage shouldn't have really mattered to me since Issa would be in proper control of everyone without question. Still, I couldn't help but puzzle over how we were going to move all the supplies and food that would be needed by our small army for the several days we would be on the mountain. Or rather I couldn't help but ponder how the porters would do that.
Eventually came the time when we were asked to register ourselves for our entry into the Kilimanjaro park. This didn't require us to present ourselves to the official. Instead, Issa brought over to us a well-used registration book in which we filled out our names, ages, citizenship information and other data which apparently could be of use for record keeping. We were ready to set out on our way a few minutes after that. The entire morning organization effort, if measured by our waiting time in the tourist shelter, had taken close to an hour.
We arrived at the actual trail head which was only a few meters away from the tourist hut. It was a modest entrance which was reflective of the fact that this was not one of the more popular routes tourists elect to take. In reality it wasn't much of a trail beginning but more of a trail extension since the road below it was the route our vehicle took to eventually arrive at the camp the day before. Granted, our vehicle had veered to the left at this point even though the trail itself continued straight. However it did now narrow somewhat but the more obvious characteristic was that it became even more rocky thereby making it impractical for driving. I was sure that not much further up this path the drivability of the terrain would transition from impractical to impossible. Therefore this was truly the definitive point where the route would change from one that was ruled by the motor vehicle to one that was commanded over by the hiker.
There was signage on either side of the trailhead. The one on the left indicated a few "Points to Remember" that seemed more like items of common sense. The sign on the right proudly displayed the name of the route up Kilimanjaro that we were about to undertake: Nalemuru Route.
The name on the sign had baffled us a little, when we had first seen it the day before, since this was not the route that we had decided upon. From my limited understanding I was aware that the route is named after the nearest village. The closest village of any significant girth was called Loitokitok and as a result this path by some is known as the Loitokitok Route. However that confused the issue more since that was still not the common name of the route and certainly not the one we had signed up for.
Apparently what had happened was that this particular route used to begin at a different place. Upon its inception it had been named after the village near to that initial starting point. Even though the route's trail head location had changed significantly its original label had persisted irrespective of that evolution. Thus it appeared that this route would forever bear the label of the first village from where it had initially began: the village of Rongai.
On every map that I had seen of Kilimanjaro it had always been marked as the Rongai Route. Furthermore, everyone that I had spoken to about this route had also referred to it as such. The only time when there had been a question raised in my mind that it could be called something else was when I had laid my eyes on that sign which seemed to clearly indicate that this was the Nalemuru Route. This particular designation had apparently come from the tiny nearby namesake village. However all other references call it by its common title of the Rongai Route.
Indifferent of the route name etched in the sign, we could not resist the urge to have our picture taken with it. After all, whatever it was called, this was our entry point into Kilimanjaro National Park. With that token photograph behind us we took our first footsteps on the trail that we hoped would eventually grant us the privilege of reaching the summit of the tallest peak in Africa.
It's an incredible feeling when commencing an adventure like this. I was in that euphoric state of excitement with the awareness that here I was finally trekking to Kilimanjaro coupled with the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what to expect. The scenery would continuously but imperceptibly change around us with every stride. I tried in vain to take in the entirety of my surroundings without being overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. I knew this would be a spectacular and fantastic journey but I would just have to endeavor to be patient and let it all unfold before me over the course of time.
Not far from the entrance we entered an unusual forest of sorts. The trees were a variety of pine and the ground below was sparsely littered with dead needles. The forest ground was made up of mostly red and brown soil and rock with some grassy patches strewn about. The strange feeling that came over me while walking through these trees was that I almost had a sense that I was in a forest in Canada. The terrain and the pine trees distinctly reminded me of my home country and did not strike me as being reminiscent of Tanzania. Nonetheless, being within the these unexpected familiar looking trees had a calming effect on me.
There were several reasons why we had chosen the Rongai Route over the other contenders. One of those reasons was that we had read that there was a better chance of seeing wildlife on this route. Albeit it wasn't necessarily one of the prime factors that swayed our decision but all the same it was undoubtedly a fringe benefit that we wanted to take advantage of if the opportunity presented itself. Serendipitously, it didn't take long for our first animal sighting.
Only a few minutes into the forest Ali, our assistant guide, motioned us to stop and pointed over towards the right. The pine trees were now mostly on the left but over to the right the foliage was thick with the growth of an assortment of tropical looking vegetation. We tracked our eyes to follow Ali's extended arm and noticed three small monkeys hovering among the branches as they grabbed at leaves to eat.
"They are called blue monkeys." - Ali answered our question before we had a chance to ask.
Using my imagination I could not see, nor invent, even the slightest tinge of blue on their short-haired coats of fur. They looked more dark grey in my opinion. However perhaps they gave the illusion of having blue fur under the appropriate lighting conditions I presumed.
Only Ali had been walking with us from the start and so I assumed that Issa had a few final details to finish before joining us. But while watching the blue monkeys Issa caught up to us and we continued onwards together.
Hardly 30 minutes later Ali stopped us and pointed over to his right once again. More monkeys. But these were different from the ones we had seen before. They were larger and their appearance was like nothing I'd ever seen before for a monkey or any other animal. Their fur was both black and white but the colours would not mix as on their hide they were completely distinct and separate. Although it was hard to tell, since much of their bodies were concealed by the leaves, but we could observe that their backs had long coats of elegant white hair. It was the most fantastic species of monkey that I could ever remember seeing.
After about an hour the pine trees gave way and the path opened up. For the moment we were no longer under the protective canopy of trees however this afforded us views of the distant snow-covered peak. On the surrounding grounds were fields of cultivated vegetables similar to what we had seen near the park entrance. However there were obviously families living on these lands judging from the rudimentary huts that I was certain could collapse if a strong enough wind were to find its way here.
The adults tended the fields or managed their huts from what we could see as we walked by. Children occupied themselves by running and playing amongst the crops. They all went about their daily lives with the mountain watching over them like a sentinel. Here we were, two foreign tourists, paying significant money to experience Kilimanjaro yet the locals were here living on this land with the mountain in their backyard. Surely we appreciated the view of Kilimanjaro just as much as they didn't appreciate it but this made sense. After all, our hope was to simply reach its summit but this challenge paled in comparison to their significantly more desperate hopes of providing for their families every day. Let alone their long-term dreams of giving a better future for their children. In contrast our goal of getting to the top of some mountain, in their backyard, seemed weak and insignificant.
While walking past the fields and huts we heard yelling behind us. It was easy to discern that the noise was coming from a small child. We all stopped suddenly and simultaneously turned around to see what the commotion was about. Sure enough there was a small boy, who could not have been more than 2, running up the path towards us. What he was yelling sounded like gibberish to me but it was probably Swahili or one of the local languages. Although maybe it was child gibberish in any language. Even though we didn't necessarily understand the words his single-minded intention was clear: he was on a collision course and we were the target.
He was sprinting as fast as a barefoot 2-year-old could move to quickly close the distance between himself and our group. He barely slowed down as he approached us but he let up enough so that there wouldn't be an impact. The child then proceeded to ignore us all; all of us but one that is. And the youngster showed no hesitation in demonstrating who his favourite person was as he grasped Duncan's right pant leg with one hand. He then proceeded to bear hug Duncan
It wasn't much of a bear bug since he was roughly the height of Duncan's knees. Moreover his arms weren't long enough to wrap around fully. Nevertheless there was Duncan with a Tanzanian boy, about a quarter his height, clamped determinedly to his lower legs thereby rendering my friend immobile.
"He likes mzungus." - Issa explained with a tone of familiarity.
This little boy was obviously known to Issa even if the child had completely ignored him. Our experienced guide had traversed this path with tourists often enough to become acquainted with the personalities of the locals. And this boy was no exception. This is how he knew why the child blindly disregarded myself (being of East Indian descent), himself and Ali. The now conclusive truth was that, as Issa had disclosed, the youngster absolutely adored white people. So this must have been this boy's lucky day since Duncan was as white as can be.
We saw a women approach along the route where the boy had torpedoed in from. We actually heard her before seeing her as she was clearly calling for him. But like every two-year-old in the world he had a skill that apparently transcended culture as I was currently discovering: the ability to be completely oblivious to your mother's pleas. Therefore as he was not diverting any energy into acknowledging the person whom I assumed was his mother, he could continue to fully focus his attention on being clamped onto a mzungu.
Judging from Duncan's body language, as he kept his arms folded throughout the apparent ordeal, he was not in the mood to show reciprocity to this budding friendship. There were even moments when he tried unsuccessfully to convince the child to shift his attention over to me. However even if the boy had understood Duncan's suggestions it would have been an exercise in futility since he could have held onto him all day. Trouble was that we didn't have all day.
Issa appeared to have been enjoying watching the child embrace our mzungu and he quite possibly further enjoyed watching Duncan's reaction. Nonetheless, Issa decided to be pre-emptive and instead of waiting for the mother to arrive he bent down and pried the child's arms away from Duncan's legs, dragged him up and carried him towards his mother for the interception. This action was not performed without protest as the boy kicked and screamed throughout the entire extraction process. He delivered the flailing child to the mother and they headed back from whence they had come. Issa re-joined with us and we continued onwards as the child's cries grew ever fainter with each step.
I couldn't help but consider that a similar scene probably played out each day with that child. Realistically it would happen multiple times a day. Although the Rongai route was less popular than some of the others it would still be prone to its fair share of tourists. I further presumed that the majority of these tourists were white. Therefore I imagined that this child must be in absolute paradise chasing after all these mzungus. Or perhaps it is the opposite and it is constant torture being inexplicably torn away from the mzungus every single time.
Before we veered away from the locals and their fields (although it wasn't clear to me if it was truly their land) we stumbled on a small group of them selling snacks and drinks. It was a random selection of fruit and water but although I wasn't interested in buying anything what caught my attention was a small boy of about 4 or 5 years who was standing near to these tables but adjacent to our route.
"Jambo." - he said to us quietly.
"Jambo!" - we happily replied back.
The first Swahili word I learned was the expression for "hello". And this word was "jambo". However it was the next word that came out of this child's mouth that both surprised me and disappointed me simultaneously. With one word, that he spoke in English, it reminded me of the impact that foreigners can have on the people who live here.
We didn't have any to offer anyways. In fact we had no candy whatsoever between us.
The fields of farmed crops were now in our past as we made our way through denser vegetation that was certainly more tropical than the groves of pine trees that we had walked through. Although the foliage was thick all around us the path was definitive and open enough so there was no chance of feeling claustrophobic.
The vegetation started to slowly thin out as we progressed ever higher. These changes in our environment happened so gradually that it would be impossible to notice dynamically. However upon thinking back to the lush growth earlier in the day it was evident that we had already made some altitude gain even though the climb upwards had not yet been much of a climb. It had been more of a gentle incline so neither of us felt tired at all. Perhaps the beautiful day was helping as there was hardly a cloud in the sky and it was warm. Not necessarily as warm as the 30 plus degree Celsius of Moshi but definitely comfortable enough to wear shorts as we were both doing.
Neither of us were feeling the affects of the altitude as we both felt strong. But it was early in the expedition and more relevantly we were still at a relatively low elevation. For all I knew the next day I would be out of breath and nauseous. Nevertheless, I didn't let those thoughts of the undefined yet uncontrollable near future hinder my enjoyment of the day. I relished every breath of the fresh and oxygen-laden air.
We stopped for lunch along the trail at a location that appeared to be a popular rest stop judging from the conveniently placed picnic table that we immediately took over. Conversely, both our guides opted to eat while sitting on a rock not too far away but far enough that we wouldn't be able to converse with them.
Our lunch was substantial. In fact it was bordering on excessive but fortunately they had given us less than we had been accustomed to eating during our other meals up until now. It was very efficiently packed and seemed to have one of everything: one fried chicken leg, one orange, one juice box, one bread roll, one mango slice, one muffin, and a few other portable items. Benson, the cook, had provided us our lunches at the starting gate itself so that we had the flexibility to eat whenever and wherever.
After lunch, which had been a break of about 30 minutes, we continued up the dirt path. The vegetation around us was still plentiful however it was showing signs of depletion as a result of our ever increasing elevation. There definitely were still lots of greenery and some sizable trees however the disparity was becoming more evident between the flora at the trailhead and at this higher altitude. The further we hiked the less nature protected us from the sun.
The path had been of a very gentle grade during the initial part of our day. It had been such a mild uphill that our legs had hardly acknowledged the altitude gain. However after lunch the trail began to get steeper. It wasn't a drastic change of grade yet it was enough that my body began to feel it. Not only were my muscles clearly working now but I was beginning to realize that the effects of altitude were evidently upon me as I was slightly short of breath.
We reached the campground, named Simba Camp, after 2 o'clock. There was no mistaking that we had arrived at the designated camp site due to the smattering of tents that were already assembled. Moreover there was a hut containing at least one official who handed us a registration book in which we were requested to note our personal, and expedition related, information similar to what we had done at the starting gate.
We made our way to the specific site where our support crew had established themselves. All the tents for us and the crew had been seemingly setup for some time. The porters were fast. Not only had they arrived at our day's destination well before us but they had completely setup the camp. And now they were leisurely either helping out Benson with food preparations or just chatting with one another.
There was no doubt in my mind as to why this area had been chosen as a permanent campsite for Kilimanjaro hopefuls coming this way. The general area was fairly flat and there was a stream close by, that we had crossed not 5 minutes before, with fast moving water. Additionally, even though the trees had become both smaller and scarce as we proceeded higher, this location seemed to have an unusual concentration of shrubbery and trees large enough to provide campers with adequate coverage. The convergence of vegetation may have been due in part to the nearby stream. Moreover, although the north side of Kilimanjaro lies in the mountain's own rain-shadow, whatever rain is received here likely amasses in this flat stretch thereby providing ample water for flora to thrive.
The campsite was also strategically located in terms of distances since it lay about 7km from the starting gate. This was an appropriate distance for the initial day of the hike especially considering that our pace was slow enough that it took 3.5 hours for us to traverse that mileage. Yet the most integral aspect of the camp location was the elevation difference when the site position was compared against our point of commencement. We had undergone a vertical change of 638m bringing us to an altitude of 2635m. It wasn't a large variation but changes in elevation, and their resulting effects on the body, were an item that one needed to be careful of therefore I was grateful for the relatively gentle gain. In conclusion, by all measures, this campground had been purposely chosen and perfectly selected.
There wasn't really much to do at our camp thus once we settled in we kept occupied by reading books that we had brought with us. At some point while we were engrossed Issa came towards us as he noticed that we were immersed in our books and his curiosity was piqued.
"What are you reading?" - he asked me.
"It's a book about an American who tried to summit K2 in Pakistan, as part of an expedition, but failed to and on his way back down the mountain he lost his way and could have died as he had to spend the night alone somewhere on the mountain with nothing." - I responded as I handed him my book and I continued - "He survived the night and the following day he found his way into a remote village and there the inhabitants helped nursed him back to health. He was so grateful for their unwavering kindness and promised to build them a much needed school. And so the book describes his adventures as he attempts to fulfill his pledge."
It wasn't clear if Issa understood my very rough synopsis of the book. However perhaps that was for the best since some of what I had said may not have been perfectly accurate. At least I had presented the general theme irrespective of his apparent obliviousness to my words. Nevertheless he quietly studied the cover, that contained the title "Three Cups of Tea", and then proceeded to peruse through its pages although I wasn't entirely sure what he was searching for until he arrived at the small section of pictures nestled within the book's midsection.
I wasn't close to finishing the paperback. In fact I wasn't even halfway through it so I really couldn't tell him much more than what I had already said. Although something interesting occurred to me as I watched him keenly examine the pictures. There was an obvious connection between our journey that we were in the midst of and this literary work that chronicled the trials and tribulations of Greg Mortenson's philanthropically quest.
"Greg's family moved to Tanzania when he was very young so he grew up here in this country. Actually he lived in Moshi." - I informed him as I continued to remember details while I spoke - "He even climbed Kilimanjaro when he was just 11 years old!"
It was rather coincidental that I was reading a book with which there was a connection with our trek since I had purchased it before the idea of a Kilimanjaro climb was ever even introduced into my mind. Besides, it was background information that was only conveyed in the early chapters, that I had read weeks ago, when describing Mortenson's childhood. Those facts lay latent in my brain until now when they were suddenly summoned. I couldn't help but be intrigued by the mere presence of this connection and I attempted to relay this sentiment to the others however it appeared that I was alone in my fascination of what I was now reconsidering as a feeble association.
Once Issa's interest in Three Cups of Tea was satiated he returned it to me and subsequently he began to show curiosity in the book that Duncan held. Before long Issa had that book in his hands and was leafing through its pages.
Duncan had brought along two books for this trip. One book that he had brought was for both entertainment and information as it was a chronicle of a Kilimanjaro expedition from a couple of years before. He had purposely chosen to bring this book because of its relevance to our expedition. However the second book that he had brought was a factual Kilimanjaro guidebook. And this was the one that he had been flipping through before it took hold of Issa's attention.
I had brought along a comparable guidebook as well however I had shamefully only read part way through the introductory chapter that focused on pre-departure information. Duncan, on the other hand, had at least skimmed through every section of his guidebook and probably thoroughly read several specific portions. I had little doubt in my mind that he would have read every page of it by the time our journey had come to its conclusion.
This exemplified a major difference in our personalities. In many ways we were similar which is likely much of the reason why we got along so well. However one key characteristic on which we contrasted was our organizational and planning skills. And there was little debate as to who was the more able one in this area.
I had followed Duncan's lead early on before we even landed in Tanzania. When he had received his vaccinations and malaria tablets he advised me as to what he received and I would then hastily visit a travel medicine specialist myself to receive the equivalent medicine. I also paid attention to his thoughts on flight plans to Africa since I had carelessly tried to arrange for this only about 3 weeks before my departure whereas he had arranged his flight months prior. Furthermore, I listened intently when he spoke of the clothing he was bringing and other items that could prove useful during the trek. Usually after such a discussion I could soon be found in an outdoors store purchasing something that he had referenced. Essentially if it wasn't for Duncan's influence not only would I not have undertaken this voyage in the first place but I would have also been terribly ill-prepared.
His skill at planning also extended itself to our current situation on the mountain and was expressed in his innate ability to research a subject in almost excruciating detail. The information that he shared with me ranged from informative: "The pine trees that we passed through during the first part of our day are from Belize as the conditions are good in that area to facilitate their growth" to the useless: "Tomorrow we will pass by a cave named Second Cave" to the absolute frightening: "We will have an altitude gain of about 1000m tomorrow."
I had wondered about the existence of pine trees in these parts so at least that mystery was now put to rest. However I had to admit I was rather indifferent with regards to hearing about insignificant mountain features such as a cave even if it had been given a name as creative as 'Second Cave'. In fact, I think I preferred not to hear about characteristics such as that that way I wouldn't have any expectations about the terrain and I genuinely enjoy being surprised by the landscape as it unfolds before my eyes. Although having said that I had to concede that I was grateful beyond words that Duncan had forewarned me that the following day we would be climbing approximately 1000m in altitude. This in itself was something that I would need to mentally prepare for regardless if I was physically prepared for this challenge or not.
As informed as Duncan was there was the occasional instance when I attempted to tell him something that I secretly hoped he didn't already know. It was usually a random fact that I would happen to come across but which sparked my interest and I was excited to tell someone about.
"Hey Duncan did you know that Simba is the Swahili word for lion?" - I eagerly told him as not only were we staying at 'Simba Camp' camp this night but I also remembered the young male lion in the Disney movie The Lion King was named Simba.
"Yeah I know." - he replied as he unknowingly quashed my excitement thereby silencing me or causing me to swear quietly to myself.
A similar scenario would play itself out over and over again spanning the duration of our trip as I grew increasingly determined to discover a piece of relevant trivia that he wasn't aware of. However even though I tasked myself with this challenge, as a side mission to climbing Kilimanjaro, I was quickly becoming cognizant of the fact that reaching the mountain summit may likely be the easier of the two goals.
Although Duncan recalled the information he relayed from many different sources most of this was from the guidebook he had in his possession. This was the same book that Issa had suddenly taken an interest in even though I was certain that he had seen every guidebook, at least in passing, available on the topic of the Kilimanjaro trek given that he had been conducting these treks for years. Nevertheless he did give the book a quick browse before returning it.
Near 4pm we were told that our tea was ready. We were expecting this since in the minutes prior to being summoned we observed as Gaspe shuttled items to a separate tent that was stationed only a few feet from our tent. As we entered this tent, that we would soon affectionately refer to as the mess tent, we maneuvered around the plastic table that had been placed inside and plopped ourselves down on the foldable stools that were present.
Our sleeping tent was a tee-pee style tent. It was bright yellow and appeared new at least compared to any other tent in our expedition's inventory. The mess tent, on the other hand, was clearly older and was well used judging from the holes in the fabric, the unzippable zippers and the faded colours that I imagined had been a vibrant green and beige during this tent's glory days. My theory was that it had once been a sleeping tent but the years had not been kind and thus it had eventually been demoted to the rank of mess tent therefore making room for another younger tent to take its former place. Some day the mess tent would be discarded. Such is the cruel life-cycle for a tent on expeditions such as these.
The mess tent was a classic dome style structure which is adequate for sleeping but made it a bit cramped for sitting up straight, particularly for Duncan, especially when competing for space with a table. However overall it was manageable and I knew we would be increasingly appreciative of this shelter as we progressed to ever higher campsites.
The table was draped with a tablecloth and on this was found all the elements for our tea break: coffee powder, chocolate powder, milk powder, Milo, honey, tea bags and a thermos of hot water with which we could mix our favourite hot beverage. We were a bit surprised to see drink options that contained caffeine since that hinders acclimatization as it has a dehydrating effect on the body. However what astonished me more was the snack that they provided us during this refreshment break. Once again it was popcorn although this time the platter was additionally garnished with ginger cookies laid out on top of the popcorn in a decorative fashion.
I had been bewildered the day before by the appearance of a platter of popcorn but I had assumed it was something that would only happen once. However now I was entertaining the possibility that this snack was instead a daily trend for our trek. Duncan was of course unfazed by the arrival of popcorn because he had read about the fact that we would be given this as a snack.
Popcorn was one of my weaknesses. I loved the stuff. Even if I knew it wasn't the healthiest of snacks my addiction to this substance could never be satiated. As a result I ended up eating most of it once again although Duncan seemed fine with that. It concerned me a little that they would continue to feed my dependence on this snack since I did not have the will power to deprive myself of it. Was this the sustenance that was going to fuel our ascent to the summit?
"Issa, is popcorn a popular snack here for Tanzanians?" - I had to ask.
"No. We just do it for the tourists."
Later in the afternoon, after concluding our tea break, we embarked on a hike. We didn't carry anything for this other than our cameras and a water bottle each so we hadn't even bothered to bring our day-packs along for this excursion. We wouldn't be away from the campsite for very long anyways but I happily accepted any chance to stray from the camp since there was little to do there aside from reading.
Issa slowly led Duncan and I further up the path as we enjoyed the late afternoon sun. We were no longer sweltering in the mid-day heat but it was still fairly warm. The morning had been remarkably clear however now some clouds dotted the otherwise perfectly calm blue sky. I wanted to relish this climate as much as I could since I knew that in a couple of days the temperature would be drastically lower and the wind would be whipping us into submission.
Our surroundings were beautiful. The plant life was stout in comparison to what we had seen at lower elevations but pleasant shades of green were still present and this added some further diversity to the landscape. In the distance, looking in the direction from where we had come, we could see into what was presumably Kenya. Strangely though it wasn't as clear a view, as I would have expected, due to a haze that became further intense as one tried to look farther into the horizon.
Along the path there would be some areas of vegetation that had been obviously pushed aside or even trampled on. Issa pointed these places out as we plodded along and informed us that this was the aftermath left by buffaloes or elephants exploring the area.
"Cool! So there is the chance to see more wildlife during the trek!" - I said excitedly but naively.
"Yes elephants or buffalo do come here." - Issa stated.
"I thought I would only see animals like that during a safari."
"It is not usual for people to see these animals here." - Issa continued - "Also I would be afraid to see an elephant or especially a buffalo while walking. They can be very fast, very aggressive and very dangerous."
Issa had always struck me as being fearless. But if he was afraid to see these types of animals here then I had reasonable grounds to be absolutely mortified in such a situation. Thus suddenly I felt my curiosity to see wildlife was swiftly replaced by cautiousness towards untamed nature as I came to the sane conclusion that it is better to see these sorts of animals during an actual safari trip.
My day-pack hadn't weighed that much and the majority of that weight had been drinking water that dissipated as the day progressed but all the same I still felt a sense of freedom being unencumbered from it for this short hike. Moreover I was noticing the altitude even if I didn't feel that it was strongly hindering me. In fact other then my lungs and legs labouring marginally more than usual I didn't feel any of the other common altitude-related symptoms that one could suffer with sudden drastic changes in elevation. I didn't have a headache and my stomach felt fine. However it was far too premature to celebrate even any perceived invincibility to the typical mountain illnesses as we really weren't that high yet.
We reached the pinnacle of our hike at a gain Issa estimated to be 112m higher than our campsite. That seemed like a fairly exact measurement considering he didn't have any device that looked like an altimeter. However the one invaluable tool he did have at his disposal was years of experience on this trail so I took him at his word.
I found my pulse rate to be 106 pulses per minute. Since this was the first time I had checked my pulse in as far back as I could remember I didn't have any reference point to gauge this against other than Duncan's pulse rate which was roughly equivalent. It might have seemed high but on the contrary it was a reasonable rate considering both the change in altitude and the fact that we had just been hiking upwards.
"Where did you learn English Issa?" - I asked him on our way back down.
He possessed a remarkable fluency in English that was near perfect and it stumped me how this could be possible in a country where it is not a national language. Moreover the overwhelming majority of Tanzanians have more pressing concerns, such as struggling to earn money to live, then to expend the effort required to learn another language.
"They teach it in the public school system. That's where I started learning. But public education is very poor here. If I went to a private school then I would have learned it better. But private schools are too expensive and my family can't afford it. So then I learned more on my own which is difficult since there are not many English books. But I started learning it much better when I did Kilimanjaro treks with tourists because I could practise more."
This made perfect sense. In many under-developed countries tourism can be a lucrative industry for the local economy. As a result many locals attempt to acquire a job in this field however not all of them achieve this. Moreover making it into the industry is no guarantee of success. As a matter of fact, taking Kilimanjaro expeditions as an example, it is grueling physical employment for the porters and it does take an eventual toll on the body. The quandary is that it is an attractive occupation in terms of money and this is a lure that is very difficult for any one, including the locals, to resist. Once one is working with tourists there is the opportunity to become versed in English if an individual takes the initiative to learn it and practise with the constant onslaught of foreigners that grace this popular destination. It was evident that Issa had conquered many a challenge and possessed a great deal of self-determination to be in the position he was in today.
"There are some guides who speak other languages too. Some speak French. The one we saw with the Italian group at the camp can speak Italian. There is even a guide that is learning Japanese. A few speak German. I am learning German."
As if on cue Duncan began to converse effortlessly in German much to Issa's surprise. Duncan had studied, and became fluent in, German while living in Austria and now he was unintentionally testing Issa'a abilities. Issa was speechless at first as he got over the shock that a verbal diarrhea of German words, as it sounded to me, was spewing from Duncan's mouth. But then he slowly began speaking it himself. Although he noticeably struggled he did give the impression of comprehension and even managed to eek out a few phrases himself.
Duncan switched back to English both for Issa'a benefit, to release him from the pressure of trying to communicate in a language that he was just learning, as well as mine since the only German I was familiar with was the isolated swear word.
"I sometimes teach English to children. I do it because people want me to do it. But they want too much from me and they want me to do this all the time. I like to do it because I want to open the minds of others. And they want me to do this too much but I only do it sometimes. I still like to help because the public school system is bad."
It was slightly ironic that he spoke badly of the public school system since he was an extraordinary product of that very system. However perhaps it took someone with Issa's will power, eagerness to learn, and openmindedness to succeed within the environment he described. It delighted me to know that this was possible, and he was able to achieve this, despite the numerous barriers he would have undoubtedly faced. Although somehow I suspected if I had told him that he was truly a success story he would humbly reject that claim. And maybe in his own mind he would be justified in doing so since his vision of success was probably quite grand.
"Public education is very poor in Tanzania and many times lots of children don't have time to study. They need to do work for their families and because of this sometimes they fail school. And if they fail school they are finished with little education. But then their parents convince them to get married anyways and they do whatever job they can find.....or they die young." - he added ominously.
I wasn't entirely sure what he meant by his "die young" comment but he then continued on a slightly more philosophical angle.
"We are all born with a destiny. God creates the end before we are even born. But here in Tanzania purposes are lost before a child even has a chance to grow up. When I am in a cemetery I see a field of lost purposes. Maybe this one would have wrote a book, maybe this one would have become president, but instead their purposes are lost when they die young."
For a variety of reasons people do tend to die young in countries with poor economies and Tanzania was no exception to this unfortunate principle. Their infant mortality rate, as well as the prevalence of AIDS, are contributing factors. And I could sense Issa's feelings of helplessness with all of this.
I was tempted to tell Issa that there was not so much difference with respect to the concept of lost purposes between countries like Tanzania and countries that are considered developed. Except in developed nations the majority of people are consumed by consumerism and their 40-hour work weeks that perhaps they are not fulfilling their deepest desires or possibly even their unique destinies whether they think it is pre-determined or not. However thankfully it dawned on me that comparing the poverty and death in this country with the lifestyle of my home country, even if they both resulted in purposes lost, was an absolutely ludicrous thought. At least in one scenario there is the possibility of a conscious choice whereas in the other hope is much harder to come by. So instead I kept silent and continued to listen.
He admitted that one thing he really wanted to do was open his own business. He wasn't sure in what field, or even what that would entail, but it was just something he felt he aspired to do. Irrespective of his vague thought about this I somehow knew that he would eventually try this and even if he didn't succeed the first time I was confident he would relentlessly keep trying.
"How did you become a guide Issa?" - I asked curiously.
"To become a guide you have to be a porter first. And that was difficult because I was told that I couldn't be a porter."
"What do you mean?"
"When I went to apply to be a porter they look at me and tell me that I can't be a porter. And then I ask them why not? And they say that that is just the way it is."
I could tell that their response of "that's just the way it is" really set him off since his voice inflections were starting to fill with anger. It was as if he was reliving the experience of his being rejected. Most people would have accepted this rejection and carried on but that was not Issa's style.
I had a suspicion as to why he had been rejected without justification even if the reason was weak. The truth of the matter was that at first glance he did not look like your typical porter. Although he had a strong build the most noticeable physical aspect about him, especially within the context of being a porter, was that he was short. At my height of 5'6" even I was at least 3 inches taller then him. The difference was even more pronounced between Issa and Duncan since the top of his head was barely at Duncan's shoulder level.
To be a porter you obviously have to be physically capable of carrying your payload over uneven terrain in a high altitude environment. Therefore when applying for such a position it is advantageous to give the appearance that you can unwaveringly perform this responsibility as well as any other tasks that may be demanded of a porter. Thus when Issa was in the room of hopeful applicants he was already at an unfortunate disadvantage given that he was likely the shortest one there. This may not have given a favourable initial impression for the interviewer and this could have resulted in his premature rejection without explanation. This is what I surmised anyways even if I didn't want to mention it. Nevertheless I couldn't confirm my suspicions as Issa did not provide us with his perspective on why he thought his application was declined. And I certainly didn't want to ask. Nor did I think it prudent to provide my hypothesis of the situation. I knew better than to potentially throw myself into the line of fire. So Issa continued.
"Then I asked him to tell me one reason why I couldn't be a porter. But he was silent so I ask him again for one reason why I can't do it. He couldn't come up with one. So the agency decided to give me a try. Two years later I became an assistant guide. And eventually I became a guide."
I loved the story. He called them on his unjustified rejection and from there he surely proved himself as a porter. Along the way I was certain that he took every opportunity to learn as much as he could whether that involved studying the terrain of the mountain, developing an understanding of the affects of altitude, learning first aid skills, increasing his English fluency by constantly practicing with tourists in the expeditions, or a plethora of other aspects that Issa wanted to absorb.
We returned to our camp with our excursion having taken about an hour. The outing was good for us physically but the most impactful element that I received from the hike was a better understanding of Issa. He was a very likable fellow and this was evident even on the first day that he met me in the airport. However I now had an even deeper respect for him. I absolutely admired his determination and perseverance. Moreover, although he had stated that he liked to open the minds of others I truly felt that in addition he was passionate about opening his own mind. And I sincerely revered that quality in him as well.
As we idly passed the time at the camp waiting for dinner we observed whom I presumed to be a park ranger strolling around the campsite. He may have been present when we had initially signed in when we first arrived but it was hard to tell. Besides my attention was less on his face and more on the artillery rifle strapped on his left shoulder. I seriously hoped that the weapon was not an instrument to keep people in order but rather a defensive tool against stray wild animals that may wander dangerously close to the camp.
At 6:30pm we were beckoned towards our private mess tent for our dinner. Issa decided to join us for this meal. It had been slightly cramped with only myself and Duncan in this tent but with a third person it was unequivocally tight. All the same we were happy to have his company as we feasted on a dinner that included fried chicken, french fries and assorted vegetables. I didn't fool myself into thinking this was the dinner fare of champions but regardless I relished all the food.
There was more than we could eat as usual and equally typical was Issa's insistence that we eat a lot. His relentless encouragement came at a time when I was already at full capacity and I was convinced that if I ate even just one more morsel of food I would instantly explode. He continued to warn us of our pending appetite loss that we would eventually succumb to and I still couldn't resist almost fantasizing that this would happen soon so I wouldn't be exemplifying such gluttonous acts meal after meal. However Issa's comments were more targeted towards Duncan than at me.
I eat slow and this is usually a disadvantage of sorts. Duncan on the other hand eats much faster. Therefore when Issa walked into the mess tent to join us mid-meal the impression was that Duncan took less since he was almost done while I was just taking a second helping even though pound for pound we ate roughly equivalent amounts. As a result Duncan took the brunt of the lecture from Issa on the topic of eating sufficiently during the trek and Duncan's pleas of defense remained unheard.
After dinner, once Issa had excused himself, Duncan and I chatted for a while in the mess tent as we sipped on hot chocolate. We became aware that the camp was slowly quieting down around us as tourists dropped off to sleep one by one. The conversation that remained, when we finally decided to turn in close to 9pm, seemed to come from a couple of the porter tents.
As I lay down to go to sleep I realized that I wasn't that tired even after our day of hiking. I took this as a sign that any jetlag that I may have had was now completely vanquished from my body. However retiring for the night still seemed like the appropriate thing to do since I was well aware how hard a good night's sleep could be to come by the higher we climbed. Besides, there was little to do and we were all talked out for the day. Therefore I attempted to sleep while consciously trying not to preoccupy myself with the altitude gain that I knew was in store for us the next day. Although it seemed like an eternity before it finally happened I eventually did succumb to sleep.