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.

1 comment:

Zein Attar said...

Zipping and unzipping of bags! Lool that was hilarious Noura T :)

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.