They gave us a pep talk as we wound up and around wicked hills on the way to the Kilimanjaro National Park entrance; “it’s not a joke” and “it will be memory-ble for the rest of your life,” were among their most determined councils.
They spoke of the importance of the mountain spirit and I was so excited to hear of such a spirit that I could feel my heart beating in my heels.
We passed buses with names like “Islam” and “Love Boat”. Our driver was a heavy African lady with a smart weave and a rasta cap. The background of her phone featured a picture of Jesus Christ with a Molly Shannon haircut. I wondered if that was reserved only for Sundays, as today was.
That day we climbed through the dense jungles of Tanzania which I had not known to exist. Trees sunk from heaven, reaching down to stones clobbered by moss. The vines were such that I thought about Tarzan for a few of the 6 hours we walked that day.
“Pole Pole, Commander Jody,” Ernest said when I walked too fast. Many times I heard him give such a gentle reproof along the way.
When I needed some motivation, Handsome Furs drown out the soundtrack of the jungle; a constant rushing waterfall in the distance and birds in a good mood.
When we arrived at the mess hall of the first cabins, we were all relieved. My back was sweaty from my day-pack, but the mountain chill obtrusively blew my t-shirt stiff and cold. I winced, as I would with increasing zeal many times more.
In the dining hall we drank Milo, Australian hot chocolate, out of tin cups so cold they turned our knuckles blue. Hot water from thermos slowly melted the tin, and then the tin slowly melted my palms.
When I felt my warmest, I made for the sleeping quarters, a cement flat with three rooms, reminiscent of an African hospital and fitted with iron bunk beds and thin mattresses. The girls took the room furthest left, and the boys stayed a room apart, to the right.
In the night, I ached to pee; filled with now-chilled Milo and the effect of the altitude tablets, I couldn’t bear the hurt.
I crawled out of my sleeping bag and made for the outside of the cement walls.
My skin picked in such an unpleasant way as I downed my pants and crouched out of the shadow of the porch light. The cold was unbearable.
I tried to go as fast as I could. It wasn’t fast enough. A voice on the porch whispered.
Oh my G.O.D. I looked up from my compromised position. It was Kumayl, a small Grade 7 boy, looking down on me from the raised doorway.
“I’m peeeeing!” I whispered with such desperation that I felt my lungs deflate.
“I have to go too!” he replied.
I clutched my white bum and stared up at him with the dog-eyes of a girl in shame, “Well, don’t come here!!”
I think he finally awoke from what stupor he was in and probably disappeared around the opposite corner, though was so jilted I couldn’t tell you for sure.
By the time I returned to my sleeping bag my heart was galloping at a speed unmatched and with such strength that I could see the puffy exterior of my blanked thudding up and down, up and down. I couldn’t breath; my heart was swimming in my neck and a blazing tide was rushing below the skin of my belly. The altitude was hitting me hard now, hot on the trail of my nervous breakdown sans pants. I concentrated to regain my breath and laid still for a minute.
When I calmed, I rested- violently and uncomfortably, just caught in that layer between sleep and consciousness, where you are taken by dreams and mind-tricks too strange to escape to reality or sleep from. I turned over. My forehead smacked the cold cement wall.
I would have taken twice that beating to save myself the shame of being seen my Grade 7 student with my underwear dropped around my cold, blue ankles.