The Hard Men/Women (Wagumu) of Kilimanjaro

#tbt

Tough! The essence of the word is illustrated in the bent backs of porters that look to the slopes of Kilimanjaro as a means to an end. In the mercy of the sun, their eyes bloody and their temples throb. Still they march up the steep sometimes treacherous martian-like inclines of Africa’s big mountain with resolve. Their fuel is largely their camaraderie irregardless of the numerous tour companies they are contracted too. Often they thrive ( survive ) on one meal a day that comprises of Sukuma Wiki and Ugali ( collard greens and maize polenta ).

In kiswahili, the porters are referred to as Wagumu (Hard Men/Women).

The town the most hail from is Moshi, Tanzania. Adequately dubbed ‘Mji wa wagumu’: The town of hard people. 

 

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Next Year in Wadi Halfa

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Wadi Halfa

It would have been nice to experience the festivities of ushering in the new year, complete with a midnight countdown, in Cairo. If traveling that far north was not a possibility, I would have been content with spending this day (31st of December) and the wake of 2015 gazing upon the silvery waters of the Aswan lake and the Nile. Sipping on hibiscus tea and… Better yet in the glare of Hurgada’s living moon, I would go swimming in the Red Sea on both sides of the year and … I can only imagine.

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I spent the 31st of December of 2013 eating mounds of crispy bacon, drinking whiskey and watching fireworks on Denver’s 16th street mall. It seems like the forces that be have willed that I meet this new year here. How can anybody forge an existence here. In stern dissobedience of the abundance sand, sun and nothingness. Where bacon is unavailable and whiskey costs 40 lashes.

There is not much in this town. Besides the  handful of buildings that are a couple of storeys high, the rest of the town is on a level plane, one floor high. A full appreciation of Wadi Halfa must warrant an intimate relationship with one’s own imagination.

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I am fully engaged. As the the calls for the last prayer of the day compete for air space. My eyes will dart from one tiny minaret to another. I will sip on my hibiscus tea that I will have ordered minus the sugar. I will gladly inhale the second hand smoke from apple flavored Shishas. And I will tap my fingers to the rhythm of music from my chai vendor’s transistor radio and count the stars in the sky. Who needs fireworks when the sky as bright?

Tomorrow morning, I am guaranteed entry to Egypt. (visa issued today at 1100 hrs)

Until then, I have surrendered to Wadi Halfa’s mystic allure.

 

 

Welcome to Paradise

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I remember his face eternalized in genuine concern guised in fear. I was standing on the edge and inching further: Trading solid rock for air. The thrill of a free fall was almost tangible right there at point Imet Gogo with an elevation of 3940 m ( 12,927 ft).

Semien mountains

Semien mountains

DSC_0437Perhaps he was also stupefied by the fact that I had left him in the dust in a sudden burst of energetic enthusiasm that was undoubtedly fueled by the revelation of an exhilarating landscape in a full 360 degree panorama. An enigmatic landscape reminiscent of the Arizonian grand canyon with peaks that loomed and haunted the horizon in the glare of the sun.

Young sheep herding boys in Semien mountains.

Young sheep herding boys in Semien mountains.

Sunset over Gich village in Semien mountains, Ethiopia

Sunset over Gich village in Semien mountains, Ethiopia

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From the myriads of waterfalls to the escarpments that unfolded and dropped steeply. From the villages that clustered to the livestock that peppered. From the pitchy clamoring of sheep herding boys that reverberated from within the dense patches of forest to the music from their flutes that soared from the meadows below. From the sinuous rivers that carved out the valleys and the meadows to the serpentine footpaths that connected things there and here, the view was splendid. Like a montage of a thousand postcards.

Gelada monkeys in Semien mountains

Gelada monkeys in Semien mountains

DSC_0153Perhaps this is what they (new acquaintances in Addis Ababa) meant when they said: Welcome to Paradise. But few of those would be able to comprehend my envy for the little moving dots in the distance. I am envious of their lives amidst the incessant excitements of mountains such as the Semien mountains.

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Semien mountains

Semien mountains

Welia Ibex in Semien mountains

Welia Ibex in Semien mountains

By the middle of the third morning trekking in the Semien mountains, me and my guide had not been able to communicate verbally. Not at all. He spoke no English and my tinish (little) Amharic was contextually handicapped. Nevertheless, we had successfully trekked 69 km. All along we had resorted to gesticulations when the desire to communicate arose. For the most part, we either walked side by side or traded the lead position. When stopped to rest, he would gesture for me to follow him which I did. He would then lead me to a look-out and after pointing in the he would say; Abyssinia Konjo. (Ethiopia is Beautiful)

At point Imet Gogo,  as I stood on the edge, I raised my straightened arms to my sides with my open palms facing downwards. I yelled out, ” Abyssinia Konjo !! ”  I quickly turned, stumbled in a momentary loss of balance, and was met with a look from my scout that was disapproving of my gesture of flight. He patted his stomach and pointed at me. DSC_0313 DSC_0359

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All I had had to eat the previous day was a small can of tuna and a piece of bread that I dipped in a generous amount of peanut butter. That morning, I had nothing to eat. Khalid had not eaten any of the food that I shared with him on the first day. I on the other hand had unknowingly eaten most of my ration within half a day of hiking.He reached into his bag and handed me a dry piece of bread that I had shared with him on the first day.

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DSC_0400On the fourth day, we sat atop mount Bwahit, the third highest peak in Ethiopia (14,557 ft), in unbounded gaiety. Patches of freshly fallen snow and an Ethiopian man with a basket full of bottled ‘Dashen’ beer, Pepsi and clay figurines surrounded us. The Ethiopian man was organizing his wares, in readiness for a swarm of German tourists that was making its way to the peak miles behind. As he went about his business he cordially chatted with my scout who was pointing out Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia (and the Semien mountains) with his riffle. He then pointed to a village in the distance that was hard to make out and gestured that that is where he lived.

 

It took us two more days to hike out of the mountains and back to Debark.

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Great Distances

Great Distances: Sudan

Khartoum Skyline: sunset over the blue Nile.

Khartoum Skyline: sunset over the blue Nile.

David Husselhoff,

This movie in which you, the Hoff, are hunting a ginormous snake, has to be metaphor for something. Why else would every soul on this bus crane their neck towards the front and middle of the bus? Why are they glued to the edges of their seats attentively watching when most if not all find the french voice overs incomprehensible? I, on the other hand have preoccupied myself with Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. That, I am sure is loaded with metaphors. On my third read on this journey (since September), I wander between the lines. Every so often, I think about Santiago’s diligent pursuit of his fish and stare into the Sudanese landscape beyond my neighbor’s seat.

A section of Souq Arabi ( Arabi Market )in Khartoum

A section of Souq Arabi ( Arabi Market )in Khartoum

 

The bus tout walks around the bus with an open bucket of water in which a block of ice is floating. He dips a stainless steel cup inside and passes it to passengers as he makes his way down the bus. One by one, the travelers quench their thirsts from that one cup. When the cup reaches seat number 22, I hesitate. But I feel obliged.

My neighbor, like most people I have come to travel alongside, is brimming with awe and curiosity for me. In the times when language had not been a dividing factor, such curiosities evolved into intense interest when the purpose of my travels was brought to light. I am also curious of my neighbor. I am eager for an audience to the tale of the scar that cuts diagonally across his chin. I wander what head of hair hides behind the complex aggregation of rolled cloth that is his turban. For what reason is this man on seat number twenty one on a Saturday morning to Khartoum? I am equally as curious about the land that is stringing by past the slightly drawn velvet and golden drapes, and through the sandy glass window.

The tout walks down the aisle of the bus, stops at the middle, points an aerosol can to the central air vent on the roof where he sprays in a zigzag fashion horizontally and diagonally; generously. A pungent lavender aroma suffocates the bus.

We are on a bus ride from Gedaaref to Khartoum. In my current travels, I draw parallels of my own experience on this continent to that of Santiago and his big fish. I have begun to see my fare share of sharks. Before I embarked on this journey I knew that this fishing saga would be riddled with episodes of shark attacks. And that they would come in all shapes and sizes. None of the sharks have demanded nor claimed more than a frowning hour from me. There have been a couple of sickness sharks, con sharks, fatigue sharks, bribe sharks, T.I.A (This Is Africa ) sharks and a borderisclosed shark to name a few. Occasionally, a whythehellImIdoingthis shark rears its fin.

The bus has long rolled out of Gedaaref where I arrived in the twilight and left in the light of an absent sun the next morning. My living quarters for the night were severely overpriced for what they were. Four walls (almost) and three beds.

Lodging in Khartoum.

Lodging in Khartoum.

You can’t make up, the make up of some of the places that I have put myself up for the night on this journey. A paper thin pillow was coupled with a three by five foot mattress that matched the pillow’s physique. ” Where are all the fat ones?” I thought to myself as I let my bag drop from my shoulders in relief.” They must not feed pillows and mattresses in this -here- town.” As if things were not yet interesting enough, the mattress was bare. Only a thin leopard print blanket was provided in the name of covers. Imagine that: Me sleeping on a leopard print blanket with my feet dangling from the bottom end of the bed. A fan set to speed five (highest setting) violently spun violently above my head. With it a nauseating stench laced with dust circulated the room but not strong enough to hinder the sedating efforts of the fan’s ambient roar and cool convectional breezes. I succumbed to the will of both Hypnos and Morpheus. I was exhausted

A cafe/restaurant in the Khartoum

A cafe/restaurant in the Khartoum

My version of riding into the sunsets has involved long bus rides that commenced before the rebirth of the sun and ended when it was extinguished in westerly hills and plains. Rides that lasted the lives of the roads from one minuscule circle on a map denoting a town to another. Those forty five days I spent in the Ethiopia are characterized with adventures whose certainties were no more that the chance of rains in the African Sahara where I am bound. How can you not romanticize travel?

It might be adequate to say that I was in the business of connecting the dots in those forty five days that I spent in Ethiopia. I endured long travels, crisscrossing from one town to another. Only the ancient city of Harar, the depths of the Omo Valley and the Bale mountains eluded the purposeful padding of my dusty feet.On Thursday morning, I left Addis Ababa for the second time. Exactly two weeks before, I was armed with a south Sudanese visa as I set off west words on a two day trip from Addis Ababa to Gambela ( 80km from the south sudanese border town of Akobo where I had hoped to gain entry into south Sudan). My journey ended in both misery and futility after being denied entry a couple of times due to increasing insecurity due to conflict.DSC_0062-2

 

Salaam Aleikum?”

Wa’aleikum Salaam”

Kayf?”

Timam”

Mia Mia?”

Mia Mia!!”

He introduces himself as Said after we exchange our salutations. His facial features are pleasantly rounded to match his stature. He strokes his pot-belly with his right hand unknowingly bringing my attention to his t-shirt which reads, Capitalism- the taking of money from stupid people.’ The words are warped under the protrusion of his belly. His cheeks collapse inwards as he drags on his cigarette. Hissing.

There is Nile, blue Nile. One, two, three, four building nice. “ He mutters as he points with his index and middle finger still holding onto his half burnt cigarette.

What you do in Khartoum?”

Zaynab's chai stand.

Zaynab, an Ethiopian immigrant in Khartoum, runs a tea/coffee stand in Souq Arabi, Khartoum.

Nile fishing.

Young men fishing in the Blue Nile

 

……to be continued.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

With no relief in sight from the overhead sun, we sat exposed, busy brushing our teeth in the dusty Longido plains, demurely conscious of the squeaking as the frayed medicinal sticks rubbed against our teeth. More than half an hour had passed without an utterance between us when he pointed with the toothbrush-stick and said, “Oldonyo Oibor.”

Then, climbing mount Kilimanjaro was as wild a dream as Hemingway’s Harry being lifted to the summit in a plane with hyenas laughing in the background in the Snows of Kilimanjaro. Then, I could only trace my journey to the summit of the great white mountain with my eyes. Up the Maasai elder’s outstretched pointing arm to the peak and down one of the slopes.

Almost five years have expired since. And just when I was inclined to believe that the wells in my eyes had seen the last of their wet days, I broke down as I clambered towards Uhuru Peak at the summit of Oldoinyo Oibor. Right under the sign board that declared Africa’s highest point as the world’s highest free standing mountain, I tebowed: Gloriously collapsed onto one knee, whimpered in staccato as I fought my man tears and trembled with shoulders slightly shrugging as I suppressed the emo floodgates. I almost wept in joy. By the graces of the powers that be and that forces that will, on the ninth sunrise after basking atop mt. Kenya at point Lenana, I had conquered yet another mountain. In blissful awe, I surrendered to Kilimanjaro, tearfully. It was 6:00am sharp, Sunday, October 19th 2014.

 

Uhuru Peak on Kibo

At the summit on Kibo overlooking Mawenzi

At the summit on Kibo overlooking Mawenzi

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That Tuesday morning, as the Nairobi day shift was getting into the city, I was departing for Moshi, Tanzania via the Terekea border, preoccupied with attending to a certain bucket-list item. I wanted to do it as I had done in the Kenyan highlands: Arrive blind, book a room, find a guide, buy my own food, prepare my own meals, carry my own bags and trek up the mountain frugally, quickly and efficiently. All things considered, in my customary suit and tie.

 

My last visit to Tanzania in 2012 robbed me off of a new years celebration and eight supplemental days confined within the walls of an airport prison. It was a struggle. This time around, the only difficulty during my passage was brought about by an anonymous person or persons that repeatedly passed gas in the overcrowded van. Imagine boiling eggs in a geyser; double jeopardy.

I arrived in Moshi at midday and before long I was chowing down on a Mshikaki while sitting on a curb on the main street with my eyes darting around trying to spot some ‘catchers’.

In East Africa, most of the small independent tour companies rely on business from tourists who arrive with no prior bookings. The catcher’s job is to run these tourists down and sell them tour packages at relatively lower prices. He is a concierge of sorts and works on commission and tips.

Before long, I had identified a duo that had been running up and down the street after safari-hat wearing tourists. The first, Alex, was a Swahili man from the coastal town of Tanga. He was the brains. With a Tattoo that read ‘ Fcuk’ on the left arm and another ‘Mobb Deep’ on the right arm, Zingu was clearly the muscle and the bad cop. I approached them.

“Inakuwaje Masela?”

“Ras, Baridi, Kichaa wangu.” Zingu replies

“Ninacho Kitu flani! Laki nne. Nami ningependa kutimiza ndoto ya kufika kule juu. Kisela yaani. Kinyamwezi.” 

” How’s it going? “

” Ras, its cool my man. ” Zingu replies.

“I have a certain thing. Four hundred thousand Tanzanian shillings. I would also like to realize my dream of getting up there. I mean like a fellow young guy. Like a Nyamwezi man.”

Budget in Tz Shillings

Budget in Tz Shillings

That was the extent of that conversation before a scrap piece of paper translated the logistics into Tanzanian Shillings. That night, I slept in the Pepsi ghetto of Moshi town in a windowless room whose facade indicated the existence of a hair salon once upon a time. On the five inch queen size mattress that spared us from the frigid cemented floor, Zingu was sprawled like a lizard and Alex was against the wall. It was hard to fall asleep. In the middle of the night, I reached over for my half full bottle of Serengeti beer and gulped as I turned the bottom to the ceiling. It was hard to pick apart the aromas of Arusha gold (a local marijuana strain) and feet. I was in a strange place.

“Wewe ni Mgumu Ras!” 

” Ras, you are like a porter!”

That is what Alex exclaimed when he lifted my 32 kg of backpack that morning as we set out to meet with my guide Dani. At noon, we set out from Machame gate.

Climbing up Kilimanjaro was tough: That is an understatement. Climbing down Kilimanjaro’s Mweka route was like descending a staircase from heaven, with steps built for giants; equally arduous. In the night, the magnificent lights in the distant town of Moshi juxtaposed with the effervescent twinkling stars reminded us of how far we had gone and our proximity to the gods. The scorching sun in the daylight urged us to trek hard and fast.

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Mawenzi

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After 16 hours of trekking, on the fourth day, we enjoyed the company of the highest altitude on the African land mass and ushered in a new day.

As if to sum up my experience in kiswahili, my guide turned to me and said,

” Bro, the same soil, the same sun; why wait for a miracle, when you can go find it.”

The little drops of tears that rolled down my cheeks were a modest contribution to the vast field of Ice and snow on Kibo.

In those tears. I felt free.

A tale of two mountains

part 1.

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It is easy to sum up a climb with a filtered photograph, a beer and a couple of hash-tags. It is even easier to say that it felt amazing to be up there. To watch the cracking rays of daylight tussle with the bright glow of the full moon as islands of clouds are unveiled in the horizon with increasing brightness as the majestic morning amber light fades.  You can even say that a beer can never be as refreshing; your lips will never be more numb from the frigid gusts of wind; and that one would be hard pressed to find such satisfaction in what ones eyes can perceive. It is easy. The eyes have it the easiest.

The tale of the heavy lifting is in the burden the body bares to reach such heights. The overcoming of steep slopes that are stubbornly critical of the physical condition.

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For the past couple of weeks, I have come to call Nairobi home, once again. The city that can’t sleep. Where the streets are mobbed with people from diverse backgrounds in endless relays against machines. They walk: They never arrive at their destinations. The machines run: They never run out of fuel. The rare moments of tranquility are expressed in the fatigued faces of Nairobians seeking refuge from the sun whose sizzling warmth bakes the city. It is a city where patience is practiced faithfully in gridlocks decorated with a tetris of colorful matatus, loud music, stalling engines, honking from all directions, whistling from touts and conversations in forty two tongues. All at once. Its a total bedlam. The chaos is the pulse of Nairobi: This city thrives in its irregularities.

Mountains are much like cities.

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At the dawn of the full moon, 10/10/14, I trekked to Lenana Peak on mount Kenya in my suit and tie. Tonight I will fold by suit and tie for Mt. Kilimanjaro where I journey early in the morning. I am thrilled to return with a complete tale from two mountains.

A tale of two mountains. In two weeks.

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N-I.C.E

I feel like I was in a boxing match with copper ‘the mountain’. My head hurts from the falls I took over 7 hours of non-stop first time snowboarding in a SUITNTIE. Even with a frozen goatie and dreadlocks, I turned this mountains into hills. Till next time. DEAR COLORADO, the winter is finally with us.

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