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

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

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

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

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.

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