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Friday, July 09, 2010

Maasai for Money

As we pull onto the long dirt road leading to the village, a haze of dust kicking up in our wake, Sandy is dismayed.  Uh-oh.  I’ve only seen Sandy dismayed once before, on Kilimanjaro, and it wasn’t pretty.  After repeated falls in Day Six rainforest mud, he slipped (again) outside his tent.  It was a big, whooshing fall that sullied his pants and his spirit.  In retaliation, he began kicking the offending ground, cursing it strongly, while assuring himself (and those eavesdropping in wonder from nearby tents) that he “knew how to fucking walk, even in the freaking, fucking mud.  Fuck!”  I wondered how dismayed would play out this time…

As he gathered his cameras from the 4x4, Sandy, our Rhode Island-based trip photographer, lamented the “fakey-ness bullshit” of the visit we were about to make.  The Maasai, a Tanzanian tribe that sought to leap forward to modern times and capitalize on the fascination that their lifestyle held over passing foreigners, charged for visits into their village.  “It’s all staged, I’m not paying for access.  I’ll just freakin’ watch from the car,” he sulked.  For $20, I wasn’t sure about what I was about to encounter either.  A writer to Sandy’s photographer, I’m always searching for the authentic story.  Sandy, understandably, didn’t want to sign onto on Flickr to find twenty of his June 2010 Maasai photos already posted in April of 2007 by Roy from Nebraska who won his Maasai visit off a Coca-Cola Bottle Cap Sweepstakes.  Fair enough.

I wasn’t sure what to expect either, especially when the Maasai people, outfitted in their red, royal blue, and purple scarves—colors of strength—began to bounce up and down in welcome ritual.  Our whittled group of seven safari hunters dutifully handed over $20 to the chief’s son, agreeing quietly with Sandy.  Hoax.  Stupid Americans.  As we traveled out of Arusha, post-climb, I was fascinated by the circular clusters of mud-brown huts that dotted the passing horizon.  “Maasai,” said Rajai, our safari guide.  “They are a nomadic peoples, Maasai,” he continued.  “If you wish, we can have arrangement to visit them.”  Cut to the scene before me.

Placing a large, flat, beaded chocker around my neck, I was pulled into the women’s circle with Darryl.  The searing eyes of the Maasai women met ours.  I felt my hand being taken by the older woman next to me.  She wore flowing blue scarves, an elaborate headdress detailed her slick, shaved head, and multiple earrings hung from her long, stretched ears.  She smiled as we bounced and jumped.  A different Maasai woman took my other hand; a small child joined our circle.  Then, it was announced that we could enter the village.

Sandy lurked on the periphery as we entered the area encircled by their homes.  I sensed his frustration.  The colors of the Maasai in contrast to the earth tones of the land would make stunning photographs, but he hadn’t yet been convinced of our village’s authenticity.  Initially, we all just listened.  Nomadic, the Maasai stayed in each village for about five years.  The many children running around were a testament to the polygamous nature of the clan.  The chief’s son carried a walking stick that gave him a regal air.  He seemed smug in his role; he was one of the few who would be privileged enough to get a formal education and, possibly, lead a more modern life.  Since men in Maasai don’t live to see ages much past sixty, the level of interest about the trio of traveling babus (“grandpa” in Swahili) was palpable.

As we made our way toward the huts, I heard the hushed flutter of camera lenses.  Sandy was beginning to come around.  He and I were escorted into one of the huts by the head of the household.  We ducked carefully through the doorway and I was momentarily reminded of the half-sized houses of Oz’s Lollipop Kids.  The women build the homes, our guide explained.  The base was made of sticks and straw, and it was reinforced with three layers of—what else—cow dung.  Each hut, which was roughly 150 square feet in size, was divided into two or three “rooms.”  One area was for sleeping, usually on a piece of cowhide for warmth, the other was for sitting and eating.  In the center of the room, a burning fire glowed.  Women, of course, also cooked.  The Maasai diet was specific—cow/goat/sheep meat (only from their own herd), milk, beans, and maize.  The men had the added dietary bonus of animal blood.  “Make man strong to fight lions,” explained our new friend. 

As we sit crouched in the Maasai hut, the flutters increased.  “It isn’t often that you can arrange access like this,” Sandy confessed.  “Pretty amazing, huh?”  Yep.  After the formality of his presentation, our head of household indulged our questions, and before we knew it, we were in the throes of a full-blown conversation.  It could’ve been taking place in a Scarsdale dining room over espresso.  But, instead, it was in a Maasai living room.  After a while, the smoke from the fire began to strangle us.  The Maasai only have a small window, a slit really, that serves as ventilation.  It protects their fires from rain, and their people from predators.  No wonder the babus were a wonder; hut-induced lung disease must run rampant.

After the hard sell on buying a lion skin—a rug for my home, or maybe just a tail for good luck—we emerge into the fresh air, clearing our throats delicately so as not to offend our gracious host.  We are guided to the “market,” an extensive arc of crafts, made by the dwellers of the village.  As wanderers, the Maasai need money to buy beans and maize, and fresh water supplies.  It’s for this reason that they have turned their attention to the bounty to be gained from tourism.  Of course, I buy some beaded bracelets, haggling over pennies on principle.

We make a quick trip to the kindergarten classroom, a one-room building where approximately 25 children sit on low, wooden benches.  Primitive?  Maybe.  But those kids already speak three languages: English, Swahili, and Maasai.  We sheepishly admit that’s more languages than anyone in our American group. 

Heading back to the 4x4, I’m glad we made the effort.  “Hey, Marie!” yells Sandy, as I’m climbing into the back seat.  I turn around to see him running toward me with a Maasai at his arm.  “Marie, this is Lazaro.  He’s the PR guy for the village.  We should all exchange information and try to do something when we’re back in the States, don’t you think?” 

Well, look at that.  Sandy.  Hook, line, sinker…

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Kili Diaries: Days 6 and 7

Day 6: Barafu Camp to Uhuru Peak to Mweka Camp
Hike: 10 miles
Altitude: 15, 331 feet to 19, 341 feet to 10,065 feet


Elias turns up at our tent.  His usual “How you doing?” disrupts our brief power-slumber.  It’s time. 

Darkness overtakes my vision.  Darryl snaps on a headlamp; I wince, Gremlin-style, and try to come to terms with the task at hand.  I’m coughing again.  The last few hours at 15,000 feet have wreaked new bronchial challenge.  The wind howls, the high-speed flutter of the birds rip audibly by our tent.  It’s near freezing.  I want to tell Elias I’m not doing well.  But I refrain: there’s orphaned children dancing in my head.

The stars are out and I take comfort in their steady company.  Kili’s shocking white tip borders fluorescent against the night sky and she glows on my eye’s Tanzanian horizon.  Stella Point is an arduous 8-hours in the distance, but she plays tricks on my powers of perception.  If I leap really high, I can land squarely on her crest.  Or so it seems.  Six-layers piled on my frame and I’m ready.  As ever.

In those first 25 steps, I know I’ve made a mistake.  Switchbacks over broken rocks and scree are lit by a caravan of headlamps.  I beg my footing to stay true which isn’t an easy feat.  The trail winds toward the heavens—a line of determined, crazy souls out for an evening stroll.  The depth of each step astounds me.  I trip, repeatedly, triggering a chain reaction down the trail.  Such action-reaction isn’t specific to me, and the trail attendants, outfitted like elementary school crossing guards, help to get us back on track.

With each step, I am becoming more and more reliant on my walking poles.  Placement is key, especially in obscurity.  How long have we been climbing, I wonder.  It’s been an hour, I hear someone call out.  Am I already so delirious that I questioned aloud?  No, it seems we’re all just of one mind. I crave my music for sustenance, but our iPods have long since died – a combination of the cold’s affect on the battery and poor judgment on summit-night conservation.

I see my breath in shadows on the air.  It’s labored and thick.  Ninety minutes have passed when my chest begins to throb.  My hand automatically moves to my sternum in press.  Each inhalation pierces; each exhalation burns.  Each cough is a gunshot ricocheting through my core, stinging in aftermath.  I check the trail of slow-moving torches; I contemplate success.  You can’t fail to summit, says a little Marie (white shirt) on my right shoulder.  You are going to die six-days unshowered, says another similar little Marie (black shirt) on the left shoulder.  At two hours, my coughs are becoming more frequent; it’s the fourth time I need to stop and catch my breath.

Richard is with me, per usual.  He’s quiet in concentration.  I believe he’s grown to care whether I make it or not.  He will take personal pride in my summit’s successful resolution and I’m adding his approval into the decision now replacing the dancing children in my head.  I hear a chorus of at-home “I told you so”s that grows loud with an inability to summit.  It’s the naysayers who think I’m crazy for all the unconventionality I’ve added to my life.  I hear my parents, and my very sensible sister, applauding a decision in favor of health.  Gunshot. 

Seven days, six nights, 17,000 feet on the world’s highest freestanding mountain has to count for something, no?  A 17,000-foot altitude is higher than almost every naturally scalable mountain (besides the Himalayas range); can’t I be satisfied?  No.  I will go on.  I must.  Gunshot.  I have to finish with Darryl, who I believe is light years ahead of me.  This is our mission.  We need the picture on top of the summit together.  Gunshot.  I stop again. 

Richard tries to push me.  How far are we?  Still around 17,000 feet, he smiles patiently.  Six more hours, peanuts.  I place my poles into the earth.  My fingers have frozen; my teeth are chattering; I’m incapable of moving forward.  I have to surrender and make peace.  Therein lies my Kilimanjaro lesson.


Day 7: Mweka Camp to Mweka Gate
Hike: 6 miles
Altitude: 10,065 feet to 5, 380 feet

I awake to a British voice in camp.  Toby.  Huh?  It’s barely 8 AM.  Everyone should just be hitting the Stella Point summit.  I swore I would be awake and greet them on their return, not represent as the lazy bum who didn’t summit but overslept their valiant return.  How the…?  I admit that I’m momentarily excited by someone else’s inability to properly summit.  I’d rather not be the only one.  But Toby?  Flying Kites’ founder?  He was always ahead of the pack, regardless of consequence.  No way.

I emerge from my tent.  The day is glorious, and the sun is shining.  It’s as if after the trauma of the night, Kili has welcomed me back into her embrace.  Mother Nature seems to approve of my decision to turn back at 17,000.  Oddly, I feel really good about my decision, too.  As does my body.  Richard comes over to my tent with antibiotics.  “Two.  Three times a day,” he says, placing the pills in my hand.  “You did very good, Marie.”  He has no idea how much his accolades mean to me.

Turns out Toby hit Stella Point in record time.  “Seven and a half,” he states as he continues to catch his breath.  “There and back,” he adds with a wink.  He’s completely knackered, his nose runs, his color isn’t exactly right; drinking the guide-supplied vitamin water looks like an effort.  “You made the right decision, Marie.  People are dropping up there,” he seems to drift off as he tells me this.  “Darryl?”  I ask. “She’s doing really well.  Like a champ.”  Of course she is.

Different than me, Toby had no choice.  He had to summit; he couldn’t accept defeat.  And I understand.  Last night was the first time I made the humble decision, as opposed to the reckless one.  For the first time, I feel wholly complacent in that choice.  I’m excited, not envious, to see everyone return.  I can’t wait to celebrate them.  Celebrate Darryl.  As if I wasn’t aware before—that girl’s got some serious soul.  I couldn’t be more proud to have spent this week with her.

One by one, they return.  Josh is rushed down first.  He couldn’t adjust to the altitude after summit.  What the brochures don’t tell you is there’s an additional hour hike to the infamous sign once you hit the 19,000.  A big “fuck you” from Kili on arrival, if you will.  Accompanied by Dennis, the rasta guide, Josh is milky white.  He’s swollen, and he needs to lie down.  I’m taken aback by Josh’s condition.  This guy’s a bonafide camper.  He’s spent months on end in the wild: a Boy Scout redefined.  It just goes to show that Kili doesn’t discriminate.  Darryl, Sara, Max, and Tom Mitchell come next.  My girl!  She’s had a few scares, but of everyone, she seems the most centered and contemplative without physical reaction.  Then again, that might just be Darryl’s nature.

Jon and Julianna are next in a larger group supported by Jared and Caitlin.  Both have been throwing up, both have facial edema.  Julianna’s crying; Jon’s body has gone limp, he’s being physically supported on both sides and appears mentally incoherent.  Thomas (Lewis/Clark) is at the back of the pack.  He’s stretched and rested his way up and down and lived to tell.  In those early moments, nobody would “ever” do it again.  For a million dollars, goes the question.  “Nope.”  “Never.”  “Absolutely not.”  As swelling subsides, as the nausea wears off, I’m sure that will change.  Real adventure is never easy.

Hours later, fueled and rested, we begin to descend this giant force of nature.  Isn’t there an airlift or, at the very least, a transport van for the descent?  No matter, we’ve all survived the uphill experience, what’s a little downward hike?  Humbled by my physical self, by nature, by the strength and character of the people around me, I bound downhill.  Alternatively pairing with Jared, Juli, Sara, Josh, and the fifty-somethings, Darryl and I know we’ve made friends for life.  There’s a certain closeness that Kili fosters, a specific vulnerability that’s easily exchanged in those moments on the mountain.  These people have seen me in ways that my lifelong friends have never been privy.

As a wise Jon (Shippee) once said, “a joke, a smile, sometimes a pill…we’ve all helped each other along.”  Ain’t that the truth…  A year ago, Kilimanjaro was something other people knew about.  Now, I’m part of that club. 

Asante Sana.

(For Caitlin)
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become

It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never have

—Toto, Africa

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Kili Diaries: Day 5

Day Five: Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp
Hike: 2 miles
Altitude: 13, 105 feet to 15, 331 feet

Oh what a beautiful morning.  Oh what a beautiful day. 


Darryl gives my face the once over and I can tell from her non-reaction, I’m to back to early morning basics.  Even the lungs seem to be functioning at full capacity.  Or thereabouts.  I emerge from our tent after Elias, our server, prompts the breakfast call, confident that everyone’s stares won’t evoke terrorized step backs.  Porridge and hot sauce (which I’ve come to love), toast and peanut butter, eggs and a banana, I’m ready to bang out a bit of trail.

We’re headed to our highest sleeping camp today: Barafu.  At midnight tonight, we start the 8-hour, in-the-dark push toward the summit, Stella Point.  As if daytime hiking isn’t challenging enough…  Everyone’s anxious and excited.  The outhouses have taken their toll on our nasal passages, toilet paper supplies for wild, mid-hike bowels are drying up, and I have to admit, I’ve grown tired of missing the hole or losing my balance and wetting my pant bottoms in the port-a-potties.  Not to mention dodging logs of shit which have frozen overnight in campsite corners.  Modern plumbing never felt so far away.

We’re all (well, the eco-conscious ones of us and I’m with Darryl so there’s strict policy on my watch…) keeping garbage bags of our waste and it’s truly astounding how much we’ve compiled.  In addition to a porcelain loo, I’m about ready for a dumpster, too.

The infirm tally of flu-like viruses number at seven (men only, mind you), much diarrhea, and the headaches are starting.  I admit feeling better in my own health, but by Day 5, everyone’s wind and sunburned faces show that we’ve gotten Kili’s memo.  It says she’s fully in charge.  In bold and capital letters.

As we head off for the day, which will encompass the shortest hike distance, I have the added weight of my daypack again.  I’ve been spoiled by illness, but as Richard mutters a solid “Cowboy Up” to the group, I readjust my straps, and we set off.  We’re blessed by weather these past few days – shining sun and a clear view.  We’re so close that it almost feels like you can touch her.  We’re high above the clouds, looking down produces a canvas so breathtaking that even I can’t help but awe over the surroundings.  Kili’s vantage point is, hands-down, one of the best I’ve ever seen.
We scale rocks, scuttle over steep inclines, pass babbling brooks, duck under caves, marvel at waterfalls that spout at this massive altitude, and squint our eyes from the potent rays of the sun.  The pace times out to about 2 seconds/step, much slower than earlier days, and my clothes have started to loosen.  Richard is constantly telling me “Margie, Margie,” a gentle reminder to take in water at a minimum of 3 liters per day.  “Good,” he says (pronounced “goot”), as I follow his instruction, “this is peanuts, Marie.”  Right, I snap back.  I nearly forgot.  Behind with Darryl, Dennis happily jams on her iPod.  She gets more satisfaction from their listen, as opposed to her own.

When we reach Barufu camp, we’ve crossed into the alpine zone -- semi-desert, for the laymen.  There’s sparse vegetation and, oddly, small chipmunk-type rodents that scurry around our tents in fury.  We’ve only been with each other for five days, so the Kili-munks briefly remind us there’s a whole world out there. 

Barafu is different from the other camps we’ve visited.  It’s perched on a cliff, invisible from the other side.  The aesthetics are stunning; Mount Mawenzi lies gracefully in the foreground, Kili’s summit in the background.  Natural boulders shield the wind; porters tuck in and around the rocks, their colorful parkas create rainbows against the brown monotony of the cliff. 

We sleep most of the day, for we have to be up for summit at midnight.  “Hakuna Matata,” says Jackson, another one of our porters when I fret my summit climb, setting off an internal chorus of The Lion King.  As Simba and Pumba dance cartoon circles in my head, I’m determined.  One more climb and then it’s all downhill. 

Downhill…in a good way.