(This post was written between September 5th and 12th, 2009)

Day Zero

A long set of flights. I realized I’m actually not that bothered by flying- especially this time because I took the train directly to the airport- it’s so much easier; and no laptop.

I had enough time to write a lot in Amsterdam at the airport. Didn’t get much done on the plane. And now (end of day one) I’m writing more. Which makes me intrigued what inspires me to get stuff done. Sometimes I’m all poised to get work done the day before, and then come the day I get nothing done. Sometimes it’s the opposite. I did realize one thing though: that in order to be productive (and also creative) I must have downtime.

Africa was not what I expected; I expected something very different. It’s, after all, an entirely different continent. What I saw was a combination of Florida, California, Poland- places I’ve been to before. Perhaps everything I do from now on will be just a linear combination of all my past experiences.
It wasn’t that hot; it wasn’t that alien.

I’m excited about the trip; I think it’s a good first serious “adventure”, so to speak. Something less difficult would be too lame, a waste of time; something more difficult might have been a disappointment. It’s not like I can climb Mount Everest — not quite yet.

Some time before the trip I’ve contemplated how streamlined our life has become. I’m not sure if it’s all humans, or whether I’m privileged to be able to do things in life that others wouldn’t dream of doing; but it was surprisingly painless to get the entire trip arranged and get ready for it. First came the idea- that was one of the original 25 things for me to do when I’m 25. A few months later I mentioned the idea to my friend Przemek who immediately liked it and offered to go with me. That was the missing link: without it it would have been harder for me to go (although now that I look at my fellow travelers I see individuals as well). From there we kept each other honest and on goal- we found the right travel agent and got the flights. It took a couple of hours of browsing the Net and all was done. Three weeks prior I got the visa (didn’t even have to go to New York City; I could simply send the passport out) and the vaccinations. Finally, I went shopping two days before the trip and got the gear; again, I didn’t have to do much; just read the recommended list the agent provided, and asked the staff at the store. Overall the trip was fairly expensive (and I’m trying hard to separate this from everything else, since not everybody might afford a trip like this, but they can go on a trip like this without having to spend a lot of money) but there really wasn’t that much effort involved. And here I am: in Africa. This world is really small indeed.

Day One

Walking in the jungle gives you a strange sense of belonging to somebody else’s dream. The experience was dreamlike indeed- the fog; the windy path that disappeared in the fog thus seeming to be neverending; the trees that enclosed the path like some sort of gates; the exotic shapes and majestic posture of the trees that were perhaps the only proof I was not anywhere familiar- if I hadn’t remembered I was in Africa I would indeed deduce I must have been in a dream; but not my dream since that experience lacked the features characteristic of my dreams- the narrative, the randomness, the visual limitations.

I liked the hike; the six hours of incessant walking didn’t seem tedious at all even though I didn’t listen to music or some podcast and didn’t even seem to be thinking much. I was prepared- I got a comfortable daypack (which I love; I think I will be taking it with me on trips more in the future, especially that I think it can be a carry-on), water, food, clothing, and my camera which, quite frankly, I can’t live without anymore. I think I’ll be taking it with me everywhere, and if I can take it on top of Kilimanjaro, I can take it anywhere.

When one of the team members (there were six of us) started having muscle cramps, we all offered to help- take her backpack, slow down, do more breaks. I think I learned that even something so simple and seemingly individualistic as a hike may be worthwhile to experience as a team effort. The dinner afterwards was double rewarding- for one, it was food and we were starving. Secondly, we all made it.

I had a great idea shortly before I left for Africa. I decided to take notes- a kind of a journal, but also to catch up with writing my thougts that I never had the time (desire?) to write down on the trip, before I go to sleep. The iPhone was naturally a great device for this (small–taking a laptop would have been a stupid idea–and also a phone, a music player, and portable email client and a web browser). To solve the problem of power (since the iPhone will probably run out of juice after 20 hours of note taking, even in airplane mode and with the lowest brightness setting), I bought a great portable radio (the size of two energy bars) that also has a crank that can be used to power USB devices! I was incredibly proud of this idea–I literally got the radio an hour before I left for the airport.

Day Two

This trip is a little too easy. Two of the other travelers agree with me- we were walkig really slowly, without much tangible beneft. The problem is that it’s very difficult to separate hubris from greater ability. In any case, when I get back, I’ll look into other mountains – it’s somewhat crazy, but there again, I’ve been known to do crazy things. Perhaps I can make another climb my goal for when I’m 26: this, and a marathon, and Machu Pichu, and perhaps scuba diving. Flying?

I’m beginning to realize that there are two kinds of people in the world: one, that I am an instance of, that has a high threshold for exceptional situations but a low threshold for “background” circumstances: for example, I’ll err on the side of. carrying less in order to be more comfortable throughout the day. The other one, that my friend Przemek is an example of, will prepare for all possible eventualities (and will tend to inflate the probability of such events — he said that severe diarrhea happens to 30% of travelers!). It’s crazy–I am, granted, a little annoyed by it–he wanted to buy a portable shower!!

I looked at the map of the area that had mapped all the routes and found one that I think would be ideal (if a bit tough), that included a little bit of more technical climbing. I think I would have liked that one, but this being the first climb (and, as I just found out, the success rate being only 50%), I think it’s still a fair start.

I’m also realizing through experence what works and what doesn’t; the hiking poles are really only useful when descending; a comfy daypack is a must even if there aren’t that many things in it; I ended up not using many of the “just on case” clothes I put in the daypack and, frankly, I’m not sure they are actually good for the “just in case” case. I don’t drink that much water but do tend to nibble on food. Finally I don’t mind other people’s approaches to hiking (e.g. Przemek’s paranoia) but get very frustrated when they begin to affect me (for example when Przemek has me carry an additional bottle of water because “you never know”. Needless to say, we wouldn’t have dreamt of drinking a drop of that extra water.

Day Three

I woke up exactly at midnight. What’s the significance of this event? Someone who is watching over me (I know there is somebody) is trying to tell me something. Minor headache, may be bad- altitude sickness?

It’s beautiful outside, I should go out (while using the bathroom, take some pictures. Also move water to my container while it’s fresh and nice and cold.

Here I am, in a perfect silence, taking a picture of Kilimanjaro at night, thinking about how small I am. How insignificant relative to all this. 60 second exposure shots. This is the last night I’ll be able to do this. Too cold later.

I sometimes do things without purpose. We all do; we all should. We don’t want to because we don’t want to face ths question, people asking us what the purpose of the thing we just did was.

Society wants you to conform- quiet, don’t go anywhere at night. Society is self-preserving so it makes sense.

It took me twenty minutes to get ready, get out of the tent. Dedication to discovery.

Moon shines so bright that objects cast a significant shadow.

The iPhone is great in airplane mode- second night it’s been on all night and still one bar gone. Great for taking notes. I am also fortunate that right now it’s allowing me to type vertically; normally it would turn and be very annoying to use while in the fetal position.

What was the significance of the dream? My hidden fears that I’ll miss out on something great. Midnight here = 5pm over there, this could actually have happened (except it’s Friday).

I was made to do things slightly differently than others. What was all this excelling for if not for a greater cause? I don’t just want to become another cog, no matter that I came from another country. It’s not an achievement.

If my country’s government knocked on my door asking for me to come back, would I? I think so. Something similar to what I read about in “Man on Mao’s Right”. The book was mediocre (so was the author, he just happened to be there over and over again), but the circumstances were exceptional.

The world at our feet: really? Is the world really at our feet? Then what are we doing with that fact? Do we really prefer to live comfortably, have a family, and die leaving no trace of anything? That doesn’t increase entropy much.

My children will be less exceptional than I was; what can they do, what can they be to be exceptional?

The quiet was startling; unsettling- at first. Then I got used to it; there was something satisfying, basic about it. I wanted it to continue, and I wanted to contribute to it by being silent myself. But just as there were thoughts racing in my head all the time, nature was alive and busy. Everything from the vegetation, slouching towards the Peak through neverending and perseverant winds, yet standing tall, to the small insects and creatures of the mountainous plateaus, asleep but always alert, vigilant, to the Earth’s processes, microscopic yet more powerful than anything we can imagine (since we still can’t harness, let alone influence them). The Peak is alive even though its maps, created ten years ago, are still impressively accurate.

What would I be doing if I wasn’t writing this? Would I be sleeping, wasting away precious hours of cognitive brilliance? Would I find a different way to express myself, perhaps non-verbal. If this was only two years ago…

What if this was two years from now? Would I automatically push whatever I came up with to the world, for scrutiny, for feedback, to hear whether it resonates with others, thus creating a closely-knit community of people that have a shared context. Taking this to the extreme would be the future society. Social networks, as much as we hate them, are the harbringers of the new world order.
This past year has gone by very slowly. This is a great thing. I don’t feel that life has passed me by, I feel an active participant in it, even better-its director. I want this to continue, and for this I need to push myself.

Work is not something that should drive people. Progress should be. Being outside of your comfort zone, expanding, both internally and externally.

I will achieve things that last and start moving towards my ultimate goal. I will set my schedule to keep me fit (background noise that will follow me wherever I go), I will run a marathon and–perhaps–climb another peak? I will regularly update the world about my life, for posterity but also to define myself. I will not be weak (this includes clean-up from various detrimental habits like drinking alcohol). I will achieve just like I used to achieve.

I don’t need a todo list for this, regardless of its generation.

Whatever we do in life, it is directly connected to what’s between our ears.

Kilimanjaro now looks like the spaceship from “District 9″; it’s so far away that it’s dim because of the air between it and me. You can only tell distance by how faint the peaks appear. You can’t trust your eyes to compare distances between objects based on how small the moutain appears because when large distances are concerned small misestimates may cause large errors- instead, you can compare objects based on how faint they appear (we are more able to differentiate between different shades of one color).

The porters and the tour guides have an awful job; I wouldn’t like to do it. It teaches one humility

Today kicked my ass- very apt given the hubris of last night. A fairly seers headache hit me half way through hiking. I threw up. The headache went away after I took some pills, but then it came back at the end of the day. I think it has to do with altitude sickness. It’s worrisome because if my headaches continue (especially if they are so random) I will find it very difficult to go to the summit.

I have two fairly light days ahead of me; I will try to maximize my chances by being as prepared as possible.

The mountains are massive, much greater than anything I’ve experienced so far. But I also realized the value of persistence: our small steps, over a long period, eventually traversed many miles.

I like the company- it’s a diverse group, I happen to like everyone. My attitude towards Przemek has undergone a curious evolution: from a gently cautious one, to a judgmental one (oh, he’s one of those people), to a hostile (when he wanted for meto carry the extra water), to a friendly and thankful one (when Przemek helped me in need). I think I jump to conclusions too quickly- and write people off too fast.

I also realized a few things about myself: I try to be funny, and can feel comfortable talking to people about many aspects of life- I have the context to start many conversations.

With three people from the staff sick (our tour guide! and two porters), and my headache troubles, I realized that claiming the highest point in Africa is nontrivial. I’m excited about it – it’s a challenge that I’m willing to take on. And if that means suffering from a throbbing headache, so be it- I’ll equip myself in some serious painkillers.

Day Four

Today was my victory day- I had no headache whatsoever (not sure if it’s due to pills or getting acclimated- I’ll continue taking pills). I’m ready for tomorrow which is going to be long, since at 11:30pm we set off for the summit.

I was also excited to be allowed to cover the finish line today-the last 10 minutes- at my own pace. It was great, I could move at twice as fast as the group did. Przemek was trailing second, followed by the married couple (Sameer and his wife Megan) and then, much further behind, Askhar and Lisa. I think this is the order of preparedness for the hike/fitness- where I fall to fourth place if my headache hits me. Let’s hope it won’t.

Great experiment today- I tried not carrying my daypack, instead putting everything on me. It worked very well and I will continue doing so in the days to come. My back hurt much less, and I didn’t have to stop to get water. I just dressed up too warmly- i’ll correct this tomorrow. I think by tomorrow I will have perfected my equipment.

I’m realizing the power of medicine- it’s actually quite remarkable that such small pills can achieve so much. A small pill to get rid of altitude sickness; a small pill to purify water (although the small UV pen takes the prize here); a small pill to unblock my nose. I used to resist this in the past, but this experience (especially the throbbing headache from altitude sickness).

I had reception today, and was able to send some emails, including one to my dad. It’s quite remarkable that I, being at 15000 feet on my way to Kilimanjaro, was able to send an email to my dad, who’s probably somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Things like this give me hope for mankind and progress overall.

Lisa gave me a great idea to put a map online and mark where each picture was taken (something I was planning on doing for the NYC project).

I realized that I grew very attached to my camera- I think I will continue taking it everywhere. It’s great to be able to make great pictures, especially when I happen to be in such breath-taking locations.
I found Wilson, our guide (who got promoted after Felix came down with something) to be lacking three important qualities of an excellent guide: the ability to always pick the optimal path, thinking on the fly and picking what’s good for the group (or the vulnerable members of the group); the ability to manage expectations- say the right things when the group asks how much longer the hike’s going to take; and the knowledge- again based on the team’s chacteristics, when breaks are necessary. All three abilities boil down to one principle: the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.
Tomorrow’s going to be challenging: we won’t get much sleep since we set of for the summit at 11:30pm, and since it’s difficult to sleep at such high altitude (16000 feet) and during the day; there is no access to water at the base camp tomorrow, and it’s going to be freezing cold (-10 degrees Fahrenheit) when we begin our final leg of the journey to the top.

Day Five

I amuse myself while I walk by estimating the speed at which we walk, and the conversion between mpg and liters per 100km.

The hike is pretty easy, no surprises, it’s short. My camera has 20% more battery power left so I’ll have to save it for the peak. Fortunately, since we’ll be hiking at night tonight, I won’t use it much.

Askhar said something insightful today: One’s appreciation for life increases after one uses the so-called public restrooms.

Przemek and I got into a heated argument over what I considered Przemek’s close-minded view of Americans. He considers them geographically ignorant, believing that the U.S. is the only country in the world, believing in the government being totally detached from their private lives yet agreeing to various anti-terrorist laws, ignorant when it comes to the arts, especially ancient history, with a flat sense of humour, not using irony and sarcasm, practical in how they use complicated technology to solve easy problems. But he’s only met a few dozen Americans, and I suspected he was comparing a model European (probably an elite Pole, maybe even himself) to an average American; a lot of what he said was stereotypical (e.g. What differentiates Republicans from Democrats) and also things he appreciated (it’s unclear why sarcastic humor is superior to more direct humor… In fact, people from cultures that have experienced hardship have been known to use irony and sarcasm more).

I thought it was a close-minded approach because I thought that as well in the past and have since grown wiser, and learned to separate myth from reality, and my preference from objective truth. However, it’s a very difficult thing- I still stuggle with it- and I’m not surprised he has that opinion of the entire people.

Hand-cranking my iPhone is hard- 15 minutes of hand-cranking gives me about 15-20 minutes of writing, not much.

I regained my appetite and all symptoms of my altitude sickness are gone. I feel great and the only thing I worry about is being dressed appropriately. It’s going to be cold so I’ll err on te safe side.
Not having a daypack worked out again and I think I’ll do the same tonight. Przemek suggests taking a walking pole and lots of water but I can no longer trust him. It’s sad that my trust of him got reduced to doing so when I’m in deep trouble but I guess this is because I’m the “Can do without” person and he’s the “Just in case” person.

Day Six

The first two hours of the final trek were somewhat frustrating. We were walking up really slowly, and Lisa kept stopping every few stops. Finally we got split into two groups; the Lisa-Asghar group and the rest. This was better and while Meghan had problems still, we were moving faster.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for this climb being a team effort; but in this case team effort turned into charity and I don’t mix the two. I also pick my charities and helping an old lady cross the street is not my charity of choice.

I like team effort only if I can feel personally responsible for each member of the team; otherwise I’m in a group of obstacles.

Hiking at night was quite an experience. Seeing nothing but an alternation of the ground and the backpack of the person in front of you gives you the perspective of the climb being very mysterious, mystical even. I heard ringing in my ears, which, naturally, was the loudest sound around.

The peak itself was a nonevent. We got to Stella Point before sunrise but waiting for it would be a terrible idea as we’d all freeze. So I took a great 30s exposure shot of the pre-sunrise sky. We also took some pictures at the Uhuru peak itself. With no snow and fairly good weather (it was still cold as hell) it was easier to climb it.

Then we walked down (or, rather, tumbled down); unsurprisingly going down took us one-third the time it took to go up. By the end of the day we had walked 1200 metres up, and 2600 metres down! I didn’t feel much of the oxygen rush but it was good to be closer to the end. However, we did begin amidst volcanic, sharp, flat, tile-like rocks and ash-like dirt with no vegetation and ended at a camp with what by all definitions can be called a forest, albeit a dry one.

Claiming peaks is interesting; once you get to the top you want the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to capture the night sky tonight. The sky was beautiful- with no clouds, no ambient lighting to provide distractions, and so close to the Equator, it was mesmerizing. But I wasn’t able to capture it without a tripod.

Perhaps it’s better- some things are better left captured by our memory only and not on film (or in digital form). I am sure the camera wouldn’t be able to capture the beauty of the sky nearly enough as my eye has (supported by my mood tonight, and the ambience).

Day Seven

More walking, from 3200 metres to 1600 metres. However, this time we literally walkedthrough the rainforest: we began our descent not in one, and saw the vegetation explode in variety as the humidity increased to the point of virtual rain (it was condensation at the tree branch level high up in the air but it looked the same to us). All that water had to go somewhere and so the path was increasingly more muddy. There was this sweet (or, rather, not sweet at all) spot where the soil had been sufficienty wet to provide little friction but not wet enough to be muddy which made it treacherously slippery.

As we continued our descent, the condensation lessened (again hitting the point of incredibly slippery ground) to the point near the gate where the soil was beginning to dry up. It’s quite incredible how many different zones we went through and how gradual this transition has been.

We arrived at the gate, all dirty but relieved. While we could clean our faces to seem orderly and clean, our nails would betray us. This, incidentally, was the best way for one to discern who had already claimed the peak and who had not, as the two groups mixed back at the hotel (there were, of course, other signs such as whether one was cautiously excited (not yet done it) or unexcitedly determined (done it).

Day Eight

Based on how many times I’ve gotten conflicting information about the various times (such as breakfast time) in Tanzania, I suppose that it’s a cultural thing- Tanzanians simply don’t attach as much weight to precise times. I think it’s very interesting (since we all take punctuality or at least schedules for granted) but also a liberating one.

Przemek realized a disconnect between function and form evident in many places. For example, the storage area has a huge notepad for recording who checked in what, and we get receipts after we check in luggage, but everyone can check out their own luggage. Then what’s the point of the notepad, and the receipts? It seems that a lot of customs of the old colonial powers were transplanted without much thought put in the purpose of the procedures. This does make me think how exactly those colonial powers ruled their colonies…

I’m also fascinated by the neon lights used to provide lighting for storefronts, gas stations, and the like. This is probably due to he fact that there is no centralized street lighting system yet, but it gives the area a mysterious, very original look and feel.