09/12/2018 - 09/12/2018
This portion of my blog is from the journal I kept (on paper) while climbing. Some of the thoughts I had at various points may seem like premonitions, foreboding, or irony given later events, but this is what I was thinking at that time. If it seems as if my mood is like the Katy Perry song Hot and Cold, that's because it truly was.
We got a good look at the outskirts of Arusha on the way to the mountain. In general, the main street area was lined with brightly-colored one-story shops, usually built of concrete. They had their names painted right on the building in big, bold letters, but they were also usually at least partly open so that you could see right inside as you passed, and check out the goods.
Many of them had names like "Glorious Luminosity gas shop" or "Praise Stationery," reminding me of some of the shop names in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency books.
Behind these shops, little shantytown streets stretched back some distance. Many of the homes were still corrugated metal. Occasionally, we would see another fancy building behind serious walls (like our hotel) and note that it was labeled also as a hotel or resort. I'm wondering if a lot of the tour companies put people up in places like this just as a stopover. There's not much to do in the surrounding area other than visit the little shops, so I would guess tourists don't really leave the compound. As long as they're not leaving, the location doesn't matter too much, and so the tour companies can save money by putting tourists up for a night well out of town. The hotel makes an extra killing overcharging for food as there aren't any options nearby. Ours even had a warning sign in the room letting us know that we were not allowed to bring in outside food because the hygiene was likely lacking in the nearby shops.
One of the ways the barbershops we passes advertised their services was either painted-on pictures or photos of various hairstyles they could give. Many of the pictures were of celebrities, which is a typical way of advertising. But I was amused to see Justin Timberlake and David Beckham among the other celebrities at one shop, given that their hair type is so drastically different from everybody I've seen here (except tourists).
Another quirk I found interesting is that seemingly almost every shop had a wakala, mpesa, tigo, or vodaphone logo out front. These are all logos related to cell phone services and mobile money. Using phones for payment has clearly leapfrogged credit cards here.
At one point, the road became divided. Somebody was slowly driving the wrong way down the road. Several drivers who were driving in the correct direction slowed and there were several places he could have used to turn around and fix himself, but he kept on driving the wrong way down the divided highway as if going slowly made it ok.
For the past several days, we've been on safari and driving over very bumpy and uneven dirt roads. The smoothness of the city streets feels like such a drastic contrast compared with that.
We left the main town and entered an area with more jungle or forest and green with the occasional large house behind a fence before entering more agricultural areas with lots of cornfields. I also noticed cabbage, peppers, coffee, chickens, and crops that I couldn't identify. The scenery for most of the rest of the drive alternated between agricultural areas and small towns set up as we've previously seen. Some of them also had some light industry visible from the main road, mostly cement block making and furniture making (by hand). The finished goods were just sitting in the yard, waiting to be admired from the road and covered in dust as there didn't seem to be any warehouse to hold them.
In addition to furniture-making by hand, the agriculture seemed to be by-hand as well. People picked weeds or tended fields, but I didn't see tractors or much heavy farm equipment. Most of the fields were too small for the heavy equipment to really be practical anyway.
Some of these small farms had cows. After days of seeing large Masai herds of tiny nomadic animals, seeing a single large cow in a fenced enclosure was quite the contrast.
We made a stop at a gas station so that the crew members could get something to eat, but also for us to pick up some last minute snacks for the mountain. We already had some snacks, but it's better to be safe than sorry. We had heard that you lose your appetite as you climb higher, but of course you need as much energy as you can get to continue. So, we bought snacks that answered the question: what would I want to eat no matter how full I was? Of course, they didn't have my reduced fat Skippy, but they dad have spicy banana chips, cashews, and a plastic container of mango pickle. Glass would have been bad for weight and breakability reasons. My partner got oreos and juice.
Finally, we got our first glimpse of Kilimanjaro, after almost a week in Tanzania. We couldn't really see the top, as the clouds blocked that from view, but we at least saw the base of the impetus for this trip.
Shortly, we passed an unassuming sign in the middle of a cornfield welcoming us to Kilimanjaro National Park, but it was no larger or bolder than the signs we had passed for various schools, so it was quite easy to miss.
Despite being inside the park, we still passed signs that people live here. Corn fields, cultivated fields blooming with red flowers, coffee plantations, and banana trees dominated what scenery wasn't cut off from view by lines of woods along the road. Scattered homes and eventually a small town showed that people continued about their normal lives near the base of the mountain.
As we got closer to the entrance to the climb, I spotted a fancy mega church next to a building with a prominent ATM in what looked like an either soon-to-be hotel or a rundown hotel. Other rundown buildings looked as if they once may have been popular hotels or lodges, and I wonder what drove them out of business, considering their prime in-park location.
As the van climbed toward the dropoff point, I could already feel the air starting to cool a bit. And then, we had arrived.
We waited in a picnic shelter as the porters unloaded the van and started organizing the bags. Our chef, George (King George, as everyone seems to have a nickname), brought us lunch that consisted of eggs, juice, and mostly carbs. While others seemed to have those lunchboxes that we'd been having on safari, our lunch was presented on a platter and we had plates and silverware to eat with. It wasn't necessary at this point, but it did feel fancy.
A couple of cats roamed the picnic area, looking for scraps, and my partner made sure to pet the cats and get them chicken bones from other groups' trash.
I observed the other tourists as we all waited for our groups to take off. Everybody had pretty professional gear. Nobody seemed unprepared. I haven't even seen this much performance clothing at a gym. I heard dozens of languages as this was truly an international group. One group from Malaysia had "Kili over 50" t-shirts as it consisted just of older folks. Another group had an Irish flag. (There was actually a vendor selling flags out front, in case you forgot yours at home.) A French lady stood outside the pavilion and smoked.
Seriously. I half-jokingly wondered if her plan for dealing with the low oxygen at altitude was to just quit smoking on day 2 so her lungs healed and handled better.
We signed in to the mountain at the ranger station, as we would do to each site each day, and waited some more.
I used the last restroom I expected to use for days. It had running water and flush toilets, but the toilets didn't actually flush and one was missing a seat, so they weren't that great. But they had toilet paper, so that was good.
We waited some more.
The government has imposed strict rules for the porters- each is only allowed to carry up to 20 kg, and they have to get weighed. Depending on the size of the group, there might be 10 or more porters. So, it takes a long time for all the porters from all of the groups to get weighed.
Finally, we were off into the jungle.
As soon as we rounded the first bend from the entrance gate, we saw porters sitting in groups along the side of the road, rearranging their bags. Apparently, it is typical practice to somehow sneak in a bit of extra weight and rearrange just out of view of the rangers.
As we trekked through the jungle, we saw some monkeys, impatiens violets, and some impatiens that are endemic to Kilimanjaro. We heard hyrax? or some sort of tree mammal.
The path was mostly dirt and mud, retained by pieces of wood. Periodically, a break in the path would allow for water flow (during the rainy season) to cross only in specific locations.
It was a generally nice path, although somebody was eating some sort of candy and littering wrappers like they were Hansel and Gretel and needed to find a way out. My partner picked them up and we sort of hoped to find out who it was so that we could return their trash to them.
At first, we were going at a good pace and were actually passing some groups. Of course, the porters were passing us much faster. Our assistant guide, James (007), was walking with us while the main guide was doing something with the porters. After a while, we started slowing and people passed us. It's not a race and I was only using them as a reference way to know how we were doing. I was carrying way too much in my daypack, but nobody had checked the weight until significantly into our hike, when James took my water bottles to help me along. Eventually, my back hurt and he ended up taking the whole bag, even though I hadn't asked. I was sweating profusely, so my wicking clothes were wet. Yet, I was still hot and sweating more as it started to get dark and everybody else added layers.
We had been walking through green jungle filled with moss, ferns, and tall trees. It started to get dark, but then we exited into the mooreland and got some extra light.
Our main guide had rejoined us, and even had some porters come down from camp to help carry our stuff. They also brought us light as even in the mooreland, we would not make camp by nightfall. But, by this point, I had pushed myself too far.
Even with hiking poles and no bag, I was taking a lot of breaks. At some points, my partner was literally pushing my back, helping me up the hill. (He's the best.)
Eventually, we made it to Machame Camp, ~3km altitude.
We actually had a great camp site, a bit isolated from the larger groups, but we had to walk past it in order to get to the ranger station to check in.
At the check in point, I could barely hold the pen to write my name. I was sweating and freezing at the same time. By the time we got to the food tent, my temperature regulation was way off. Even though food was ready and I was encouraged to eat, I absolutely had to get out of my wet clothes and into something dry and warm immediately. Food could wait.
Once dry and warm, we settled in for dinner. I could barely eat anything beyond zucchini soup and hot cocoa. I was so exhausted and starting to seriously doubt my capabilities here, but also hoping that a lighter bag would make the hike easier. I didn't need most of my daypack items in my daypack every day, and I could pack differently- like only taking snacks for the one day and not all of them. Still, I questioned my sanity and was pretty confident that I wasn't going to make it another day on the mountain.
We had already seen some people turn back, and I wasn't so sure they were wrong.
I settled in for sleep in thermal shirt and pants, sweatpants, a fleece, a hat, the mummy bag and a liner. Quickly, I realized I needed 2 pairs of socks and gloves in order to sleep comfortably. Other than getting up to pee, I slept very well.
The toilet tent has a chemical toilet that "flushes" by pulling a lever to release the waste into the bottom portion. It smells like chemicals, which is a lot better than waste. It zips shut and has a little wall pouch for toilet paper. Still, depending on how cold the night is, the paper can get cold and damp. Maybe it's an odd thing to notice, but both at the hotels and camp, the paper has been 2 or 3 ply. As everything these days seems to be "quilted" or fluffy, it sort of feels like a 90s throwback to have toilet paper with a ply count.