Travel Stories

Kilimanjaro

WRITING - I have been struggling with my writing for two reasons I can think of – one is that when I get this isolated, self-contained, and non-attached, I don’t see much “purpose” in communicating or sharing other than in “talking” to myself so as to know myself, and that means writing the most subjective “stuff,” almost like recording dreams, and who besides me, Joy, and any reigning therapist I might have at the time wants to read that, and the second reason, not unrelated to the first, has to do with whether my writing is of any actual interest to anyone other than those who know me personally, and, of course, I want it to be, and I’m never sure it is, especially when engaged in travel writing.  Yet, as is usually the case for me, the writer trumps the monk and I write copiously and deeply for days about things I actually take significant time with and that I care about, and imagine others might enjoy.  And then this morning, a bit like losing my phone, my camera, my glasses, I “accidentally” delete all I have written for days without a back up.  And just like losing my iPhone, while my first awareness is of profound loss, the second awareness/accommodation is of the gift of the guides and of the altered perspective the loss provides.
         Most of the writing I lost was about my second day in Moshi – about my ongoing efforts to find my phone and the myriad encounters that odyssey evoked, about the three Muslim shop keepers I spent a long time with and who could eachbe a successful fashion model, and about a heart opening encounter I had with a deformed beggar that touched me deeply and indelibly, how I “knew” his genuine gratitude in the most profound Namaste kind of way, without a word being spoken, as we simultaneously put our hands to our hearts in a mutual acknowledgement of our shared humanity.  And when I closed my yoga practice that evening with my gratitude meditation, as I do every time I practice yoga, I quite unexpectedly found myself crying.

KILIMANJARO - Then there was Kilimanjaro, an amazing entity, as all mountains are, and especially about my climb to base camp, almost all of it through lush tropical rain forest, the reveries and meanings the climb had for me, the ghosts I carried with me, the spirit/soul of the mountain, the grace and strength of the porters I saw, what it was like to take my seventy two year old body and my fibrillating heart on an eight kilometer climb that crested at 9,000 feet and required three and a half hours to reach … and, of course, eight kilometers back down, which also took me three plus hours, and left me sure I was never going to be able to walk another step.  How every porter I passed said “Jambo” to me, and how I said “Jambo” back to every porter.  The clear camaraderie among hikers on the trail, most evidenced for me by a beautiful Japanese woman coming down from the summit - I saw more Japanese hikers than any other ethnic group – who passed me on my way up the mountain clearly struggling, and gave me just the biggest brightest smile as she high fived me and said in a thick Japanese accent, “You can do it!”
         I absolutely loved the Mt. Kilimanjaro environment and the lush, gorgeous town of Marangu, the epitome of a peasant trading town, the cultural center of the Chagga people who lived in the fertile, wet, dense tropical rain forests on and around Mt. Kilimanjaro for centuries, and still do.  The most numerous indigenous tribe in Tanzania, living amidst innumerable streams and waterfalls that cascade down the mountain and serve as a source of drinking and agricultural water and flow throughout the year.  Indeed, so benevolent is their environment that the traditional Chagga people actually never grazed their cattle, but rather kept them indoors in their homes and brought the cattle’s food to them.
      While nearby, the lowlanders for the last few centuries before independence were mostly migratory Maasai herders.  And every few years when drought struck the valleys the Maasai led raiding parties higher up the slopes, into the lush tropical rain forest, seeking to secure water, cattle, and Chagga women.  So the Chagga dug a series of completely amazing underground tunnels with nothing more than simple hand tools and baskets, channeling in from the river two or three meters below the ground surface, in some instances creating narrow tunnels as many as five kilometers long leading to Chagga village centers and living compounds, intentionally designing the tunnels so narrowly that invaders could proceed in them only one man at a time and thus were easy targets at the mercy of the defending Chagga warriors.  This project, the Chagga say and the archeological treasure trove of evidence suggests, took nearly a century to complete, and was always, even at its end, an expanding public work in progress that provided an absolutely impregnable means of defense.  And after spending an hour or so making my way bent over from chamber to chamber, through narrow damp, clayey passageways, the scope and imagination of such a civic project struck me as absolutely brilliant and well executed, and worthy of the pride it evokes in the Chagga.
         An interesting political/historical side note: when independence was gained by Tangyanika - as it was called at that time before union with Zanzibar - the reigning Chagga chief sought regional autonomy for the Chagga people, and it is yet another tribute to Julius Nyerere’s political acumen as first president of the newly independent nation that he absolutely forbade and precluded recognition of any tribal autonomy as such, and in that way secured what remains a significantly harmonious country of what was once one hundred and twenty five separate tribal groups.
      And while we’re on political matters, two things of note: 1 - Absolutely every African I meet asks where I am from, and when I say USA or America, absolutely every African I meet says back to me with an obvious sense of pleasure and pride, “Barack Obama,” it’s almost Pavlovian.  And I must say that living in a Western country where the son of a Kenyan father was actually elected president (twice) also fills me with a sense of pleasure and pride.  2 – And who, dear reader, is the next most inquired about American politician?  Hillary!  Why did she quit as Secretary of State they want to know?  Wasn’t she doing a good job?  Was there a problem between her and Obama?  Did Obama not like Bill?  And my answer always is, she wants to run for president in 2016 and didn’t want to have to do the difficult job of being Secretary of State while also running.  And she needed to be in a position where she could distance herself if necessary from certain Obama administration domestic and foreign policy issues.  And they nod.  And it seems to me they get it.  And who is more qualified than someone who spent eight years in the White House already, was a U.S. senator, and served as Secretary of State?  She’s got my vote. 
      Oh, yes, back to Marangu.  My tour organizer, the absolutely lovely Eric Innocent, "Ino" we call him, arranged for me to stay overnight at the massive Kibo Hotel, named after Kilimanjaro’s highest peak, and built about 200 years ago as the first hotel on the mountain, with an immense cavernous dining room where the tables are set for parties of twelve and fourteen, where ex-president Jimmy Carter and Ms. Carter stayed when they visited Kilimanjaro in 1988 (the welcome sign still hangs over the hotel’s front door), and where I am given the very same room as the president had, sleep in the very same bed as the President did, and where I am the only guest.  I thought this was high season.
      The walls of the Kibo Hotel dining room are filled with the flags of many nations, with colorful T shirts inscribed with messages from grandchildren who summited Kilimanjaro toasting their grandparents who climbed the mountain forty years earlier, tributes to friends, photographs, memorabilia.  A random sampling of shirts reads, “Amazing, but never again,” “Impossible is nothing,” and “Every person dies, fewer people truly live.”  
      But it was the solitude of being there that most amazed me.  I can’t begin to describe how peaceful and totally silent it was, how gorgeous the gardens, how gracious the staff to their one guest, how truly comfortable I was inside my bubble.  I loved it.  And am reminded how this journey as an interior experience really is about my ongoing walkabout of self-discovery and continuous growth into manhood and occasional wisdom.  We all travel different paths for different reasons, I know you know that.  And we are, of course, all met by differing fates.  On the day I climbed to base camp on Kilimanjaro, an Irish hiker near the summit was struck and killed by lightening.  Just sayin'.
         So one last thing for now: Innocent has gotten very involved in my iPhone saga and spent a significant amount of time in the Njoro neighborhood on the other side of the tracks trying to find my phone and convince people he was not the police after he dropped me off upon our late afternoon return from Kili.  I mean he spent hours at it, completely unbidden by me although I knew he intended to see what he could find out.
        So when he called my room at eight at night and asked me to come down to the lobby to see him hope soared, only to be told by him that he had not succeeded, although he actually believed he’d seen my phone and tried to call me, but obviously couldn’t. 
         “You really don’t have to do this Ino,” I tell him, “I really appreciate it, but I was worried about you.”
         “Mr. Bruce,” he says, “I do it because I really want to help you.  You are more than a customer, you are like my ‘daddy’ to me.”  Whereupon he starts to call me “Babu,” father, and nothing else.  And his drivers call me “Babu.”  And guides who escort me call me “Babu.”  And people in the street start to greet me saying “Jambo, Babu, Habare? (how are you),” as if word has spread there’s a new babu in town.  And so it is that Innocent becomes the first African I’ve hugged since Sizanani.  But can I truly trust him?  For that you’ll need to wait for the next installments.

KILIMANJARO POEM - "Progress Note - Cardiology"
Mr. T., a fit seventy year old                                        
White, divorced, semi-retired attorney
Grandfather of two
Status post double stent placement
Ten years post balloon angioplasty of LAD
With persistent atrial fibrillation
Currently stabilized
On various medications cardio-regulatory medications
See med chart
Returns for check up and assurances
Reports he recently walked uphill for eight kilometers
In order to reach base camp
On Mount Kilimanjaro at 9000 feet
Was asymptomatic
Other than experiencing what he termed “excessive” sweating,
Sore lower limbs, knees, quads, hips, low back ankles, feet
Patient reports
Extreme increase in heart rate
At peak exertion and altitude.
What did he expect?
Assured patient that anyone who climbs
To 9,000 feet does not suggest morbidity
Patient also reports feeling euphoria
And seeing blue monkey
Asked patient to consider pysch eval
Follow up in six months