Lamu, Octopus and Ass

A man ties down the mast of his mangrove hewn Mozambique dhow.

Along the Swahili coast, it is not entirely strange to encounter a man bent over, repeatedly waging war with the white and gold sands against a back drop of a crystal blue-black evening ocean. Whip! Whack! Whip! Whack! His weapon; a three foot, eight tentacled octopus recently drawn from the ocean and soon to be dinner.

I had never been to Lamu before. In fact, up until then the town only existed in a vivid imagination drawn up from descriptions that dated an excess of eight years prior. I had also never cooked octopus, let alone eat a full one all by myself. But never say never.

I arrived in Mokowe in a convoy of buses and police escorts at five o’clock in the evening. Nowadays, getting to Lamu is no walk in the park. I am told that it once was. Before al-Shabaab, you could leave Mombasa or Malindi on a bus headed to Lamu at any time of the day. Now, all the buses are required to depart these towns at the same time every day and are escorted by administration police a few miles before Mpeketoni all the way to mainland Mokowe, a couple hundred kilometers from the Somali-Kenya border. The risk of al-Shabaab is omnipresent but life goes on. For the coastal people that ply these route, the extra security is appreciated but deemed unnecessary. I ignored numerous adverse counsel to refrain from visiting Lamu for security reasons. Counsel formulated solely on opinions gaining prevalence with regards to travel along the Kenyan coastline: Opinions driven by travel advisories. 

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As I stepped off the bus, my face was bent in a grimace inspired by a persistent stomach ache and the discomforts of a journey that lasted the better part of 8 hours hours. A journey punctuated with police road blocks, ID checks and a dirt road that squabbled with the bus. The whole trip, my body was rammed by the bus’s seat as I played nanny to a six month old child that belonged to a set of two.

Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.

Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.

He had been handed to me when his twin brother needed a diaper change. An affair that concluded in a soiled diaper being skillfully hurled outside the window right across my face leaving behind an eternal whiff of baby poop. My heart sunk to unimaginable depths at this heinous act of littering. Still, the responsibility of holding young Awadh was bestowed upon be me for the duration of the rest of the journey. 

A welcoming brigade of starved tourist handlers and porters swarmed in to lay their claim at the jetty in Lamu town. In the midst of the shoving and jostling, in the midst of the frenzy, a hand penetrated the eager crowd vying for attention. A three foot octopus lazily dangled from the blacked hand.

One hundred and fifty shillings!” Cried the hand. As I fingered the octopus, inspecting her slimy tentacles and body, I cried out. “One hundred! One hundred only!” The hand ushered me to the side where money changed hands. Shortly after, with a few onlookers, I was bent over a golden white sandy beach that bordered a blue-black ocean, vigorously whipping and whacking an octopus to a desired tenderness.

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How hard could it be to cook octopus? The answer is that it is not hard at all. Getting the slimy thing clean is the hardest part. The rest is patience, a good boil and a sufficient amount of salt, spices and herbs to taste. A few hours after the darkness of the night had settled in, I sat atop sunshine hotel enjoying the sweet serenade of a muezzin, the glare of the full moon and an octopus dinner. I stared down at the narrow paved streets full of awe of the town’s history. I thought of the indefinable impressions of Swahili culture embedded in the people and their intercourse as they went about their ways below me. I reflected on the slice of heaven that is Lamu ; frozen in time but thawing ever so gently.

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In the few days that I spent in Lamu, I rediscovered myself as an ass guy.  I herded donkeys, enjoyed the unexpected glam of riding down the narrow corridors on their backs and hopscotched through the passageways scattered with dung.  

A week later I was in Zanzibar where my affair with the octopus resumed.

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Young boys kick playing football in Lamu town

 

the Dollar Menu

…and a couple of cents give or take.

It’s not just wishful thinking. Someday, I’ll giving Anthony Bourdain and his Parts Unknown a run for their money. Credit to that is the fact that, akin to Mr. Bourdain’s travel exploits, I too have become a self proclaimed connoisseur (of sorts) of great but cheap eats in the course of my comings and goings.

Eating is the easy part. Try grabbing a hearty meal for under One US dollar. The dollar meal in Africa today is becoming increasingly elusive as food prices continue to soar. By my own admittance, the endeavor of finding this meal requires no mastery. Such meals are simply a function of the compositions of the meal itself and the location. Therefore, if you don’t mind sometimes sharing dining space with things that crawl or if you can look past the luxury of eating while sitting down (for example), you could turn an empty stomach into an nourished one a dollar later.

Dollar meals shouldn’t always constitute an evocation of the ‘big M’ and its mc nuggets, mc doubles etc.

Here is an example of my culinary adventures with sub-dollar meals.

Chapati-Matumbo na Mchicha

Chapati-Cow Intestines with Spinach

Dollar Menu: Chapati, Mchicha na Matumbo

Chapati, Mchicha na Matumbo

Price: 90.00 Kshs   0.98 Dollars

Location: Likoni-Mombasa, Kenya

In a little wooden shack in Likoni, right after you get off the ferry, a man endlessly rolls fist size balls of dough into flat disks; mechanically. There is half a meter stack of cooked chapatis on his right and a charcoal stove glowing in the dimly lit cooking area right in front of him.

Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maembe

Fried fish, Chapati with Mango Juice

Dollar Menu: Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maemba

Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maemba (Fried Fish, Chapati and Mango Juice)

Price: 100 Kshs   1.09 Dollars

Location: Lamu, Kenya

If Kiswahili words meant nothing, one would still find endless strings of poetry in the effortlessly melodious accents of the patrons of Hamza’s little restaurant tucked away in the paved shoulder to shoulder streets in the maze that is Lamu town.

Ugali, Nyama

Maize Polenta with Beef

Dollar Menu : Ugali Nyama (  Maize Polenta  with Beef )

Ugali, Nyama ( Maize Polenta with Beef )

Price: 1500 Tshs   0.83 Dollars

Location: Kigamboni-Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

I was half kidding when I requested, even demanded, that I get an extra piece of meat. My excuse was that great things come in threes. And how was it that I had ordered Ugali with beef, yet my plate had more beans than meat. She pointed out the extra sardines and vegetables that come with the meal but my smile brightened when a third piece of meat dropped into my plate splashing delicious beef stew onto the sides of the partitioned silver plate.

Urojo na Chapati

Urojo (mixed vegetable, meat and egg soup) with Chapati

 

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Price: 1800 Tshs   1.00 Dollars

Location: Zanzibar, Tanzania

I haven’t the slightest clue as to what my meal constituted in its entirety. On one hand, I had a chapati rolled like a scroll. On the other, my spoon was pointed downwards into a concoction of a potato, a hard boiled egg…etc.

 

I stand accused of eating, praying and loving. Perhaps you yourself have thought of my travels and likened them to that very tale of a lonesome Elizabeth Gilbert.  I claim neither innocence nor guilt as I am still faced with six more months of deliberations with roads, time, people and places unbeknownst to me.

The Vehicle’s Art

As I pushed my way towards the front of the daladala (public bus), I pointed my camera at the object of my interest. There, against the backdrop of a cloudy blue sky, the images of the slain Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi were plastered on the back window of another daladala; side by side.

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Placed side by side as if to suggest that they were messengers of the same word.

I felt a deep sense of betrayal as people piled into the bus one after the other with no regard to the ‘Vehicle’s Art’. 

What place do these two individuals have in everyday Dar es Salaam?
How is it that these slain individuals continue to live in broad daylight?

The clicking of the shutters of my camera further perpetuated my angst urging me to hop out of the daladala in an effort to apprehend Osama and Gaddafi, only to watch them speed off when the light turned green. I look forward to the next time I will spot the same Ubungo bound daladala on Shekilango Rd in Dar es Salaam.

What would you say to the driver and passengers of this dala dala?

Out of Place?

What is wrong with this picture?

A maasai

A young Masai man from Oloitoktok, Kenya working (Selling masai ornaments, wares and posing for pictures) in Diani Beach Mombasa. 

Arguably the most recognizable African ethnic community, the Masai of East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) have for ages plied the plains of the savanna in search of pasture and water for their livestock. Today, the urban landscape continues to encroach on historical grazing grounds for such communities as population pressure rises. Many have ceded their nomadic inclinations as the dependence on livestock seizes to be a sustainable source of livelihood.

Their ‘culture’, highly admired and aggressively marketed for tourism incensitivizes many members of the Masai community to trade their acacia herding rods for Velcro billfolds. In nomadic fashion, they seek greener pastures in destinations similar to the white sandy beaches of Diani Beach in Mombasa where tourism flourishes.  And for a meager sum of shillings, a willing tourist ( and there are many, local and foreign) needs not travel many kilometers into the lands they call home for a sample of Masai customs and traditional systems.

What is wrong with this picture? Is something out of place?

 

 

Dark Arts in Broad Daylight?

“…For starters, a culture and people that value relationships and the preservation thereof…”

 

Back in the day one whispered ‘ Mganga ‘ ( witch-doctor ) with a fearful and superstitious reverence. Their work, their sorcery was discussed in secrecy and brevity: Sealed behind closed doors. It seems like the times have tremendously changed.

The sticks: Electricity and telephone poles are still advertising prime real estate. The same goes for walls and alleys: The Stones. Now the occult have claimed their share of these spaces.

Simple Economics would lead one to a conclusion similar to my conjecture that there exists a handsome demand for the forces from the shadows to tinker with the seemingly impossible everyday life hurdles.

When diligence and religious consultations fall short of deliverance from said hurdles, where else should you look?

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Mganga (Witch-doctor) who purportedly has remedies for problems such as unemployment.

 

 

 

Problems this particular Mganga can remedy.

 

  • NGUVU ZA KIUME-  Male Strength / Virility …..  More specifically, Sterility
  • KURUDISHA MPENZI- Bringing back love
  • KINGA YA BOMA, MWILI AU SHAMBA-Home, farm and body protection
  • KUPATA KAZI, CHEO AU NDOA NA MAPENZI- Securing employment, a work promotion or love and marriage
  • TASA, ZEENA (correctly spelled zina) NA KUSHIKA WEZI- Infertility, infidelity and apprehending thieves
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Dr. Hasadi claims to be able to also remedy, domestic and business woes. (SHIDA ZA KINYUMBANI, BIASHARA)

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In his poster, Dr. Randari claims to be able to find and return missing or escaped persons. (KURUDISHA MTU- directly translates as ‘ returning someone’ )

 

 

You are probably reading this and finding it laughable; even pitiful. You are probably thinking that this further advances yet another African stereotype. That of juju, voodoo and other things cuckoo.

Upon your readership, I implore you to look at this with an open mind and empathy.

See it as I do.

For starters, a culture and people that value relationships and the preservation thereof.  (that’s a great place to start, what do you think?) 

 

 

Between Here and There

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Ethiopian flag (left), Somali state flag (right)

Many associate this part of the world with ‘long distance running’. I am in Ethiopia. And like Kenya where the most recent leg of my journey began, this great nation is renowned for producing some of the greatest long distance runners the world has come to know. Fortunately, I will never be a great long distance runner: My twelve mile attempt this morning is testament. It was agonizing, painful, grueling and fell short by a couple of miles. Inspired by the gracious brightness of the full moon and the predictable certainty of the rising sun, I set out stride by stride. Alone, down the streets of Shashamene, I panted as my eyes traveled up and down ahead of me and to my sides. As my eyes traveled here and there, my mind wandered in the nowhere (where I had been). I wondered.

A stop for Dhuhur (midday) prayers

A stop for Dhuhur (midday) prayers

I struggle to find more fitting words than ‘gratitude’ to describe my sentiments towards Nairobi. As a matter of fact, in a fantasy that personifies Nairobi in a body of physical matter, maybe a hug would come close. For my experiences then and now, I am indebted.

Guess who...

Guess who…

In spite of my love for Nairobi, I had no qualms about leaving and proceeding with my long journey up north into Ethiopia. So much so that I nearly had a heart attack when I overslept and almost missed the 4:00 am bus from Eastleigh. Thanks to a certain motorcycle taxi rider, and the inevitable power of the Kenyan shilling, I made it onto the bus in the nick of time. My luggage was shoved into a sack to shield it from dust and hauled over the bus. Shortly after chaos that laid claimed to my precious motorcycle helmet procured in Kampala, we left Nairobi.

Moyale Liner at a prayer stop heading north from Nairobi.

Moyale Liner at a prayer stop heading north from Nairobi.

Soothing, hypnotic Qur’an recitations oozed out of the crowded bus’s sound system as it slithered into the highlands. In futility, fatigued passengers writhed in place as they sought fleeting comforts fit enough for rest. As if looking at into their own reflections on the glass windows, others stared blankly into the distance, static, and withdrawn within themselves as here rapidly became there. Trees became shrubs, goats became camels and grass faded into sand.

In the northeastern plains of Kenya, nothingness is circumscribed with vast and bold mountain ranges in the distance. Its bareness which can be synonymous for barrenness is pristine. Human existence is scarce and often only evidenced by plastic bags perversely scattered by winds. In the areas where communities have settled, livestock roam sans herdsmen and hut like dwellings whose architectures vary as readily as the landscape cluster. Most of the inhabitants are nomadic. Purposeful wanderers.

When I look around me, I cannot help but wonder what drives my fellow travelers to their destinations. What draws there presence with enough conviction for them to subject to the unforgiving pains of the road up north? Traveling standby takes a whole new meaning for many on these roads. If you didn’t begin your journey in Nairobi and you ended up on the bus, it means that you will be standing all the way to your destination. It is probably the case that you waited by the road side with no assurances of travel for a long time. Hence, traveling standby. Most of the seventy nine people in the fifty sitter bus are headed to the border town of Moyale. A journey that demands a contribution of roughly sixteen long hours depending the conditions of the road, vehicle and khat wired driver.

The inevitability of time is that it passes. No matter how long. Eventually, after the sixteen hours of travel, a handful of stops for salat, and to everyone’s relief, the Moyale Liner decelerated to a final stop under the veil of near pitch blackness. A kilometer away, Moyale Ethiopia glared in the darkness.

I put myself up for the night in the first and nearest lodging that I saw. And it was conveniently located right next to the bus stop. I am certain that many brave souls have succumbed to the same misfortune. Many more will in the future.

The room was filthy. The pillow was an excellent chromatography of the different shades of brown and goats must take up residence in the absence of paying patrons. Lingering essences reveal this assertion as a open secret. I stood there, in my room, in a half inch deep puddle of what I hoped was water. At that moment, I thought of the lakeside cabin bed and breakfast I called home for one night in Wisconsin on a road-trip from Denver to Boston once upon a time. The tables were almost turned. I now had a lake in my room; literally. The caretaker did not think any of it. Or perhaps I did not convey my disappointment effectively enough. To be completely honest, I didn’t. I was tired and already language had separated him and I. Like once upon a time in Wisconsin, my only lamentation was that I knew that I had overpaid.

In the many ways I have come to describe my expedition, I have often used the term ‘Road-Trip‘. I now wish to withdraw that terminology for it presupposes a certain level of leisure that is foreign to many (including myself) of those who I have shared the road with. In its place, ‘journey’. Journey implies a greater sense of purpose for the enduring the present realities of the road. It consists of a series of destinations: Checkpoints. Reliefs and challenges in no particular order. An endurance whose euphoric triumphs are often delayed and come in small proportions eventually culminating in one glorious climatic moment of triumph. Much like long distance running, a journey has its wears and tears. It is costly.

I am most impressed by my ability to invent and cook up foreign addresses and phone numbers at border crossings when asked to provide details about my destination. I usually have no clue as to what cities I would be going to let alone where I would be sleeping. Somehow it always works out. The Ethiopian immigration authorities were adamant about me providing an address in Addis and a phone number. I fiddled with my phone, counted twenty five Mississippi s all the while jotting down on a piece of paper and voila!! I could have been playing angry birds, pausing now and then to write. It was like magic, and this time the illusion was further peddled by a 100 Birr bribe which was demanded of me with neither subtlety nor poise.

Almost as soon as the entry stamp came down hard on my passport, the beat of life changed. A cloud of loneliness cast its shadow over me. Everything had changed too drastically. From the diet, the nature of human interactions, modes of public transportation, right to the access language provides. I have rarely felt so foreign. Beyond words like Konjo, Salem and a few others, my ignorance of Amharic is (was) total. This clear linguistic barrier was the primary proprietor of my isolation. Ubiquitous loneliness in swarms of people.

A fussball pickup game in Shashamene.

A fussball pickup game in Shashamene.

I dare say that there are few, if any, lands on this earth with more beautiful people per square kilometer. This beauty transcends physical appearance into the richness and diversity of the cultures and the landscape. I spent the whole of Tuesday in Moyale, Ethiopia. I ate as much Tibs and Injeera as a man can eat in a day and drank a proportionate amount of Bunna. When the shadows disappeared, I ushered myself into a dance hall where my shoulders vouched for my enthusiasm for the riffs of Ethiopian music. The girls giggled, approached, and left giggling.

The next day, having had but an ounce of sleep. I called upon the reserves and was able to make it to the bus station in time. I parted with an extra 120 Birr for my luggage which was viciously ransacked before it was loaded onto the bus in addition to the 170 Birr I had paid the previous day as my fare. I wanted to protest. If only I knew the words. Eventually the bus slowly rolled out of the bus terminus.

The moment of inclusion that extinguished my loneliness came in the form of a spontaneous yet highly sophisticated and organized smuggling ring of sorts. A couple of kilometers before the first of a series of police stops, I was struck by a universal oddity within the bus. Items of clothing of different kinds were frantically changing hands over the seats eventually being piled onto warm bodies in the sweltering heat of the sun with grave urgency. For obvious reasons, I found this to be odd, but I played along when I was handed an extra pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a Hummels Jacket. A man called out from the front before he tossed the bundle across four rows of seats, “Ras! Ras!!” Almost everybody complied or was willing to help out however they could. Take this for commitment, a couple of ladies seated in the row of seats to my left, one with a suckling baby girl, shared the treasures of a 90l sack of flowing polka dotted lightweight skirts. The skirts were piled on, one after the other. The baby wasn’t left out of the equation either. She too bore the weight of a couple of identical green dresses.

We powered through the police road blocks with no major incidences other than undeniable airs suspicions and my having to produce evidence of legal immigration status. It was obvious that I was from somewhere else. Perhaps even a carrier of Ebola according to one policeman.

Six police roadblocks punctuated the journey from Moyale to Shashamene. A journey whose laggard meter was laborious. The bus ascended the hill sides faster than it descended. It rattled like a piggy bank crafted from a tin can and hissed like a senile, ailing old man. Gauging from the way it sounded and moved, I doubt it was making any retirement savings for its owner. On the bright side, through the frames of the bus’s windows and the longest sixteen hours on as many detours as roads, I was witness to the spectacular magnificence of Ethiopia’s southern countryside. To put it simply, breathtaking.

A Bajaj commute in Shashamene

When I arrived in Shashamene, I looked like I had been rolling in dust.

The next day I went to the Shashamene Rastafarian Nyahbingi Tabernacle. As I entered to meet Sister Ijahnya Christian, I was confronted by the words of Marcus Garvey on the door post.

So few of us can understand what it takes to make a man; the man who will never say die; and the man who will never give up; the man who will never depend on others to do what he ought to do for himself; the man who will not blame God, who will not blame nature, who will not blame fate for his condition; the man who will go out to make conditions to suit himself.”

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With Ras Bangis at the Nyahbingi Tabernacle in Shashamene. The backdrop shows the Emperor Haile Selassie I slaying the dragon (Mussolini)

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.