Climbing (Part of) Mount Kilimanjaro

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The first morning of my recent trip to Tanzania, I went out on our cabin porch and the first thing I saw was Mount Kilimanjaro, its snow-capped peak rising over a blue jacaranda tree into cotton clouds and a blue sky. It was breathtaking … for a minute or two.

Then my demons woke up. Ever since Mary Lee and I had reviewed our itinerary back in the spring, I’d had apprehensions about the second day of our trip: a hike up part of Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t much a climb, if you were a climber or if you were fifty-five instead of seventy-five, but the idea of trekking eight kilometers (about five miles) up the mountain and then the same distance back at an altitude that began at 1879 meters (or 6165 feet, higher than any mountain on the East Coast of the United States) filled me with not a little trepidation.

Compounded by the fact that I felt I had to do it or I would somehow be a failure, less of a man. All my life I have measured my worth by what I’ve done. Probably because I grew up in an alcoholic family, shame has been the driving force in my life, and the approval of others my drug of choice, far more addictive than booze or caffeine.

That first day, while Mary Lee and I rested from our 18-hour trip by touring a coffee plantation, I kept glancing up at Kilimanjaro—or where I knew the mountain was; most of the day, it was hidden by clouds—wondering, Can I do this? What will people think of me if I can’t make it?

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The next day, Rashid, our guide came to our cabin to pick us up. Short and wiry in his mesh REI baseball cap, sweatshirt, and jeans, he looked about eighteen (although I found out later, he was in his late thirties). During the hour drive to Kilimanjaro National Park, as he talked to our driver in Swahili, I wondered if they were talking about us—okay, talking about me—my pot belly, my hunched back. Climbing a long flight of stairs from the parking lot to the Kinapa Headquarters, my lungs burned and my heart raced. There’s no way in hell I can do this!

While we were taking pictures at the Marangu Gate Entrance, I told Rashid, “Look, my wife and I do a lot of walking, but not much climbing. I’m not sure we can make it to the Mandara Huts and back.”

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Rashid grinned. “No problem,” he said. “We’re here to enjoy the mountain. Poli Poli. Slowly, slowly.”

When I start walking, my tendency is to begin at brisk pace and then slow down when I get out of breath, speed up, slow down…. Rashid set out on about the same pace I use when I’m going from the TV set to the bathroom. I took it personally. What kind of whimp does he think I am? I wanted to speed up. Maybe we could do the whole hike after all.

But Rashid seemed to be enjoying himself. He walked ahead of me, hands behind his back, looking around, a smile on his face. I found I had the breath to ask him questions about his life as a guide. He said he started as a porter. As a guide for the last fifteen years, he’d climbed all eight routes to the summit. When I said it must be dull walking with two old people like us, he replied, “No, I always find something beautiful to see. Kilimanjaro is my office.”

On the plane ride from the States, I’d read that Kilimanjaro has five ecological zones. We were hiking through the second zone of dense rain forest. Huge tree ferns surrounded us. Rashid pointed out sycamore trees, junipers, and some incredible moss called “old man’s beard” hanging from their branches. He showed us red gladiolas, a lily with yellow and red spikes, a yellow hibiscus, and “impatiens Kilimanjaro,” which only grows on this mountain and whose blossoms look like pink seahorses with yellow tails.

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Jambo.” A young woman in a red and brown striped skirt and a bright tourquoise bandanna around her head passed us as if we were standing still. She carried a large knife.

Jambo.” Rashid returned the traditional Swahili greeting. It seemed to me they winked at one another. As she disappeared around a bend ahead, he told us that she was a member of the Chagga tribe, who use the forest for firewood, farming, beekeeping, and logging. I was envious of her youth, her grace, her speed.

Still, when we came to a steep rise, I was grateful for Rashid’s slow pace. Zig-zagging up rocks and roots, I noticed my lungs seemed to have adjusted to the altitude. Rashid began pointing out birds: boubous, hoopoes, hornbills, and my favorite, a turaco, sporting what looked like a purple mohawk haircut on a green head.

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Just before noon, we reached a rest area, which Rashid said was about half-way to the Mandara Huts. Now, I knew for certain there was no way we were going to do all of our scheduled hike. My nemesis Shame pointed his finger at me and laughed.

Six German hikers— beginning, they told us, their ascent to the summit—were finishing their lunch. Rashid and their guide talked in Swahili, while Mary Lee and I ate our sandwiches. As this guide was leaving, he smiled at Mary Lee, “Good-bye, Bibi.” He turned to me, “Good-bye, Babu.”

Rashid smiled. “That means “Grandmother and Grandfather.”

My spirits sank. Shame snickered. What, you think he thought you were Robert Redford in Out of Africa?

I don’t know if my disappointment showed or not, but Rashid added, “In Africa, that is a term of respect.”

I thought, Well, Grandfather is what you are, aren’t you? And aren’t you happy to be one? Then I realized that not only was I a grandfather to four kids under seven, but I could be the grandfather of any of the six German climbers. Our guide Rashid was ten years younger than my daughter would have been if she’d lived.

I had a brief vision of eighteen-year-old Laurie lying on her hospital bed, her labored breathing: “Ash…es, ash…es.” I saw my classmate Scott, one of the best athletes I’ve ever played with, struggling to get out of bed a month or so before he died.

Hell, you’re lucky to be anywhere on this mountain.

Shame was silent.

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We continued upward. The terrain grew steeper, the vegetation less dense. Suddenly Rashid stopped. “Over to your left. Blue monkey. You don’t see them on the ground much.”

Through the trees, I saw a bluish-black monkey ambling up some rocks. Male, probably 15 pounds, maybe two feet long, with another two feet of tail that looked like a piece of rope.

Would I have seen him, I wondered, if I’d been clamoring up the mountain intent only on getting to the Huts?

An hour or so later, we hit the steepest rise of our hike. Rashid said that at the top we’d see a waterfall. Mary Lee and I looked at each other, and I said what I’d never thought I’d hear myself say: “No, I think we’ve gone as far as we need to. We’re ready to go back.”

I don’t think we’d taken more than a few steps down the path before our guide pointed up. “Colobus monkeys!” Through an overhead canopy of leaves, I saw two large monkeys, black with white trim and magnificent white tails, peacefully munching away.

If we’d kept on climbing, I’d have missed them.

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The descent was faster and easier, not only because my lungs weren’t working as hard, but because it felt as if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. As we passed through the forest of variegated flowers, feathery ferns, and lichen-bearded trees, I wondered if what hadn’t lifted was the weight of responsibility to those self-images I keep creating. How often, I thought, have I been a slave to how I want people to see me: the varsity athlete, the Kerouac hipster, the wise, knowing teacher, the grieving parent raging against God, the great writer… always reacting; seldom receiving.

As we made our way down the last slope just before the entrance to Kilimanjaro, Rashid cautioned us, “Poli poli.”

“Yes, slowly slowly. Thank you,” I said, grateful not only for his concern, but also for the gift of the day.

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Being in Tanzania

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I traveled to Tanzania with no expectations. My reason for going was to accompany my wife, for whom Africa had been a dream since she was in grade school. Yet, when I returned two weeks later, I felt I’d been on one of the most spiritually significant pilgrimages of my life. Whether or not I’ll say this five years from now remains to be seen, but right now, I’m reflecting on my exterior and interior journeys.

What keeps coming back to me is a comment our guide, Abel, made the morning he drove Mary Lee and me to the Serengeti Plains. We’d begun to see tall, red-robed people herding hump-backed cattle on the hills. He told us these were Africa’s iconic Masai, the semi-nomadic tribe who live in Kenya and Tanzania, continuing their age-old customs, persisting in speaking their own language, in spite of both governments’ instituted programs to encourage them to assimilate into the general culture.

“I like the Masai,” Abel said. “They are proud just to be.”

Since then, I’ve become aware of how hard it is for me to feel that way. Oh, I can remember when I was proud to be a varsity basketball player; when I was (and am) proud to be a teacher; proud to be a parent and grandparent; proud to be an American. But proud just to be? The idea has always been as foreign to me as a Masai diet of blood and curdled milk. I was raised always to consider, “What will the neighbors think?” To get my worth from how others perceive me.

The problem is that I make assumptions about how others see me, which has led to a lifetime of anxiety and resentments. With no idea who I was after I stopped playing basketball, I went into a depression that lasted almost four years. Even after thirty years of teaching, I considered myself an abysmal failure as a human being if I had a bad class. When my daughter died from cancer, convinced people saw me as a poor parent who couldn’t look after his child, my pride in being a father turned to shame. In Africa, I found myself embarrassed to admit to being from the United States for fear of being seen as a supporter of the policies of our current government.

And as the morning continued, and I got used to seeing the Masai and the motorcycles and the open fires and the outdoor furniture stores beside the road on our long drive to the Serengeti, my mind reverted to playing the same old home movies it always does when it wanders. I’m back in high school, changing the outcome of the state basketball championship game, winning by 20 points this time instead of losing by that much. I’m arguing today’s politics with some of those same teammates whose views now differ 180 degrees from mine, destroying their feeble arguments with my brilliant sarcasm. I’m dying of lung cancer, stomach cancer, melanoma, cancer of the esophagus, or Parkinson’s Disease. I’m making plans to change my life when I get back from this trip, eating more fruits and vegetables, giving up cheese and chocolate, losing ten pounds, growing another beard, maybe getting another tattoo. All of which, I see now, are just more examples of getting my identity from what I imagine other people think of me.

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But after lunch, we entered the Serengeti— miles and miles of lion-brown plains dotted with feathery trees under a vast sky. Abel raised the roof of his Land Cruiser. Mary Lee and I stood and began to see animals: gazelles and antelope at first, then the occasional ostrich and wart hog. In the distance, a road seemed to move until we came closer and saw that it was a large herd of cape buffalo chugging across the landscape. On a large boulder, a lion gazed into the distance.

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Slowly, my mind started to shift its focus, still returning, however, between animals, to those old illusions and assumptions.

Until, in the late afternoon, we saw a circle of land cruisers around an Acacia Tree. Pulling in, I could make out a female lion sleeping on a limb. At first, peering through the same sarcastic lens through which I often see things, I found the scene ridiculous—a half-dozen vehicles, at least that many telephoto lenses and maybe twenty people, all watching one lion trying to sleep? Then Abel gave me his binoculars and I watched the lion stretching and contracting her front legs. She swished her tail, arched her back, and moved higher into the tree. Onyx-colored eyes glanced at me dispassionately. She yawned, revealing a large tongue and sharp teeth. Behind her, the air seemed to glow golden and great clouds towered.

When I handed the binoculars back to Abel, most of the other land cruisers had left. I realized I had no idea how long I’d been looking at the lion. Suddenly (a word that’s easy for me to overuse, but in this case it really was sudden) I felt a feeling of peace, of “evenness,” of lightness, followed by a sense of gratitude—Wow! I just got to see that. Thank you!

The feeling didn’t last of course, but over the next week it did return and last longer: lying in our tent at night, listening to the hyenas’ r-r-r-upe, r-r-r-rip, and the heavy breathing of what we found out later were two old male buffalo who liked to wander the grounds; the sight of over a hundred hippopotamuses wedged together like sausages in a river; herds of twenty to fifty elephants parading down to another river to drink and splash and roll in the mud; a cheetah and her two cubs prowling through the grass; seven giraffe standing silhouetted on a ridge; the strange baobab trees, a prehistoric species that predates both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago, whose branches look like roots, and whose gnarled bark has been worn by wind and rain and millennia of elephants using them for scratching posts.

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Now I wonder if what happened was that I was, simply, being. If I set aside the old baggage I usually carry around, so that I became more open with no preconceived ideas of what I thought I needed to prove to someone else. It’s not so much that I lost the sense of who I was, it’s that I became more of who I was: in union with a much larger whole, not just a bunch of weird looking animals, but an energy, a spirit, if you will, running through animals, trees, grass, sky, clouds, Abel, Mary Lee, and me.  I may not have been “proud just to be,” but I certainly was grateful.

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Even if you don’t journey to honor a saint or to see a holy place, I think any trip can become a pilgrimage when the exterior journey triggers an interior one. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist recently wrote: “A pilgrimage typically involves three experiences: leaving something, gaining something, and struggling with something.” I’m hoping I left some of my defensive, passive-aggressive sarcasm behind. I know the peace and lightness I experienced continues; I notice more. I’m thinking less about who or what I am and more about that I am.

The struggle is to try to maintain this sense of just being now that I’m back dealing with jet lag that lasted a week, the cough that I brought back that won’t go away (I know it’s probably not lung cancer, but…) the season’s first snow storms, obligations, and the memories that metastasize this time of year of my daughter’s last months in the hospital and her death two days before Christmas. I’m trying to think of being in Tanzania not as some abnormal “blip” outside of the reality of my usual assumptions and illusions, but as a step toward experiencing the greater reality I’ve occasionally glimpsed, and with it, gratitude for the life I have, and the serenity of not caring what the hell the neighbors think.

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