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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 ;-)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – 
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs – 
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’ 
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’? 

The Feet, mechanical, go round – 
A Wooden way 
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought – 
Regardless grown, 
A Quartz contentment, like a stone – 

This is the Hour of Lead – 
Remembered, if outlived, 
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – 
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

So, I trekked Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa. I booked an eight-day trek to give me the best chance at acclimatization, as well as the opportunity to enjoy quieter trails and a greater variety of scenery. My goal was to enjoy each day of the trek and to attempt the summit.

I did appreciate each of the eight days, and I did try to summit. I gave it everything I had left. When I turned around at 5,200 meters (it’s 5,895 m at the actual peak), it was my decision, and I walked down under my own power. Can’t do better than that.

There were a lot of things that could have gone wrong and didn’t. I never had any digestive or other irregularities that might have put me off my stride. I didn’t twist an ankle or knee or get a bad blister. I can’t say the altitude didn’t affect me—every physical activity was harder work up there—but I never had dizziness, or nausea, or shortness of breath per se. The only headaches I got responded to ibuprofen, which I’ve read is a simpler alternative to acetazolamide. (Many people take this medicine against acute mountain sickness, but it’s not actually licensed for that—it’s for kidney disease. I’m not judging others but I didn’t want to take a performance-enhancing drug.)

And the weather was good. Dry, and not too windy. I slept remarkably well in a tent night after night. I went into summit night physically exhausted but in a good mental place. We had a few hours to sleep, and I actually did. I had good mountain songs playing and when we started up for the final ascent, they were in my head continually. 

If any of these other factors had forced me to abandon my trek, I would have felt like I didn’t have a chance; but I had every chance. For three consecutive days we climbed to a higher altitude, then descended lower to sleep—which is good for acclimatization. My blood had time to thicken and my body to adjust to the lower air pressure and hence, difficulty in getting oxygen. Having said all that, just getting out of the tent at high camps was enough to make my heart pound and for me to feel out of breath, so altitude can’t have helped.

I can’t say I met my goal of enjoying every day. I enjoyed the first four days, each of which was through a different climatic zone, with different fauna and especially flora. Day 5 started feeling like really hard work. We had to walk, in parts “scramble,” up the Barranco Wall, and it took about two hours. Some people really got a kick out of this rock climbing part, but for me it was just exhausting. Even arriving at the top of the wall was only a temporary victory, as we then had a rocky descent, followed by another rocky ascent, before we reached camp.

At the top of the Barranco Wall. It was not about to get easier.
I know it seems obvious, since Kilimanjaro is a mountain, but the hours and hours of uphill climbing were just relentless. I said to my teammates during the trek that after reading so many warnings about the altitude—how fitness doesn’t make a difference, only the altitude—I had possibly underestimated just what hard work the whole thing would be. That many hours of hiking, day after day after day, would have worn me out at a much lower elevation. And almost none of it was just one foot in front of the other, pole pole as they say. It was rough and uneven; it was up and down. Unless I paused to take a picture, I had to constantly keep my eyes on my feet, otherwise I would surely have fallen or injured myself. It feels like a miracle that I never did. (Well, I fell once, but then so did everybody else.)

Day 6 was “only” three hours—our trek split the day before summit night into two days, which was supposed to help. I found Day 6 exhausting too. Relentless uphill climbing, and my legs felt like Jell-O by the end. I remember thinking, before crawling into my sleeping bag for the odd hour of sleep, that I didn’t think I had enough left in the tank for the summit. But of course, I had to try.
Kibo, the youngest and highest peak of Kilimanjaro, from camp 5

So what actually happened on summit night? We started at Barafu Camp, which at 4,662 m is higher than Mt. Elbert, the highest of the Rocky Mountains. The very beginning of what was estimated to be a seven-hour ascent (followed by as many hours of descent) was more %$#! rock climbing. This was why I doubted I had enough left, but I knew if I could just make it over the rocks it would get more gradual. And, unlike on Day 5 when I’d felt like cussing out the assistant guide, Estomi (“Tommy”), I was determined not to be pushed to keep up with the group. If the head guide needed to split the group into slow and slower, then so be it.

Which he soon did. Two of us were slower. Soon I got slower still. Soon it was just me and Tommy, my favorite, plus one of the porters who was accompanying the summit party (to carry bags and, if necessary, a person down the mountain). The porter was lovely. He kept patting me on the back and calling me “Mama Simba,” though I didn’t feel very lioness-like at the time. When I finally turned around, he said "See you later" and seemed genuinely sorry.

It got to the point that I would shuffle along for two or three steps, then just lean on my trekking poles trying to catch my breath. Tommy asked if I was sick but I said I was only tired. Eventually, I said that I could probably keep up this ridiculous pace for hours (and still not get to the top and just have to descend from even higher, though I didn’t say that to him). What I was worried about, though, was that I would get cold. I was layered up really well and toasty—in fact there was a security layer I never took out of my backpack—but all that was predicated on my moving up the mountain, pole pole. No matter how warmly you’re dressed, if you spend much time gasping on a windy ridge, you’re going to get cold.

Tommy tried everything. He took my backpack from me, gave me my water, encouraged me to eat something. It was funny because the day before, when in his abrupt way he’d said “Go, Jacqui,” I was ready to tell him to eff off. I really think he was just pointing out a gap in the traffic, not rushing me, but I was starting to lose my enjoyment at that point, and focused my irritation on this taciturn guide. Now, I was destined to spend the whole night with him.

He was reluctant to make a decision, so got the head guide on the radio. I explained that I didn’t think I could make it and in the meantime, was afraid of getting cold. I was told that Tommy would carry me down. Like hell he would! He accompanied me all the way back down the rocky descent, and occasionally took my arm to ensure I didn’t wipe out, but for the most part he just walked ahead of me, and I stayed on my poor feet by myself. (Which reminds me of yet another thing that went perfectly: My boots were gold. My feet, and everything else, were tired, but my boots never let me down.)

At the time I had no concept of the hour or how high I’d climbed. Later I realized that I’d ascended 600 vertical meters, or almost halfway. That makes it sound possible, but another 600 vertical meters was not possible—not at that pace, not on the same day, and not with a 13-km descent to go after almost no further rest. The wonder, to me, is that so many people actually do complete this.

Tommy rolled me into my tent at 5:00 in the morning. I had been high on the mountain for five hours. Later I found out that the other “slower” hiker had been forced to descend a couple hours after I did, with hypothermia. She was fine, but my instincts had been right.
Tommy and me, down at the final camp. Is that a smile on his dour face?!

Would I have had any more left if I hadn’t been hiking with such a strong group? Possibly. But if my overall pace had been slower, that would have meant more hours on my feet each day. It also would have meant getting into camp too late in the afternoon for a hot cooked lunch, and having to eat a cold packed lunch on the trail instead. I tend to think that would’ve canceled out any advantage.

I’ll have more to write about the overall experience later, and more pictures to share. Right now I’m still processing, because to be honest, I usually finish what I set out to do. But maybe in the past I’ve avoided trying things that I wasn’t sure I could accomplish.

What I want to leave you with is this video of our crew. It took 31 porters, 4 guides, and 1 chef to get us up the mountain, and without them we’d never have made it to the first night’s camp, let alone the top.

These men (ours were all men) do this for a living. They carry more than we do, they wear less, and they do it routinely. They couldn’t have done more to make our “job” easier—welcomed us into camp every afternoon, dusted off our boots, served us tea. And somehow they still had energy left to sing and dance. “Kilimanjaro, slowly slowly—no problem.”

It was nice of them, but I think I prefer the kind of camping where we put up our own tent—then have a campfire. And maybe some bourbon. And I can’t tell you the pleasure I had getting rid of that damn duffel bag.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Women on the edge

It didn’t occur to me immediately that what is most different about Tanzanian roads isn’t their surface, or the fact that some drivers don’t use, or have, lights. It’s that there are no traffic lights or stop signs. Anywhere. Once in a while there is a big junction with a roundabout and usually a clock tower. Every turn, and every pedestrian crossing, requires waiting for a gap.

Or forcing your way in. Which brings me to the “discreet” part of traveling again. In our home countries, we would not hesitate to introduce each other as “my partner”; here, people say “friend” and we don’t correct them. The rationale is that it’s none of their business, but of course it’s no one’s business in the West, either. There’s a double standard for countries like this, where there is no uncloseted gay or lesbian scene.

It sucks for gay people who actually live here, but I rationalize that our coming out would not help them. The belief of Africans who are homophobic is that queerness is a wicked Western import that Africa would not know otherwise. 

I think this is one instance where it must be harder for a couple of gay guys traveling together than for women. The legacy of colonial-era laws in many countries still makes male homosexuality illegal. With us, though, a man will just marvel at our different culture wherein we travel without our husbands. Or, as another man asked me, “How many children do you have?” It would never occur to him that none could be the answer.

All this is benign enough and I hate, as much as any woman who does not have a husband, the ruse of inventing one. But I’ve done it rather than be harassed by some guy. To paraphrase the late Betty Berzon, do I care about having a more honest relationship with this person? No, I just want him to go away!

It takes a couple of days to get the hang of a new place and how differently people approach us here. If someone in a European city started talking to me and walking along with me, I would treat him with suspicion. There would have to be a good reason for me not to get rid of him; otherwise I’d suspect it was a scam. Then there’s the other factor, with which any woman traveler can identify: If you’re a woman and have spent any time on your own in cities, anywhere in the world, you react to men differently, for your own safety. It’s no comment on individual men, or to say that men in general are likely to be predators. It’s just not a chance a woman can take. Asymmetrical, but there it is.

In Tanzania, anyone who engages with us and is persistent is always a man. Having said that, most men, and all women, do not do this, but are simply being friendly. Unlike in Western cities, most people greet each other on the street here—and then carry on their business. Tanzanians are hardworking people. They might call out from their shop for us to have a look at something, but they’re not going to leave their stall behind and follow us down the street!

So, we’ve learned to say no, firmly—to a few persistent guys. We’ve also walked along and chatted to a few, like Michael, who is a porter on Kilimanjaro and training to be a guide. Michael didn’t try to sell us anything or get us to go to his cousin’s shop or follow us past where we all were going. He just chatted with me about Kilimanjaro, in an encouraging and friendly way. He asked which company I’m going with and when I told him, he said that they’re good, and treat their porters and guides (as well as clients) well.

John echoed this, and I hope they don’t say that about everyone, because it’s one of the reasons I chose this company. John is our friend down the street. We see him every time we walk that direction (only during the day). He’s a porter too—and an artist, who tried to get me to look at his paintings. I explained that I didn’t need any paintings as I’m not adding any more to my backpack. “So, you don’t want to support local?” 

“I didn’t say that, John; I said I don’t need any paintings, thank you!”

This seems to work. We’re a lot more comfortable with guys like John now. As I mentioned, 90% of the people we’ve said hi to on the street don’t put any pressure on us at all, and 100% mean us no harm. Everybody’s just trying to make a buck. Even the other night, when we finished at a restaurant and asked the woman there to please get us a taxi (because the advice is not to walk around Arusha after dark). I’m sure the guy who showed up was just her brother or friend; he certainly wasn’t an official taxi driver, and didn’t know where anything was, even though we’re only staying a few minutes away. T. had to direct him at every point—and then he still had the nerve to ask for double what we knew the price was. (He didn’t get it). Oh well, at least one of us got to sit in the passenger seat for a change.

What I mean by that is our adventure in the Monduli Mountains on Tuesday, when our guide's brother mysteriously sat in the passenger seat the entire day. (Supposedly he was catching a ride back to the guide's village.) I would love to have time to write about that, and the wonderful day we had with award-winning Tengeru Cultural Tourism, run by the magnificently named Mama Gladness. But I'm heading up Kilimanjaro tomorrow and have final packing to do. T.'s blog can fill you in.

When we left Arusha, headed back to Moshi for the next week's adventures, we ran into John again. (We see him every time we pass that part of the road.) He ran up and hugged each of us like an old friend. Didn't ask us for anything. It's nice to feel like we know people in town.

If you ever get a chance to visit Tanzania and you possibly can, take a few extra days and spend them in Arusha. Check out one of Mama Gladness's projects in the community and meet some local people, most of whom have never seen the wildlife in their own national parks. Don't get me wrong--a safari is the trip of a lifetime--but just flying into the country and staying in a hotel isn't really seeing it. I'm glad I finally got to do both.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Mzungu in Arusha

According to the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, mzungu is a term used by Bantu language speakers for people of European ancestry. Interestingly, its 18th-century origin is in reference to Europeans who were always traveling the world; literally it means “someone who roams around” or “wanderer.” I like it. We are, after all, travelers roaming around the world, and besides, there’s nothing like arriving in sub-Saharan Africa to remind me that I'm white.

Arusha is the title of my first novel (2010 Lambda Literary Award finalist; check it out!) The climactic scenes are set here in Tanzania, and ever since I first visited in 2001, I’ve always wanted to come back. To trek Mount Kilimanjaro, sure, but also to see the country again, do a bit more independent exploring this time. East Africa is still the most different place I’ve ever been.

First of all, there’s the white thing. As many of us have learned, it is possible (though not desirable) to live for many years as a white person in a white-majority country and not ever really think about it. I don’t want to digress into an earnest race relations discussion that is probably beyond me, but surely one of the traumas the U.S.A. is currently undergoing has to do with it becoming a white-minority country. Not that I, or indeed many white Americans, think that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but perhaps it is this that makes some people finally realize that their race/color has affected their lives—something I suspect non-white people learn much earlier. I defer to an African-American friend who once told me, “My being black has made a profound difference in my life. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t.”

So drop this white person into a place where 99% of the population is black African, and I feel like a neon sign. Not to mention I’m obviously a visitor, someone with enough money to travel from another continent, and therefore, by the standards of most Tanzanians, a wealthy person. Kids feel free to just ask the mzungu for money, without any preamble. They aren’t beggars. They’re going about their business, herding goats or whatever, and think, Why not give it a shot?

The first person who called us mzungu, though, was one of the lovely hotel receptionists in Moshi, our first stop. We thought she was saying that, because we were mzungu, touts would constantly distract us at the bus station, so she was going to get us a car there for 3,000 Tanzanian shillings. We thought this was odd because we’d just walked to the bus station the day before and it was very nearby. Then her colleague explained that she wanted to escort us personally to the bus station, “because”—she hesitated a second—“you’re white.” She said it almost apologetically, the way you might tell a friend in the ladies’ room that her dress is stuffed into the back of her pantyhose.

“Well,” I said, “can’t do much about that. Although if I’m not careful in the African sun, I’ll be pink soon.” She laughed as if this were original.

So our friend from the hotel walked us to the station, found a bus going to Arusha, and made sure there were two seats on it and that we got in them. It was for this 81-km journey that we paid only TZS3,000. Which is about a dollar and half. By “bus,” I mean a Coaster bus, which seats 30 people. The way it works is you climb aboard and people try to sell you things through the window (unless you shut it). When every seat is full, the bus leaves. There are perhaps 50 a day on this route. Once you’re in the seat, you can’t really move, but it’s not that uncomfortable for a short journey, I thought. (I was very glad to have locked my duffel bag, i.e. for the Kilimanjaro trek, up at the hotel for my return to Moshi. No way would it have gotten on the Coaster—our backpacks were on our laps!)

You might notice that we are all standing on the side of the road in T’s picture. That’s because, somewhere past the turnoff to Kilimanjaro airport on the Moshi-Arusha road, the driver stopped the bus. We hadn’t noticed anything wrong, but after he stopped, smoke began coming out, and we deduced that we should all leave the bus. What happens in these situations, apparently, is that the driver flags down subsequent buses and they take one or two passengers or whomever will fit, until all his passengers are taken care of.

Problem was, the vehicles that did stop all stopped in different places, so we weren’t sure where on the side of the road to stand. I passed up a rather large lady who obviously couldn’t move as fast, but when the next bus arrived, there she was in front of me. She actually patted me and giggled as she boarded the bus, the way a tennis player raises her hand after creaming her opponent with the ball.

Needless to say, we were the only two mzungu, and the last people to get a ride! But it all worked out. A nice car stopped and the bus driver arranged with this gentleman, who had a large cross dangling from his rearview mirror, to give us a ride into Arusha. Our ride then switched on video screens in the back seat so we could watch music videos! Did I mention it was a really nice car? Take that, Tanzanian lady!

The cross gave me some assurance that we weren’t about to be dismembered, although I’m not sure how seriously to take Christian symbolism around here. Seemingly every bus and dalla-dalla, and many shops, are adorned with pictures of Jesus or Mary and slogans like PRAISE THE LORD (or, occasionally, CHELSEA FOOTBALL CLUB). Our bus was called the Lion of Judah; evidently Ras Tafari was not as good at taking care of vehicles. My favorite of these talismanic names, so far, has to be the El Shaddai Agro & General Supply Store.

Our driver was friendly and lives in Arusha. He was on his way from Dar es Salaam, which is a long drive. I should mention that the road between Moshi and Arusha is an excellent road by Tanzanian standards, smooth and paved. And the prospect of such a road excites drivers so much that constant speed bumps have had to be put in, to deter speeding. After malaria and AIDS, road accidents are the most common cause of death in Tanzania. Well, we did ask our hotel friend if the little buses were safe!

We wondered, but didn’t ask, how our driver had such a nice car (one of the nicest I’ve ridden in anywhere). He said he worked for the government—turns out he is a soldier. He even dropped us at a hotel, not that we were staying there, but it was at the end of the road where we were staying, so we figured we could walk to our Airbnb (it being daylight).

We could, but the road is a total mess. All dirt, with a deep ditch dug in the middle of it. They’re putting in drainage for some swish new building that’s going up. Arusha, like Moshi only on a much grander scale, is a city of contrasts: really nice places behind gates and fences, to keep out kids who would steal your laundry. Sad, but that’s the way it is.

My conclusion is that you get what you pay for on a Coaster bus. Still, we can’t say we were ripped off. We rode with the locals, who seemed at once from a different world and yet familiar: most of them were on their mobile phones just like passengers in Europe. We celebrated with really good coffee in town (the slopes of Kilimanjaro grow the best in the world) and some Swahili food. Nyama choma with grilled bananas and salad. It was better than it sounds. 

I love TanZANia, as the locals pronounce it. I love how friendly people are. Yes, some of the street sellers can get a little aggressive, following us around, but it's not dangerous; it's a different way of life. Like bartering. It's not my culture to be told the price of a thing and then argue it down. But if I hadn't been raised in North America, I'm sure compulsory "tipping," as practiced there, would feel alien and wrong to me too. It's not a tip if you're making up for an employer's crappy wage!

Still, I'll be tipping on Kilimanjaro, even though I'm assured my trek organizer pays its guides and porters fairly. I'm not going to protest the system by cheating some hardworking Tanzanians. Just don't expect me to buy any beads.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Amsterdam to Moshi

We’ve arrived on our second continent, Africa. I haven’t really had time to let that sink in yet, so here I’ll say a proper goodbye to Europe.

On Tuesday we made our way across the side of Germany I hadn’t yet traveled in to Amsterdam. As I mentioned in my last post, borders seem pretty much nonexistent around here. The only way I knew we were in the Netherlands is because, instead of announcements in German and then an abbreviated English version, the train announcer started using Dutch, then German, then English in full. Just showing off. Then the conductor came through looking at our tickets, even though we’d already shown them to a conductor in Germany. In English, she cheerfully proclaimed, “We’re in Holland; we’re gonna do it again.”

If Germany is easy for an English speaker to get around in, Holland is ridiculous. In Berlin we had the interesting and somewhat nerve-wracking experience of getting haircuts, while the one hairdresser who did speak English helped translate for the one who didn’t. (Look at the pictures to guess whose didn’t understand.)
Cruising the canals

Gay Pride tram 
Dutch people, however, just seem to speak English all the time, even when nobody asked them to. I know how to say “thank you” in Dutch, but I’ve never gotten the chance. The Dutch are also famous for being tolerant, perhaps to a fault. It was in Amsterdam that the first memorial to gays and lesbians killed by the Nazis, the Homomonument, was erected in 1987. It stands right next to the Anne Frank Huis, where the young Dutch diarist, her family, and other Jews hid for years.

But we didn’t do any Holocaust history in this city. Instead, we learned about the history of the Dutch "golden age," and how Amsterdam was built as a city of merchants. Like Jewish history, Dutch history is short on kings and wars. I admit it was a little weird to hear our walking tour guide say “we” in regard to the Dutch, even when he was talking about centuries ago (swapping a string of beads for Manhattan, say, or trading slaves). I don’t think a German would say it that way.

"Hidden" (in plain sight) church--the way the Dutch tolerated congregations other than Reformed back in the day

Rather than “coffeeshops” or the Red Light alleys cheek by jowl with churches, official and “hidden,” the biggest adventure we had in Amsterdam involved a little stuffed duck. If you’ve seen any of my albums on Facebook you may recall the duck who’s been featured in a photograph everywhere we have been. Well, he was all set up for his shot at the canal, but no sooner had T. let go of him than a gust of wind came, and he blew into the water! (She maintains that he made a break for it.)
The first thing we discovered is that he floats, like a real duck. We couldn’t reach him, however, even though T. resourcefully borrowed a hooked pole that a boatman was using. Then a boat came by. She called to the boatman and he answered, in an American accent, “What are we looking for?” With the help of a passenger who fished the duck out of the water, he was restored to us. I’d been sure that we’d have to leave him in Europe and this shot of him on the Singelgracht would be the last.

This episode lasted quite a while, during which a moorhen came along and spent some time trying to get to mate with the duck. So he ended up having quite an eventful time, getting in not just a swim, but a date!
Reunited in Moshi, Tanzania