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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.