This is not a story of extraordinary feats or victorious conquests. it is just a story about one really tall woman from Mwanza, and the way she feeds all her neighbors and their children (and daylights as the domestic heroine of my life and home).
MAY is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers.
- The Wasteland, Edgar Allen Poe.
The second day of climbing eventuated in the helpless abandon of lush jungle hair in favour of a landscape more reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe's wasteland. Sticks and twigs resembled crippled knuckles and witches fingers. Trees grew into massive pitchforks and exploded into fists of aloe leaves. At ten foot tall they were doomed to death, according to our commander.
I made conversation with Whitey this day, intrigued by the 100-times-up-the-mountain-and-lost-count virtuoso. This job was his dream since he was 12 years old. He climbed for the first time when he was 18, without his parents blessing, and without a proper pair of socks. He didn’t have the money to make the trek as a tourist so he had to get a job as a porter to fulfill his ambitions. He froze and ached all the way to Uhuru with somebody else’s luggage and likely and ORYX can on his back. I wheezed under a 2 pound North Face backpack as he told me the stories of his strength and courage, and shrunk a little in my back straps. I wasn’t sure if it was an African thing or if he was just a much stronger human than I.
It was probably both.
Whitey’s not sure what his next dream will be, but he says he’s certain it will come.
I tend to think he’s right.
* * *
When we reached the last resting point that day, we could see our cabin hoisted above the rolling hills and valleys. It was perched atop massive, jagged red rock. It looked as if a transformer had ejected itself from the canyons to dominate them in the shadow of Uhuru's icy peak.
That night at mess hall I drank black tea with honey as bold rats with stripes like chipmunks played Russian Roulette across the floor. I couldn’t count how many there were, but enough to say a lot.
I tried to write some things in my green notebook but my pen stopped up and my fingers were themselves too frozen to defrost the ink. Commander Ernest took it in his palms and rolled it around softly, alternatively shaking it slowly.
“It’s too cold,” he said with ease.
I retired, thinking again of the hybrid rats. I hoped there were none in the V-shaped cabins where we spent the night in beds carved into the floorboards. Either way, I would have been to cold to fight them off, so I bundled in my fleece and cradled like a baby zipped in a parka.
Mr. Ernest and Mr. Whitey, our guides to the peak, addressed me as Commander Jody. I liked the sound of it, so I made sure the students overheard.
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.
sunflowers in a cornfield.
yellow-headed, flat-faced sunnies don't seem frightened by corn-stalk zombies.
a whole army of corn soldiers stand haunted and still behind naive and smiling prey.
an african boy in royal violet track-pants with a canary-yellow racing stripe looks up at a sunflower with big petal ears staring stupidly at stretched ribbon arms sprouting from the stiff skeleton of an advancing corn tree.
the hands of the corn husk lurch forward, frozen but sailing.
it is about to strangle the head of the dumb-happy wildflower.
such a big yellow head would pop right off,
and thud onto the mud ground, at the feet of the boys athletic pants;
his yellow racing strip bleeding for the murdered sunny.
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"I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have" - Shooting An Elephant, George Orwell.
. . . A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.
Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand; Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.
- Crossing the Water, Sylvia Plath
We followed our Dive Master in nervous proximity. He was a Spanish blond with sticky long hair who rolled his own cigarettes and shaved his whiskers at sea to prevent water from leaking into his mask mid-dive. He was an under-water rebel of paradoxical wisdom and responsibility. I was so hurting for him I wondered how my heart didn't inflate with such zeal that it ballooned me straight to the surface of the sea.
Needless to say, my bubbles followed his.
When we hit 30 minutes underwater we rested our knees on the sand in a cluster of rubber suits and deflated buoyancy vests. One by one we turned off our torches.
When we were surrounded by heavy darkness too thick to see our own hands, we began to stream our fingers through the black salty sea water.
Plankton, by the millions it seemed, lit up as we ruffled them swimming by. In the most deliciously romantic and indulgent way, they danced like fireflies around our flapping arms.
Each of us made butterfly, conductor and kung fu patterns in the sea and I felt our breathing slow to sighs.
I felt like an underwater astronaut; knees on the moon and sea stars reflecting in my rubber goggles.
The dive master began to yip and howl like a cowboy in the distance; his cheers gurgled through his regulator and echoed through the silence of the dive.
We concluded our starry-eyed pow-wow after ten minutes worth of dancing, and streams of light neutralized the plankton’s glow as we turned our torches back on.
White eels and shiny octopi crawled out of their holes and slithered through black and violet urchins.
It was goodnight for me and the cowboy seal. He retired in his aura of mystery and yellow hair.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.