SWEET GLORIOUS WIFI (A Very Important Post)

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Hey everyone! I know it’s been about a month since I last posted, but it hasn’t been my fault! I swear! I’ve been traveling through the darkest reaches of Kenya and Ethiopia for the last 5 weeks and I’ve been having a blast! However, wifi hasn’t exactly made it to this part of Africa in a major way. A couple places have it, but I would never be able to upload all of the pictures and since I know most of you just read this for the pictures, I felt it would be pointless to just post words. But I’m at a hotel in Ethiopia that has great wifi and in just a couple of days I’ll be leaving for Dubai and the developed world! Hallelujah! But don’t worry, I will be sure to post about all of my misadventures in Kenya and Ethiopia because trust me, there is some good stuff. Bandits, Border Police, Ancient Churches, Lions, Tribal Women’s Boobs, and much much more.

But until then, I thought I would still put something up. For Christmas this year, I kept telling my mom no gifts, and I decided to send her this email to reiterate that. Then I realized that there are a lot of people who like me and I hope get some enjoyment out of my blog or at least some people get enjoyment out of me getting throwing up on planes at 3AM. Either way, I thought I would share this with everyone! Don’t feel any pressure, but with Thanksgiving right around the corner and the holidays just beyond that, it just seemed right to put this up. So donate what you can whether it’s 10,000 dollars or 10,000 Vietnamese dong (50 cents) you’ll be making a difference! So here’s my email in full!

As I write this from a hotel in Gonder, Ethiopia having just come from the Blue Nile Falls, the Lalibela Churches, and the ruins of Axum, I can’t help but think how fortunate I am to have been given this opportunity to travel the world without a thought to the consequences. I don’t have horrible student loans that need to be paid immediately and I have the resources to be able to arrange any kind of trip I choose. I have climbed mountains, swum to the depths of the oceans, and I’m currently on my 9th country. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I feel like I don’t deserve any gifts. All I’ve been doing is enjoying myself and I certainly don’t need any rewards for that!

So instead, I’m supplying a list of charities and NGOs that I’ve either visited along the way or also just a couple that I like and support. Choose your favorite. Choose all of them. It’s up to you how much to give. I also don’t care if you give in my name. In fact, give in your own name! Take that tax deduction for yourself! Thank you so much and I can’t wait to share with all of you the gifts and stories that I’ve gathered from around the world.

Cambodia:
New Hope Orphanage
http://www.newhopecambodia.com/how_to_help.php
Visited in June with my sister and we played with lots of adorable children.
https://bhamed.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/angkor-what/

Bangladesh:
ICDDRB – International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh
http://www.icddrb.org/donate/overview
My friend Yoshika worked for them and we had fun evaluating water pumps all over Srimongol!
https://bhamed.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/tea-time-in-bangladesh/

India:
Mother Teresa Foundation
http://www.motherteresafoundation.org.in/youcanhelp/donate
I actually cried at the Mother Teresa House. Talk about one inspirational lady!
https://bhamed.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/get-me-out/

Ethiopia:
Awassa Children’s Project

http://awassa.org/

This is an extremely well established orphanage and community vocation
training center that is doing incredibly work for children who were
orphaned because of AIDS.

Obscene Amount of Plane Flights:
Carbon Offsets
I’ve been using a whole lot of jet fuel and this is how I will be able
to sleep at night.
http://www.carbonfund.org/individuals

This is a healthy mix of different things to donate to so I hope something strikes a chord with you. If you want any more information about any of these charities or my experience with them feel free to ask! Thanks for everything and Merry Christmas!

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The Mombasa Maze

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I decided I had spent too long just spinning my wheels in Zanzibar and I knew I needed to make my way up through Kenya anyway and now was as good of a time as any. So I had a choice: I could either take the 40 dollar ferry to Dar Es Salaam (or the 75 dollar plane flight) and then a 12 hour bus to Mombasa. Or I could take the 80 dollar plane flight straight to Mombasa. Hmmmm. I ran some errands in Zanzibar, went to the post office where a Zanzibar local informed me in broken English that Mitt Romney did very well in the debates just 5 hours before, and then 45 minutes later I was in Mombasa.

It turns out, Mombasa is just kind of like Zanzibar but with a bigger city. There’s not too much do except go to the beach. Ummmmm okay. So I spent the first day just hanging out with some other backpackers and the beach and enjoying the absolutely non difference between Mombasa and Zanzibar. There was still an inexplicable Rastafari beach culture, still people selling the same shit – there were a couple more prostitutes on the Mombasa beaches but they were friendly and spoke excellent English.

 

It’s a beach!

The next day, I was determined to go downtown and “see the sights.” In Mombasa, this consists of a 30 minute tour of Fort Jesus (pronounced Jee-zuss, not Hay-Soos as the Portuguese surely would have called it) and then just spending as much time as you can occupy wandering around the minute old town. The whole island of Mombasa is only 14 square kilometers and about 1 square kilometer is the infamous old town, famous for it’s extremely narrow labyrinthine streets. And they really do live up the hype. All over the town are giant maps posted of where you are and they suggest a couple walking routes so that you won’t get lost. Getting lost is actually pretty difficult since again, it’s not that big. While you don’t get lost, you never really know exactly where you are. I pride myself on my sense of direction, but more than once did I emerge from some narrow alleyway strewn with stray cats and laundry to find myself making circles.

A large group of school children all in uniform take a tour of the fort right behind me.

 

A different school trip.

But really it’s so small I had made a complete loop of the city twice in about an hour and a half. And that’s about everything there is to do in Mombasa. It’s a nice city. I actually really enjoyed the maze like streets, but that’s not where tourists stay – they stay in the nice expat part of town to the north. I ran some errands, got the next book in the Game of Thrones series I’ve been reading and sat on the beach again. Fortunately, Nairobi was coming up and from what I’ve heard, Nairobi could not be more different.

Darling it’s Better, Down Where it’s Wetter, Take it from Me

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I just put up a post about how I did nothing while I was in Zanzibar but sit on the beach. While that is mostly true, it’s a bit of a lie. One of my fellow Kili climbers made an offhand comment about scuba diving. I then thought that Zanzibar sounded like a cool of a place as any to learn! I looked into it and sure enough just a 20-minute walk from my hotel (so a 5 minute bike ride!) was a dive shop that had courses. Win! So I decided to try my hand at scuba diving.

It was a 3 day course to get PADI Open Water certified. First I had to do theory which meant doing the following things I thought I had left behind for good: reading a textbook, studying, taking tests. Yuck. But fortunately they had a great cheesy and informative video that made all of the “learning” really easy. I spent a whole morning doing that and then grabbed lunch. I was supposed to spend the afternoon with the scuba gear in the pool, but the instructor’s dive came back later than planned so we rescheduled for the following morning.

I should have taken a picture of myself in a wet suit because they are very slimming, but I never brought my camera with me for fear of it getting soaking wet. Instead, I’ll steal pictures from the internet.

Fun fact: Not one time during my 3 day course did the video, the textbook, or my instructor ever mention that SCUBA is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. It’s not even in the textbook. I assumed that would be the first thing they mention!

I woke up early to get to the dive shop and learned about all of the gear. I started loading up the gear, put the wet suit on backwards, and I was good to go. When you’re out of the water all of that gear is HEAVY. It was a work out just walking 5 feet to the pool. But once you’re in the water it’s as light as a feather. I talked with my instructor Arnold and he told us what we would be doing in the pool before our 2 dives in the open ocean that afternoon. It was a lot of safety drills: how to handle running out of oxygen, how to handle a broken regulator (air stream), how to handle water in your mask, etc. I nodded and thought I was ready to go.

As soon as I submerged for the first time in the pool I had an actual panic attack. My heart started racing. My breaths became quick and rapid, and I had just spent time studying that that was the worst thing you could do. I worried more. The mental barrier of breathing underwater was so huge that it took me about 10 minutes to calm down. When he made me fill up my mask with water, my throat closed up and I surfaced. I now realize I have a new fear to add to my list of phobias – I’m afraid of not being able to see. As a life long glasses wearer, it kind of makes sense. I’m always relying on technology to see and it rarely fails. I surfaced, visibly shaken. Arnold was confused and just brushed me off and continued with the drills. His brusque attitude pushed me forward and while I don’t think I ever mastered any single skill in the pool, when he just had me swim around I began to calm down.

Then, in the blink of an eye, we were done in the pool and we had an hour until the boat left to go to the open water. On my long lost of fears is one that is directly contradictory to scuba diving – I’m afraid of the ocean. Have you ever though about how big the ocean is? And how much there is we don’t know? And how deep it is? And what’s down there? I honestly think I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just a little too young and I’ve been spooked ever since. This was my attempt to change that.

I suited up and as soon as I tipped over the boat backwards and had my BCD vest inflated, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. All of my fears of the ocean instantly vanished as I happily floated along doing no work at all and just talked with my instructor. The other already certified divers wished us luck and dove down to explore. After a couple more minutes, Arnold and I followed suit. Down we went and before I knew it we were scuba diving.

We spent the next 30 minutes just doing what everyone else was doing and enjoying the aquatic life. It was so effortless to just gently kick along as your vest keeps at just the right elevation above the sea floor (not without a little bit of work). It was easy and peaceful. I never once worried about breathing, I never had a problem with my mask, and it was so peaceful.

And then there was the experience of just being under the water. Your sense of depth perception is the first thing to go. You recoil from a coral and it turns out to be well out of reach. But this same phenomenon make the fish seem closer, bigger. The coral reef wall rose up to our right as we swam along it, peering into tiny underwater crevasses and anemones.  We swam along as he pointed out fish. We saw lots of little angelfish and clown fish and other fish I couldn’t name. We saw the spiky lionfish; we saw some eels, lobsters, a huge grouper, giant clams, and even an octopus! The colors were surprisingly bright with fish of every color and beautiful red corals and the fish mostly just kept swimming along, trying to avoid you as much you were trying to avoid them.

The beach looks like this from the ocean!

Sweet Picture of a Lionfish (I think that’s a lionfish…)

 

So there weren’t this many fish, but I’m having fun.

I thought, “Wow! It looks just like an aquarium!” And then I realized I was the dumbest person in the world and no – An aquarium is built to look just like this!

IT’S THE OCEAN!

We ended the first dive with the annoying drills except now 12 meters below sea level. Filling your mask up with water is less fun in the ocean, but I was now an old pro and sailed through the drills with ease. We slowly surfaced and 3 more unexciting dives later I was certified. It was one of the easiest and most rewarding experiences. I really felt as though I took the first major step in conquering a long term fear and now I’ve added a skill set to my box of tools. Who knows what I’ll discover on future dives?!? The world is my oyster.

Just try not to smile as you say ZANZIBAR!

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My original plan after summiting Kilimanjaro was to slowly bus my way through Tanzania, really getting off the beaten path. There was some great hiking in Lushoto, some cave paintings in Kondoa, the Udzungwu Mountains looked beautiful, and in the West there is a whole area mostly dedicated to that time when two people met and one of them said, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” But I was pooped and all I wanted to do was sit my ass on the beach. So I went to Zanzibar.

I was told that I could take the bus from Arusha in the North to Dar Es Salaam in the East and still have enough time to catch the tourist ferry – you have to take the tourist ferry because the local ferry has been having a tendency to sink lately. My bus left at 5:45AM and 10 hours later, we still weren’t in Dar. I had missed the last ferry. Fortunately, the 15 minute charter planes between Dar and Zanzibar are only about 70 bucks, so I climbed into a 10 seat plane and skipped over to the island.

 

Gotta love these flights in!

I decided to stay on the East coast of the island for two reasons: it was quieter so I could just sit undisturbed on the beach and I found a hostel there. Averaging lodging in Zanzibar was north of 40 bucks a night and I was only paying 12, which was an epic win.

I honestly don’t have too much to say or any narrative about my time in Zanzibar. I’ll instead just give a lot of little WRITTEN snapshots into my life there for 10 days. I stopped taking pictures after a while because the beach is the beach is the beach. Very beautiful, but it just doesn’t change a lot.

My daily 2-minute walk to the beach.

I rented a motorbike while I was there which was great. It gave me the freedom to set my own schedule, not have to pay for a tour any time I wanted to go somewhere, and I could try lots of different restaurants, cause the food at my hostel was not the best. Unfortunately, the police in Zanzibar love pulling over white people, so I got pulled over at least 10 times. Not for speeding – my bike couldn’t even go faster than 60km/h (36mph) – always just to look at my permit. I did have a possibly forged Zanzibar motorbike permit, but the first time a cop stopped me, he was a real hard-ass. He threatened me with a court date and prison and I knew it was time for my second bribe of the trip. They don’t really teach you about how much to bribe a cop in Africa while you’re in high school so I paid him 30,000 schillings – 20 bucks or an African fortune. Everyone agreed I over paid. I was just happy to be done with him. I was able to sweet-talk myself out of every police stop after that; I was a little wiser and the cops were a lot nicer.

My bike only broke down once. Unfortunately, it was on my longest day of biking. Fortunately, 90% of my day was spent driving around absolutely deserted streets. The chain fell off my motorbike about 10 feet past a mechanic. I also had just been to the ATM. It took 10 minutes to fix and I think I grossly overpaid the guy 10 bucks. I’m a giver.

My daily plan was go to a fancy resort for Italian people, eat lunch at their restaurant, and then use their beach chairs. It worked wonders. I ate well too.

 

This famous Zanzibar restaurant is called The Rock. While over-priced, you’re completely paying for the experience.

I drove into the “big city” of Stone Town one day. Mostly because it was where the only ATM on the whole island was and I was low on cash. It was about 90 minutes by motorbike, an hour by car. I loved the long distance drives because the island really is beautiful and there is virtually no traffic. The city of Stone Town itself is REALLY uninteresting. There are just some winding streets that sell the same shit you can buy anywhere else in Africa, and there is a minor obsession with Freddy Mercury of Queen since he was born there. That’s about it. It was a good day though.

I stupidly/geniusly drove 2 hours across the entire island just to go to a full moon party. The party was fun, but certainly not as fun as advertised, but what was better was I met up with a large group of Americans studying abroad and got to explore the other beaches. While the Northern beaches are objectively better, they are over run by loud white people. On the east coast, I could walk along the beach and not pass anyone for 30 minutes. Tropical bliss.

Instead of paying for a full spice tour, I would just stop at spice farms whenever I wanted to. I ended one tour early to which the guy was very confused and implored, “Wait! You haven’t even seen the lemongrass!”

A typical drive through the middle of Zanzibar.

 

I was on the East coast but about 30 minutes to the North there was a bay that was advertised as the perfect place to watch the sunset. I almost killed myself getting there on the unmarked speedbumps, Zanzibar’s favorite method of speed control. When I got there there were clouds covering the sunset. It was still pretty though.

 

The main feature of the East coast is the Jozani National Park. Famous for their Colobus monkeys. When I first drove by the park at night in a taxi, I snickered at the “Monkey Crossing” sign. Over the next 10 days, I drove by the park four times during the day. Three of those times I actually saw monkeys crossing the street. The park is very small, but very personal and charming. I actually stood at the base of a tree where there were about 15 or 20 monkeys just lounging in the heat. The mothers eyed me suspiciously, but the men just kept eating leaves. They led a pretty cool life.

Honestly, if I wasn’t doing any of things listed above, I was probably doing nothing. My days were spent waking up, trying to do an activity like see the monkeys, I’d be done by lunchtime. I’d read my book while eating lunch. I’d go sit on the beach and read. Then, I’d go eat dinner, reading my book while waiting for my food. Then I’d go to bed around 9. Not a bad life at all. It just doesn’t make for very good blog posts.

 

This was my hotel room.

I definitely got too lazy while I was there, stuck very deeply in my rut. I knew I was going to have to muster the energy to leave at some point, but that was always tomorrow’s problem. Today, I’ll just read the next chapter of my book.

 

Kilimanjaro Diary – It All Ends Here – Days 6, 7 & 8

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Day 6

All of Day 6 is spent with one word hanging in the air – “summit.” We only had a short 2-3 hour walk to save our energy for the summit. We had the whole afternoon to rest in order to save our energy for the summit. We would have to repack our bags for the summit. All the talk about the summit brought our collective nerves to a fever pitch.

What was worse, the easy 2-3 hour walk they promised us was actually really difficult. It was a long slow slope, crowded with other climbers for the first time, and less than beautiful. We were done with the climb soon enough and made it to the Barafu base camp.

People are taught that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing at all. Barafu Camp is a shit hole. The whole camp is on a very steep slope that probably covers about 100 vertical meters so even when you make it to camp, you still have to climb to the top for registration. The camp floor is comprised of loose shale that makes it hard to walk and the whole camp is dirty. I don’t know if it is porters or tourists but people seem to be given free reign to litter all over the camp. It was nothing like the picturesque camps we had been accustomed to.

Mawenzi Peak in the distance. So maybe the view from Barafu isn’t bad.

I spent the afternoon packing my backpack to get ready for the summit climb. It turns out that my backpack that I have been using for a 6 month trip around the world was just a hair smaller than everyone else’s day packs (my day pack was a small drawstring backpack, always stuffed to the brim). I refit the big backpack for the summit climb and took a nap. We had an early quiet dinner, dreading the night’s climb. Helen told us then that she would not be joining us. Lucky her.

We went back to sleep, or tried to. I probably only got a couple hours of sleep before they woke us up at 11 to start the climb.

Day 7 – Summit Day

We woke at 11PM and were in the mess tent by 11:30, ready to go. We ate a final meal of porridge (what else?) and waited for the porters to boil enough water to fill all 5 of our water bottles with water that would keep warm during the climb. Yes 5. From 9, we were down to 5 and we were determined to make it up. Jen, Geetha, Richard, Richard, and myself.

If you’re unfamiliar with what summit day on Kilimanjaro entails, let me enlighten you on what we willingly signed up for. We would start at 4,600 meters and climb to 5,895 meters – nearly 1,300 meters of vertical climb. We would start at midnight, hoping to reach Stella Point, at 5,700 meters by sunrise at 6AM. Then, we would have another hour walk in sunlight around the crater rim to Uhuru Peak, the tippy top of the mountain. The whole night is below freezing cold so I had to rent a down jacket from the hiking company, just for the occasion. Let’s review: 1,300 meter climb, middle of the night, freezing cold, at altitude, no sleep. We called it vacation.

To make matters worse, our guides told us that they were a respectable company and would not physically push us up the mountain, but we would see others doing that. We had heard horror stories that it was perfectly normal to make it to the top, feeling miserable, throwing up, and then not remember a thing about the experience for whatever altitude related reason, looking back on your pictures as a chilly reminder that you made it.

We set off at about 12:30AM, a little late, but not our faults – we were waiting for the water. We thought we would be going “pole-pole” but Simon had us going at a faster than usual shuffle. Simon led and Nelson and Freddy, a temporarily promoted porter, took up the rear. We zoomed past the “High Barafu” camp at 4,800 meters and passed a few other groups of walkers going at a much more appropriate pace. One hour in and I had already lost all of my adrenaline rush. I tried distracting myself by naming states, capitals, Oscar winners, places I’d been on my trip so far, but it was useless. My mind kept repeating the words “cold” “cold” “cold.” Jen, who had been one of the strongest and most positive people on the whole trip, faltered first. She slowed down and God bless her. The pace was really taking the wind out of me. I hadn’t noticed before the thinner air, but up here, I was finding myself gasping for breath. We took our first break, and took a picture, mostly to prove we were stupid enough try this.

Proof we were up in the middle of the night like fools. Fools.

Soon we were shuffling pass all sorts of sick people. One girl was chugging an energy drink, surely a sign of desperation early on, we passed many people just wiped out and exhausted, gasping on the side of the path. People were wretching and throwing up all around us in the darkness. Scariest of all, we passed two porters who were sprinting down the scree carrying a possibly unconscious man from higher up. And it was only 2:30. We still had a long night to go.

Soon after, I began to start feeling a little sick, but our head guide Simon started feeling dizzy. Nelson took over the lead, going at a proper slow pace, and as we would climb, Freddy took care of Simon, always 10 meters behind us. It was terrifying to watch our guide, who had done this 100 times, succumb to the altitude. No one was safe.

Least of all me. Probably around 3:30AM at 5,300 meters, it was my turn. Since I am a self-proclaimed “good vomiter” I excused myself to the side of the path, purged and moved on. Since I was the first to get sick and the porters expect everyone to get sick, Freddy took my backpack. I instantly felt better, but something else was making it harder to walk. The rain pants that I had bought in the market in Arusha were big enough over a couple of layers, but not over everything I was wearing for warmth on summit day and my pants began to fall down. It was not a dignified moment in my life, but I had to stop, and the porters, God bless the porters, insisted on helping me readjust my pants. A new low for sure, but I was back in tip top shape.

The next hour was the coldest. The winds had picked up. All of us were convinced our toes, our fingers, or all of our extremities had turned blue from frostbite. My hands had fortunately frozen around my poles so I was forced to keep using them. We were just going higher and higher, to colder and colder, with less and less air. The landscape had changed from a rocky slope, to just a scree path of loose rocks that offered no traction.

Finally, at about 5:30AM, the sky started to change colors. We were about 100 meters from Stella Point and this was just the inspiration we needed. The reds and orange lit up our path so we were no longer walking by the narrow beams of our head lamps. On the final push up, the group surged ahead, I threw up bile dyed pink from pepto bismol, and our head guide Simon continued to languish even further behind. Honest to God, I was so driven to make it up the mountain I was walking and heaving at the same time. I had to make it up. I was so close. Freddy asked, “Are you okay?” to which I responded, ”I’m walking, aren’t I?” I would not show weakness.

Hope.

Miraculously, we made it to Stella Point with perfect timing. We had about 2 minutes to catch our breath and look at the dawn around us. I had never seen a sunrise so complete. It was a whole rainbow. And then the sun broke. No words or pictures can do Stella Point at sunrise justice. It was a deeply personal experience, profound in every sense of the word. I’m sure the beauty is amplified by the immense accomplishment of making it up the hill and the private treasure of knowing that you have to work for the view, but it’s great on it’s own merits too. The sun was so orange, vermilion even, that it bathed everything in this other world light. There was pure white snow and glaciers all around, reflecting the light in beautiful ways. We then had the pleasure of walking along the crater rim to Uhuru Peak.

This was not the most fun hour of my life. I still felt sick to my stomach and I threw up once more, but it was incredibly beautiful. There were hues of pink and purple and orange glistening off the massive glaciers we had seen from below for so long. The whole walk is like walking on an alien planet. It’s beautiful and mesmerizing. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to seeing a place that looks like what I imagine heaven to be like. Extraordinary colors, fluffy clouds, a feeling of serenity, pride, accomplishment. And then we made it the peak. It’s not more beautiful than any rest of the walk, but it’s the top and we fucking made it. All 5 of us. Our official time was 7:15AM. We were proud of ourselves and spent about 15 minutes rejoicing and taking pictures.

WE MADE IT!

This is the picture you’re supposed to take.

This is the picture that more accurately represents my experience.

Then began the walk down. I took up the rear as I shuffled the slowest going down; even in peak condition I wasn’t fast at downhill. I took the time by myself to reflect on a lot of things and there aren’t many better places to do it. I had achieved something physically I wouldn’t have been able to do a year ago. I had put a long-term goal into action. I was seeing a dying planet. I was living a dream, doing what others on my trip could not, and it was all worth it.

Simon had turned back at Stella Point and the two Richards and Nelson powered ahead, both feeling fine and making it back to camp in no time. Jen, Geetha, and I, all of us kind of poky on the downhills (but myself especially), we continued down with Freddy. Going up the mountain you walk mostly on solid rock, but on the descent you plow down through the scree, almost skiing your way down. It’s basically a controlled slide and none of us were very good at it. We were slow and I was unsteady. After about 30 minutes, we could see our camp in the distance. It looked like it was years away and built for an ant colony. It was only on the way down that we could really tell how far up we had gone in such a short time. We barreled on downwards and all in all it took about 3 hours.

I was exhausted, sick, and in physical pain. I forced myself to eat a couple pieces of toast before breakfast and then I took a luxurious 45 minute long nap. Then I had to wake up, repack all of my bags and get ready for the day’s walk! It was one of the cruelest ways to set off on the descent! 45 minutes was not enough sleep!

The way down from Barafu Camp to Millenium Hut was only a hour and a half walk, but I’m not sure I could have taken a step farther. Each step on the way down was torture. I had to be the person who kept asking to take breaks, but I was just so beat down and exhausted. When we got to camp, I finally collapsed.

We had the whole afternoon in front of us and for the first time we were at a low elevation with nice oxygen rich air, it was a little warmer, and we had nothing to do. We finally busted out that deck of cards we had been talking about since Day 1. It felt really nice to finally relax with the group, having taken the elephant out of the room. That night, I had one of the best night’s of sleep I’ve had on my trip.

Day 8

When we woke up, we knew it was our last day on the mountain. Here is a list of things that I missed about life off the mountain:

Beds with mattresses

Dinners without soup

Clean fingernails

Warmth

A HOT SHOWER

Footwear Besides Hiking Boots

But we still had another day of hiking. And what we didn’t know was that it was 16 miles, downhill, and the guides wanted to get the fuck out too. This meant we were going fast. The landscape changed quickly from the light forest of our camp to the thick rainforest. It was very scenic, with lots of beautiful flowers and we even saw a monkey, but usually we were going to fast to take any of it in. Part of me couldn’t keep up the pace. I was still drained from the day before. But the other part of me just kept repeating the word “shower” and I managed to keep going down.

Now slow AND sick I was relegated to the back.

I could comment on how you could tell the path was more touristed because of the bridges, and I could comment on a whole bunch of different things, but I’ll be honest, when I look back on the experience, I won’t even think about remembering the way down. It felt trivial even at the time. It’s kind of obvious that once you go up, you have to come down, but that’s not part of the experience. My trip was about going up and the descent, even as I was doing it, just seemed like an annoyance, filler before my hard-earned shower.

We finally made it to the bottom, had a quick picnic lunch, and then boarded the bus for the drive back to our hotel.  When we arrived, we had a great reunion with our fallen soldiers and dinner that night was a lot of fun as we heard their horror stories of coming down the mountain and they heard ours about going to the top.

My advice to anyone wanting to climb Kilimanjaro is the following:

1) There is no training worth doing except going to altitude. You can be out of shape and make it to the top or you can be in shape and fail. It’s the altitude that will get you.

2) Leave that pair of shorts and flip-flops down the mountain. Packing lists say you’ll want them but it was never warm enough. Never.

3) Drug up. It seemed like we were a walking pharmacy and everyone was thankful for that.

4) Prepare yourself mentally for the cold. It’s cold every night, and many of the days.

5) You’ll be fine… unless of course you won’t. But that’s part of the fun!

This was the last I ever saw of the Snows of Kilimanjaro. Kwaheri Kilimanjaro!

In the end, it comes down to the people. The African Walking Company was great. I need to say thank you to all of the porters, especially Freddy, who are the only reason I made it to the top. And of course, my 8 fellow mzungus, I will never forget the dirty and cold hours we spent chronicling and comparing everyone’s urination schedules. That’s friendship.

Kilimanjaro Diary – Day 4 and Day 5

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Day 4

After being woken up with hot tea, I realized I had had a great night’s sleep. I slept through the night (a first, possibly for anyone on the trip) and I made it known. James politely told me to fuck off, and Helen and Byeron both just grumbled. Byeron had developed a nasty cough in the middle of the night and James and Helen still weren’t feeling much better. We had a pretty easy day though, just 4 hours to our next camp, exotically called Lava Tower. The walk was mostly a retread of earlier days and we met up with the path that we could have taken the day before. We really started to traverse the face of the mountain, heading eastward around the summit. As we marched along, we could see the distant Mount Meru peeking above the clouds like on most mornings. It was a more pleasant companion than Kilimanjaro mostly because we didn’t have to climb Meru.

 

Geetha on the Kilimanjaro trail.

Jen and Helen. Knowing Jen, this was probably just after a pee break.

The day of walking was pretty easy for me, but other suffered. Byeron’s cough became worse and worse with every slight uphill slope. As the others trudged ahead, I hung back with Byeron encouraging him on a getting a chance to talk with some of the guides. Pascal and our head guide Simon both seemed to know a lot about the environment of the mountain and were far more knowledgeable on the effects of global warming than I had imagined. We had a lively discussion on local values (the water source) versus external values (tourism) and I learned a lot about how people outside of the first world can perceive global warming when they know about it.

When we finally arrived to our camp, it took my breath away. Our few little tents were dramatically nestled together at the base of the staggeringly tall eponymous Lava Tower. It looked like were camping on the world’s most stark and cold volcano at 4,600 meters – our highest camp site.

 

After lunch, we had our final bonus acclimatization walk, this time to Arrow Glacier. Our climb took us past streams and valleys, new since the onset of the melting glaciers, and because of the thick clouds, we couldn’t even see the glacier from 4,800 meters, our final destination of that walk. The walk up was an easy shuffle, similar to what we had been doing the whole time. What I didn’t realize is how difficult the down parts would be. Coming back down, even with poles for extra support was really exhausting. My knees started aching and I was just so fatigued by having to constantly look down and focus on where each foot and pole went to avoid slipping, by the bottom I felt drained and a little sick to my stomach. I rested up and dragged myself to dinner. Others were doing much worse so I dutifully ate the soup as it was an especially gourmet onion soup with croutons and tucked in for what was supposed to be our coldest night yet. I prepared by taking some nighttime drowsy cold medicine and drifted off to sleep without problem.

Simon was explaining how about five years ago, this valley didn’t exist. Since the glaciers have been melting more, the water flow has carved out new valleys like this one. Sad. Beautiful, but sad.

 

Different valley. Same story. Just colder.

Day 5

This day was both my favorite and least favorite day. When we woke up after facing our night of freezing cold, we learned that Byeron was too sick to continue and would be headed down right after breakfast. It turned out that he had contracted HAPE, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. This was some serious stuff. What was sadder, was that Byeron had been training every day for 5 months, dutifully running local trails for hours. Kilimanjaro was teaching us some cruel lessons.

However, our walk for the day proved to be the most beautiful and adventurous section of the hike. By the end of the day, we were going to descend a total of 600 meters, but not before crossing a couple of valleys. We started by walking down a long slope through some of the strangest landscape I had ever seen. The whole time we had the snow capped mountain just above us, but the snowmelt had caused this valley to be extremely lush. There were green cactus like trees everywhere and little rivers and waterfalls. All of our mornings were clear and beautiful and the blue sky with the new exotic greenery was overwhelming. I spent the whole morning just in awe of our surroundings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, by the end of the walk down, James, who was only 19, also became too sick to continue. He turned down 3 days later than his father, proving for us that maybe altitude sickness was hereditary as was the rumor. Nevertheless, we had started the day as 8 and ended it as 6. We had lost most of our guides in the process too and Simon our head guide, began to panic. He ended up grabbing reinforcements from the porters and strung together a rag tag group of helpers. He ran ahead and were just left with our main assistant guide Nelson for the day, when we usually had three guides with us.

Also, we had just reached the appropriately named Barranco Wall. To be quite honest, I thought this 60 degree rock scramble was actually a lot of fun. It was kind of what I was expecting the whole trip to be like, so I was mentally prepared. We took it nice and slow, both enjoying and fearing the constant steep drop-offs. The climb seemed to last forever with a hundred false summits tricking us into hope. Finally, after an hour and a half of climbing, we reached the top were we unpacked our picnic lunches.

 

All of my pictures of the Barranco Wall are just trying to capture the word “up.”

Here’s a group action shot of our now minuscule group scaling the wall.

 

The view was absolutely stunning. We were high above the clouds on a cliff that gave us a full 180 degree view out on to the sky. It was the largest sky I had ever seen. We were so high up that it was hard not to be impressed and it will go down in history as one of my favorite lunch locations. Unfortauntely, my pesky headache returned and I did not enjoy the next hour of going back down the other side into the new valley. A couple other of our porters doubled back to help us and Nelson out. My favorite porter, Andrew, was one of them. He was the porter who was lucky enough to carry my gear ahead. I mean it when I say lucky because I inadvertently packed the lightest out of anyone so he had an easy walk thanks to me. Whenever we got back to camp he was always waiting for me to show me to my tent, something I didn’t realize the other porters weren’t doing.

 

So much sky.

The last couple of hours were just as beautiful, but it was an 8 hour day of walking and we had all run out of water and were exhausted. There was a final steep slope to the Karanga camp and when we got there we were met with a beautiful night on a disorienting slope. The whole camp was sloped about 10 degrees which made for an uncomfortable nights sleep. However, the sunset that night was almost worth it. Almost.

Honest to god this is my tent. My life is really cool.

 

The worst part about night 5 is that we knew this was our last full night of sleep until the next night when we had to climb for the summit. This was it. Our guide Simon told us many people don’t sleep well this night because they’re too busy worrying about the summit, so just don’t worry. Now, I was worried that I would be worrying too much and didn’t get a perfect night’s sleep. Drat.

Kilimanjaro Diary – Day 2 and Day 3

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Day 2

When we woke up that morning to my new favorite ritual. At 6:30 AM, our guides would gently knock on the tent flap and offer us hot tea – the cure for a cold and miserable night. After washing up in freshly delivered boiling water, we went to have breakfast, we each assumed that our night was the worst. Surely my night of no warm clothing in below freezing weather as the worst! Or maybe everyone who was taking Diamox, a drug that thins your blood to help you get used to the higher altitude but also has the side effect of a diuretic – they had to get up anywhere from 4 to 6 times to pee that first night – braving the freezing cold every time. Helen, a human resources manager from London barely slept, Geetha, a young occupational therapist from Texas was feeling queasy all morning, but none did as poorly as Andy. His altitude sickness from the day before became worse, and he could barely get his way through breakfast (which was delicious!).

My tent in the morning. What a view.

Goodbye camp!

Our route was going to be one of our longest on the hike. We were taking a 5-6 hour detour to the rim of the Shira Plateau (i.e. the big flat easy walking) to quickly scale the Shira Cathedral, a 3,800 meter rock mound on the horizon. We buckled in for the walk, leaving Andy to take the shortcut straight to the second camp. The walk was relatively easy and flat for the first couple of hours, with more of the desert brush that I had come to expect. We stopped to take pictures as every morning offered stunning cloudless views of the summit, never leaving our eyesight. Our pace was a little faster than the “pole – pole” shuffle of the first day, but only for a little while. Our group made near constant pee-breaks, and Geetha was still feeling nauseous. I didn’t mind that we were going slowly. I was paying to walking and I figured I might as well get the most out of it. Take my time. Enjoy the surroundings. And, it was a lot easier than rushing through (even walking at that high of an altitude can knock the wind out of you).

The Shira Cathedral – We’re going up it.

When we got to the base of the cathedral, the afternoon fog started to roll in. Within minutes, we were entirely surrounded by clouds, giving the whole mountain an eerie feeling. We trudged up the steep rock path and after a few breaks, made it to the top of the cathedral. It was named the cathedral because it was once a holy place for the local Chagga tribe. On top of the mount were some ominous bones and no view to speak of because of the thick clouds, but we were proud of making it there and took our pictures anyway.

Me and two of our guides, Jonas and Pascal at the top of Shira Cathedral.

We still had another 2 or 3 hours of walking before us (and until lunch!) so we kept trudging along. The walk became a little less fun as we got more tired. James, the son of the pair, and Richard, a British trader, seemed to have an endless catalog of exciting soccer football matches to relive together so I got a quick primer on the web of British teams. I also got to know Byeron pretty well. He was a fit 62 year old Vietnam vet who did ballroom dancing in his free time. He was living in San Jose so we bonded over good hiking and our connections to the Bay Area. On our walk to camp we passed a helicopter pad which we prayed we would never have to use and a service road, equally foreboding. When we arrived to camp we found that Andy, James’ father had turned back down and our 9 was down to 8 already. This mountain was serious.

Our second camp was nicer than the first, with a beautiful view of the plateau we had just skirted around on one side, and our old friend Kili on the other. After lunch, we did a brief 45-minute acclimatization walk up the path a little and then straight back down. I spent the evening just walking around camp and taking pictures. It was a breathtakingly beautiful evening. It seemed that golden hour of perfect light would last forever as darkness, our new sworn enemy, threatened to inevitably fall.

Nighttime did come, but this time we were ready. We were told it would be colder so we took extra precautions, doubting the possibility of colder but fearing it none the less. Richard and Jen, the other occupational therapist from Arizona, grabbed water bottles to fill up during the night with… um… things besides water (they were on Diamox if you catch my drift). Everyone else just put on an extra layer but it did no good. We still suffered. It was colder and my two trips to the bathroom were as fast as possible. This night, I actually got a full night’s sleep. Even though I couldn’t feel my feet, things were starting to turn for the better.

Speaking of bathrooms, apparently British singer/model Cheryl Cole wanted to climb Kilimanjaro but was disgusted by the idea of using a squat toilet or the bush. So she did research and found the perfect camping toilet and bought it for the African Walking Company, who now supply it on all of their trips. This that toilet.

There it is! It actually flushes! And if you think this is luxury… then you’re right. But when you had to do a number two at night, you are so happy for the tiniest bit of shelter from the freezing wind. I think I can honestly say I loved this toilet.

Day 3

Our morning ritual of forcing ourselves to eat porridge and complaining about the cold night already seemed stale, but it was truthful. We were cold and not many of us had the appetite for all of the porridge they wanted us to eat. Helen had another sleepless night and could barely eat.

A typical morning of a blue sky above the clouds with the distant Mt. Meru poking out to say hello.

Day 3 of walking took us to our most remote camp, Moir Hut on the far west side of the mountain. We split off from the main path and slowly trudged up the 3 hour walk. We took frequent breaks as people in our group grew sicker and sicker. I still felt fine, besides a headache that would not go away. I knew my body well enough to know that it wasn’t altitude sickness, but just dehydration (caused by the altitude, but let’s not mince words). I vowed that day to never stop drinking water. I finished all 3 liters I had with me and as soon as I went to the bathroom, I would release fluids and the headache would be back.

Byeron quickly adopted a “no man gets left behind” policy and I joined him in cheering on Helen to the next camp. We all made it one piece, but the day was not over. After lunch and a short nap, we were going to be scaling Lent Hill. When they had pointed it out in the distance the day before, it was a tiny little nub next to some big scary cliffs. Surely we could make it to the top. From our third camp, it towered above us, looking almost as menacing as the summit.

We walk single file to camp. Do you see that “little” nubbin on the ridge on the left? That’s what we’re climbing today.

We ate our lunch, complained more (we were good at this) about our headaches, stomachs, eating patterns, and peeing habits (we became very close very quick), and we all eventually drifted off to sleep. We were going to be woken up at 3, but at 2:30 something else roused Richard (there were 2 Richards), my Australian tentmate, gently awoke me from my slumber. The porters were singing a Kilimanjaro climbing song that would be stuck in my head for the next week. I didn’t really know the words like I do now, but that never stopped me from making up my own! I embraced the song and started mindlessly singing it constantly, much to the dismay of my hiking companions.

Helen was still feeling under the weather and James wasn’t at his best either, so the 6 remaining of us and a couple of guides went to scale Lent Hill for the acclimatization. We got our first taste of steep on this one as our poles came out for the winding path up the loose rock. After we made it over the first ledge, we entered a valley devoid of all vegetation. It looked like a beautiful day on the moon. We skirted around to the backside of the “hill” and made our way scrambling up the short rock wall to the top. The top of the hill was covered in a rocks stacked by travelers feeing accomplished. We nimbly dodgd these piles and made our way to the edge, overlooking miles of valleys and paths we had crossed over the past three days. We were incredibly proud of ourselves.

Yikes that’s a long way up (but this picture was taken on the way down! Success!)

It wasn’t until we got back to the hotel on Day 8 that I realized I didn’t look in a mirror for 8 days. This hairdo is what happens.

The dilapitated Moir Hut of Moir Hut camp.

The sun set quickly that night and it seemed everyone was feeling better by dinnertime. We had a good time and were told it would not be as cold as the last night and we rejoiced. British Richard and I took advantage of the good news and decided to do some quality stargazing. It was hard not to notice the stars each night, but I was always too cold to do anything except say wow and the run inside my tent. Richard got out his iPad and he had an app that helped us identify some new constellations. We were on the Southern Hemisphere now so almost nothing looked familiar. We saw Orion, but also Scorpio, Cygnus the swan flying along the Milky Way, the bright star Vega, Mars, and maybe even Pegasus and Hercules. The fun was short lived as the cold inevitably forced us into our sleeping bags, our only refuge.

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