I am forever thankful to Mt. Kilimanjaro for the fact that I finally have something to contribute to “what’s one fun fact about yourself” round-tables. The above question always follows, and the answer is always a resounding: YUP.
Let’s rewind a few steps. WHY did I climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? Wow, great question. I climbed in support of Flying Kites, an academy in rural Kenya where critically-poor students receive access to a competitive education, characterized by small classrooms, progressive course material, integrative care, and inspired teachers. After connecting with Leila, FK founder and complete girl boss, my friends Eliza, Emily, Becky, & I knew this was something we had to do. Just a few short months (and several “are we really doing this” text messages) later, we were on our way.
Prior to this trip, the only true poverty I had experienced was the cab rides from airports to resorts in various “tropical” locations. I was never naive to the fact that that contrast wasn’t something to be ignored, but still I have never seen anything like the 2 hour drive from Nairobi (where we landed and spent our first night), to Njabini. For the first time, the culture shock was REALLY REAL and only about to get more intense the more we were immersed in the culture itself. I can’t put it into words, and it wouldn’t be fair to the people for me to try. The landscape, though…it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been.
Despite the sadness of the drive, the second we arrived on the Flying Kites campus, I felt immediately welcome. When I say immediate, I mean a group of the children were standing at the gate playing make-shift instruments and singing to us. They handed us fresh towels and the most delicious lemonade I’ve ever tasted, then immediately took our hands for a tour around their home. I’ll take this over the check-in lines at resorts any day. After the tour we sat in a circle and got to chatting. These children ranged in age from about 5-16 and each one of them was immensely interested in learning about us…as if we were the ones with a wealth of knowledge to share. Their smiles and shy laughter are something I hope I never forget. That night we had the first of many “family meetings”. These nightly meetings discuss the happenings of the day in the form of “high, low, hope”. Every child (and visitor) takes their turn saying what the high point of their day was, what the low point was, and what their hope for tomorrow is. I could go on and on about the stories I heard about the circumstances Flying Kites took these children out of, and let’s just say the average American wouldn’t be citing “my friend Peter has a bad cough” as their low point if they were in the same shoes. A lot of these children didn’t even have matching shoes, so that phrase feels a bit out of place there. You get it, right? Edwin, the FK social worker, told me that the Kenyan government classifies poverty as anything less than $1/day in income. That fact still stuns me today.
The next few days with these children were magical. We visited their classrooms, ate every meal with them, played soccer, jumprope, volleyball, had a Kick It class (which they LOVED) and just talked. We toured their new dorm building which is now open, and I watched as one of the girls giving me the tour saw a shower for the first time in her life. She jumped for joy and shrieked. At the sight of a shower. Imagine? The biggest takeaway for me from my time with them is how genuinely happy they are despite their circumstances. Their love for their classmates, teachers, and everyone else at Flying Kites who has become their family, is truly amazing. Never once did I hear a complaint out of any of their mouths…even as us Americans struggled on the 45 minute walk to school while they sped ahead, some in one sandal/one sneaker combinations. It was always gratitude, excitement, and eventually “we’ll miss you”‘s when it was time to go. My tears in this moment were 75% sadness to leave them and 25% fear for what was to come…the mountain.
In the months leading up to the trip, I took sort of an “ignorance is bliss” approach to the whole thing. I did not train. I did not read tips. I did not even break in my hiking boots which was EXTREMELY stupid. Luckily those boots must have been made for my feet (shout-out to Ahnu) because I made it out of there with dry feet and not one blister. Unheard of. I picked up my cardio routine but other than that, I was extremely unprepared. For 5 days we went up. And up. And down a little bit to adjust to altitude. And up some more. We averaged about 7 hours of hiking each day, and each day the views were a little different. From rainforest on day 1, to desert like conditions that looked like Mars (btw I saw actual Mars at night…), to snow and ice – we saw it all on our sloooow climb.
For me, the days weren’t the hard part – it was the mental toughness involved in the nights. After a long day of walking we would arrive at our camp site, rest in our tents for a few minutes, and head to our group tent where we would sit and chat. Two things were guaranteed: you have no appetite, and you NEED to eat. This was a constant battle through nausea and flat out exhaustion, we had to get something in our systems. Sometimes the altitude would get to our heads and we would all break out in fits of uncontrollable laughter, followed by gasping for some thin air. These nights were tough for me mentally because it allowed time to think about everything we had ahead, and to miss the comforts of home. Then we’d head to our sleeping bags, stuffed with bottles of hot water and our clothes for the next day (if we weren’t already wearing them). I shared a tent with my friend Emily, who I am sure I could not have done the trip without. She is a yogi by nature and by practice, and her calming demeanor got me through some of the toughest moments – crying fits, panic attacks, need to pee in the middle of the night but it’s dark…you name it. The best part about the night time? The stars. I wish I could begin to describe them to you.
As we went up, the symptoms of the altitude began to kick in and affect all of us in different ways. It’s hard to explain how it felt for me…we were walking at a slow pace but I was breathing like I had just run miles. You try to avoid any unnecessary movement besides one foot in front of the other. The dinners in the group tent got a little quieter, but we needed each other more than ever. We spent a lot of time just sitting in each other’s company, knowing that was enough. We also got REAL sick of playing Uno! There were 11 of us in total – my group of 4 Boston gals, two new friends from Minnesota, 2 BU students, 1 17 year old boy (I know – he’s amazing.), 1 Kenyan who I could write an entire post on, and Mike – lucky husband of Leila and a true mountaineer AKA our lifesaver on the mental toughness – thank the lord. I’d do anything for any one of these humans. The altitude symptoms came to a head for me on the final trek to the top, which we did through the night starting at midnight. I’ve never had a headache like that one, and I wanted so badly to puke but knowing myself, forced myself not to because that would have been game over. I was running on empty and cold beyond belief. A few times I looked at Emily with tears in my eyes and she would grab my hand and say “don’t even think about it.” End of discussion.
Here’s a piece of my journal entry once we made it to the bottom:
“The whole way down I was trying to wrap my head around my mental state. Physically, I was shot. But mentally, I couldn’t figure it out. I knew I didn’t regret it at all, but I was feeling so crappy. It all finally came together for me the next day – yesterday. The whole team, 11 people who were mostly strangers when we started the climb just 6 days ago, sat around the hotel pool, laughing, playing games, and reminiscing. That’s what it was all about. None of us, except Mike, are climbers, none of us had a passion for it, and none of us were really prepared. But just 6 days later we are family, having gone through the hardest physical task of our lives. Together. Pamoja. We did it. I am so proud of myself and my team. If I ever say I want to do it again – someone punch me!”
So was it hard? Abso-freakin-lutely. But I recommend it with my whole heart.
One last tip? Go for a few hikes first like a grown-up.