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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Between heaven and earth: Mauritius

So there I was, caught between heaven and earth. Though it wasn’t really that dramatic. We were in the Black River Gorges National Park in Mauritius, hiking up the island’s highest mountain, Piton de la Petite Rivière Noire. Only 828 m (2,717 feet). I knew there was the usual “bit of scrambling” at the top, as well as a fixed chain. But it had been several weeks since Kilimanjaro. So unlike on Lion’s Head in South Africa, where the scrambling and chains came upon us unexpectedly, I was physically prepared for the final ascent to the summit.

Not mentally. I made the mistake of looking back down. We were scrambling up with the aid of a fixed rope; without it, it wasn’t possible to get our footing on the path. T., with all the zest she had previously shown on Lion’s Head, scrambled up ahead of me, only to look around the corner and say it was much more difficult from there.

I didn’t know how far—or rather, how close—it was from that point. All I could think about was getting back down.

Maybe it was the rope. I dislike ropes and chains as much as I do scrambling in general; it’s the reason I’m not a mountain climber, or for that matter, a scuba diver. Something about relying on equipment (on Kili, we were repeatedly told not to rely even on our trekking poles). I just think, I don’t know who fixed this rope. Why shouldn’t it snap on me?

But the real psychological question, which I had time to contemplate as T. made her way, hell-bent, to the top, is why I am making a habit of this. Black River Peak is now the third mountain I have hiked, yet failed to summit. On Kilimanjaro, saving my strength for the descent made sense; I wanted to summit, badly, but simply didn’t have enough left in my body. This was just a wobbly moment. And unlike other wobbly moments, when I’ve always been in a group of people and known that I had to force myself through whether I liked it or not, this time I just looked down, thought “No,” and turned around.

A kind friend and reader wrote to compare my turning around on Kilimanjaro to something Ed Viesturs would do. Viesturs is a U.S. mountain climber who has summited all the major peaks in the world; the only thing we have in common is that he thinks of a mountain as a round trip. Because he is always thinking about how he will get down, as well as get up, he has turned around within meters even of the top of Mount Everest, when he wasn’t sure about the descent. And unlike many of the personnel who were on Everest in the spring of 1996, Viesturs is alive.

But there was nothing wrong with the conditions on Black River Peak, and had I only known how close the summit was, I should have been able to force myself up. And back down. I didn’t. I don’t have those pictures, and I don’t have a good story as to why. 

Permission to fail is a powerful thing, when you have it for the first time in 44 years. Not that I haven’t failed before; I have, spectacularly. But earlier in my life a failure was just the most painful thing, and it took forever to get over it. Now I’m like the gambling ad: “When the fun stops, stop.” 

And this has worrying implications off mountains. I am the type of person who has to force myself to go out the door and do anything, even when I’ve done it before and know that I’m going to have a good time. If my new mantra is “Climb No Mountain,” how am I going to get out of bed in the morning?

Anyway, you all don’t read The Discreet Traveler for my solipsistic mutterings about why, having turned around at half the cruising altitude of a jet airplane, I now can’t do anything. You are probably wondering, Why Mauritius? Or even, Where? 

The Cape of Good Hope is one of the symbolic “corners” of the world. Once you round the southern tip of Africa, you leave the Atlantic Ocean, which separates the Americas from Europe, and enter the Indian Ocean. For this reason, even though we are still closest to Africa, I feel we are already pointed towards Asia. We had the good fortune to stay on this paradise island. It was made possible by a friend who is from Mauritius and her extraordinary generosity; but that’s really T’s story to tell. Few North Americans come to Mauritius, and I can now tell you why: It is just about the furthest place on the planet to get to from N. America. The true “opposite side of the world.” But if there’s one thing I did know about Mauritius, it’s that it was the home of a famous, now sadly extinct bird: the dodo.

The dodo had the misfortune of both tasting good and being unable to fly away, so Europeans promptly hunted it to extinction. T., who always sees the best in everyone, would probably want me to acknowledge that they didn’t know they were hunting it to extinction. They probably thought resources were limitless and there was no reason to modify their behavior in any way. Good thing no one thinks like that nowadays.

I still think it’s a shame about the dodo, especially since it probably didn’t look much like this in real life. But the painting by Jan Savery, in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, is what inspired Lewis Carroll to make the Dodo a character; and so it has taken on life after death. You cannot step anywhere in Mauritius now without being urged to buy tacky souvenirs of this dumpy profile. (A pink fridge magnet, if you must know.)

We flew in on a plane with tropical patterns on the seats and swimming fish painted on the walls. It was an old enough plane still to have ashtrays (they were glued shut), and there were other ways Air Mauritius and its partner, South African, reminded me of air travel in former times. Not just the metal utensils, classy as those were. No—when we got to Cape Town airport, and discovered our flight to Johannesburg was delayed, we asked the S.A.A. agent about our connecting time for our flight to Mauritius. I was bowled over to discover that the airline, on its own initiative, had already booked us on an earlier flight to Jo’burg—so we’d better hustle on through security! Imagine an airline not only caring if you missed your connection to another airline, but actually sorting out the problem before the customer had to figure it all out for herself. Further, imagine security moving quickly enough that we had time to board!

Our local cab company in Cape Town, through which we booked a ride to the airport, gets points too. Sometime after we passed between the two giant townships of Langa on the north side of the highway and Gugulethu on the south, our driver braked for a foolish parent duck that was leading its ducklings across the road. The car behind us, fortunately, stopped too, so I trust the ducks were happily united on the other side of the road.
"A Duck and a Dodo" --Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
The dodo made its first appearance on our landing card for the Republic of Mauritius. I paused at the question, “Which countries have you visited in the past six months?” Suffice it to say they barely fit in the space provided. But when the plane touched down at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International, the crew announcement was, “Welcome to our island paradise.”

I can tell I’m on a paradise island, because first thing every morning (and throughout the day) there is birdsong I’ve never heard anywhere else. I’m not much of a birdwatcher, but the brilliant colors of tropical birds could make one philosophical, even if one wasn’t already. “Like a bird on the wire…”

The voluntary and involuntary movement of people around this world have created some amazing cultural mixes, and Mauritius is one of the most interesting. Because the U.K. was the last colonial power, the official language is English, and Mauritians drive on the left. The language you actually see and hear spoken everywhere, though, is French, because the island was previously Isle de France. And the religion of 50% of Mauritians is Hinduism, which makes it look like we’re closer to Asia—temples everywhere, more than churches and mosques. The currency is the Mauritian rupee. Even the original colonizers, the Dutch, who didn’t stay, left the Creole legacy on Mauritius by bringing in plantation owners and Malagasy slaves to work the sugarcane fields.

We learned some of this history thanks to T’s sister and brother-in-law, whom we were glad to have join us for part of our visit. You can’t just lie around on a beach when my sister-in-law is around. She persuaded us all onto the local bus, an experience in itself, for a day trip to Port Louis, the capital. There we negotiated the trashy alleyways of a port city (not unlike India, she said) and stumbled upon a UNESCO World Heritage site at the waterfront. This is Aapravasi Ghat.

Basically, the people from whom Creoles are descended had been working the sugarcane plantations during the years of French colonization. But after the British took over (some Napoleonic defeat thousands of miles away) and abolished slavery in 1835, they needed new people to do the work. So they started using indentured servitude, what might be called “slavery light,” bringing in immigrants from India. Aapravasi Ghat is where these indentured servants landed, and today, their descendants are 70% of the Mauritian population.

This was especially interesting to me because I, myself, am descended from an indentured servant. Henry Knowles made the trip from England to the American colonies in 1630. The Knowleses subsequently went to Nova Scotia, which is why I can truthfully sing, in the Canadian national anthem, “Terre de nos aïeux.”

History is all very well, but you know food and drink are never far from my mind. Here, too, Mauritius is a dream combination. Imagine a tropical island where everywhere you turn there is Indian food, from curries in the restaurants to samosas on the beach. But, it’s also French in that the grocery stores have warm baguettes. As for drink, the gardener offered T’s sister fresh coconut water from a coconut he just picked himself. That, and fruit juices, are so fresh here I’m finding virgin ways to make cocktails, which I don’t normally drink.

We did discover that “spicy” means something different to Mauritians, possibly because it means something different in French. When a Creole or Mauritian Indian dish is described as spicy, it’s flavorful enough, but not remotely hot. The only way I have discovered to make it hot is to put the ubiquitous chili sauce on it. On reflection, even Indian food was not always spicy in the way English speakers mean it. There were lots of flavors in India before the discovery of chili peppers, which are originally from Mexico.

Isn’t it marvelous how people and ingredients have traveled around the world? Doesn’t it make our lives richer? 

On the beach on Sunday afternoon, I saw a family come down with one person carrying a cooler and another, a tambourine. No party is complete without it! “Our” beach here is Trou aux Biches, which refers to does. Evidently there was once a watering hole for deer here. It looks a little different now, with the Indian Ocean to swim in and one of the best sunset-watching beaches in the world.

Of course, even paradise on earth is not without its flaws. We spoke to some Mauritians who don’t think their coral reef is being properly taken care of. Which is extremely shortsighted, because if the reef is blown up and beaches eroded in order to build more hotels…what are people going to come stay in the hotels for? We were also talking about swimming with dolphins, an amazing experience we had here in Tamarin Bay. We heard from another Mauritian that with more boatloads of tourists visiting the dolphins, they don’t play with divers the way they used to (in fact we weren’t permitted to dive), a possible sign of stress. Conveniently, I only learned this after we’d done it ourselves.
I’m a big believer in the positives of travel and convinced there are ways to make it sustainable. But if, for example, strict limits weren’t placed on visiting the great apes of East Africa, they too would go the infamous way of the dodo.

It’s hard to get too upset about anything in Mauritius, though. Here, even more than in most places, we’re so conscious of how blessed we are to be able to travel, to meet people all over the world and see places for ourselves. I know from my own country[ies] that the place that welcomes you can be very different from the version that appears on the news. 

When faced by any big problem, such as the environment, it’s tempting to think “What impact can I, one person, have?” But you know what? 
“Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land."*

*Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Hopelessness and hope: Cape Town

It says something that I've spent ten days in South Africa and am marveling at the United States' capacity for violence and racism. Some people might be expecting me to blame the president, or have some glib solution to intractable problems. I do neither. What I have to say to my native country I say with great love: There is no way this is the best you can do.

Come on, you are Americans! The people who put a man on the moon, led the Allies to victory in 1941-45, and invented so many things. You are the country of Yankee ingenuity. When faced with a challenge, Americans don't wring their hands helplessly or fall in a heap. You pull together and integrate the armed forces or whatever you do. You have to do better than this.

We started our visit to South Africa’s oldest city in the most touristy way possible: with one of those open-top, big red bus tours. Normally I shun such things as tacky and overpriced, but in this case, it was good value for money. I’d been so focused on Kilimanjaro that I’d put almost no effort into researching any of our subsequent travels, so my orientation to Cape Town was nonexistent.

The bus not only took us around the Atlantic Seaboard Coast and up to the Table Mountain cableway (which, as on most days of our visit, was closed because of high winds), but provided more interesting commentary than most such tours. For instance, I was fascinated to learn that the Afrikaans language was first written in Arabic script (early 19th century) by Cape Muslims. Many white Afrikaners in the past, eager to create a myth of racial “purity,” made an effort to convince the world that Afrikaans was just a dialect of Dutch, devoid of African, Asian, and indigenous influences. I am sure I wasn’t the only foreigner, therefore, to associate Afrikaans with white speakers and in particular its apartheid history. In fact, the majority of speakers of this language, the most widely understood in South Africa, are not white, but “Coloured.”

Martin, our unforgettable taxi driver down from Table Mountain on a day the cable car was open, identified as Coloured. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Cape Coloured identity has its roots in people who were taken from East Africa and the East Indies as slaves, as well as the indigenous Khoisan people. During the apartheid period, everyone was classified from birth as white, “native” (black African), or Coloured. Naturally, this history of forced classification means that many people don’t like and no longer use the term Coloured, but others claim it, as a unique culture whose origins are far older than apartheid.
Cable car, Table Mountain
Martin told us his entire life story, including the loss of his longtime job because someone crashed his government car on a drunken evening. Not the most reassuring thing to hear while careening down the road from Table Mountain. One thing Martin had to say from his years in government he probably has in common with most South Africans: Nelson Mandela was his “father,” his hero. Like many other people, he doesn’t think anyone else is up to Mandela’s standard, except the ailing Bishop Tutu.

But he was just getting started. He informed us that the neighborhood where we were now staying, Woodstock, was “the worst” during the apartheid years, run by notorious crime bosses. Now, as we could see, Woodstock is undergoing a transformation into a trendy area—with all the costs that gentrification imposes. We began almost to feel guilty for staying there, as Martin regaled us with the dangers of his own neighborhood (somewhere near the Cape Flats). Every night by 7:00, he parks his BMW, which belongs to the taxi company not him, and is seated in front of the television; otherwise, “a bullet in the head. But don’t worry, ma’am!” he said cheerfully.

After exiting Martin’s taxi, we took our lives in our hands and explored our new neighborhood, which seems to have more craft breweries than gangsters these days. Just down the street from us was The Old Biscuit Mill, like many former factories (including our apartment building) now transformed. On Saturday mornings it’s jam packed with people enjoying artisan craft shopping, live music, and all kinds of wonderful fresh food. Or, as Martin put it, “it’s crazy!” Takes one to know one, buddy.

The railroad is just beyond, and we were never far from people whose lives are clearly running on the wrong side of the tracks. But even in South Africa, a traveler can’t spend all her time thinking about poverty and its evils. After all, I’d mostly recovered from my Kili trek, and there were other mountains to climb.

We started off thinking we would hike Signal Hill, just behind the first place we were staying, in the gay quarter. Despite my best research (i.e., I asked a man walking his dog), we did not find the path up Signal Hill, but ended up on a Lion’s Head trail. Lion’s Head is between Table Mountain and Signal Hill and peaks at 669 m.

We thought we’d stop at the place where the Signal Hill and Lion’s Head trails join, have lunch, then walk back down. But T., having recently celebrated her BIG birthday, was in Energizer Bunny mode, and said, “You’re sure you don’t want to go up a little bit?” “A little bit” turned out to be most of the way up Lion’s Head, including the infamous rock scrambling; we only turned around because the last bit towards the top is ladders and chains. You would have needed to put me in chains to make me continue, after my Kili experience. We hadn’t set out to spend the whole day hiking, and I felt the descent more than usual; but it was nice to get back on the horse, so to speak.

The big red bus people do a harbor cruise, too. And as the sunshine was continuing (the Western Cape is actually suffering a drought), we decided to enjoy this feature of Cape Town the next day. It was worth it just for the seals! They were all over the harbor, obviously so used to boats and people that they couldn’t care less. Not having seen any dassies (rock hyrax) on Table Mountain, I was glad the seals were so generous with their time.

My account of our South African travels would not be complete if I didn’t rave about how well we’ve been eating and drinking. I realize the economy is not doing well here, so things would not be so affordable were we earning rand. Still, South Africans love their meat, and their wine, something I hadn’t tasted since Europe. 
Ostrich shwarma. Not on the menu at every kebab shop!
I can't say enough good things about the national airline, which not only served hot meals on each leg of our flight, but metal utensils! What do they take us for, adults?

Tasting, Old Biscuit Mill wine shop. Martin the taxi driver shops here faithfully!
I really do have to plug for the City Sightseeing bus tours in Cape Town. They took us all around the peninsula, and they also partner with a local initiative in what I found the most interesting part of our stay. That was our visit to the township of Imizamo Yethu, which started to creep up the slopes near Hout Bay only in the 1980s. It was the closest we got to a glimpse of how the majority of black South Africans live to this day.

Primary school
We were lucky enough to be hosted by Mr. Kenny Tokwe, who seems to know everyone in his township, like a kind of informal mayor. Kenny, it turns out, has met with Bob Geldof and the president of Ireland (the Irish have been very involved with building permanent homes in Imizamo Yethu), as well as visited Niagara Falls. A United Church of Canada in St. Catharines, Ontario is another organization that has partnered to help build schools and training programs in the township.

From the road, all you see is tin shacks up the hillside, but there is a lot more to this community. The brick houses (some with shamrocks and Irish green painted on them). The satellite dishes. The churches, which were just letting out their well-dressed congregations at 1:20 on Sunday afternoon, and the more numerous informal bars, which as in Ireland are called shebeens. Kenny told us there are fifteen African nationalities in the township, all speaking English as a common language—plus the Chinese! God bless them, everyone else in Imizamo Yethu is black but everywhere you go in this world, there are Chinese people running shops.
Shebeen. No smoking or pregnant women allowed inside, and free condoms. "Less pregnancy, less AIDS, more fun," as Kenny said.
It’s a hard life and I’m sure not everybody cared for us spending a little bit of our time and money in their community. But some did. The little kids who screamed the Xhosa equivalent of mzungu, and ran to hug us around the legs. (“They’re saying ‘white people,’” Kenny explained unnecessarily. If there’s one thing I know after a month in Africa, it’s how white I am.) And the Arsenal football (soccer) fan who shouted “We love you!” and was only too eager to talk to a Manchester United fan (T.), if only to rib poor Kenny, who supports Liverpool. Football in South Africa has a primarily black and Coloured following. Much was made of the Liverpool theme song “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” 
"If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk with others." --Kenny Tokwe

This country has such formidable obstacles to overcome, but South Africans have already shown their ability to do this. I really hope I get to come back and see how far they get, because there is great potential for the future. You should visit here.
The Bo-Kaap neighborhood. Residents were not allowed to wear bright colors, so they made up for it with their houses.
“I see white folks and colored walking side by side
They’re walking in a column that’s a century wide
It’s still a long and a hard and a bloody ride”

—Shel Silverstein/Jim Friedman, 1963

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tanzania to South Africa

We had grand plans for overland travel in southern Africa. It started with a ten-hour bus journey from Moshi south to Dar es Salaam. This trip wouldn’t take ten hours in a developed country, but the Tanzanian authorities have had the presence of mind to install almost constant “traffic calming” measures (i.e., speed bumps). Without these, Tanzanian drivers would get so excited by the prospect of a paved, relatively smooth highway that they’d drive too fast and kill each other. Which they sometimes do anyway.

The Dar Express is a relatively comfortable long-distance bus, though older and louder than its counterpart would be in a Western country. What it doesn’t do is stop. It makes a kind of rolling stop for people to get on or off, and the sliding door closes as the bus lurches away, but otherwise we had one stop. There actually are highway services along the road in Tanzania. They had the type of toilet we’d become familiar with (more than the bus had), fruit stalls, and a lady selling samosas. T. bought some for lunch. They were delicious!

Needless to say, I was ready to get off the bus by the time we got to Dar, and so were our fellow passengers—all Tanzanian except for one German gal. The three of us negotiated a taxi into the city, as the bus station, so to speak (Aix-en-Provence would be proud), is on the outskirts. I think the German got the short end of the stick here, as she ended up at our hotel and the taxi driver wouldn’t go any further. She was last seen getting a different taxi from the hotel to her hostel, wherever it was.

We were thus not predisposed to like Dar es Salaam, and probably didn’t give it a fair chance. After all, it was only a stopover. There are no doubt parts of the city that are worth visiting, but where we were just seemed like a big city version of Arusha: all the dust and things not working properly, yet none of the warmth and friendliness. It was supposed to be near the train station and the airport, but it wasn’t near anything. The only bad meal we had the entire time in Tanzania was in the restaurant of our hotel! We did have much better success down the road the next day, at “the Savoy,” which resembled a fly-ridden backyard barbecue more than the Savoy. Our hostess there said “Meat or fish?” and, when we said fish (it’s coastal after all), provided us with whole fish in a scrumptious sauce, rice, the delicious greens I’d come to love in Tanzania, and what my elementary school lunchroom would have called “soup beans.” It was the lone highlight of our stay.

So we decided to get out of town and fly to South Africa. Arriving at the Oliver Tambo Johannesburg Airport from Julius Nyerere Dar es Salaam Airport is a study in the contrasts of Africa. Dar had a cheerful chicken shop outside the terminal, with smiley faces carved into the seats, and that was about it. Jo’burg had a food court, familiar shops, and everything you could think to buy at an international airport closer to home.

Tanzania lacked traffic lights and sometimes sidewalks; the roads were often dirt and rocks, and drinking bottled water was recommended. South African roads, sidewalks, and traffic lights (“robots”) were all much more familiar, and you can drink the tap water. Taxis have meters, which is a contrast to the Tanzanian style of negotiating in advance the price you’re willing to pay the driver (he assumes, not unreasonably, that even the wildest price he asks will not seem like too much when translated into a dollar or pound equivalent). And, we could stop taking antimalarial tablets. But this is only part of the story.

Tanzania has over one hundred tribal groups who basically get along. It has not been torn apart by tribal conflicts the way neighboring countries like Rwanda, Burundi, and even Kenya have. We were told that in Tanzania nowadays, if a man and woman from different tribes want to marry, this is no big deal. It just means that their children will grow up knowing both mother and father’s native languages, as well as at least one lingua franca: Swahili or English. Puts us to shame, really.

South Africa has a much different post-independence past. At a time when a race-baiting regime is in full swing in the U.S.A., it’s instructive to be in a country that so recently defeated a racist system.

I won’t recap the twentieth-century history of South Africa, as others know it better than I do. But in cities and towns across the continent (and indeed the world), streets are named after Nelson Mandela, as they are after Martin Luther King, Jr. Mandela has become admired as a prophet of forgiveness and reconciliation, who transcended the particular time and place he was a part of. 
South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize winners: Chief Albert Luthuli (1960), for nonviolent resistance to apartheid; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and Presidents F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela

What Mandela is said to have done for South Africans is to free them, whatever their color. He recognized that an oppressive system warps the psychology of the oppressor, as well as the oppressed. Obviously apartheid crushed black South Africans. But if you are white and your society tells you that makes you superior, and that you should fear the angry black underclass beneath you, that is not healthy for you, either. 

Mandela was not always this admired, of course. During his imprisonment, many, like Margaret Thatcher, regarded him as a terrorist, and it’s understandable why. If you think a government is legitimate, then someone who advocates violent resistance to that government is a terrorist. This is an example of how history is written by the winners: to the British Empire of the 1770s-80s, the American revolutionaries were terrorists.

It is to be regretted that Mandela’s successors have not inherited his prophetic and transcendent spirit. But a U.S. citizen can hardly point out other countries’ embarrassing presidents. What I can see are South Africans of all colors who are doing very, very well—driving extremely nice cars and living in beautiful seaside neighborhoods. I can also see a new kind of fear, as those homes are all double-barred behind security gates. Many have fencing, electric wires, and security alarms that call out armed response. 

The fear is not color-based now, but crime-based. There is an extreme economic inequality evident here, in that a few miles from the lovely homes of Cape Town, other people are living in temporary tin shacks. They could be in Tanzania. But in Tanzania a very few people (in mining, for instance) are extremely wealthy and live isolated, excessive lives, and everyone else is poor. In South Africa it seems that the wealth is spread around among a much greater number of people, but the inequality is still African.

It’s staggering, actually. It seems unsustainable. But I don’t know what it’s really like to live here. I just know that we stayed in a lovely place in Cape Town and had a wonderful time. 

I’ll have more words and pictures about this but the enduring image that I have of Cape Town was not captured on camera. It was in Green Point Park, near the stadium that was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately, Cape Town is not a big soccer town, so the stadium sits empty most of the time now. The big sports here are rugby and cricket. We saw a group of young people playing a cricket match, and among them was a girl wearing head-to-toe Muslim covering. If I wore that much I would not be able to see the ball, let alone run, but she was swinging the bat and running the bases (or whatever it’s called in cricket) just like all the other kids. The Rainbow Nation, indeed.
Rainbow, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
That’s the other thing about South Africa. While we were here, there was a holiday Monday, Heritage Day, which has only been observed “since democracy.” It encourages everyone to celebrate his or her heritage, no matter what it is. We stayed down the street from Temple Israel, a reminder that South Africa has one of the significant Jewish communities of the Diaspora. And far from having an invisible LGBT community, like so many African nations, South Africa has actually enshrined gay and lesbian equality in its contemporary constitution, which I don’t think can be said of any other country. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reach for the sky

Back down from Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t as sore as I thought I’d be. I was aware of my muscles (calves and glutes especially), but not to the extent I expected after eight days of hard hiking. When I reflect on summit night, I realize that as soon as I was sure I couldn’t make Uhuru Peak—or the crater rim, for that matter—the sooner I turned around, the better. No point climbing higher only to have a longer descent. 

Back at Barafu camp after the summit attempt. 4,600 m
I got several hours of sleep in my tent back at base camp, which is more than those who reached the top got. I credit this with my not stumbling and hurting an ankle or knee on my way back down later that day, because the Mweka Route is the worst on the mountain. It took me, Tommy, the other descending climber, and her assistant guide, the wonderfully named Happygod, a long time to get down to Mweka camp. In that time we saw two porters, separately, wipe out on the trail, one of them really hurting his ankle. Some companies just don’t care how much their porters carry or even if they have adequate footwear, and they’re always in a hurry.

I learned some other things on Kili and I hope they’ll help anyone who might be contemplating the challenge, because it’s well worth undertaking. One thing is the dirt. If you spend any time in Tanzania in the dry season, you already know how much of it is just dust, but the dirt on Kili gets into everything. Nose, mouth, lungs, fingernails. Everything you wear or sleep in. I am not a prissy person but I wished my niece had been there to paint my nails some gaudy color, just so I wouldn’t have to see how filthy they were. I almost cried when I got back and found the lodge had booked us a room with a bathtub. You’d cry too if you saw what the tub, or sink, looked like after I tried to wash up.

There are no boundaries on the mountain. Everyone talks about the toilet all the time. (I suggest skipping to the next paragraph if you’d rather not have some practical information.) You quickly lose any inhibitions you have about using a tree, rock, or whatever you can find, or indeed the long-drop outhouses that are found at campsites and periodically along the trail. I was fortunate enough not to need a trowel for burying anything, but I do think it’s pretty awful how people leave toilet paper lying around. (Someone complained about how difficult it is to use the squat toilets but I assure you, if you’re not able to maintain that position, your legs aren’t strong enough to carry you up Kili anyway.) A brilliant suggestion I read, which I wish every woman on Kili knew about, is the use of “panty liners” or whatever they’re called on a day-to-day basis. It minimizes the need for T.P. when you’ll be glad of any savings in time and energy. Also, that expensive “wicking” underwear can live to fight another day. 

In general, it’s depressing to see litter in a wild place and especially on a world treasure like Kilimanjaro. Why anyone would throw candy wrappers or hand warmers down on the trail, I do not understand. Carry a Ziploc bag and pack any trash out. I would do this on any hike.

Something I brought and never used: soap. It never came out of my bag. The crew provided soap and hot water periodically for washing, but there was minimal opportunity to wash anything other than hands. What you can’t bring too much of is hand sanitizer and wet wipes. You definitely want to avoid any kind of tummy upset under the circumstances. The American gals in the tent next door had so much baby powder and dry shampoo going on, they joked about what Albert and Muhammad, the tent guys, thought when they shook out their tent in the morning!

One other thing that someone suggested, but ended up being useful for a different reason: Bag Balm. I’d read somewhere that it would be useful for keeping cuticles soft (everything gets so dry and crusty in the cold, dry, thin air). But Bag Balm really came into its own for greasing my feet before I put on liner socks. It kept me from forming “hot spots” that would have been painful blisters. Without blister prevention (and the “second skin” plasters you put over hot spots to keep them from forming), there is no way I could have kept walking.

So much for the practical. The drive to Londorossi Gate is one of the longest starts to any route up Kili. We were lucky enough to see giraffe and zebra on the way.
Not the best picture, but you can see a zebra standing between the giraffes. Ca. 2,360 m
We also saw colobus monkeys at our first campsite, but they eluded my camera. As did the stars, that night and every night. I was amazed not to find other people outside at 8:00 PM (“backpacker’s midnight”) looking at the Milky Way. You’ve never seen a sky full of stars brighter or clearer than over Kilimanjaro.

I kept having this feeling: that I was on the mountain for somewhat different reasons from other climbers. Ours was a great group, but they tended to spend their time in camp hanging out in the dining tent (we were very well fed and watered, which helped). I liked them but could not spend all my time in there talking about the toilet and who was taking Diamox. I wanted to get out from the crowd and appreciate that I was in nature.

One of the guys brought a mirror. I don't know how he could stand it. I didn’t see myself for over a week and I could tell I wasn’t missing anything. It felt great just to get in the tent after a day’s hiking, change out of boots and socks and into fresh clothes for the night and following day. And I loved the idea I read to wear a necklace or some small reminder of looking nice, even though I’m not into conventional femininity. Anything just to feel a little bit normal and clean!

Stretching was a good idea, as often as possible. It helped me go to sleep warm and kept me from waking up too stiff. Another idea the girls in the powder tent had, too, was to cut off drinking liquids at a certain point in the evening, to keep from being up the entire cold night. Of course, this presumes you’ve had your minimum 3 liters of water (plus soup, tea, etc.) during the course of the day.

White-necked raven on the outhouse at Shira 1 camp. 3,500 m
Hydration is critical up there. I get a dehydration headache if I don’t drink enough at any elevation, and on the mountain, you’re breathing really dry, dusty air. They say “breathe through your nose” but I found that impossible a lot of the time—too stuffed up. Every time I even thought about getting a headache or suffering from altitude, I automatically took a sip from my Camelbak. It turned out to be easy to drink 3 L a day.

The kind of person I am is, I had planned and prepared meticulously for this trek for so long that when I was finally there, all I had to do was follow through. It didn’t turn out to be that simple, of course, but I did try to be there in each moment. One of the Canadians kept wanting to see the peak of Kibo, saying “That’s our goal,” but I wasn’t that focused on the goal. I needed to walk each day and in the end, that was all I could do. 

As I’ve mentioned, the crew took ridiculously good care of us. Muhammad and Albert dusted our boots off when we came into camp (to be fair, this kept them from having as much dirt to shake out of our tents the next morning). Everything, including the duffel bags, were set up for us; I couldn’t even put my trekking poles in my “verandah” without some porter helping me. By the way, for those who were worried that I threw the duffel bag away at the end of the trek: It, together with a number of items I have no need to carry around the world with me, were donated to my trekking company to give to porters. I even hand washed the technical shirts rather than give them something dirty. It gives me pleasure to think some hardworking Tanzanian will soon be seen on the mountain wearing a Toronto Pride & Remembrance Run T-shirt. 

The cook, David, fed us lots of carbohydrates and familiar “Western” foods, but we also got to try ugali, a kind of stiff corn porridge used to scoop up delicious greens; banana fritters; and lots of tropical fruit. Our guides also performed twice-daily health checks using pulse oximetry. The jury is out on whether oxygen saturation measured this way accurately predicts acclimatization, but it was good of them to keep an eye on us. My pulse has never been particularly slow and whenever it’s measured it goes up automatically, so I raised eyebrows even before we left the lodge. I joked that I had “orange hat syndrome”—reacting every time I saw a guide coming with the pulse oximeter. The head guide described my “resting” pulse as “like police car.”

Kibo from Shira 1 camp, third morning
On the third day I reached the highest altitude I’d ever been at: over 10,000 feet. The sky cleared and before dawn I could see the highest peak, Kibo, clearly outlined right outside my tent door. There was a beautiful half moon. That night we camped at the little-used Moir Hut, an alternative to the main Lemosho Route, which meant we were the only group camping there. We had time for an acclimatization hike to a higher altitude before supper. There was a bit of “proper traversing” on this, which should have clued me in to all the rocks to come, but I had no headache or ill effects from the climb itself. Everything was tired, but nothing actually hurt. I didn’t want to turn around on summit night because I’d skipped a “bonus” hike.

That third day was particularly nice. I really enjoyed hiking the Shira Plateau, which is what's left of the oldest peak of Kilimanjaro, and the beautifully quiet campsite and first clear views of Kibo. We were a strong group and that did not yet feel like a drawback to me.
Me (and Kibo) at Moir Hut. 4,200 m
My Canadian Olympic winter hat (“toque”) got the odd handslap and cheers of “Canada” on the trail. At Barranco camp the next night, a couple of women from Calgary came over and started talking to me. Their Canadian gear, naturally, consisted of Mountain Equipment Co-op stuff. I told them one of our team was from Calgary too. The guy with the mirror!

The stars were still amazing, but everything was feeling like a lot of effort by the fourth night. And my teammates seemed to be focused just on the summit, not Tanzania. They had stories of other adventure travels they had done or wanted to do. They were there for different reasons from mine, and maybe that’s what propelled them upward.

The descent from Lava Tower campsite, our second acclimatization ascent, into the Barranco Valley was interesting as we started to see all kinds of vegetation again. I wasn’t able fully to appreciate it though, because of constantly having to watch my step on the rocks. I was at the head of the line that day, paced by assistant guide Amadeus, and as a result, I was happy with the pace. Reaching Lava Tower was a highlight, as it's just 7 m lower than the highest mountain in Switzerland.
Lava Tower campsite. 4,627 m
David and the crew even served us a hot lunch at Lava Tower campsite! If I didn’t make it, it wouldn’t be because my appetite was gone.

The distinctive groundsels of the semi-desert, Barranco Valley
People spent a lot of time running around trying to get a phone signal. I didn’t get it. Hadn’t we come here to spend time in nature doing something unusual? I wasn’t planning even to turn my phone on, except as a backup camera on the seventh day.
There were some cocky men who had held us up on an earlier day, pushing their guide to pace them faster, then slowing down so we had to keep stopping behind them. Now they were suffering from the altitude. I thought, at least I know better than that: snail’s pace for me. But the fifth day brought scrambling up the Barranco Wall.

I cannot imagine the routes that do our fifth and sixth days’ hike all in one day, and then summit at night. I found the hike from Barranco to Karanga camp, and then up to Barafu on the sixth day, to be bloody hard work. It was a shock to adjust so well to the altitude, and sleep well at night, yet find all the up and down rocks to be so exhausting. When I got into camp on the sixth day, Innocent (one of the Innocents) gave me a hug!

I wrote in my last post about feeling pushed and worn out, and how I just didn’t have enough energy left on summit night itself. When I was walking back down with Tommy, I immediately felt warmer and better than I had at 5,200 m. I looked around and saw a bright red crescent moon, and the lights of Moshi far down below. I like that I had the presence of mind to appreciate that.

Back at Barafu camp, I was at the same elevation as Lava Tower campsite—4,600 m. I could eat only pure sugar, so thanks to the friends who gave me Kendal’s Mint Cake, which was eaten by the first men to summit Mount Everest. 

Once we got back down to Mweka camp and the hard part of the descent was over, I was determined to enjoy the final day in the forest. I felt lucky because missing the summit might have ruined the trip for some of my teammates; they were so oriented towards it. I enjoyed a lot of my trek but I was also humbled by how unbelievably hard it was.

Glad to be back in the forest. Ca. 1,800 m
Someone at supper asked if I was going to give T. a big hug when I saw her. Yes, but shower first! We all agreed that she was really smart not to have come on this challenge, as even those of us who wanted to do it were taxed to our limits. 

Oh yeah, one more thing. On the way up everyone was debating the usefulness of a “pee bottle” and being able to take care of this without going out into the cold multiple times during the night. Only one person was successful, and she (I) was careful not to acknowledge this until the whole climb was over. The She-Wee had not proven necessary along the trail, but it really came into its own in a single tent ;-)