American Female on the Loose: Part I

Something I really do not spend a lot of mindshare on is my gender.  I love being a woman; I am proud of it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  But, I simply don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.

During all my travels, it has become clear that the rest of the world sees me as a woman, first and foremost.  Some of the my most colorful memories are directly related to the fact that I am a woman, and I am thankful for each and every one.

Here are just a few cherished nuggets…

Africa

Traveling in Africa (Mali and Ethiopia specifically) as a solo female traveler allowed me to interact with local women and children in a way I would not have otherwise been able to.  I was alone, so the interaction felt intimate and non-intimidating.  And because I’m a woman, there weren’t any social taboos preventing the women from touching me, inviting me into their homes, handing me their babies, inviting me to cook with them.

ImageImageImageImage

Girls braided my hair, boys held my hand so I wouldn’t fall on steep hills or in rivers, women invited me to dance at weddings and try on their clothes.  I had given embarrassingly little thought to what it would mean to travel alone as a woman in Africa, and I am glad I didn’t.

Image

Instead of feeling afraid or self-conscious I was ready to embrace these moments of joy.

Morocco

Road tripping through Morocco gave me some slightly less pleasant, but nonetheless, memorable moments.  And, as every traveler knows, sometimes the worst experiences make the best stories and most vivid memories.  This is true about my Moroccan experiences.

An old woman threw stones at me because my calves were exposed (I am sure my blond hair didn’t help), teenage boys spit at me (I assume for the same reason), a man tried to buy me from my boyfriend (who was posing as my brother), and a woman pressured me to marry her son and take him to America.

Image

I safely pin-balled my way through this series of bizarre events, heightened in their craziness by my dysentery and our rental car’s breakdown in the Sahara.  While these experiences only occurred as a result of my gender, I also believe (maybe in a sexist way) that, had I been a man subjected to these insults, tensions would have surely escalated.  Instead, I accepted them as cultural phenomena and moved on.

Portugal

In Portugal, my friend Ellen and I were invited aboard a warship, and given a private tour of the bridge.  The ship was open for public tours, so the fact that we were invited aboard had nothing to do with our gender.  But, all the other tours were groups of twenty-five people, and none were invited to the bridge.

Image

Just moments earlier we had been lamenting that we had spent our entire weekend in Portugal without getting on a boat, and if we hadn’t been women, I think the weekend would have ended boat-less as well.

Zanzibar

There were three gender-specific moments in Zanzibar.  Two occurred in Stone Town.  One was in the market, where I was given a tour through all the meats, fruits, vegetables and spices.  The first section we went through was the seafood section, and the smells were overpowering — as were some of the images of fish being hacked to bits.

ImageImage

But when we got to the meat section, I found myself wishing we were still with the fish, as the bloody cow heads were lined up to be made into soup.

Image

I didn’t even notice, at first, that my guide kept abruptly pushing me down all these different aisles, trying to avoid a man who was chasing us through the market, trying to touch me.

What could have been a terrifying experience wasn’t because as soon as I noticed my pursuer (who was clearly not mentally competent nor aware of what he was doing), I also noticed that all the vendors and the shoppers were forming human walls to keep him away from me.

If I had not been a blond woman, I would not have been this man’s target.  But, I also believe that if I had not been a foreign woman, I would not have received the protection and aid from over thirty strangers.

The second Zanzibar experience was in a museum.  Two teenage boys wanted me to take their picture, which I did as they posed with their arms around each other.  Then, they each want to take a picture with me.

The one posing with me first asked, “Can I touch you?”  I think he meant, “Can I put my arm around you like I just did with my friend when I posed with him?”  But it was a strange question to be asked, especially in such a Muslim area, where women are not supposed to be touched.

Image

So, by saying yes, what was I saying about myself?  But, this was all processing in the background while we posed since I immediately said “of course” and proceeded to smile for the pictures.  I am sure it was just two young boys who were excited to practice their English and pose with an American lady.  But, had I been a man, I probably wouldn’t even remember the incident today.  And actually, the boys probably would have been too intimidated to practice their English with me as an adult American man, so I wouldn’t have had the experience at all.

The final Zanzibar experience took place at my resort later that day.  I changed into my bathing suit and took my camera to the beach to photograph the intricate rock formations, aqua-blue water and baby powder sand.  The rising tide caught me by surprise and I was faced with a dilemma: the safe move (from a drowning-and/or-ruining-my-camera-prevention perspective) would have been to get out of the water and walk back to the resort through the town.

However, I had been warned that outside of the resort, I needed to be modestly dressed.  While my bathing suit was indeed modest by resort-wear standards, it was not modest by rural Muslim village standards.  So, my other choice was to brave the rising tide and waves, now crashing against the rocks.

Image

I opted for the latter, especially given my fresh memories of the market and museum.

Had I been a man, I could have safely walked back through the village and probably taken hundreds of awesome pictures along the way.  But, I would not have the story about how I risked life and limb (and camera).

As you can see from these few anecdotes, my travels would be very different if I weren’t a woman.  As much as some of them were a little trying at the time, I am immensely grateful for each experience, as both a life lesson and a colorful tale.

Ethiopia Part IV: Today’s Situation

As I become more and more enamored with the people, history and culture of Ethiopia, it is heartbreaking to learn that the current outlook isn’t so rosy.  The major issues that stuck out for me were the political situation, the social issues (education, women’s rights), clean water, and the famine and resulting border tensions with Kenya.

First, the political situation is stable, but not ideal.  There isn’t freedom of the press.  It will be interesting to see if the death of the Prime Minister in August (2012) will lead to more or less freedoms.  And although there are elections, I was told they are basically just for show since 85% of the population lives in the countryside and all the land belongs to the government.  They need to vote with the government to keep their homes.  I also learned that in 2010 international observers said the elections didn’t meet international standards since government funds were used to campaign for the ruling party, which won 545 of the 546 seats in the parliament.  Looking back a bit further, the 2005 elections resulted in 200 people dying in election related violence, and dozens of imprisonments of demonstrators and opposition leaders.

ethiopian elections

Second, there are major social issues, especially concerning women and education.  The key problem for women is forced marriage at a young age, at times, as young as 12 years old; marriage, and womens’ rights, in general.

Age at First Marriage or Union for 20-to-24-Year-Old Females by Region

Age at First Marriage or Union for 20-to-24-Year-Old Females by Region

In one village, Dereje was hoping to show me a cow jumping ceremony, a formality prior to marriage where a man has to prove he is worthy to marry by jumping over a cow.  That day, there wasn’t one.  And at first, I was disappointed because he had told me how entertaining the music and dancing are.  But then I realized I was fortunate, because he also said the bride to be is whipped by her mother in law to be so she is bloody — it is “willing scarification”.

I don’t think I could have watched that.  Dereje said that first wives in a lot of these tribes are basically slaves because the husband pays such a large dowry to her family.  For example, after they serve their husband dinner, they have to sit facing the wall, waiting for him to finish.

In general, it seems hard to be a woman in this area.  Female circumcision is common in some tribes.  And while a growing percentage, still fewer girls than boys are sent to school.

In these conditions, it is hard to be a first wife; you are a virtual slave.  But, families rejoice when they have girls because it means they will be able to get bride prices for them — especially if they are first wives.  If you are a first wife, your family does very well by you.  But, if you are a second wife, your life seems easier, but your family doesn’t do as well. The same story goes even more for a third wife, and onward.

blogpost_ethiopia_women

It’s hard to imagine having to think about these things.  What do I pray for: would I want to enable my family to be significantly better off but have an unpleasant life, or screw my family and live more easily?

I learned about the education problems anecdotally when I was trying to give pens I brought with me away to the kids.  We had very limited success handing them out the last couple of days, as we only wanted to give pens to kids who attended school, and it seemed that not a lot of kids were doing that.  Sad.

One day we gave pens to five boys who were walking back from school.  We found out that they walked all the way there to find out that, as usual, there wasn’t a teacher.  I was impressed that they kept making the (laborious) effort to get themselves there every day.  I wished I could have given them a teacher to go with the pens.

Clean water is another huge problem in Ethiopia.  Every time we passed a well, there were people lined up with their yellow or blue plastic containers.  And at every stream, people were filling up their containers — the problem was that they were collecting the water directly next to other people bathing or doing their laundry.

blogpost_ethiopia_water

People want containers for water.  When we drove past kids (children who seem to be as young as 5 in charge of herds of animals) on the roads, they asked for our empty water bottles to reuse them.  Some of the kids were really inventive with dances to try to differentiate themselves from everyone else, doing froggy jumps, or looking like Greeks, or doing the funky chicken with their legs.

ethiopia drought

As we got closer and closer to the Kenyan and Sudan borders, we started to see more guns.  I guess these tribesmen can have hundreds of cows to protect, and they trade cows for guns with the Kenyans.  Plus, there was growing animosity due to the worsening famine in the area of Kenya that is across the border from Ethiopia.

In rereading everything I just wrote, I realize I haven’t painted a very rosy picture of Ethiopia.  So, let me clarify a couple of things.

First, I was awed by my visit there.  The people, the food, the culture, the sights.  I loved every minute of my trip (ok, there were a few minutes I could have skipped, but, you get the point).  Second, because of its history and the role it played in the history of civilization, it has endured many worse moments in time, and come back strong again.  Third, a lot of things are improving there on a day by day, and decade by decade basis.  They have a new prime minister, and the IMF raised the economic growth rate from 5.5% to 7%.

As a travel destination, I was blown away.  I just want its people to have the same sense of awe about their future as I have about their history and culture.

Ethiopia42

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part V: The Summit

When we reached the summit camp a day early, our team was impressed with how fit I was.  They actually asked Frank if I was some sort of athlete.  Porters and camp crews from other groups came by to meet me because my team was bragging about me.  They wanted to meet “the girl with all the power.”

summit 3

Most people start the summit at 11pm, and summit overnight.  That way they get to see the sunrise at the top – plus, it’s too dark to be intimidated by the long path ahead of them during the ascent.

Because we were on a slightly different schedule (and because Frank preferred it that way), we decided to summit during the day.  It was hard to argue with Frank’s reasoning: warmer, safer and less crowded.

So, we were up at 5am, ate breakfast at 5:30, and set off at 6am.  It was Frank, Andrea, and me.

It was a hard and grueling six hours up to the top.  Physically, mentally and emotionally challenging.  Most of the way was very, very steep with differing terrain, including rocks, very loose and slippery gravel, and dirt.  We kept passing groups on their way up, but no one passed us, which was encouraging.  However, that encouragement only helped a little.

I was pushing and pushing myself.  At different times, I wanted to cry, quit or die.  But, I promised my sister I wouldn’t die in Africa.  And that was the option that involved retaining the most pride.  I simply couldn’t break down and cry or throw the towel in, in front of Frank and Andrea after they had been bragging about me with such pride.

So, we slogged on.  And then people began passing us on their way down the mountain.  Most of them looked beaten up; only one woman took the time to say something encouraging to me.  Everyone I passed on my way up, I said something friendly and encouraging to.  And, later when I was on my way down, I was very friendly and encouraging.  I didn’t understand these other people.  But, Frank said as hard as my climb was, the people that summit overnight had it ten times worse because of the cold and exhaustion.

Somewhere along the way, I was getting extremely demoralized by the seemingly infinite distance I needed to climb.  So I created an alternate reality where I was on some kind of a quest, and there were ten checkpoints I needed to report to.  I asked different rocks if they were a checkpoint, and only certain ones said “yes”.  The rest were still very encouraging, and sometimes they even told me the next checkpoint was in 500 steps, or 1,000 steps.  I knew the rocks aren’t actually talking to me, but this mental scenario I created helped beyond belief.

That, and singing songs.  Somehow, I couldn’t remember the words to any single song except for “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”, “Amazing Grace” and “When The Saints Come Marching In”.  And, I didn’t know all the words to these, but I sang the chorus in my head for, I don’t know, an hour each.  Then I created a medley of them all.

The last 60 feet to Stella’s Point were pure grit.  It was a very steep grade of loose gravel, so it felt like we were losing ground with every step.  But, we could see the ridge.  Keep going, keep going, keep going.  My Achilles were burning like I’d never felt.  Push, push, push.

Then, we were there.  I gave Frank and Andrea the biggest hugs in the world.  And we stopped for a celebratory chocolate bar.

summit 4

Then it was another hour onto the summit — Stella’s Point isn’t the actual summit.  But, the walk to the summit wasn’t as bad as what we had just done, and it offered heart-stoppingly beautiful views of the glaciers.  It was dangerously slippery on the ice, but there were no thoughts of quitting or crying now.

And before long, we made it.  We were completely alone, on top of the world, sitting on the ice.

summit 5

I couldn’t get my (oxygen-deprived) head to accept the awesome beauty around me.  And, I couldn’t get my (racing) heart to accept what I had just accomplished.

I will forever remember Frank and Andrea.  They buffeted me through this.  And they experienced the sheer pain and joy with me.

But, for the most part, they left me alone.  Alone to soak it all in.

In a world where we are constantly bombarded by data, and calls, and texts, and meetings, and appointments, and HAVE TOs and SHOULD HAVEs, it was startling to be so alone.  It was one of the biggest moments of my life, made even more profound because it was only me there.

Tanzania17

After we all caught our breath, we headed back down.  It took two hours for the descent to the base camp.  And, while it was cardiovascularly no longer a challenge, physically I was tired.  And it was still hard work on my quads and abs to keep the control and not tumble down the mountain.  My hiking poles helped a ton.

After a very dusty descent, we were back at camp for lunch.  Then, we had to pack up, and hike downhill for another two hours to where we were camping for the night.

I did not want to continue on, but once we got going, it was actually not so bad.  Although at one point, for my pee break, Frank told me to go over a ledge.  For nearly the whole trek, whenever I had to pee, I told Frank, and he told me where to go.  So, when he told me to climb over the ledge, I just did as instructed.

“I need to pee.”

“OK.  Go over there.”

“Over there?’

“Yes.”

“OK.”

So I climbed over the ridge, and lowered myself down to the next ledge.  And peed.  Then I tried to climb back over the ridge.  I couldn’t do it.  I had no oomph left.  I felt defeated.  Demoralized.  I crouched down against the cliff wall, with my hands over my face.  And then shook my head, stood up, and was determined to scale the wall.  I gave it every single thing I had left.  I pulled with my arms.  I pushed with my legs.  And I was over.  Huffing and puffing, but over.

“Why are you out of breath?  Where did you go?”

“I went where you told me.”

I pointed and he laughed.  He had meant to go behind rocks by the ledge, which made a hell of a lot more sense!

Over dinner we agreed to skip the next night’s camp, and just to hike all the way off the mountain the next day.

One last breakfast, one last packing, one last use of my little toilet, and we are off.

When we make it to the parking lot, The Hottie Driver is there waiting with champagne from The President.  It is wonderful to get my certificate, then get in a car, and drive the hour back to Rivertrees.

Tanzania11

I felt invincible.  And reborn.

Ethiopia Part III: The Famine

Dereje, my guide, and I talked a lot about the politics and culture of Ethiopia.  One of the topics we discussed, in depth, was the famine in the 70’s and 80’s.

A quick summary for those of you who remember the famine in Ethiopia that climaxed with thousands of deaths in 1984-1985, but don’t really know much more than that…

There were basically two reasons for the crisis: a drought in Northern Ethiopia, and disastrous government policies that contributed to the famine, which were then deliberately covered up.

blogpost_ethiopiafamine

In North Ethiopia, people were told to relocate to the south where there was more food.  But, the people didn’t want to leave their churches; they are zealous church-goers, and attend every day.  They firmly believe that their religion is the most important part of their lives.  So, they didn’t move south.

It seems to me that the priests should have done a better job leading their congregations.  Church services can actually be held outside the churches, themselves.  Of course, I know there were many other political factors at play and I’m oversimplifying things, but it is still seems the priests hold some of the culpability.  And actually today, many of the humanitarian organizations working within Ethiopia to stop child labor and marriage for young girls, feel the only way to make progress is to work through the churches, precisely because of the sway they hold over their villages.

Dereje explained the role Haile Selassi (King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia) played in the famine.  Selassi reigned from 1930 to 1974, living in opulence and ceremony while his country starved.

Selassie_on_Time_Magazine_cover_1930

Captivated by the whole discussion, I have since read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “The Emperor”, and now understand the event more clearly.  His book is a masterful account, engrossing and informative – a fascinating ride.  Kapuscinski does a fantastic job painting as balanced a picture as possible of this horrific period of history.

blogpost_kapuscinski

In addition to being responsible for unimagined corruption and harsh brutality, Selassi also defeated the Italians under Mussolini, made Ethiopia a global political player, and invested heavily in modernizing his country’s infrastructure.

The more I learned about Ethiopia’s history, the more fascinated I became.  Stay tuned for my summary of the current situation as I understand it…

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part IV: The Kissing Rock

Andrea woke me up at 6am by tapping on my tent, “Good morning.”

“Good morning!” I unzipped my tent and he handed me the tray holding the hot water thermos and the containers of hot cocoa, tea, coffee, milo, powered milk, and anything else I’d need for an early-morning hot hydration beverage. He also handed me a bowl of hot water and a bar of soap. I noticed the bowl of water he gave me the night before that I’d left by my tent was a solid block of ice.

I had 30 minutes to get dressed, brush my hair and teeth, use the toilet tent, and pack my duffle and backpack.  I left my packed duffle in my tent, brought my daypack with me to the mess tent, and had breakfast with Frank.

Breakfasts consisted of porridge AND bacon or sausage AND eggs AND toast AND pancakes or French toast AND fruit and juice. Plus, the ubiquitous hot water AND fixings for coffee, tea, milo, hot chocolate.

Then, after one more trip to the toilet tent, we were off for the day’s hike. Each day it varied from five to seven hours of hiking.

Tanzania9

As we walked, our team of 11 broke down camp, and then passed us a couple hours later. It was shocking that these guys were carrying so much stuff, and whizzing by like they were walking on flat, even land. We were always being passed. By our crew and other camps’ crews. I loved the energy of it. I loved the sound and rhythm of Swahili; it made me feel like I was in “The Lion King”.   Most of the porters were very friendly and happy to say hello on their way. “Jumbo, Jumbo.”  (Which means, “Hi, Hi” in Swahili.)

It was anything but flat, even land. There were long uphill switchbacks, followed by some downhill bits. And, mixed in is some pretty scary rock scrambling.

Tanzania3
The higher we got, the harder it was to breathe. But, I was doing so well on pacing myself that, on the third day when we arrived at our lunch spot three hours too early, we delayed lunch until we reached the camp and on we trekked, no problem.

kissing rock 12
kissing rock 14

After a particularly steep series of switchbacks, I was sucking wind trying to get some oxygen into my lungs. We stopped for a water break, and Frank pointed out the rock face ahead.

“That’s kissing rock.”

“Huh?” I asked, trying to slow my breathing and clear my head.

“Kissing rock. 100 yards ahead of us.”

I looked up. It looked like our trail ended abruptly at a rock face that jutted out from the side of the mountain. I closed my eyes and opened them, but it still didn’t make any sense to me.

“The only way to pass it is to kiss the rock,” Frank explained. As we got closer, I could see there was actually a tiny ledge that was the continuation of the trail. So we were supposed so inch our way along the ledge, facing the rock, praying we didn’t fall backward.

I was happier when I was suspicious that Frank was somehow trying to come onto me about some kind of tradition about kissing under a rock or something – the Tanzanian mistletoe, so to speak.  This was worse. Way worse.

I should explain that I was terrified of heights. And, more specifically, terrified of falling from heights.

Frank wanted me to go first, but I couldn’t.

“You go first,” I said. I needed to see how it worked. I was stalling for time, praying for magical Kiwi helicopters (when I was hiking in New Zealand, we were chopped over an avalanche. That was just a few months before this climb, so the image of helicopters was fresh).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Frank opened his arms so that he was facing the rock and spread eagle. He maneuvered himself slowly along the ledge, and then disappeared from view.

“OK, your turn. Kiss the rock,” I heard him say.

I took a deep breath, and then kissed the rock. I shuffled along the ledge, and before I knew it, I was on the other side, safe and sound.

Tanzania11

Stay tuned to Part V for the climb…

Ethiopia Part II: The Ark

Want to know what really blew my mind in Ethiopia? The religious history. I totally recommend you pick up “The Sign and the Seal” by Graham Hancock, which will do this so much more justice.  He’s crafted a spellbinding (and controversial) history/adventure story about his investigation of the Ark.

blogpost_signandseal

Ready for this? Ethiopian tradition has it that:

  • The Queen of Sheeba was Ethiopian (yes, that Queen of Sheeba)
  • She had a son with King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon)
  • Their son (King Lalibela) took the Lost Ark of the Covenant (yes, that Ark) from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem to Ethiopia, where it remains to this day

Hancok’s quest to discover whether the Ark is really in Ethiopia, as told compellingly in his book, includes ancient Egypt, Jerusalem, the Bible, the occult, the Knights Templar, and, of course, Ethiopia, itself.

I visited many orthodox churches everywhere we went, but the most awe inspiring were the churches said to be built by King Lalibela in the late 12th century. Some of them are monolithic churches, carved from one single rock. Amazing.

lalibella

The stories tells that King Lalibela, again believed to be the son of King Solomon, went to Jerusalem to see where he was born (or at least where his father lived — I forget if he was born there or just conceived there), and died while he was there. Then while in Heaven, God sent him back to Ethiopia to build the churches. So, he built one set to look like those he saw in Jerusalem, and another set to look like those he saw in Heaven.

When I went to Israel after my trip to Ethiopia, it made sense to me why I saw a kibbutz of Ethiopian Jews. Without my trip to Ethiopia, I would have had no idea how strong a connection there is between Judaism and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

ethiopia church images

Seeing what a strong role the Church plays in the day-to-day lives of most Ethiopians, I couldn’t help but wish it used that power in different ways. Stay tuned to hear thoughts on that…

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part III: Peeing, Washing, Eating and Sleeping On The Mountain

The plan was to be picked up at 8:30am, dressed and ready to go.  Gulp.

The breakfast buffet at Rivertrees was scrumptious.  I couldn’t get enough of the passion fruit juice or the powder sugarcoated pancakes.  And hey, since I’d been instructed to eat as many carbs as I could pack in over the next few days, I kept at it until my ride came.

Butterflies do not begin to describe the anxiety I was experiencing.  Bats, maybe.

At the Macheme Gate, The Hottie Driver kept me company while Frank did the final gear checks and paperwork.  Then, it was go time.  For me, and my team of twelve.

I hoisted my daypack on my back, and we started out.

About an hour into the walk, I had to pee.  I tried to hold it, but it was hard.  The side effect of the altitude sickness meds was that it’s a diuretic, which didn’t pair well with all those liquids I was drinking.  Finally, when I was about to burst, I asked Frank where I should go.

He looked for a spot that was safe, that couldn’t be seen from the trail, and where my pee wouldn’t mix with water someone may use to drink.

“Umm,” I said, four minutes later when he was still looking.  “I don’t care about safe or visible any more.  I have to go NOW.”

He laughed and found me a spot.  When I climbed back onto the trail, he made me promise to always give him a ten-minute warning.

kili eating, peeing, sleeping 1

Our crew set up a table right next to a waterfall for Frank and I to have lunch.  The rest of the gents were relaxing in the shade on the ground.  Frank explained that for the first day we had a cold lunch, but for the rest of the days we would have a properly cooked meal.  The lunch looked pretty proper to me, with sandwiches of ham, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and carrots.  Plus fruit and cookies.  PLUS a hot water-based beverage buffet of coffee, tea, and milo and hot chocolate.

After a few more hours of walking, we arrived at camp.  Frank showed me where my orange and grey tent was, and where the bright orange mess tent was.  My tent had a three-inch foam mattress, pillow, and fleece sheet.  And they’d already delivered my duffle and a sub-freezing sleeping bag.

kili eating, peeing, sleeping 11 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 10 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 2 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 5

They also set up my own personal sky blue toilet tent that had a pump camping toilet.  Not too shabby – who knew trekking up one of the highest mountains on Earth would be so ritzy?

kili eating, peeing, sleeping 13 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 9 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 4 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 3

After storing my daypack in my tent, I change into my camp outfit: fleece pants, hot pink waffle PJ top my sister gave me for Christmas, down parka, thermal hat, wool socks, and running shoes.  While changing (body part, by body part, by body part, because it is too cold to get naked), I used the bathing wipes I brought with me to clean up.  Then I reported to the mess tent for afternoon tea, which consisted of the hot drinks, plus a snack.  On this first day, the snack was popcorn.  But I learned it would vary on the other days and could be roasted cashews, roasted peanuts, cookies, and other yummy things packed with calories.  Frank checked my water supplies, and praised me for drinking most of the prescribed liters.

kili eating, peeing, sleeping 7 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 6 kili eating, peeing, sleeping 8

When Frank and I returned from our post-tea hike, the camp manager, Andrea, brought me a bowl of hot water and a bar of soap so I could wash up in my tent.  They actually offered to compose some kind of shower for me, but the thought of being naked and wet in the cold temperatures was not the slightest bit tempting.

Dinner included a starter, soup, main dish, and a side.  The first day it was diced cucumber on bread with olive oil; then potato leek soup; followed by pepper steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.  And, of course, the drink buffet.  I couldn’t believe how much food there was, and how tasty it was!

“This isn’t even the best you’ll eat.  Weren’t you wondering how I can be a guide for this climbing and still have this?”, Frank asked, rubbing his belly.  I had been curious, but it all made sense to me now.  He eats like a king.

“The hot lunches all start with a soup, too.  Cream of chicken, French onion, carrot ginger, cream of tomato, potato leek, bacon chive.  And then there is a pasta with a different type of sauce each day.  And fruit for dessert.  But you only get dessert after you drink enough water and eat enough food,” he joked.

“What are the other dinners gonna be like?” I asked.  I was stuffed to the brim now.  I couldn’t possibly keep eating at this rate.  But Frank was with me at every meal, so I had no choice.  I was wondering what it was I’d be forcing into my belly.

“There’s chicken and tilapia, and steak, like tonight,” he answered.  I found myself rubbing my belly like Frank was.

When we finished for the night, I unzipped the mess tent flap to head back to my tent, only to be greeted with pitch black and a rush of freezing cold air.  When he realized I’d left my headlamp and my flashlight in my tent, Frank gave me a short lecture about always having them with me, and escorted me to my tent.

Africa Tanzania Kilimanjaro National Park MR Climbing parties tents glow against night sky at Karanga Camp

Inside my tent it was cold and damp, but not freezing.  I took off my running shoes and parka, and slid into my sleeping bag.  Nirvana.  I wrote in my journal for a while.  As I turned off my headlamp, I realized that I was all alone in a tent on the side of the mountain.  I had never camped before, especially not alone.  This was a little scary.

Then, I had to pee. I donned my headlamp, put on my shoes and parka, unzipped my tent, and quickly zipped it back up.  Holy Cow it was cold!  And the thought of walking to my bathroom tent alone was even scarier, even with my flashlight.  I decided I could hold it until morning, and zipped myself back into my sleeping back.

Five minutes later, I realized holding it simply wasn’t an option.  The “middle-of-the-night pee process” on a Mount Kilimanjaro trek went something like…

Unzipped the bag, put on my shoes, parka and wool cap, headlamp on top of the cap; unzipped the tent; re-zipped the tent behind me so no critters found their way inside seeking warmth; scurried to the bathroom tent; unzipped the tent; zipped it closed behind me; peed; “flushed” the toilet by pumping it; unzipped the flap; re-zipped the flap; hurried back to my tent over rocks and branches; unzipped my flap; climbed in; re-zipped my flap; took off my shoes, headlamp, cap, parka; climbed into my bag and re-zipped it.

It was absolutely freezing on the mountain.  Below freezing.  Everything outside the tent was frozen.  Everything inside the tent was damp and very cold.  Everything in my sleeping bag was wonderfully warm.  That was the only place to be!

Two hours later when I woke up needing to pee again, I willed myself to hold it until morning.  And if for some reason my body disagreed, at least pee is warm..

Stay tuned to Part IV for the climb…

Love Letter To Mali Part VII: A Broken Heart

I started writing my love letter to Mali back in September.  My heart was already breaking for all the people I met, and those I hadn’t met.  I was already anxious for the wellbeing of the rich cultural sites and Islamic texts.

In the interim, things have gone from bad to worse.  As I wrote each subsequent chapter of my love letter, things continued to deteriorate.

NYTimes Photo of Mali troops

NYTimes Photo of Mali troops

I have heard from someone I met while I was there.  He asked for money.  He has had to move his whole family from Timbuktu to Mopti.  Thank God they are all safe, but he has no way to get money to feed them.

I am paralyzed by a sense of impotence.  Sure, I can wire him some money.  But, as soon as my focus broadens just a smidge, I am paralyzed again.  How can sending a few dollars to one person help the situation at all?

And, to be completely honest, there is a part of me that worries about how my money would be spent.  I only spent a few hours with this person.  What if they are somehow on the wrong side of things?  Or, in such dire straights that they are forced to support the wrong side?

As I struggle with my own tiny dilemma, the world is struggling with the bigger picture.  How do we save the Malians?  How do we save the historical sites?  How do we prevent the militants who have taken over from using Mali (and Algeria and Libya) as a home base to spread terror across the region, and the world?

It is a frightening time, and a perilous situation.

Mali17

As I sit back, paralyzed, impotent, ashamed, and watch it unfold, I continue to send my love to Mali and its people.

Ethiopia Part I: Oh, So Much To Learn..

I have been fascinated by Ethiopia ever since I learned about Lucy, the ancient human ancestor found there.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist.  Or maybe an anthropologist.  I struggled between the two, but in either case, I knew I wanted to go to Ethiopia.

And, when I finally did, it was even more magical than I had anticipated throughout my youth.

Ethiopia37

My guide, Dereje, was fantastic, and did an extraordinary job explaining the rich culture and history to me.  I have never before felt so much knowledge flowing forth at me, at such a rapid speed.  And I enjoyed every second of it.

Mostly, I think the fire hose effect was because I knew so little.  I imagine if I had never studied the Roman, Greek or Ottoman empires in school, my visits to Italy, Greece and Turkey would have been similarly overwhelming.  But, when I went to those countries, I had a strong basic understanding in place, and the visits therefore served to fill in the missing pieces, explain the nuances, and add the lively details.

In Ethiopia, it was wholly different.  I didn’t know anything.  Dereje had his work cut out for him.

Let’s start with the basics.  Did you know that Ethiopia is on a calendar eight years behind ours, and starts in September?  Or that they follow a 12-hour clock that starts at dawn instead of midnight, and ends at dusk?  So 7:00 AM in East Africa Time (EAT) corresponds to 1:00 in daylight hours in local Ethiopian time. 12:00 noon EAT is 6:00 in daylight hours, and 6:00 PM EAT is 12:00 in local time.

blogpost_ethiopiacal

Wow I had a lot to learn!

Like, the fact that the Nile starts in Ethiopia.  Dereje and I hiked to the Blue Nile Falls to see the start of the Nile River.  Having already been to Egypt, this meant even more to me to see where the river begins.

blue nile falls

To get to our hike and back, we had to cross the Blue Nile via boat.  On the way back our boat (a rickety metal canoe powered by a rusting motor) had a musician onboard to serenade the passengers.  He asked my name, and he understood me to say “silly” instead of “Cindy”, which I didn’t correct.  So, for the boat ride, as well as the walk back to the van during which he followed us, he kept singing “…..Silly……Silly, Silly Silly….silly….silly…”  which was pretty silly to me.

crossing the river

I also didn’t know why so many African flags have the same colors as Ethiopia.  Apparently, since Ethiopia is the only African nation that wasn’t colonized, when they each won their independence, the other nations took inspiration from Ethiopia’s flag.

ethiopian flag

Oh, and I also learned that the whole Jamaican Rastafarian movement is named after an Ethiopian king.  He is the same king that was the first black leader to visit the (Nixon) white house.  He landed in Kingstown and a 4-year drought ended, which was part of legend in Jamaica about an African king.

And he took 2,000 Jamaicans back to Ethiopia with him and gave them all land.  When he was overthrown by the military in the 70s, a lot of them left, but I guess there are still a few hundred.

rasta

The King’s name was Haile Selassie, and you can hear him mentioned in a lot of Reggae music.

You would not believe the wad of cash I had in Ethiopia.  I traded 3 $100 bills for like 50 bills of Ethiopian money.  They had to give me a rubber band!  And, I had to break some of those bills into smaller denominations as well.  It reminds me of the Shel Silverstein poem “Smart” about the boy who trades his dollar for five pennies.

Smart

My dad gave me one dollar bill ‘Cause I’m his smartest son, And I swapped it for two shiny quarters ‘Cause two is more than one!

And then I took the quarters And traded them to Lou For three dimes – I guess he don’t know That three is more than two!

Just then, along came old blind Bates And just ’cause he can’t see He gave me four nickels for my three dimes, And four is more than three!

And I took the nickels to Hiram Coombs Down at the seed-feed store, And the fool gave me five pennies for them, and five is more than four!

And then I went and showed my dad, And he got red in the cheeks And closed his eyes and shook his head – Too proud of me to speak!

-Shel Silverstein

Well, class, now that we have finished Ethiopia 101, stay tuned for my impressions of the actual trip, itself!

 

Climbing Kilimanjaro Part II: The Arrival

When I arrived at the airport in Kilimanjaro, I could not believe how absolutely easy immigration into Tanzania was, considering I needed to purchase my visa there.  Visits to a U.S. post office are more time-consuming and painful than this experience of entering an East African country.

Upon leaving the airport after the simplest border control in recorded history, I found myself in the familiar position of standing with my bags on a cart, looking around for someone who had my name on a sign.  And, no one did.

I pushed my cart against the wall so I was out of everyone’s way, and dug through my backpack to find my local contact’s information.  When I called, she reassured me that the driver would materialize momentarily.  So, I sat on my cart, turned away taxi driver after taxi driver, listened to my “Africa” playlist, and relaxed.

I watched as patches of Westerners walked through the doors, into the glare of the Tanzanian sun.  Backpackers looking for cheap taxis, tour groups looking for shuttle buses, tourists looking for their prearranged drivers.  A lot of them were resonating with a palpable stress I recognized.  I am sure I looked like that in Bamako when my drivers failed to immediately materialize. (read the “Love Letter to Mali” series for the first-hand account!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here I was surprised to realize I was not worried at all.  I shrugged, and continued to watch the parade of nations.

It was funny to see all the different nationalities, and how they were dressed and acting, given where we were.  The Russians were obnoxious, in sequin tank tops, spike-heeled snakeskin boots, drinking vodka from canteens, loud, and over the top in every kind of way.  The Brazilians were only a little less extreme than the Russians, and the Italians were only slightly better than the Brazilians.

The Brits were uptight and frumpy, complaining and looking hot and uncomfortable.  The South Africans were only a little less extreme than the Brits, and the Americans were only a little better than the South Africans.

The French looked appropriately relaxed and on-vacation; they were dressed comfortably but sharply, and, especially by comparison to everyone else, presented an attractive package.

When I finally found my driver, he was terrific.  We had a super rugged safari vehicle, and as he drove me the 45-minutes to my hotel, he told me about the local area.

hottie driver in kili

I loved my driver’s accent.  I loved his eyes.  I love that he insisted I sit next to him in the front seat.

So, I already loved Tanzania.  But, I don’t think my attraction to The Hottie Driver can explain why I instantly felt so comfortable and at home at Rivertrees hotel.  It is a gorgeous old farm estate on many acres converted into a charming hotel.  I spent the afternoon sitting in the open-air restaurant drinking coffee (they freshly roasted and ground the beans for me).

I decided to go for a run through the grounds.  I followed the river, and wound my way among the cabins and dense trees, with monkeys in them.  While I was walking to cool down, I started to fantasize about living here.  I felt like I am home.

After my shower, I looked in the mirror at my back, and was shocked at the giant red welts.  I had just arrived from Ethiopia, and had been attacked by tse-tse flies yesterday.  Under normal circumstances, I would be alarmed enough at what I was looking at, but I was even more freaked by the realization that I was about to set off on the Kili climb with some kind of allergic reaction.

I called reception.

“Does the hotel have a doctor?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Great, I have weird welts on my back I’d like someone to look at.”

“So, you want a doctor?”

“Yes.”

“OK, I’ll send one over to your room.”

“Thanks.”

That was so easy.  Ten minutes later, there was a knock at my door, and someone arrived with a power adapter.

“Ah, I don’t need an adapter, I want a doctor.”

“Ah, I don’t have one of those, maybe you can call reception?”

Eventually I stopped freaking out and adjusted to the fact that I just had some bug bites.  So, I took Benadryl and quit my worrying.  Mostly.

To distract myself I strolled over to the gift shop that had beautiful beaded jewelry.  I started to pick out gifts, but my mind was aflutter with thoughts of The Climb — so I gave up and just browsed.

“Can I help you?” asked Gretchen, the resort manager, who was manning the register.

After chatting for a few minutes I decided to show her my back.  “So, I’m sure it’s nothing, but I have these bites.  Can you take a look?”

“Sure.  OH MY GOD.  I mean, ok, I see.  They are tsetse fly bites.  Yes, these are quite inflamed.”

“How many are there?” I asked.

“Ah.  Well, let’s see.  I can see at least sixteen distinct bites, maybe more.  Some of these look quite large and could actually be two bites that are swollen together.  You poor thing.”

“Should I be worried?  I am going to start climbing Mount Kilimanjaro tomorrow, and have to wear my rucksack and all.”

“Really?  Tomorrow?  Ah.  Well.  No.  No, not at all.  You’ll be fine.  I’m sure.  Just fine.  Just a few bug bites, right?”

blogpost_bugrepellent

I smiled nervously, both relieved and a little freaked out.  I told her I’d be back after my trek to get some jewelry, and I headed to the restaurant for my pre-climb briefing.

The President of the hiking company soon arrived to deliver the pre-climb briefing, and introduced me to my head guide, Frank, who was all dimples and muscles.  The President explained that while Frank and I were climbing, he would be monitoring us from town and arranging any emergency evacuations.  First thing they told me is that I was the only one doing the climb.  That meant all of the food, equipment and personnel were for me. I was so embarrassed to have a team of twelve men escorting me on just a week-long trek.

The briefing went something like…

“Make sure you eat a lot.  Eat until you are full.  Then keep eating.”

“Oh, ok,” I laughed.  “I usually am a pretty good eater.  That shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I’m not kidding.  You need to consciously stuff yourself at all meals.  Your body will try to tell you it’s full.  Ignore it.  You need more calories than your body thinks you need.  And more water.  Your body will use up to three times as much water as normal.”

“OK.  Got it.  Eat and drink.”

“Yes, nonstop.  At least six liters of water a day.  In addition all the liquids we will serve you at meals.”

“OK.  Check.  Imbibe.  Ingest.  Got it.”

“The golden rule is ‘Pole Pole.’  That means ‘Slowly Slowly’ in Swahili.”

“It is like you are telling me to do all my favorite things.  Eat and drink tons.  Move as slowly as possible.  This climb is up my alley for sure.”

The President didn’t laugh.  “It is important that you keep your pace slow in order to avoid stressing out your body while it is trying to adjust to the altitude.  Because, if you do get altitude sickness, you will be sent down.  There are no second chances.  We take safety very seriously.”

“Right, as do I.”

“OK.  So you will be in charge of your day sack.  You can put the rest of your gear in one duffle that the porters will carry.  Any questions?”

“Actually, yes.  So, I have these bites on my back.  I’m sure they’re nothing.  But I’m a little worried my day pack may rub them raw.”

“OK.  Let’s take a look.”  So, I turned around and lift up my shirt.  “Oh My God!  I mean, OK.  If they are irritated by your pack, he’ll carry it,” he says, pointing to Frank.

“Thanks.”  Frank and I looked uneasily at each other.

The President and Frank conducted a thorough kit check of my gear and I unsurprisingly passed with flying colors.  I had already proven to myself that when it comes to adventure travel, I have the shopping part down pat.  After arranging the pick up time in the morning, they left.

blogpost_mtkili

Holy cow.  Now that it was about twelve hours away, I was starting to get a little nervous.  And, I was definitely more nervous knowing that I would be doing this alone.  What if I didn’t make it?  That meant the whole crew would have done all this for nothing.  But, I was more excited than nervous.  I couldn’t believe I was finally going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a life-long dream.  Literally.

Stay tuned to Part III for the climb…