Tuesday, November 29, 2011

You Will Never Walk Alone- Kili Day 5

We woke up this morning with our arms and our legs sprawled diagonally, having slept sideways through the night. Karanga camp is on an incline, and at that elevation our porters were hard pressed to find steady ground on which to pitch our tents. By now it doesn't even matter, since we're such pro's you see, sleeping through the night and all, and even sharing our tent with our duffle bags- instead of leaving them in the "entrance" area. (When roughing it, it's the little things that give you an ego boost.)

The mountain has a funny effect on people. Zein is practically trotting with energy mashallah, while just behind her the excess motion makes Aunty Ammooni dizzy. As we ascend, we enter the "sleet" area. We are rock climbing now, literally; as in, the terrain under our feet is simply slabs upon slabs of uninterrupted rock, interspersed with piles of broken up sand-colored stone. It's like a construction junkyard. I look back to see how far we've climbed and find our trail twisting and turning through the slopes, clearly defined as if marked up by chalk. But before we know it, Karanga camp disappears in the haze. Smoke-like clouds ascending from below make their way around the top and encircle us. They team up with the wind and push us further along. To our right, more silvery grey clouds hover over the rocks. As they part, beautiful, puffy clouds appear. We are above the clouds now, the horizon below us, against a sky so blue.. the sun shining through.. it's enough to get a rhyme out of.. you.

But there is little wildlife here, no plants whatsoever- maybe a mouse or two, or a bird of prey circling up high. I wonder at which point the mud decided to quit us. Ironically, there are more signs here of human presence. Pebbles stacked on top of one another in creative patterns- perhaps to mark the route, or perhaps the remnants of climbers playing around during a water break- words like "TONY 2011" etched on a rock; lots of familiar alphabet with indecipherable meanings scrawled in thick black marker. My pole picks up a juice box straw and it hangs on for a few meters.

We cross the ridge and then surely enough those humans start to appear. Fellow climbers, all walking downhill as they return from successful summit attempts. That British man with the red face and few words; the Scandinavians looking dizzy and nauseous; the Canadian with a kindness in his face that reminds me of my college friend Sushil Jacob. The Japanese. And finally the French party poopers ("├ža vaut pas l'coup" - it wasn't worth it).

I'm lightheaded I think, but I can't be too sure. My heart is racing I think, but again I can't be too sure. I breathe deeply and focus on the boots in front of me. With every step, I pray to see the orange tents.

"Subhan".. "Allah".. "Alhamdu".. "lillah". The supplications are timed to my poles making contact with the ground. I fight to keep going but the tents refuse to reveal themselves. Instead, protruding from the rock is a sequence of capital letters that actually spell something I can read:

"U WILL NEVER WALK ALONE."

I stop dead in my tracks. What compelled me to look up at that moment, at that rock, I don't know. I am ecstatic now as the emotions gush through me, flooding me with thoughts of loved ones, family and friends who have been with us in spirit from the start. With this unexpected boost of energy, my struggle is reversed: I now fight to keep my pace slow.

I am finally, inexplicably, fully ready to tackle tonight's climb. We arrive at our final camp. We are SO close, but we must first eat up, rest up and then have one more meal before midnight. My arm is sore as I write this- my bicep is feeling the pressure of pen on paper at this altitude. It is hailing outside but I feel like I'm on top of the world. And that wouldn't be a stretch: at 4800 (?) meters, I've never been this high!

We lie down to rest. It is hardly three in the afternoon, but a deep slumber besets us, not unsimilar to the time when Dororthy set off to see the wizard (the wonderful Wizard of Oz). I just rewatched that scene and the resemblance is UNCANNY: Dorothy and friends reach the end of the yellow brick road. Above them, Emerald City sparkles in its green magnificence. But first, they must cross the field of poppies. They are so excited they start to run, but the poppies put Dorothy and Toto to "sleep, sleep, sleep." Tinman, Scarecrow and Lion are all panicking that the witch (in our case, altitude) has cast a spell on them, but it starts to snow and the snow wakes them up.

Ok... after this synopsis I can hardly believe it, but I swear it's true: when we woke up on summit night and stepped outside our tent, it was snowing. Our entire campsite was covered in deliciously fresh, thick, Christmasy powdery white snow.

It is time.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Barranco Wall- Kili Day 4

"Dreaming serves as an outlet for those thoughts and impulses we repress during the day. When we go to sleep at night and slip into our dream state, we feel liberated and behave in a manner that we do not allow ourselves to in our waking life."

-- Dream Moods (online)

Day 4... also known as the day before the day that precedes THAT night- summit night. Clearly my subconscious mind has begun counting down to tomorrow night's scheduled ascent, because in my sleep, I didn't succeed. Instead, I had returned home to Jeddah having turned back from Kili early. Stupid dreams! Fortunately, my conscious mind has immediate access to Albus Dumbledore's Pensieve. This object, crafted by the magical talents of JK Rowling and explained in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, operates as follows:

"One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure." As I release the air from my air mattress and pack it along with my "sleeping hat" (a funny looking rat-shaped beanie gifted to me by a friend), I pour those excess thoughts into my wash basin and throw them out with our dirty water.

BARRANCO awaits. Apparently that's Swahili for "breakfast," and it is also the name of today's main attraction: the Great Barranco Wall. Supposedly known as such because we climb it after breakfast, this wall is just that: a wall. There is no discernible trail, only dots of moving color slowly making their way upwards. Noticing the panic on some faces, our guides reassure us that "it's a piece of chocolate cake..." after all, the porters climb it one-handedly, with packs on their heads. My personal take on naming this wall "the Great Breakfast" is that it serves to remind climbers to stuff their faces this morning: lunch isn't for another 7 hours.

When I think of this day looking back, I have a vivid image of one of us losing a water bottle. Just thinking of that fluorescent yellow plastic crashing against the cliffs over and over again, until it disappears from view... it's enough to give anyone a chilling case of vertigo. But my handwritten account of that climb has me cruising through it: "Barranco Wall! AMAZING. SO MUCH FUN." Followed simply with, "I love rock climbing." Surely enough, if I could revisit any part of the Kilimanjaro trip and do it all over again, it would be this day. Deciding how to surmount those rocks, where to put your feet, how to use your hands for support.. this technique requires a certain finesse that is highly gratifying.

3PM and we're done, stationed at our new camp for the night. As a present to mark the first day of Eid, our phones start working again; we have BBM reception at 4000+ meters above sea level. But first, we must prepare our equipment for tomorrow's climb and so, one of our guides stops by our tent to check in with us. "Suze," I say, looking her straight in the eye. "If I get sick tomorrow, I'm going to want to keep going. You need to know this because I'll need you to tell me when you think it's no longer safe." Her reply is confident, "You're going to sail through it," she says. Sweeter words have never been spoken.

I finally get through to Mama on the phone and her loving voice rings clear in my ears: "NOURA! DON'T BE STUPID TOMORROW. IF YOU FEEL SICK, YOU TURN AROUND, YOU HEAR ME?" I hear her... the question is, how did she hear me?!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Taste the Rainbow"- Kili Day 3

What euphoria!

We wake up and shed layers, as the sun greets us with its warmth. My headache is gone, we've slept through the night, and we're all in great spirits. Altitude can make you delirious, but I'm hoping this elation is from within, a sign that the mountain has accepted us.

Day 3 brings with it a stark reminder: Mt. Kilimanjaro is, first and foremost, an ancient volcano. Here we all are, marching in single file like migrant elephants pursuing food and shelter in the great wilderness, and the landscape is... barren. Just volcanic ash, and to our left a trough where the lava once flowed. It's like a scene out of Jurassic Park, or at best where the Hyenas lived in Disney's The Lion King.

But we feel GREAT. We are 4000 and something meters high now, "we've surpassed Mont Blanc!", and it starts to hail. Our chatter dies down. We are just trekking, one pole planted, then the next. I pick up my boot and then put it back down, missing a step. But we keep going, mirroring the motions of the feet in front of us... all the while murmuring short prayers, fully aware that today is 'Arafa, the penultimate day of the Hajj. The tiny ice cubes soften into snowflakes. My right pole buckles and folds in on itself.

Our thoughts are elsewhere today, Rami's wedding, Myriam's baby, my family in Paris, Zein remembers a relative's birthday, I wonder how Raha is doing just 2 days behind us on the Kili trail.

"Mabrook Mabrook!" A voice ahead wakes me up from my trance. "5 hours! Well done!" WHAT! Already? How!! It's lunch time but we resume shortly after- the aim today is to gain altitude, acclamitize, and sleep lower. Lava Tower looms in the distance, deceptively close but not close enough. We arrive by the grace of God, just as I am starting to feel headachy again. It looks like a shot from the Land before Time, if you remember that cartoon. We take photos, we celebrate, and then....

What comes next is like nothing I've ever seen before- which would make sense, since it only exists on Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya: A field of Senicia Trees. Akin to a palm tree with banana leaves? Or maybe a cactus with a trunk? This is my image of, oh say, Madagascar? Peru? As we descend, the snow clears and the clouds part: There's the peak!! Grand, welcoming us: "Mwakaribishwe Kilimanjaro!" - welcome to Kilimanjaro!

But those trees, they're the reason to climb Kili! What a hidden treasure. I am half expecting a Llama to appear, this scene is so surreal. And then, a rainbow! I can hardly believe my eyes as I trace the full arc across the sky. Laughter returns to the group on this endless day. And sure enough, like the Irish leprechaun's pot of gold, but no longer a hidden secret, there lies our campsite waiting for us at the rainbow's end.

We arrive just in time, half an hour before sunset. Together, we face due North (almost) and direct our souls to the Creator of this splendor.. on this most holy of holy days. Unbelievable day, alhamdillah.

Kul 3am wintu bkhair w Eid Adha Mubarak!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Jambo! Kili Day 2

Good morning, from 3000 meters above sea level!

The unzipping of tent doors is my wake up call, it's time for Day Tw- my thoughts are interrupted. "Go back to bed!" I hear our guide calling out, followed by stifled laughter. For a split second, it is summer camp and 'lights out' is being enforced: "Rest for another hour," the voice suggests, "You'll need the energy."

Zip zip.. an hour later, tent doors fly open again. "Khalas, it should be time," I hear my aunts say. We went to bed at 8PM, it's no wonder some are restless. I stretch my arms out and toss around, always one to cherish the snooze button. But our tent shakes, someone's outside.

"Jambo! Habari Gani?" (Hello! how are you?) Our local porter's voice is friendly but certain- it's officially time. I smile, remembering my introduction to Swahili just a few days back. "Jambo", I'd repeat after the coffee lodge staff, and they'd follow with "Jambo Jambo" and start singing what is clearly a popular song. "Try it!" I say to my friend incredulously. "Just say Jambo Jambo and they'll do the rest."

We step out of our tents and there stands Mount Meru in the distance, proud and ever magnificent in the 7AM sun. We are in the "heather zone" having cleared the rainforest yesterday, but Kibo (which is the highest of Kili's 3 volcanic cones) remains hidden from view. Whether it's behind the fog or somewhere else, I can't tell; you don't quite grasp how big a mountain is until you're within its folds. We have about 840 meters to climb today and I am determined to learn the remaining "Jambo" lyrics and understand what they mean. A touch of local culture.

We set off and I think back to our arrival into Kilimanjaro airport. Being in town was such a tease. The trip through Arusha to the lodge was like a cross-sectional view into African rural life, but only accessible through the windowpane. There we were, in the middle of nature, and I was just fixiated on the road- "the artery of life", as Amo WYZ put it. On either side, the terrain is a mixture of sand, shrubs, and incredible jakaranda trees. What lies beyond this road is a mystery to me; children in school uniforms are walking to and fro, where their homes are is anyone's guess. Like the River Nile, this road brings to the countryside of Tanzania commerce, life. It connects people, provides access to goods, services, schools. Mobile phones can be refilled with credit. Hair salons, bars, and convenience stores line the pavement on both sides. Our safari van stops momentarily and I feel like an intruder into their lives: A striking young woman with beautiful dimples is smiling coyly at a man on a motorbike. They part as we start moving again, and she heads in the same direction as us, the motorbike driving in the opposite direction. On occasion, they separately turn back for one final glance. Where's the next meeting, I wonder.

I'm grateful for the chance to interact with Tanzanians during our climb so I can get a better glimpse of it all. Although we walk slowly and keep our chatter to a minimum ("conserve your energy!"), there is still enough time to exchange life stories and ask questions about our various cultures. When we break for lunch, we find ravens circling about. I think I spot a chipmunk scurrying into a shrub.

I don't remember much of the rest of the climb, probably because sometime into it I started feeling lightheaded from the change in altitude. When we got to our camp for the night, it started to rain and I lay in my tent, first to rest and then to wait for an intermission from the downpour.

It was colder that night, but dinner was delicious and certainly well earned. We are slowly but surely inching our way to the summit. Just before bed, I learn my last expression for the day: Lala salama... Sleep well!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

We summitted Kilimanjaro!! Day 1

I sit outdoors sipping an herbal tea blend. A stray cat makes the trees rustle, as it confidently walks along the fence. A kitten darts glances at my bowl of salad. My fingers tap-tap against the keyboard.

A fortnight ago, that cat, and the little kitten, they would have been monkeys. Replace my laptop with a pen and paper, and exchange the mug for a liter of mineral water induced with lime flavored, electrolyte fizz. The cats are in the garden of my home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia... the monkeys in the breakfast area of Arusha Coffee Lodge, Tanzania. There are 14 days and 2,800 kilometers separating the 2 "me's" in time and space, and yet here we are: both drenched in mosquito repellent, both thinking of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We summitted!

Stop. Is that really the first thing I'm going to say about climbing Kilimanjaro? That we made it to the top?

Yes, yes it is. We had walked all night and it was morning when we arrived. The highest landmass in Africa was completely covered in snow. The sun was shining and I was crying, overwhelmed by the beauty of it all, the excitement of a mission accomplished. We had walked the last few steps side-by-side, arm in arm.. breathing deeply to take it all in, the fresh air, the view of the glaciers.. the climbers ahead of us snapping their well-earned portraits in front of the black and yellow plaque:

"Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895M.... Africa's highest point. World's highest free standing mountain."

Stop! This moment is meaningless without the days preceding it. Today I am just a messenger, transferring sprawled ink to digital text. I turn my attention to the notes I've jotted down in my tent above the clouds, my tentmate zipping up her sleeping bag to my left.

Page 1, Day 1.

Although it's rainy season on Kili, the sun, God bless it, is beaming down on us as we approach Machame Gate.

It's finally time!!! Our boots are on, our day packs are securely on our backs, and our water bottles are filled to the brim. Mt. Kilimanjaro is actually a National Park and, lo and behold, Day 1 takes us through the thick of a rainforest. I was under the impression that Kili had a barren volcanic terrain through and through. But this is breathtaking!! How many people mention that when they return from Kilimanjaro? All this focus on making it to the top- I want to put it out of my head and just focus on today.

These trees are magnificent and the weather is heavenly. We pull out our trekking poles and Duncan gives me a few pointers on how to coordinate my movement, so as to make the most of them. Some of us are concentrating on the road ahead, but for the most part we're walking leisurely and chit-chatting, pointing out a new type of tree or trying in vain to spot the bird fluttering through the branches.

I stroll alongside Wilfred, one of our local guides, and before I know it I'm back to thinking about the summit. "Why do people climb Kili?" I ask. I know it's not the type of question I should be posing, since here I am attempting the same, and we really shouldn't be thinking negative thoughts, but it's just.. on some level, it doesn't make sense to me. The cold, the altitude, the discomfort. For what?

Wilfred turns the question on me: "Well, why are you here?" I laugh, "Because I got invited! And.. and I can't turn down an adventure."

I learn from Wilfred that the first people to attempt a climb to the summit were the local Chaga tribe. Legend has it that the Chaga (who had never seen snow) mistook Kili's white peak for silver and climbed in pursuit of this treasure. But when they had reached the altitude at which snow falls, the white fluff melted in their hands, vanishing into thin air. Interpreting it as a sign that the the gods were upset with them for wanting the silver, they turned back before reaching the summit.

Of course it was a Westerner, a European, who first "summitted" Mt. Kilimanjaro in the 1880s. He had a local Chaga tribesman with him-- Wilfred says this man only died a few years ago at the age of 100 and something. Today, countless Tanzanians make a living as guides and porters for tourists like ourselves, and the mountain is an important source of water for the region(which is why I hope it rains.. ahem.. just as soon as we're safe and sound in our tents and not a minute.. later)!

My lungs are taking in the fresh air. My legs are marching on. Ah, the outdoors. I know that's why I'm really here.

We arrive at the camp after dark. For a while, Z and I just sit there, in our tent for two, fidgeting with our head lights, zipping and unzipping our bags, taking things out and then putting them back in... having made absolutely no progress. I start giggling and she does too, because we just really don't know where to start: how to wash up, what to wear, how to take out our sleeping bags when we're basically inside an orange piece of fabric in the dark, on top of a mountain, side by side, unable to stand.

We are not alone. From the tents to our right and left we hear voices, louder than ours, making suggestions, issuing commands.. adjusting to the close proximity between tentmates and belongings. We can no longer control ourselves, we're laughing hysterically. This is going to be fun.

IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.