Friday, February 27, 2009

License to Kili

KILIMANJARO, TZ-- For Valentine's Day this year, I passed up the usual hot date and box of chocolates for a little hypothermia and the summit of Kilimanjaro--Africa's highest point. At 5:55 AM, after 3 days plus 5 hours of steady uphill slogging, I bagged Uhuru Peak with my travel buddy, David, and the world's best Kili guides, Rumisha and Nicas (pictured here).

As is often the case on this holiday, my exertions left me breathless. The air at 19,340 feet is quite thin, after all. But I was uncharacteristically frigid, despite my oh-so-sexy rig of silk long underwear, running tights, hiking pants, rain pants, three nylon shirts, fleece anorak, down jacket, Gore Tex shell, and face-flattering balaklava. Nevertheless, I was the second woman to peak that morning, having been among the last to leave Kibo Hut some 3 miles and 4140 feet below. 

To watch the sunrise from the roof of Africa, about 50 climbers and our guides set out for the summit around midnight. The moon was so bright that we didn't need our headlamps. The Big Dipper hung strangely close to the horizon, rather than high above as it does in the northern hemisphere. The occasional shooting star whipped its sparkling red tail across the ink of the night. 

The few glaciers that global warming hadn't yet eaten were pretty spectacular, too.

Despite the breathtaking beauty, I wasn't in it to win it. My hands had lost all feeling. My runny nose had cut a frozen stream across my face. My legs had grown cranky from the previous three days of constant ascent. I kept thinking about a friend-of-a-friend who died of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) on Kili.

"Why am I here?" I thought. I recalled the mutterings of the schoolgirls who had followed me up a mountain on my bike just ten days earlier (see "All Ears" blog entry below): "These wazungu aren't going to give me any money. In fact, they're probably going to cut off my ears!"

I paused with Rumisha. "Sawa, sawa?" ("You okay?") he asked. I explained that my hands were frozen. He ripped my gloves off and wrapped my useless paws around a hot water bottle in his coat. He then gave me his mittens and took my flimsy gloves for himself. I was still thinking about phoning in my resignation when Rumisha kissed me on the cheek, grabbed my hand, and with a "Twende!" ("Let's go!") pulled me back on the trail. 

When we reached the summit some two hours later, David and Nicas were already waiting. "Don't cry," Nicas said when I spied the peak marker. But he was too late--a sob had already forced itself out of my chest. 

"How did you know that I was going to cry?" I later asked.

Nicas replied, "Tourists always cry when the reach the summit."

I still don't know what kinds of tears they were, though--of relief? of joy? of pain? Probably some combination.

The schlep back down to Kibo (3 miles) and then to Horombo (another 6.5 miles) was slick and quick.

(One more day of hiking took us the remaining 12 miles back to the Marangu Gate.) Upon my return I discovered that Kili had extracted only flesh wounds, including some abrasions around the cuffs of my boots and frost-burned lips, cheeks, and nose. I also learned that 10 of the people who had attempted to summit did not succeed--about average for the peak. 

A week later in Arusha, I bought a used copy of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, a gripping account of altitude-addled decisions and death on Mt. Everest. Reading the book on the plane home, I realized that I had unwittingly snagged one of the seven summits--the highest peaks on each of the Earth's continents. Although I do not aspire to climb too many more of these overgrown hills, I must say that I'm a little proud of myself for hauling my Mississippi Delta-born, flatland-lubbin' backside up to one of the highest places on the planet. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009


NDUNGU, TZ-- One of the benefits of taking the local shortcuts is that they often harbor unfathomed adventure. And one of the costs of taking the local shortcuts is that they often harbor unfathomed adventure.

Consider our first shortcut: Some local men digging an ominously large hole recommended that we ride through a nearby grove to carve a few clicks off our route, as well as to avoid the heat and dust of the main road during the noontime scorch. Three hours and 15 tire punctures later--all of which we had to patch, as we were running low on inner tubes--we decided that bushwhacking through a thorn forest wasn't such a swell idea, after all. The bright side is that I can now fix a flat in my sleep--not to mention in a dehydration-induced delirium.

Upon completing our sojourn in the thorn forest, we decided to make up for lost time by boating across the lake in our path, rather than biking around it. The Maasai on the shore were more than happy to ferry us in their dugout canoes for the low-low price of $10 per person. What they didn't mention, or maybe didn't even consider, was that the dugouts were heavily patched, readily rolling tree trunks that could scarcely carry a single very thin Maasai warrior--let alone a hulking mzungu and her kit.

And so they loaded up the first canoe with my bike, panniers, and me. It took all my core muscles to counterbalance the load while remaining perched on the boat's rim. Within moments, the canoe was one quarter full of water. The captain shouted at me to start bailing.

Meanwhile, back on shore, the 50 Maasai gathered for the free entertainment started laughing. My back was to them, and so I inferred that I was the source of the hilarity. I later learned that David and Jerome had capsized behind me. Disgusted, my captain paddled back to shore, where I fished my gear out of the half-full canoe and waded through the muck back to dry land.
In the end, we cycled around the lake with an entourage of the Maasai, who refused to reimburse the $30 but instead agreed to escort us to our destination. Needless to say, we didn't take any more shortcuts that day.

Skills for the Hills

NDUNGU, TZ--When I chose this bike tour, I blithely dismissed the caveat that the route was for advanced mountain bikers. "I ride on Mt. Tam all the time, and the Coastal Mountains, too," I told myself. Granted, on these rides I'm slicing my gazelle-like road bike along meticulously banked pavement. "But hey," I asked, "how much different could it be to muscle a fully loaded Sherman tank through steep corrugated trenches?"

A lot different, I quickly learned on day 3 of our ride. The 40-mile journey started with a plunge down the side of a mountain and ended with a climb up the sheer wall of a 15-foot-deep ravine. Throughout, boulders bounced my bike hither and thither, sand sent its back wheel shimmying, and tight switchbacks added more torque and centrifuge. Meanwhile, gravity pulled the impending disaster ever faster and faster. In many sections I just wanted to get off and walk, but the path was so pitched that descending with my heavily laden bike was dangerous, if not impossible.

By the time we arrived at our guesthouse in Ndungu--a venue whose decor and clientele made it an excellent location for a war crime--all I could do was retreat to my room for a good cry and an orange Fanta. (Orange Fanta tastes just like St. Joseph's baby aspirin, and so it is the perfect accompaniment for all post-traumatic regressions to childhood.)

As is so often the case, though, a few simple cycling rules--mental skills, really--kept me in my saddle, if not my right mind. They were:

1) Plan, and then have confidence in the plan. I bite it hardest when I doubt myself and then try to change the plan at the last minute.
2) Believe in the machine, and have faith in engineering.
3) Don't look where I don't want to go. The body follows the eyes, and so keep them trained on where I want to wind up.
4) Hills are never as bad up close as they seem from a distance.

Writing them out, I see these skills aren't half-bad guides for living--another gift from the mountains of northern Tanzania.

All Ears

MTAE, TZ-- Tanzania is a young country, with some 44 percent of its people under age 15, according to our friends at the CIA. (By comparison, 20 percent of the US population is under 15.) I felt this demographic fact on my first day of hard riding through the Usambara Mountains. The hills and valleys rang out with the high-pitched cry of "Mzungu!" as children announced our passage through their towns.

The sisters in this picture were so enthralled by my arrival that they followed me all the way up a steep 30-minute climb. Although I enjoyed the accompaniment of their footfalls and giggles, I found it difficult to feel like a bad-ass cyclist when four schoolgirls--all barefoot, none out of breath--could so easily keep up with me.

When we reached the summit, though, only the eldest remained. She spoke her first English words to me: "Give me money."

As I would later learn, this is a familiar refrain among Tanzanian children. Someone, somewhere has taught them the following: 1) All wazungu are crazy rich, and 2) If you say, "Give me money," they will share their wealth with you.

I've asked several Tanzanian adults about this phenomenon, and they shake their heads and say that the children have bad manners. They also warn me against giving money--even if the children are desperately poor, and even if their desperate poverty has something to do with my people's enslaving their people and stealing their resources for, oh, the past 300 years. At least.

But enough of my white guilt, at least here, for now. I wanted to give this kid a treat because here she was, all brave and strong and fast, alone on a mountaintop with some strange white chick. From my pannier I fished out a small gift I had for just this occasion--a millefiore necklace that my ex-mother-in-law, a glass artist, made. I have about 20 of these left over from my marriage, and was looking forward to unloading them on the unsuspecting populace. (Agribusinesses, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical multinationals perfected this strategy long before me.)

The girl looked at the necklace, looked at me, and then said, "Give me money."

By this time, Jerome, David, and I had regrouped and the three other sisters had caught up. The sun was beginning to set and we had a breathtaking view of the valleys tumbling behind us.

"What are we doing here?" asked one of the girls in Kiswahili. (Jerome translated this.) "These wazungu aren't going to give us any money. In fact, they're probably going to cut off our ears."

Jerome chuckled and reassured the girls that we weren't the ear-cutting kind of wazungu.

I told him about the money/not gift communiques I was getting from the eldest girl. He then quietly asked her about the necklace. She didn't say anything.

"What an ingrate," I thought.

But then Jerome explained that she really liked the present.

"How can you tell?" I asked.

"Because she won't show it to me and she's hiding it from her sisters."

The Fix

LUSHOTO, TZ--Back in the U.S., I paid a cobbler $25 to repair the sandals I've worn on every trip since 2002. After splashing through Hawaiian waterfalls, floating in the Dead Sea, wading off the coast of Aceh, and pounding the Inca Trail, the sandals were having a hard time keeping body and sole together. But the cobbler reassured me that with a few dabs of hallucinogenic glue, my traveling shoes would be good to go.

By the end of the first week of myTanzanian extravaganza, though, I'd completely blown out both Birkenstocks--my only alternative to bike cleats and hiking boots.

"Don't worry," Jerome reassured me. "Africans don't create anything, but they can fix everything."

Neither half of this adage turns out to be true, but the latter is certainly more accurate than the former.

Jerome sent me to the shoe fundi (repairman) in the Lushoto market--a dark labyrinth of dried fish, plump produce, athletic chickens, and fat mice. David and I were the only wazungu (whities) in town, it seemed, and so the"Jambos!" were flying left and right. The fundi whipped out his needle and thread and proceeded to hand-stitch my sandals back together. I know he charged me the mzungu price--1000 Tanzanian shillings, or about 75 cents--but I was willing to pay extra for his artistry. Three weeks later, my Birks are still intact.

As for the adage: Tanzania hosts plenty of brokens that go unfixed. I high-five the toilet gods on the rare occasions when the hasp on my stall actually locks. I have yet to stay in a hotel room that has all of the following in working order at the same time: fan, mosquito net, hot water, and light. My jacked derailer befuddled the bike fundis in Same.

But creative genius is also everywhere. Passengers twist the laws of physics to use every inch of space on every local bus. Women defy heat and entropy to turn their bodies and cheap cotton into chic on two legs. Old men fashion marimbas out of electronics packaging. Children turn requests for directions into business opportunities (more on that later).

People pull so much function and beauty out of so very little. Is that not art?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dhow Jones

ZANZIBAR--The Dow Jones may be sucking wind, but the Dhows of Stone Town are doing just dandy.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Modest Muslim Cycling Wear

LUSHOTO, TZ--When rolling through the hinterlands of Africa, shrink-wrapping one's womanly form in Lycra just won't do. As it is, a white person is cause for much discussion in these parts. "Mzungu," people announce when I walk by, using a Kiswahili word that roughly means "whitey." A mzungu on a bicycle elicits even more comment, as people see the bicycle as rather lowly transport and therefore strange carriage for the purportedly wealthy mzungu. Women on bicycles are likewise as rare as rhinoceroses.

And so a white woman on a bicycle is an event not unlike the circus pulling into town. Children rush out of schools to greet me. Women drop their chickens. Men marvel and then discuss among themselves.

Mind you that all of this goes down in a really friendly way, with people smiling and calling out, "Jambo!" (Hello!) and "Karibu!" (Welcome!). Nevertheless, I wouldn't want to attract any more attention, or any less wholesome attention, than I already am.

And so I've settled into my modest Muslim cycling kit--loose mountain-biking pants or cycling shorts worn under a black cotton skirt, coupled with long-sleeve cotton shirts that I picked up at FabIndia in New Delhi when I visited Lucy a few years ago.

My demure dress probably makes me a bit more approachable, as I am clearly (and for once) not some half-nekkid wench come to upset the social order. But the question remains: am I an inspiration to the ladies to take up their bikes and lay claim to the highways, or a cautionary tale of what happens when you don't marry well? My guide, Jerome, (pictured here) and fellow-traveler, David, reckon that the answer is the latter, and suggested that we complete the scene by hanging a sign around my neck that says, "Woman for sale." I recommended that they add "Long legs! Strong teeth! Good SAT scores!" to the sign.

Meanwhile, the people I roll past seem to admire my exertions. "No way I can do," said a woman my age carrying about 50 pounds of firewood on her head. "You must be very strong," several men have speculated. But the surest sign of respect is the term of address they use when I'm on my bike. On foot, I get called "dada"--that is, sister. But when I'm on two wheels, I become "mama."

Bongo Kangas

ZANZIBAR--The streets of Stone Town are a feast of East African fashion. The more modest Muslim women float effortlessly in their bui-buis--long black robes beneath which the women seem not to sweat. (I'm told the elegant bui-buis often hide either short skirts and flimsy shirts or tracksuit pants and t-shirts.) And Christians and Muslims alike rock the kanga--brightly patterned, sari-like strips of cloth with Swahili sayings emblazoned at their feet. One size fits all, although I think my new Obama kanga is particularly slimming.

The best part of the kanga is the least accessible to me: the proverb. In a kanga exhibit at the local museum, I came across a kanga that sported this gem: "Mother, give me your blessings; living with people is really tough" (Mama nipe radhi kuishi na wata.) An equally wise kanga that my guide gifted me reads, "The world is not permanent, and you are just passing through"--a needed check on my Type A tendencies.

But not all of the kanga proverbs are so bongo (Kiswahili for "clever"). I couldn't resist one that the saleswoman translated simply as, "Oh, wow!" I look forward to wearing it to spice up those otherwise lackluster Mondays.

The Obama Tree

STONE TOWN, ZANZIBAR -- Although Tanzania is one whole country south of Kenya, you wouldn't know it from Tanzanians' exuberant emrace of Kenya's favorite grandson, Barack Obama. Residents of Stone Town, for example, created the Obama Tree, a deciduous shrine with "President Obama" spray-painted on its planter and cars festooned with Obama stickers circling it. Obama kangas (brightly dyed cloths that the women wear) are on offer in many shops. And the first thing that many Tanzanians ask me is, "What do you think about Obama?"

I've asked several folks why Tanzanians are so excited about our new president. A seafood vendor at the night market said that it's not just because they think that Obama is going to ship boatloads of foreign aid to his paternal homeland--though they do think this--but also because they hope that Americans won't be afraid to travel to Africa anymore. "They see that Obama is African, and that he's a good man. And so they will come to Africa themselves," he says. Likewise, a young man on the ferry--the head of the Youth League of the ruling CCM party, as it turns out--hopes that Obama will turn the tide of sentiment the world over: "Bush made everyone afraid of everyone else. Maybe Obama will make everyone feel safe again."