Monday, February 25, 2013

DAY 1: Arusha to Machame Camp

Our crew at the gate ready for Kilimanjaro {Hashim, Wallace, Venance, Ro, me, James, Olga, & Ray}

We begin our first day in the beautiful Oasis hotel in Arusha. To be just a holding station for our adventures, this place is pretty idyllic. 

The breakfast table

Our guides surprised us at breakfast. Hashim came up wearing his mountain uniform: a Union-jack do-rag and a gigantic yellow jacket. Behind him and two feet taller, Venance, our assistant guide.

“On the mountain, we will be like family,” Hashim said. People made some jokes; someone said, “Are we there yet?” Hashim broke out with his belly laugh. He laid out a map between our dirty breakfast dishes and very seriously outlined our route. "For two days we will go up, then two days across and on day five....we go for the summit!”

It was a little nerve-wracking knowing that in four days I would either be sick as a dog or on the summit of that 20,000-foot mountain. Which would it be....?

So with that, it was game time. We packed up the last of our gear. Olga and I went outside the hotel gates and smiled at the locals passing by in the midst of their morning routines. We got our first lesson in Swahili. Every person that passed said something different: Jambo, Mambo, Salaama, Habari, Habari Gani. We turned to Hashim for a little help. He wrote some things in my book, most notably. Tunakwenda mlima Kilimanjaro.

We go to the mountain!

We set out in the Land Cruiser. Beyond the gates, the road was pockmarked and gutted, but the Cruiser took it like a champ. Life in Arusha was bustling. Women were wrapped in colorful fabrics carrying every item imaginable on their heads, sometimes even 5 gallon buckets. Motobikes and minibuses were swerving around each other in a fit of dust. There was so much to see. We stopped in Arusha to meet (and pay) Basecamp’s director. He turned out to be the kind of colorful character you only meet waylaid like a renegade in some developing nation.

He was a British ex-patriot with German roots who found himself in Africa decades ago working on the Trans-African Highway. He'd married a local Muslim woman, converted to Islam and changed his name. We "joked" that he was running from the law. (Uneasy laughter.) He had a good sense of humor and lots of stories, so we promised to share a beer with him when we got back.

The mountain entrance was about an hour away, we picked up two guys along the way, another guide (in training) named Raymond and the cook, Nemes. This was our first look at Africa, so we were all mesmerized especially by the Maasi herding goats on the side of the road, cloaked in red and purple, upright with their staff.

DAY 1 MACHAME GATE 6,200 ft / 1,890 km

The fun begins. Arriving at the gate is like going to the doctor's office; you know that everything will probably be alright, but the dread of wondering is palpable.

Our Cruiser pulled up into a crowd of yelling people, all were local Tanzanians trying to get the guide’s attention, hoping to be hired for the climb. We got herded into a picnic area while the guides weighed gear and distributed it between porters.

Porters are hired depending on the weight of your gear. No porter is allowed to carry more than around 50 lbs. 50lb! Rome's packing earned us an extra porter.

What were the porters carrying? Tents (two people per tent), thin sleep mats, our sleeping bags and their sleeping bags, tables and chairs and a mess tent, a cook tent, pots and pans, probably 20 or so liters of bottled water, about 12 dozen eggs (we ate a lot of eggs), lots of fruit, meats, vegetables, and a couple of loaves of bread.

What are we carrying? Rain gear (pants and shell), warm weather stuff, camera, 3 liters of water, sunscreen and miscellaneous small things like chapstick and first aid. (yes, it's embarrassing compared to the porters, but it's the way of the mountain.)

I was impressed with the infrastructure and organization of the national park. According to the staff, all of the equipment had to be assigned, so that no porter carries too much. The guides are required to track the equipment and trash all of the way up and down the mountain at checkpoints. If there is waste unaccounted for, they receive a huge fine and can lose their operating license. As a result, the mountain is pretty clean.

We waited a long time for all of these procedures to take place. When we actually left, it felt anticlimactic, like we were just taking a stroll up a gravel road in the late-afternoon sun. Venance told us to walk slowly so we could adjust to the altitude, but that was more like a bet for Wallace and James. We saw them for about two seconds at the gate and not again until we hit camp. Olga was hilariously wearing sneakers and carrying a handbag like she was off to the mall. I had my camera in a manila envelope. We were not quite the picture of seasoned climbers.

Meanwhile, the porters were breezing past us. I'd heard advice from other climbers: don't try to keep up with the porters. I figured we wouldn't see them at all, but they weren't single-minded. I got a laugh watching them take their smoke breaks along the trail. The atmosphere between climbers and crew was really good. The porters and guides would whisper pole pole to you as you passed, a Swahili phrase which literally means slowly slowly. It's the motto on the mountain, and creates a good vibe, like we are all looking out for each other. Maybe it's just protocol, but I don't care; having complete strangers say, be careful, go slow now, made me feel like, hey, thanks for caring.

The climbing was really relaxed. Rome was carrying his enormous bag with enough water and MREs to last until the volcanic meltdown. The porters and guides were trying in vain to persuade him to downsize the bag, but he wouldn't have it, so they tipped their hats. And fellow climbers most certainly mistook him for a porter.

The terrain was cool and damp with hanging trees and soft dirt. I fell in with two other guys from another company, one Spaniard was elated when he heard me explaining to his guide that the Swahili word for brother was a curse word in Spanish. I laughed knowing that a curse word peaked his ears. He came back and tried to converse in Spanish, probably feeling very isolated not knowing English or Swahili (the only languages on the mountain.) Unfortunately aside from curse words, I couldn't provide much conversation. I felt bad when he slumped away. His guide was an amicable Rasta named Charlie, who started explaining Swahili, rattling off phrases as I tried helplessly to memorizes them. I sponged as much as I could. He did give me an interesting intro; he explained that in Swahili you can go right down the alphabet to make common words. For example:

baba = father
bibi = grandmother
dada = sister
kaka = brother
lala = sleep
mama = mother
mimi = me
sisi = us
sasa = now
wewe = you

and some others…

I was alone when I made it to the camp. James and Wallace had been there for an hour already. We were one of the last groups departing, so we were among the last to camp. As a result, our tent was stuck right in the middle of the thoroughfare; people were constantly tripping over our stakes.

Note: Hashim tripping over stakes

Distance: 11.25 miles / 18 kms /  Elevation gain: 3576 ft / 1090 km

The sun was setting. Everyone was catatonically tired. Our mess tent was set up, so we wandered in, surprised and immensely grateful to find some popcorn and tea. We met Ebrah, who was the cook's assistant. He had a really kind gentle presence, but spoke no English, so it was incentive to learn some Swahili. He was always saying karibu dada (welcome sister.)

Karibu at the table we found to be like the Japanese word, douzo. It's sort of like “please enjoy, help yourself, you're welcome,” rolled into one.

Incidentally from my brief experience here, karibu seems to be the most frequently used word in Swahili. You feel at home immediately! If a Tanzanian asks you if you've ever been to Tanzania before, and you say yes or no, they will quickly respond with karibu. If you are on the street, shop owners offer a karibu to invite you into the store, and then follow you around inside the store saying karibu as you look at things. When you are at a restaurant, the waiter says karibu before and after every action. Then of course when you say thank you (asante), the answer is karibu. So there is hard evidence that Tanzania is the most welcoming place on earth.

A tasty dinner from Nemes sent us quickly into food/jetlag/hiking comas. Hashim came to give us next day's briefing, but I fell asleep at the table and didn't hear any of it.

The bathrooms at camp are a fun challenge. I might venture to say they are the foulest things I've ever encountered. In addition to the smell, there is the (slightly overlooked) fact that due to altitude and the lack of oxygen, you can't hold your breath for more than two seconds. So you take a huge breath, run inside, and then you are turning blue before you even close the latrine door. There you are suffocating, forced to take a nice gigantic lung full of rank foulness. Yummy.

But this alternative seems cruel and unusual. The expensive outfitters like Zara actually have their porters carry a camping latrine up the mountain. They have little outhouse tents in their campsites with the portable johns inside.

With their private poop tents and brand new nylon equipment, Zara have become a rival like in those old Disney films where the opposing team is rich and wears black and the rag tag motley crew who are carrying handbags and manila envelopes have to beat them up the mountain.. to save the treehouse.

At 4 am Olga wakes up, and in some delirium, assumes everyone else is also awake. She yells, “is anyone awake?”
We jolt up in panic, what's wrong?
Then we hear, “The stars are amazing!...Wallace, are you awake?” Wallace is in the tent next to hers.
He answers in monotone. “I am now.”

We try to protect her identity the next day; there's a manhunt for the nut that woke up the whole camp yelling look at the stars in the middle of the night.


Unknown said...

ha i think we need to see a picture of olga and ro's hiking gear side by side.

Caitlin Strom said...

Amazing missy!

Mie said...

Do they let you peepoo outside of the bathroom? I will be too scared to go inside...

Missy said...

mie - yeah you can go outside, but there are a lot of people around haha

sheik - <3

jen - I'll see what I can do, haha