Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cow & GDC Shenanigans

On days like these when the water goes out not an uncommon thought to have is, "Shit. I shouldn't have flushed that..."

Computers arrived at the school today, happy to report, minimum damage. Only 2 broken monitors. Though only with electricity will I really be able to tell what is what. Ghanzi District Council to my unhappy surprise labeled each and every wire, computer, monitor, mouse and keyboard with a spray can, a big ugly whomping "GDC." One of the teachers commented, "Why did they do that? It's not even their computers." Frackin' GDC. And may all readers be advised: the opinions on this website are not a reflection of the U.S. Peace Corps or the U.S. Government. 

In other news, a cow got stuck on my fence today. Ha.

See photos above.

Losing my fizzle...

You know fizzy drink powders like Emergen-C that you pour in water and stir until the fizzy bubbles stop churning the water into a white white foam? I feel like that fizzy powder. Someone poured me back into my village and I fizzled white foam knowing inevitably that my bubbles will one day end and that I'll be nothing more than some stale, warm, sugary water...

I was supposed to go to Ghanzi today to buy some sports equipment for the hostel kids. But I was exhausted last night, and exhausted this morning, so I'm canceling until next week. The guy who runs the hostels responded with a text, "but.. what about the balls?" The balls are coming, man. Relax. Besides. I'm doing you the favor. 

I'm tired. I'm tired of hitch hiking. I'm tired of the cows in my yard. I'm tired of the birds that flap like a piece of construction plastic in the wind. I'm tired of the stink outside my windows. I'm tired of that dirt road and traveling on it back and forth and back and forth every other day so I can do things for people, things that they very well could be doing for themselves.

Case and Point: an 18 year old appears at my door step as I'm preparing to go to sleep at 8pm 2 nights ago. He literally shoves himself into my house even though I haven't invited him in, he hasn't introduced himself, and I have no idea who he is. He stares at my walls, my pictures, my books and electronics. Finally he speaks, "I want you to help me prepare for a football tournament." The details: 4 teams, 16 players, needed: balls and t-shirts. "Ok..." I say, "You need to write a donation letter." You can tell this is not what he wanted to hear. "Help" here means "do for me." "Tomorrow, write the letter and bring it here to show me." I tell him. "Ok," he says. And I push him out the door. 

Last night, another knock on my door as I'm preparing to go to bed. Scares the Bajeezes out of me. He walks in, no invitation and plops himself down on the table, two BLANK pieces of paper in hand. "Do you have another sheet of lined paper?" he asks me. "No. No paper here. Just the junk you see," I gesture to the piles of pamphlets, newsletters, notes, and checklists I've recently accumulated at our Peace Corps Close of Service Training. He stares for a while and then asks for a pen. I give him a pen. He starts writing the letters in silence. I want to yell at him. I told you to do this on your own! I think... but then again, did I? I patiently let him finish, listening to classical music spilling from the tinny speakers of the laptop I was just about to power down. 

Minutes pass. I'm curious what on earth he's writing. He didn't ask for any guidelines, any suggestions, any help. Finally he stops. "How do you spell sincerely?" he asks. "S-i-n-c-e-r-e-l-y" "Ok." He puts down the pen. I pick up the letter and read it. Not bad. "It's pretty good" I say. "Now, you need to make 3 copies of it, give one to the youth department, one to the DAC office, and one to CB or Jet."

He looks at me, his mouth hanging open a little, seeming to say, "What?" as if this was enough work I want him to deliver them too? "That's a lot of work" he finally says after a pause. 
"Yes it is," I answer, "I know, I've done it a lot of times" for you guys I want to add. "But if you really believe in what you're doing, you'll do it. It's worth it." 
He nods and continues to stare at the letter. "So..." he stalls, "I make a photocopy?" he says.
"Yes"
"And go to Ghanzi?"
"Yes"
A long pause. I can tell he's trying his hardest to figure out how to get me to do this for him. The cogs in his head are turning. His brow crinkles. Finally... "When are you going to Ghanzi?"
I'm supposed to go the next day but I don't want to and I don't want to tell him that, "Don't know, maybe next week." I answer, nonchalantly. 
"Oh..." Another long pause. Finally he looks up and spots a picture of some friends on my wall and stares. Then he points, "Who's that?"
"Just some friends." I steer the conversation back to the subject at hand cause I'm tired, there's no more discussion to be had, and I didn't invite him in in the first place. "So you'll deliver this in Ghanzi next week." 
"Yes"
"Ok then. I'm going to sleep. Bye."
"i'll just leave this here and pick it up tomorrow." he says and puts the letter on my table. 
"Um.. I think you should take it. I might not be here tomorrow." We shove responsibility around. 
"Oh. ok." he says and picks up the letter. I stand up, he stands up.
"You want to go to sleep?"
God yes. "Yes," I answer. Go away. I smile. 
He leaves. As I close the door behind him I make sure to turn off all my lights immediately so he can tell I'm not kidding. 

I feel like a bitter old crank. It certainly doesn't help that yesterday the Peace Corps Doctor called and told me i tested positive for Schistosomiasis. Worms living in my blood vessels contracted from contact with fresh water. Ironically, there is no fresh water near me in Botswana. I don't know how I could've gotten that.

I have this fear that I'm not going to make it home. It's a fear that may become an obsession in the next few months. I want to pad myself in bubble wrap, but bubble wrap won't keep microscopic worms out of my system.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Go Figure!

I go on vacation 5 days after I get electricity, go figure!
I get back after a month and a day later the electricity goes out, go figure!

The cows have broken down my fence in a manner eerily similar to those
on Sim Farm, and are now living in my backyard... but for some reason,
I don't mind. My garden is a lost cause (my neighbor took my shade
netting for safe keeping cause the tomato plants are toast anyway) and
despite the smell, I actually feel safer at night... if the grunting
sound of cows eating, drinking, and pooing ever go away, i know I have
a visitor.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Home Sweet Home

You need a village, if only for the pleasure of leaving it. A village
means that you are not alone, knowing that in the people, the trees,
the earth, there is something that belongs to you, waiting for you
when you are not there. ~Casare Pavese

There is a phrase here that many of us Peace Corps Volunteers in
Botswana cringe when we hear, we cringe because of the absurdity of
the word and all the cultural connections and frustrations associated
with it. That word is "now now." Now now, two nows. Now now means now.
Just now means anywhere in the next few hours, and now means anytime
today or tomorrow. So, by instinct most of us have also developed a
new phrase, "Home home." Home refers to our homes in Botswana, the
villages we have come to grow in, and (for some) to love. By
extension, home home means the good old U.S. of A. Home home, the spot
of earth supremely blest, a dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest.
(Robert Montgomery)

So today, when I talk about home, I am talking about New Xade. The
place I have grown to love (and not love) at the same time. New Xade,
the place of acacia thorns, cows that moo, goats that poo, and sun as
hot as you'd imagine it to be on Mars. This post is about my journey
home.

After climbing (or attempting to climb) Mt. Kilimanjaro, my friends
and I were tired of the drama of airlines and tour guides. We arrived
2 hours early for our 1PM flight determined to make it home in one
piece, drama-less, content with our adventures so far but aching for
some normality and a good bed and shower. At the airport, we went to
lunch at a cafe after being told that we couldn't check in for another
hour. No worries. We sat, we ordered delicious homemade burgers and
chips and cokes and drank and ate happy that our journey was over.
Half way through the burger, I heard a message over the intercom,
"Last boarding call to Flight 1497 to Dar Es Salaam, last boarding
call." I looked at our tickets, I looked at my clock. Shit, that's us!
But how can that be? they wouldn't let us board for another 30
minutes!

One of us got up, dashed to the check in counter and asked them what
we should do given that our flight was leaving now. The guy handed him
our boarding passes and we abandoned our cokes and fries and ran to
the plane. We were ushered into the plane and immediately i knew
something was wrong. There were 3 of us and three empty seats for
sure, but the seats we were assigned to was full. The plane was teenie
tiny and I had a pack the size of madagascar on my back so I shuffled
up and down the aisle backwards and forwards looking for a flight
attendant, an empty seat, a place to put my bag down. We finally sat
in some empty seats and waited while the passengers stared at us.
Finally we heard our names being called. We were told that we were not
on this flight and that we would have to leave.

"Sorry, sorry... sorry... excuse me," I mumbled to passengers with
apologetic and sympathetic looks on their faces as I tumbled down the
aisle with my bag. "Good luck," they mouthed to me. We got out of the
plane and made a beeline straight for the first lady who looked like a
flight attendant. All three of us threw our mouths open at once, where
do I even start! How could this have happened? What flight were we
actually on? How could you do this to us again! Fingers started
flying, pointing, accusations, deflections, finally a stubborn
defiance on behalf of the flight crew. "Come back in an hour, we will
call the office in Dar Es Salaam and figure this out." Camilo was
determined not to let this newest development get the best of him and
made his way determinedly towards the cafe. "I'm going to get our
fries back."

I was livid. In SA, a nice big fluffy bed waited for me, a clean
bathtub NOT a shower/toilet combo, water that I can drink and not get
the runs, rands that I can make sense of instead of shillings I'd have
to divide by ten thousand to make any meaning out of, and best of all,
a flight home to Botswana where I can see my friends again. There was
no way I was going to miss out on the first day of our Close of
Service Conference at a 5 star hotel in Gaborone just because this
airline decided to screw us over for the 3rd time in a row!!

I made my way back to the flight desk not sure what I was intending to
do, but determined none the less. The man we had been dealing with saw
me coming and I saw his eyes glaze over as he slid out of his chair
and pretended to help someone next to me. "Excuse me!" I announced,
"Can I ask you something?" "Go talk to her" he deflected, not looking
at me in the eyes. He pointed to a lady wearing a visitors tag. What
the --?

The lady introduced herself as Ester, customer service relations
agent. I looked at Ester in her casual clothing and visitors tag and
wondered if they purposefully post a clown at the airports in order to
listen to disgruntled passengers like a therapist and pat us on the
back. How could she help me? "I dont want to cause any trouble," I
started, "I just want to know if I can call my hotel in South Africa
in case we arrive.... late..." I mumbled. "You see, on our way here,
you deferred us for 2 nights, once in Johannesburg and once in Dar es
Salaam. We already missed a day of our travel... and got charged an
extra $150 for it... I dont think I can handle it again!" I had
started crying by this point and Ester sushed me towards a corner.
"Don't worry. Just sit over there and I will see what I can do."

I sat and waited in front of Camilo, Kelly, and a steaming hot plate
of fresh french fries. Moments lady, Ester arrived and pulled me over
to the side to the confusion of my friends. "Ms Lin," she started, "it
looks like you have 2 options. We can put you up here for the night or
in Dar Es Salaam." Unacceptable! I thought. "I have to get to Botswana
tomorrow... that's not really an option..." I started. Ester went on
to explain that we could try something else. If we caught the next
flight to Dar, we would land at 10 past 7, there's a flight to
johannesburg that leaves at 7 (the one we were supposed to be on!).
She could call customs and ask them to rush us through. "Yes please.
do that..." I said, and handed her our passports.

Long story short, after much back and forth, Ester, my hero, my saint,
got us on a flight to Nairobi and a connecting flight via Kenya
Airways to Johannesburg. We would arrive at midnight, but we would
arrive. I hugged her and nearly kissed her. She gave me her cell phone
number and email in case anything happened and we were on our way.

Close of Service Conference was at the fanciest hotel I've ever stayed
at (except that my particular room didn't have a working TV, or
internet, and only a passable hot shower, but we didn't complain, too
much). The Phakalane Golf Estate cost me P90 to get to because it was
set so far away from the main city. There, we met our Bots 9 group
again, all 50 something of us left. Gave lots of hugs, ate buffet, had
sushi and expensive drinks, and said our goodbyes to one another.
Peace Corps paid for us to do a game drive, but due to a transport
issue, I didn't make it in time and missed that little treat. After
that, we were put in another hotel to do our medical exams (pooing in
a cup, yay!) and dental exams (mild gingivitis???). and sent on our
way home.

Home, so close and yet so far. I arrived in Ghanzi thinking that I had
a lift home with my good friend Kago, the policeman here. But when I
arrived, I learned that they are keeping him in Ghanzi for the week
and he wouldn't be going back. I went to the hiking spot and found 2
folks who were on their way somewhere else. No lifts today. You can
try so and so though? I tried so and so, called more so and so's and
finally decided that the day was a lost cause, I'd check into a hotel
and wait for tomorrow.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel, but after many unsuccessful
phone calls I decided to wait till Sunday. No one leaves for Xade on a
Saturday anyway. I checked back in. In the hotel room I watched TV,
made more phone calls, had coffee, and lo and behold, got a lift. He
said he'd be ready at 3:30 to leave. The time was 2:30. I quickly
gathered my stuff and checked out with the hopes that the hotel would
penalize me only with a late check out charge. The manager demanded
that I pay the full night's fare, P550. The friend I was with thought
that was ridiculous and demanded to see her. She refused. My friend
insisted. Afterall that was her job. After making us wait a good 5
minutes awkwardly with the desk clerk who just smiled at us with a
look of, "sorry I can't help" on his face, she appeared. She made her
point and I made mine, I'd just checked in and there would be minimal
clean up to do, literally, just empty the garbage. "Fine" she said
with a wave of her hand
and walked away. "Fine?" I asked my friend. She shrugged. I looked at
the clerk, "Fine?" I asked. He shrugged. "What does that mean?" We all
shrugged. I left my number with the poor guy behind the counter and
left. Ok.

I waited at my friend's place pacing the floor and playing with dogs,
puppies, and a cat that I'm severely allergic to till 7:30 when my
lift showed up and asked if I had made him dinner. "no." "oh no... ok.
how about just meat?" "no..." I said. "oh... ok, can i borrow P200?"
ummm... "no." I said. "i only have P20 which i was going to give you
for gas." "Oh ok, give that to me then." So i gave him P20 and he ran
off, yelling behind him, "I'l be right back, I'm just going to drop my
sister off at home." His sister gave me a weird luck, beer in hand,
and the men in the back of the truck, each holding a glass of
something hard and alcoholic, waved at me. I spent the next hour
sitting in front of the window watching the sun set, the mosquitos
come out, and the cars pass. No lift. At 8:30 I gave up, popped a
benadryl, sent a semi-threatening text demanding that he repay me, and
passed out in my clothes and contacts next to an adorable and
freaking-non-hypo-allergenic cat.

The next morning I woke up with half my face swollen and my eyelid
half shut. Popped a benadryl, made lots of phone calls, picked up food
with money I don't have, and waited and waited in a puppy-poo infested
yard for the fates to shine on me. As ride after ride fell through, my
friend commented, "looks like the gods don't want you to go home
today..." I couldn't help but agree. At some point, one of my friends
told me just to go to the hiking spot, she'd be there too. Hiking
spot.

Pause for a moment. The hiking spot I usually go to on the weekdays is
in town, across from a grocery store. The weekday traffic (government
vehicles) usually stop there to pick people up on their way home.
Though recently they've been avoiding this stop because there are too
many people there and they can't control the masses trying to squeeze
themselves into the back of their trucks (nearly 20 people at times!)
So if you want a ride with these cars now, you need a hook up. The
WEEKEND hiking spot, which is the spot my friend is referring to in
the paragraph above, is a spot about 2km from town next to a bar under
a tree which I despise going to because it means that you're stuck out
there next to drunken guys for who knows how long.

Resume my pathetic story. I call a taxi to go to the hiking spot. He
spends 20 minutes trying to find my house. Picks me up, charges me the
same amount I usually pay to get the 108km to xade, and drops me at
the hiking spot where I meet 10 or so of my fellow New Xadians for the
first time in months, shake hands, account for my whereabouts, and
pick a spot on the ground among broken beer bottles to settle for the
next few hours. I sit. I smile. I make more phone calls.

40 minutes later, I have a lead, the clinic vehicle by some miracle
(or because of some poor patient) is in town and can pick me up. BUT
they dont want to stop at the hiking spot for fear of having to fight
off the 10 or so New Xadians sitting there. Would I be willing to go
to another spot and wait? (Aha, this explains why earlier 3 people had
gotten up and driven off, I was wondering where they were going!). I
said sure. Why not. I gathered my things and tried to sneak off, but
no can do in the middle of nowhere in front of 10+ people who are
staring at you. "Where are you going?" they asked. "To get water." I
lied. "with all your bags?" umm. "I left my water bottle at my friends
place (true story), besides, I dont think that there will be any rides
today, right?" people shook their heads. no, no rides. "right, sharpo.
see you tomorrow." I would have gone off scotch free except that i had
5 bags each weighing no less than 35 lbs. Some nice guy offered to
drive me into town... how.. .nice. I said.

I got in his car and as we were driving, whispered to him that in fact
i'm not going to town but just to the other spot down the road, could
he drop me off there. I told him someone told me to try my luck here
and asked if he thought that was a good idea. "yeah," he said, "good
idea' a smile growing on his face. Maybe it was my paranoia or maybe
it was my guilty conscience, but I like to think i was just happy for
the lift, but I offered to buy him a drink. "no thanks," he said.
Instead, I gave him my lunch, a cheese and onion roll (yum.). I waved
goodbye and he turned right around back to his friends at the hiking
post. A few minutes later, the clinic vehicle rollled up, i gave my
nurse friend a hug, threw my things in the back, and huddled in the
corner trying to hide myself from the view of the windows in case
anyone looked inside. And indeed, they did. We stopped at the hiking
spot where the drivers made nice with the hitch hikers and the hitch
hikers peered in the windows to see who was in there, I hid and wished
myself invisible while the nurse next to me laughed at me.

Arriving home after nearly a month away, i'm surprised how foreign the
faces here look, and how familiar as well. The dark skin tones which
ones seemed so normal had a new curious color to them. My house has
turned into a cattle crawl, the cows broke down my fence and have made
themselves at home. It stinks. My gutters have been re-done, by whom,
I don't know, my leak is still there, and most surprising of all, my
hot water is now cold and my cold water is now hot. Other than that,
my house is just as I left it, the village almost exactly the same. At
COS people were asking me, knowing what i know now, would I change my
site if I could? I dont think so. As much as the transportation
situation here moves me to tears each time I try to come in and out, I
wouldn't trade this experience. I can say that now that it's almost
over. After all, when someone joins the Peace Corps, their dream is to
live in a small rural village. This world needs villages. If not just
for the pleasure of leaving it... As much development is happening
here, New Xade is timeless. I have a feeling, it will always be
waiting for me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Life is better than Mountain

At 1am at the Johannesburg airport, a tired-looking flight attendant
announced to a room full of disgruntled passengers on their way to
tanzania that our flight was canceled and we would be retiring to a
hotel for the night. We gathered our items and in a disordered heap,
followed the ladies in suits around the airport, up escalators, down
stairs, through dark corridors of sleeping people and terminals under
construction, through passport control, and into the luggage area
where I sat in the corner with my bag full of junk and rocked back and
forth like an insane person. After 30 minutes, the luggage still had
not arrived, and I was beginning to feel my brains seeping out of my
ears. Having long ago abandoned my bag in a forgotten corner of the
room, perched precariously on a guard rail, I ran around the luggage
carousels, leaping onto a luggage cart, and sailing into the empty
spaces before me.

Occasionally, I would look back at the group of tired and grumpy
people behind me, make eye contact with a sorry looking traveler, and
give them my best "this is shit, but oh well what can we do?" shrug
and smile. No one cared. This continued for quite some time before
luggage came out and we were directed by personnel out of the airport,
through the parking lot, and onto the street to face a beautiful and
brightly lit hotel building. Maybe this night wouldn't be so bad? As
the ladies directed us towards the hotel, fifty traveling strangers
thrown together by a sorry fate began talking loudly as we were led
past the hotel, through a back corridor, into a bus terminal, and onto
a shuttle bus that could only fit half of us. I realized that I had
gotten too excited too soon. The shuttle bus drove us a long and tired
15 minutes away to a conference center where we got out, grumpily
accepted room keys and retired for the night around 2:30 am with no
hope and no idea of whether or when we would make it to our final
destinations. I hate to think of the poor folks who had to wait for
the shuttle to return...

I had a restless night before light started streaming from my bathroom
windows at 5:30 am. Sunrise. At 7:30 I jumped out of bed, called hotel
reception and asked them if they'd heard from the airline company yet.
Yes, they had heard. They wanted us to be at the airport at 11AM.
Great news. We would make it. Only a 4 hour flight, and then a
connection to a 1 hour flight and we'd be at Kilimanjaro. We had all
day, plenty of time. I delivered the good news to my friends and
together we strolled to the hotel breakfast buffet and indulged in
coffee, croissants, and other goodies, thinking this would be our last
good meal before the climbing Mt Kilimanjaro.

At 9:30 Am we boarded the airport shuttle and went back to Joburg
airport, where we had inadvertently spent the past 12 hours the day
before. At Joburg, we were told that we would be given new directions
at 11. So we sat. and sat. and sat. 11 oclock came and went, and the
status board read, "Dar Es Salaam. 23:40 Delayed 12:00." 12:00
fantastic. Plenty of time to make it to Kili and maybe get some grub
and a good night's sleep too. At 11:30 the flight attendants appeared
and we lined up at the check in counter. We were one of the first in
line, and 30 minutes later we were still one of the first in line.
Apparently, the system would not let them reissue new boarding passes
to nearly half of the passengers.

Eagerly, we watched the attendants in suits walking back and forth
between the counter and the offices carrying all varieties of
passports, boarding passes, and erroneous luggage tags. By 1:00 we
were through the gate, through security, and at our gate, giving each
other knowing nods like comrades in war. The flight attendants had
told us we would leave by 1 and we would definitely make it to Moshi
tonight. "We had first priority. Even though the flights were full
(what?) we were first priority" 1:00 came and went. By 2:00, 3
resilient passengers remained standing at the gate, looking around for
some sign of hope. The rest of us slumped in our chrome and plastic
chairs looking at nothing in particular and taking turns staring at
our bags, wondering why on earth we packed so much, and going to the
bathroom. Finally, we boarded a shuttle bus to the angry sounds of one
particularly disgruntled passenger. We loaded, we flew, we slept, we
did soduku, we ate, and we landed in a foggy Dar Es Salaam at the
local time of quarter past 6.

As we left the plane, I felt that I had gotten hit with a wall of hot
sweaty spit. I knew Tanzania was north, and therefore closer to the
equator, but the humidity was unimaginable. I instantly started
sweating. One of the passengers, a Tanzania native, loudly warned us
that we would sweat bullets and smell like sewage for a few days, but
as soon as our toxins cleared, we would smell lovely and right as
rain. She also warned us not to drink the water, not even to open our
mouths in the shower or else we'd have "the shits" all the way up the
mountain. Which is no fun cause as soon as you take a squat in the
bush, 4 Tanzanians will jump out of the trees to watch you shit, after
all, she says with a manic laugh, a lit cigarette balancing
precariously between her lips, "they've never seen a white shit
before."

With this news, I clutched my passport and my bottle of clean South
African water as we stood in the cloud of hell at the airport,
awaiting further instructions. Immediately we were met with the news
that we would be staying the night here in Dar Es Salaam. My heart
sunk.

Today was supposed to be our rest day, tomorrow we would have to start
the hike, and I already smelt and felt like shit. Another hour and a
half later, we were led to shuttle busses where I crammed in next to a
talkative Namibian and we were off on the bumpy crowdy roads of Dar Es
Salaam to our next unknown destination, a horrendous hotel with
horrendous spa/beauty salon with an advertisement that featured a
horrendous looking woman from a western whorehouse and faux-antique
rugs so moist with humidity it felt as though you were walking on a
wet lawn. I turned on the A/C, turned on the TV and watched in horror
as the only programs on were football, cricket, world news, and a
national geographic special about a lady who goes to Ecuador, meets a
man, and gets arrested for having his drugs in her luggage. I took a
shower in water that smelled like sewage, dried myself off with hotel
water that smelled like sewage, and poured my toiletries down the
drain since they'd be taken by airport security anyway the next
morning.

At 4:30 AM, I awoke to once again bounce down the colorful, crowded
streets of Dar to the airport at 5AM to catch another flight at 7:20
AM to Kilimanjaro. According to our itinerary, we would start hiking
later that day at 1PM. Provided we actually arrive.

As the plane touched down in Kilimanjaro airport, we all strained our
necks to get a glimpse of the famous mountain. As soon as it came into
view, a small smiley Japanese woman sitting next to us, camera at the
ready, squealed with happiness, took a whole bunch of pictures, and
gave us candy. As we descended the plane, the air was clear, brisk,
and cool. The airport was green. Grass, trees, flowers, gorgeous
beauty everywhere. A young good-looking man met us at the exit with a
sign, "Kessy Bros. Tours Pax 3." "That's us!" I yelled, and led to the
charge to his awaiting SUV. The driver met my enthusiasm with a
colorful smile. "Caribu," he said. Welcome. We were finally here.

Standing at 5700m above sea level, Mount Kilimanjaro is the world's
4th tallest mountain. Coming from Botswana where one of our highest
elevation points is a mound of dirt called, "pimple hill," seeing the
peaks of Kilimanjaro as we drove from the airport was breathtaking. 6
days on the mountain and 80 km of walking would take us all the way
across tropical African rainforest, lunar landscape, scrub dunes, and
finally, to the ice cap peak at 5700m above sea level. Kili is also
special for another reason, it is deceptively easy. For hours at a
time the trail seems flat, but gradually it takes you higher and
higher. Each year thousands of tourists descend on the mountain to
attempt the climb, but less than 1/3 of them make it to the top,
mostly due to elevation sickness. To prepare, my friends had been
training for months, climbing stairs, eating healthy, doing yoga, and
collecting protein bars and homeopathic remedies for elevation
sickness.

For 6 days and 5 nights, we slept, shivering in crude wooden cabins,
forced ourselves to drink at least 4 liters of water a day, bathed by
moonlight in freezing weather by buckets brought to our cabins, and
forced by our concerned tour guides, swallowed the copious amounts of
food we were given. On day 1 we hiked 4-5 hours through tropical
forest to base camp. On day 2, we trekked through scrub bush and
rolling hills for 6-7 hours. On day 3, we climbed to 4200m to
acclimate and returned to camp mid afternoon to rest. On day 4, we
crossed the scrub bush and entered the ice cap, 7 hours. We made camp
at 4700m and slept in a room of 20 other hikers to prepare to summit
that evening at 11PM. At 11PM, we were awoken with steaming cups of
tea and coffee and gently encouraged to wake ourselves up. Time to
climb. 1000m more to the tip of Kili, Uhururu peak.

They have a saying for climbers like me on Kilimanjaro, "Life is
better than Mountain." At 4700m above sea level, nursing a
vomit-inducing migraine brought on by altitude sickness, I happily
chose life. Sipping my cup of tea, sitting wrapped up in my warm
sleeping bag I waved goodbye to my friends and fellow climbers at 11PM
and stifled a smug smile as they drunkenly put on layers and layers of
gear and prepared to hike the last 6-7 hours to the peak of
Kilimanjaro to watch the sunrise. One by one they left, and 6 hours
later, one by one they returned with varying levels of success.
Stories of sunburn, dizziness, headache, fatigue, falling, failing,
succeeding, vomiting, and other adventures reached my ears. Instead of
"how are you today?" the question around camp became, "did you make
it?" People arrived back at camp throughout the day and collapsed in
tears onto their mattresses, boots, gators, and gear still clinging,
wet, on their bodies. The dormitory turned into an infirmary as bodies
amassed. 2 hours of rest later, and porters came to fetch their wards
for the return trip home.
My friends were the 2nd group back. Arriving tired, burned, and empty
of all stomach contents, they collapsed in bed, barely able to utter
the words "Gilman's Peak" to me before passing out. They had reached
Gilman's Peak, a point 200m short of Uhururu Point, 5500m high, before
attitude sickness, cold, and fatigue kicked in and they were dragged,
tears streaming, down the mountain. Their water bottles were still
frozen when I dug through their packs to look for cameras. "It was
worth it," they gasped, "but I'm not doing that again." The pictures
were incredible and for a moment, I doubted my decision to pass on
this life changing opportunity. But then again, I thought, as I
watched my friends snore, their beet colored faces swollen with
fatigue, life is better than mountain.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Status: Indefinite"

After a nap curled up in my sleeping bag lying on the terminal benches with my laptop under my head as a pillow like a bum, being stared at my a gaggle of shaved children from Mainland China, I woke up at 11pm bleary eyed and time-lost to my friends packing up and waiting for me to stir myself from my stupor. I hauled my all-of-a-sudden-too-large hiking bag to a terminal miles away and joined the line of more sleepy folk, most of whom were men, on our flight to Dar Es Salaam. From the terminal, we were shuttled via bus to the plane. As I and the first passengers got off the shuttle, we took turns shuffling forward slowly, none of us willing to venture up the steep airplane steps first. I won. I followed 2 women in high heels up the steep steps, found my seat, and felt myself shrink 2/3's of my already tiny height attempting to hoist my bag into the compartment (in a manner similar to Mario when he gets hopped on by the angry little mushrooms). After I rearranged some items, smashed some more items, and begged for help to squeeze my items up and away, I covered my face and hoped that the people in the row in front of us wouldn't give me the evil eye.

Ten or so minutes later, after exhausting the generic contents of the in flight magazine the PA system came on and our captain announced "sorry for the delay. we are going to have to restart the engine." a few minutes later, "the bus is ready for you." Confused, we all stood up, wondering if we should take our bags, what kind of delay this was, and why we were being asked to leave. I hesitated long enough to watch everyone else grab their bags before deciding it would be better to hoist mine on my burdened shoulders rather than lose everything (I seemingly own) on the plane, and scurried after everyone, trying not to trip over my bag's long stringy coattails. On the bus we watched with increasing anxiety as the plane was turned off and engineers scanned the cockpits with flashlights. Uh oh, not a good sign. As the bus took off, one disgruntled passenger broke the silence with a loud obnoxious wail, we paid for this! he yelled. In the uncomfortable silence that followed I saw darted glances and hidden smirks, and soon everyone was discussing something or other.

At the terminal, 100 or so tired and very confused passengers made a bee-line after 2 flight attendants in bright yellow flac jackets and we walked through the airport, waking sleeping folks, watching the nair salon attendants scraping spilled polish from the carpets, and avoiding the curious glance of other pity-eyed customers like sheep being led to the slaughter. As we wove our way through the airport, I stole a glance at the departures board, "11:40 Dar Es Salaam, Status: Indefinite" Shite, shite shite shite. The further we traveled from the terminal, the smaller my hopes grew of a timely departure. We were led to a large lounge with free wifi, food, drink, and even champagne. This may work to subdue some people, but not me. Especially after my friends and I put down an over $1000 deposit on our Kili trip and have to make a connecting flight at 7:30 am to Moshi. Indefinite??? So now I'm sitting here taking advantage of free wifi when I had hope and expected to be completely without connection to the real world by now, drinking for the first time in 2 years, fresh squeezed orange juice with a very bitter and sour look on my sunken grayed face... Oh well. At least there's facebook...
Currently sitting in an airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, after buying 75mb of internet for $5 waiting for our red eye flight to dar es salaam tanzania. We leave at 11:45, arrive at 3:45, transfer to a plane for Moshi, Tanzania at 7:45 and then check into a hotel for a day before attempting a climb on Mt Kilimanjaro. I have to admit, I'm not feeling so great. After being away from home for going on 3 or 4 weeks, I'm feeling tired, sick, and (let's be real here) constipated. Oh well. What's a girl in the Peace Corps who lives in the middle of the most remote area in the world to do? Going to attempt a nap on the airport benches snuggled in my 3-season sleeping bag and try to pass time as pleasantly as possible. On the upside, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro? Great excuse to spend $15 on peanut mnm's, nut mix, and chocolate covered sunflower seeds.