August 14, 2007

Seattle, Washington
The Tchotchke to End All Tchotchkes

I moved in with Melissa. This is a first for me. As is living in a house. A town house, anyway.

Apparently I'm stinking up the place. This hasn't been a problem in the past, when I wasn't a full resident, but suddenly the furniture is laden with my scent and in need of chemical treatment.

Melissa says this is a common problem; that in those ads for sprays that remove "pet" odor, it's really just code for "boy." Women all understand this, so the advertisers needn't clarify.

Two days ago, a demo went out on Xbox Live for a game called Bioshock. It's the best demo I've played in years. The game is actually literate, which is a quality I stopped hoping for long ago. The situation they drop you in is absolutely riveting and the quality is at a level that no amount of money can produce. Having worked in games, I know all forms of bodily fluid were excreted in its creation. A lot of people put a lot of passion into making this game great.

One of those people is Garry Schyman, who makes the music for my dancing videos.

Playing Bioshock makes me really glad I don't work in games anymore, as I wouldn't be able to derive any pleasure from it. Just envy and self-loathing.

I scoured YouTube for a sampling. The trailer they put out is excessively gory, a bit clichéd, and it doesn't do the game justice. So I went with less-is-more.

I don't tend to buy many souvenirs when I travel. There are several reasons for this. The first is the basic logistical dilemma of where I'm going to put it in my luggage. I also don't much enjoy wandering in and out of shops all day -- particularly in regions like Africa and Southeast Asia, where you can literally be dragged in against your will.

The other reason is because what you tend to find in tourist shops is crap. It can serve a purpose. If you need a gift for a friend and you know all they want is something that comes from Africa and looks like it comes from Africa, one of those wooden masks or figurines will do the trick just fine. But one is about as good as any other. And you know there's a thousand guys under a tree somewhere carving them out as fast as they can be sold.

It's hard to find something special. And usually it means shelling out an extraordinary amount of money. I regret that my living room is not festooned with reminders of my many thrilling adventures. I come up short in that regard.

I say all this by way of preface, because I finally found something I'm genuinely proud to place on my coffee table. It came from a curio shop in Zanzibar.


Remember the Chinatown shop in the beginning of Gremlins where the dad finds the mogwai? That's what it's like. You get the vivid sense that on one of the high shelves or in one of the musty corners, you'll spot some strange, mystical artifact that the proprietor will swipe from your gaze and mutter, "Not for sale!"


The origins of the Zanzibar Curio Shop are sufficiently dramatic. In 1964, the mainland Africans in Tanganyika ousted the Arab government of Zanzibar and seized control of property and possessions. Thousands were killed, many more were booted from the island, and the impoverished Tanganyikans who moved in found themselves the proud owners of all sorts of weird crap. For centuries, the inhabitants of Zanzibar had been traders. Many of them had collected antiques of great value from all over the world. And suddenly these antiques were in the hands of people who saw little value in them.


One long-time resident, Mr. Akbarali, didn't flee from the revolution. Instead, he went door-to-door, purchasing the entire contents of abandoned households and using it to fill his new shop. Mr. Akbarali's son is Murtaza. Murtaza now runs the shop, and he'll cheerfully tell you the whole story if you look like you might buy something.


From the front, the shop looks pretty ordinary. It has the usual wood carvings and t-shirts that fill every other store. But if you poke around, you'll find room after room packed full with the remarkable and the inexplicable.


I bought a lot of stuff. That's Murtaza trying to think of what else he can sell me.


Big gifts for various family members, and one thing for myself.

I asked Murtaza if he had any antique puzzles. He said no, but instead produced what he called an "Arabian dungeon lock." It's German-designed, with four separate keys. Each key is given to a different dungeon guard, and all are needed to open it.

All my sirens went off simultaneously. I bought it and had everything shipped home. The process took some time; I had to pay through Western Union and shipping from Zanzibar is probably slower than it was four centuries ago. I finally got the thing a few weeks ago. Here it is.

Img_5606 Img_5616


My friend, Pete, did some research, and found out it's a 15th century design, possibly Indo-Persian. He also found a disturbing warning that there are inauthentic fakes floating around. I suppose it's likely my lock isn't more than a couple decades old, but it's still a lot of fun to play with and to watch other people try to solve.

Someone down below is going to ask how to find the Zanzibar Curio Shop. I can't offer much help with that. Stone Town is a labyrinthine tangle of alleyways. I'd been there once before on my first trip to Zanzibar, and it took hours to track the store down again. And anyway, if it was easy to find, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

It's not far from the Portuguese fort, so you can start there and just wander for a while.

Oh, by the way, the handy folks at LUX have fixed the archive section of my journal. It's a lot easier to sort through now, as you can now see the location and title of each post.

Now I've just gotta fix the map page and rewrite the way-outdated FAQ.

Have you signed up to dance in the new video yet? The first batch of US and Canada invites goes out next weekend. Do it!

December 14, 2006

Seattle, Washington
More Than You Could Ever Possibly Want to Know About Me

I was invited to Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont last month to speak about the dancing video and how I made it. I rambled on for 90 minutes and then took everyone outside to shoot a dancing clip.

I've edited the talk down to 75 minutes, yanking some of the more boring bits and the parts where I said stupid stuff I'd rather not have said. Oh, were it only possible to do that in real life...

There are also a few scattered moments where I'm cut off in mid-sentence. Nothing is being hidden there, it's just the result of the shoddy technique I used to convert the videotape recording into a YouTube-friendly form. Apologies for any annoyance it causes.

The talk is broken into three parts. It addresses a lot of the stuff I get asked all the time, so I thought it might be interesting for anyone who wants to know more.

I'd like to thank Tom Myers, a professor at Champlain, who contacted me, invited me out, and took a gamble on me not choking horribly and embarassing both of us. I'd not done anything like this before and I still don't know what made him think I could do it, but I am grateful for the opportunity.

I really enjoyed doing this and would like to keep doing it. Feel free to contact me if you'd like me to come to your school, university, office, cult compound, secret society headquarters -- whatever. I rely heavily on the Q&A for what I talk about, so it's different every time. What you see here isn't necessarily what you'll get.

October 11, 2004

Zanzibar, Tanzania
If Entropy Has a Favorite Continent...

So my laptop got destroyed.

...not completely. The computer itself is fine, but the screen is shattered, which means I'm limited in my journal posting until I can get it repaired back in the states.

It happened in Uganda, riding in the back of a pick-up with five other people on a heavily pot-holed dirt road through the mountains. At some point the laptop bag became a seat for someone and it had to endure one ass-shattering bump too many.

The damage could've been worse and so could the timing. I have to keep reminding myself of that. I'm at the end of my trip and it's sort of made me turn a corner such that I'm now ready to go home.

I'm skipping about four posts, which I'll get to eventually, but right now I'll just sum up my day without explaining the hows and whys that led up to it.

I woke up at 4am in the Ugandan town of Kabale, walking distance from the Rwandan border. I had to catch the early morning bus to the capital city of Kampala to try and get a ticket on the afternoon flight to Dar es Salaam and then straight on to Zanzibar. I've been traveling west for weeks, ostensibly in search of gorillas. I saw them, my time is up, I really wanted to see Zanzibar, so I had to go by air to squeeze it in.

I slept through the first couple hours of the bus ride -- a skill I've been slowly cultivating -- and woke up sitting next to a young girl of maybe 15 at a roadside food stop where hawkers were shoving sticks of meat at us through the windows. She bought one. I abstained. The conversation went something like this:

"You don't eat meat?"
"Yes, I do."
"Why not?"
"I do."
"Eat meat."
"You eat pigeon?"
"Excuse me?"
"What did you ask?"
"You have business?"
"I can't understand you."
"I am your business."
"You have mother?"
"Yes. I have a mother."
"I have no father."
"Oh. Do you have a mother?"
"No. No mother either."
"I'm very sorry."
"I am your business. You take me."
"You have madam?"
"Do I have a madam?"
"You take me to hotel. I am your madam."
"Oh. Um. No. Sorry."

She gave up after a while. Or I just ignored her. Or I fell back asleep. I can't remember.

The flight I needed to catch to Dar es Salaam was leaving at 1:30pm from Entebbe airport, an hour outside the city. Entebbe, incidentally, is the site of an infamous 1974 event in which Ugandan rebels hijacked two European flights. They blew up one of them and the other was raided by British SAS soldiers, resulting in a bloody but ultimately successful shootout. The second plane and most of its passengers were saved.

I got the details of this from an Australian drill fitter I traveled with for a little while. I haven't bothered to confirm any of it, so I may have it all wrong.

...okay, I got the story from Australian airline pilot this morning and I did indeed have it all wrong. There was only one flight, the hijackers were Palestinean, the flight was Air France, the passengers were mostly Israelis, and the rescuers were the Israeli Special Forces. The plane landed in Uganda because then-president Idi Amin was sympathetic to the Palestinean cause. The hostages were brought off the plane and into the terminal. The rescue unit eliminated all the Palestinians without losing a single passenger in the crossfire. One passenger was murdered beforehand, and one Israeli commander -- the brother of future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- died from a gunshot wound.

I think I've got it all straight now.

Some Israelis I met during the gorilla tracking said that after WWII, the British offered Uganda to the Jews as the new Israeli state. The Jews said "thanks, but we've got our eyes on another piece of real estate." For the rest of my time in Uganda, I couldn't help but ponder what the place and its surrounding regions would be like if they'd taken the offer.

The bus got into Kampala at 11:00am. I raced to the Air Tanzania office on the back of a bota-bota (motorbike taxi) and purchased the ticket with no problems. By noon, I was en route to Entebbe by taxi.

The car broke down halfway to the airport. The timing belt snapped. I started getting antsy, but the driver flagged down another taxi, got the driver to pay him for the first half of the drive, then told me to pay the new driver the full amount. Fine with me. I was back on my way.

As we drove into the terminal loop, I realized my driver was a) not a taxi driver, and b) had never been to an airport before. The security guard at the entrance leaned into the car.

"Are you armed?"

He started driving.

"Did she just ask if you were armed?"
"I don't know."

I paid him, checked in, wolfed down some food, and got on my plane as the gate was closing.

The 737 was 10% full. I had the run of the back half. I hopped from side to side looking out at the Serengeti, Ngorongoro crater, Mount Kilimanjaro, and finally the outskirt slums of Dar es Salaam.

Dar es Salaam has the most catastrophically disorganized international airport I've ever encountered. It's in a perpetual state of chaos caused by no one having any idea how anything is supposed to work. One gets the distinct impression they're making it up as they go.

I found myself in the unfortunate situation of having to make a connecting flight with a 25 minute layover. Some bullet points of the problems I ran into:

- Locating luggage is only one small step removed from actually crawling into the hull of your arriving flight. There are dozens of people tasked with helping in this process -- all of them, in fact, make it harder.

- To transfer, you have to actually leave the airport and come back in the front.

- The boarding passes don't specify gates.

- The airport announcer and ticket checkers are not, shall we say, on the same page.

- While there are seat assignments, they're totally disregarded onboard.

- I had to get off the plane to identify my bag on the tarmac.

- The AC is broken on the plane.

The lady at the transfer desk had a pair of glasses with one of its arms missing. Every time she looked down to read anything, the glasses fell on the floor.

Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about a future in which mankind becomes so disconnected from the inner workings of its own inventions that it loses all ability to build or fix anything.

That's Africa.

Nothing is renewed, only reused until it can be used no longer.

Everything is decaying. Everyone is dying. Nothing is getting better.

My outlook has steadily dimmed as I've moved deeper into the continent. The more I learned from expats, aid workers, and locals, the less hope I've found. My feeling now is somewhere in the neighborhood of sad resignation -- which, now that I think of it, is about where I started. So I guess I've come full circle on Africa.

Our flight to Zanzibar took less than 15 minutes. The pilot was British. I spent the flight speculating about what sort of indescetion he was found guilty of to wind up on this route on this airline.

I must have a pretty good game face by now, cause I somehow managed to skirt the hordes of touts waiting outside the airport, find my way to the dalla-dalla (taxi van) stand, and catch a ride into town for $0.20 instead of the standard $10. There was no yelling involved and no frustration. One guy persisted in trying to get me in his cab, so I said "No hablo ingles. Come mis pantalones?"

He walked away. Never fails.

I don't want to sound too backpacker-machismo or anything, but I was fairly proud of myself. It's a shame to be leaving just when I'm getting good at this.

I haven't really seen any of Zanzibar yet and I don't expect to get much of a chance. Seems nice, though.

I'll be home in a few days. Can't wait.

September 27, 2004

Arusha, Tanzania
The Cheetah Will Not Eat Today

Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. Happy goddam birthday to me.

So I got waylaid by an injury on Kilimanjaro. Well, not so much an injury really. My feet froze on the way to the summit and stayed frozen for a good 8 hours. I lost all feeling in my toes. Most of them came back the next day, but I still haven’t got much going on in the two big ones, and as a result I’m not very good at the whole walking thing. It’s not frostbite; there’s no discoloration or blistering, I can move them, and they’re warm. But there does seem to be some nerve damage.

My sister’s husband’s dad is a doctor and he was generous enough to give me some long-distance medical advice: mainly, stay away from needles in Africa and consider leaving to get care in a region with a better health record.

For now, I’m ignoring that solid and sensible advice.

I spent five quiet days in the town of Moshi waiting for signs of recovery and slipping into a clockwork routine: wake up late and decide to stay another day, lunch at the Indian restaurant while I work on some old journal entry I’ll never finish, several hours at the internet café where they let me plug my laptop straight onto the network (kind of a big deal here), back to my room to watch movies and TV shows I pulled off Andy’s laptop, then dinner at the hotel, which includes liberal amounts of alcohol from their $0.70 a shot bar.

I don’t usually drink much. But it’s so derned economical!

Here’s my room:


After five days there was no improvement in my feet, but I was getting better at hobbling on stumps. Then yesterday, things in Moshi started getting weird. There was suddenly a whole lot of hostility in the air. The worst of it was some drunk guy who was pissed at me for being American. He called me a motherfucker a couple times and nearly took a swipe at me. I decided it was time to get going.

I’m tired of being stared at. It gets old. Innocent, curious looks I can deal with, but the kind I’ve been getting have been downright predatory. I think they’re pretty fed up with white people here. They’ve figured out our main interest is wildlife and we don’t much give a crap about the people. I can’t begin to understand the deeper, historical layers of resentment, but I can feel them.

I can’t walk ten feet down the road without getting approached. I’m used to this from other countries, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

“Hey, my friend, welcome, where are you from, you go on safari, you come to my shop look souvenirs, please wait one minute, let me talk to you, why you are so rude to me, it is the color of my skin, you do not like the black man, I am the same, please, my friend.”

I left Moshi this afternoon and took an hour bus ride to Arusha. Here’s the plush office of the man who sold me the ticket:


Taking my seat on the bus, I nearly stepped on a small plastic bag by my feet. On closer examination, I found it contained a live chicken.


Arusha is Tanzania’s main point of departure for Serengeti safaris and the epicenter of all things irritating. I studied the city map and formulated a route that took me past all the errands I needed to run: pharmacy, ATM, bookstore, hospital, hotel. The moment I stepped off the bus I was tagged. The guy said he was from the department of tourism and it was his job to show me hotels. I thanked him and told him I wasn’t going to a hotel anytime soon and I didn’t need his help. He explained again that it was his job, he could not leave me and he would be happy to show his credentials.

“I believe you have credentials, but it doesn’t matter. I know where I’m going. I don’t need help.”
“Please, sir. I am just to provide information.”
“I don’t need any information and I’m not going to give you any money.”
“No money. Please, let me show you to a hotel.”
“I already know my hotel. You’re not getting a commission.”
“You do not pay me a commission. Over here, sir, is the Kilimanjaro Hotel.”
“I know I don’t pay a commission. The hotels pay a commission and they charge me extra to cover it. But they’re not going to pay you because you’re not helping me.”
“Please, sir, over here is the Arusha Crown Hotel.”

In Asia, blowing your top works wonders. Just a little froth and vitriol will do. The hangers-on don’t like the spectacle and they often back away. In Africa, it has the opposite effect. They see that you’re beginning to crack and will soon explode, piñata-like, in a pile of US currency. The only way to handle things is calm, polite, but firm. I’d already tried that.

I did a little red-light-green-light on the sidewalk. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. He didn’t miss a beat. I crossed to the other side of the street. He beat me to it. I spontaneously changed directions and darted around in random patterns. He clung like a barnacle. I ducked into stores, hoping the proprietors would do something. No luck. I tried ignoring him completely for ten minutes while he rambled on about every hotel and it was his job and please look at his credentials. Then he started in with the race thing.

“Sir, I think you are judging me because of my color.”
“Yes. That’s why I came to Africa; to indulge my hatred of black people.”
“I think this might be so, but please, we are the same.”

I reached the ATM and still hadn’t gotten rid of him. I really really really didn’t want to take money out with him standing behind me. But I was out of cash and I had no choice.

“Look, it’s not about your skin it’s about you’re annoying. I hate to do this, but I’m going to the police.”
“Yes. Let us go to the police. They are right over here. They will tell you who I am and that it is my job to help you.”

I wasn’t about to call his bluff. It seemed reasonably possible that they’d go his way.

“Okay, you can follow me. I’m not going to stop you. But I’m going to the hotel I already picked, I’m going to tell them you didn’t help me, and you’ll have to walk around all day for no reason.”
“I have a reason. It is my job. Please, sir, over here is the Oasis Hotel.”

Hands down: the single most relentless tout I have ever encountered. And making it all the more frustrating was his insistence that he could lose his job for not providing me with his vital services. As absurd as the idea seems, I don’t know for certain that it isn’t true. Maybe the Arusha tourism board thinks they’ve hit upon a brilliant technique and I’m just making his job difficult.

Whatever. I’d had enough. I signaled a cab driver. He asked where I was going. I told him I didn’t care and got in. The tout opened the front passenger door and sat down.

I shouted to the driver, “Hapana!”

He took over from there, erupting in a ferocious string of what I imagine to be wholly unpleasant Kiswahili curses and threats. The tout wouldn’t get out. Slapping happened.

He came over to me and stuck his head in through the window.

“Please, sir. Do not do this. It is my job.”

The driver turned around, waiting for my signal…“Go.”

The tout clung to the door as we started moving – his head still inside, still begging. The driver sped up. The tout kept an iron grip, far exceeding what I imagined to be the speed threshold for running alongside a car with your head inside. At last, he couldn’t keep up. He got swallowed in our swirling dust cloud.

A short pause. The driver smiled, then burst out in hysterics. He enjoyed that tremendously. I couldn’t help but join him. It was, in so many ways, a nature documentary. “The cheetah loses his meal. He will not eat today.”

We went about two blocks and I told the driver to pull over.

I walked the rest of the way to the hospital and paid $4 for an immediate consultation. No forms, no insurance, no identification, no fuss. The doctor looked at my feet and told me exactly what I wanted to hear: the problem will go away and I don’t need to worry about it. It’s nerve damage, but the nerves are intact and will heal within a week or two. He said he climbed Kilimanjaro himself when he was younger and had the same thing happen. He suggested taking vitamins B6 and B12 to speed up the process, which I’m already taking in my morning multi-vitamin, so hakuna matata.

Continuing on my way, another guy approached me with an unexpected introduction:

“Have you lost weight?”
“As a matter of fact, I have. Thanks for noticing.”
“You want safari?”
“Oh. Uh. No.”

As I was getting directions from a bank security guard, another guard walked up next to him and took his hand. They stood together talking to me while affectionately swinging their arms back and forth like a couple of Care Bears. It’s common for men to hold hands in this region – like it used to be in Vietnam before American GIs beat it out of them – but watching a couple security guards get all lovey-dovey was more than I could handle without some stifled facial contortions.

When I came back that way some time later, the same security guard asked, “Are you sexy?”
“Excuse me?”
“Are you sexeed?”
“Are you succeed?”
“Oh. Yes. Very successful. Thanks for the directions.”

As a birthday present to myself, I checked into a fancy, high-end hotel. I’m writing this by the pool after a delicious Chinese dinner. My room is on the top floor with a kingly view of Mount Meru, the second-highest peak in Tanzania.

I didn’t intend to still be here on my birthday. I was hoping to be chasing mountain gorillas or laying on a beach in Zanzibar. But here I am.

Not that I’m feeling sorry for myself, because:
a) I put myself here.
b) I’ve got a belated birthday to look forward to.
c) I don’t really care much about birthdays anyway.
d) I’m getting plenty of undeserved e-pity.
e) Toes and touts aside, I’m having a wonderful time.

Maybe everyone does this: on my birthday, as part of taking stock, I think about one year ago today, the year before that, and so on. Where was I? What was I doing?

My dread is that I will come up with the same answer year after year. Change is good. Change is healthy. More important, it happens whether you want it to or not. I’m in Tanzania this year, riding with the current, not against it. And I’m safe for my next birthday too – the odds are inconceivably slim that I’ll be in this same spot doing this same thing a year from today.

…Inconceivably slim.

September 24, 2004

Moshi, Tanzania
The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done: Part 2

Day 4 – The Surface of Mars

Now it’s getting serious. We’d had a pretty leisurely time those first three days, but day four would take us up another full kilometer – much higher than I’d ever been in my life.


Nervous optimism was the flavor of the moment. You could feel it all around the camp. Beyond the ridge, the big old lady in white was waiting.


Andy came by. “The weirdest thing just happened. One of the porters came up and asked if he could have his picture taken with me. He put his arm on my shoulder and smiled, his friend took the picture, and they walked away. What was that about?”

“I know what it was about.”


“They think you’re Elijah Wood.”

“Fuck off!”

“I’m not kidding. You look like Elijah Wood. They think you’re Frodo.”

Andy didn’t care to continue the discussion. It’s true, though. He’s got those same beady eyes.

Here’s where I did a really bad thing.

While Mecke was getting ready, I took off. Looking back now, I can’t really explain it in any sensible way. I was ready to go, I was eager to go, so I took off by myself and left Andy and Mecke behind.

There weren’t any personality problems. We all got along just fine, to my knowledge. But I wanted to be alone and – God this really sounds incredibly stupid – I didn’t want to worry about keeping a slow pace. I was too anxious. I wanted to get up there and get it over with.

A short way in, I got my first really clear view of the summit.


That’s the final ascent. It’s like a whole other mountain on top of an already very large mountain. And it’s clearly much steeper than anything that comes before it.

Gradually throughout the morning, the plant life became smaller and smaller until I cleared a hill and saw a thin, undisturbed path stretching on for miles in front of me. I had suddenly arrived on another planet.


I sat down for a snack. Before leaving for Africa, my sister Jen had showered me with peanuts and granola bars to take on my trip. I’d been rationing them for weeks so I’d have plenty for Kilimanjaro. This turned out to be a really good thing.


Thanks Jen.

A group of porters stopped next to me and I offered them all some honey roasted peanuts, which they gratefully accepted. They’d never experienced the wonders of honey roasting before, so their heads kind of exploded. I gave them each another round.

I had made some new friends. They stuck by me for the rest of the day.


We didn’t have much we could say to each other, but I really enjoyed being an honorary member of their pack.

I got one of them to take a picture of me on the surface of Mars.


It’s time for some more information on porters. This is stuff I got off the web after coming home. I will now regurgitate it in my own words without giving credit to the source, cause I can’t be bothered trying to google my way back to it.

Porters on Kilimanjaro die at a rate of about three a month. It’s hard to confirm that figure precisely, cause no one really bothers to keep track and it’s certainly not something the park authority wants to publicize.

Many of them die of exhaustion. The food they eat comes directly out of their pay, so they get by on as little as possible. When a climber offers them a snack or part of a meal, I now realize, it’s no small thing. It would be ludicrous for them to say no, as it actually impacts their chances of survival.

Many more die from hypothermia near the top. They have very little to keep them warm, and they have to spend a night in cheap, thin tents at 15,000 feet.

Others die from mountain sickness. While the guides watch climbers constantly and rush them down the mountain at the first sign of onset, the porters just have to deal with it if it happens.

They get tipped around $10 for their six days on the mountain. This usually exceeds what they’re paid by the tour company who hires them – or at least it would if they actually got the tips. The climbers are told to give all the tip money to the guide and specify how much should be distributed to each porter. It’s up to the guide to make good on that arrangement, and often they don’t.

Guides choose their porters at the start of each climb, so they’re known to deduct a fee out of the tip money for the privilege of being chosen.

It’s kind of like a pyramid scheme. The porters stick with it and tolerate being screwed in the hopes of one day becoming guides so they can screw those beneath them.

Enough on porters. Basically, it sucks and I’m embarrassed for briefly having thought otherwise.

Stopped at this luxurious bathroom in lush surroundings.


We passed through the saddle; a small valley between two hills as you round the bend toward a straightaway. At the end of the straightaway, a deceptively steep hill leads to Kibo hut, the final campsite.


Distance: 9.2 kilometers
Altitude Change: +983 meters
Walking Time: 3 hours
Average Pulse: 147
Final Altitude: 4703 meters

I’d moved briskly all day and hadn’t seen another Caucasian for hours; just a long string of porters in a hurry to claim decent tents for the night.


I checked in and was directed to a dorm room with twelve bunks packed close together. I flopped down and rested for a solid hour before the next climber showed up.

When Mecke and Andy arrived later in the day, Mecke was visibly pissed at me. It was pretty much the dumbest thing I could have done at the worst time.

I have no excuse for myself. I felt like going at my own pace, so I did.

The mood around the camp felt a little bit like that scene at the start of Saving Private Ryan when they’re in the landing barge waiting to be dumped out on Omaha beach. No one was about to be mowed down by bullets or vaporized by mortars, but the risks are nevertheless significant. We knew not everyone was going to reach the top. It was even possible that someone might die – it happens to about a dozen climbers a year. Everyone was quiet and focused.

As the days goes on, the climb becomes a more intensely personal experience until finally it’s happening entirely within your head. So we were all off fighting our own mental battles and no one had much to discuss.

A couple people had already been hit with mountain sickness and were on their way down. The signs are blue lips, lack of coordination, and poor judgment. The first symptom I can deal with, but those other two are not things you want happening in this type of endeavor. So another facet of the mental battle is constantly evaluating the sharpness of your faculties – the very same faculties you’re using to evaluate your sharpness.

It’s tricky.

The camp looks out across the bald plains at Mawenzi peak, a slightly lower but far more scenic summit than our destination, Uhuru peak. As the sun went down, Andy and I photographed it obsessively. I can’t settle on which picture is the best, so here’s a bunch that look exactly the same.

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The trail out of Kibo is obscured by rocks, so we couldn’t see much of what was ahead of us. All we knew was there would be a long, steep climb to a place called Gilman’s point, followed by a shorter, more level walk across the top of the mountain to the absolute summit of Uhuru.


Mecke came by and introduced us to Joseph. Joseph was an assistant guide who would be joining us for the final ascent. It was not explicitly stated, but the purpose of the assistant guide is to bring up the rear and watch for signs of mountain sickness, and also so they can split us up in case one of us has a medical emergency.

I was hoping for a massive dinner that would give me enough energy to make it through the next day. Instead we each got one bowl of stew. I finished the meal only slightly less hungry than when I started.

Kibo hut consists of a few tiny dorm rooms with 12 bunks in each. This is smart because crowding keeps the rooms much warmer. It might have been annoying to have to sleep in a tight cluster with so many strangers, but no one got much sleep anyway, so it didn’t really matter. We all stared at the ceiling for five hours, waiting anxiously for the door to creak open, signaling the start of the main event.

Day 5 – We Have Reached Cruising Altitude

There’s a very small window of time, just after dawn but before the morning clouds roll in, when it’s safe and warm enough to reach the summit. For this reason, the final ascent has to begin at the slightly less than ideal hour of midnight. With no electricity, we shuffled around in the dark, getting our gear on and wolfing down a plate of tea and crackers.

On Mecke’s instruction, I left the Timberland shoes I’ve been wearing since Day 1 and put on the uncomfortable boots I rented. Unfortunate but necessary.

Mecke, Joseph, Andy, and I gathered at the start of the trail, donned our silly head-mounted flashlights, and off we went in single file.

The next few hours don’t sit in my memory the way normal memories do. It’s dreamlike in the sense that time passed very strangely. If you spent a day in solitary confinement, time would move agonizingly slow, but afterwards it might seem to have happened in a short duration because there’d be no sensory experience to give you a reference point for time’s passing. It was sort of like that.

Please excuse the change in tense.

I look down, watch the feet in front of me, and try to replicate the movement and timing. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.

Don’t look up. Don’t think about how far you’ve gone. Shut your brain down. Just keep stepping.

This isn’t so bad. I can do this for a while. I’m just walking.

Step. Step. Step. Step.

I look up. This is steep. There’s a lot of blackness in front of me. How much time has passed? How long is this going to go on for? How much have I done? 10%? 20%? 2%? How are other people doing? I see little snakes of light further down the mountain. Everyone’s doing it. Just keep going. I’ll get there.

I’m tired. I didn’t get enough to eat. It’s getting steeper. I’m very cold.

Step. Step. Step. Step.

I can’t feel my toes or my fingers. That’s okay. Just a little bit numb. Keep on going.

I lost my balance. Stumbled a bit. When do we rest? It’s too cold to rest. We have to keep moving. But I’m so tired.

“How you doing, Matt?” It’s Andy.

“I’m okay. How about you?”

“Fine. This isn’t so bad.”


Too tired to talk. Concentrate on the steps. Don’t look up. Don’t look up.

I wonder what the stars look like?

…Oh my God.

I’ve seen star-filled skies in Micronesia where the billion shimmering points of the Milky Way galaxy stretch from one horizon to the other in a wide band. I laid on a hill in Mongolia and watched satellites pass overhead, visible to the naked eye. I sat on the deck of a ship deep in the Indian Ocean and saw constellations pop out of the blackness as clearly as they might have been for Greek astronomers. But I’ve never seen the full night sky look the way it does on Kilimanjaro, above the haze of the lower atmosphere, showing me exactly what forever looks like.

Not some postage stamp view out the window of a 737. The whole damn thing. IMAX. It never occurred to me. 20,000 feet above sea level, of course it’s going to be fantastic. But I can’t stop and look. I’ve got to keep walking. So beautiful but I can’t even stop to look.

We have to be close to halfway. How many hours have we been going? Is the sun rising yet? No. Nothing. When do we rest?

“When do we rest?”

“Almost to cave. We stop there. 3 minutes.”

Step. Step. Step. Step.

Almost to cave. Almost to cave. What is he talking about? This isn’t “almost” anything. We just keep going. I’m exhausted. I need to stop. No, I can’t stop. Everyone will freak out. Wait until Mecke calls a rest. We’re almost there.

Jesus God! Where is this fucking cave?

“Okay. Here is the cave. Stop for 3 minutes. No more.”

“I need more than 3 minutes, Mecke. I’m exhausted.”

“Can’t stop long. It’s very cold. Have to keep going to stay warm.”

The cave isn’t much of a cave. I drink some water. The bottle is frozen so I only get a sip. I open an energy bar. My hands aren’t working very well. I can’t hold the bar steady. It’s solid as a rock. I nearly chip a tooth trying to get the thing down.

“Okay. Time to go. Matthew.”


“How are you?”

“I’m good. Just a second.”

Shit. I can’t do this. I can’t get up. Maybe I can stall them.

“How about a picture?”

I try to hold it steady and convince my fingers to push the button.


Andy’s having a great time. He’s laughing and smiling. Goddam Frodo Baggins.

I get up and see a sign marking 16,000 feet. We’ve gone less than 800 with 2400 more to go until Gilman’s Point, and then another hour and a half to Uhuru, and then all the way back down.

I can’t do this. I’m going to die here.

Only a few steps past the cave and already I’m exhausted again. My feet are really gone now. Frozen stumps. We’re only a quarter of the way and I’ve got nothing left. I keep going as long as I can and then I collapse on a rock.


Get it together. If you’re response isn’t clear and alert, they’ll take you down to camp.


“How are you?”

“I’m okay. I just need a minute.”

I get up and carry on. I’m instantly exhausted again. Stopping just makes me colder, but I can’t walk straight anymore. I’m tripping and stumbling all over the place. They can see it too. I collapse on another rock.

This is not my proudest moment.


“I just need a minute!”

“No stopping! You will get cold.”

“I’m already cold.”



This happens again and again. It gets so every time we pass a rock, I feel the eyes on me waiting for me to fall. And I do.



“How are you?”

“I feel dizzy.”


“Lightheaded. Like I’m gonna be –“

And then I am. Eight times. Until there’s nothing left in my stomach.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If I had any idea, I never would’ve considered it. I think I am going to die.

There’s vomit everywhere. I’m shaking. I can barely stand. This is altitude sickness.

Joseph puts his hand on my shoulder, leans in close and whispers, “You are stronger than you know.”

…And I realize he’s right. And I realize there are angels.

Turning back means walking down everything I just walked up. It’s a known quantity that I can’t bear to think about. The other direction, up, at least that’s still blackness and I don’t know exactly how bad it will be. I’m obviously not thinking clearly, but it seems like a better option. I’m not thinking clearly because I don’t have enough oxygen in my brain and I’m choking on carbon dioxide.

“I’m going to continue, but I don’t want to slow Andy down. If Joseph can stay with me, I’ll keep going.”

“I will stay with you,” Mecke says. “Joseph, go with Andy.”

They head off. It’s just me and Mecke now. Long way to go.

I moan and wail like a baby with each step. I collapse every fifty feet or so. Mecke looks worried. His training is to grab me by the armpit and haul me back to Kibo hut as quickly as he can without killing me, but he’s not doing that.



“How are you?”

“I’m okay!”

I’m not okay. For the last hour I’ve been ignoring a pressing abdominal emergency and it’s getting worse. I’m on a 40 degree incline, I can’t feel my extremities, and I can’t stop shaking. I’m not currently capable of a much-needed number 2. There is a looming possibility that I might reach the summit under very unpleasant circumstances. This is difficult to come to terms with.

I explain the situation to Mecke. “I have medicine,” I tell him. “It’s in my bag.”

“Give me your bag.”

I pass it to him and he holds it while I work on the zipper. I take my glove off and it’s hard just to close my thumb and forefinger together and pull it open. He shines his light in the bag. I have a packet of Immodium, but it’s in one of those peel-back, child-proof foil packages. Peeling is another activity I’m not capable of at the moment.

But wait. There is another option. The travel doctor had me fill a prescription for Cipro, a stronger anti-diarrheal medicine that comes in a twist-cap bottle. I think maybe I can twist.

I hold the bottle in one hand and slowly close the other around the top. I twist. It opens. I tilt the bottle, my arm shaking terribly now, and hold my other hand under it to catch a pill. I’m like a junky in withdrawal. The pill falls in my hand. Up to my mouth. Swallow. Okay.

Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but inside a minute the problem is gone – or at least delayed. Onward Christian soldier.

A little bit farther and we hear screaming from up ahead. Rooster sounds, like a hillbilly who just won a pie-eating contest. I don’t know what it means, so I keep going.

We’re not walking up a slope anymore. We’re climbing rocks. It’s hard pulling myself up, but better because I have things to lean on. And because I know it means we’re close.

Very close.


There’s a huddle of people on the jagged rocks around the sign. No one is in very good shape. Andy’s not here.



“Can you continue?”

I look out and see the first thin slice of the sun peeking over the horizon.

I get a telegram from my body.




“Can you continue?”

I don’t think about the months of training. I don’t think about how it’ll feel to go down in failure. I don’t think about the very real damage I’m doing to my feet letting them stay frozen for this long. I just look at the sun coming up. This is not a courageous moment.

“Let’s go!”

I can’t believe what I just heard. Did I say that? I must have. Mecke is walking away from me now. I follow him.

Everyone complains about how you can’t appreciate the view from the top of Kilimanjaro. It’s true. By the time you get there, you’re appreciation receptors have shut down completely. You’re in survival mode. This did nothing for me.


Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano. We walk along the rim of its massive crater. I try not to think about what would happen if I slipped.

The air is thin, but I’m walking on level ground and it’s getting warmer. I can see the summit in the distance. And I can see Andy walking towards me.


We hug and I’m freaking holding back tears.


That was him screaming like a rooster from Gilman’s Point. He figured I’d turned back and he couldn’t wait any longer, so he went on by himself. We’re very happy to see each other.

The summit is only a little way’s off, but he’s been up for a long time now and has to start moving down. We say goodbye and Mecke and I keep going.

We make it. And here is what I think: I didn’t get myself to the top of this mountain. Mecke, anti-diarrheal medication, and the Rocky theme music got me to the top of this mountain.

Everyone wants their picture taken in front of the sign. People tend to linger there, which is understandable. But waiting in line isn’t fun.

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After that, I tackle the essential task of doing a clip for the dancing video. For all Mecke’s virtuous qualities, he’s not the best cameraman in the world and he has some trouble operating the device.

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I decide the sign isn’t working and if I make myself a smaller target, he’ll have a better chance of keeping me in frame.


We walk back to Gilman’s victorious. The sun is almost making things pleasant.


Looking down, I suddenly realize why they make us do the climb in the dark of night. If we could see what was ahead of us, no one would ever make it.


Even in daylight, the walk is treacherous. It’s steep downhill with no breaks. To get us back faster, Mecke breaks from the zigzag path and plows a new trail straight down the mountain. It’s essentially skiing in shoes. We move quickly, but I slip and fall several times. The wrong landing can do 800 kinds of damage to my knees and ankles. I’m lucky.

Another guy in front of me falls and hurts himself pretty bad.


The snow starts to clear up and I can see Kibo hut in the distance.


After nine straight hours of pain, I make it back to the hut. Andy takes this the moment I sit down. I don’t look good.


Andy is in slightly better shape.


He is the man of steel.

They feed us lunch, but we have to eat quickly. It’s not over yet. We still have to walk to the next hut a couple hours away.

I put my Timberlands back on.

I’m feeling much better by this point. Halfway to the next hut, Mecke calls for a rest. I moan and wail as I collapse on a rock in a self-depricating mockery of my earlier performance. Mecke and Joseph find this hilarious and I feel a little bit less pathetic for acknowledging how much of a crybaby I am.


We walk some more and then we’re done.

Distance: 17.2 kilometers
Altitude Change: +1188 meters, -2171 meters
Walking Time: 11 hours 30 minutes
Average Pulse: 137
Summit: 5891 meters
Final Altitude: 3720 meters

We check into our hut and I take a look at my feet, which I haven’t heard from since about 1am last night. I can move them, but there’s no feeling at all.


I don’t really know what to make of the situation, but I don’t care. I’m alive and I’m done and I’m ready to sleep.


We share our room with a chain-smoking German and a guy from Iceland.

I have nothing against smokers in general, but you folks have got to accept that your habit puts certain limitations on your body and smoking and mountain-climbing is kind of an either-or proposition. Not to mention cigarette butts aren’t really an attractive landscape feature – especially in a national park.

The Icelandic guy is a water maniac. He bought several gallons of it before the climb and paid an extra porter to carry it up for him. I’m unclear on the benefits of this decision, but he seems pretty proud of himself.

In the middle of the night, the German smoker guy jumps out of his bed and screams at the top of his lungs:


He opens his eyes and realizes where he is, then lies down and goes back to sleep.

Andy and I don’t know what that was all about, but he is thenceforth dubbed Dr. Strangelove.

Day 6 – “Get Me Off This Goddam Rock!”

We now return to our regularly scheduled verb tense.

The last day is a blur. We were done. We left early in the morning and set a brisk pace. No more concerns about altitude or stamina. It was simply a matter of how quickly we could get back to our hotel to start eating, drinking, and lying in our warm, comfy beds.

Overnight I’d gotten feeling back in all my toes except the two big ones, which were still completely numb. It was like walking on peg legs – or at least peg toes – but while slightly worrisome, it didn’t slow me down at all.

Andy, for his part, had two bad knees that took even more abuse going downhill than they took going up. I can honestly say that aside from sufferers of autism and Aspberger’s syndrome, I’ve never known anyone with as absolutely ironclad of a will as Mr. Andrew Payne. Part of what makes him such a fantastic programmer is his intense ability to shut out all distractions and focus on his goal. I now realize this ability towers over athleticism as the most essential quality in climbing mountains. Andy can take pain levels that would render me into a sniveling panty-waist and tuck them away for later consideration.

He went down the mountain like a steam roller while I raced ahead like a frightened squirrel. I used the downward slope to maintain a controlled fall that gave me occasional bursts of speed, but inevitably I’d hear him coming up behind me at a constant velocity. In my head, I saw myself flattened into a pancake beneath his unwavering footfalls, so I kept moving in unbalanced leaps onto wet rocks, risking all sorts of injury to ankle and ass.

Towards the end we started passing groups that were just starting their climbs. Most of them just stared, the way I’d done a few days earlier – trying to read from my expression a little bit of what I’d been through. A couple people asked if we’d made it. It was clear from their tone what they wanted to hear: “No. It was too much for me. I was weak and unprepared. I will never attempt anything like this again.”

While all of this is true, I didn’t say it. Just smiled and nodded and wished them good luck.

Andy and I continued our steam roller game for the rest of the morning, stopping only once, very briefly, for food. Mecke kept pace with Andy, and when we got to the bottom he said it was the fastest he’d ever gone down the mountain.

Here’s Andy about three seconds after reaching the end of the trail.


Distance: 18.7 kilometers
Altitude Change: -1860 meters
Walking Time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Average Pulse: 152
Final Altitude: 1860 meters

We were super-early, so we waited around a couple hours at the base camp for our van to take us back to the hotel. Mecke presented us with certificates confirming we made it to the summit – which I’m sure will be essential in refuting the claims of all those player-haters out there. In return, we presented Mecke with all the tips.

Andy and I had spent a great deal of time discussing how much to tip. I’ve found that tipping is very stressful for Australians, even those who’ve lived in the states for years. It’s an unfamiliar custom that makes no sense to them but they feel obligated to do it properly – sort of like high fives for me. Keeping in mind the unsubtle recommendations of the tour company, we settled on $40 for Mecke, $15 for Joseph, and $15 for each of the three porters. Mecke was satisfied with what we gave him and the porters, but he made it clear that Joseph had to be paid more than the regular porters. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Joseph was standing right next to him at the time.

Andy recoiled in shame, having failed to satisfy with an amount we’d put a lot of thought into. We stepped back and he turned to me, intensely concerned, wondering what happens now. I reached in my bag and handed Mecke another $5. Mecke nodded. Problem solved.

We got back to the hotel and limped into our beds. Andy was the first to make it back on his feet and claim the shower. I crawled to the bar and ordered two double shots of Amarula, a Jack Daniels and coke, a Kilimanjaro beer, and some dried noodle twisty things. When we were both cleaned up, we ate, drank, and watched a whole lot of Freaks and Geeks on my laptop.

The next morning, Andy took off for Mombasa, then London, Paris, Romania, Los Angeles, and back home to Australia.

I am left here with three weeks before my flight out of Nairobi and no real plan. I’m feeling kind of lazy. I think I’ll stay in bed a while.

September 23, 2004

Moshi, Tanzania
The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done: Part 1

I hate throwing up.

The last time I vomited was Ms. Blumhart’s freshman English class. Some sort of puberty thing. Spotty vision in my right eye followed by a migraine headache and then a grand finale in the school nurse’s toilet. No illness, alcohol, or miscellaneous indiscretion has brought me so low since.

I’ve had a run of past relationships in which the female involved afforded vomiting the same gravity I place on a sneeze. I’ve always been horrified by this. Some women can just get up from a table, barf, and sit back down as if it wasn’t worth mentioning.

Me, I fight it to the bitter end.

So keep my stance on regurgitational abstinence in mind when I get to the part where it’s 3am, 17,000 feet above sea level in below zero temperature on the impossibly steep edge of an equatorial volcano and I’m collapsed against a boulder, puking my goddam guts out.

A week earlier and one country over, David and Sangeeta took Andy and me out to a fancy Italian restaurant for our last supper before leaving for Tanzania. I had Penne a la Vodka. I’m dumbfounded at the standard of living possible via the secret network of expat institutions in Mombasa. On the surface, the city is emblematic of every other turbid, third world sweatbox I’ve been to. But there’s a whole other layer. You’d never know these places exist, and I’m wondering if every city of its kind has some equivalent.

David had just gotten back from a World Heritage conference in Paris and he was nice enough to pick me up a brand-spanking-new camera to replace the one I destroyed. So I’m back in the saddle and I no longer have to rely on my miserable descriptive abilities.

David also loaned me a stack of warm mountain-climbing clothes.

In case I haven’t mentioned it enough times, David and Sangeeta are really really nice people.

I discovered a pretty serious problem as I was packing; after climbing Longonot, I’d left my hiking boots in the mission back in Nairobi. I’ve since confirmed that they’re in safe keeping and waiting for me to pick them up, but it meant I had only my Timberland walking shoes to take to Kilimanjaro. This was not a dealbreaker of a screw-up, but it ultimately caused me some pretty serious problems.

Andy and I crossed into Tanzania the following afternoon. The bus manifest at the border crossing had an Occupation field for each passenger. One particularly self-aware traveler listed his career as “Peasant.” I’ve never felt good about putting “Writer” down, so I’ve decided to switch to this more humble alternative.

Weeks after the border crossing, I heard a story that chilled me to the bone. Another guy from Seattle -- an acquaintance of several people I know -- also took a trip to Africa, also arranged to climb Kilimanjaro, and also took this road to reach the mountain. He was in a van with seven other travelers and three Tanzanians. A truck was going in the opposite direction. It hit four donkeys and fled from the scene at top speed. Seconds later the two vehicles met, the truck lost control, veered across the road, collided with the van. Everyone died.

We passed a village in which all the goats had a foot cut off to keep them from straying.

The bus dumped us off in a town called Moshi. The differences between Mombasa and Moshi were immediately apparent; prices halved, streets cleaned, yards tended. But beneath all that, there seems to actually be some plan behind the town -- like some organizational body said “Hey, let’s have a central garden with a clock tower in it, and maybe some main roads that are wider than the side roads and lead in straight lines to important points of interest. We can put up signs, so people will know what the roads are called. This is going to be the best town ever!”

Before I go any further, let me get a couple Moshi kid photos out of the way.

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The hotel came as part of our package with the tour company and was much more than either of us expected; the key features being a pool and a fully stocked bar with dollar beers and spirits. It was a great place to take our final showers, feast, and relax before beginning the ascent. It was also completely empty but for one other couple.

It was clear from the map that our hotel was within a few miles of Mount Kilimanjaro. But after scanning the horizon in all directions throughout the afternoon, neither of us could find the slightest visual indication of its presence. It was lurking somewhere beyond the perennial mists of Moshi. This did not aid us as we mentally prepared ourselves to climb it.

The briefing over dinner went smoothly until we hit a snag over payment. It’s tedious to recount, but bear with me: they expected both of us to pay for the climb in cash -- US dollars. This wasn’t mentioned ahead of time, and in fact they required a 20% deposit by credit card to secure the reservation. That turned out to be a hollow claim. Credit cards are scarcely used in Tanzania and clearing a payment is evidently a great ordeal that takes several months. To make things more frustrating, no bank in Moshi will cover the withdrawal of US dollars. The tour company expected us to both be carrying over $800 in cash, though they’d never actually mentioned it.

We talked to the owner of Shah Tours: a guy named Shah. He was of Indian descent, and a strong adherent to the sales philosophy common in his native land: “The customer is always wrong and should be punished at length for crimes that needn’t be specified.”

We went in circles for a while and at long last were just trying to get the guy to admit they should mention the cash thing on their web site. He wouldn’t do it. He absolutely refused to give in on that detail; maintaining that we should have researched the policies of Tanzanian banks with regard to credit card transactions before arrival. We stood up to leave and said we were going to find another tour company and write Lonely Planet to tell them what a disorganized mess his company was. He shrugged and mutteringly conceded that maybe someone should look into the wording on the site. This sudden change of heart reverted the moment we sat back down. At any rate, we resolved that we would eat the additional 7% bank charge for a credit card payment in exchange for his half-assed admission of incompetence.

And that was the end of that.

Day 1 - “Pole Pole!”

Before leaving the hotel, I rented most of the gear I lacked: a sleeping bag, warm gloves, and a pair of almost-sort-of-close-to-fitting mountain boots. They weren’t top of the line, but they were the best I could do.

A van took us to the base of the mountain, where some additional rental gear was thrown at me: two metal walking poles, a headlamp for the final ascent, and a baklava. It’s actually a balaclava, but I much prefer saying baklava. Really it’s just a ski mask, though no one outside the US seems familiar with that term.

We met our guide, Mecke. The spelling on that changes with the wind, but Mecke is pretty close to the pronunciation.


We were also supplied with three porters. Porters are a very interesting subject and I will talk at length about them later. These guys have the thankless job of lugging all our food and cookery as well as up to 15 kg (33 lbs) of our luggage. All we have to carry is what we want on hand during the day. The porters leave well ahead of us and practically sprint to the next campsite with crushing loads balanced effortlessly on their heads.

"We don't even have to carry our own stuff?" says the fool. "What have I been training for?" says the fool. "This is going to be easy!"...says the fool.

With all preparations made, we were off.


The first thing Mecke tells us is to go “Pole pole,” which is Kiswahili for slowly. This is also the main piece of advice in every bit of literature I’ve read about Kilimanjaro. Climbers feel overconfident, walk briskly, and get nailed by altitude sickness. Mecke set a deliberate, mechanical pace that, try as I might, I just couldn’t stick to. I get lost in my thoughts and let my feet take me. Andy, meanwhile, was Mecke’s perfect shadow, watching every step and falling into his rhythm.

This is a theme that will continue: Andy the able and considered, Matt the dimwitted jackass.


I tried wearing the boots I’d rented, but it wasn’t going well. They didn’t bend at all with my movements, so with every step little bits of dirt and pebbles would fly up and get lodged above my heel between sock and boot. I folded my socks over the rim of the boots to stop this from happening, but that just made the same stuff get lodged between sock and foot.


Fortunately, I’d brought the Timberland shoes in my day pack, so I swapped them in and they carried me along just fine.

We passed a steady stream of climbers going in the opposite direction. You can’t help but stare -- these people were on their way down from the summit. What had they been through? Did they make it or were they retreating in shame? I was tempted to ask, but I realized the only answer I wanted to hear was “No.” I wanted to maintain my feeble illusion of exploration and conquest, despite the well-trodden path and the hundred or more climbers coming down from the top each day.

The path wound on through lush green forest for several hours, at points intersecting with the straight, wide dirt road the porters run back and forth along.


In time it got colder, the trees a bit sparser and lower.

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By early afternoon we reached Mandara, the first camp.


Distance: 7 kilometers
Altitude Change: +914 meters
Walking Time: 3 hours
Average Pulse: 126 bpm
Final Altitude: 2774 meters

I’m sticking the average pulse in there cause I was wearing my little heart monitor thing.


It was a handy way of knowing how hard I was working -- in case I couldn’t tell from the sweat and blisters and whatnot.

I should mention we were climbing the Marangu route; the oldest and easiest of the half dozen or so different ways to the top. It’s referred to as the Coca-Cola route, presumably because it’s common, uninteresting, and makes your teeth fuzzy. Andy and I agreed early in the planning that we didn’t want to take any chances about getting to the top. With little idea what we were getting ourselves into and not much experience, I think we made the right choice.


On this first night, less than halfway to the top, I already started feeling the effects of altitude; a light walk from our cabin to the meal hut and I’d have to pause for a deep breath. This was a serious concern. Fortunately, Andy and I both had our bottles of acetozolamide, the standard medication for preventing and treating altitude sickness. Altitude sickness works something like this: you’re not getting enough oxygen so you breathe more. This causes an increased carbon dioxide intake, which messes up your brain and triggers all sorts of problems. Acetozolamide shuts off the enzyme that prevents carbon from leaving your body, hence you pee it all out, problem solved.


It also makes you pee more in general, so you’ve gotta watch out for dehydration. The drug doesn’t work on everybody and there seems to be some strange voodoo magic behind the whole process that makes doctors kind of shrug and confess they have no idea what’s going on. But it works in enough cases that they prescribe it and wish you luck.

It worked for me. I took one dose at the start of the walk and a second that night. By morning I felt like I was at sea level.

Day 2 - A Walk in the Clouds

At dawn the next morning, I got a chance to watch the porters gearing up.


It struck me that as things go in Tanzania, these guys really have it pretty good. Lugging crap up mountains may not seem like a fun job -- Sisyphean in the most literal sense -- but look on the bright side:

- they’re getting paid
- they’re getting tipped by rich westerners
- they’re able to talk and joke and laugh with their friends all day
- they’re outside, breathing fresh air
- they’re in Herculean shape

This last perk is probably the most naïve and culturally impaired on my part. Staying fit isn’t much of an achievement in this neck of the woods. It’s just something that happens. Nevertheless, it’s true that these guys are fending off the slow decay that neglect will soon wreak on my body. For proof I look no further than Mecke, in his mid-forties and still able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

We left camp after breakfast and ere long found ourselves passing through a patch of low-hanging clouds.


Ere a little longer, we got our first glimpse of the summit.

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“That’s not so bad,” says the fool. “We can do this, no problem,” says the fool. “We’ll be there before we know it.”...says the fool.

As the day went on, I found myself drifting in front of Mecke more and more. “Pole pole!” he warned at regular intervals. But off I went.

I stopped to rest for a while and wait for Mecke and Andy. One of the porters took an interest and invited me to continue on with him.

The porter was named George. George spoke excellent English. His friend was Yaphet. Yaphet didn’t speak a word.


It’s a fairly reliable thing among Tanzanians that if they have western names, they know English and are at least nominally Christian; the legacy of countless toiling missionary workers. Christians in East Africa generally assume that I’m Christian as well, and I’ve learned not to disappoint.

This was only George’s third ascent up Kilimanjaro. He was just starting out as a porter, and took every opportunity to speak with whitey in the hopes that it would help him become a guide. Guides are the only ones who make any real money, I learned, and it’s very difficult to achieve that rank. All sorts of training is required, which the candidates must pay for themselves out of the pocket change they earn as porters. It takes many many years, and only a small percentage are ever able to pull it off.

George asked how much Americans make. This is always an awkward subject, but I’ve come to realize it’s a lot more awkward for me than for the person asking, so I just get straight into it. It’s no mystery that Americans have lots of money, they just want to hear firsthand how thoroughly they’re being screwed, and I feel everyone has a right to know how screwed they are.

Converting from US dollars to Tanzanian Shillings is easy. You just multiply by 1000. So the $140 million paid to Mike Ovitz for getting fired from Disney becomes 140 billion Tsh, or about 1% of Tanzania’s GDP.

To put it in more practical terms, the average American household makes roughly 100 times what a Tanzanian family brings in. We spend 100 times as much for a meal, 100 times as much for housing, and 100,000,000 times as much on erectile dysfunction.

George, Yaphet and I trudged on through what had become, to me, a medieval fantasy; the soft low brush cut through by a sturdy path that...oh, nevermind -- just look at the picture.


We passed a group of a dozen British men, grunting and moaning between lame jokes as they slowly plodded along. We passed an Asian chain gang, at least thirty in number and packed together so tight they looked like one of those dragons in Chinese New Years parades. And we passed a steady stream of porters, smiling, laughing, and singing along to reggae music under their backbreaking loads.


All at once, the fog we’d been walking through went away. On a flat, open hillside, I could see that we’d risen above the first could layer.


And not long after that, the second campsite came into view.


Distance: 11.7 kilometers
Altitude Change: +946 meters
Walking Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Average Pulse: 131 bpm
Final Altitude: 3720 meters

I checked in, went to our hut, dropped my bag, then found a nice place to sit and stare off at the world’s most scenic outhouse.


Day 3 - A Day of Rest

It is strongly recommended that climbers pay an extra $120 for a day of rest around the halfway point. This gives your body more time to adjust to the altitude, and reduces the chances of mountain sickness further up. We opted to do this, and we faithfully took our acetozolamide pills. Both these things, I think, helped a great deal.

So we had a day to kill. Sangeeta had taught Andy and I how to play a very old game of Arabian origin called mbao (or mbau, or just bao, which in any case translates simply as “board”). There are dozens of variations with lots of different names. Odds are you’ve come across one of them at some point. The board consists of a bunch of little bowls with even littler seeds piled inside. You move the seeds around your side of the board, eliminating your opponent’s seeds with each move until, ideally, they run out first.

One of the game’s enduring charms is that the materials for playing aren’t that hard to come by. Resourceful lads that we are, Andy and I put together our own mbao board out of twigs and pebbles.


That accounted for most of the day right there.

Our campsite was surrounded by some of the strangest flora I’d ever seen; clusters of tubular stalks with bristly green lumps on top.


Having a man with a degree in botany on hand, I asked Andy to identify this strange species. He dubbed it the “Alien Penis Plant.”

Lunch, like all our meals, was sustaining yet depressing.


Food was where the difference between what we paid and what most other climbers paid became clear. We’d sit down in the meal hut with people eating spaghetti and meatballs, breaded chicken on beds of pasta, and other such hearty fare. Meanwhile we got meal after meal of rice with a bowl of thin curry sauce and sparse hunks of knotty beef.

It really wasn’t all that bad. Andy strongly disagreed with my assessment of the food quality. And to keep things in perspective, the food was being cooked for us, served to us, and we were waited on the whole time by one of our porters. It was in many ways luxurious, given the circumstances. But with the amount of energy we were burning, I could’ve really gone for some of that pasta.

...I shouldn’t complain. I lost a ton of weight.

In the afternoon, Mecke offered to take us on a short side excursion to Zebra Rocks. It was an hour’s walk, and a pleasant way to break the monotony. I opted to go. Andy decided to stay at the camp.


Striped rocks. Whoop dee doo!

Andy didn’t miss much, but it was a nice walk.

Distance: 7 kilometers
Altitude Change: 0 meters
Walking Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Average Pulse: 146
Final Altitude: 3720 meters

You get your water each day at the camp. Most people buy it bottled for a couple dollars -- an extremely reasonable price considering it has to be hauled on foot. Or, for free, you can get the parasite and bacteria-ridden water that the porters boil before drinking.

Everyone brings along water purification tablets in case of emergency. Feeling cheap, and somewhat curious, I decided to get some of the boiled water and try it out. The first tablet is iodine, which turns it into brown swamp water and kills everything. After a couple minutes you drop in a second tablet that makes it crystal clear. It was as delicious as water can be, and way better than the bottled stuff.

I don’t know much about industrialized water purification, but I imagine there isn’t much more to it than what I was doing.

At dinner we met a German guy who was coming down from the summit. He was a talker, not much of a listener. He went on about all the amazing things he had done, and how we MUST go to Uganda to raft in the class 5 rapids.

He told us how he deliberately flipped his raft over, dumping him and everyone else into the water. He said it was really fun. He was one of those guys who uses the word “fun” as a threat.

He started complaining about his porters, who had refused to carry his walking poles during the final ascent. Incidentally, his walking poles weren’t actually walking poles. To save money, he’d been using sticks.

He announced that he wasn’t going to tip his porters because of their unforgivable snub. And in the calm, hushed tones that come so naturally to Germans, he announced it for everyone in the hut to hear.

The porters caught wind of it and they weren’t very happy. Shortly after the meal, they confronted him. With a day of hiking still ahead, he confirmed that he would not be tipping them. Part of his justification was that he is German and Germans don’t tip. The cultural distinction was lost on his audience. They dropped his bag and left him where he stood.

There were a lot of Germans on the mountain. I’d say almost half the climbers. It struck me as odd that there was such a disproportionately high number, so I started asking around. The best explanation I got was from a Dutch woman, who said “Germans just really like mountains.”

This got me thinking about the whole phenomenon of mountain climbing. Why do people do it? For all practical purposes, it’s pointless. The best reason anyone has come up with so far is Edmund Hillary’s famous: “Because it’s there,” and that statement is appealing more for its quotable brevity than anything else.

The act itself is inherently grueling and punishing. Take out the getting-to-the-top part, and it’s about as fun as chemotherapy. My theory is that Germans are attracted to mountain climbing because it mixes grand achievement with relentless suffering and self-abuse.

...also, there are a lot of mountains in Germany.

After dinner, Andy and I tried on our maximum-warmth gear for the final ascent.


We looked like members of Hamas.

As the sun went down, I looked toward the summit in a dramatic pose. There happened to be a camera nearby.


Okay, I’m breaking this entry in half. It’s too damn long and the trauma of recounting the days that followed have brought on several months of writer’s block. Stay tuned for the sequel.