I am not athletic, I am not an Olympian, I am not a climber. I am neither Sir Edmund Hillary nor Jon Krakauer, nor shall I ever aspire to mimic mountaineering men.
I am merely a traveler on a journey in Africa.
Time moves so slowly here—the journey lingers and events transpire like a video upload on patchy Internet. It seems I am forever buffering, watching life in one-second freeze-frames, impatient for the end.
But here in this place, there are so many small steps before one even reaches the beginning of the endeavor at hand. I am late leaving Arusha—the road was filled with big trucks that halved our speed. The car overheats on its way uphill. Then it begins to rain—hard, heavy tropical rain that pounds the bare tin roof with deafening staccato. I find refuge in a roadside bar near the park gate, order rice and chicken, then watch as a truckload of already-tipsy men come wandering in, vociferous and jubilant.
We exchange polite Swahili greetings. One of them is a guide from the mountain, and I have a question for him.
“What does Kilimanjaro mean?” I ask in English. I have read so many contradictory explanations in so many books, I would argue that there is no consensus as to the meaning of the name of the tallest mountain in Africa.
Kilima does mean “hill” in the local Chagga language—this is certain. But the rest?
“It means, ‘the hill no man can climb.’” He says each word to my face with a rich East African accent, so that when he repeats it again, it sounds like he is passing on some great eternal wisdom to me.
The Hill No Man Can Climb. Then why should I even try? The phrase sounds like a warning, really, and this is when my long-term doubts and fears crept back in. The translation of a drunk man at a tin-roof bar may or may not be correct—I cannot fact-check these things at 9,000 feet—but simply saying it means something to me.
Climbing any mountains is the easiest metaphor for life—it is slow and happens one step at a time. There is no rushing it and there are stumbles and there is beauty. It is also unfair—already today I feel hugely ashamed as I set off down the red mud path, following my lone porter. My first emotion on Kilimanjaro is pure guilt for having a man who is older and smaller than I carry not only my giant backpack but also a giant bag on his head laden with his own pack and all my winter clothes.
It is just the two of us on the trail today. For all the stories I’ve heard of how popular and crowded Kilimanjaro can get, the two of us, myself and Gaston the porter, walk silently through the twisted mossy green forest of the first leg in our journey.
There are many routes to the top of Kilimanjaro, but I am taking the Marangu Route—or as I like to call it, the Mzungu Route. Not only does this route have huts and shelters along the way, but I am told that it offers the slowest incline and therefore, the greatest opportunity for acclimatization. Let the savvy climbers mock my choice of taking the “Coca-Cola Route”—I will need all the help I can get.
Again, I’m not trying to prove anything or break any records. This is one time I am not eager to stray from the beaten path or go where no man has gone. I am grateful for the thousands and thousands of hikers who have gone before me and to some degree, have institutionalized a long and arduous climb. I have listened to their collective learning and am deliberately going slow.
The slower I walk, the better it will be—I keep telling myself this. Pole, pole—slowly, slowly—they say. And so I take my time, enjoying the rich and earthy mountain air, the dripping forest silent except for the sound of clear waterfalls and the occasional shy bird. The hike today is not so difficult—mostly flat with a few staircases of stones and slippery roots.
I try not to become overly excited by today’s ease. This is just the beginning and climbing is like life. Being a child is usually easier than getting older, when life becomes more steep.
We make it to Mandara Hut in three hours—exactly as the map and rangers told us we would. This is one time when I enjoy the predictability of time and distance and the permanence of a waiting shelter for the night. I sign in with the ranger and then check into my small A-frame hut, already occupied by two Japanese climbers on their way back down from the summit.
“Really? You want to add a third to this hut?” is their odd greeting. “We already have two of us,” they insist.
“But there are four beds,” I reply and take my assigned spot on the mattress on the floor. I try talking to my unwilling Japanese roommates—tell them that I was in Japan last year and how much I love their country. They close their eyes and turn up their iPods.
I take off my boots and let my feet breath, then lay down in my bunk, my eyes focused on the scrawled graffiti of hikers past. Where are you now, Stevo, Ivan, and Palo of Slovakia 2006? Did you make it to the top, Devon J. of Easton, PA? There are Chinese characters and hearts etched around initials—and then oddly, OBAMA 2008. As I recall, I believe Obama was too busy that year to be climbing Kilimanjaro, but someone was kind enough to campaign for him in my bunk.
And so I spread my sleeping bag across the mattress and then lay my head on the blue gingham pillow—a kind of homey American touch that makes me imagine for a split second that I am not in Africa anymore, but actually a 19th-century character on Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons. Though I will not be wishing goodnight to John Boy—only a half-hearted goodnight to the pair of surly Japanese who seem done in by this mountain upon which we find ourselves at this moment.
I lie down on my bed at 9,000 feet and close my eyes. Today was the easy day, I remind myself. It only gets tougher now—pole, pole.
I am daunted by the path ahead, and therefore, I must take it.